Getting there

What is home?

 

When do you know you’re home?

 

What does it mean to be home?

 

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We returned to America late Saturday night and holed up for two days with Gramma Peggy. She lives five miles from our home in Columbia, just a quick scenic drive on curving roads past cows and dry grasses. You’d think we’d rush here on Sunday morning, right? You’d think after a year away that I’d speed around those curving roads and set those dry grasses on fire. You’d think.

 

Sunday morning came and went. So did Sunday night that became Monday morning, and still we kept those five miles between us. The sun set on Monday and when we awoke on Tuesday, a full 60 hours after touching down on the runway at SFO, we were still in no hurry to return. Dolora finally pulled up in our reliable old truck on Tuesday at 9am, while I drove Liam to school and then went on errands that occupied me all morning. Finally at around 1pm on Tuesday, nearly 3 days after arriving in America, I stepped into this thing we call home.

 

Strange, don’t you think?

 

My two-part explanation goes like this. One, it felt right to let our house breathe for a day or two. This past year we’ve been fortunate to have friends from Liam’s school—Shannon and her two children—rent the house, along with a college student named Julia. It’s natural that they filled up our space with their knick-knacks and their energy. (That’s how we talk in California, “their energy.”) By Sunday all the knick-knacks were gone but the vibe needed its own sweet time to waft out the windows and settle elsewhere. That’s what Monday, empty Monday, was for—to abandon ol’ sweet Bessie of a home and let her sigh, let her purge.

 

The second reason: A home talks to you, sometimes barks at you, often pleads to you. “Clean me,” it says. “Cut me, paint me, dust me, straighten me up. Re- me. Re-roof me, re-stain me, re-mow me, re-everything me.” And since a home is where all the bills and mail ends up, there are those niggling voices to contend with: “Taxes! You mean to tell me you never filed your taxes! What kind of a felon are you!” And possessions. Possessions everywhere in our house: boxes of books in the garage, four bicycles hanging from the rafters, a carpet and a sofa and a piano and spoons. Big spoons, little spoons. Stuff, too much stuff. We’d need fifty elephants to carry our stuff across the Alps to our summer home in Zurich.

 

I wasn’t ready for that stuff and those duties. For a year I’ve simplified my life down to a pack over my shoulders. The only voices of repair have been my flip flops in need of black duct tape. My only bills have been paid on-line, just two clicks for those two credit cards that paid for hotels and visas and trains, ferries, planes and campervans. My only possessions have been the contents of my blue backpack, the 10.2 kgs (24 pounds) that were light as wings that I slipped over my shoulders each morning.

 

Now back, back to the tyranny of things.

 

I needed a few more days to keep that tyranny away. No, that’s not fair. In truth I love my things, love my coffee mug that Sifu made for me, love the piano that the Lovgrens passed on to us, love our bed that we call “Utah” for its square vastness, love my bicycle that has been my trusty steed across much of America. I love the electricity that is there in those sockets, and the water that comes out of those taps. I love the paintings on our walls from Peter and Chuck, and the pencil lines on the kitchen door to mark Liam’s height every year, and a refrigerator that contains cold milk and last night’s fettuccini.

 

Both sensations are true. There is tyranny in things and there’s so much joy in things—in having your own bed, your own range of shirts, your own toilet, your own permission to break a glass or paint a door purple. For both sensations and everything in between, I wanted to keep it all away for just another day.

 

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What’s your image of home?

 

Is it sitting at the table with friends, eating dinner? Is it lying in your bathtub? Is it falling asleep in your own bed with a book on your chest? Is it planting flowers in your garden, or tossing spaghetti into the pot, or mowing your lawn?

 

Here’s mine: I’m sitting on our front porch early in the morning, early enough for the roosters next door to still be crowing. A few cars drive by on the road below. I’m sitting either on our porch swing we named “Fandango” that we bought thirteen years ago with money from my father, or in an Adirondack chair that Dolora had made for me for Father’s Day last year. I’m alone. In my right hand is a coffee mug with real coffee, not freeze-dried mud that most of the world drinks (!). The mug is a work of art from the cupped hands of Sifu, with a heart on the side and the word “integrity” etched underneath. In my left hand is either the latest New Yorker, opened to an article about the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin, or a book, a real book, with pages and black letters and a hard cover, a book about gravity or about the slums of Mumbai, or about the brain.

 

That’s home to me: A porch in the morning, a book on the brain, a mug of coffee, a chair or a swing with a story to it.

 

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I turned off the ignition at 1:30pm on Tuesday afternoon and stepped out of our Subaru, our dusty old Subaru with 335,000 miles to it and a perfect impression of my butt in its driver’s seat. I stood beside the car and inhaled this first sight of our house, of 11920 Yankee Hill that I’ve been writing on hotel registrations for a year.

 

Strange, this place. The grasses so high and brown on that hill over there that I’ll have to whack down. Another day. There are flowers in that pot, and fresh wood stacked against the house. Jessica and Adam, real friends. That tree is dead, and look, over there, how much that evergreen has grown, the one that was just a twig years ago and somehow willed itself into life.

