How to build a house (part 1)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 10, 2016

At eight years of age, my best friend is a little girl named Minnie who lives not too far from our house on the shores of Lake Washington, in Seattle, a friend with whom I spend the majority of my days, outside, making stuff up.

We make up a language and we make up a club, of which we are the only members. We create a clubhouse in Minnie’s backyard among the Northwestern azaleas and rhododendrons and we sit there, squatting, serving things on leaf plates and pretending we understand our language, which consists of only two words put together in different ways. It is deliciously cozy and consumes our days. We feel sheltered not only by trees and shrubs but by the insular, hermetically sealed world of best friendship.

In contrast, the house I live in with my family — that speaks the normal language of dysfunction with too many words put together in too many ways — is vast and contains rooms that each have their own particular vibe. The dining room rings of precision and order, the kitchen of Mozart (my mother’s single obsession), the TV room of my father’s uninhibited laughter (heard only late at night with each one of Johnny Carson’s jokes). The living room has a stiff shirt-and-shoes-only feel, and the cellar, of course, off-gasses fear.

My room, which is covered in red and gold Chinese wallpaper (dad’s choice and I am not allowed to tack up or move things), is, at least, a smallish room, and it is carpeted. I hide coins under the corners of the carpet and sleep with my two stuffed snakes, each one flanking me snuggly like a sentry. I don’t feel particularly safe in this house, as big as it is; this being said, though, I still dream about it, and visit it occasionally, as if, really, it has always inhabited me.

Aside from the crucible of my eighth year are all the other houses and homes I live in during my life, from the last of the antique-filled dorm rooms in a small So-Cal college to the last hippie house off Dupont Circle in D.C. to one of the last of the sweeeeeet ski-bum houses in Telluride (right across from the current library), which rents for $250 a month in 1990.

In 1993, we buy a house at Lawson Hill when the development is still young, and we stay put, feeling it fill out with life, our child’s life. I construct a tree in her room, up to the ceiling, and plop a freezer-sized playhouse down beside it. The actual trees on the property get bigger and so does she, and when I finally sell the house, her loss is large enough that I know we have been successful in creating a home, and not just one that will stalk her in her dreams.

I am remembering, too, a tiny, impeccable woodsie home we stumble upon some eight or nine years ago while tromping through the aspens in summer. Lock and key, doormat and door. Clad windows. We find the key and trespass, slowly peeking in then stepping in completely. There is barely room for the three of us who stand there, dumb and in wonder, at the care and completeness of the surroundings. Sink, tiny bookshelves, bed, closet, windows with a view. Everything is in its place. What more could be needed in life than this? Silently, we compare it to our relatively very large house, and then, one click up, compare it to the mega-homes higher on the hill. What is shelter? To sleep, eat, read, stay warm, all in the company of trees, while mosses grow on the shingled roof?

Now, on a brand new day, I am in yet another house, one that we have helped build with our own hands, one that we have, with some help, designed and laid out. One that saw every cliché of house building come true despite our cavalier dismissal of generalizations and of pitfalls only others would encounter.

I am standing here on a floor I helped lay, humbled in every way by the process. I ask myself what it is I want to feel here — the deliciousness of my Minnie-days Diggity-dog club, the coziness of the woodsie, a delight in waking up and seeing the sun pour in, the peace and security of a cherished space. I want to cultivate gratitude for the daily miracles of comfort, beauty and light.

Already, I can tell you there is one thing I feel an enormous appreciation for — uninhibited joy and a profound sense of well-being, even — and that is that after over 30 years at altitude, I now have enough BTUs on the range to boil water well every time. I will never, ever take this for granted — which is a feeling I hope will spread in contagion to all the rooms of my life.

Acts of rebellion

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 4, 2015

I am standing on floor 26 of 666 Fifth Avenue circa 1982 in a corner office that belongs to my boss, a middle-aged woman who has pulled herself up from the secretarial pool to VP status in one of the largest publishing houses in Manhattan. She is out to lunch and I, one of her minions, am on the phone, looking down at the tiny people milling below, as I speak with my mother who has promised to send me some cash, maybe $50, which was a lot of money for me back then.

She does this on the sly, without my father knowing, because, though I’ve done the impossible, which is to move to New York City to find work in publishing, I’m always broke. I make about $9,500 a year (publishing is an industry notorious for abysmal wages) and pay nearly $500 a month for my precious apartment in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, that has a bath in the kitchen and a toilet down the hall. I penny pinch with groceries, attend free events and make my own dresses.

My father has been against the move to New York from the get-go. He doesn’t believe I will do it until he himself is standing on a platform at the Seattle train station, seeing me off on a six-day trans-Canada trip, suitcase in hand, on a journey that will land me at Grand Central Station.

