Yesterday, my Mail program on my Macbook crashed, and kept crashing. While I pursue attempts to fix it, I am pondering how I have used email, and what those possibly lost emails hold for me. One thing they hold is memory and relationships. I have some old friends that I keep in touch with through email, maybe once a year or every few months. The emails between us hold the long conversation, the details of events in their lives that I might otherwise forget, the cherished connections we make to each other. My emails also hold networking on issues I care about, future possibilities for workshops or activism, relationship building in the here and now. My emails also hold a record of these writings I post on the blog, to save on my own laptop.
But in the meantime, the Mail program is also clogged with thousands of emails that I never bother to read, never bother to erase. Not all junk, per se, but reports from organizations, updates on political issues, daily inspirations that I once thought would be uplifting, but I’ve stopped caring about. And it was much easier to ignore them, rather than try to go through and unsubscribe or move to the trash. Since I can’t open the Mail, I don’t have exact numbers, but I am pretty sure that there are at least 20,000 unopened emails in there. I wish I could magically extract the important ones and abandon the rest.
Yesterday evening, after giving up for a while on the computer fixing, Margy and I watched the movie Nomadland, with Frances McDormand. She plays Fern, an older woman who has lost her husband and her home, and who sets out in a van equipped with mattress and cupboards and cooking options, to travel to seasonal jobs in the American west. Along the way she meets other similarly displaced people, and in the film these are actual “nomads” playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It was powerfully beautiful in its closeness to the natural world of deserts and mountains and rivers, achingly solitary yet full of community in surprising places, and deeply sad in its indictment of our society’s abandonment of aging people.
It also got me thinking about what we hold in our homes, and what I might carry with me, if I ever lost this home and had to set out with only a van full of what I needed, what I cherished. We see Fern looking through a tin box of old photos, listening to music on her little radio, carefully repairing a broken plate, eventually giving up the stuff in the storage unit back in her old town. What would I hold onto, what would I leave behind?
I like to watch Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Finding Your Roots. There are times when the paper trail runs out for people on the show, there are no more records to be found to show the names of their ancestors, or the places they were born and died. Sometimes the paper trail ends because of slavery or genocide or oppression. Sometimes it ends because most people didn’t document their lives in ages past, like we do today. But I wonder if future generations looking for their ancestors of today would have different problems. They might have the problem of technologies changed or lost, such that they could no longer access the online records we so carefully accumulate. But they might also have the problem of getting lost in the avalanche of “paper” we now compile, the over-accumulation of words. Will they no longer be able to follow the trail of what is most important amid the towering clutter of what is not?
And so I come back to my own life, remembering the times I set out with a backpack, or a little car, starting a new life with only what I could carry. I got pretty good at winnowing things down, valuing the simplicity of it, feeling the freedom of it. But in the last twenty years, I’ve been able to settle down and really root myself in home. So things accumulate, some things cherished and beautiful, others practical, necessary, and then the stuff that serves no purpose any longer, but won’t magically disappear unless I do that work of taking it away, giving it away, sorting and erasing. What do I want to hold on to, what do I want to let go?
And yet, eventually, we all leave this life with nothing we can hold onto, all that is left is what we have given away.
With these last few quiet days at home, Margy and I were finally (after almost four years) able to take down from the attic all of our wall pictures, and decide how we wanted to decorate the walls of our living room and kitchen. It was especially wonderful to place over our fireplace hearth this print, Stewardship of the Earth, by James E. Francis and Arla Patch. We had purchased it several years ago in a fundraiser for Maine Wabanaki REACH. Here is more information about it from an article in the Friends Journal.
This work of art is a collaboration between James E. Francis, Penobscot artist and director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, and Arla Patch, artist, teacher, and [at that time] member of the communications subcommittee of the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was made for a western Maine community celebration of the native woman Molly Ockett (c. 1740–1816, Abenaki nation, Pequawket band). The theme of 2013’s MollyOckett Days Festival was “Stewardship of the Earth.” James created the central image of the tree that becomes the earth. Arla created the context based on the European American tradition of quilts. James provided the symbols, which represent the four remaining tribes in the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, and the Micmac.
A theme of the four directions, which comes from both Native American spirituality and ancient Celtic tradition, is depicted as the night sky for the north; the sun rising over “second island” next to the Passamaquoddy land of Sipayik; the midday sky for the south; and the sun setting over the White Mountains for the west. “Agiocochook” (home of the Great Spirit), also known as Mt. Washington, is included in the western sky.
