The Lamp in the House
"Happiness doesn't have just one address." ~ Anonymous
I run my fingers slowly across a National Geographic map tracing the 20,000 mile journey taken out of Africa by my ancient mothers and fathers. Linked one to the other by a miraculous code, sustained by the availability of food, challenged and nourished by climate, curious to understand - one step was taken, then another - over millions of days for thousands of years, into the Middle East, Asia, the Netherlands, and the isles of Britain.
Was an ancestral drive at the heart of my father's restless spirit, or was it a spark awakened at the age of 3 when his father gathered the family of 5 for what would be one of many voyages back and forth from their home in England to the US, Canada, and Bermuda? In support of one man's passion, the family packed and moved and moved again, settling a few years at a time in unfamiliar villages and cities, my grandfather's hands and feet moving in trained precision, beckoning the faithful with a commanding language flowing through the majestic, open pipes of a brass organ. While those who listened may have been soothed, was my father a child unsettled, his only true constant, befriended in every crossing, his beloved, "mighty sea".
At the age of 15, in the final years of WWI, my father "ran away", lying about his age to join the British Navy. What urged him to flee? The familiar, soaring thrill felt in the roll of a ship, freed of the obligations of land, held safe between sea and sky in the arms of a tiny cabin? Did he, if only temporarily, share the power and confidence of the ship's hull as it lead the way through dark waters, waves flung wide like doorways into a boy's imagination? Was it the promise of adventure in what could be, conditioned in the repetition of childhood leavings? Or, was it a misguided belief in his own manhood urging him to rescue his 21-year-old brother, missing in the rat-infested trenches of Belgium? Whatever the reason, second thoughts may have been clues to what would be a lifelong, fragile independence, as he pleaded with his father to tell the Navy the truth, to let him come home. Swift and to the point, my grandfather's response offered no relief: "You've made your bed, now you must lie in it."
I've tried to organize and match the colours and shapes of my father's life. How do the pieces fit? Did three years at sea, added to the twelve that went before, seal his connection to oceans and ships and yearnings pursued through many more voyages - including a return as a still-young Naval officer into another World War, followed by a life of changes in circumstance, changes in place? When I was 16, the man I knew with a lingering cough, remnants of a competition lost between a human heart and false companions smoked in cold winds on icy decks, a man with sad, brown eyes telling of a life never quite right, stopped breathing as I prepared to go to school on a blue-sky morning in June.
Frequent visitors to the mind, sounds and visions as clear today as they were then - a frantic knock on the wall of my father's bedroom, his face grey and still, my mother's words soft - "I think we've lost him...". Man and breath and resolution gone - both of us too young for the question an older child might ask an aging father to help her understand - "Why?". What was it that defined the childhood I knew before his death - one mimicking his own, a life of making acquaintance with the unfamiliar as we moved, and moved again?
In the recent twenty-four months there's been an odd sort of opportunity brought about by a pandemic. As people everywhere rethink their style of living, they search for places suited to who they see or hope themselves to be. They speak of new-found freedoms, choice, independence and truth.
There will always be the frightened and hungry and threatened who abandon their homes out of desperation, but even in the presence of abundance and comfort, we leave. For many, the option of choice is all that's needed to trigger change. We imagine ease in the form of manageable space, mornings met with a warming sun instead of ice to be scraped off windshields, we jump at the chance to abandon the strain of the dreaded commute, seek comfort as we move closer to the tribe of our youth, brothers, sisters and cousins left standing as witness to our existence - in spite of the visible marks left by years, they remain unchanged, wrapped in a timeless intimacy of a history shared.
Is it possible this wish to move is something primal, a part of every cell, something very, very old? Could it be the instinct for more than life itself, the need for 'aliveness', pushing against stagnation? Is the desire to separate ourselves from the busyness in cities and suburbia a need for the long-ago when air was shared with deer and rabbits and bears, abundant and clean, now scarce and polluted, greedily consumed by fellow sapiens, one hand gripping a plastic strap, the other a rolled-up wad of printed paper, wobbling and rocking as we stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a double-bodied, oxygen stealing crosstown bus?
A few years ago in an "On Being" interview I heard poet, Mary Oliver, then in her late 70's, say she was moving into a "little house" in Florida in need of "serious reconstruction". Her explanation for such a late-life move: "...sometimes it's time for the change." Young people move all the time, but when I hear it from someone Ms. Oliver's age, it sounds more interesting. She shared her home with the love of her life for more than 50 years in one New England town and when her partner died, she packed her belongings and left. I wonder - might the instinct for survival whisper a faintly conscious nagging; where you are can't be the end - you're not ready for the end - not yet.
And, as I listened to Ms. Oliver, I wondered if she was afraid. What will it be to find anew everything from the local CVS to the groceries you prefer to the place in the new kitchen where you'll store utensils? What will it be to stand in that kitchen at night, alone, in silence never heard before, unfamiliar in its new home? What will it be to drive into your village realizing you know no one and no one knows you? Doubts at night, excitement by day, testing what you're about when everything including the self, no matter how old, is new again.
When I was five I was intrigued by the contents filling the old steamer trunk my grandfather brought with him on his last trip to America; a collection of pipes, sweet-smelling tobacco, pairs of perfectly round, wire-rimmed glasses, heavily starched, slightly frayed white shirts, and reams of sheet music. I too, have a preference for white shirts, and like him, I've stayed in the same career for years, gathering knowledge to hold and apply, but with the place from where the knowledge is shared shifting many times. I like to think there was more that we shared - the embrace of simplicity suited to mobility. Perhaps with the gathering of information instead of objects, there's a felt measure of control, a way to ward off questions about what is accomplished when little is accumulated - as society says it should be.
Moving is a teacher. As a child I learned to hold few treasures, to care for what
I had, to be able to leave town or home unburdened by attachment to possessions
and place, to not go too big or want too much - to appreciate what holds meaning -
things simple, useful, thoughtfully offered or carefully crafted by someone I loved. I grew to believe that what is learned can be yours always, carried easily, never left behind, never in need of polishing or repair or storage. In the exchange for things, we find the gifts of space and time for the play and beauty of life, stolen as we become caretakers for what we believe is 'owned'.
As a result of the recent migration, people moving in droves from city to country, this place where I live is more crowded, privacy and quiet grow scarce. Is this reason to move? Is my wish to find a more suitable place desire born of the ancient family, or no more than habit formed? Is it a deeper longing for the warmth and beauty and care - love, really - I knew in whatever place was home, carefully presented in the form of a simple white linen cloth, flowers in a vase, the gentle and reassuring light of a single candle, a bowl of soup and someone there to listen.
Driving at dusk, I feel both longing and promise in the light of lamps in houses lived in by people I don't know. And as I consider moving, I ask, "What are you looking for?". I can't say for sure, but I know wherever it is, it can't be too perfect or shiny, with nothing to fix or make better. More than place - it has to carry the possibility of experience. It isn't oceans and decks calling, but birds and squirrels and a deer or two, the change of seasons and things to master like an untended garden, walls begging for never before tried colour, and new ways of feeling what is seen, as in childhood when morning held the magic of promise framed through windows with a completely new and glorious view.
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Some things must be kept...hand painted with love, a drawing done by my mother...Anne Elizabeth Austen 1912 - 2012