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Category: home comforts

love letter to the cobbled city by the bend in the river charles…

river walk

dispatch from 02139 (final edition)…

the parabola of time has caught up with me. it’s the morning i couldn’t imagine. the end of the year i could hardly wrap my head around, long long ago when word of it first flickered across my imagination, when i knew i couldn’t say no, but could not figure how i’d say yes.

i turn back into a pumpkin in precisely 23 hours and 49 minutes (as of the moment i typed that calculation), when the big jet plane huffs and puffs and in a somersault of gravity defiance and aeronautical wonder hoists its belly off the runway, pointing toward sky, toward home.

home.

trouble is, i’m leaving a place that’s come to feel like home. when i lope round the bend onto franklin, just past petsi’s pie bakery & cafe, when i spot the curlicues of victorian frou-frou that bedeck our triple-decker at 608, i start fumbling for my keys. i know there’s a place up there, the aerie, where the breeze blows through, where the walls of books whisper sweet somethings in my ear.

true, i am headed home to a place that knows the secret hiding coves of my heart, to the muscled city that dares to rise up from the prairie along the great lake’s ruffled edge, to the creaky stairs of my old house, to my rambling roses now blooming in a tussle all along the white picket fence.

i’m headed home to the place where the walls are covered in black-and-white snaps of people we love, the people who came before us. to the place where two rooms at the top of the stairs are chambers that forever hold the frames of childhood that loop for both of my boys. i’m headed home, oddly enough, to the hand-me-down jug of the jolly quaker oats fellow my papa brought home from work a long, long time ago, and for reasons that could never be charted is way more priceless than old pottery has reason to be.

home is equal parts hodgepodge and heart. it’s quirky and lumpen. it creaks and it groans. sometimes you have to bang on the hot-water spigot just to get it to dribble. home soothes us nonetheless, kneads the knots out of our worn-down spirit at the end of the day.

and that’s what i’m coming home to: the real-deal, deep-soother rendition of that place where we lay down and breathe.

but before i zip the last of my bags, before i slip the key in the door one last time, turn and blow a kiss, i need to riffle through my cantabrigian* memory box one last time, pull out a few of the blessings i’ll never forget, won’t leave behind.

if there’s one frame that will forever spring to mind, it’ll be that meandering walk down by the charles river (the one pictured above), under the london plane trees, past the boat houses that hug the banks, dowagers of the past. it’s the walk that carried me, countless dawns, to my stone-walled monastery, where the monks always welcomed, and the votive candles patiently awaited the matchstick that lit them aflicker. mile after mile, week after week, we’d take to that path, the tall one, the professor, and i. it became our early-morning ritual, mostly on weekends, when we’d have a rare chance to catch up on what each other might have been up to in the long spaces between.

i’ll miss my kaleidoscope of neighbors here on franklin street: white-haired nan, of the caribbean-painted cottage, nan who fell in love with a civil rights compatriot, and wept fresh tears on my stoop just last night, as she clutched a framed photo of the pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed gentleman she lost to cancer nearly two years ago, after 40-some years of marriage. nan, who found in cambridge a place where, back in the ’60s, no one looked twice at a white-skinned woman arm-in-arm with the black-skinned love of her life.

i’ll miss sarah, sarah who looks as if she’s just come in from blueberry picking in maine or, truer still, stepped off the pages of a children’s storybook with her sun-kissed hair and faintest freckles and that twinkle that never leaves her eye. sarah who came to the door with a tinfoil-wrapped platter of chocolate-chunk cookies on the day we arrived, and again last night, on the eve of departure. “bookends,” she called them. she is just that sort of across-the-way neighbor. and i will love her till the end of time.

and i’ll miss jane, eighty-something jane, who was born in a double-decker down the block, and has never left, spending her days leaning up against the cyclone fence or shuffling in bedroom slippers and top-knotted headscarf up and down the cobbled slopes of franklin and putnam and bay, the rectangle that defines her life’s landscape.

i’ll miss the harvard book store, and the coop, and the sun-drenched cambridge public library, my holy trinity of literary haunts, where books come curated by brilliant minds who know just which words will swoop deep into a reader’s heart and stir for a good long while.

i’ll miss the polyglot stew that rises up from the round-the-world crowds in harvard square, and the letters from the cambridge public schools that always come translated in at least 10 languages on the backside of every page. because here, in the 02138s and 9s, no one assumes english is the first language.

i’ll miss the intellectual bunsen burner that is 02139 and 02138, the zone the new york times proclaimed “the most opinionated ZIP code in america,” where ideas are the coin of the realm, and the shabbier the khakis, the holey-er the button-down, the better.

i’ll miss the body parts of cambridge that come pierced, stapled, studded, stretched and permanently inked in tattoos that know no end. i’ll miss the leggings in rainbow colors that peek out from underneath shorts that barely stretch across bums. i’ll miss the most eloquent cardboard pleas from the homeless folk who station themselves all along mass avenue.

i’ll miss the eastern seaboard, and the magic in the mist that coaxes rhododendrons and roses and dogwood and lilac to grow to proportions i never knew possible.

i’ll miss the breads of massachusetts and maine, just up the road. “when pigs fly” is my bakery of choice, and don’t be surprised if i lug home a suitcase packed to the brim with raisin-studded whole-grain goodness.

i’ll miss cambridge from dawn till starlight. i’ll miss cambridge when, plonked on an old wicker chair on my summer porch, i look up and catch the moon rising. i’ll know that a mere 1,000 miles away, that same sliver moon shines down on the charles, and the cobbled lanes that rise up from its banks to the hill i called home.

it’s a holy place, the place that opens your heart, that teaches you lessons. most of all the one where you find out that one simple “yes” made it all possible.

bless you, 02139.

quaker oat man

*cantabrigian: a quirky latin-derivative adjective for all things harvardian or cambridge, englandian. took me most of the year to pick up on it, so i’m passing it along, providing the shortcut for you.

so that’s it, chair people. cinderella’s ball is winding down. only cinders by the hearth, come morning. though i couldn’t be more twitterpated at the thought of swooping through the clouds to touch down in sweet home chicago. forgive the cambridge-centric year; twas a promise to mamas who wanted in on every drop. or at least the week’s highlights. we’ll be back to musings from the home front soon as i unpack the 27 boxes now motoring along the massachusetts turnpike. can’t believe i’ll next type from my old pine desk, but tis true.

