My favorite book growing up was a little gem called The Big Orange Splot. Mr. Plumbean lives on a “neat street”, where all the houses are the same, until one day a mysterious bird drops a can of orange paint, A BIG ORANGE SPLOT, on his house. From that moment on Plumbean is inspired to defy conventional thought, embracing and welcoming this opportunity for change and the discovery to be, well, just himself. He paints his house every color you can imagine, sets up a hammock in his front lawn and adopts an alligator. His neighbors soon find themselves exploring and implementing their own expressions of who they are. It’s a children’s book, but as often as they are, it is about so much more: individuality, creativity, acceptance, exploration, sharing, listening, enjoying.
“my house is me and I am it”: stories of home:
934 Arden drive. Judy. She had a red door and a warm smile. She had the most comfortable couch and a dog named pony, a lab mix in his late teens. The walls were painted rich hues of mahogany and emerald green. She opened every window in the house and the back door in the mornings and always had a pot of coffee brewing and stayed in her pajamas well into the afternoons. Her daughters would pop in and out on occasional weekends, visiting from their respective colleges, or her oldest, Mary would drop in for dinner from her house around the corner. Judy ate dark chocolate kisses, the silver and purple wrappers strewn across the glass coffee table most evenings during episodes of Mad Men. Through a craigslist ad, she let Maia and I, two barely twenty something girls from Northern California rent the upstairs bedroom for a year and what turned into many nights chain smoking on the front porch with Patrick, her brother, who also rented a room, and worked at Costco and had an intense passion for Disneyland and Coors Light. It’s where she’d lived for 30 years, through the growth spurt trial and error of her twenties, where she raised three girls, grew in and up and out of love and a marriage to a man named Adam, the place where she hosted her best fried Kat and her partner every summer, where she became a grandmother to a little girl named Ailish. It’s where she let herself breathe; where she gave the best hugs, where she wept and worried and laughed herself shitless. I recall the calm in her voice when we talked about the inability to keep the house, that circumstances wouldn’t allow it, shortly before I made my own plans to move. At the time I didn’t wonder who she would be or where she would go without her home. I was too concerned with finding my next “home” at 20. I knew her girls would follow and fill in the spaces of loss or mourning or to celebrate a new beginning, but I could sense the intimate ties she had to the walls of that dwelling; I could sense it the moment I arrived on her doorstep and she stood beaming after our first long embrace, “Come sit in the back, there’s coffee, help yourself”. I had just met this woman but I could feel the stories that settled inside. I would feel it every time I came back from work or a chilly walk at Swami’s. It felt warm, always. Those walls held her own sort of childhood, her children’s youth, their stories. Where would she look for the memories of so many years passed if they weren’t enveloping her, hanging thick in the mortar, a constant reminder of all that had come before? What would home look like then? I drove by that house two years later, on a weekend visit to Encinitas. The door was no longer red, the yard had been landscaped and there was no sign of Judy smoking at the little iron table out front. I wanted to lightly knock and enter into the family room, shout “ello” to Patrick pecking away at his keyboard, bitching about work or the balance in his bank account or baby talking Strawbs, the cat. I wanted to walk through the kitchen and up the stairs and into the master bedroom and look out over the backyard with that little stone fountain and the yellow rose bush and the disjointed apartment to the left, but knew it wouldn’t be the same without her. The coffee wouldn’t be brewing, the laughter of grown women wouldn’t be echoing on the back stoop, the wrappers would be cleared away. Judy ended up moving to a condo out in La Costa Canyon, Pony now gone. I sent her a message recently, asking what home meant to her in 8 words or less and this is what she said: (I’m still waiting to hear back. I really hope I someday do.)
We made zucchini bread, the baking powder had gone bad. We let it rise late into the night. I tried to console her, “Kyra look, I mean, think, how fun it was mixin’ up all this dough?” No dice. That afternoon, another 80 degree day in August along Clinton Street I parked Toto in the “garage” and made my ascent to the top of the stairs,greeted by two black labs, Baby and Crosby, the front door wide open. Eric, Kyra’s stepdad picking away at the grapes lining the side of the house, attempting to tame the vines wildly exploring their way down onto the front deck. Laura, her mom tending to the tomatoes and chatting about the patio plans for out back. Eric a sculptor, Laura an entrepreneurial artist, warm smile. She grew up in Portland and moved back from Idaho to raise Kyra and her younger brother. Kyra, with her 20 year old baby face, sweet as the zucchini bread we starting baking that afternoon, who asked me one day over ice cream if she’d ever find a tribe, a group of people she might feel close to, to call home. Seven pans later, all stuffed into the oven, we retired to the deck out front with her parents to munch on Dubliner cheese and blackberries and crackers and pesto and chatted about what Kyra might want to do after her bike touring adventure, if school was in her future and her parents murmuring, “just do what you love, what you feel like”.
