I have a dear, dear auntie who lives near the ocean and in my early twenties I went to live with her. Confused and uncertain about my present and my future, I would walk the ten or so blocks to the ocean, and, sitting in the fine sand, watch as the winter waves swelled and crashed before me. Metaphorically it suited me to a tee. I felt that life, the big L Life, was washing over me as I swam my little heart right out of its body. Though Auntie J lives on the west coast, she hails from the Midwest and the generation of baby boomers who made communal homes from an eclectic union of friends-cum-family. Her home is still the gathering point for any number of characters and the dinner table is nearly always the nexus for these gatherings. On more than one occasion, Auntie J has testified that there is no better pastime than drinking wine and talking smart. It was at the old oak dining table in her home that I discovered there is something essential in salt air, red wine, full bellies, and the give and take of ideas.
Auntie J is also a lover of words, books being her stock in trade, and a devotee of Dickinson. I came by my appreciation of Dickinson not in a classroom, but at Auntie J’s dinner table (and, as an aside, through a Billy Collins’ interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, during which he reads his poem, “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”). I’m keen on Dickinson now. She knows how to rock a metaphor. She famously likened hope to a bird and claimed to dwell in possibility.
This house, this dwelling space as a metaphor struck a chord for me in my early 20s. I harken back to the Philosophy, Religion & Literature class I took in college, in which I was introduced, among other ideas, to Jung’s collective unconscious and the metaphors and archetypes that run riot through our dreams. Around that time I had a dream about a home, my unconscious – just rafters and air and space – inhabited by the spirit of my dead mother. I wrote a poem about it my senior year, titled “Mothers and Daughters in Heaven.” This airy raftered home came to represent the safe haven in which I would grow and learn and find meaning in my world. My spirit’s dwelling place, so to speak. As a child of semi-nomadic and desperately flawed parents, the longing for home was elemental, both in the practical roof-and-walls sense and in the more metaphysical love-and-security sense. I sought out alternative homes of many varieties over the years: Grandma’s and Grandpa’s farm and the welcoming branches of its willow tree, the kitchen table and roast beef dinners on the farm of Auntie A and Uncle J, the opened doors of numerous generous family friends, the book lined walls of hallowed college halls, a tent at the edge of a lake and the foot of a mountain and so on.
Now, having passed 40, I am entering that ominous middle age (I’ve never been overly concerned with age as a number. I don’t cringe on birthdays or celebrate 29 indefinitely. Though, I do believe the phrase “middle age” has so much more gravitas if one imagines it intoned by Ian McKellan ala Gandalph. Try it. Middle Age. See, doesn’t it have an epic Tolkien-esque quality to it?). I am well out of childhood, and my physical home is now far more constant and abiding as any I might have hoped for in my younger days. One year, not long after my eldest child, Bear Boy, was born I received a card from Brother Mine. Brother Mine is two years my elder and the champion of my youth. He survived too. In his letter to me he praised my husband and me for creating the sort of home and family that we, as children, had looked to as ideal. Considering how much of our early lives was spent on this outside-looking-in sort of longing, this was a tremendous commendation. It moved me to tears. Having achieved this much, one might assume my long search for home were done. The truth is that it’s difficult enough to feel at home in one’s own skin, let alone creating a home to accommodate others’ skins. My family’s physical dwelling space is a comfort, to be sure. I still seek for a more spiritual home “to make the wounded whole.” There have certainly been times when Nina Simone’s Balm in Gilead has been my anthem.
When I was younger, I had the misguided notion that someday my life would be fully formed and complete. Yet, I am still a bumbling, blathering imperfection as a wife, mother, and all around human being. And now I’ve reached — cue mighty Gandalph — middle age. There are so many days I long for some sense of doneness. Do I have to keep creating, seeking, and being home? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I still itch in my own epidermis and long to crawl out. I still feel like I’m outside looking in. Not all of the time, not every day, but often enough. Home ought to be that which sustains one’s body, mind and spirit. The people therein ought to build one another up. If I am not sustained, isn’t it my obligation to go ought and seek that sustenance and bring it home. Maybe I mean this literally, going out into the larger world to find one’s heart’s content, but I think also I mean it more metaphorically. And this is where hope, big H Hope, comes in. I can’t always find what I am looking for and can’t always fix what’s broken, but I try, and when I am too tired, too mired, or unable to try, I hope. I dwell in the House of Hope.