What does it mean to make a home? I wonder if it means something different to everyone, or if we have a common vision.
All my adult life homemaking has been a top priority, not so much for myself, but for others. Creating home has been my labor of love and one of my greatest contributions to relationship. Few things give me as much satisfaction as establishing a place of peace, beauty, security and clean, well-ordered efficiency in which to relax, play, share life and be intimate. In the past I didn’t count the cost in emotional labor, physical labor, time or energy. I didn’t expect reciprocity. I only wanted to be allowed to make the offering of a home.
It never occurred to me the enormous gift of creating a home would be largely invisible and mostly unappreciated.
My disillusionment was gradual. I realized one day cleaning the bathroom meant nothing to those I was sharing it with. It gave me a lot of satisfaction, but was rarely even noticed by others. That was the first time I grasped I wasn’t going to get thanked or validated for cleaning. If I wanted to clean, I needed to make sure I was doing it for myself and have no expectations that anyone else would pay attention.
I was on my own with the cleaning thing.
I was also on my own in evaluating a new home for ease of maintenance and housekeeping as well as suitability for pets and kids. I was the one who thought about clotheslines and their proximity to laundry facilities; flooring in entryways, bathrooms and kitchens; and outside and inside wood storage for the woodstove. I was the one who thought about how to deal with trash and recycling and where to put the litter box and store the dog food.
Not every woman is a natural homemaker. I think many perform as such because nobody else will and the culture expects it of them. I’ve always loved that kind of work, even knowing it’s unpaid and undervalued in the larger world. I assumed, in my innocence, that homemaking was an investment in a healthy and happy family, and that was the only payback I needed.
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The thing about being young is we can’t imagine how decades of unappreciated and invisible work and support grind us down and polish a thick shell of cynicism. It turns out I did want some degree of appreciation and acknowledgement from my family for making a home. I couldn’t pull off the perfect wife/mother/housekeeping role with a clean white apron and endlessly abundant nurture, energy, patience, organization and efficiency with no return. I especially couldn’t do it while working outside the home, going to school and single parenting.
Fulfilling cultural expectations turned out not to be very fulfilling, after all.
Eventually I found myself alone. Children grown and gone, a file folder labeled ‘Divorce’, and freedom to make a home solely for myself at last. Complete and total control. Bliss! I had a wonderful time giving myself exactly the kind of home I’d always dreamed of. All my efforts were on my own behalf. I didn’t care what anyone else thought and I didn’t need anyone to appreciate the home I made for myself. Housekeeping was uncomplicated, easy and filled with joy.
I concluded homemaking wasn’t, after all, a gift, a talent or an adequate offering. It didn’t translate as a declaration of love, support and commitment. My loved ones didn’t value my contribution. It was a meaningless use of my time and energy and put me in the vulnerable position of looking for validation and appreciation from others.
I felt like a fool, and it made me bitter. I promised myself never again would I try to make a home for anyone but myself.
I never imagined, even as a teenager, anyone would make a home for me. I wasn’t that naïve!
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Here in the tarnished and somber season of late fall and lengthening nights an amazing thing has happened.
I noticed it when I began coming home in the dark after work. My partner leaves lights on for me so I can easily negotiate backing into the driveway and navigate the steep cellar stairs. When I open the door at the top of the steps and enter the kitchen, the dishes are done. The house is warm and the wood stove glowing in the living room. The cat is fed. The kitchen smells of beef stew, chicken soup or baking.
Home. My home, but this time not created solely by me for someone else. This home is a collaboration, and it’s incomplete without me. I’m not invisible. My presence has worth. After all these years, all the meals and baking, all the housework and candles and welcoming lights in windows, the clean clothes, the fresh beds, the cared-for animals, the countless cords of wood for various stoves, all that invisible and unnoticed love, I’m reaping a late harvest.
Someone makes a home for me now, and waits for me to return, not to maintain it but to be part of it.
At the end of my workday, I’m actually at the end of my workday. I don’t have to unload the car, fumble my way into a dark house, turn on lights, get the woodstove going, make a meal, take care of pets and/or kids and/or adults, shut curtains and lock doors. My partner doesn’t meet me at the door with roses, wine and sweet talk. He gives me far more enduring and authentic gifts of a place and relationship to come home to. I discover those offerings are every bit as worthy as I imagined when I was a newly-married 21-year-old. All my work over the years was real. It was valuable. It was loving and important. It was a beautiful contribution. The fact that no one noticed or appreciated the home I made for them did not, after all, define the value of my intention.