 

I scan the exterior—all in all, the place looks pretty good—and then step through the open front door. Dolora is in here somewhere, probably scouring every cupboard and surface in the kitchen to make it her own once again.

 

I look around. This is not mine. This home is not mine.

 

My body is standing on these wood floors and I recognize that chair and that color of wall, that fireplace and that stove. But I don’t want to take anything in. Either that, or my soul is still somewhere over the Pacific, sipping a mai-tai on the beaches of Tahiti before the western wind swoops it toward northern California. Until then, sentries are on guard duty, protecting this shell of a body from any insights or emotions.

 

I am not home. I am in a place full of things. I am playing a game in which I pay a mortgage and I have a son who is sitting upstairs at a red desk finishing a project on the state of Idaho. I have a wife. She has dark hair. She is usually happy but she is not happy now, her body bending into a stain of grease. She’s part of the game. I pick up a card in the center of the board, and the card says, “Go back two spaces. Vegetarian wife can’t remove the grease from chicken skin which renter caked on the toaster oven. Decides to throw the entire thing out.”

 

I am here and I’m not here. There is so much to do and there is nothing to do. This is my home and this is a stage prop.

 

I’m feeling nothing at all.

 

I think of that penguin we saw in New Zealand, the one that was 25 miles out to sea all day and then returned to the beach, to the sand dune that it climbed to return to its nest.

 

That penguin feels more about home than I do.

 

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I’m not at 11920 Yankee Hill for very long. I leave to pick up Liam at school. I see old friends on the Waldorf campus but I avoid them because deep down—no, not too deep down, just beneath the thinnest layer of skin that’ll slough off on its own tonight—I’m shy and very strange. I drive off undetected.

 

Soon after dropping Liam off at my so-called home, I walk down the driveway and the mile into Columbia to do my civic duty and vote for candidates that I know nothing about. Jerry Brown, I know him, I’ll vote for him, and let’s see… O’Leary, that’s a good Irish name, I’ll vote for you, O’Leary, and hope that someday we can sit down for a potato and a good Guiness stout, and talk of the old times. Most of the ballot has candidates running unopposed. All hail the bastion of democracy, America, with its ballots that would make Stalin proud. Predictions are that 28% of eligible voters will actually vote. Once again, let’s sing it loud and proud: America, ye bastion of democracy. Look upon us, O world, and sigh with envy.

 

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Back home. Or rather, back “home.” It’s getting late. Dolora summons all her talents as a chef and places 5 tofu hotdogs into a microwave. We eat. We three lesser-than-penguins, eat.

 

I’m tired. I’ve been awake since midnight in my battle against jet lag. I’m unable to bring my one small plate to the sink—a clean plate with just a few microscopic tofu particles—and I slink upstairs to bed. Utah, my bed, has been the bed of a strange woman for a year. I want it vacuumed. I want it laid across the bed of a pickup truck and run through a car wash.

 

The sheets are clean, yet another tribute to the species known as Woman. I sleep on the edge, read an article in The New Yorker about a soldier planning to poison the water in Seattle, fall asleep with the light on, have no dreams.

 

++++++++++++++++++

 

I’m awake at 7am. I sit up in bed and here comes Dolora, delivering a cup of coffee with a heart on its side and the word “Integrity” underneath. I hold the cup in the cup of my hands, and very distinct emotions take shape in my no-longer-a-penguin brain. One, I like waking up in my own bed. And two, I may love this coffee in this mug more than I love my toes and my son and my Cleveland Indians baseball team.

 

I am coming… home.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++

 

The house is quiet. Dolora has taken Liam to school and is spending most of the day away. Of all the heavens here on earth, this is Paradise #1—home alone, especially after 322 days in a row walking the earth with one Siamese twin attached to my skull and the other attached to my butt.

 

I go downstairs with my coffee. The low slant of light through the kitchen windows is beautiful at this hour of the morning, and so is the slight chill in the air and the sound of roosters from next door. I place my mug on the kitchen table. I put on a t-shirt that is not one of the 4 I’ve been wearing for the previous 322 days. Such a simple thing to like, a light blue t-shirt, and yet there’s no denying that on the register of emotions, the needle is pointing to “nice, feels nice.” The needle is steady, moves a notch upward as I sit down at the piano and play my usual nonsense. I look up and out the window, and there a hummingbird is suspended in midair.

 

I walk outside onto the porch. I sit down on Fandango. My bare feet push me into a soft swing that does not slosh the coffee I’m holding between both hands. The hummingbird returns and hovers in front of my eyes. He’s checking me out, sniffing me, getting used to me, and it occurs to me that I’ve been a hummingbird in this house, sniffing it to see if it really is my home.

 

I am on my porch in the morning, on my swing named Fandango, drinking coffee out of my familiar mug. I reach over and open up a brand new book, a book titled, “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain.”

 

I’m…–go ahead, Jimmy, go ahead and say it—I’m… “home.”

 

Hmmm, that’s starting to feel right.

 

Then it’s time—time to take away the quotation marks, time to take away the ellipsis.

 

I’m .. “home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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