Archive for the ‘Finding Home’ Category

An Indian Scale

January 2, 2006 13 comments

I had been playing the cello for twenty-seven years and yet, since I started at the age of four, I had always felt that it was not I who was playing, but rather someone else’s desire inhabiting my body and trying to express itself. I, meanwhile, was hiding behind the fat ribs of the instrument trying to sabotage that person’s every effort.

It was 1995 and one day, in the middle of a performance, my shoulder froze and I was unable to move my right arm. The doctors told me that day that I would never play again.

Rather than spend my time in snivelling queues collecting dole money, I decided to go in search of some answers. I skipped the traditional French Christmas of oysters and lobster in La Rochelle and, much to the shock of my boyfriend’s parents, I went to India.

I had been to India several times before but never on my own. So as not to flail in the country’s chaos on arrival, I had planned everything: I was to arrive in Trivandrum and make my way – after a night in a hotel – to a cultural centre where I would spend a month learning South Indian vegetarian cookery and Karnatic singing.

We touched down at the airport and, as it always does on arrival in an Indian city, the heat of shit rose almost aromatic in the air to meet us. Ever the intrepid and budget conscious traveller, I bumped up and down on the exploding bus in to the centre of town and went in search of cheap eats and a place to stay.

As I threaded my way between street sellers, trying to fight off the insistent cling-film of the Indian sales-pitch, it was as if the hammock of language – which had always cradled me – now dropped me and I was scrabbling, my limbs wriggling in the air, in the mud.

Everything was upside down.

Six months before leaving for India I had bought my first home – a flat in Brighton, on the South coast of England. In my luminous south-facing kitchen with its sea-view, I had painted my walls yellow and blue, adding hand crafted Mexican tiles in the same hues. I had bought a set of green ‘Le Creuset’ kitchenware in which I planned, on my return, to test out my new red chilli and coriander-spiked recipes. My floors were covered with sisal, sourced from the Kerelan backwaters….

…and here I was in Kerela itself. Having arrived in the side-car of a rickety tricycle, I found myself walking along a noisy mud track, facing something dark and oily cooked in a thick-coated bubbling receptacle by a nearly naked man in what looked more like a brothel than a café. Was this dinner? Where were the plates, the knives and forks? Where were the starched aprons of the chefs, or the reds and greens of the fresh vegetables they were going to teach me how to cook? Above all, where was the silence, which I was going to fill with the sounds of their ragas?

On previous trips I had always travelled with my best friend. Having each other as a point of reference had been, I now discovered, the key to staying sane whilst in culture shock. A mere: “Oooh, look at the taxis! Aren’t they weird?!” or “I guess that must be a potato curry of some sort” had been enough to translate the concept of ‘car’ or ‘food’ from one culture into another. Now however, alone and with no reference point for the very first time on my adventures, I panicked.

Survival instinct took over, and I did something I had never done: I rushed to the nearest three star ‘Western’ hotel. There, defeated and ashamed, I ran up to my suite, ordered dal and rice from room service and listened to the manic beep of Indian city nightlife.

In the muted din that passed through into my double glazed shell I suddenly knew that the world as I understood it – a world in which I ate food, drove a car, cleaned my flat, made music, talked to people and listened to the sea – had ceased to exist. Thus, as the centre of that world, I had surely also ceased to exist.

Certain that I would never wake up again, I went to sleep saying good-bye to loved ones and giving thanks for the rich symphony that had been my life. It was surprisingly easy to let go.

Of course I did wake up. I took the taxi to the Kala Vedi Cultural Centre and immersed myself in my activities: I spent the mornings with Kurup – the ‘Chef’. We chopped small shrivelled things he called vegetables whilst protecting my cello fingers with something which looked like a coloured condom, and cooked them in a black vessel he called a pan. We ate with our fingers off banana leaves. I watched his eyes empty when he ground spices and his belly jiggle above his greying lungi when he giggled. When I was leaving I looked around what had, on day one, seemed like a filthy black shack, and saw everything gleam as bright as Kurup’s smile.

In the afternoons I roamed my way around the Indian scale, embellishing a ‘ma’, stretching a ‘ga’ and finding my way back home to ‘sa’. It was ten days before my teacher, used to coaching bored Westerners from the Ashram, realised that I got it; I got the diametric tension beween ‘sa’ (the tonic, or do) and ‘pa’ (the dominant or so), the agony of ‘ni’(the leading note or te)’s proximity to home. I got also that once you left ‘sa’ and journeyed to ‘pa’, ‘sa’ was changed forever.

In the absence not only of a common language but also a common concept of learning, I absorbed my lessons with my senses, by imitation. My analytic mind started to quieten.

