One morning, right before Christmas, I was outside in the yard, when a quick flash of bright blue caught the corner of my eye. And as I peered up into the greenery, I spotted two bluebirds perched in the cedar tree.
They were so beautiful, so unexpected – brilliant paint strokes of bright cerulean, swooping down to the feeder, fluttering their wings against the flat, grey winter morning.
All year I’d coaxed the shy birds with mealworms, trying to get them to stay. But nobody had fed them in my absence – I was amazed that they’d stuck around. Even with all the coming and going, and different people taking care of the yard, a pair of them still felt like it was safe enough to nest in the wooden box.
Safe enough to have a home.
I’m back in Zürich now, sitting in an unfamiliar kitchen, watching the morning light come up from behind the snowy trees in the yard of our new apartment. I’m still thinking about the holidays.
And I’m thinking about home, and the many homecomings I’ve experienced. Some that were wonderful reunions, and some that were challenging, but all of them complicated, in one way or another.
I vividly recall being ten years old, and coming home from Episcopal church camp, feeling dramatically changed by my spiritual experience there. It may sound unlikely, but in those weeks away, I had genuinely felt God.
And, like a newly converted person, I wanted to go home and embody and practice everything I’d learned. I was more generous to my sisters, I did things for my mom. And I think they saw me differently, at least I felt they did.
The episode may not have lasted very long, but it has stayed with me through the years. For the transformation I felt, but also for how my family received me when I came back.
I remember my junior year in college, going home to the news that my mom had breast cancer for the first time. I was nineteen, and struggling with depression and all of my own issues. I didn’t know how to support her. My mom needed me, but I wasn’t able to be there in the way I wanted to.
This Christmas, Mac and I flew back home to North Carolina, after a long time out of the country and away from Durham. We’ve hit an unexpected milestone – none of us are actually living at home anymore. And so, more than ever, it felt important to have good family time.
We needed to check in, catch up, just savor being in one location, not knowing when our next reunion would be.
It was great, it was weird, and so much of it just felt different.
I think most of us are looking for a touchstone, for someplace that simply stays the same. In a random, disjointed, transient world, we want constancy and equilibrium. A place that allows us to rest and retreat, one that simply lets us be ourselves.
We yearn to walk through the door and breathe in the familiar smell of the rooms. We love to feel the familiar key in the sticky lock, and tip-toe over the raised nail in the floorboard at the bottom of the steps. And we just slip back into the rooms that have shaped us.
We reclaim our appointed chair in the kitchen, where we read the morning paper. The den where we burrow away from the world. The front porch swing, where we’ve read endless mail, and sipped innumerable glasses of sweet tea.
I believe that houses retain the imprint of our lives, like wildflowers pressed between the walls. And we go back to re-visit the pages, to re-experience the emotions, to re-live the memories.
And to know that we’re always remembered for who we were. And to excavate how we possibly grew into the space that we inhabit now.
Our vital data is etched on the walls, on the furniture. The hash marks on the door recording the kids’ growth, the dent on the kitchen stool where Lewis fell and busted his lip.
The crack on the window that was made by the soccer ball.
The stuck-on constellation of stars on the headboard of Katherine’s antique bed.
And in the yard – the height of the jasmine on the trellis, the number of buds on the rosebush, and the size of the koi in the pond, they’re all marks on the timeline.
In my parents house, there is a little window seat, that my mother made up as a bed for the grandchildren when they came to visit. Literally, it measures about three feet by three feet. It’s tucked up on the third floor, and the kids would fight over who got to sleep in it.
And as they grew up, Lewis kept claiming it – even when he hit six foot three and graduated from college. He still wants to sleep there.
I’m not exactly sure why he’d opt for that uncomfortable box, whether he’s reliving old memories, or if he’s thinking about his grandmother, or what. But it’s as if the alcove has claimed him now and won’t let him go.
Most of us want to return to the nooks and crannies that have shaped us. We long to sink into the perfectly shaped claw foot tub. We want to write at our own private desk, the one that has nobody else’s stuff in it, and has drawers organized just to our liking.
But in reality, everything changes, nothing is static. Things don’t stay the way we remember them. And we can be disappointed by the changes.
I had a minor blow-up with my daughter on the first day. She was so eager to have a meaningful conversation, and it started out fine, but then it got a little intense. And I just wasn’t up to it. I wasn’t up to speed, after living a vacuum-packed existence for almost a year.
I was sort of shell shocked. And I said the wrong things, things I didn’t even mean, and it got a bit emotional.
She was understandably upset, because I had forgotten some major things about her life. It was important that we re-connect, and I wasn’t keeping up.
Home is where we are misunderstood and we hurt one another.
