Long drive home

Image via Toyota Newsroom

Unlike many of my peers, I never had my own car in high school. My parents had a 1971 Toyota Corona that they allowed me to drive to my job at the local library and, occasionally, to high school games when I was a cheerleader during my senior year. In college, I worked for my dad’s employer, which required about a 40-minute drive down I-5 from the University of Washington, and my parents let me take the Corona to campus so that I could go back-and-forth from school to work.

One day, the car wouldn’t start, stranding me in a parking lot. Eventually my dad came to rescue me, wherein he discovered that the car was completely out of oil. He was angry that I hadn’t been paying attention to this most basic car need, and I was both bewildered by his anger and angry in return because how the hell was I supposed to know about checking and refilling oil? No one had ever told me that I needed to do that!

Not too long after that, following a series of lurches and a gradual slowing, the car died one winter night on I-5, just south of Southcenter Mall, on the outskirts of Seattle. I didn’t know what to do, so I got out and started walking, thinking I could find a payphone at the mall. Some cars honked as they passed me, and one swerved over into the shoulder ahead of me, its passengers yelling assessments of my body. I stopped walking, and it idled there for minute or so before swerving back into traffic and proceeding north, horn blaring. I was scared, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept walking. Another car pulled over and stayed on the shoulder. I approached it cautiously on the passenger side, where the window was down. The driver, a man, leaned over and asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thanks, I was fine.

“Look,” he said, “I know you don’t know me, but it’s not safe for you to be out here. I’d like to help you get off this freeway.”

I looked at a little boy sitting in his back seat, watching me, and thought about the earlier car. “That’s my son,” the man said. I looked north, toward the mall exit that was still not within sight. I looked back at the boy, and then again at the man. “It’s up to you,” he said, making no move toward the door. I looked once more at the boy, who looked cared for, and decided that this man probably wasn’t going to do anything bad to me with the boy in the back seat. I got in, and he drove me all the way to the University District without incident.

The next day, my mother had to take time off work to meet me and a AAA tow truck at the abandoned car, which we discovered was simply out of gas. The gas gauge wasn’t working properly and I’d miscalculated how many miles I’d put on the tank. It never occurred to me that I might have run out of gas. I’ve rarely seen my mother angry with me, but she was that day.

I remember, both times the car let me down, feeling a sense of disbelief; I needed the car to run, and so it simply wasn’t conceivable that it wouldn’t. Unreal as it sounds, given my age and that I’d watched my dad working on our cars throughout my childhood, I didn’t understand that cars need regular maintenance or that they could, indeed, break down when you most need them not to. I mean, I guess I did understand that, but I didn’t believe that they would break down on me. They were just supposed to work, because I needed them to. And, I suppose, because I didn’t know the first thing about how they worked or how to learn what to do to keep them working or how to fix them if they didn’t.

Over the course of the past year, as we’ve faced threats of all kinds I once, through the same kind of magical thinking, found as unimaginable as a car breaking down on a freeway at night (but which, of course, have always been possible), I’ve thought and written that I feel ill-equipped for this time. As I watched homeless camps and protests proliferate across my city, and governmental breakdown in my state’s capitol, and a continuing effort at autocratic take-over of our federal government, all in the midst of a global pandemic that has interrupted supply chains, over-run hospitals, and transformed life as I’ve always known it, I’ve realized that, to an extent I’m very uncomfortable with, I’ve gotten away with managing portions of my life in ways I managed that poor old Corona I eventually ran into the ground. I’ve been lucky to keep it going as well as I have, and I’ve been able to only because the larger systems around me have worked reasonably well for people like me. Over the course of the past year, I’ve realized that if things were to really fall apart, I might well be screwed. I have little practical knowledge or skills, few assets, and a small social network.

Two posts ago I wrote about following whimsy, and one post ago I wrote about holy places and creative work. This first one of the new year might look like a 180 back into the pit of 2020, but stay with me. It is, but it isn’t. Sometimes the best way out is deeper in, so that you can get through to some other side.

