[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]
Mary Oliver’s poem, “Magellan,” begins:
Like Magellan, let us find our islands
To die in, far from home, from anywhere
Familiar. Let us risk the wildest places,
Lest we go down in comfort, and despair.
I used to think home looked like the 1950’s ranch on a hill in the lush, green suburbs. Man, I swooned over that house. I still do. It had pocket doors, corner windows, a fifteen foot fireplace made of Bedford stone, hand laid from local quarries. There were the thin red oak floors that gave off the most wonderful smell on the first warm day of spring, and the original seafoam green tiles in the bathroom that mimicked an island oasis. On a wall in that bathroom we hung a giant poster of the Susan Constant, one of three ships on the voyage to the Jamestown colony. We were pilgrims after all, this being our first home, colonizing our own bit of land in southern Indiana.
A local doctor had the house built, and I imagined he had a hand in its design. Either because of his sense of humor, or a desire to make something utterly unique, the layout of the house was topsy turvy. Friends, family, and the local Sears guy would all get lost in it. What’s not to love about a house that invites you to make use of your internal navigation system?
After we moved in we immediately set to tearing up the old carpet, pulling out a million and one staples, and scraping up the linoleum floor in the laundry room using a spackling knife. We tore out a row of yew bushes along the front of the house that hadn’t been trimmed since the 1970’s, unearthing one of two built in planters. Huge stones were dug up and hauled around the yard.
In a short time span we purchased an ax, a shop vac, the world’s largest screwdriver, an industrial sized ladder, not to mention countless rented implements. When we think back to those initial weeks and months we recall feeling superhuman. The adrenaline that coursed through our veins, having acquired our own bit of Eden, was so intense we accomplished near heroic feats.
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I also spent many hours at the public library, combing through design magazines, determined to school myself in all things beautiful. Up to this point I had felt completely inept when contemplating color or design. When it was time to choose the colors for our wedding I asked my now sister-in-law, the artist, what she would recommend. “Navy and pink,” she said, showing me a deep blue velvet blazer, and a scarf the color of a Stargazer Lily. I was sold. Plus, if it totally flopped it would be her mistake, not mine. Sorry, Phoebe.
I took extensive notes on paint suggestions: White Dove by Benjamin Moore was a keeper. I learned to pay attention to what images made my body sing, and I came to realize the most difficult of skills to master is how to edit. The French daybed, made of wood and ropes, at the local antique store was absolutely fabulous, but at some point one has to decide what will make the cut and what will not. It’s a skill that’s immensely valuable: learning to sort out what, who, and which experiences are worth inviting into one’s life.
Things progressed nicely the first few years. Money was tight, since all of it went into the house, but we had become bonafide settlers. Then one September day I noticed my lower back was in pain. By mid-afternoon it had travelled down my leg. I called a friend for a chiropractor recommendation, and could barely push the gas pedal to get me there. Thus began three years of chronic pain. Officially the diagnosis was a bulging disc and a tear at L4 and L5. Unoffically I sunk into depression.
It’s strange how these things can creep up on a person. One day I was creating the comfortable life I’d always dreamed of, and the next I was drowning under the weight of it. My life no longer felt sustainable, but I didn’t know where to begin. Was it the 2,400 square foot house, the near acre of yard to tend, the hour and a half round trip commute to work, the four rescued cats, or the job in a helping profession? I felt lost to myself and to the kind of life I truly wanted.
Before a ship first sets sail it undergoes what is called a shakedown or sea trial. This a period of testing to see which parts of the ship are up for the journey and which are not. Pain has a way of shaking down, or out, all the bits and pieces that can’t make the journey. What’s left are the strongest, most resilient parts.
When I stopped feeling betrayed by my body I realized the pain was my intuition’s way of getting me to pay attention. What I was missing, and desperately seeking, was freedom. The freedom to walk away. The freedom to do what I wanted, instead of what I felt I should do. The freedom to set sail to wild places. It’s like Cheryl Strayed says in her book Wild, “I’m a free spirit who never had the balls to be free.”
There were a lot of people who helped me get to this point of clarity. It took a husband with Job-like patience, a spiritual director who should be nominated for sainthood, a counselor who doubled as a miracle worker, and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, to name a few. People like to talk about courage and risk as if they are solitary ventures. In my case it took an entire crew: “All hands on deck.”
Two years have passed since we left our home in Indiana. Since our move we’ve reduced our square footage by more than half, sold a car, acquired two small raised vegetable beds, and now mostly use our bodies to get us where we need to go. The four rescued cats are still in tow. Oh, and I left that career in a helping profession. The home I’ve created is much smaller, and somehow my life feels more expansive.
The chronic pain is gone too, though I’ve had to learn to no longer treat my body like a workhorse. My body, in turn, allows me to swim, hike, and cross-country ski. Now I listen closely to that still small voice of intuition, so that it doesn’t have to scream and shout to get my attention. Freedom, I have found, comes mostly in listening to her.
I will forever love that 1950’s ranch, for in the process of working on it I came home to myself. Now I’m a free spirit who has the balls to be free, and sometimes, I even risk the wildest places. –Liberty Lausterer