Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Finding Home: No Bedroom

When I began writing my first novel, Running Secrets, I was blind to my protagonists' underlying search for home. I was equally unaware that self-knowledge and a sense of belonging are just as important to feeling at home as any structure with four walls. I moved on to the story of an undocumented immigrant in Biking Uphill still oblivious to the underlying story I was exploring. It wasn't until I struggled with a title for the final novel in The Alki Trilogy, that it hit me. Walking Home was named, and I began to consciously examine the elusive notion of home.

This blog series called Finding Home is a serialized mini-memoir exploring my own search for home which is enhanced by the voices of guest writers each Thursday. Like the characters in The Alki Trilogy who struggle to find a place of belonging, I spent far too many years seeking a place to call home. Maybe Kit Bakke got it right: "... isn’t it more interesting and entertaining to make your home wherever you are?"

My independent journey began the spring of my junior year in high school when my parents sold our home, what I still think of as The Homestead. They subdivided the land, selling the largest section along with the house and pool as well as the barn and arena. Don't get me wrong. We're not talking estate here. It was a run-down, do-it-yourself stump farm, but it was home. It was how I defined myself. When Dad loaded my favorite horse into a stranger's trailer, he sold life as I knew it.

My father built the second Issaquah Valley house on a back parcel of the original fifteen acres, which meant using the same driveway and passing our childhood home each day. The new house had three bedrooms for a family of seven. My two brothers shared one bedroom, my two younger sisters shared the other, and my parents had the third. I got a hide-a-bed in the living room.

I don't know if my parents were down-sizing because they were financially strapped, or if they were just building another house for resale like they'd done with the Shorewood house. I suppose they figured I'd be graduating and gone so soon it wasn't worth worrying about a bedroom for me. Now, I understand the speed of passing time as well as the financial and emotional strains of parenthood, but not at fifteen. Then I only felt I'd done something terribly wrong and was being punished, but I couldn't figure out what I'd done. So, I accommodated. I graduated at seventeen with a scholarship to Seattle University and left as fast as I could.

Unlike the first Issaquah house, the second holds different memories, zero attachment, and the acknowledgement that it remains as one of my architectural favorites of the seven houses my father built. It was a one-story, U-shaped rambler. The front door and entrance foyer was at the bottom of the U. The right side of the U held a mudroom with a side entrance, an open kitchen and family room, and a formal living room that held my hide-a-bed. To the left of the front entrance a hall led to three bedrooms and two baths. The inside walls of the U were windows and doors that opened to an interior courtyard where Dad build his second swimming pool, this time a real pool, not a Rainier Brewing Company beer vat pool.
Though unfinished by the time I moved into my first dorm room, the pool pulled me back on warm spring and summer days during my freshman and sophomore years. It meant sleeping in the living room of course, but maybe the hide-a-bed wasn't so bad when I knew I was just a visitor.

I timed my visits when I knew nobody would be home, or to be precise, when Dad was at work, Mom was sleeping after nursing all night, and the four Little Kids were still in school. The privacy of the pool was complete, with the U opening to a forest wall. I'd close all the hallway curtains and strip. Then I would swim and sun with abandon until I heard my siblings traipsing the long driveway. I don't know how often Mom may have gotten up and seen me skinny dipping, but if she did, she never let on.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

Today I'm pleased to share the work of author, Tiffani Burnett-Velez. Maybe Pliny the Elder had it right all along!
My mother used to hang an antique wooden, heart-shaped, wreath in the kitchen in all four houses we lived in while I was growing up. It had the words, “Home is Where the Heart is” hanging from another piece of circular wood and a tattered strip of twine in the center. I remember thinking that the saying was not true, because childhood is not always an easy thing, and home was just bricks and wood. Home was not always where my heart was growing up, though my mother and stepfather loved me and provided well for my physical needs. My biological father was in the military, and sometimes I did not see him for two years at a time. This hole always left my heart a bit wanting. My heart, it seemed, was in more places than one. So, how does one find home when affections are split into several pieces?

I went through childhood, high school, and college kind of feeling out of place, feeling like I was not really part of anyone’s home or culture. And then I met the man who would become my husband. I remember the day clearly. I had returned home to Pennsylvania (a state I had only lived in for one year and had not yet embraced) from my freshman year of college in Georgia, and my mother immediately insisted that I attend church with her. I refused at first. This was the last thing I wanted to do on a weekday evening at age 19, but my mother was strangely persistent.

