Everyone’s life has a soundtrack, the music that plays in the background of the events of one’s life. When I discovered that iTunes carried so many of the songs that comprise my soundtrack, I decided to write my story in sync with that music. When I listen to these songs, they take me back to the places I inhabited and the person I was in those days, remind me of my friends and family, and mark out the rhythm of my life while I was listening to that music.
I am sixty-eight, and I’ve often thought of writing down my story for my kids. They’ve heard little snippets here and there, but I don’t want them to feel that they’ve missed out. I wish I had asked my own parents more about their lives, their motivations, their joys, their dreams, and their sorrows before they each passed on.
Prologue: Human Warmth
The wooden sign over the glass window of the storefront said, “Human Warmth,” which seemed to be a good omen. It was a few steps down from the sidewalk, across a small paved rectangular space. The front door opened into a room whose only furniture I remember was a padded wicker rocking chair, another good omen – a place to rock and nurse the baby who was coming soon. A counter partition in the back on the right divided the front room from a much smaller one, and then a curtained doorway on the left led into the minimalist living quarters: a bedroom with a low platform bed, divided from the small kitchen by a claw foot tub. and a bathroom whose toilet was flushed by pulling an overhead chain. The back door from the kitchen led out into what passes for a yard in a city apartment, a tiny space of flagstones and weeds.
The place had been advertised as a sublet, and the man who was subletting – whose name I think was Allen – was kind and friendly; the price was affordable, and we could move in soon. We did, several days later, and found that in the interim Allen’s kindness had extended to a bowery bum, whom he had taken in, bathed, and fed. Although the man was gone, the unmistakable reek of urine, concentrated in the very pillows of the rocking chair I had already claimed for myself, apprised us of where the man had been sitting before his bath. This should have given us pause, but we were in our twenties and full of idealism and energy. My husband Carlos, know to most of his friends as “Charlie,” got a job in a macrobiotic restaurant around the corner. At home, we baked bread. Carlos had scrounged up an old Fred Braun sign and had made it into one of our own, simply stating: BREAD.
We lived in New York City, in the East Village. The people in our neighborhood, and those passing through who came in to buy our bread, didn’t mind the drying diapers strung on a clothesline behind the partition. They didn’t know that we had to keep the oven pilot light on all the time to keep the roaches out of the oven. (Side benefit: We could make perfect yogurt on the back of that stove.) They didn’t know about the mouse our cat had chased around the tub while I was taking a bath, which she eventually deposited in one of the drawers of clothes kept under our bed. They only knew that we baked bread, bread that was good, inexpensive, and often still warm from the oven. The Hell’s Angels living down the street particularly liked the cinnamon raisin. We enjoyed chatting with the people who stopped in for bread, and we appreciated the ease of having everything we needed within a few blocks’ walk; we had no car. We did not intend, however, to live there for very long nor to bring up our precious baby boy in the noisy, dirty, crime-ridden city. We dreamed of moving to the country and starting fresh in a clean and peaceful environment. We searched ads for cheap homesteading properties in Alaska and worked on paring down our possessions to fit into one large trunk.
We had to move sooner than we’d expected, though, and not to the country. Two authority figures confronted us within a short time of each other. One was an inspector from the health department who told us we were selling bread illegally, with no license. He definitely minded the diapers, the roaches, and the mice, so our home business came to an end. The second visitor was the actual landlord, who’d known nothing about the sublet, which was in any case forbidden by the lease, because he’d not received any rent from Allen for several months – all the time we’d been living there. Apparently Allen’s notion of “human warmth” did not preclude his breaking a rental contract, lying to us, and taking our $300 a month.
We moved on, and so will my story eventually, but before it does, I will go back, back to the beginning, where I was shaped into the person who walked into that storefront in the first place.
An exile can be defined as a separation, voluntary or forced, which may or may not be prolonged, from one’s home or country. It is a pretty broad definition, but it can fit most cases of exile, whether they be of individuals, families, or people groups. Some exiles settle down in a new location and make that their home, no longer wandering, but at rest. Others wander from place to place, intending to return home someday; some fulfill that hope, while others do not. Someone told me that I could view my upcoming move to Indiana as an exile, hopefully temporary. This thought prompted the following musings.
When I was a child, I sometimes felt that I must have come from another planet or, more often, that I had been born into the wrong century. I had a close-knit loving family and good friends, I generally did well in school, I spent summers in the mountains running wild, I read profusely, but I always felt somehow – apart. I never seemed to quite fit in anywhere.