As I wrote last week, Mary Oliver found her temple in the natural world, in the woods. For me, that place is home. Home is what centers me, shelters me, teaches me, and provides comfort–but my worship there has consisted of a rather shallow spirituality. I’ve taken from my home far more than I’ve given to it, and my knowledge of its workings isn’t deep. I’ve never given it the time or contemplative study that Oliver gave to the woods. My relationship to home and home-making is a tangly one, influenced by second wave feminism, the working-class women who raised me, post-WWII culture, and more. For whatever reasons–and there are many–I entered adulthood no better prepared to make a home than than I was to take care of a car, and societal messages led me to believe that devotion to home would be a waste of my talents and time. It has even been possible to feel a sort of perverse pride in my domestic ineptness; wasn’t it evidence that I had given my life to worthier things?

I first felt the pull to dive into home creation when I divorced my children’s father and, for the first time in my life, needed to make a home all by myself. Channeling resources in that direction felt frivolous, though; any creative energy I had, I thought, should be poured into parenting, teaching, and writing poetry (in that order). In 2011, when Cane and I decided to make a home for our children together, I indulged that desire; I officially (if privately) decided I was no longer a poet, and we began writing a home renovation blog through which I met some of you who read here. Looking back now, though, I can see that we only scratched the surface of what it really means to make a home. Maybe that is part of why it all fell apart.

A year ago, in the wake of the loss of a writing mentor, publisher, and friend, I set an intention to write regularly here–not in order to be A Writer, but simply because doing so brings me joy. My friend Robert had devoted his life to poetry, which I had abandoned with his full approval. “You don’t owe anyone anything,” he told me the last time we talked. “You have given your life to serving others. Now do what makes you happy and healthy, even if that means not writing another poem for the rest of your life.” He also encouraged me to live in a smaller, more self-sufficient way, in community with like-minded others. “It’s all falling apart, you know,” he said to me long before the pandemic, at least five years ago. “It needs to,” he added. Those conversations unsettled me; I’d tell myself his conclusions were wrong, even as I acknowledged both the truth of his observations and my fear that he was right. I needed the world to work as it always had in the same way I’d once needed my car to–because I didn’t know what I’d need to know to operate differently. (How I have longed to be able to talk with him this last year, to see what sense he might help me make of all that’s fallen and falling.)

I cannot know what the coming year will bring, but I’m under no illusion that 2020 was some anomaly or blip. It was a year that had been decades in the making, and the forces that created it will not be undone by a single election or vaccine. I understand in new ways that my luck–like the gas in my old Corona–can run out. I think we all need to rely sometimes on the kindness of strangers, but I’d like to build a life in which I’m less likely to be walking alone on a real or metaphorical freeway at night, vulnerable to those who might mow me down on a whim. I am also, after this year of death on such a massive scale, acutely aware that life is short and that if we can follow our interests and passions we’d best do so sooner than later.

Last January, I assigned myself no topic for this blog and I imposed upon myself no purposes or limitations. This January, as I am able, my intention is to follow my whimsy deep into the place that is sacred for me and to write about it here. It is to give myself the permission my friend always wished I would to make a smaller, more self-sufficient life. It is to become a grown-up in ways that I previously have not.

Let’s see where that might lead.

19 thoughts on “Long drive home

  1. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    My palms are sweating, thinking about you getting into that car. But I agree with you on not knowing how to take care of a car when you are in high school! I drove over a cement parking brick when I was a junior in high school because I couldn’t see it in front of me. I still hear that story from my parents to this day. Insert eye roll.
    I am glad I have this space to come every Sunday or Monday, depending on when I get online to read. I am cautious about what this year brings, but also optimistic. Even though when I say I am optimistic, I feel naïve saying it. I will delve into that more within this year. We all have scars to bear from 2020.
    Sending you love.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…What a YearMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I also have a story of driving over one of those parking things. And there’s another one about an incident in a Paris parking garage, in which my husband and I provided lots of amusement for the attendants who did not even try, one little bit, to hide their contempt for the stupid Americans we were. I look back on the freeway breakdown story, and several others, and know that I have been just really damn lucky. That man pulled over because he’d seen the earlier car (he pulled over right after they did). He was a pastor, walking the talk of his faith.

