(D.J. Waldie, in California Romantica)
Like many of you, I have been under near house arrest for weeks. When you are in one place that long, you begin to see things. I’m not hallucinatory, mind you, just super-sensitized to my surroundings, allied with the body of my captor—paint (gray, pollen-sheened), fiber cement siding, pink insulation, two-by-four frame, sheetrock, more paint (egg shell white, improved by whacks, bumps, and stains)—to which I am deeply grateful for bearing the weight of the elements: tornado (narrow miss), earthquake (tremulous, but tame), three-foot snows, freezing rain, and fallen trees, not to mention frigid air and searing sun.
These days we’re having a conversation. I’m teasing words out of sticks and bricks and mortar, listening to the creaks in the flooring, the remains of long-ago conversations, watching the cat soak up the sun that stretches languidly across the floor. Melancholy, my familiar friend, deserts me, and happiness pushes to the front of the line, and I think of Jane Kenyon’s poem, “There’s just no accounting for happiness, / or the way it turns up like a prodigal / who comes back to the dust at your feet / having squandered a fortune far away.” Stay for awhile, I say.
A house adapts and takes on your character, keeps watch and listens to to your voices. Put a bookcase in an empty room, fill it with books, and it beckons, all those words clamoring for attention, whispering once upon a times. A bed, a nightstand, a blanket and chair, and a room becomes somnolent, a sleep aid. Recline and prop a weighty tome against a lap pillow and it whispers sleep, sleep.
Today I meant to make sense of my files, so I opened the drawer and looked down into its recesses. Confused voices emerge. Nags. Chatter of the put-aways. Whines of the forgotten. I close it, make an excuse, take a walkabout and listen elsewhere.
A hallway with doors becomes an adventure; a patio, an invitation; a stoop, meditative; corners, surprises; windows, light falls; a heated oven, a hearth; a sofa, a conversation; a table by the window, a puzzle, hope, rest, thinking-place, challenge, with a soundtrack of birdsong; a now vacant room, a sun catcher, repository of possibilities, and memory of what and who once resided there.
It’s aging. In some places, cracks appear where the wall has separated from the ceiling. High-traffic corners evidence lost paint, marks, and cat dusting. A switch plate reclines slightly from the wall. Well-walked hardwoods testify to chairs pushed back from dinner conversations, soles slapping wood between sofa and refrigerator, children hammering, people partying. Yet no walls have cracked, roofs sagged, or floors collapsed. Yet, anyway. It is enough.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God, not us,” says the Apostle Paul, and I think of Who lives and moves and has his being here, even here, and the One who holds the very atoms together, whose weighty hand keeps us from flying off into space. Who makes a place for us. Who gives us a home. Who inhabits us.
When we rebuilt this house after a fire years ago, one span required a steel beam. Were I an engineer, I might not worry, yet I’m not and I sometimes do. Most of the house is wood, a three-story frame resting on a concrete foundation atop clay. Clay and sticks-stubble with a heart of steel. Sometimes I lie in bed thinking about the weight pressing down on that steel, wood, concrete, and clay—an oaken desk, hundreds of books, grand piano, roof, and all those memories, not to mention gravity that pulls it down, down, into clay that compresses. Sometimes I wonder how it has held up and for a moment feel a twinge of anxiety and wonder if I should lighten its load, slough off a few books, sell some furniture, give up some remembrances.
I don’t think so.
My ally stands. “Here’s a place—a fragile, earthen vessel, admittedly, yet one that will hold you, for now,” it says. And in the night, I whisper thank you to the hero that it is and to our co-belligerents: trees that clap their hands in wind, clay-rooted rocks that shout their praise, the owl and fox and robins and cardinals and every other thing God has made that come alongside and say, we’re here. We’re here with you.