Part of one line from the William Wordsworth poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, has always stuck in my head: “trailing clouds of glory do we come.” In the broadest sense, my whole life on earth is an exile; my true home is not here, but with God in Heaven, and the intuitive recognition of that is probably the reason why I have never felt completely at home anywhere that I’ve lived. Yet even without that completeness, each place I’ve lived has become a home, and leaving that place of security and familiarity to start over somewhere else becomes another, smaller exile.
Sometimes I envy people who have lived all their lives, if not in one town or city, in one geographical area. Certainly that is true for many of my friends here in Stedman. Their lives are rooted, not so much like trees, but more like bushes, which not only grow roots down but also grow branches outward, which entwine with each other so much that it is hard to tell where one begins and another ends. These entwined bushes become a hedge, a place of safety and security, and sometimes of insulation. The TV shows I watched growing up, which still draw me and fill me with longing for the kind of life they portrayed, were shows about families deeply rooted in their neighborhoods, towns, or lands: Lassie, Father Knows Best, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons. Though many of my aunts and uncles lived in their own homes, and my cousins grew up in neighborhoods in Long Island, that was not my life. We moved from apartment to apartment, each one in a little “better” neighborhood as my parents’ income increased. Each place we lived, for however many years, had its own defining markers: schools attended, friends made, milestones of growing up experienced, family memories made. But there was not that solidity and stability, that my cousins and friends had, of having my own home. We were more like the Israelites, striking our tents and moving on, each time with a combination of anticipation and trepidation.
We lived in four different apartments in four different neighborhoods in Brooklyn from my birth through my college years. I was extremely shy, up through college, when a concerted effort by a professor and some classmates encouraged me to break out of my fearful position as an observer of everyone else’s life to becoming an active participant in the world around me. The life rope that sustained me through ten of those years, from age four to age fourteen, was made of strands woven from our summers in the Catskill Mountains, in a small bungalow colony (that’s what we called them back then) named Muldavinville. I hid myself during the school years, but I ran wild and free with my friends during the summer, and perhaps that is why I’ve always considered myself a country girl. I believe that was the hardest exile of my young years – not going back to the place that held many of my happiest memories…
The next big leap, not long after college, when I’d been working for a while at a job in the city, was to move out of my parents’ home into my own tiny apartment in the Village. It was a statement of my independence, but it was a hard one, not only for my parents, who couldn’t imagine why I would want to leave home, but also for me, because I was terrified to live alone. There were other apartments, houses, temporary dwellings – the details of which I will fill in when I finally start writing the longer story of my life – in which I lived alone or with others, in New York, in Brooklyn, in Woodstock, and finally in Cincinnati, Ohio, where my first husband and I moved to go to graduate school.
It wasn’t until I married my husband Paul that we actually bought a house, in Dayton, Ohio, where we lived for about thirty-five years. We had four living children (two more lost in miscarriage) born there, all but one of them born at home. We had church families, good neighbors, great homeschooling friends. We had station wagons, dogs, and a fenced in yard. We definitely had a home, a home in which we had many wonderful times with our friends and even with people we didn’t know. Yet, somehow, to me, and to my four children, Dayton was not a place we wanted to stay forever. We could still be there, and our kids would have some place to come home to and visit, but, to me, that was inconceivable; I always had the feeling that Dayton was only temporary, a longer exile from the place I eventually would be able to call home.
Our next move was to North Carolina, to a tiny town in the Piedmont called Salemburg, where my husband and I took a position, for a year, as houseparents in a maternity home. We fully intended to return to Dayton after that year, but towards the end of that time, we realized that our work there was not yet finished, so we decided to move to North Carolina, selling our home in Dayton. We only stayed another year at the home, and the story of our time there will be the subject of another blog, but we moved from there to a single-wide trailer we rent in Stedman. Lacking the mountains, it is country living that reminds me of my childhoods in upstate New York. In eight years there, we have become pretty well grafted in to the community.
I’d forgotten I’d started this blog, and I’m finishing it after being in Indiana for six months with another six months to go. Leaving my life in North Carolina, even temporarily, was hard. What drew me here, caring for my grandchildren and helping my daughter and son-in-law, was a stronger pull than the regrets. I have a nice apartment here in a small town called Chandler, a few minutes’ walk from their home. I treasure the time spent with them and the enjoy the luxury of the time I have alone. I know that leaving them to return to North Carolina will be hard, as all these partings have been hard, but I look forward to returning home from this exile.