      Like you, I feel both cautious and optimistic. Yesterday, working on a different post, I re-read something I wrote last March, right before everything changed. That person did not trust the truth of what she was seeing and thinking, but she should have. Gaslighting makes you doubt yourself, and we’ve all been gaslit for maybe our whole lives. I trust my own perceptions much more now, and I think my optimism (such as it is), is coming from a truer place than it has in the past. I think having a firmer grasp of reality–even if it’s a bad reality–makes it easier to have optimism. Not sure if I’m being clear–an idea that needs more thought, probably.

      Sending love back to you. Looking forward to seeing where your delving takes you.

  2. Kate says:

    I wrote a whole big reply while sitting the ER but then I was discharged and it got lost. (I’m fine, but I had a swelling episode in my throat that wasn’t going away with my rescue meds. A big dose of Benadryl straight to the system and I’m home.)

    The shorter version – a lot of our experiences are the opposite. I learned to check, add, and change the oil on my first vehicle (a beat to hell Ford Ranger that burned oil so badly I always had a spare quart of oil and funnel rolling around on the floor; who knew if there would be a gas station when I needed there to be) and worked inside the home for 14 years . I can passably make/keep a home. I’m also fortunate to have a partner that can figure out what is broken and fix it himself (or at least get us through until we can fix it) and I’m not saying any of this to brag. I’m saying it because in a lot of ways, to point out that despite having very different leading up to points, I have the same conclusion. I think the trauma of this year has many of us a desiring to live a life that’s a smaller, tighter, and more self-sufficient, to not be caught alone on the side of the road – figuratively or literally. (Or at least not often.) I wonder if. this is our generation’s version of frugality/hoarding that came from the depression.

    I’m looking forward to hearing about how you grow this year, how your whimsy and optimism without rose colored glass shapes your year. I am so grateful for you posting here. Despite our differences and the distance, I appreciate the community you’ve built here. I’m grateful you focused on your writing craft instead of focusing on other pursuits when you did. Your words have been and are a great gift.

    • Kate says:

      Yeah. That’s the short version. (Eye roll.) please forgive the ramble and typos and grammatically errors. The sentiment is there though, I think, but I’m a bit looped. 😉

      • Rita says:

        I’m so sorry you spent your Sunday morning in the ER! And had a swelling episode. That sounds frightening. To have the frustration of losing a long (and I’m sure brilliantly-written) comment on top of that is just a cherry on the top of that. (Speaking as one who has experienced that more than once.)

        I think it will be interesting to see how we all come out on the other side of the pandemic/societal breakdown (if there is truly an other side, at some point). For me, it’s the first time of experiencing a loss of confidence in my society–which means I’ve lived a very fortunate life. The skills I have are fine if the world were to keep spinning the way it did for the first 50 or so years of it, but I’ve lost confidence that it will continue to do so. Climate change, political instability, economic change–there’s just too much at play. So, time to learn some new ones. Also, I’ve realized that while my skills were OK, I’ve also been just getting by (for a long time) in a lot of areas. I’d like a little more than that. I like the idea of optimism without rose-colored glasses. Going to need to mull that one over a bit. And thank you for the kind words about about my words. Hope you are feeling better!

        • Kate says:

          Thank you for your well wishes and kindness, Rita. I didn’t mean to be dramatic about the swell. Sometimes
          I need to go in and get a little faster acting medicine, but I’m very fortunate, it’s rare and it’s not that scary any more.

          I think we all would benefit from learning skills that befit the world we’re living in now, strengthen our community bonds so we can benefit and learn from each other as needed.

          Now if I could just convince Jesse to buy that hobby farm!

          • Rita says:

            You would be such a great hobby farmer! I have been thinking about how I could turn my little urban ranch house yard into a mini-farm if necessary. The people who lived here before me did a fair amount of food growing. I’ve got a nice, flat backyard. Too bad I (so far) mostly suck at growing things!

