Postcards

I have a room in my house set aside for creative projects. It used to be the bedroom of a child who can’t live here any more. I think I thought that making it a generative space would be healing in some way. That hasn’t quite been the case.

My words have dried up. I am interested in images, but I spend more time looking at others’ than making my own. I’ve thought often of Ira Glass’s words about how creative beginners have to struggle through a (usually long) period of producing stuff that doesn’t live up to our vision for it. He thinks we’re driven by a desire to create works that match our good taste, and that we have to understand that our work won’t, at least initially.

My grandmother is 100 years old. I send her a handmade card every week. Originally, I thought I would scan or photograph each one before I sent it–so I’d have some record of them–but I haven’t. It didn’t seem worth the effort. When I visit her, I see all of them in a stack on her kitchen counter. I guess I will get them back eventually, probably sooner than I would like.

Whenever I get them it will be sooner than I would like.

A blogging friend writes about taking photos to help her see the beauty in everyday life. I like this idea. My photos aren’t particularly great, don’t capture what I see–but they are enough to remind me of what I was doing and how I felt when I saw.

Maybe when I can no longer stroll through a farmers’ food coop in Chimacum, WA with my mother, a photo from a June morning in 2017 will remind me of how I felt and what I had when I once did. That will be good enough reason for its existence.

My grandmother knit sweaters when she was younger. She used gorgeous, high-quality yarns. Wool, not the cheap synthetic stuff. She taught me the rudiments of knitting when I was 8, but I’ve never made anything more than cotton dishcloths. When I was in college, I wrote a poem about her knitting. I called it her art. She gave me her knitting needles when she was done with them.

I want to take the time to muck around with images and words and paper and cloth and ink and yarn and thread, but I rarely do, other than when I make the weekly card. I cannot quiet the voice that says, Is this what you want to do with what remains of your “one wild and precious life”? And the one that says, “What are you going to do with your not-very-good art, anyway?” I don’t hear them when I’m making the cards. The images I make are not the point. My uncle tells me that the cards are a highlight of the week. He tells me this three times when I visit for an afternoon.

A Facebook friend I never really knew in high school posts his anguish one night over the death of a childhood friend, a musician who was once almost famous. Something about his words reflects like a mirror, and I write back. Later, he thanks me, and I respond that I know something of grief. Don’t all of us, once we reach a certain age? Doesn’t the exchange of words about that make us real friends?

When my son is leaving for Marine boot camp, I tell him that I will be cleaning up his room. “Just don’t make it, like, a sewing room or something,” he says. “You’re not gonna do that, are you?”

I want to say, “That’s not what cleaning your room is about. That’s not what it will ever be about.”

What I say is, “I already have a room for sewing.”

When I am done, the room is both his and not-his. I open the door every few days, wishing and not-wishing that I will see a tangle of blankets on the bed, dirty clothes on the floor, an empty chip bag on the nightstand. I don’t know why I keep opening it, but I do. Every time, it’s so damn clean. And empty.

It will never be my sewing room. I hope he knows that.

A friend I first met in a poetry workshop 32 years ago tells me to write whatever I want. He tells me not to worry about genre, or form, or making meaning for anyone else. He tells me to write–or not write–for myself, that it is time for me to do that now. He tells me it is OK if I’d rather grow flowers or make food than write. He tells me I don’t need to serve the world with my words. I don’t need to serve the world with anything. I have served enough, he says. His wife died last year. I worry about his heart, which is failing. Who will tell me these things if he’s not here to say them?

I go to lunch with my grandmother, my uncle, my parents, my brother. I look around the table, wondering when everyone got so old. I feel the engine of us shifting into a lower gear. I miss my grandma. I miss summertime lunches in her backyard, tuna salad on her homemade bread, iced tea in a sweating glass, bees buzzing among her flowers. I hate this Applebee’s, with its TV playing silently on the far wall, its too-big plates of pasta with gelatinous sauce, its air-conditioning that leaves all of us cold on a warm day.