from the bottom of my heart, bless you and thank you for the solace, the comfort, the wisdom you brought to me here at the table, where each friday i plugged in, and felt zapped with all your goodness. blessings. and love, the chair lady.

this nook i’ve come to call home

nook i've come to lovedispatch from 02139 (in which, after 192 days, it makes me wince to think of leaving….)

really, i think, i’m part squirrel. or maybe fat-cheeked chipmunk. certainly from the mammalian order Rodentia. i know, i know. it’s not a pretty picture. those furry little critters that make so many yelp. leap high on stools. lurch for brooms.

but really.

i do exhibit many squirrel-like tendencies. i burrow. i conform whole-bodily to my confines. i’ve been known to overstuff my pantry with twos and threes of things i love — just in case! a squirrel does too. only they call it hoarding. stocking up for winter. i call it making sure i don’t have to dash to the grocery in the wee wee hours, when suddenly an urge for popcorn strikes (see! yet another link between me and the bushy-tailed kernel-loving kind!).

mostly, though, it’s about the burrowing. about boring in, carving tunnels in my cove. making cozy. is not the squirrel the queen of cozy comfy? heck, if you can make the insides of an old oak’s trunk the very place where you can’t wait to scurry at the end of a long day hauling acorns, you are one fine cozy-maker.

and so it is, here in the aerie. where 192 days into this experiment in third-floor living, i can barely consider packing up and leaving without scrunching up my countenance.

i’ve come to love this little place. love the pit-a-pat of soles against the shining planks of maple. love the sunshine streaming in by day, and the moonlight every cloudless night. love the sounds of the city down below, tucked away, not far from harvard square, where just now cardinal and blue jay are out the window carrying on a discourse above the din of all the thinkers strolling by.

i am particularly fond of this little breakfast nook, all bench and cushions, with steam heat pouring up from down below my bum. how fine a configuration is that? to have your undersides steamed like chinese buns?

i sit here by the hour, especially at the dawn. my earthen mug filled high. the morning birds flitting in for a nibble at the feeder. this morning it is particularly quiet. and quiet is a sound i love more than most. so hushed i hear the water drip-drip-dripping from the sink. every once in a while, the gurgle from the french-roast trough. the hum from the fridge.

i leap out of bed before the clock chimes “time to wake,” just so i can steal a few extra minutes — all alone, in cloak of morning light, before the rush begins.

and i can’t help but marvel at the human capacity for burrowing down to joy. for shirking off the parts that make us squirm. for honing in on finding where our hum comes. where comfort rises up, wraps round us, holds us tight.

we are a species — we and our bushy-tailed brethren, yes — who can’t help but toil toward equilibrium. and, hardly content to idle in the neutral zone, we burrow deeper still, down to where the glories bubble up. we find our hum, indeed.

all this from a girl who, just a year ago, was dizzy at the thought of leaving a place that had carved her in the palm of its hand. all this from a girl who 192 mornings ago was clicking snapshots of the old house she was leaving behind, as if she’d not breathe again till she returned. and here i am, humming. knowing my well-worn footpaths in the maple planks. having carved a whole new routine. morning coffee, followed by reading, followed by catching glimpse of sunrise, followed by clomp-clomp-clomp along the cobbled sidewalks, drawing me into lecture halls and classrooms where i nearly purr with pure contentment.

we adapt.

we find joy.

it’s what, as a species, we are wired to do.

i write this because i never cease to be amazed. at this capacity for comfort. at making home wherever we are plopped.

i write this because a friend i love — nay, adore — stands at the brink of just such a translocation. and she is trembling. wondering what she’s doing to her family, up and hauling them across the country, to a faraway place that right now feels oh-so foreign.

i write this because i was that trembling soul. but a wee small voice inside propelled me. whispered louder than all the others: don’t be afraid. just go!

and so, for all these days and weeks and months, we’ve been living the experiment. (and here’s the part where the hallelujahs come, rise up and bring on tears…) i’ve watched my boy become best friends with a kid who can’t afford the hot cocoa in the cafeteria. i’ve heard stories that might make your hairs stand on end. but he takes them in stride because he loves the kid who tells the stories, true stories from a life that’s short on lucky breaks. and i can’t help but know that to have your eyes wide-opened when you’re 11, when you’re smack dab in middle school, is to keep those eyes forever scanning the landscape in whole new ways.

that sweet boy will not go back to our leafy little village taking it for granted, taking anything for granted (so help me, Lord on high). he will not forget his friend who has to step over the drug-dealing in the staircase. or the other stories i can’t tell here.  he will remember how much he loved the street ball in the gym. how the big towering kids loved the scrappy little white boy, my boy. and how he woke up and realized he was truly color blind. and more than comfortable in a united nations classroom.

i write this because i live and breathe contentment these days. pure joy is an hourly intoxicant.

and i wouldn’t have gotten here if i’d let the demons hold me down.

i promise you, my friend, you will purr again. your babies will stretch and pull and some nights, at bedtime, break down in floods of tears. but the morning will come when you are all gathered round the breakfast table, and laughter will rise up. and you’ll all feel oh so deeply home. and you’ll look around at all the wonders that have come your way, and you won’t want to imagine what it would have been like to not know such particular life-defining joys.

i promise you, my friend. we’ve all got a dose of squirrel somewhere down inside.

what are the little joys that make for comfort zones in your long day?

 

welcome mat. even when it’s borrowed…

welcome mat

dispatch from 02139 (in which dear old friend rolls beneath the transom, but before she does we whistle while we work, loving the art of red-carpeting for a friend…)

the coq au vin bubbled away. the flannel sheets, unfurled and tucked tightly onto bottom bunk (with nursing-school-acquired hospital corners as far as i could reach). even the bathroom mirror got spritzed with shiny polish.

i hummed the whole day long, from the moment i awoke (at 4 when the cat let out a yowl). till the last stalk of hyacinth was plucked into a vase, an olfactory and faux springtime attempt at masking the inconvenient truth that the kitty-litter bin has nowhere else to hide but alongside the claw-foot tub in the already itty-bitty bathroom, the one just inches away from the living-dining-conviving rooms.

a dear friend was flying into beantown, a friend from long ago and far away (we’ve been close as close since the day she wandered into the tribune newsroom back in 1985, and through the years we’ve weathered many of the bumps that life can bring).