Blueberries are included for the role they have played in sustaining Maine native peoples historically and to this day. Maple leaves are in the upper corners to honor the development of maple syrup by the Wabanaki.
When we put this picture on the wall, along with a few others around the room, I found myself feeling rooted and joyful, at home in a deeper way than before. It was as if some mysterious magic had created a circle around us, and we were aligning into harmony and beauty.
May that beauty bring us hope and strength as we enter a new decade, a decade that will be pivotal in our collective stewardship of the Earth. May we human beings find a way to live in harmony with all of our relatives on this planet that is our home.
The other morning I woke from a dream, in which I was thinking about Wabanaki languages. Wabanaki languages are a flowing. Everything is moving. Verbs are central. Verbs change shape to fit who is acting, who is moving, how many, and who or what their object might be. For example, Wiku is a verb for identifying where someone dwells. (The k is pronounced like g.) As in, Wiku Portland, meaning, “He/or/she lives in Portland.” But to say, “I live in Portland,” would be Nwik Portland. “Where do you live?” Tama kwik?
Even many nouns are flowing, changing, shapeshifting. Like the word for home. The noun, Wik, means a home. But “my home” is nik. “At our home” is nikonuk. “At your home” is kikonuk. The words flow depending on who lives there, or if you are going there. And the words for “mother” are related to the words for home. Wikuwossol, nikuwoss, kikuwoss. “His/or/her mother, my mother, your mother.” Flowing. Shapeshifting. Full of relationship.
English, on the other hand, is filled with many more nouns than verbs. Since contact with the colonizers, Wabanaki languages have had to add more nouns to the lexicon, to translate from English or French. Some of these nouns were created from verbs by adding an ending that, by itself, means “bait.” For example, koselomol, means “I love you.” But to turn the verb “love” into a noun, you must say kseltomuwakon. Wakon means “bait.” So perhaps to make these nouns we must capture the verb, trap it with our bait, to stop its movement for a moment.
We colonizers live in solid houses with lots of things/nouns in them. The Indigenous peoples of northern places used to live in easily movable homes, with fewer things, to follow the hunt in winter, to fish the shores in summer. Everything was a movement, a dance, a shape-shifting. (Of course, many southern Indigenous peoples were/are farmers, stayed in one place. I don’t have any exposure to how their languages work.) But I notice the tendency in me to look for solid things, to struggle with the endless flow. To try to put things in their places, get organized. Make vocabulary flash cards to capture the words into my brain. (Even though the Wabanaki Languages class I am taking is on summer break, I have been listening to the recordings from the class, and continuing to study.)
Still, the garden in this place, at our home, nikonuk, also tries to teach me about flow, if I can be open to it. Every week is filled with different patterns and growing and shapeshifting. This week, no more snap peas or raspberries. But the basil has come back again after I harvested most of its leaves a while ago. The young fruit trees are wild and leafy. The bee balm is dying, and prone to powdery mildew. My nephew and his girlfriend helped me put wood chips on the paths during their visit a couple weeks ago. It rained during the night last night. Every day is different. There is no way to get the garden in shape, in form, once and for all. It demands relationship, interaction, flowing, it demands the verb “gardening.”
In Passamaquoddy, kihke means “He/she gardens or plants,” and kihkan is a garden. It is also another form of the verb.
It is amazing how books on a book shelf can induce a feeling of home. After a pretty busy few weeks (or shall I say–months?), I had this weekend off, and filled it with resting and nesting. I was able to figure out an arrangement for bookcases in the living room, and then unpack some boxes of books–I brought my best old favorites for this spot. We also have bookcases in the basement, in the area that eventually will be a guest nook, and I arranged those bookcases and put some of my other books there. That space is still filled with boxes though–but my fantasy is that it will be ready for summer guests.
I also helped Margy get started in her office, which doubles as the music room–unpacking and shelving all the CDs and LPs. She has quite a few recordings from all stages of music history, including a Victrola from her grandmother (in our living room), vinyl albums, cassette tapes, and CDs. I’ve moved on to digital mp3s, but she preserves our music history!
In between my frenzies of unpacking, I fell into long naps, or binged on Parenthood on Netflix. I cooked curried chicken one night, and mowed the front lawn with our push mower one morning. It has felt so restorative to be focused on domesticity for these few days.