On Saturday, a different writer friend posts on Facebook about how she misses writing. She says she is going to start telling stories again. On Sunday morning I am here, after making my weekly card, gathering the first of these words without worrying about genre or form or serving anyone else, in the former bedroom of the child who doesn’t live here any more. (I am tired of stumbling over what to call this room. What will it mean if I give it another name? Which stage of grief would that act represent–denial or acceptance?)

The world as we know it is ending, you know. No one’s going to save it. But here’s the thing: The world as we know it is always ending. Ira Glass tells us, “You’ve just gotta fight your way through,” and he’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Being creative is not about persevering to make things of good taste or to achieve ambitions. It’s about staying in the gorgeous struggle–and living to tell.

 

Taking the long way home

Twenty-five summers ago, I lived in a sweet little house in a charming old southeast Portland neighborhood. It was the first house I owned, bought not long after I married and started my first teaching job.

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It was only a few blocks from a park where I walked every day with my dog, Billie. The previous winter we’d gone to the mall one Sunday morning to buy a Billie Holiday CD (remember those?), but the record store was closed. The pet store wasn’t. This was before I knew about puppy mills. Before I knew the first thing about taking care of another living being. Or about making commitments.

That summer, Billie and I went on many walks, traversing up and down the sidewalks of our neighborhood’s tree-lined streets. I remember looking up into the trees, thinking that their branches looked like canopies. I wrote that into a poem I worked on later that fall, thinking that no one else had ever seen how trees looked like canopies. I didn’t know, then, that many people have seen canopies when looking up at trees that flank both sides of a street. These were so different from the trees of my childhood neighborhood, which was filled with Douglas fir and cedar. We had no sidewalks, nor any tree-lined streets. It didn’t occur to me that these new trees were common, or that my perception of them might be.

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I was lonely that summer. I had lived in that charming neighborhood less than a year, and in that city for less than two. I had spent most of those months working the long days of a first-year teacher. Although there were people at work I was friendly with, I hadn’t made any real friends, there or anywhere else.

My husband worked during the days and studied for the MCAT in the evenings. I spent my days walking the dog, working out to an aerobics TV show, sanding (probably lead-filled) paint from the woodwork of our 1920’s house (I didn’t know about lead-based paint then, either, even though I should have) while watching soap operas, planning dinner, and waiting for the hour or so I’d get his company when he came home. I made the uninsulated attic into the kind of private space I longed for as a teen-ager, not realizing that it would always be too hot up there in the summer and too cold in the winter, or that I didn’t need such a space because the whole house was my space. There was nothing I needed sanctuary from within its walls.

That husband–he was a smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle person who, like me, had no business getting married or adopting dogs. He was as good to me as any good person can be who is too young to get married. I was not as good to him. Or to myself.

Instead of facing the chasm within that my loneliness illuminated with blinding intensity, I ran away from it. I ran away from him, and our dog, and the house, and the neighborhood, and the park filled with geese that Billie loved to bark at. I ran away from all of it, too blind and scared to see that I had everything I’d ever wanted, right there:  a good person who loved me, a safe and cozy home, meaningful work, the promise of children with a man who would be a good father to them.

I didn’t know that many, many people had looked up into the same void and seen the same thing I’d seen, and given it the same wrong names I gave it.

*******

The weekend before last, Cane and I drove through my old neighborhood on our way to spend a late afternoon on the river. As I always do when driving through there, I felt nostalgic and wistful. The aftertaste of regret lingered at the back of my throat.

I thought of my house project, my recent fascination with small, working-class houses. My first husband and I bought that first house with the salaries of a first-year teacher and a lab tech. Although Cane and I both have equity in another home and advanced degrees and decades of work in our field, this neighborhood is out of our reach now, even if we could make our lives fit within its geographic boundaries. That is due as much to our respective (poor) life choices as to Portland’s gentrification, and we know the sting we feel is nothing compared to the pain of those whose communities are lost to them through the effects of systemic racism and other injustices. Still, it hurts.

As we drove through again on our way home, I thought about the home of a colleague I’d recently visited. Her lovely Portland house sits in an even more charming neighborhood, and it is filled with photos of her family. I could see how all of them have grown, together, through two decades or more. I imagined, briefly, the home and life I might have had if I’d faced my demons 25 years ago, if I hadn’t left that kind boy I married and we’d done the hard work of growing up together.