“You might meet the boy you’re going to marry there,” she said, and I chided her for talking like a character in a Jane Austen novel.

“If I’m lucky,” I said, “I won’t meet anyone.”

But, sure enough, the first human I saw walking down the aisle (of the world’s most incredibly boring church) was a handsome, quiet Puerto Rican all dressed up in a suit and tie. I remember thinking his attire was far too hot for a warm May evening in southeastern Pennsylvania, only minutes from the Mason-Dixon Line. I told my mother, “He’s too shiny,” too clean and well put together. As a girl who had grown up on the edge of the southern California surf in Ventura County, I didn’t take well to young men who looked like lawyers long before they had even graduated college. But there was something about this one, and over the months, we got to know each other even though he already had a girlfriend.

The girlfriend was a peculiarity to me, because she never had anything intelligent to say, and the boy and I could spend hours talking about things she’d never heard of, and before long, the girlfriend left town and ran away with a high school dropout to North Carolina. It was only a matter of weeks before the boy (Leonardo) and I started dating. We quickly formed a bond tighter than any I had ever known.

Leonardo is an only child, and his parents moved from Puerto Rico to the United States in the late 1960’s. Though U.S. citizens, they very much had an immigrant experience, and Leonardo had a “first generation” experience that many children of immigrants do. Many times he felt alone in his American life. Meeting me, a girl from California who had been raised in a neighborhood that was overwhelmingly Hispanic, made us a perfect match. I spoke fluent Spanish, though a different dialect than his, and when I heard him speaking to his parents’, Leonardo’s language offered me a sense of grounding and familiarity in a world that was largely Pennsylvania Dutch (German).

We shared interests and political views. Our artistic talents were similar; he was a musician enrolled in a prestigious Music Education program, and I was an aspiring writer and English Literature major. Within two and a half years of that first meeting, we were married. Our parents were mostly furious with the news of our engagement, urging us to finish college first and warning us that “life was hard and young marriages like this often don’t last”. But we ignored them all, good intentions and all. Nothing can quite supersede the happiness of two people who love each other and want nothing more than to spend a lifetime together.

Our first home was a sad looking one bedroom apartment with a kitchen sink that stank of sulfur and rotten eggs, and the bathtub was full of centipedes and spiders, but we were happy, because we were together. Our grocery budget was $10 a week, and we worked hard for that even. We didn’t have cable, we never went out to eat, and we didn’t have new cars, but it was one of the happiest and freest times of our lives. The sufferings of newlywed poverty were not a disappointment to us, as we saw ourselves together forever and with plenty of time to build up a home that would not look like a Soviet cinder-block high-rise and reek of the burnt curry from the neighbor who shared our paper-thin apartment walls. Our plans would be immediately tested when I became suddenly and gravely ill.

Within seven months of marriage, I became completely paralyzed with a rare neurological disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, compounded by an additional neuromuscular disease called Myasthenia Gravis. My respiratory system completely shut down and I was unable to breathe on my own. The entire disintegration of my nervous system took only three weeks. I was pregnant with our first child, and doctors were not certain that either of us would survive. Leonardo and I would have to lean heavily on our shared faith and the family we had created for one another. Suddenly, the old apartment no longer mattered, only home did and that definition had already moved beyond bricks and wood. 

I obviously survived GBS, and the ensuing weeks and months of recovery, as did our son. He turned 18 last September and was recently accepted to the Boston Conservatory to study Music Composition. He is a fair proportion of his father and I – half music/half writing. Over the years, we had three more children, each of them adding to the bond we began on that hot May evening in 1993. We have owned three homes, and lived in countless apartments (some better than others), but we are settled wherever we go, because home really is where the heart is, the one we formed into one connected unit years ago.

For many, “home” is a delicate issue, even a painful one. For me, it was always mysterious. What did it mean? Where does one actually find it? It is a feeling, a safety net, a place where one can be his or herself without judgement. I hope Leonardo and I have created this for our children and for our friends and extended family who spend time with us, because home really is a state of mind, an offering of love from one person to another.
Tiffani has been a freelance writer since 1996. Her nonfiction work has appeared in magazines in the US and Europe. Her first novel, Budapest, was featured at the NY Book Festival. Her WWII era novella, A Berlin Story, is an Amazon#1 bestseller in its category, and her contemporary women's fiction novel, All This Time, was released by Booktrope in March 2015. You can read more from Tiffani at her blog, This Writer's Life.  