And it’s hard, because we want to bring our best selves home with us. We want to sit at the table and display all the growth and wisdom and maturity that we’ve cultivated while away. But we try too hard sometimes, or it just doesn’t quite happen.
Home is where we grieve, and we blame one another, and get angry. It’s where we feel unappreciated, and pigeon-holed, and deeply disappointed. It’s a demanding place we sometimes feel chained to, and smothered by.
The first night we got in, when I walked in the front door, I felt gobbled up by what felt like a massive, gaping maw of stuff. Mac and I had been living in a tiny, sparse rental unit, easy to clean, restful to the eye. And the house felt so cluttered – had it always been like that? Just the thought of cleaning it made me feel exhausted.
And immediately the stuff began cluttering up my brain. I became preoccupied with it, and distracted by all the chores. Everything was in good shape, but I couldn’t stop my hands from touching, cleaning, sorting, re-arranging. It was obsessive. I felt like a rat returning to the dirty nest, circling and patting down, checking and re-claiming the family goods.
Did it feel good to be home? I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t write. I had plenty of ideas in my head at the beginning, but by the end they were pretty bleached out or erased completely. I felt empty and aimless, and like my identity went missing, sucked away through the vacuum cleaner hose. Seriously, I felt a bit misplaced.
Anyway, after the argument with my daughter, I went upstairs. I was exhausted. I felt like I wasn’t getting anything right. Why couldn’t I snap out of it, and settle into my expected role here, for crying out loud?
And in a little bit, Katherine came upstairs, and stood outside the bedroom door. In mock exasperation, she called out:
Ma, are you crying in there?
I fake-laughed, and said – No, of course not – I ‘m not crying [I was].
Okay, just checkin,’ she replied, gently.
And then I remembered her middle school years, how hard they were, and the countless times I had stood in that same hallway, outside her door, asking her the exact same thing. Trying to be a comfort, trying to somehow help her see that things would get better, that it wouldn’t feel that way forever, that things would change.
And now she’s grown, preparing for a career. I’m proud, but also a little humbled, like I’m being left in the dust. Like I’m just a little bit quaint, a tiny bit obsolete. But our job as parents is to nurture, and then to move aside, get the hell out of the way, get back to our own interrupted lives.The trick is in keeping our footing.
This year my father will make the move from his home in Charleston to a new place, as yet undetermined. It’s been a year and a half since my mom died.
And Mac and I will continue to live here in Switzerland for the next four months, maybe longer, we’re not sure.
We flit from place to place, but we still have the old pink house on Watts Street to go back to, at least for now. It’s still there for us to dump all our stuff inside, – our outdated clothes, our dirty laundry, our unused maps, abandoned plans and half-baked ideas – all of the unwanted detritus from old versions of our lives.
And when we return from our travels, we’ll bring back our need for approval, and our desperate desire to stay relevant and respected. We’ll reunite with our exciting adventure stories, as well as our lingering insecurities, our combative opinions, and our bones to pick.
But we keep going back because, more than anything, it is a refuge, a haven, a sweet sanctuary, and the place where people know us best.
On New Year’s Eve, I walked out into the back of the yard to check the compost bin. And, peeking under the lid, I saw that it was rotting nicely – dark and pungent with fresh vegetable parings and leaves. And I imagined all the meals that had fed it while I was away, all the dinners I had missed.
And now those events were catalogued as geologic timelines in the bin, layers of the various menus and gatherings, a record of the good times. And someone had forked it well, and turned the stuff over faithfully, opening up spaces for it to dry and bake into good mulch.
Four seasons had passed since we moved to Switzerland. Obviously, time ticked on, whether we’d been present to rake up the dusty remains or not. But even so, the story was being quietly recorded there in the earth, in the soil, in the layers of time that are continually heaped, one day on top of another, one moment sifting into the next.
Of course, everything changes. Why did I think it wouldn’t?
It’s now a New Year, and this morning it’s snowing here in Zürich. And I’m still thinking about home, about how it’s mostly about transition, and how I’m doing pretty well with it. And as I’ve been writing, it’s occurred to me that it doesn’t really matter where home is. It’s enough to just be here, doing this, for now.
The thick flakes are falling softly and evenly onto the terrace, lightly covering the concrete. It’s calming to watch. And it feels good to just be writing, and thinking and remembering, as I carefully observe the cold windowpane over my desk. It’s so beautiful.
I’m entranced as I watch the tiny crystals collect into frost, sticking to the glass like it’s a magnet. And then, as the minutes pass, the square pane slowly transforms into white, until it’s finally all covered over, and then I can’t even see out the little window at all. All I can see is the dying light.