all day long i savored the pure oxygen that is the art of putting out the welcome mat. even when it’s borrowed.

puttering for this particular friend is all the more delicious because a.) i ADORE her, but b.) she too loves the art of red-carpeting for a friend, or making like the keeper of a dreamy b & b, one who wholly grasps the concept that it’s the little details — a fresh pitcher of water by the bed, complete with lemony life rafts floating in the drink; a paperwhite bulb bundled in see-through wrap tied up with string and plunked atop a stack of fluffy towels, a token to take home; the red-wine clouds wafting from the oven — that whisper, “i love you, my friend, and i’ve taken every care to wrap you in the luxuries of deep, long friendship.”

if you’ve ever been taken care of in this particular way — and i hope and pray you have — you know the magic powers of this potion.

perhaps you too have been lulled into dreamy state as someone paved your way with the beautiful. as someone thought two steps ahead, and laid out a fluffy robe, filled a canister with bath salts and rubs. stocked the fridge with icy drinks, or left out a tub of cocoa, fat marshmallows and king leo peppermint sticks.

all in all, made you feel like the cherished guest they’d waited a lifetime to behold.

i’d long been an under-the-radar admirer of these domestic arts. didn’t want to let on (not too loudly, anyway) that i might secretly pine for martha stewart — her actual self, not merely her glossy pages — to be stationed at the back of my pantry. nor that i spent time dilly-dallying over fresh-picked bouquets or tucking lavender sachets between my linens.

but then, some years back, it was this particular friend — one of my most brilliant, certainly among the most widely and deeply read, harvard-educated and bayou-steeped, a newspaper scribe-turned-public radio news hound — who once confided that she was hankering to write a book on, not the influence of castro on miami’s cuban ex-pats and not the cajun roots of zydeco (which i might have guessed), but rather on hospitality, pure and, yes, holy.

it is, of the many nesty arts, one of the most exuberantly selfless.

it is about wrapping the ones you love in the comforts you might only dream about. maybe some of us tend to overthink it because we so deeply wish we were so wrapped. or, to be even more honest, because we wish we had the knack for being kinder and gentler to our very own selves. and so in doing for others we inhale, absorb, deep-breathe whatever afterglow seeps out.

i’ll not ever forget the long-ago weekend i spent tucked inside my radio friend’s coconut grove, florida, tile-roofed house. i can still hear the tumble of the tomato chunks as she poured that evening’s gazpacho from a chilled pitcher into wide-waisted goblets. can still feel the egyptian-thread pillowcases against my cheeks. still hear the jazzy soundtrack that played softly as we curled on the couch, catching up on whatever stories hadn’t fit in all the long-distance phone calls.

and so, two whole decades later, i still indulge in returning the indulgence whenever she comes to visit. and, even after all these years spent on far ends of the continent, she makes a point of doing so at least once every year, even re-routing her itinerary this week from LA (where she lives now) to DC’s inauguration with a stop in cambridge, so we could — together, on a chilly misty day — walk her old stomping ground.

and this time round, with my college-girl budget (meaning the few dollar bills that happened to be in my wallet), i got a bonus round of seeing what i could do without grabbing for the credit card. which somehow made it all the more delightful. the nice man at the flower stall in harvard square let me buy a single hyacinth stem, then threw in — for good measure — a clutch of laurel branches. i scrounged in the stairwell for the leftover bottle of bordeaux someone gave me for my birthday, and that — with a plop of chicken, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms — became my bubbling brew of coq au vin. clean sheets don’t cost a dime, nor do fluffy towels. nor bowls of oatmeal stirred and studded with cranberries and raisins. the fresh snow falling out the window came free too. and the long long hours of unbroken conversation. even the sumptuous global gala at the ambassador’s house, one filled with women peacebuilders from the world’s most war-torn countries (all in town for a one-week women’s peacekeeping colloquium, and with which a few scribes — including me — helped out), it all made for 36 hours of sacred time.

and 36 hours that will forever be tucked in our shared treasury of time magnificently spent.

although i’ll add to those heavenly hours the 12 that came in pre-amble, as i whistled while i worked. and, at every turn, thanked the angels for the gift of this most delicious company, a once-in-a-lifetime friend you forever love through and through and through….

what are some of the welcome tricks you tuck up your sleeve, for i happen to know there are a few masters at the art of hospitality who so benevolently pull up chairs? do tell. a girl can never ever have too many tricks in this divine department….

comin’ home….

coming home garland

dispatch from 02139 (but not for long as a temporary return to roots is upon us…..)

oh, lordy, i miss that place. miss that ol’ stove. miss the oven that merely vaguely cranks the heat you so politely request.

i miss the creaking old planks at the top of the stairs. i miss the stairs, and the wall of family pictures that always slows my climbing so i can blow a kiss to one of the heroes that hang there in frames.

truth is, i miss everything about it. home, that is. i ache deep inside to be back inside my own four walls, to be under the roof that shelters me, and the skylights that let me in on the ping-ping-ping of the rain, or the hush and the shadow of snow as it drifts.

i’ve had to keep it corked all these months, had to keep it bottled inside, for fear i’d burst open with the heartache of missing a place that is as much a part of me as my right or my left arm, really.

i’m a little bit scared to come home, knowing that it’ll wrench off the nice safe scab that’s grown over the hurt place, the part of me that misses my old familiar house, the one we’ve stitched and embroidered, hammered and tweaked, to make it the very reflection of our deep down insides.

it’ll be hard as heck to leave again, just a few short days after i get there. much as i love it here. much as i’ve come to feel a bit like this, too, is home — of sorts. though it will always be home away from home. not home, the real thing.

i can barely stand to picture my garden trail, and the bench that sits in just the right spot, at just the right angle, so i can keep watch on the kitchen herbs, on the window box, on the hydrangea and fern, and my old-fashioned country mailbox, where i store all my garden tools and a fat ball of twine.

i wonder if my red bird has missed me.

i’ve surely missed him. i’ve not seen a red bird since i got here. score one for the midlands of the country.

anyone who’s rustled around here at the table for any short bit of a while knows that i am pretty much a through-and-through nesty girl. one who’s not so inclined to be yanked at the roots, settle in a thousand miles from home.

