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December 18, 2005

One winter day in my childhood, I was walking on the shoulder of a road. Fields of weeds stretched away on my right, and to my left was a tangle of Douglas firs. I can’t locate the place in time or space, but I know it was a cold still day, a “white day,” as I have always called them in my private language, when a featureless Oregon overcast erases all shadow without providing any compensatory brightness. Everything close was unnaturally distinct, though drained of color, and everything far away was dim and faded. Wherever I was, I was miles from home.

And I was toying with the word “home,” saying it over and over. An uneasiness had come over me, because the word had come free of the language, like a tooth coming loose. It no longer made sense to me. I pronounced it – the aspiration, and then the buzz of the vocal cords, damped by the closing lips into a hum. How could this sound mean anything? And why?

I walked on, over the old oil-stained pavement, under that formless white canopy. I spelled the word in my mind’s eye. It made no sense that way either. The “o” actually started inside the “h” and lingered into the “m,” while the “e” hovered uselessly at the end. Why? Why did we write the sounds down like that? And why did we use those particular sounds to mean that particular thing?

It had begun, maybe, as an exercise in de-familiarizing the familiar, a constant pastime in my childhood. I loved to lie on my back and imagine that up was down – to think how the ceiling’s plaster would crunch under my feet, and how the doors would all stand a couple feet off the ground, so you’d have to step over the low walls of the lintels to go through them, and the windows would be set low down on the walls, while their curtains would flop uselessly, because they were attached at the bottom. In my imagination I would wander all through the upside-down house: I could turn on the faucets, which all pointed upwards now, to make fountains of them; I could hoist myself up onto the shelf formed by the underside of the dining-room table. It was great fun, but of course the best fun was abruptly rolling over and having the whole thing reverse and snap back into place, right side up. A moment of dizziness, and then I was back in the usual world.

But now it was as though down had stayed up. “Home” stayed meaningless. Was it really even a word? I began to panic. All the other words began to come loose too. I mouthed the improbable sounds of my name. What tied them to me? Nothing that I could see.

I stopped on the road, and slowly turned in place. What made it a road? Only the fact that I was traveling on it. If I walked a couple steps to the centerline and sat down on the asphalt, it would no longer be a road. It would be a long, flat-topped gray ridge, extending straight to the left and the right. No road at all.

I became frightened. If it was no longer a road, then what was to keep me from sitting down in the middle of it? I might be run over by a car. Or I might already, for that matter, have forgotten something. Standing still by the side of the road – wasn’t that odd? People didn’t do that, did they? And now I didn’t know why not. And I didn’t even know, now, if I still spoke their language. Would anyone be able to understand me, or was I utterly alone, now and forever?

It takes longer to describe the experience than it did to have it. I resumed my walk. The road became a road again. Words anchored themselves in the English language again.

All except one. That one. “Home,” ever since, has been loose in its socket. An undependable word. Or maybe – as I have more recently come to think of it – a little opening, a window, through which a wider, richer, more dangerous world can be glimpsed.

Someday, maybe, I am going home. So drive carefully.

Written by Dale Favier of
Mole.

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  1. December 18, 2005 at 9:12 pm

    “the word had come free of the language, like a tooth coming loose” — oh yes, I’ve had this experience, though never to such an extreme. What a lovely, meaningful essay. The last line is a revelation.

  2. December 18, 2005 at 9:28 pm

    Dale, I think you were a Buddhist even then! What a marvelous meditation on impermanence.

  3. December 18, 2005 at 9:34 pm

    I have some words that are loose in their sockets, too. I’ll get started on this one, immediately, and will be looking for you in the middle of the road.

  4. December 19, 2005 at 7:13 am

    The experience of having words “come loose” has been constant and more or less disconcerting to me too, all my life. Home always stayed put, however — until now! Wonderful essay, Dale. Thank you!

  5. December 19, 2005 at 9:04 am

    I love, love, love, love, love this! Thank you, Dale.

  6. December 19, 2005 at 11:01 am

    Thank you for this beautiful portrait. You’ve given me lots to think about (and to look for in the road).

  7. December 19, 2005 at 11:26 am

    Words have always felt easily untethered to me, frequently jarred loose. Not until reading this, however, have I wondered if it’s related to the dreams I once had of losing teeth. Safe travels to you, Dale, and thank you for the essay. I’ll see you where the foot meets the pavement.

  8. December 19, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    There’s so much to love in this piece. I always thought I was an odd kid to repeat words to myself until they made no sense: perhaps it was early (and intuitive) exposure to mantra practice? In any case, I’m sure I was an odd kid, but at least I now know I wasn’t alone.

    And something about that ending knocks my socks off each time I read it…

  9. December 19, 2005 at 5:05 pm

    Oh, this is delightful! Thank you, Dale. Loved the ending also. Wow.

  10. December 20, 2005 at 8:19 pm

    Wonderfully evocative, Dale, so well expressed. Imagining the room upside down, I did that too! And the strangeness of words, how they can suddenly look unfamiliar, meaningless. Or laden with mysterious meaning. Certain names repeating in the mind like tunes or mantras – Boutros Boutros Ghali…was that it? That was one. And sometimes the sound of running water speaks in words. But home: what is that? An unfamiliar concept if one has had so many temprary homes.

  11. December 20, 2005 at 8:20 pm

    Temporary is what I meant. Where do all these typos come from?

  12. December 21, 2005 at 2:48 am

    Dale, dale. You are home to me when you write like that! Thank you.

  13. December 21, 2005 at 10:39 am

    I used to gaze into a mirror, looking up, and I would “walk on the ceiling” around and around the house. Home also was, and is, one of those random words, with a floating meaning. I called the barracks home when I was in basic, the other women hooted at me for that. But I figured, warm+ my stuff was there+ good plumbing=home enough.

    Beautiful, rather sad, eerily familiar.

  14. December 28, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    I really loved how the narrator ran the words around in their mouth. It was a moment of question and an attempt at answer, at conclusion, at closure, that I could feel I too have done. Thank you!

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