Chairs, coffee and a trip to the city

Two conversations in one day:

The first was with a colleague anticipating a visit from her two brothers. Neither of the brothers, twenty-nine and forty years old, has ever been to a city. They have never left the area where they grew up, a wide expanse of wilderness with scattered homesteads, a general store and a bar. Going to “town” means driving an hour to a Wal-Mart. My friend has been trying to guide them to the southern part of the state where she lives, explaining that in the suburbs and eventually the city, houses and roads blend together. There are no trees or fields between and no animals, which seems odd to them. She has been debating what to do once they arrive. I offered my usual gee-whiz-urban-glee: Museums! Shopping! Streets! Lights! Restaurants! She shook her head. That might freak them out. Too many people. Maybe her neighborhood of tidy yards and strip malls would be shocking enough.

The second conversation was with my sister, fussing over applications to “Doctors Without Borders” and various tropical medicine programs. She returned from living in South America about a year and half ago. She visited Canada two weeks ago. She leaves for Europe two weeks from now. If she stays in one place too long she twitches like a jumping bean in a tin can. She climbs mountains, maintains friendships all over the country, and roams trails that would confuse and wind most wild animals. She lives to move. Her senses are always on alert, peeking around corners, searching for the next possible adventure. She would buy a plane ticket before food, starving down any rabbit hole that would fit a pack and running shoes.

I sit thinking about these two conversations on an airplane in limbo on the tarmac, neither here nor there, neither home nor away. It is bad weather on both ends and our hopes of departing have been measured in eighteen-minute intervals for the past three hours. Feeling stranded between the juxtaposed extremes of the homebody brothers and my roving sister, I allow myself a few minutes of facile, reductive generalizations.

Are people who do not travel afraid of what they might find? Are people who travel all the time afraid to commit? Is it better to seek contentment or to give in to restlessness? Settlers or explorers, farmers or nomads, those who settle for what is in front of them or those who have the briefest attention spans—who is the more dysfunctional? Dichotomies always make my range of normal feel superior.

My range of normal right now is not unlike a delayed flight. I live in a house I have only lived in for three years. I don’t have the time or money to travel where I would like and yet my job requires that I travel to where I am needed. I have permanence, I worry about school systems and water lines, yet I am not attached to the land under the grass I mow regularly and I leave it enough to have premier status on an airline. I am not really a point in the middle, but a marbled mix of both.

This quells my pop-psycho comparisons. I know too much of my sister’s heart to condemn her to the margins. And I have respect for these strapping country men I have never met. I drift to another question in all this staying and going: what exactly does it mean to be home?

Home for some people must seem like the Tomorrowland attraction at Disneyland where the rider sits in a fixed seat as images flash across a screen, the chair rumbles but does not move. Life for them is exciting enough, with plenty to keep busy and centered within arm’s reach. I see the brothers walking in intricate forests as if on sidewalk, easily and without thinking where to step. Deep family roots are embedded in the soil, the land is everything. But what happens when there is a big bang and everything that once defined stable is undermined? I discovered that one of the brothers is getting a divorce and one has just had a baby with a new wife, abrupt life changes that have spurred the trip to see their sister and, more importantly, life beyond their known surroundings. My sister harbors her own jarring trauma. Although never one to sit still, she too has journeyed with more intent as events have unfolded in unexpected ways.

In each story we identify a resonating reflex, a resiliency that we all share. Somehow we gather what can from the rubble, pick up our chairs and reinterpret meaning. Suddenly the land can’t hold us, home becomes what we carry, who we know, who we are.

I remember years ago, moving cross country as a newlywed. I sobbed in the car, leaving my family of origin to start my own. How would I ever replace what I felt I was losing? A million big and small bangs later, I have answered that question with daily energy, a whoosh of recogniton every time. The first time I saw the Back Bay brownstones in Boston or the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC, I thought: This is home. When I taste authentic lasagna, or wear my felt clogs or laugh at my very witty sons, I think: This is home. When I fall asleep reading a great book or smell one of my roses, I think: This is home. In each hotel room, I lay out my toiletries a certain way, I open my travel clock by my bed, plug in my phone charger, and I have lived there a hundred years. I am home for the night.

My sister sips coffee for hours at a time every morning. The same coffee—lovingly mixed with the same dash of cream and sugar. A world of strangeness may swirl around her but the coffee holds her as she holds the cup. This is home for her. Somewhere else, two men are driving beyond the confines of home, looking out the window of their pick-up truck at an avalanche of civilization, perhaps entranced or overwhelmed, scanning for anything familiar. We sway to and from what feels scary, tethered by what we assume keeps us safe. I think about my sister with her coffee and the brothers in the city, reaching for comfort or wonder in what the other would find quite ordinary.

