Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Well, it's the end of another year, and it's been a wild ride. 2008 had a lot of high points for me, but it also included the serious illnesses of close friends, some unexpected job instability, and the shelving of a manuscript I'd had high hopes for. This is the title essay of that manuscript; it seems fitting, somehow, to meditate on home at the end of this year.

Although I've lived in New York State for the last five years, this essay was written in Tucson, Arizona. I'll dedicate it, in my sentimental, end-of-year mood, to my Arizona friends and my New York friends. And if there are any unknown, silent, blog-reading friends out there, hey, this is for you, too.


No Place Like It

I remember the first time I noticed light. In the backyard of my childhood home a sapling grew up from a rocky, changeable creek that separated our small-town street from an endangered family farm. The sapling, possibly birch, possibly maple, curved in a gentle arc, and its uppermost branches sheltered a birdhouse my grandfather had built. The birdhouse was mounted on a pole and, to our amazement, birds had actually built a nest inside. Either those birds were reclusive, or they shied away from curious children; I heard but rarely saw them. What I could see: bits and pieces of their nest – dry grass and twigs cascaded from the door-like opening in the house.

I spent a lot of time in that backyard. My brother and sisters and I would swing on the two rusty swings or play tag or jump repeatedly off the splintery red picnic table. Sometimes we’d climb onto the lowest branch of a wild cherry tree and just sit, dangling our legs, as though we’d accomplished something important. When I was fourteen I’d bring my boyfriend back there. We’d lean against the garage door, hidden by tall hedges that surrounded the yard, and make out for hours. I could feel the hard bump in his jeans and would press against it, rocking back and forth the way I’d rocked as a child on a fence beam. I didn’t fully understand why it felt so good, but I liked the sensation and presumed he did, too.

That sapling didn’t survive my adolescence – a victim of storm, or some other vagary of the seasons – and the birdhouse seemed to disappear one day, or maybe I just stopped paying attention. But the first time I noticed light – the first time I really saw light – was on that slender, sloping tree. It was autumn, and only a few leaves clung to the delicate branches that swept the white side of the birdhouse. I suspect it was a late afternoon light, a slant light, for the branches and the little house were side-lit and stunning. The light on the branch seemed to drip, as though it had been painted on with a gold wash, and the birdhouse’s wood surface was drenched in Hockney white.

Part of why I remember that light is because it was the first time I wanted to write about what I saw, as though the writing and the seeing were twinned impulses. And there was another realization: I knew, in that moment, that I did not have, and might never find, the words to describe not only what I saw, but what I felt when I looked at the light.

This morning the sky is overcast with pale, gooey clouds that seem to stretch like messy clay across the sky. They are not attractive clouds, but they serve a purpose, keeping the Arizona heat at bay. Even though it’s November, the days regularly creep toward the 90-degree mark. Earlier it rained for a while, though when I mention this to a friend who lives nearby she is surprised. I am forced to admit that “rained” might be stretching it; precipitation fell for, at most, 60 seconds. But it was long enough to scent the air with creosote and dirt, a smell that used to make me feel like coughing, as though the dirt had lined my throat. Now, after four years in the desert, I’ve come to love the smell, understand that it indicates rain, or at least the hope of rain. My barren yard looks pocked; the fat raindrops left multiple, distinct indentations in its raked surface.

During our phone conversation, my friend and I discuss the weather. The morning is balmy, mild and unusually humid. We both grew up in the northeast, and days like today, though rare, feel familiar and make us nostalgic. I mention that a hurricane is threatening the Florida Keys; my friend confesses that she’s always wanted to spend hurricane season on those islands, just to experience the weather’s wrath. I have toyed with this fantasy as well, but remember too clearly the winds that battered my family’s house in New Jersey years ago. I’d feared, during those storms, that the windows would blow in. We could see the glass buckle, hear the wind whistle around the seams of the windows, a sound that terrified me. I would hide in the bathroom, which had only a small window, or hunker down against a wall, hoping that shattering glass wouldn’t slice through my clammy skin. My friend, who grew up in Jersey too, remembers the tall pine trees outside her family’s farmhouse. Although they lived further inland, when the winds came she would sleep on the very edge of her tiny twin bed, thinking that would give her some added distance away from the window. She spent every storm fearing that those enormous trees would finally bend so far they’d snap; they were big enough to crush through walls. She remembers a story her father told her about the first year her parents lived in the house. A hurricane had been forecast and the winds picked up all afternoon. Her mother was out, her father was working in the fields. When the wind blew the phone lines down he figured it was time to go inside. Although the windows were closed, he swears rain blasted through their edges with such force that the drops hit the wallpaper on the other side of the room.