“I should never have left here,” I said to Cane as we drove back home. “I had everything I wanted, but I couldn’t see it.”

“Well, then, you wouldn’t have had your children,” he said.

“Oh, I know. I know. That’s what I always tell myself. But as my daughter reminds me whenever I say that’s why I’ll never regret marrying their dad, I probably would have had different children I love as much as I love them. I’d never have known them, so I wouldn’t have missed them.”

“You can’t know that,” he said. “You might not have been able to have any children at all.”

He is, of course, right. We can never really know where a different choice at a fork in our life’s road might have taken us. We always imagine the best-case scenario when we’re punishing ourselves for the choices we didn’t make but wish we had. In mine, I somehow get to have the same children I have now.

“Well,” I said, reaching for the hand of the smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle man who loves me now and takes no offense when I suggest that perhaps I should be married to someone else, “I know I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, so I guess I need to just get over all that.” I squeezed his hand, hoping he knew I meant it, hoping my daughter knows that any life I might have had without her and her brother would have been a lesser one.

******

On one my friend Jill’s recent, always-wonderful weekly list of Something Good, I found this post by Austin Kleon, about bliss stations. In it, he writes:

“It’s felt impossible lately not to be distracted and despondent. I’m trying to spend as much time at my bliss station as I can.”

Between events in the world around us and those in my own private world, I know more than I’d like to about being distracted and despondent. But what is a bliss station? Kleon, quoting Joseph Campbell, says that it is

“a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.”

Kleon wonders if it is enough to have either a particular place or a particular time, and reading his words I realized that in this summer I have been lucky enough to have both:  Time almost every morning, and my own, dedicated creative space.

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Although I found solace in this space during the spring, over the weeks of this summer I have entered it only to iron clothes or drop off junk I didn’t want to take the time to find a real home for.

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I thought of another post by another friend, Shannon’s musings about how hard it can be to get started again after a creative dry spell.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I wanted for years:  time and space to create. I thought of all the times in my life I’ve been blind to what is in front of me, and how I don’t want to be that way any more.

I thought about how good it would be to spit the taste of regret out of my mouth.

*****

I went back to my old neighborhood, to take photos for my project. To take inventory. To confront my regrets. To see.

The old park, which once had a big, flat, grassy open field, swing sets, and a square, man-made pond, has been transformed into a natural wild space.

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I didn’t see any of the geese Billie used to chase, but a stream was home to delightful ducks.

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I walked the neighborhood sidewalks I used to walk with Billie, remembering the young woman I was 25 years ago. Trying to figure out how to forgive her.

I took photos of houses I might want to do something with.

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You can’t see the older woman sitting in a chair in front of the window, reading a book. But she’s there.

I left when I felt a migraine coming on. I went home and took a nap, grateful for the time and space to do that.

******

A few days later, I went into my creative space, wondering if I could cultivate bliss there. I pulled out my scraps of text about houses.

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I set aside a few that spoke to me, when I thought about my first house.

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I sketched it.

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That was enough for one day.

*****

I had coffee one morning with a friend who is also sending a child to college in a few weeks. The day my daughter flies out, she will be heading south with her husband and son in a car packed with the college supplies that have been accumulating on her dining room table all summer.

We compared notes on the unfortunate places we’ve been overcome by tears.

“I couldn’t stop crying in the detergent row at Target,” she said. “Another woman took a tissue from the box in her cart and gave it to me.”

We laughed.

“I’ve come to understand,” I said, “that as much as I’m crying about how I will miss her–and I will, terribly–I’m also crying over my own mortality.” She nodded. We struggled for words to capture what it is, exactly, we’re mourning.

“Their lives aren’t going to be about us any more.”

“It’s just gone so quickly. I’m not ready to let it go.”

“Our time has passed. It’s someone else’s turn.”

“And it’s too late now to do some things right.”

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*****

I saw my therapist.

“I don’t want to talk about how things are going,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about Cane or his daughter or my daughter leaving for college or what’s happening with my son. I want to stop dealing with the surface of things.”