oh, this veritas university has its delights. and i’ve sucked the sweet marrow out of each and every one of them. and i’ve made friends i’ll keep for forever. and i’ve swallowed ideas that will spark a lifetime of stretching. so there is not one iota of complaint, not one dash of wishing we’d not taken this sumptuous adventure. it’s just that it’s hard to be away from a place that pumps life in your veins.

i miss my lane, i miss my chock-a-block alley, and the dear souls who dwell there. you find out, when you’re far away, just whom you miss, who pops into your daydreams, who stirs your soul.

i picture myself rolling around on the living room rug. and jumping up and down on the bed, on my knees, a pose that might kill me. or cripple me.

but it does capture the joy, the effervescence of being back home. though just for a little short while.

being an all-or-nothing sort of girl, i’d probably stay here in new england if given my druthers. only because it would be easier, in a deep down sort of a way, to not have to lock up and leave again. i’d rather settle in for good. be home, home at last. and not ever leave.

but my little fellow has been quite a brave soldier all these months, throwing himself headfirst into the glories of cambridge. and he is aching to get back to his dearly beloved sixth-grade pals. he’s already told me that he will spend the days bouncing from house to house, rarely home. i shouldn’t plan on seeing much of his sweet little face, he warned.

and the college fellow, too, he’s itching to be back in his very own room, the one halfway up the stairs. at thanksgiving, when here in the aerie, he mentioned how it was all fine, and a lovely place to sink into, but not really home home.

he, too, is requesting a dose of the real deal.

so it seems i’m tagging along as chief chaperone. their papa is staying behind — here to nestle the cat, but also for a stiff dose of quiet study time, as he has a class to teach come january and a book to write, and nothing serves those masters better than unencumbered, uninterrupted days of pure quiet.

we’ll fly in on christmas morn, a magical inbound flight if ever there was.

i picture my weepy ol’ eyes, craning over the boys who always claim the window seat, peering down on the itty-bitty houses as they come into view, as we soar in over the edge of the lake, as we catch the first glimmer of shimmering stacks rising up from the prairie.

i’ll be scanning the landscape for the dots and the treetops that signal my house.

i’ll be knowing that far down below, christmas unfolds all across the metropolis. and at my old shingled abode, not far from the shore of that great roiling lake, just there under the locust, i’ll imagine the old place warming up, purring again. even though there won’t be a stick of christmas inside.

but it’d better watch out, that unadorned cottage, for the mop-top crew of three homesick hearts just might be tempted to leap from the plane, drop from the sky, and slide down the chimney.

best ho-ho-ho christmas i can deeply imagine.

coming home

so it goes from here on a rainy, windy cambridge morn, as i wait for a bus from collegeville to pull into the station, as i wait to be four of us, instead of just three of us. it hardly feels christmasy here. but maybe back home it’s all frothy and white. 

big news of the week was that my old newspaper, the chicago tribune, asked me to write an essay for christmas, so it’ll be online any hour now, and in the sunday paper. an essay on coming home for christmas. 

so what’s the best ho-ho-ho christmas you can deeply imagine?

first things first

dispatch from cambridge (in which the chair up and flaps its wings, plopping down in the land of ZIP code 02139)…

getting to the garden had always been on the list. getting to the garden with scissors and a sense of the possible, a whole new bouquet at my fingertips, petals that didn’t bloom in my faraway garden.

and so, listening to the sound of my heart humming, i snipped and snipped and snipped. black-eyed susans, sunshiney marigolds, a bright-butter-yellow coreopsis or two or three.

fists full, i climbed the back stairs up to the third-floor aerie where all week i’ve been playing house, and while everyone else was out, was away, i added a signature note to the canvas that is our new dwelling.

i knew i was home, really home, when i stuck those thirsty stems into a cobalt-rimmed water glass, plunked the whole lot onto the pine table in the breakfast nook (where blue jays and sparrows come to the feeders there in the windows), stood back  and soaked it all in.

thus has this week unfolded, this first week, this long exhausting week of stuffing the poor old cat into the carrier, watching the taxi pull up to the curb, giving my mama a kiss as she and a gaggle of neighbors (at least one in a house coat) stood at the sidewalk of the house i love, and bowed on bended knee as we pulled away — the little one, the fat scaredy cat, and me.

the trip through airport security was smooth as i might have hoped, save for the news that they were pulling me and the cat (loose in my arms) aside for a paw swipe (mine, not his) to make sure no scant trace of explosive dust was anywhere upon me.

all this as i watched my laptop tumble down the TSA conveyor belt as the suddenly-left-alone 11-year-old tried to grab for the laptop, his backpack, my backpack, the empty cat carrier and whatever else was due to crash to the ground soon as the belt did its dumping. (like i said, this was about as smooth a stumble through security as i might have hoped for….)

then came the plane.

all was swell enough till the part where the plane comes out of the sky, and typically, as we all learned long ago, the descent is an expected — and necessary — part of any flight plan.

up till then, our fat old cat had more or less snoozed in his chic black bag, the one squished under the seat in front of me, the one that made the lady at the end of our row, the lady with the hearts-and-flowers tattoo peeking out from her undies, roll her eyes, while muttering impure thoughts, each and every one of those unkindnesses darted straight at our sorry trinity.

but then, not long after the pilot announced it was seatbelt time and we were headed down, that old cat let out a howl that, long as i’ve known him, means he needs an airbag and he needs it quick.

for the next half hour, my past life as a little-kid nurse came rushing back to me.

the 11-year-old beside me kept shrieking that something was wrong with the cat, the cat was going to pass out, “he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe,” were the words precisely. and i, pretending to be an ocean of calm, prayed mightily, and prepared myself for cat CPR.

to spare you the gory details, i’ll cut to the quick: no CPR ever was needed, but by the time we landed, let’s just say i was covered in decoration i’d not worn when i boarded the plane.

once we’d rustled up our bags (which oddly had come in on another flight, making for a few heart-stopping moments as we all imagined our life’s belongings swirled down some airport drain), we hopped into the little black car and let our driver (that would be the fellow who snared this faraway fellowship in the first place) steer us home.

wisely, he’d picked a route that zipped us right past fenway park at 55 mph, a sight that the kid in the backseat, a kid who considers wrigley field a holy mecca, couldn’t help but up and notice.

then came the exit sign: “cambridge,” was all it said, with an arrow pointing up and to the right. but the deep-down knowledge that that’s where home now was, and this was indeed a road marker in the story of our life, well, it made my heart thump just a little bit harder.