In the evenings, before sitting down cross-legged to a ‘masala dosa’ or a dollop of ‘porial’ beans gathered up in a chapati, I had two hours’ Ayurvedic massage at the Ashram. There, swimming on an inverted body-shaped tree trunk in pints of thick green hot medicinal oil, I lost myself in the maternal folds of Divya’s tummy whilst she pummelled me, and my shoulder slowly started to un-chill.

In January I returned home to my anaesthetic yellow and blue kitchen and wondered what knives and forks -were for. I couldn’t believe my masseur’s three drops of rose and lavender oil and his highly priced itsy-bitsy touch. My boyfriend broke up with me and, after many tears, life moved on.

Ten years later, having married a painter and made my home and pursued my career as a cellist in France (and having never cooked a Masala Dosa, nor sung a Karnatic scale since), I know that the real magic happened, as it always does, in the space between: In the emptiness of my Trivandrum three star Western hotel, between what felt like life and death, I fell into the crack of the present. No judgements, no attachments, no expectations, no desires, no hopes, no points of reference, no words. Just a tempered ‘dal-bat’ and sleep. It was, I’m sure, in that moment that I first crept around the body of my instrument to see what was out there, that I first came home to my ‘do’.

Written by Ruth of meanwhile, here in France

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Union Station

December 28, 2005 8 comments

Union Station
Union Station, Toronto

This grand and unmovable building moves people. From here they enter, board, and alight elsewhere, in places like Sault Ste. Marie, Moose Factory, and Swastika, Ontario. Everyday people find their way home.

When I am homesick for the northern woods I come here, of all places. Its open vaulted ceilings relieve me of the claustrophobia that the city can impose. It allows for deep breaths and the casting of shadows, like a forest late in the day. People move about as birds, with purpose and chatter.

It is here, so far from home, that I am most able to imagine it.

Photo and text by Trix Whipple

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Finding Home

December 27, 2005 9 comments

We have lived in Fairwater, Wisconsin, since 1976. Our daughters grew up here and have gone off from here to make homes of their own. Mary and I remain, and I cannot imagine living any other place than this big cinnamon-colored house. When I die, you might as well bulldoze it in on me; this house is where I want to be.

I’m an Iowa farm boy; that is to say when I was born they dropped my butt on good black dirt and I have stayed close to it since. I need to see farmers work their fields, need to live among common folks and their common ways. I met and married my wife while I was in college in Milwaukee. I’m not a city fellow. Milwaukeeans are fine people; I’m just not one of them. I needed room to run and jump, holler and hoot. And I wanted to raise our daughters in a community more like the one I had known as a child, where you knew your neighbors, where your neighbors knew your business, sure, yet they also watched out for you, where you could leave a car in the driveway with the keys in it. Where community is a face-to-face business.

It was the Bicentennial summer when we started looking for a house. Mary’s parents had a summer place in the sand country of rural Marquette County, Wisconsin, to the west of here. I recognized it would be difficult to make a living in that area, so we looked closer to where one could hope to find work. Mary was a nurse and her job prospects were better than a poet would have. She found a job quickly, at the hospital in Ripon; we knew where to look for a house.

We looked in Ripon, but the houses we toured were too rich for our hand-me-down budget. We looked in nearby Berlin, but ultimately decided we didn’t want to live next to the junkyard in a town which had leather tanning as its major industry. We looked in nearby Brandon, at two houses, both of them remodeled without regard to architectural integrity, in a community where doing laundry on Sunday might be frowned on.

It must have been the hottest day of summer when Mary and I stood in front of the Action Agency Real Estate office in Ripon, looking in the window at a photo of a big old grey battleship of a house offered for sale in Fairwater. My breath caught: that looked like it could be our house. It was set down there as if it meant to stay where it was.

“Where’s Fairwater?” we asked each other.

We went into the office. “Where’s Fairwater?” we asked the realtor. “Can we take a look at this house?” It was in our price range.

“Fairwater is ten miles south of Ripon,” we were told. “Yes, you can see the house.”

When we arrived ahead of the realtor, we rang the bell at the front door. We didn’t know any better. In Fairwater, it appeared, as on the farm where I grew up, one used the side door or back door or garage door; only strangers would come to the front door.

Standing in the front door of the house, we could see the great expanse of wood floor stretching across living room and dining room to the far wall where stood a built-in hutch with glass doors and oak woodwork. The dining room, the living room, and the other room at the front of the house had oak woodwork, too, and high ceilings. The place was filled with a light which contained us. The wood floors gleamed; they radiated endurance. Oh, we looked at the rest of the house, but after seeing those floors and the hutch I think we’d already made our decision.

Of course we knew we’d have to deal with that grey paint flaking away from the house’s clapboard exterior. That could be taken care of the next summer. First we had to make an offer, get a loan, and sign the contract. We had to close on the house, take possession, move in. And we did.