When I quit the job in publishing after two years, my boss sees fit to tell me why I don’t have the stuff to rise through the ranks as she did. I rebel against publishing and find a job in a sweet little advertising firm and set my sights on copywriting, which turns out to be too much a man’s world even in the ‘80s; but, still, I last two more years before dropping out and heading West.

At this point, my father, who has never wanted me in New York in the first place, is against my moving away. He does not at all like the sound of the words “alternative lifestyle,” or the idea of scrabbling for jobs that have no merit in a town he has never heard of, pretty postcards aside. When I land in Telluride and have a series of ultra-innocuous adventures, probably none of which should have been revealed, the conservative, protective, ex-colonel with doctor-lawyer expectations for his youngest daughter cannot cope. He excommunicates me from the family.

My name is not spoken in the house. I lose contact with my older siblings. All conversations with my mother are done secretly, infrequently and with plenty of unspoken anguish on the line. I’m not a drug addict or a criminal, I’m something worse: a person with wasted potential who has fallen by the wayside. Someone who cannot be rehabilitated.

A couple of years later, my mother calls to tell me dad is dying and that I, along with the other children, need to come home. It’s uncomfortable, but the brave part of me kicks in, acting as if nothing has really happened, however much this emaciated version of my father cannot really look me in the eye. I’m unable to say how painful it has been, and certainly unable to receive or give the love we both need. And though I, along with the other children, am handed a gift from his sickbed — a charm bracelet of my grandmother’s — I can only stare at it, thank-you smile pasted on my face, thinking it is the most painful present I have ever received.

Before he dies, I write him a letter telling him I’ll probably marry the man I have found and live with — the one he hasn’t and won’t ask about. I write that I think he would probably like him and tell him why. My daughter, his eighth grandchild, born eight years after his death, is the only one of them he will never have a relationship with — but she is the spitting image of him as an infant.

Two years after she is born, I finally have a dream about my father in which there is a certain peace, wholeness, forgiveness and healing. Some years later, a psychic friend tells me that my father’s message for me is this: “I had it all wrong.”

“Does that make sense?” she asks me. Well, of course it does. Because of course he did.

Over the years I have had to ask myself to what extent my rebellion against my father was necessary for me to forge ahead in a way that made sense to me. Was all that pain and suffering really necessary?

What I came up with — and what I’ve come up with since, in other devastating situations in my life — is this: all the healing from suffering has been and is necessary. Every last speck of it.

Our elders, ourselves

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 23, 2015

Thirty minutes until my workday begins and I am on Main Street sneaking in a late bi-monthly transatlantic call to my aunt Michelle — who, at 90, is the undisputed matriarch of the family. I am about to receive a bit of a tongue lashing from her, which I deserve.

As the phone rings, August sunlight is filtering through the quaking aspens, grazing my shoulders. But when I hear her voice, the San Juans fade away. I can picture this woman, the middle of the three sisters in my mother’s family, as clearly as if she were standing in front of me.

Her dark, thinning hair is carefully curled. Under a perpetual cardigan, she is wearing a crisp peach or sky-blue blouse, buttoned to the top, with a silk scarf and brooch. Her A-line skirt is knee length and her shoes sensible but elegant. There is probably the remainder of the day’s lipstick on her lips.

She has never wavered from the attention given her appearance, even after her husband of over 60 years passes, taking a large portion of her heart along with him. And no matter what is going on — pain or heartache or worry or just plain weariness — her smile is exceedingly quick, youthful and captivating. I don’t hear much of a smile today, however.

Bibiche (bee-beesh’), the nickname we Americans use for her (biche means doe) is still sharp as a tack: she talks French politics, American forest fires, Downtown Abbey, radio interviews, all manner of topics and details. (In the past year, she has had to give up her English language class, for which she registered at the age of 87.) She has lunch a couple of times a week with her only son and daughter-in-law and, of course, keeps close tabs on everything related to the family.

After a brief hello and thank you for calling, she is doing one of her little tricks: telling me things I don’t know about one of my own siblings, a brother who is in the process of moving after 30 years in the same place. Really, I have no idea. She quizzes me on the others and I share news, both good and bad. She listens politely, remembering everything in order to update the French side. I tell her I am ashamed not to have written my great cousin, Francoise (72), after having promised — again — to be better about it. Well, she says, Francoise is also really busy, you know, what with the grandkids, cycling, her theater group. At the same time…

…I can’t keep doing this. You younger people are going to have to step up and keep in touch with each other. I’m getting old. You know, after my 90th birthday party, I sent you and your siblings photos — all of you — and not one of you acknowledged receiving them?

There is a pause and I hear the worry and concern in her voice. Here she is, at her age, still tending to the nuts and bolts and fabric of our family across the pond better than we are. I know her mission after my mother’s passing has been to hold it all together, not to forget the sister she idolized, or those of us who stand in for her now. We have not helped.