My plane lifts off and I am on the way somewhere, lurching in the storm. In a short time I will see an expanding pattern of lights, traces of the approaching city. One of those lights will be my house, amid all the others, my home.

16 responses to “Chairs, coffee and a trip to the city”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    Pandora, your writing captures me, and gets my mind hoppin’. I’ve been playing Texas Hold ’em quite alot lately with friends, and have been watching their personalities rise like the cream in your sisters coffee. You ask what brings a person to feel comfortable with a conservative outlook, and another being bold. I really think that personality has alot to do with it. If you watch the personalities in the poker, with the conservative players looking to have money late in the game, and the aggressive players live for today with the motto: “go big or go home” (my play style is more of a {liberal} conservative). Now I’m not forgetting about both nurture and neuroses, but I think our inate personalities run much deeper than we allow for. I have very different children, yet, have parented them very much the same, and the older they get, the more each child’s personality shines, and relish each in very different ways. I especially like your analysis of being home; it is really the most comforting feeling encounter *well almost*. Way to go!

  2. Tim Wager says:

    Pandora,

    This is a beautiful meditation. My favorite line is, “I am not really a point in the middle, but a marbled mix of both.” What a wonderfully precise and evocative image!

  3. W2 says:

    Anyone else suspect PB is really Amy Hempel?

  4. Rachel says:

    True, I’ve seen them both, but never in the same place…

  5. MF says:

    Pandora,
    I have thought a lot about what home means. The first time was when I lived with a host family in Japan. Four generations of their family had lived in their house before them, and they expected that many more would live there in the future. I had already moved houses 15 times in my 16 years of life. I’m like your sister. I get restless. I want to get out and see what’s on the other side of the fence. or state line. or ocean. Will I ever setle down? Is this new house I live in just a ruse? Will I also get tired of it? Or, more likely, when will I get tired of it?

  6. Marleyfan says:

    I haven’t ready anything by Hempel, which is the best:
    Reasons to Live (1985)
    At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990)
    Tumble Home (1997)
    The Dog of the Marriage (2005)
    The Collected Stories (2006)

  7. W2 says:

    Collected Stories will give you everything she’s written (|Reasons through Dog). Might as well draw a bath and start with “In a Tub.”

  8. bryan says:

    Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories reviewed here.

  9. Lisa Tremain says:

    Okay but back to PB (though I highly, highly recommend Hempel’s Collected Stories): Girl, you write like a long road into the city gradually unfolds to glimmering lights.

  10. Miller says:

    pandora – your writing dislodges emotions that were otherwise perfectly content in their respective nooks and crannies, never failing to make me well up a bit in the most pleasant way. thank you!

  11. Jeremy says:

    I’m reminded, too, of Pico Iyer’s travel writing…

    Wonderful stuff, PB.

  12. PB says:

    Marleyfan–I completely agree about the mystery of wiring, especially when you consider siblings (or poker players.) I think MF and my sister make that clear, perhaps the roaming instinct is a gene rather than a result of some compulsion.

    I should also in good faith link to Slade’s post on Home as a journey in geography, some great comments came from her thoughts as well.

    As for the gracious comparisons to Ms. Hempel, I can only dream. But thank you.

    Although Rachel, ask E about bilocation. Another dream in the pursuit of sainthood or O.D.

  13. PB says:

    sorry about the link, I will try again–

  14. tb says:

    For the record, I seldom “fuss” or “twitch”. But, I do, indeed, harbor an incurable case of wanderlust. I have thought alot about the origins of this. Initially I assumed it was the constant childhood moves that bred a desire or compulsion, perhaps even a need, to keep in constant motion. But, there are ample examples of people who emerge from these roving backgrounds only to spend the rest of their lives seeking stillness and stability.
    I envy people like the brothers who have roots, who have relationships that have spanned their lifetime, who know one single place intimately and completely, and who are content with all of this. Repeatedly, I have tried to suppress my restless soul, thinking I should “settle down” or else I would end up a lonely old lady living in a decrepit corner house with 30 cats. Yet, whenever I have tried to squeeze myself into the conventional cultural paradigm, I am discontent and I find myself fidgety. Maybe I do even twitch.
    So, I have surrendered to what I think is something deep seeded in my nature, allowing myself to roam. Maybe I will end up that lonely old lady in the end, but at least I will have had quite a journey getting there.

  15. Mark says:

    There’s nothing wrong with 30 cats so long as you can remember all their names.

  16. Scotty says:

    Mark- Sorry old chum, but you are vastly wrong on this one.