the architecture critic with his hands more or less on the wheel made like he always does whenever he drives: he’s pointing here, there and every which way except for the road, pointing at some built treasure whose whole story we all need to know. (it’s why i feared for my life when, back in chicago, they were building that god-awful soldier field, and he’d be so busy glaring and cussing as we sped past, i was certain the end of our story would come in a fiery crash with the headline: “architecture critic & whole entire family smashed to smithereens on lake shore drive in a final fury of fast-lane drive-by criticism.”

but back to the story of how we made it to home, here on franklin street, and what happened next: i’ll spare you details again, but let’s just say i walked into a lovely place, a perfect place, a place whose windows hadn’t been opened in weeks. it was hot. and, lest you forget, i had in my arms a queazy cat who’d barely escaped in-flight CPR.

i did what any newly-arrived immigrant might do: i dashed into the bathroom, and slammed the door. i had a trembling cat on my hands, a cat who wasted no time slithering beneath the footed tub and cowering in a corner.

i cleaned us all off, and dove into what i’ve come to recognize as my default mode — i made like a 9-year-old version of my little girl self and, just as back in the days when a whole glorious summer could be spent rearranging logs into tables and chairs and whole rooms in the woods, or turning a shoebox into a cozy cottage, i started to play house.

for the next three days i unpacked, i puttered. i pulled blue cobalt bowls from the shelves, and tucked them around the kitchen counters. i made a list or two or three of things we need from the nearest home-supply store. i dusted up cat hair. i talked myself through the first load of laundry in a cobalt-blue front-load washer that looks like it could double as the mars rover (i had visions of “i love lucy” soapy disaster, fearing i’d hit the wrong knob, just as lucy and ethel did back in the black-and-white days, and rivers of suds would cascade into the apartment just below ours).

i’m rather a firm believer in the notion that if we’re all going to spread our wings — and that’s why we’re here in the first place — we need one solid nest from which to fly each morning, and to which we return as the night sky fills with stars.

and so, my job no. 1 here on franklin street, was to turn this place into a home that feels like it’s ours. i’d tucked plenty of tokens from our faraway house into boxes and the back of the car (despite a chorus of eye rolls and protestations).

i knew, because i believe in these things, that the little guy just might need his vuvuzela, that long-necked noisemaker that punctuates soccer games around the globe. i knew his favorite fleece blanket might come in handy, draped at the end of his brand-new bunk bed. and i knew that a pantry filled with birthday peanut butter, and his old jar of honey, just might start the day with a not-to-be-underestimated sense of the familiar.

and so it’s gone here in our first week in cambridge. first things first, i know deep down. take the time to make it home. and who knows just how far and high those flights from the nest will carry you.

unfortunately, the other thing i seem to have packed in my suitcase was a nasty on-again-off-again fever, so some of my sticking close to home has been due to the achy bones that often accompany said elevated temps. i did make it out to harvard yard, and was blown away by the history and stateliness. truth is, i felt my knees wobble just a little as i passed through the brick-and-iron gate, kept wondering when a whistle would blow, when they’d check my passport and send me packing, saying i didn’t really belong. but i’m told by dear friends who did lug their college texts under these leafy arbors, that that’s not so uncommon a feeling here, it’s just that plenty of folks won’t let on to such wobbles.

so began week one. and tell me this: do you too find you must feather your nest before the real work of the heart can begin?

the nesty girl’s guide to real estate

when you grow up curled into armchairs, with your nose pressed to the pages of fairy-tale storybooks, absorbed by the drawings of magic cottages tucked in the woods…

when you grow up meandering about the pond across the lane from your growing-up house, poking around in the woods you call your own, making logs into beds, and the seed pods of wildflowers into your make-believe kitchen…

when you grow up with a grandma who lives in an old fine house, with secret stairs and itty-bitty passageways, and an upstairs porch with creaking wicker chairs and fireflies dotting the summer night’s air…

when your idea of a heavenly summer as a 10-year-old girl is to spend it with cardboard boxes and your very best friend, cutting out fabric bits, and gluing and dabbing on paint, building a dollhouse that stretches from june straight into august’s last hours…

when all of those synapses have been connected somewhere along the way, when all of that cozy-cottage DNA courses through your chromosomes, well, you don’t look for a place to lay your head quite like the rest of the world. you don’t get wowed by granite countertops or showers that look as if they might lift off and whirl to outer space.

nope, you tend to poke around in peculiar uncharted ways. you know when you’re home when you hear the ping go off somewhere deep inside your noggin. you wait to feel the pounding there in your chest. matter of fact, you must have a light meter tucked back behind your eyeballs, because you always, always pay attention to the way the sunbeams filter in through the windowpanes.

you become over the years a decidedly undeniably nesty girl.

you turn into a someone who draws oxygen from dappled light dancing on old floor boards, who finds herself charmed by the newel post at the bend in the staircase, who spies clawed feet peeking out from under the victorian bathtub and you can’t wait to climb in.

you, very much so, find places to live by heart.

and you are over the moon when along with all of those lumber and glass particulars, you discover the person who owns the place is clearly a kindred spirit, a brand-new lifelong friend, the soulmate you’ve been searching for, without ever asking.

and so it was that we stumbled upon a charmed treetop aerie the other afternoon, one that will be our home for a year, the holy sacred place we’ll come back to night after night, as soon as we launch our big back-to-college adventure in cambridge, massachusetts, 02139.

as much as, just a few weeks ago, i could barely imagine leaving this old house that owns a piece of my soul, i discovered this week what i’ve always known: four walls and a roof are only the beginning.

what makes a place home are the whispers you hear when you tiptoe in through the doorway. what makes a place home is the way some invisible hand reaches out and cradles the tenderest parts of you.

and as we motored about the twisty winding streets of old cambridge, i knew, soon as we turned around the corner of putnam and franklin, that suddenly something felt familiar, not foreign, even though i’d never been there before. maybe it was the pie bakery & cafe we passed just before taking a left turn at the white picket fence. maybe it was the cobblestone sidewalks. or the victorian laciness of the woodwork out front.

as soon as the front door opened, and a gentle man ushered us in, as soon as we passed the statue of st. jude tucked in one of the bends in the three-story staircase, i found myself sighing deep down inside.