Today we signed the papers that say we are now the owners of this house and land in Portland. But we think of it more like a promise in a marriage–we have entered into a relationship with this land to care for it as it cares for us, to get to know it as it gets to know us, to build a partnership of mutual respect and love, as we seek to grow into deeper harmony with the Earth and all beings who share this planet with us.
I feel so thankful that our search for greener housing has come this far. And looking forward to the next steps in making this home a greener home, to live more simply, to walk with smaller footprints. It seems fitting that this part of our journey was completed as the world leaders are convening in Paris asking those hard questions. How can we shift our world away from carbon emissions? How can we live more gently on our planet? How can we ensure a future for the world’s children? Each of us can do our part, but we all need to join together for this great hope.
Susanka also has a website–the book and the website are both on the theme of how to reimagine our homes so that they feel like home–with comfort and usefulness and beauty–without being as big as we might think they need to be. (Her website also has resources and links to green housing as well. The two ideas share a lot of resonance.)
She is responding to the tendency in American culture to expand the sizes of our houses so that they have turned into almost mansions. Now, her not so big house is a little bigger than the one we are looking for–in fact our current house would fit her definition, too. But what I liked most is that she talks about particular strategies that can contribute to a feeling of homeyness.
Simple things, like creating a sense of containment around certain spaces by lowering a ceiling, or putting in some sort of molding around an area that gives it a focus. She also suggests most of us would do well with a more open living plan, where our public spaces are joined together–in a living, cooking and eating area. We then also can create private spaces. Something I had never thought about was the importance of the entryway for making a home feel hospitable and a joy to enter. It all makes sense to me.
It is the details that make a home beautiful. I find I like the details I have seen in Craftsman Style homes, like in this picture below–the simple wood molding around the upper part of the wall ties the room together. Poring over Susanka’s photos and ideas, gives me a better sense of how to imagine renovating houses that we might see that don’t seem to be what we are looking for, but have the potential to be turned into what we want. My imagination has been lit up!
Craftsman Style Interior Photo by Emack2020JPEG Via Creative Commons.
I wake today about 5 a.m. and feel called to come outside to pray in the dawn light. It rained during the night and the morning is misty and golden. I am visited by a cardinal, whose silhouette on a branch is dark against the eastern sky. I hear it chirping as another cardinal a bit further away trills their evocative songs. I am visited by a tiny toad or frog (I am not sure which), who moves quietly along the edge of the screen tent where I am sitting. I am visited by a golden slug my old teacher of slowness. A pileated woodpecker pounds away on some dead branches looking for breakfast. I hear the familiar songs of many tiny birds as they wake the sun, which is starting to appear through the branches of the spruce. Later, in the light, the chipmunks and squirrels dash about.
I feel so grateful for this place of trees and birds and critters. In our search for greener housing, I pray that we can find a home where I am called outside in the morning by the songs of cardinals, where Margy can find frogs and toads where they hide in the damp. I pray for this journey we are walking, hoping to move closer into harmony with all beings. I call on the magic of the dawn and the magic of all these beings to help us find our way. And, I open my heart to change, to what is hidden and cannot yet be seen.
Following our dream of finding greener and accessible housing, we have now looked at six houses. The first was in a great location (halfway between the houses of two friends!) and had an amazingly private back yard, despite being right in town, though it was hard to get to the yard from the house. It had an almost south facing roof, but narrow hallways, and we couldn’t imagine how we could make it accessible without major reconstruction. Plus, there was a tenant in the basement who had lived there over 25 years, and the house wouldn’t have worked for us without the basement space. Bad karma?
The second house had such great character–it was a house we would love to live in. There were blueberries and raspberries in the yard, which we were told we could pick, and so we did. There were gardens and a hoop house for extending the growing season. Lots of windows, sunny, and though it was a bit out of town, it was close to a lake, which was a nice bonus. There was not quite as much work to make it accessible, (though still some) but it was a very old house, and there was water along the edges of the basement–along with a mildew smell. And because of the unique shape of the house, it might be hard to insulate and put up solar. Regretfully, we decided it was too much to take on.
The third house had a great open living/dining/kitchen area, a lovely back deck, and also a great yard–though the very back of it fronted onto an in-use railroad track. It looked like we could put solar on the garage. But the bedrooms were dark and felt small, and there were two very tiny bathrooms that would have to be remodeled into one. We talked about whether we could put in more windows. Also there were a lot of steps to the front door.
The fourth house was on a busy street, too small, and not really worth looking at.