The bread still baking we ate pound cake and homemade raspberry jam and creamed butter their neighbors brought over as a thank you for cat sitting and sat circular into the evening. We stayed up chatting in the living room and I asked if I could roam their house and poke my nose into the nooks and crannies of what they’d created, and I smelled the soap in their bathroom and peeked down the snaking spiraled stairs into the basement, perused out back and scanned the pictures hanging on the hallway wall, a photo of Kyra, an unfettered 5 year old, up to her armpits in the garden back in Idaho, no thoughts of rising bread or where she might be tomorrow. I asked Eric and Laura how they came to buy a house together and they giddily said it just seemed to work out that way and here they are ten years later, unmarried, having been through prior relationships, helping raise one another’s children and we brought up moving and movement and then it was late into the night and I thanked them for sharing their home. Eric said “I thought you’d already have moved in, everyone does?” and I said something like I just might, you never know and I pedaled up Clinton past 52nd, past houses with their stairs leading to flickering porch lights, beacons in the night and couldn’t help but think about what I wrote in Kyra’s going away card at work, “wanderlust is a hell of a disease, feed it, don’t fight it. You won’t find that tribe, you’ll create it. See us all, see us all, we’re here“.
Seeds. My sister in law eats sunflower seeds to feel like she’s back home. She talks to her parents in a foreign tongue, in high pitched tones and her voice chirps most nights via Skype, while I’m trying to sleep before opening shifts at a coffee shop I work these days. I attempt to understand why she has a particular place for everything, why I don’t seem to clean a dish well enough, why my brother ever wanted to get married in the first place, why the word grateful doesn’t always reverberate in my mind. I watch them come home from their weekend errands to Ikea or Whole Foods or an Asian market and I watch the filling of their house with daily deliveries from Amazon: a new TV, curtain rods, a rice cooker, a sweater for their cat, garden tools. And I watch her cook, what seems to be the same three ingredients every night: meat, something green, gallons of oil. I watch my brother scrub the pile of dishes, and her scuttle around in her inside shoes as I stare at my bare feet, too stubborn to respect the Chinese tradition of covering them inside and I don’t understand what I feel is pulling at my own heels, telling me to let my toes roam free. I simply step back outside to settle somewhere else for the evening. This making of a home. I’ve watched it before. The TV blaring, the start of a garden growing out back, meals being prepared and served, the cleaning left for later. And then the days come, quickly it seems, where the TV breaks, the garden freezes, and the meal is gone, the dishes done.
Upon returning stopped in my tracks as I remove my shoes at the door, I watch her crack the sunflower shells, slowly and ask, “Do you feel like you’re in China today?” and she nods. I ask if she’d like to try a blood orange I picked up at the corner fruit stand and she does and I watch her peel it quickly. I don’t know what it means to feel closer. Perhaps this is it, the closest I can come for now, seeing her with her cats and that orange and a pile of seed shells by her side, home settling somewhere in her belly.
Homage to the unknown. The tiger lily resting on an old wooden fence, the pruned up cheek of my elderly neighbor against her 2 year old grandson’s, the ripple trail of Geese skidding atop the Willamette, the first sight of the Pacific after many months away, the liftoff of a 747, a smile from a homeless man, no sign for money or food in sight. I see death in a stack of books yet to be read, I see it in light. I see it in the planning of a camping trip to the coast. I see death in all the things I won’t be able to do. I see it in the excitement of possibilities, in all the places I will never visit and all the places I already have, in the two places I cannot be at once. I see it in the sunset a friend sends me. I see it in all the people I could love, if I’d let myself, in all the people I have. I see it in the humor of the world. I see it when I send snail mail. I see it swaying in an empty hammock. I see it in my chai tea steeping in a Christmas mug at a café on SE 23rd. I see it sometimes in a single word. I see it in a good one liner. It strikes me when I’m excited about life. Maybe this is when death isn’t so eerie, when it becomes synonymous with home. When it becomes a quiet teashop in Sellwood, a rock a mile up Logan Canyon, a balcony on Center Street, an old tattered rocking chair, a bouquet of Peonies from a stranger you may never see again, or the Silver Maple outside 243 Rio Bravo Court when you were a child, the broken back of a Buddha statue, the flowering bushes of a basil plant, when you look someone in the eye and mean it. Home becomes the flux, the interim, the points and hollows between here and there. I wandered the headstones in a cemetery tonight imagining friend’s parents and my own relatives long passed, what they were like, what kind of jokes they would tell, whether they put cream or sugar in their coffee, if they drank coffee at all, if they had healthy sex lives, if they worried about money or the state of the world. I wondered what their own personal reasons for living were, what my great grandfather’s quirks might have been, if he made similar silly faces, if we would have been close or even liked each other’s company. I didn’t kneel down and speak out loud above decaying bones or ashes, I didn’t know anyone in that cemetery on Holgate. I only knew that the sun was going down slowly behind gathering clouds and there was a crow near an old oak, picking at haphazardly tossed leftovers and an abandoned house next door, an orange and green coffee mug resting on stacked furniture, a hole in the window screen, and an Oregonian mailbox in tact, waiting, for the news.