once we walked in, once i saw the way the sunlight fluttered on the old floor boards, dancing through the leaves of the trees that harbored most of the many, many windows, once i noticed the old brick column, a chimney from the downstairs fireplace, once i saw the cherry dining table with room for all of us and a few of our friends, i was starting to cross all my fingers and toes.

then, i tiptoed into the book-lined office of the very kind man who had opened the door, who had shaken our hands and left us alone to look about in quiet.

i spied there on his desk the covers of books with titles that gave me goosebumps, each one some combination of poetry and divinity, the two subjects i’ve long said i was heading east to study. i felt tears welling up in my eyes.

i hadn’t expected any of this. i’d more or less abandoned the hope that my long string of real-estate magic could take yet another miraculous turn. real estate, they tell you, is all about hard cold numbers: dollar signs and square feet. it’s about making the deal, signing the contracts.

except when it’s not. except when you’re a soulful spirit and you don’t work in worldly ways. you wait for the tears to spring in your eyes. you wait to feel that thumping thing there in your chest.

you don’t need dotted lines, on which to scribble your name. you don’t need security deposits to promise you will keep from banging holes in the walls.

you, an A-number-1 nesty girl, you know when you’ve stepped into a hallowed chamber.

you know, right away, when the fellow offering you two kayaks and a canoe, along with passes to all of boston’s museums, and 11 months in this treetop two-bedroom, two-study apartment, complete with bird feeders at two of the windows, you know he’s the saint and the spiritual guide you’ve been secretly waiting for for so many years. (especially when he starts to list for you the monastery in walking distance, should you be inclined toward “smells and bells,” as he joked, meaning the incense and vespers, and then goes on to tell you about the abbey not so far away, along the south boston shore, where you can rent a hermitage for the night, should you care to be holed up with your pen and your prayers in utter silence.)

you didn’t need all the running around to the bank and the notary public. all you needed was to stand there and shake hands, a deal is a deal — when it’s of the heart, that is.

you didn’t need some 10-page typed contract. you simply accepted the invitation of the lovely fellow and his lovely wife to come back that evening for a glass of wine at the candlelit table on the back deck where the mockingbird kept up his night song, and all of you began the unspooling of your life’s story, and the very first threads that would stitch you together for years to come.

and so it is that we now know where we’ll hang our hearts this coming school year, when all of us go back to school in cambridge.

and so it is that once again i am witness to the truth that if you never extinguish the pilot light of faith in undying old-fashioned goodness, it will up and surprise you, surround you, and illuminate your path in pure unfiltered luminescence.

and that’s how nesty girls do real estate.

if i were to write up the real estate ad for the lovely place we’ll call our home, it would go something like this:

2 bdrm, 1 w/ skylight where you can absorb the lullaby of gentle summer’s rain. kitchen w/ bird feeders at 2 windows. windowseat tucked into corner. back deck tucked into the tops of trees, looking out on a flock of gabled roofs where mockingbirds and robins perch for evening song. bookshelves stocked with every cookbook you could dream of. complete, chronologically-catalogued case of sacred music. old quilts on beds. hardwood floors that glow in sunlight. birdsong from 4 a.m. till sunset. church bells, 2 blks. away, chime on the hour. herb garden. climbing roses. lifelong friendship included. floorboards and ceiling beams appear to have absorbed years of poetry.

how would you write the real estate ad for the place you call home?

illustration above is the frontispiece from “the tasha tudor cookbook: recipes and reminiscences from corgi cottage.”

coming home

as much as i loved tiptoeing down to the porch that wrapped around the grand old hotel, as much as i loved creaking in those old wicker rocking chairs, my palms wrapped round the mugs of first-of-the-morning coffee, the just-blooming, just-exploding viburnum and magnolia doing a perfumed waltz up my nose, i am home now, and already i’m thinking there is no place that soothes me quite like coming back in the door of the place that knows me, the place that i know, that i love, that keeps time right with my heart.

we took ourselves a little road trip this week. not too far. not too long. down to nooks and crannies of the southern midwest, to hilly southern indiana, near where it brushes up against kentucky, and on over to kentucky, too. to where my roots begin.

on a bit of a whim, we rode out to the itty-bitty country town of paris. yes, as in kentucky, 14 miles north and east of lexington. out to where my papa was a boy, out to the horse farms he knew like family, even though he lived in town, before they up and moved to the big city, to get my papa to schools his mama must have decided were a better fit for a boy with a school mind like his.

the closer we got to paris, the more i missed my papa, missed him like i’d just left him yesterday but couldn’t ever get him back. i missed him so much my heart started to hurt as we rode along the road they call the paris pike, where century-old stone fences line the farms that roll, acre upon acre, blue-grass mile after blue-grass mile.

i wasn’t quite sure how to get to the farm that we claim as our own, the one whose name you might find on the can of baking powder there at the back of your pantry. calumet is the one. calumet farm. and my papa grew up there; his big brother, the one he loved who died in the war, he ran the place, and all these years later, when i sit down to watch the derby, the kentucky derby of course, i hear someone whisper “calumet,” or i see the crimson-and-white silks the calumet jockey always wears, and my heart skips a beat.

“our farm,” i think, as if a connection from back in the 1930s and ’40s, holds one drop of weight anymore. and sure enough, when we got there, the crimson iron gate was closed, all but locked. and the fellow who came to the phone let me know i wasn’t someone for whom they’d swing it open. place was closed for the day, he said loud and clear, made sure i heard it all the way at the end of the very long drive, even though we were talking over the dial-up intercom planted there by the gatehouse, and i heard every word all right. so i stood there on the outside of the locked, lacy ironwork, feeling quite wholly my place in its history: shut out. an insignificant afterthought. nothing more than a nuisance, there where they won’t let you in.

but before that, when i’d stopped in the offices of the town newspaper, and told the nice ladies that my papa grew up there, and i was looking for calumet farm, well, they couldn’t have been kinder. they all but pulled out the kentucky pie, and a plate and a fork. all but poured me a cup of afternoon coffee. instead, they asked me my papa’s name. then they started to tell me all about his family, where they lived, where they went to church. i tell you, no one with his last name has lived there for a long long time. but in little towns like paris, kentucky, they remember. make you feel just like family, there in the newspaper office on main.

but not at the gates of the farm now owned by someone altogether new. someone from far, far away, i’ve been told.

for four days and four nights, i slept in beds that don’t know my particular lumps. drank coffee that wasn’t brewed in my pot. i walked and looked and listened, and found myself quite content, out discovering a part of the middle of america i hadn’t seen in a long long time, and other parts i’d never seen before.