It was the Hankerson house when we bought it; it was the Laper house when the Hankersons bought it. Built in 1903, signed and dated in the attic by the man who created it, the house has had only the three sets of owners – the Lapers, the Hankersons, and now the Montags. Owning a home here seems to be a long-term proposition.

Our younger daughter was not quite two years old back then. We had lived in the house about a week when Jessica stood full height, took hold of the knob of the kitchen door and rattled it; she said, “Go home now,” which was her way of telling us she was ready to go back to Milwaukee. That’s where her home was still, the place we’d lived previously. We had to explain: “We are home now.”

The Hankersons built a ranch house just down the hill from us. The next summer we did paint this old house which had been theirs. All my family came from Iowa to help, and still it took us more than a week.

Truth be told, Mary and I bought the paint we could afford for the job – red barn paint – and the house brightened considerably with the first brush stroke. In the midst of the painting, in the long light at the end of a long day, just as I’d come down from my work atop a tall ladder, Mrs. Hankerson came up the hill behind us. She said to me, “You know, it takes a lot of self-confidence to paint a house that color.”

It wasn’t self-confidence: I was home.

Nearly thirty years later, I am still home. After a quarter century, people finally call this the Montag house. It would take quite a winch to move me.

Written by Tom Montag, of The Middlewesterner.

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Home Body

December 26, 2005 6 comments

The cat curls on the guest bed
and I lie down to watch
as she burrows into the pillows.
She butts them, then my hand,
with the same closed-eyed intensity.

The rain comes in sheets
along the solarium windows;
daisies and Indian paintbrush
sag with water. So damp
the dishes are slow to dry.

Tonight when I say I didn’t
do much today I’ll wish again
that I could show you the drops
drying on the rhododendrons,
the sway of the cat’s tail.

Written by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi.

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Words on the Street

December 23, 2005 8 comments
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The Map

December 22, 2005 15 comments

Inside the obdurate
bones of my skull, a map
to the city where I was
born, and each night I walk

its spidery lines.
I stop at each corner
to read the street names,
to gather the wanderers

who lived there once. I walk
outward from my house
on the dead end road, toward
the center of the city

and greet every half-forgotten
neighbor along the way.
I pass the house where half
a century ago, a young

girl heaved her newborn
into the well. I peer
into the scrappy yard
where she’d brought

her child; I feel them both
trembling in the dark.
The bones are there, too–
smaller and whiter than

anything on this earth.
I stop at a dirty
stream near a house where
an outcast family had

lived. I call them out
to play but hear only
the defiant murmur
of wind and water.

I’m tired then but there are
a few more miles to walk
before I sleep — past church
and school, past factories

where nothing has been made
for decades. I walk faster
under the bridge where men
with deadened eyes cling to

the bottles they thought would
save them. When I was young,
I feared that looking into
those eyes would curse me.

Now, caretaker of this lost
city, I know the reverse
is true: It’s in the turning
away that we perish.

by Patry Francis of Simply Wait

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A Little Place in Town

December 20, 2005 12 comments
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December 19, 2005 7 comments

rhymes with rupture
and that’s exactly what the sky does,
some would have you believe.
You know those paint chips in abandoned rooms
that lie on windowsills like bits of eggshell.
This time I saw the source, a hole the size of a quarter,
struck as I was by an older, darker blue beneath,
that corollary of another soul
escaped to her maker
where surely it was warmer
this Christmas day,
heat on here only high enough
to preserve the pipes
the years she’d wintered elsewhere,
driven herself there, the county home,
to check herself in.

You see, my sister in search of a bigger house,
we were in her husband’s late,
ninety-two-year-old-grandmother’s place, eerily
empty despite their family, my brother’s, mine
and my mother, rummaging around, the furniture
intact, junk neatly stacked
on the dinning room table for the taking,
down to an address book, blank in spots
though not where my thumb stopped
the pages that sputtered under it:

Slowly we dispersed but first just stood,
thinking, maybe, like me, how a house
without bread is not a home
(I’d come upon my mother before a bare cupboard).

Then, with my nephew of four, I took the tour.

“Right here is where she died,” he said
at a worn spot on the carpet.
His cousins, of course, had lied.
But I made my eyes go wide, saw
on a wall a picture of her church,
and caught on the floor still another pile,
her Bible on top.
Here were the real remains, I thought
and thought how odd the body is decked
with her best jewelry
instead of a good book.

I suppose we left as hopeful as not.

After the holidays, halted at a toll booth
half way home,
I read a red bumper sticker ahead:


I thought of the nerve,
the fear.
I thought then of the house,
the line on everyone’s mind:
“The place has possibilities.”

We drove off.

And looking back, I saw the earth.

Written by Karl Elder

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December 18, 2005 14 comments

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

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