I suppose it’s just one of life’s little ironies that now, at this late date when I’ve completely given up expectations and fantasies that others will perceive homemaking as an expression of love worthy of acknowledgement, someone in my life finally gives back to me what I’ve given in such abundance to others.
It’s a late harvest, but well worth the wait.
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The last time my job necessitated driving in the dark, I was a young married woman. I worked afternoons and evenings in a hospital in a large city and drove home on well-lit highways and city streets after the chaos of evening rush hour. I never left the hospital after dark without Security, who saw me safely to my car.
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As a child I was terrified of the dark. I was a fearful child in general and the dark was the culmination of every nameless horror, imagined and real. Somewhere in the years of early motherhood when I became a single parent my fear of the dark vanished and it became my friend — a place of peace, rest and privacy. It shielded me from critical eyes and harsh words.
If no one could see me or find me, they wouldn’t discover what a failure I was.
After some years of friendship the dark became my lover, and I adorned it with candlelight, welcomed starlight onto my pillow and delighted in night walks. I feel strangely at one with the pale, musky blur of the skunk; the large clumsy rustling and noisy chewing of the bear eating windfall apples and the kingly owls conversing solemnly overhead. The warmly-lit world inside where people talk, laugh, and live their lives is another universe and I a wild, aloof creature, silent and unseen under the grandeur of the night sky.
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Miracles happen in the dark.
Now I’m driving in the dark again, slipping through the folds and creases of the hills, passing over the river and gliding under the half-naked trees. The small city’s lights glow dimly, behind me if I’m going home after closing the pool, ahead of me if I’m coming in early to open it. The pavement undulates and curves, unfolding under my headlights. Lit windows give me intimate glimpses of people moving around in kitchens and living rooms, sipping from a cup, glancing at a TV screen. Other drivers are out, too, strung loosely along the road. Oncoming headlights force my gaze to the shoulder, scanning for hapless porcupines, impulsive deer or careless pedestrians.
Last night, an almost perfect Hunter’s Moon rose over a stubbled field where corn grew a few weeks ago, lighting a black and white vista of fields and scattered trees. It hung low, gleaming through bare branches, silvering my right shoulder as it saw me home. As I backed into the driveway to park under the friendly light at the apex of the barn roof, moonlight flooded in my windshield as though embracing me before I opened the cellar door and stepped inside the house, no longer half fey and wild but my usual civilized and responsible self.
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This morning, snow and leaves whirled in my headlights and my tires hissed on the wet road. The trees hunched, dark indistinct shapes, and the river was invisible as I crossed the bridge. I opened the car window for the pleasure of the wet snowflakes on my face, the damp autumn smell and the cold lash of dark air on my cheeks. I might have been the only living human being in the world. For a moment I wished it was so. I might have been going anywhere or nowhere through the darkness, the snow and the leaves. It seemed perfectly possible to stop the car and abandon it, to fling myself into the arms of the landscape and disappear into wood, stone, hair and bone.
Yet ahead lay the swimming pool, waiting in the humid darkness of its building for lights to discover it, for people to measure and balance its chemicals, for computer screens to come to life, for the daily schedule to be printed and the showers to be run to prime the hot water. In the town ahead were therapy patients, members of the early water aerobics class and crack-of-dawn lap swimmers. I drive through the dark for them.
So I shook off the wistful feeling that there are other ways to live, deeper, older and more magical, shut the car window and drove on, through the waking town under the dim dawn sky, heavy with downy snow, and stepped into the humid warmth and sound of the swimming pool, blue and white and brightly lit. The darkness and I parted for a time, but it has a piece of me I can give to no one and nothing else. The dark is a lover unlike any other.
I will always return to it.
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Recently I went back to the little mountain town in the Southern Colorado Rockies I called home for twenty years, and wrapped up the sale of my house. It was an important trip for me, one which I’ve been anticipating ever since I arrived in Maine two and a half years ago. My partner and I drove out and drove back. I didn’t try to blog or write on the road, but I made a lot of notes and I discovered a persistent theme.
Reclamation, according to a quickie internet search, means “the process of claiming something back or of reasserting a right” or “the cultivation of waste land or land formerly under water.” It strikes me there’s an interesting and subtle possibility of conflict in those two definitions. What exactly is waste land, and who has the power to define it? Also, what does cultivation mean? Big Ag? Monocropping? Pesticides and Roundup? Or cultivation by plants, animals and wind?