i do love mucking about, discovering, finding the familiar far far away.

but, once again, as always, i discovered just a short while ago that the familiar that i love best, the familiar that soothes me through and through, is the familiar that i know by heart: the particular tick and tock of all our old clocks, the pit-a-pat of the old cat’s paws as he ambled down the steps once he heard us there in the kitchen.

why, i love tossing old car-bumped apples back in the bin, finding everything there in the fridge where i left it, only a bit more wrinkled and the milk gone sour. i even found myself humming as i threw the first load of road-trip clothes into the wash, the machine whose groans and burps i know inside and out.

coming home will always be the closest i come to purring, pure and simple. give me the floorboards that creak just where i know they will. give me the garden whose every bulb i tucked in that holy sacred earth.

i’ll miss those front-porch rocking chairs, come morning. but the coffee will be just the way i like it, with two or three shakes of cinnamon, there on top of the mound before i close the lid and wait.

back home in my kitchen, humming.

what do you love best about coming home? or are you a travelin’ soul? 

and just in case you are interested, that lovely porch and those rocking chairs can be found at the west baden springs hotel, in west baden, indiana, just this side of the hoosier national forest, not far from brown county, a place worth a road trip, indeed.

one last bit of homecoming joy: my mama, closest thing i know to a saint plenty of days, she came by to stock the fridge and leave two fat bouquets of viburnums on the countertop, right beside the kitchen sink, so when we walked in from the road trip, first thing i inhaled was the viburnum waltz, same as the one that made me swoon back on the west baden’s wrap-around porch. oh, i wish there was a smell button here, so i could waft it right by your nose. you’ll just have to close your eyes now, and pretend. try this: imagine what heaven would smell like, if it bloomed on a bush.

old friend, home

looking back, it seems i always fall hard.

once it was the glimpse of the gingerbread moulding, peeking out from over the sidewalk. another time, the hardwood floors that stretched down the long narrow hallway. years later, it was an upstairs window, and the glow from inside on a moonlit night, and the outline of a woman bent over, painting the sill, a woman who called out to me and practically sealed the deal before i’d walked up the stoop. after that came the victorian, with the sunlight pouring in from wall-to-wall windows and skylights, with flying staircases, and leafy full branches that brushed by the glass, making it feel like you lived in the trees.

those are the places i’ve loved, the apartments and houses, the homes. places that held me for particular passages of the story that is my sweet life.

this old house, it called to me from the front walk, the way the bluestone meandered up to the stoop, did not take the straight route, the direct route. then, there’s the pause, the two steps up, the tucked-in cove where the sunbeams pour down, where sparrows, for years now, have made their fine home. seems i loved this old place before i even got to the door.

we’ve been here nearly nine years, and it’s come to be one of my dearest soulmates, an ally, a friend. a house needn’t speak words to speak to your heart. sometimes, it whispers. it beckons with light. it pulses with ticking and tocks, and creaks in the floorboards.

i’ve come to know and love all of its quirks. the way the back middle burner stubbornly takes its sweet time, when i try to crank up the flame. the way the upstairs hall light flickers and dims, as if there’s a hand at the switch that no one can see.

this is the place, no matter the hour, that nourishes, that sustains, that refuels me.

it is my quiet place, a cove for prayer and meditations. it is the launchpad for dreams, whether those dreams are spun staring out the window, finding myself charmed by a finch or a cardinal. or, tiptoeing down in the dark, somehow stumbling into the courage it takes to bravely and boldly hatch some new plan.

this old house holds the chairs and the nooks that call to me, come curl up here. too often, i ignore all those pleas. i run and i scurry most of the time.

but i like that the offering is there; i promise those places that some day the hour will come when i will find time for pausing, for sitting and thinking. instead of dashing and thinking.

but even mid-stride, as i bound up the stairs, my old house catches my attention, soothes on the run. i notice the way the morning light makes rainbows on the wall. i watch the leaf shadows dance on the pillow, there on the comfy old armchair.

i know it’s just walls and wood, slapped with layers of paint, but a house has a soul, i’m convinced. a house is a friend, an old friend, a knowing friend. one that welcomes your cold bare feet slapping against its planks. one that drenches you in sunlight, even on a bitter cold day. one whose windows let in the wind. let in the cool night’s breeze.

what other friend offers a bath, a good long soak in the tub, complete with bubbles?

what other friend begs you to fill up its rooms, with your friends and your dreams and your candlelit dinners?

where else can you plop on the bed for a good solid cry, and the walls won’t ever let on? won’t share your secret, your sorrow?

and that same old house, the very next morning, it’s the very place where the dawn’s pink glow pours back in, gives you the air, and the spark, that you need to try all over again.

this old house, among the great good souls who populate my most blessed life, it is among the most deeply essential.

tell me how your dwelling place has seeped into your soul…..
and before we go, time to whisper deep blessings for our very own beloved slj who birthed her sweet baby girl, night before last. she has been a brilliant light here at this table through the years, and longed to taste and to relish the calling of motherhood. she is now among us, the blessed who mother…….a lifetime of blessings, sweet friend.

homey home

i didn’t find the squat yellow square right away. i wasn’t intended to. the someone who had scribbled it had tucked it away. left it in a hard-to-find place where i’d bumble upon it, oh, heaven-knows-when.

it was in the stack of post-its, when i eventually found it. not at the top where a name and a street address had been scribbled. it was one sheet down. quietly awaiting discovery.

actually, it was right on my desk, nestled beside my computer. so it wasn’t intended to take forever to find. just long enough. just enough to come up and tap me quietly on the shoulder. to say, psssst. here’s a message.

the message read: “you have a very ‘homey’ home!!”

i glowed when i read it.

especially because the someone who wrote it spends plenty of time here, but doesn’t live here herself. and i grew up in her house, a house i never really thought of as homey or not. it was simply, completely, capital-h Home. the place where most of my stories are rooted.

my mama wrote that note. my mama who is more inclined to note the beauty of a bird’s feather than to pay close attention to wallpaper. who cares more about tromping through the woods, in search of a bluebird’s nest, than picking out pillows for any old couch.

my mama, you see, grew up in a beautifully appointed house. a house where the living room was not to be touched. where nicknacks were to be tiptoed around. where when you sat down on a velvety cushion you tried not to move, lest you crumple the nap of the velvet.