I’m sorry, I begin. There’s really no excuse.

I know you’re busy, she says. But can you find out if your oldest brother has those photos I gave to him? And the only reason I know about your other brother is because I kept calling him until he finally answered. I wasn’t sure I had the right address or phone number.

She has always fretted over letters containing photos and mementos landing in postal purgatory. And though she has recently acquired an iPad, electronics still make her nervous. I assure her I will try again to use her iCloud address to send photos. Her goodbye is weary.

On our visit two years ago, Bibiche has us over for a “simple” lunch of shrimp salad and duck confit, serves us coffee and dessert, and then presents us with gifts from the local chocolaterie and yet another envelope of photos. She waves to us from the door of the garage knowing it may well be the last time.

I think about everything this woman has done for me in my life — besides just simply being my aunt and loving me. She has given me an appreciation of care, both for self and others. An appreciation of connection, to family and the world at large. An appreciation of marriage and deference. Deep concern for people, as well as a light touch.

Our phone call reminds me: she is an example for you. Take advantage, now!

Balancing acts

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 26, 2015

On our street, growing up in Seattle in the ’60s and ’70s, the big old houses are still filled with Catholic, Presbyterian and Mormon families, so there’s nothing really special about five or six kids at a time having the same last name. During the summers — for a brief, spellbound number of ’70s golden years — all these kids band together, about a dozen 13- to 17-year-olds, rubbing up against each other, trading pheromones like baseball cards.

We’re addicted to each other and our stories, to the houses and the families we talk about as if they’re connected to us, but only very remotely, as if their blood isn’t ours, their dysfunction exotic and interesting rather than inflamed and endemic.

Yes, we stray far from our families in the summer. Long days are spent roaming the neighborhood, clumped behind some mean guy’s house, or at a pier down by the lake, or sort of heaped on a mound of grass where our hormones rise and condense into clouds of pink and blue and pink and blue and purple. Our sub-addictions — game after game of truth-or-dare and dancing to a pile of vinyl 45s for hours at a time — occur in my best friend B’s basement, a room her beyond-lenient parents have provided to us as a sort of halfway house, bridging the correctional facility of home life to the real truth of a world full of choices. We paint it purple and yellow and put up Hendrix and Peter Max posters.

There’s a veritable double rainbow of archetypes within our tight little mob. K, the picked-on skinny kid who gets his sweats yanked down on a regular basis. The quiet girl, L, who hides behind the veil of her long, straight hair. The promiscuous sprite J1 and her goofy, attention-desperate older sis, J2. The three Mc-sisters who live in a man-less mansion, three generations of women, most of them snarky and sarcastic but sharp. The Ph boys, all redheads, who live a bafflingly Mormon life, all except K, the neighborhood heartthrob, who knows more about belt-notching and making out than the rest of us put together. There’s S.O., the pretty girl with thick calves. And A, the token older guy who needs to feel good about himself and dates one of the Mc-sisters, a Wiccan before the word is even in use. And there’s S.M., the irresistible blond boy I really like who never says a whole lot about his gigantic, badly-tended house and hard-ass father. And, of course, there’s the above-mentioned best friend, B, whose liberal father and mother are probably the front-door key to this whole house of baseball cards.

Every one of these players comes with me in the satchel of my adolescent heart as the golden years fade and we, all of us, simultaneously exit our looking glass world, stepping out into different compass directions.

Fast forward forty years: I pick up a vintage sweater in a thrift store, made in the USA of 100 percent Orlon and boasting one large stripe of black and white in a gray field, with the words SKI BUM written in orange across the chest. Instantly attracted, I put it on and like what I feel. I don’t know why. Sure, I may have approached a ski bum lifestyle in my early years in town, with crack-of-noon-at-Chair 8 days and working nights and splitting town for long bouts in April and October, but I’m not by nature anything remotely “ski bum.” I’m an imposter. A wannabe. Nothing consciously strikes me about liking and wearing the sweater until one day when a particular friend smiles at it and says, “Now, there’s a balancer.” In other words, my personality, seeking a turn for the lighter, more carefree and less mental, has tried to self-correct with and sleeves and a slogan. Something I actually wear, my heart not on my sleeve but my chest. I love it.

I start thinking about “balancers.” What’s the balancer for this moment — laughter or silence? This meal — sour or sweet? What’s the balancer for this day, this year, this life, this personality? What weight and component does the scale need to set itself sinking or rising to a more beautiful equilibrium?

Now, in remembering the glistering summers of my halfway-house years, I can see — in an expansive and liberating moment — all us kids as we really were: living, breathing balancers for each other, softening each other’s stories into a life putty we could actually work with a little better in life.