In any event, I’ve been carrying the word reclamation for some years now like a talisman. It’s a cord linking events and choices of the last years of my life together.
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I remember exactly when it started. I was sitting in a chair in the salon where a friend cut my hair for years. In the mirror, I could see my hair falling over my shoulders and down my back, thick and wavy and beginning to be streaked with grey. I was desolate because of a broken relationship, and I saw a woman who was unwanted in that mirror. I didn’t want to be her anymore. I wanted to be someone else. My friend asked me what I wanted to do and I told her to cut it all off. “Reclamation,” I said. I couldn’t say more because I didn’t want to break into sobs, but she knew exactly what I meant, and she tied a smock around my neck and started cutting.
My ex-boyfriend had loved my hair. I loved it, too. It made me feel sexy and beautiful and feminine. Cutting it was the first step I took on the road leading me to this attic space in central Maine, where I sit this summer morning (with short hair) writing with the windows open and the sound of crickets, frogs and birds flowing in.
I held onto that word, reclamation. It became a boat to sail away in, and then a lifeboat, and then a raft and then a spar of wood in a fathomless sea of floating debris that kept me alive until current and waves took me back to shore.
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The little town I lived in had no claim to fame or big dollar tourism except for a golf course. When I moved there the course was renowned for being one of the most beautiful in the country, and visitors came from all over during the summer to play there, filling the inns and RV parks. Then drought struck that part of Colorado, the golf course was sold to an absentee owner who immediately got crosswise with the town, and gradually, due to a mixture of water problems, politics and general assholery on the part of the owner, the golf course went downhill, people lost jobs, the greens became unkempt and the tourists stopped coming. Then, just about the time I left town, the golf course closed.
I don’t play golf and my living fortunately didn’t depend on the tourist trade, but every morning, just before dawn, I walked on the golf course.
I didn’t do it for exercise or as a discipline. It was my lifeline. It was the one place where I never failed. I was guaranteed solitude and peace. Nobody knew where I was. I knew the course so well I could disappear into it, be absorbed. I had several routes, one for ordinary days, one for days of grief, one for days of rage and the longest one for days of despair. I used some of the cart paths, but mostly I followed the contours and edges of the greens and walked along the river, which was generally only a trickle, if not entirely dry. I often heard owls going to roost as meadowlarks began their morning chorus. I saw bears, foxes, skunks, deer and geese.
In the days of relative plenty, maintenance men worked as early as I was walking, but I was a familiar local figure and we ignored each other. I avoided them and they only saw me at a distance. There was an elaborate sprinkler system, of course, that worked all night every night and made the whole place fresh and green and cool, a stark contrast to my daily reality of hauling or pumping grey water out to my garden because of drought and watering restrictions. I lived a five-minute walk away.
During our recent trip we only spent one night in that little town, but I woke early, slid into my clothes and walked to the golf course. I knew it had been closed altogether for some time. This year the drought momentarily broke in the valley with record amounts of snow and rain, and the river that so often dried up flooded, both on the course and through the town. As I slipped through the gates and passed the “no trespassing” signs in the dark of early dawn, I could hear the river, an amazing, miraculous sound. The scent and chill kiss in the air of running water was very different from the mechanical chik, chik, chik of an automatic sprinkler.
The cart path was rutted, muddy and overgrown. Large tree limbs had fallen and nobody cleared them away. The river actually broke out of its banks and spread across a former green. I’d seen pictures in the local paper, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. The town sent in machinery to make barriers out of heaped-up debris and mud. Whole trees had toppled, their root balls pathetically exposed to the sky.
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Once, I could have walked several paths on the golf course blindfolded. I often was there in the dark. Now my footing was uncertain. The grass grew up to my waist and I kept tripping over hidden windfall branches. Weeds filled the sand traps. The greens were, of course, gone. The groomed contours that once marked my route had vanished, forcing me to slow down and move more cautiously. I strained my eyes to discover familiar slopes and hollows in the dim light.
As I moved deeper into the old course, I thought of all the hundreds of mornings I’ve spent there, praying, weeping, raging, pressing myself against nature in every mood and season. I took my joy there, my hope, my dreams, and my gratitude practice. The golf course was a place of creative inspiration, a place of guidance and comfort, a place in which to staunch wounds enough to carry on another day. I was real there. I didn’t try to hide from myself.