“OK,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Here,” I said, handing her a book open to a poem. “I wrote this maybe 20 years ago.”

A Map to the Future

You try not to despise her.
You know it isn’t really fair:
What more could be expected
of one such as she,
growing in the twin shadows
of anger and expectation?

She was the kind of girl who ran
to the edges of cliffs and jumped,
just jumped–
not because she was daring
but because she didn’t know
there were cliffs and once there,
jumping seemed the only option.
She was that blind
to her own geography.

You walk away
when you sense her
wandering through the dark
valleys of memory, wish
she could be forever exiled.
You can’t help but regret
all that she lost or wasted,
and you can’t seem to forgive her
for what she never knew,
want only to put that floundering
child away from you, forever,

do not see that you must
carry her with you
if you are ever to climb
from your desperate canyons
and lie upon the grassy meadows
that frame those gaping holes.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“I want to know how to do it,” I said.

*****

Last Saturday I returned to my bliss station again.

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That morning, my daughter found me there. As she settled into the corner chair, I stopped what I was doing. I sat on the floor, and we chatted for a good long time–about the election, and how different some things were when I was her age, and about college, and the effects of growing up with dysfunction in your family, and the meaning of life, and what kind of life she wants to have.

“My therapist told me the other day that it takes three generations for a family to fully recover from addiction, abuse, trauma,” I told her. “But it gets better with each one.”

It was just the two of us home together all day. I vacuumed the floor of her room, which she (and sometimes I) have been cleaning out for the past two weeks. It is still filled with her clothes, her toiletries, her scent, but it is empty of the things that made it hers. I did cry some, alone in there, but not the way I did the morning I took all the bags of stuff she no longer wants to the thrift store–her cheerleading uniform, her many school spirit t-shirts, the vampire series books she devoured as a young teen, the photo display thingy she wanted when we re-did her room a few summers ago, the pottery she painted over the course of many trips to visit her grandparents.

“Do you think we’re ever going to paint pottery again?” I asked her as she put those things in the bag.

“If you pay,” she said, grinning. I kept two small pieces and let the rest go. She thought I was being silly to keep them, that I should let go of all of them. Thinking of the clay monster I made in third grade that resides, still, in my parents’ bedroom, I told her that it’s good to be silly sometimes.

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After vacuuming, I thought about doing more of the things on my never-done to-do list, but she wanted me to watch Gilmore Girls with her, so I did. Somewhere during the second episode, I decided that I wasn’t going to do any of those things that day. I was going to just be, with my girl, all day long.

We might not get this again before she leaves, I thought, just the two of us alone for the whole day.

We puttered around a bit before going out to get pedicures. We had dinner at our favorite noodle place. We came home and made popcorn and watched Legally Blonde, an old favorite of hers. She deconstructed the feminist messages she sees in it. She left before the movie ended, to accept a last-minute invitation from friends.

I watched the end of the movie by myself, feeling the emptiness of the house settle around me. I didn’t let myself shrug it off my shoulders. The weight of it was uncomfortable, but I could hold it.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I’ve wanted for years. I felt grateful that the woman I’ve become is  stronger than that girl I was 25 years ago. That I knew it wouldn’t be nighttime in an empty house forever–that the next morning I would wake up to a day filled with light and the return of people I love, where I could enter into a bliss station and begin this post and keep working on projects with eyes that are becoming increasingly clear.

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Poem ©2002 by Bellowing Ark Press.

 

 

Closing time

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Pretty much every educator I know is a bit of a puddle by the time the last bell rings for the school year. Even those like me, who don’t have much direct contact with kids, are spent. That has never been more true for me than this year.

It occurred to me last week that the rhythm of the school year is all ass-backwards: We are ending as the natural world is blossoming and teeming with life. In the fall, when the rest of the world is turning inward and preparing for dormancy? That’s when those of us in schools are starting new, full of energy and life. Maybe that is why I so often feel discombobulated and out of synch.

I can’t speak for all of the other educators out there, but late spring is always a sort of sad, bittersweet time for me. It was especially so this year, with so many things ending. (I know, I know, I know:  All endings are beginnings. Spare me, please. If I know anything about grief it is that we have to feel all the feelings. I can hold both sorrow and joy in my hands at the same time.)