I do feel, however, that this will not be the last trip I will make. Whenever I think of actually settling somewhere, as in our buying a house and planting ourselves more permanently, something holds me back and I sense that my wandering days are not yet over. Perhaps there is a place on this earth that I can settle in and feel that I’ve really come home, and I have not yet found it. Perhaps I never will, and I will continue to be in exile until God finally calls me Home.
I returned last night from a weekend retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY. I went there for a private, unstructured, silent retreat to seek God for guidance on some decisions I need to make. Without the distractions of daily life – even the simple ones of cooking and cleaning up – I would be forced to find the time alone with God that I seem to easily avoid when at home. God had other plans for me, which should not surprise me. The last retreat I went on that I remember, a long time ago, was supposed to help me straighten out my issues with men (I was divorced at the time). God drew me into a look, instead, at who I was, in relationship to my mother, my upbringing, and the generational habits of the women before us. It caused me, at least for a while, to change some of my habits with regard to my young daughter and to try to be more intentional about loving others, not out of duty, but as an outgrowth of my relationship with God. My empathy for my mother was so great that I wanted to call her and tell her that I loved her. To my great and lasting regret, I never did, second-guessing that impulse as I do so many others, and she soon thereafter lapsed into an unconscious state; even though I was with her physically before she died, I never had that opportunity to speak with her again.
My mother, a kindergarten teacher, used to play a game with her students, in Hebrew, when it was in Hebrew school, or in English, in her public school classes. When I was little, I used to play as well. The child chosen to be “It” would hide his head in her lap (can you conceive of something like that being allowed today?), and another child would be silently pointed at, to come up, touch (or poke!) the child who was “It,” and say, “Me Ahnee?” “Who am I?.” “It” would have to guess who that child was, despite attempts by the child to disguise his voice and the direction from which he came. Sensory memories are associated with this game for me: the feel of my mother’s skirt material, the smell of my mother (not in a negative sense, but as her essence), the cradling of my head in her lap.
The retreat drew my focus from the action-oriented “What do I need to do in the future?” to the introspective “Who am I?” This is my defining dichotomy: for astrology buffs, it is the sign of Pisces – two fish swimming in opposite directions; from my family heritage, it is the rebel and dreamer who was my father and the diligent and faithful worker who was my mother, both essential parts of me; for those who know their Bible, it is the story of the sisters Martha and Mary. I like to know where I am going. I like things mapped out, cleaned up, coming out even. But it is the essence of faith and trust in God to let go of that knowing and just follow. I reread an old journal and saw the same struggle over and over to learn to just sit with God and be in His presence. I have been spinning my wheels spiritually for a long time, and this weekend, I made yet another commitment to seek God with all my heart and to love Him with all my heart, soul, and strength. All else will fall into place.
Another conviction came to me in the area of my writing. I know I am a good writer, and I love to write; I think in terms of writing my thoughts down and how best to phrase them, what word pictures to use, what analogies to make my message clear. I have not been diligent about my writing for several reasons: one, the busyness that characterizes my life; two, the laziness that paradoxically also is part of who I am; three, the sense that what I have to say is not really important in the eternal scheme of things; and four, the fact that, though I am a good writer, I am not a great writer, and being a perfectionist, I hate to be judged for my imperfections. This topic would take up another whole blog, and maybe I will attempt it at another time. At any rate, one of the things I did at Gethsemani was to write down my thoughts. The conviction I had was that, no matter how insufficient or imperfect I think they are, they have a purpose not only for myself, to clarify my thinking, but for others who may glean something of worth from what I share of my own experience.
I wrote this at the end of January and forgot all about it. I started another blog entry yesterday and, in trying to locate that draft, found this one. All I will add at this point are two things that I have learned about myself as I am now. Those who knew me as a painfully shy child during the school year, or as a tomboy during summers in the mountains of NY, or as a diligent student, or as a rebel, or as any of the many other Emilys that I have been through my 66 years, may be surprised at the direction of my twilight years. However, I have realized that I want to use whatever is left of my life helping wherever I discern the greatest area of need; I cannot be satisfied in a life that does not involve actively doing and serving. At the same time, I need to provide for myself a place of solitude, a refuge, where I can come apart from the world and learn to just be. I believe that God has provided both for me during the coming year, and I look forward to coming closer to integrating all the parts of myself into a whole, to being able to answer the question “Who am I?” with the certainty and confidence that I am just who God intended me to be.