That highly-groomed, herbicide-gagged, shaved, enslaved, money-making piece of land (a waste land) is going wild again. It was captured, bought, and pimped by a businessman in order to create a profit. Now, Mother Nature reclaims her own. The land begins to remember itself. As I walked and the light increased, showing me myriad signs of healing, I felt akin to the land. What is happening there is happening to me. I had a pimp, too — myself. I sold myself for what I thought I was worth in order to get what I needed. Now the land and I reclaim ourselves from a bleak and limited culture that relies on chemicals, profit and power-over rather than natural cycles and cooperation.
Reclamation is not a controlled, civilized process. It’s wild, sometimes catastrophic. The river made a scar where it broke its banks and uprooted trees, but it carved out a new bed for itself. The old bed will fill in. New growth will cover all that exposed earth. The downed limbs and trees will rot and feed the soil and mycelium while native plants and grasses return. Is this what we mean by waste land? Forest fire, flood and storm are acts of nature that reshape the land and environment. Life dies and renews, one act leading to the other. We often experience reclamation as terrifying and tragic. Human beings, for the most part, don’t welcome change unless we control it.
Yet we do change. The world changes. The weather changes. Those around us change. We can neither stop nor control it in any significant way, and I’m entirely grateful for that. The golf course and I are messy. Our hair is disheveled. Our trim, neat lines are blurred. The high unmown grass through which I waded brushed against the hair on my bare legs. The water feeding the land and the water of feeling that feeds me have carved a new, wider path. Bridges and trees sag and unravel, not trash but compost for the next thing. Paths and fences fall into disrepair. Grass and saplings mingle freely, each reaching toward the other at the edges.
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Snakes, rabbits and insects live again in the shelter of the grasses. Does can leave their fawns safely concealed while they browse, and their presence will bring the mountain lions down from the foothills. Owls will find abundant mice, voles and other rodents in what was a carpet of sterile green velvet. The beaver and raccoons will no longer be trapped or shot, lest they disturb the regulated beauty of the water features or annoy the tourists. Over all this complex, creative system, the meadowlark still sings, that king of the high fields and plains, and his song still brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my throat.
That land will always be home to the woman I was. I was glad to return for a brief hour and realize my beloved place has moved on, just as I have. The land and I were both over-civilized into waste land, but now we’re reclaiming ourselves. The golf course and I reassert our right to be what we are. We surrender to change, to mess, and to the transformative edge of chaos.
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When I came to Maine from Colorado, I left behind a small log house on four lots in a mountain town of about 1,000 people. I was fortunate enough to find good renters. I’d never been a landlady before, but the prospect of renting was less overwhelming than actually trying to sell the house while making the huge transition to Maine.
My childhood consisted of moving from here to there frequently, and the constant upheaval and insecurity was hard. I didn’t really make friends or invest in any particular place, because I never knew when we would have to pack up and go again. By the time I was a teenager, my family had settled down, but by then I was getting ready to go out into the world and make a place of my own, so there still wasn’t any security.
Then I got married and had children, and finding a home was largely driven by my husband’s wants and preferences and what our young family needed, not by my own desires. It became apparent over my years of marriage that the house that appealed to me and the house that appealed to my husband were rather different in terms of location, style and layout. We moved from place to place, and I made do wherever we were — a skill I had a lot of practice with. It was the family that mattered, I told myself, not the house.
When the boys were ready for school, though, it was important to me to settle down somewhere, as I didn’t want them to have the experience I did of always being the new kid in school. At that point we moved to the little town referred to above, where I stayed for more than 20 years. The house we bought when we moved there sheltered us, along with dogs and cats, but I never really liked it. Once again, it had been my husband’s choice.
Fifteen years passed and I found myself alone with a cat in a big house I’d never loved that hijacked me with ghosts and memories everywhere I turned.
I sold the house, discarded a lot of stuff and, after a couple years of searching, heard of a dilapidated old log house that had been rented that was about to go on the market. One of my friends was a neighbor, and one spring morning we went to walk around it.
It needed a lot of work, but I was charmed. My friend went up 3 cement steps in the back, found the back door open, and we walked in.
It was outdated, tiny, inconvenient and badly neglected. Everything, inside and outside, was frayed, ragged, used up, dusty and dirty.
Falling in love is a strange thing. What is the complex, mysterious response a person, object or place calls from us? It’s got nothing to do with beauty or even suitability, that’s for sure, at least not for me.
I felt akin to the house. There it sat, and had been sitting for over 100 years, on a weedy and trash-filled patch of ground with large old trees around it, unloved, unseen and unappreciated. It was small and ugly and shabby. I myself had never noticed it in all my 15 years in that town.