The fifth house was fully accessible! It had a lovely open kitchen/living area, a great deck, and nice bedrooms and bathroom. BUT–it was larger than our current house, and so that didn’t fit our goal of downsizing and having fewer expenses. They said it had been insulated, but it had used quite a bit more gallons of oil over the season than where we are now. However, it was great to see what someone else had done for accessibility and beauty.
The sixth house inspired a long conversation with our green-building savvy real estate agent. (That was one of our practical steps–to find an environmentally experienced agent!) The house was in great shape, with a lovely living room with a fireplace, a big mud room, two nice sized bedrooms on the first floor and extra finished space in the basement. It had a one car garage that probably could have been expanded to two ($), we’d need to remodel the bathroom for access, widen a doorway–and once again, it was an odd-shaped roof, so solar might be more expensive. Plus it had these great old cast iron radiators along the baseboards, but if we went electric they would all have to come out with much ado. And even with a lot of work, we probably couldn’t get to zero-carbon in this house, would have to keep using oil.
Our agent suggested that with all of these houses we’d seen so far, we were trying to squeeze ourselves into a house that wasn’t really quite right for what we wanted. Each one would require a lot of renovations in addition to solar and air-source heat pumps and insulation. It is an emotional up and down–excitement over houses that seem worth seeing, and in some ways are so close to what we want, or have such nice qualities, but then the disappoint that they don’t quite work. AND tomorrow could mean another house comes on the market that could be just right.
One-level living that can be made wheelchair accessible (because my partner can’t do a lot of steps, and we have friends who use wheelchairs, and universal design makes sense for a house we want to get older in.)
Location closer to Portland and public transportation, near some sort of village center
An area safe for lesbians and people of color
Privacy in the back yard
About a quarter-acre lot, smaller than where we are now, but still room for permaculture gardening. Some parts shady with trees, some parts sunny, and flat enough for easy access. We want to get rid of lawn to mow, and have other kinds of plantings instead.
And, perhaps counter to our village center idea, a location close to woods and critters?
About 1200 square feet of house (this number to be adapted as we actually look at houses and see what the spaces feel like.)
Two bedrooms plus some office space and guest space
Living area that can hold ten people or so for gathering together
Some extra space, like a basement
Wood floors or equivalent–no carpet, no mold, no smokers. (We have allergies. If there is carpet, plan to replace with wood floors.)
Big windows, lots of light
Two-car garage (because of Maine winters, and for now we need two cars)
Laundry on first floor
Fireplace or wood stove, more for the feeling of a hearth than for heat
No vinyl siding (That stuff is really bad for the environment! Watch the documentary Blue Vinyl!)
Okay, that’s our list, that’s our desire. And of course, we want a sound, well-built house that will last. The other part of the equation is that we want the price to be enough less than our current house so we can afford to do the retrofits and add solar energy without taking on more debt. Our goal is to own it debt-free before we come to retirement, and to have the ongoing taxes and utilities and maintenance costs affordable to us on a low retirement income.
There is a strange magic to finding a new home. There are practical steps we need to take, but then, it all depends on what is out there. And what will emerge in the next day or week or month. I have moved dozens of times in my life, and it always brings up a lot of anxiety for me. Will we find a home that works for us? Will we recognize it when we see it? What is essential on our list, and where can we compromise? It took us four months to find our current home when we moved here to Maine. Will it take that long for this process? If we find a house we like, will we be able to bid for it successfully? My partner has her own list of fears.
In this magic of finding a new home, we are placing our desires up against our fears. That is why it feels important to me to name our very specific desires for a new home, and also to acknowledge and honor our fears. I know that magic works that way. But there is another deeper movement going on as well. It comes to mind again as I look at houses-for-sale online. In the listings, they don’t mention the orientation of the house, so I try to figure it out by looking closely at the maps. It is discouraging how few houses have a south-facing roof.
Then I remember that we are trying to do something new with this move–we are trying to re-orient our home environment into harmony with all life on earth. The current built environment is oriented around cheap oil and other fossil fuels. It can’t last. We are trying to take our own small steps closer to a whole new way of living that is about beauty and sustainability and a future for the generations yet to be born. There is a great Earth energy that is beneath our feet guiding our way down this path.
It says to me, “Remember to embrace the process. Enjoy the whole journey, right now! You don’t have to wait until everything is ‘settled.’ Keep taking small steps until you are ready to leap. Until the time comes when it is clear. You do not have to rush. Keep holding hands with the ones you love.”