  3. Laura Millsaps says:

    So many thoughts about this. Feminism seemed to skip my mother, even considering that her era was Second Wave Feminism (When I finally read Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique in college in the 80s, my mother had not only never heard of it, she didn’t know who Betty Friedan was). While she was a divorced, pink-collar worker, to whom a lot of that should have resonated, her messages were mixed– she insisted we graduate from college (we did), but she also insisted that we learn how to cook and sew. Being related to folks who still farmed, we learned gardening, canning, field work, and livestock care in small but telling doses. But did we learn to hunt, fix tractors or cars, take care of a bank account, plumbing or carpentry? No. Our skills were still taught along traditional gender lines. To this day I don’t know if my interests in cooking and other crafts are genuine, or just consigned to me by tradition. Does it matter? In some ways I would have been in better standing with this wreck of an old house I bought if I’d had some carpentry and plumbing skills. But on the other hand, society has always devalued women’s work, as if those home skills are somehow contemptible; first by traditionalist males, and then also by feminism. On Instagram I seen an entire generation of Millennial women trading ideas about knitting patterns, and how to pickle vegetables, and feed laying hens, relearning skills that got lost somewhere between their grandmother’s and Generation X. I’ve always wondered how they view it. As a survival skill we might need? As fun? Both?

    • Rita says:

      These are all questions I want to dig into. My mother spent much of her childhood on her grandparents’ farm. The only applesauce I ever ate came from jars canned by my great-grandmother. Both of my grandmothers knew how to sew, knit, and crochet. One made her own bread weekly. My mother sewed when I was young, but once she went to work that mostly stopped. I honest-to-God didn’t know until high school that a cake could be baked without a box of cake mix, and frozen vegetables (as opposed to canned) were a revelation.

      I can’t speak for millennials, but I suspect the answer is both. It’s so satisfying to make something yourself, and the skills are useful. I think (?) some of the stigma that came with them when we were growing up has faded. The article I linked to about waves of feminism was really interesting to me; I think we grew up in a time that, in its own way, offered a much more limited view of what we might be than the one our daughters have grown up in. I hope it’s different for them, anyway.

  4. Marian says:

    This post has reminded me of the “This is water” story: two young fish are swimming along, and an older fish passes them and says, “Hello, boys, how’s the water?” and the young fish look at each other and say, “What’s water?” (https://www.sloww.co/this-is-water-david-foster-wallace/)
    It’s also reminded me of the many times my husband travelled for work only to be delayed at airports because of the weather. He said there would then invariably be passengers who took their anger out on the ticket agents or flight attendants—as though flight crews were in control of the weather. I think both these things—the non-seeing of what’s there as well as the non-understanding of what is actually in or not in our control—are endemic in Western culture.

    I think I fall somewhere between you and Kate. I was taught some things but not other things, but although it was really hit and miss and some of the actual how-to details were lost along the way, the overriding principle of self-reliance was there (sometimes to the point of sheer stubborn ridiculousness). I was taught to do ALL the crafty stuff, very little of the cooking stuff, and some of the home maintenance stuff: I can drywall, tape, mud, and paint, and I’m not afraid of saws, drills, or caulking guns. (But I can’t do much with a car except fill it up with gas and windshield wiper fluid. My daughter can change tires and can also drive her lab’s huge pickup truck with its trailer—and back it up; I am inordinately proud of her can-do attitude.)

    You already know that I came to your home blog because I was searching for a way to redo our broken and not-to-code staircase. But I’m not sure if I’ve ever told you that I’m a bit embarrassed by how beautiful our staircase turned out. When we bought this house, we had no idea how long it would take to fix it up, but although I felt compelled to do the work either myself or with my husband’s help (because I was going to pull him along with my insane self-reliance no matter how he felt about it), I absolutely resented the work—partly because it was taking time away from the writing that I had *finally* allowed myself to do in the year prior to our move, and partly because I didn’t want to be the kind of person who spends her time decorating. Unfortunately, once I decide to do something, I want to do it well, which for me means it’s got to be aesthetically pleasing. This has caused me to admire my work as I go up and down my staircase, but conversely, to dislike anyone else seeing my staircase. (This is one of the reasons I dislike Halloween. I hate that my neighbours can look into our house, see the staircase, and perhaps judge me to be shallow or showy. Clearly, I, too, have been affected by societal messages.)