i, growing up under the wing of these two house-makers, one spare, inclined toward the natural, the other well-upholstered, in a house with nooks and crannies that took my breath away, well, i seem to have landed plop in the middle.

give me a nook any day. give me a corner dripping with charm. but don’t over-upholster. and do bring the outside in.

the number one aim of this house that is ours is to make it feel like two out-reaching arms, arms that fold you in, hold you close to the bosom. arms that offer you tea, and maybe a crumpet, when the skies up above are gloomy and cloudy.

if that’s the very definition of “very homey,” and i think that it might be, well then, the words on the post-it did make me glow.

and to think that my mama, my mama who spends long hours here two days a week, hours when i’m not here, to think that she’d picked up on that bit of my heart, that one dream that i’ve sought out to catch, well, to say i was tapped on the shoulder, caught by surprise, made to blush, and glow just a bit, that might begin to capture the feeling.

i spend my workdays sometimes talking to folks about houses, how to unclutter, how to appoint. every once in a while, i’m told to gather a page-full of pictures of beautiful things, baubles, or doormats, or pillows. and now, don’t tell my bosses, but often, i couldn’t care less. it’s not what i’m after, not here in my house.

if there is any one thing i’ve worked hard to make here in this house is to make it be a someplace to come home to, a someplace where storms can’t come in, where the tock of clock, or the sharp scent of clove simmering on the stove are the soft things you just barely notice. notice enough to slow down the race in your heart, soothe the jaggedy edge of your nerves.

i want armchairs that hold you in their wings. and blankets so cozy you don’t want to move.

i want logs in a fireplace that crackle. and soft round cookies under the great glass dome on the kitchen counter.

i want neat and clean, yes, but only because i find it calms me. i want bits of the garden on my old kitchen table, even in winter.

i want candles on the table, and i want them most when they’re flickering, casting their soft seeds of light on plates filled with food.

if all of that makes me the poster girl for homey homes, well then bring on the cameras, slap me up on the telephone poles.

because long long ago, curled up on the patchwork quilt of my little-girl bed, daydreaming out a window, staring up through the branches of the oak that framed my view of the stars and the clouds, and mostly the heavens, i knew what i wished for when i was all grown: a wee cottage in the woods where the storybook could end happily ever after.

and my old gray-shingled house, under the limbs of an ash and a locust, it’s the closest i’ve come to that long-ago dream.

it is, at last, my homey sweet home.

what’s your definition of homey home? what parts of your house tickle your fancy, stoke the flames of your heart?

house day

in the annals of psychology, i’m not sure where this would be filed: ordering one’s house as sure cure for inner re-arranging, pacifying, lulling into seasonal harmony.

humming while you work, another way to put it.

what’s on the docket today is no mere flickering of dust rag, no mere spewing this place’s dust over to that locale.

no, today is deep and pure and utterly satisfying.

i’ve yanked itty blue bottles off the window sills, hauled window cushions clear of the vast and dreamy looking-posts that are my window seats, where i’m nearly nestled in the boughs of trees, looking out and down on all that stirs in the lane and yards beyond.

yes, i’ve cleared the way for that once-every-18-months ritual (a saner soul might do it with more regularity, but oh, life got in the way): the washing of every blessed pane of glass in this old light-filled house.

but why stop there when the garden just beyond is calling, too. when the shaggy, floppy stems of summer’s-glory-gone now beg for sharp-edged readjustment. when weary stems can no longer hold up their end of the equation, and beg to be cut to the crown, where they can assume the winter’s lotus wrap and settle into slumber.

it’s inside-outside cleanse and purge today. i’ve been at it all morning, my hands worn raw already.

oh, but my soul is bright and shining. humming, too, because a cleanse is all a girl needs at the end of a long hard summer, at the end of a string of weeks that make your wiry hairs stand on end.

i’ve spent my life claiming to be mostly irish, but fact is i am half german. latent german, indeed. except for this one rare sprout of me, where it all comes spewing forth. and i can clean against the best of ‘em, clean my heartache away, sweep away my worries, scrub my everlasting fears.

oh, i’ve been caught out front, with broom in hand, sweeping off my bluestone stoop like some weathered, babushka-wrapped eastern-european hausfrau. i once (okay, maybe twice or thrice) forgot to eat the whole day long because i’d gotten caught up in the hurricane of cleaning that is a clean-freak set loose on a day without distraction. at night that night i got all woozy, felt my heart thump-thump in a way that made me think my dying act might be squeezing out the squeegee mop.

a friend of mine, one i work with, just last week watched her husband die. and she tells me that she cannot keep from cleaning. has been up half the night all week long, with toothbrush to the grout, trying to rid her house of every last speck of muck and gunk.

the famous family tale, told for years now, is that when my husband went off to college, his father, bereft and adrift, took to endless cleaning of the garage. when he’d rinsed the garbage cans for the umpteenth day in a row, someone who loved him finally pulled him aside, and suggested he might find his solace elsewhere.

someone here had better lock the garbage cans away, for we’re due for a repeat performance by the next generation–that very son who next year will be the bereft father who’s left his firstborn off at college.

i only wish that every friday could be my day-long deep-clean-the-house day. oh, i get spurts and chunks. string my week with short blasts of vacuuming, sponging down the counters. why, even emptying the dishwasher has its medicinal gratifications.

but for the nooks and crannies of the soul there is no such balm as a dawn-till-dusk, sun-soaked, crisp autumn day awash with buckets of soapy water, and piles of garden clippings to haul to the compost bin.

there are rare few corners of our existence that we can polish to a shine, rid of that which mucks it up. and so, to the cleaning rag and the garden clippers, we must bow in fervent gratitude.

amen amen. there’s much left to be done here today, and so this quick meander. still adjusting to this itty bitty screen, now carried to the kitchen table, where i watch the windows glisten, where i sense the garden’s lifted from its end-of-season shearing. it’s been quite a week or three on the workfront, none of it easy to swallow. and so i come back to here, to the table, where it all keeps ticking along.

next week, a serious treat here at the table. i’ll be sitting down to coffee with the barefoot contessa—be still my heart, and here i’ll uncork the back story, and let you in on all the secrets of what it’s like to share a table with the contessa herself.

till then, anyone else find pure emotional repair and contentment in the cleaning bucket, and the garden clippers?