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Finding Home: Issaquah Homestead

It wasn't a real homestead, not in terms of the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862. It wasn't even a working farm, though we did manage to clear some of the forest for pasture land, and at different times we had a variety of animals. To some it was nothing more than a dismal stump farm, but to me it was home for a dozen glorious years.

The Northwest wilderness - alders and vine maples, cedars and firs, salal and fern - became home when I was four. In 1959 my parents left the city. They bought ten acres of undeveloped land in the Issaquah Valley about twenty-five miles southeast of Seattle. The Homestead was the first of three houses my father built on this land.

I've written extensively about my family's  glorious adventures and dismal misadventures in the Issaquah Valley in my memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim. Our life there began in a large Army surplus tent, our home for the summer, while Dad dug a well, poured a foundation, framed, plumbed and wired the basement of our new house. Our growing family moved into the unfinished house, and through the years it continued to grow up around us until finally, when I was sixteen, it was finished. And sold.
It was a family project. We worked on that house every evening when Dad returned from his paying job in Seattle and every weekend. We had chores. Lots of chores. But when the chores were done, I was free to roam, and roam I did from ages four to sixteen. Sometimes on foot, others on horseback. Sometimes alone, others with a sibling or a few. It didn't matter. I belonged to the woods, and the woods belonged to me. It was when I left the farm, had to go to school, be with people other than my large family, that I felt miserable, disoriented and alone. As soon as I hopped off that big yellow school bus and began the half-mile long walk up the dirt driveway carved through the woods, I was happy. I belonged again.

Throughout the 1960s, when the world went mad, I was blissfully ignorant, running wild in the woods. We watched only limited television and there were no newspapers in our house. The horrors of war and social unrest were kept at bay. At least for awhile.
By the time I reached my teens, we'd built a home complete with horse stables, riding arena, and even a swimming pool Dad created from a surplus Rainier Brewing Company beer vat. He cut it in quarters, had them delivered and sunk into a huge hole in the side yard and began the slow, painstaking task of welding the pieces back together again.

The house was completed and sold during my junior year of high school. I'll never know what combination of factors led to the decision to sell. Maybe it was never more than another investment for my parents, just like the Shorewood and Walnut houses. Maybe it was too big with my older siblings leaving home. Maybe there was too much land and taxes were too high. Maybe it was the threat of more Bonneville power lines crossing our view of Mount Rainier despite the handshake and promise Dad received to the contrary. Whatever the reason, when they sold our home, two thirds of the land, and my favorite horse, something inside of me shattered. The house, stables, riding arena and surrounding forests were my life, my identity. Without them, I no longer knew who I was.
For years I dreamt of someday buying back my childhood home. But now, over four decades later, the house has been remodeled in a feeble attempt at a red brick Tudor, the land has been subdivided, and the incredible stables with Dad's hand-cut horse head in each door has been razed. Thomas Wolfe had it right. There's no going home again.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

It's my pleasure to share the work of Seattle author, Kit Bakke. She offers much to ponder.

Dream Home 
Home, I think, is always in our past and never where we are. Being thus untethered in time and space, we are free to make it up. We shove the dark spots into the background, highlight the good parts, make home whatever we need it to be. We do this for our own reasons, but always to distinguish it from where we are right here and now.

In 1973 I was living in a cheap apartment off Alcatraz and Grove streets in Oakland CA. It was a warm summer. The Nixon Watergate hearings were on TV nonstop. It was a pleasure and a relief to see the man finally fall. My other preoccupation was that I was pregnant with my first child and was busy catching up on the women’s movement. I read a lot—Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series, Anais Nin’s diaries, Virginia Woolf’s everything, Ms. Magazine.

In one of the Martha Quest books, Lessing describes the British settlers in Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was in the days she lived there. She wrote that the colonial British housewives didn’t hang curtains in their kitchen windows, didn’t plant flowers by their front doors. They did nothing to indicate to themselves that this was their home. And yet they did stay, for years, for decades, for their whole lives—never admitting to themselves that this could be home, never investing in their community, learning about their African environment or allowing themselves to be comfortable there.