I believe this story, having witnessed those coastal storms firsthand. The summer I was seventeen I drove with my mother and sisters to the Asbury Park boardwalk. We spent the day lazily strolling the seaside and eating French fries served in paper cones and sprinkled with vinegar and salt; waffles sandwiched around squares of ice cream; wax-paper-wrapped saltwater taffy. The ocean was wild, loud with giant slate-gray waves, but we’d all seen waves like that before.

The road home ran along the coast, but normally the only sensory indications of the beach would have been the salty smell of the air and the skeins of sand that drifted across the pavement. The water itself couldn’t be seen because of a high stone wall, a breakwater, which separated several hundred yards of beach from the two-lane road.

There weren’t many travelers that day; the rest of the world must have known a storm was fast approaching. As we drove north, a few drops of rain splattered the windshield. Rather, I assumed it was rain, and turned on the wipers. I’d only had my driver’s license for a couple of months, but I’d lived near the ocean my whole life. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to realize. It wasn’t rain that fell upon the car. The storm-riled sea had traversed the entire beach – a big, wide, and I’d thought permanent beach – the way I imagined a tidal wave would. The waves had swelled so high that they were rising up, speeding over the expanse of sand, and crashing on the road side of the breakwater. The rain splattering the windshield wasn’t rain… it was the sea.

I don’t remember how long it took to speed down that road. But I was frightened; I clutched the steering wheel and pressed my foot to the gas, driving as fast as I could, feeling a little like a surfer trying to out-race a worrisome wave. Even as I drove, however, knowing that I was responsible for the others, their bodies in my car, their precious bodies, even as I sped toward home I felt the adrenaline, knew I was experiencing something I’d likely never see again. I tried to memorize the black gleam of the road; the way the car seemed to rock sideways on its tires as each wave hit, like a fighter knocked back on his heels; the futility of the windshield wipers; the sheen of sweat that broke out on all of us… I was recording it, I was hyper-vigilant yet just a little detached, hovering, watching, taking notes. I did not then nor do I now understand the true power of the sea or, for that matter, the true power of the human heart. But I knew I’d been given a gift, and I knew I’d spend my life trying to understand the capacity of the heart to speak, to open wide, wide, open wide to the inviting and sublime beauty and terror of the world.

As I write this, the state where I live is burning. The second large wildfire of the year rages to the north. Just a few weeks ago a separate fire decimated a good part of one of Tucson’s landmarks, Mt. Lemmon. For two weeks it ate up the sides of canyons, threatened cabins, threw a massive plume of smoke into the northeastern sky every day, until finally the whole city smelled of ash and cinder. Today an even bigger fire – raging for weeks, already having burnt over 400,000 acres – tears through the White Mountains. This fire is a work of art, a monster fire – like those monster waves – and the firefighters are at its mercy. The news briefings are compelling. A spokesman for the fire team confesses they are dazzled, stunned by the intensity and creativity of this fire. “We have zero percent containment,” he says, which means the fire is 100% in control. When Mt. Lemmon burned the news reports had been increasingly optimistic: 5% containment, then 25%, then 60, 80, etc. until the fire was gone. But this one is eating through ponderosa pine so overgrown that the fire easily licks up the small saplings and reaches the higher crowns, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air – two hundred feet, four hundred. Eventually someone reports that the flames are a thousand feet high. When video airs on the nightly news the fire is gorgeous, you can tell that the cameramen are in love with it. There are long, sweeping lines of flame across the side of the mountains; we view shots of flames entwined around tall trees, flames so red and voluptuous you want to reach out and touch the t.v. screen, clouds massive, dark and undulating. “Nature’s in control,” the spokesman says. We’ve seen him on the news night after night; it’s apparent that he’s tired. “She’s dealing the hand,” he says, attempting to sound objective rather than worried or weary. The fire line is fifty miles long. One by one the small towns along its path are evacuated, residents instructed to tie a white towel or sheet on their front doors so officials will know they’ve left. “Take your medications, your pets, your photographs,” they’re instructed. “We don’t know when you’ll be back.”