A few days ago I saw an idea I love and hopped on board with it, but the truth is that I’m too done in right now to do anything that looks like daily posting.  And I guess I’m not quite ready to turn outward yet.

I so appreciate those of you who are writing in your own spaces right now. Even if I don’t always comment, please know that I am reading. I just need some time to re-group. If I know anything else about grief, it is that we never stay in the same state forever.

Of seeds and waiting and blossoming

Please let me introduce you to Miss Rumphius:

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It is because of Miss Rumphius, aka The Lupine Lady, that I’ve always wanted to grow lupines.

She is first a librarian and then a world traveler, but after an injury she realizes it is time to find her “home by the sea” and fulfill the final prong of her 3-part life mission statement, which is to make the world a more beautiful place. She comes to do so by planting lupines.

I have always wanted to be like Miss Rumphius (well, at least since I first met her–which was probably 25 years ago), and it is because of her that I’ve long loved lupines.

Sadly, I’ve never had much luck with growing them. I’ve planted lupines numerous times, but they’ve always been a bit puny and nothing like the ones growing on the cover of  Miss Rumphius’s book.

Until this year:

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I have only this one plant, but isn’t it glorious?

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It’s struggled to grow for at least two years. Its leaves would come up, but it never flowered. I’d pretty much given up on it, thinking that, perhaps, I was just not meant to be a grower of lupines.

It’s funny how things sometimes grow and blossom when we leave them be.

Miss Rumphius plants a few seeds in stony ground, and they bloom several seasons later, after winter and then a spring of illness. Looking out her window at them from the confines of her bed, she wishes she could plant more, but her health prevents it. When she is finally able to get out again after another winter and spring, she sees that the flowers have spread, their seeds carried by the birds and wind.

It happens without her needing to do anything other than plant those few first seeds. And wait, and let things take their natural course.

I suppose it might have been well enough to leave it there, but she doesn’t. She orders bushels of seed that she begins to carry in her pockets, tossing them everywhere she goes. Some people call her crazy, but she just walks and flings seeds, trusting in the process.

Which, of course, is enough. Eventually, her flowers bloom everywhere.

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Like Miss Rumphius, I am ending one stage of life and beginning another, wondering what I might do to make the world a more beautiful place.

I suspect the seeds of an answer to my question have already been sewn, and that it will unfurl when I turn my attention to other things and stop waiting for its bloom.

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A friend told me this week that a watched peony never blossoms.

What about you, friends? Anything you’re waiting for?

Of tunnels and respite and light

2016-03-29 20.19.48Raising teenagers is hard. Combining families is hard. Raising teenagers in a combined family? Hard². Throw in some cognitive difference, some mental illness, some career challenges? You’ve got hard to the nth power.

Back when our children were younger and parenting time agreements with our former spouses were different, Cane and I had every-other-weekend mostly to ourselves. We used to joke that we didn’t understand why everyone didn’t get divorced, because it was so nice to have some grown-up time while the kids were being well-cared for by other people who loved them. It was the kind of joke you tell to help yourself feel better about things that hurt, but like all jokes, this one contained a kernel of truth.

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Last Friday it was not an exaggeration to say that we really couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a few days at home with no kids. It had been so long that we’d forgotten what it was like. We’d forgotten what we were like–just the two of us, at home, doing at-home things.

Last weekend, we got to remember.

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It was the first, glorious weekend of sun in the northwest, which may just be the most magical weekend of the year here. Flowering trees were in full flower, and shoots of all kinds were shooting.

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I got early morning time in my studio, which has become the happiest of my happy places.

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There were hours at the nursery and in the garden. We swept the deck, and cut back dead foliage, and planted onions and herbs and flowers.

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We hit up an estate sale, which prompted good thought and discussion about possessions and collections and how we’re spending our lives’ energy and the fruits of our work.

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We strolled through some favorite Portland neighborhoods so I could take photos of houses, for a creative project that is becoming my new obsession. (More on this in another post.)