That image of refusing to make a home in the place where you are has not faded in the forty years since I read the book. To me, it points to a road not to take, a person not to be. It’s fine to put soft edges around a place and time in our pasts—we all need our memories to keep us warm from time to time—but isn’t it more interesting and entertaining to make your home wherever you are?  
 Kit Bakke’s most recent book is Dancing on the Edge. Although she lived a peripatetic life for many years, she’s pretty much returned to her Seattle birthplace.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Finding Home: Walnut Avenue

My sister, two and a half years my senior and the youngest of the four Big Kids, insists I always hid my glasses in the sandbox and she had to search for them. I was born cross-eyed and have worn glasses since I was about three years old (except during my vain years, when I only wore them to read, fumbling along the rest of the time). The sandbox must have been at the Walnut Avenue house - nice yard, lots of space - but Dad could have built one at the Shorewood house as well.
My father built almost every house I lived in throughout the seventeen years I was with my first family and almost every house he and my mother shared during their fifty-year marriage. All but one. The Walnut Avenue house in the Admiral District of West Seattle was the only exception.

The house Dad didn't build stands regal on a curved, tree-lined residential street. The color seems familiar, as if still dressed in the original paint, though I know this is impossible. The backyard still abuts the deep, undeveloped Fairmount Ravine these sixty years later. In the mid-1950s when my folks owned this house, the street hosted perhaps half the number of houses now crowding the once spacious lots a half block from Hiawatha Park and Community Center, two blocks from Lafayette Elementary School, three from West Seattle High School.

My siblings and I did not attend my father's alma mater having moved to the Issaquah Valley before any of us reached our teens. Attendance at West Seattle High School skipped a generation. Only my daughter followed my father's footsteps.

When is memory real? When is it based on photos and family lore? I cannot claim a solid memory of digging holes in a sandbox to hide glasses I didn't want to wear, but my sister claims I did just that. And more than once. In a family of older kids keeping an eye on younger kids, she'd know. It was her job to keep those glasses on my stubby nose.

My four older siblings attended Lafayette Elementary School. They walked the two blocks together, and I was left behind. Too young for kindergarten, I stayed home with a mother who lost one child to miscarriage before my birth and another after. A mother whose husband left Seattle to work on a pipeline in Ketchikan, Alaska when I was two years old. I have no idea how long he was gone, just as I have no memory of my mother's grief. Still, as a woman and a mother myself, I am certain that despite her German stoicism, my mother suffered deeply. Alone, we must have shared long hours of pain after my older siblings skipped off to school. But the house, the beautiful graceful house, was not to blame.
Of all the places I have lived, the Walnut Avenue house is the one I'd like to re-enter. I can see myself on the front porch or climbing the wide curving staircase to the second floor, my hand sliding along the polished mahogany. One day I will garner the nerve to knock on the front door. "I once lived here," I will say. "Should you ever decide to sell, please let me know." I will offer a card with name and phone number, and I will cross my fingers that they invite me inside.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

I'm pleased to launch Finding Home: Other Voices, a platform for guest writers to ponder the question: What is home?

To kick off this Thursday series, I know you'll enjoy the work of poet, playwright and author Pamela Hobart Carter.


Only house our children knew, where they were raised,
(only children raised in our old house)—waits to be razed.
Mirror-mantel with mottled green tile will grace
another house. Men will salvage and scavenge
her wood, her radiators. Men will flatten
her asbestos siding, her lath, her plaster.
Men will dig where Edna has stood one hundred
and eleven years. I demark the raising
of my children, their chalk hopscotch on front walk,
their slides in shorts down her grass as if on sleds
in snow, with orange cones. Men cannot raze games:
their hide-and-seek, their chase, their splendid stair-ball
invented for her carpeted risers, nor
careenings on her bannister. They cannot
erase images, the house we added to—
dark built-ins for our books, pale green tiled shower,
closets where she had few, fresh elegant paint,
and a garden we raised in borroweds and blues.
Whetherbe built two yellow quartermasters,
one, at his fort, and ours, on the quiet street.
Ours shimmied from her central axis, windows
skipped a beat, yardstick slipped: aging dowager,
misapplied lipstick sitting crooked across
her smile, unphased. We sold her to be razed.

Seattle resident Pamela Hobart Carter grew up in Montreal, Quebec. A geologist by training, Carter has taught everything from preschool to science pedagogy. She practices timed writing with two Seattle groups. Recently Carter began to wield poetry for the purpose of eliminating hunger.
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