When I was young, I buried myself deep in the attic corner, huddled under layers of quilts beneath dusty rafters bowing to midnight winds. After a while, I would creep downstairs for a cup of hot cocoa and a tomato sandwich, worrying about hurricanes. Later, a strange woman clad in sodden boots and layers of endless scarves would blow through the door. Was she a tramp? Was she a witch? I wouldn’t know until the end of the book.
C.S. Lewis says that his childhood house is “almost a major character” in his life’s story. He is a product of its “long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude”—and also “of endless books” (Surprised 7). My childhood was full of roomy suburban houses with fluffy cream carpets and fresh new furniture. Am I a product of that comfy environment? Certainly. But I have also spent time in countless rooms inside books: Cynthia Voight’s bayside, marsh-lined farm in Homecoming and Dicey’s Song; Susan Cooper’s Grey House in Over Sea and Under Stone; Madeline L’Engle’s two-hundred-year-old New England farmhouse on the hill in the Time Quartet (including A Wrinkle in Time, in which young Meg Murry escapes her wind-torn attic for a kitchen sandwich, only to meet with the strange Mrs. Whatsit). Growing up, my imagination passed into these houses again and again.
In his book A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan describes a response to houses and buildings that is more than just intellectual appreciation of architecture. He talks about our “unconscious experiences of space,” our “immediate, poetic responses to place” that make us want to be in one particular building and not in another (74).
I’ve gone from 1970s ranch house to mid-‘80s new construction to college apartment (and apartment, and yet another apartment) to mountain Arts and Crafts bungalows to quaint 1940s post-war development…and now back to 1970s ranch house. Our current rental echoes the floor plan from the first ten years of my life: the paneled front living room with dining and kitchen to the back, the straight-shot hallway and its arsenal of doors. But the walls in this house are thin as cardboard and the wallpaper is weird. The tile upgrade on the kitchen floor is nice; the lavender paint choice overwhelms the senses.
It strikes me that most of the houses I imagine out of books—Meg’s attic-topped home, Dicey’s clapboard farmhouse, Howl’s moving castle—morph on the indoors into this familiar floor plan, wood paneling and all. The doorway from living room to kitchen is always in the same spot. Meg’s mother stands there to call her family to dinner. When something extra is needed, like Mrs. Murry’s science lab, it gets tacked onto the back kitchen door.
It seems my imagination will not bend far past the walls—both fictional and actual—between which it grew up. My thought-life is as firmly rooted as any old oak. What if, I wonder, the actual walls that housed my imagination’s first forays into such a specific spot of ground—one I didn’t and couldn’t choose for myself—were any different? What if they changed from year to year? I wonder this in fear as we move our daughter from house to apartment to rental home in the first three years of her life. Or what if, much the worse, they were tattered-down walls, worse than lavender, cracked and crumbled from the bad foundation of, say, a broken family or a cruel moment in history or a hungry bank account? What if, more awful still, there had been no walls at all? What then?
Fiction can only go so far in its cover for fact.
In his book The Gates of November, Chaim Potok and his wife meet a stranger outside a Moscow Metro station on a Friday evening “in the first week of January 1985” and follow him through dark, snowy streets (3). The Potoks have traveled to this city, through bitter cold and in careful silence, to visit a man they have never met.
The Potoks arrive at this man’s apartment building, and the stairwell has “the air of an old New York tenement, but with no vivid sounds of life drifting out from behind closed doors. Here you wanted to walk on tiptoe, expecting a sudden leap out of the violet shadows by figures demanding to know what you were doing there” (5). This is Soviet Russia. But then the Potoks enter the apartment:
“It was a fair-sized room that served as both a living room and a dining room, the air warm and stuffy, the floor covered by a rug, the slightly shabby genteel look not unlike that of the rooms in which I grew up in middle-class neighborhoods of New York. In front of the couch stood a table with seven place settings (6).