    On Mary Oliver and temples in nature versus temples in homes, I think I’m more like you than Mary Oliver: home as a place of safety and refuge is extremely important to me. Nature is good too, but there are also bears out there! (There are actually no bears *here*; I’m just speaking generally about the fact that nature inherently contains dangers.)

    • Rita says:

      I am fascinated by your feelings about your staircase. I completely understand not wanting to be the kind of person who spends her time decorating. That was how I felt when I got divorced and moved into what had been our rental property. It needed love, and I loved the idea of being able to fix up a place that was just mine, but my desire to dive into the BH&G archive felt shallow and frivolous. I hardly wanted to admit it to myself. (This was in the days before Pinterest and all the home decor blogs, so it was harder to satisfy this appetite and easier to think that design was something for other people.) But, I am not understanding your feelings about the staircase now. I hate that you can’t just take pleasure in it for being beautiful and functional. I want to make arguments for the necessity of beauty. Unless, there is something truly different about your staircase? I’m also feeling curious–I’d really like to see it now.

      A topic I want to think and write about is aesthetics. If home is a kind of temple to you, what do you think about beautiful churches or other places of worship? I feel like this is something I need to learn more about.

      • Marian says:

        My staircase is not just a staircase in both a literal and figurative sense. (Before I explain that, I should clarify that although I prepped all the wood—staining and polyurethaning all of it, a weeks-long process—we did hire someone to do the installation. The project involved changing the stringers and the railing, which was beyond what we knew how to do. Prior to doing the main staircase, we had done all the work on the basement stairs: I prepped the treads, we cut them using the stair-measuring tool my husband made from Cane’s design, and we added to the stringers to accommodate the new height and depth of the hardwood treads. We did a really good job, but the open nature of the main staircase and the railing replacement was too much for us.) Part of what makes the staircase beautiful is the fact that I didn’t stop with just doing the staircase; I also put up wainscoting. Our foyer is two stories high, and I had painted the walls prior to doing the staircase. When I learned that the stringers would have to be changed, I knew that would damage my paint job, so it seemed easier (haha) to cover it up with wainscoting than to repaint the entire wall. (Have I mentioned I’m a perfectionist?) Anyway, the combination of the stairs and the wainscoting is what makes the foyer so striking. (I’ll email you a photo.) So that’s the literal part. Figuratively, the staircase is not just a staircase because it is perhaps the biggest of the many, many projects that we/I undertook with this house. When we bought this house, we had no idea of the list of problems or the extent of the work involved in taking on a fixer-upper. I remember standing with my hip against the stair railing and saying to the realtor, “I think this railing must not be to code; it’s too short.” But when my husband returned alone a few weeks later to walk through the house with the home inspector and the realtor, the home inspector ensured him the railing was to code. We later learned that it actually was not. We had been burned by our home inspector in Minnesota too, and the inspector here had missed some other really bad things, so this was just one more instance of feeling duped. I also somewhat felt duped by the choice my husband and I had made to move in the first place. I have willingly gone along with all three of the major moves we’ve done for his career, but I have also grossly underestimated, each time, how hard those moves would be on me and how much I would have to sacrifice. We bought this house thinking we would have it fixed up in 9 months. It took four years (and we’re still not completely done). If I had been the kind of person who enjoyed spending time researching materials and finishes and doing the work, I would be very proud of the finished results; however, I’m hyper-sensitive to the hidden costs of all of this stuff, so that’s one mental roadblock for me. The other mental roadblock is the fact that I’ve been able to do all this because I’m a housewife with enough time (and money that I didn’t earn), and I don’t want to be just a housewife. I had (have?) other dreams—dreams that were halted because of this move and this house—and the staircase is a big reminder that I wasn’t able to make those dreams happen. The third mental roadblock that keeps me from fully enjoying the staircase is that I am acutely aware of envy. I hate the thought that I might be a “Jones” who is causing other people to want to keep up.