Imagine all those streets of empty houses, white sheets tied to the front doors. I think of what I’d grab, what I’d leave behind. The two cats, of course, though they’d hate being disrupted from their orderly lives. I’d have to pack up photographs and papers: poems, essays, letters. I’d allow myself one luxury item: a framed pencil drawing of a tree and its network of roots. The tree, I realize, looks like it survived a fire. But how could I leave my books behind, how would I feel when I tied that towel on my door? My whole life, I’d think, my whole life about to go up in smoke.

I’m sitting here wondering about those evacuated residents, thousands of them, where they’ll go, what they’re thinking. That home is so complicated is not a new thought. But sometimes the other side surprises me, the simplicity of it. Maybe it can be reduced to a location, a structure… a house on a street, a house with a white sheet attached to the door, a house where ashes fall like snowflakes onto the roof, the picnic table, the trees we planted ourselves.

I say it aloud – home. The nice, long O, the comforting M which gets held, drawn out a bit, like saying yum. There’s a little moan in the middle, right after the whispered H. And the sweet, silent E, like a small secret, a door closing quietly after a parent has checked on a sleeping child. It’s a beautiful word, an easy word, a word that two-year olds can say and almost anyone can spell. It has excellent rhymes: poem, tome, roam, loam, comb, dome, foam, gnome. And it’s the one word in the English language that can reduce me to tears, bring me to my knees, leave me feeling shaken, broken, lost. I have no home or, rather, I know no place that truly feels like home.

My mother buys a new address book every couple of years just to keep up with my two brothers and me; in twenty years I’ve had twenty different addresses. (My brothers, who should be listed under “S” in my own address book, must now be listed under “X,” having long since grown past the S section.) I occasionally receive mail from two or three addresses back, friends who have lost track of where I am.

I say “I’m going home” when I visit friends back east. And then, when I leave them to return to the southwest, I say “I’m going home.” Neither statement is true. Neither place is home. The woman who loves me, who lives in another state, calls me home. I don’t mean that she beckons me, although she does, she incites an ache in me that tempts me to leave this place, to give up my job, my house, my friends, and head two-thousand miles back east. But I mean it literally, she calls me home, like it is my name: Home. She invites me to share her life; she’d become the thing I would save, the signs of her, the traces. “Where are Leigh’s letters,” I’d ask; I’d place them on my car seat, I’d wipe the tears off my face as I prepared to leave. “At least I have these,” I’d think: my cats, my lover’s words, my drawing of a single tree left standing.

But it’s not that simple. I can’t reduce my life to what I can pack in my car, can’t pare it down to one word, even “home.” Although we attach so much meaning to the word, although we create complex, gorgeous metaphors, like many of my generation, I’ve lost touch with what the word means. Maybe I never knew. As a kid, when I saw the light on that tree branch, I don’t think I knew. When I thought the ocean might sweep that big white car off the road, when I thought I might never make it home, I’m not sure I knew. And now, I really have no idea how those evacuated residents feel as they watch flames claim their schools, their businesses, their houses. I wish I could at least say I understood what this woman means, this person who offers me everything she has – I wish I knew what to say, what to feel, when she calls me home. But I don’t. All I know is this: I have been graced with so many things in this life. I’ve been loved like nobody’s business, I have seen the earth declare itself in water and in flame, and though it bears no relationship to any religion I’ve ever studied, I have seen the light.

I could not ask for more.

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