Nobody loved or wanted it.
That’s what captured my heart.
Nobody loved it.
But what if somebody did? What if somebody wanted it, cleaned it up, gave it some care and attention?
So I bought it, remodeled one end, gave it new windows and a new front door. I had the wood floors stripped, sanded and sealed. I insulated, put in a little wood stove, patched and painted. I raked up bags and bags of trash and built garden beds out of cardboard, newspaper, huge loads of manure and fill dirt, moldy straw and hay and compost. I hung birdfeeders and wind chimes in the trees.
I didn’t know it then, but in loving that house and bringing it back to life, I was taking the first steps in loving myself, and eventually leaving that little town for a bigger, wider world.
I lived in the house for five years, and I was struck, over and over again, by how the house and land responded to every bit of attention I gave them. They never shrank away from me. I never failed or disappointed. The place blossomed. It bloomed. The garden grew. The trees filled with birds. Sunlight poured in the new windows and turned the old floor to the color of honey. Indoor plants throve on the wide windowsills.
The house was like a mirror. It reflected back to me creativity, color, light, modest luxury, simplicity. As I lived my life in it I saw myself differently than I ever had before. I had made a beautiful place, peaceful and welcoming.
For the first time, I thought maybe I had something to offer the world. Maybe I was of some use after all.
In my head, it was all settled. After nearly 50 years of moving and being subject to someone else’s needs and choices, I had come home. For the first time in my life I allowed myself to put down deep, deep roots. I filled the house with my music, my books, my spiritual work, my art, my hopes, dreams, desires, fears and griefs. I joyfully lived without clutter, piles, and collections of junk that weren’t mine. I burned candles and incense and had flowers by the kitchen sink and in the bathroom.
Never again would I have to move. I was safe. I laid in bed at night and felt the house around me like sheltering wings. I had at last realized the deepest and most painful desire of my life — a real home. I would live the rest of my days in safety, serenity and security. The house and I belonged to each other and took care of one another.
Last month I put the house up for sale, and last week it went under contract.
I don’t know how to express all the thoughts and feelings that led me from that place to this. To say I emotionally outgrew it feels true. To say my old life began to feel much too small is also true. Gradually, I understood a house can’t provide me with the safety I’m always looking for, after all. I thought I’d reached the highest peak of my own desire and possibility, but when I got there and looked around, I began to see higher peaks still.
I’d created a home and called it a life.
I was also aware my love for the house exceeded my love for myself. Part of me still waited for someone to show up and do for me what I did for the house. Inside me, a sweet maiden stayed powerless and waiting for a prince on a white horse, but I wasn’t a maiden. I was a menopausal woman, expert in the art of pleasing people, with two adult children, two divorces and a history of abuse. It was too late for the prince thing, and I was bored by it anyway. What was a downy-faced idiot prince going to do with a woman like me?
I recognized the more mature (ahem!) parts of me were simply lonely for healthy, meaningful connection with other people, and no house, no matter how beautiful, comfortable or beloved, could give me that.
Then there was the anguished voice from deep inside, imprisoned somewhere behind my rib cage, that kept saying “I can do more than this! I can be more than this!”
Anyway, I chose to leave Colorado, the house and my life there, though it was like tearing myself in half. Still, I’ve never regretted that choice, and I know now that I don’t want to go back to my old life and that little town — even if I could.
The house I’m in now hardly notices me. It needs nothing from me, and nothing I can do will fix all that needs fixing and update all that needs updating. This is frustrating, at times infuriating, and oddly peaceful. All the energy and love I used to give my home is now going into my writing and into shaping myself and a new kind of life. In a strange and convoluted way, leaving the home of my dreams has at last brought me into direct, intentional and mindful relationship with…me.
I wonder if perhaps I’m the home and safety I’ve always been searching for. How ironic.
I’ve been weeping on and off as I let go of my house. I want to do it, and it hurts. I wonder if I’ll ever have that again — such a perfect home. I wonder about the new owner, who is also a single woman. I hope she feels as sheltered and nurtured there as I did. I hope she’ll touch the trees and feed the birds and glory in the iris and roses and clematis. I hope the owls will wake her in the deep winter nights, calling from the huge pine trees in front. I hope she draws close to herself as she sits in the sun where I sat, sleeps under the ceiling I had patched and painted myself, feeds the wood stove, washes dishes and relaxes in the bathtub.
I hope she and the house will love one another and be happy together.
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