        Whenever we travel, we always tour the churches. I have a love/hate relationship with churches. I love the beauty of them—the stained glass, the architecture, the craftsmanship—but I hate thinking about the hidden costs: the many labourers that in all likelihood died during construction, the money that was used to build them that could have instead been spent to alleviate human suffering, and the ongoing suffering that those buildings and their human institutions often enable. (I’m an atheist, so I can’t help but think of that last point especially.)

        • Rita says:

          I have a much better understanding of your complicated feelings about the stairs. Thank you. Reading this, I kept thinking about my daughter and feelings she still has about our stair project in that old house. About all home improvement, really, but especially the stair project, which was unfinished for four years. Her feelings are so strong that when she came home to live this summer, I purposely did not undertake any elective renovation projects during her stay. (I did have to re-do the laundry room, but that was because the dryer had to be replaced, which created a bit of a mouse-cookie situation.) Your response confirms for me the idea that I want to dig into and explore (in a deeper and more meaningful way than I ever did in the blog I wrote with Cane): That home-making has (or can have) a spiritual component to it. That it is connected to moral and spiritual questions we all have to answer. Or, at least, that it can be. Your stairs are so much more than a device to travel from one floor to another. More than ever, I wish we could sit at one of our kitchen tables and have a really long talk.

          Like you, I am an atheist, and I have the same trouble with elaborate churches and the suffering that churches have created. (Raised Catholic, so….) Part of me also loves the beauty of them, but then I think of all those other things. My favorite churches are much like my favorite houses–small and spare.

  5. shriley says:

    Happy New Year Rita. Your home looks so lovely, comfortable and welcoming. It looks like a place where one could do some serious resting and growing!

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, and happy new year to to you, too! I feel very fortunate to have a home that is as comfortable as mine, and that I got some time over the holidays to rest and grow.

  6. TD says:

    I found the “second wave” link fascinating, Rita. I think that it was written a couple of years ago. It will be interesting to watch where that all goes.

    Your corner window room is preciously lovely. And I’m looking forward to reading your future posts on your whimsy!! The topic that you have assigned yourself is very interesting to me. The conversations coming forward will be intriguing! I plan to participate in the discovery ahead!!

    • Rita says:

      I thought that was a really interesting article, too! It is a few years old, but I thought it was a nice summary of a complex topic, and it made me look at some things a little differently than I previously had.

      I really love that corner window. It’s one of the reasons I bought the house. I knew that window could make me love it, and it has. I’m not sure exactly where my whimsy is going to take me, but I’m glad to know you’ll be along for the ride.

  7. Ally Bean says:

    I relate to your car situation. I didn’t have my own car until I was a senior in college. I either used my mother’s car or learned to bum rides from friends. Or walk, when possible. It was quite a shock when I got my first car, a Pontiac, and had to learn about [and pay for] its upkeep. We learn what we need to know when we need to know it, I guess.

    I like how you’re leaning into your writing and your sense of whimsy. I write my blog posts based on whatever catches my fancy in the moment. I’ve never had a mentor so I’ve no idea if that’s how you’re supposed to do it, but I’m a free spirit so I go with whatever works for me. From what I’ve read here you know who you are and how to write so you’ll do great with this blog– and any other writing project you might pursue.
    Ally Bean recently posted…A Simple Hello: Ms. Bean Goes For A Car Ride AND Returns To BloggingMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I agree that we learn what we need to know when we need to know it. It’s a truth that is the source of both frustration and comfort in my work. I can’t really control another person’s learning (which is really hard sometimes!), which means that I don’t need to be responsible for doing so (which is really a relief sometimes).

      I really enjoy the way in which you write about whatever catches your fancy. I don’t think there’s any supposed to’s about blogging. Oh, I’m sure there are a lot of them if you want to make money at it. Maybe the only rule is to figure out what works for the goals you have. That works for blogging and for life, too.

      Happy new year to you. (Can I say that with a straight face after the events of the past week? Yes, I can.)

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