I wrote my first book in second grade. I would have started it in first grade, but I couldn’t write yet, so I waited until I’d conquered the fundamentals of ABCs before I started the novel. I wrote in pencil on newsprint. It was the story of a girl and boy who ride their horses from Patagonia to Alaska—or that was what it was supposed to be about. The book didn’t get past the whole packing the gear part and leaving home, but you know, it’s almost as hard to leave home as it is to write a novel, especially when you’re in second grade.
In “The Hobbit” and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, JRR Tolkien’s characters Bilbo and Frodo find themselves catapulted out the door and down the road in uninvited adventures. Through it all, no matter where they traveled, or how good or bad the day got, Bilbo and Frodo constantly longed for home. Bilbo blamed his misadventures on the peculiar nature of doorsteps. He cautions the reader the potential peril of a doorstep isn’t a broken back resulting from a fall, but an unwary step onto a path that abducts a person into unlooked for adventure. For the hobbits and for me as well, when having an adventure or writing about it afterwards, the journey must wind up at home or there’s no happy ending.
Is home simply a roofed place with furniture, a TV, and a refrigerator? Not at all. When I’m thousands of miles away, I long for the old copper teapot promising a cup of Earl Grey in a chipped blue mug. I want to hear the wind chimes outside the window, whispering the west wind’s arrival. I want to flop in my chair by the fireplace, draped with a ragged blanket covered in dog hair. I want to look through the window to the sweep of prairie and snow-topped mountains washed in alpen glow and see the Northern Pacific heading east across that golden prairie, and hear that lonely train whistle. That’s home. Home embraces the sum of all I am—my desires, dreams, memories, baggage, and my stuff. I have lots of that stuff.
When I worked for a fish and wildlife biologist, I wandered into work one day and found an article on my desk—a gift from my boss. The article’s title evoked instant guilt: “How to Make the Most of Your Time,” it read. I paged through it. Under the subtitle, “Make Your Life Simpler,” Bullet #3 declared:
“Clean your closets, storage areas, and garage every six months. If stored items haven’t been used in six months, get rid of them. Make a donation, have a garage sale, give the items to someone needy, dispose of the rest. Unused clothing in your closets and boxes in the garage clutter your life and take away your freedom by tapping your time and making demands on your responsibility. By gleaning unused or unneeded items, you make time for more important things. After six months, perform this task again.” Oh good grief.
I found this advice insulting. Think about it. Six months? There go the Christmas decorations, and garden tools! Out with the Express jeans that fit thirty pounds ago—and will fit again, damn it. Out go mother’s Oscar, and the family photos, the old manuscripts, the parasol, and the sword. Top off the pile with the fishing pole. The fishing pole? Has it been six months since I went fishing? Yes, it has. Something’s wrong with this picture. At this point in my musing I realized the idea of streamlining by paring away my life was contrary to my psyche—and contrary to my philosophy of home. I also realized this streamlining was meant to be done to our character and psyche as well as to our physical space. Both my psyche and my house have a well-stocked attic with lots of accumulated baggage. It’s American, it’s old fashioned, and it’s real. And I’m as real an old fashioned American girl as they come.
New millennium thinking goads us to keep up with a fast-paced, throw-away-society by getting rid of baggage. Have you subscribed to this idea by making the comment, “…he (or she) has a lot of baggage…,” as if that’s an undesirable trait, or that somehow, a person could arrive somewhere without any trace of a journey—with no history or accumulated self? Have you gleaned through the garage and closet, and stripped away your life in effort to rid yourself of the external and internal attic? You’re not alone.
When musing on tradition—things like apple pie, the 4th of July, grandmother’s house—how can an attic not figure into that conjured image? An attic is contrary to the concept of a throw-it-out, simplified, undecorated life, yet it epitomizes the idea of home. Things in an attic stay longer than six months; some stay longer than six generations. That’s a “…waste of time and space…” according to the article on my desk. Popular contemporary architecture and residential construction agree. When was the last time you looked at or purchased a newer house with an attic? In the last five years, my own residential construction business has not worked on a single house with an attic. The latest home design feature is a bonus room over the garage. Unlike an attic filled of family history and memories, these bonus rooms sport workout equipment or big screens with surround sound, high-tech computers, or mother-in-law apartments. Unless the mother-in-law could be considered an odd collectable, nothing like that languishes in a bonus room. No stuff. No memories. The six-month rule prevails.
Gone is the big, swiveling oval mirror. Gone is the dressmaker’s form hung with leghorn hats and feather boas. Gone is the steamer trunk with great-grandmother’s wedding dress, and mother’s christening clothes. Gone is the small green footlocker with grandfather’s WWI medals, and letters from grandmother, tied with a frayed ribbon. Gone is five times great Uncle Sherman’s dress sword and spurs. This streamlining is expected of us on the inside as well as the outside. Gone are the memories and dreams. We are people without baggage or attics.
Where are these family heirlooms? The local antique store is overflowing with wonderful stuff that has succumbed to the six-month rule. Martha Stewart markets ideas on how to decorate with these treasures others have cast off. Apparently it’s okay to have baggage if it isn’t your baggage; who made that rule anyway? How has American culture and society reacted to turning cast-offs into someone else’s art? American tradition—the glue cementing our country and our people together for centuries has eroded. We’ve become a featureless people, without attics and without baggage. Or at least, we better be according to the experts. How’s that working out?
We’re a people who want change. What kind of change? Who knows, but we threw away all we had and don’t like what we have left. Why’s that? American tradition has metamorphosed into something unrecognizable, new and streamlined, untarnished by identifying features. We have throwaway packaging, throwaway phones, and throwaway lives. We’re detached. We’re unencumbered and baggageless. At least we should be. How’s it feel?
Empty, if you ask me. Disenfranchised.
Often now I don’t recognize America. Often I feel lost, like I put my foot on the doorstep and got wooshed off on an adventure that took me far from home when all I really wanted was to stay home and growl at passersby because they were too kinetic. Like my dog does. What have I personally done to counter this feeling of disenfranchisement—besides growling that is?
I have a gate now, out by the road. This makes my dog as happy as it makes me—keeps out change and the passersby. After I drive in the driveway, I close that gate and slip the bolt in. I turn the key in the front door, and slam it firmly on the external world. I come into this cluttered place I call home, and take a cut crystal glass inherited from my mother, sigh as the ice clinks into it with a ring, and smile as the 15 year old scotch pops the ice. With my dog and my blanket, I retreat to the wing chair that belonged once to my grandmother—I put my feet up, take a sip—and I write.
I’m a novelist and poet—often a nostalgic, overly sentimental one. I have an attic and a shed full of real stuff—my ancestor’s, my parent’s, my own. I have a cluttered heart and mind full of baggage. I waste space and time and don’t mind a bit. Some of my dreams were victims of the doorstep when I put down my foot and wandered off; some were swept away when I opened the door. Some of the dreams and adventures wound up baggage, some is real stuff.
I bring stories home and put them in an attic-like repository of words, where resides a large reservoir of memory, dream, and desire; my poems and stories are this attic. Drawing from this stock, I have created my own version of “There and Back Again.” Hopefully, the words will not succumb to the six-month rule. I’ve completely surpassed the six month rule many decades over. What do I do with it all?
What else is there?