The book is nonfiction, but the same space is echoed time and again in Potok’s fiction: Davita’s Harp, My Name Is Asher Lev, The Chosen. In his imagination, generations of Jews live in these apartment spaces, and it is in these homes that they gather, rest, worry, pray, debate, fear, and observe Shabbat. And welcome guests.
The family the Potoks have met are the Slepaks, heroes in Jewish circles for resisting the oppressive Soviet regime during the 1970s and ‘80s. The Potoks are in Moscow to meet with and encourage the many Jews who are risking their lives. And they have made this trek on this particular night in order to say, “We Jews in America have not forgotten you or what you have done.” Who would travel such a long way and through danger just to tell strangers, “We know you are here. You are not forgotten”?
The Potoks stay only for the evening. It is a visit rich in conversation, and together the families share a Shabbat dinner. Though Potok recalls that a “consuming desolation lay upon the room,” in the same space a “warm intimacy settle[s] upon” the gathering, “a quality of familiarity and closeness brought on by a shared table” (10). Potok recounts a piece of advice he once heard. He says the “only true question we ought to ask one another is: ‘What are you going through?’” (6). This question could be asked anywhere. It could be asked in a faded, desolate Russian apartment across the effort of a language barrier, or on a front porch with peeling paint and rotted steps. It can be asked in any room in which people sit together and remind one other: “I know you are here. You are not forgotten.” How much does it really matter what color the walls are, or what square footage the floor plan?
Today, my husband and I are painting over the lavender walls of our rental house to try to make it look more like home. I feel desperate for a home of my own, one whose freshly-minted green kitchen paint won’t get passed on to a stranger after the lease is up next summer. What is it I’m actually wanting in my desperation to own a house? Am I looking for something that is okay to desire on this side of eternity? I hear an old pastor of mine gently admonish: “Of course you don’t feel at home here. No place on this earth is going to be home.” Am I looking for safety and security? I think of Dicey in Voight’s Homecoming as she sits at her grandmother’s long farmhouse table: “‘How do I know you’re not going to rob me?’ her grandmother said. How could she know? Dicey thought. The people in the houses were in just as much danger as the people outside the houses” (251). A house in and of itself is not the answer.
I hear Dicey’s revelation, and I hear my pastor’s admonition, but that doesn’t mean I like it. What is the point of yearning for a home if some piece of eternity can’t break into this present reality and illuminate ordinary days with a sense of belonging, of comfort, of peace, of history, of safety, of meaning, of home in all its best iterations? I read too much into my pastor’s words. He only meant for me not to look for perfection in my communities. Dicey and Potok get even more to the point.
I return to the architecture-scapes of my imaginative youth. At the center of them is Bag End. In Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and company are far from his cozy hobbit hole (“Home is behind, the world ahead”), and oh, how they miss it. They sing songs of perseverance: “apple, thorn, and nut and sloe, / Let them go! let them go!” (107, 106). They are indeed sojourners, and so am I. Will it yet happen that I arrive at the place Bilbo discovered when he finally returned home and “was quite content”? It sounds glorious: “the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party” (Hobbit 271). Perhaps I will. Perhaps I won’t. But it is guaranteed that one day, if not in this brief moment of earthly life, then on the other side, “We’ll wander back” (or will it be for the first time?) “to home and bed” (Fellowship 107).
Till then, in the words of poet Carl Dennis, I’ll remind myself, as I’ve had to before, that “whatever [I] might do elsewhere, / In the time remaining, [I] might do here.” Wherever “here” is, whatever the walls that house me, whether they be lavender, green, or otherwise, I resolve to pay attention to the person nearest me. I will turn to him and ask, “What are you going through?”
Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. Surprised by Joy. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2002.
Pollan, Michael. A Place of My Own. Dell Publishing, New York: 1997.
Potok, Chaim. The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family. Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1996.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books, New York: 1993.
— The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York: 1997.
Voight, Cynthia. Homecoming. Fawcett Juniper, New York: 1992.