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We remembered days when lying on a blanket in the park was the most luxurious of pleasures, so we stopped at a thrift store for a park blanket. We found a wonderful corduroy quilt and then took a short nap in the park.

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I also found there this perfect, tiny cup for a small cacti that’s been waiting for a home. Cups with plants might be another new obsession.

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We missed our children and talked about them a lot, but we also realized how much we’ve missed us–the us that made us jump onto the train of our life as a family.

There is still so much transition and upheaval and unknown in the terrain we’re traveling. We know that this weekend we were just coasting through the easy valley of a welcome and much-needed respite. I sometimes say that I wish I could fast-forward to the fall, when I know we’ll be in a different place with more certainty to it, but I’m trying to stay present and take as much in as I can during these last months of living with my children. Because we can’t know what’s really around the coming turns, I am trying to appreciate everything I have and cherish it right now, today.

Still, it was nice to see a flash of light at the end of my parenting tunnel, to remember an important part of why it is we’ve been working so hard to stay on the rails.

Hoping you are getting what you need in these first few weeks of spring, too. Would love to hear how things are going for you in the comments.

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Telling it raw

Last week, I traveled to Bellingham, Washington, to see my grandmother.

As we drove the last stretch of I-5 that carves into the foothills bordering Lake Whatcom, my mind was filled with a hum that sounded like homehomehomehomehome.

I’ve never lived in Bellingham, but it was home to both sets of grandparents, assorted cousins, and loads of family lore. The happiest days of my childhood were spent there, and I know it felt like homehomehome because it is the place I have felt most safe, most free, most me. As a young adult venturing out on my own, Bellingham was my safety net. My other grandmother’s house caught more than one of my cousins during a tumble, and I always knew I had a place to go if I really needed it.

That grandmother’s house was sold the year I was pregnant with my twins, and the grandmother I was visiting isn’t doing well. Although she’s still in her home, she’s not in a place to have company. Cane and I stayed in a lovely, funky little house we found through Airbnb, close to Bellingham Bay, near the house that has been sold. Through the night, I could hear the sounds I heard when I slept there as a young girl, the trains’ whistles and gulls’ cries. They, too, sounded like homehomehome.

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Bellingham has changed since the years it was a regular part of my life. It feels much smaller, as places from childhood tend to do. But it was still homehomehome, and although I didn’t cry when our car moved again through the foothills, this time heading south, I felt heavy inside.

Too heavy to cry. I have lived away from the Sound and my people for more than 25 years, and I want to go home.

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This wonderful bookstore wasn’t there when I was a kid. I spent a happy late afternoon here.

Until last fall, our house in Oregon felt like home to me, but it really doesn’t any more. It is just a house now, one my children will be leaving within the next 6 months. I am feeling untethered, and I am asking, again, questions I feel I should have answered long ago.

And so, this is why I am mucking about with words about home.

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I can’t say much about my process. I spent more time than I’d like to admit over last week’s spring break just moving strips of words around on a piece of green paper, not getting anywhere. I am not sure why I decided to make houses out of pieces of maps, but I did.

To make the houses I first sketched some house shapes, and then I looked at some images of house drawings. (Do a Google image search for “house graphic vector” if you’re in need of house drawings to help you see the shapes of houses.) Then I just started cutting out boxes and triangles and putting houses together. I did that for a day or two and left the words alone.

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Then when I returned to the words, I realized I needed the bit about looking on a map–because the houses are made of maps. I decided to take out anything having to do with building/creating a home.

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During yesterday’s early-morning, 4th day of migraine insomnia-fest, I realized that, perhaps, the open space needed to curve on the page the way Bellingham Bay curves into the town. And that I definitely need the water words. I might need to think more about water.

At any rate, this is where I am now.

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I’m not that thrilled with this.

I want the houses to look differently. As I’ve been driving about the past two days, I’ve been seeing the shapes of houses. I think these houses may be just practice houses. I know the words aren’t right, either.

But I am attempting to practice stripped-back storytelling, which Jill introduced me to this week. I like the idea of it, raw blogging.

This is pretty raw, all right. Just like my feelings these days. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of any of it.