Home – a confabulation

A “confabulation” provided one beginning point in a two-decade-long inquiry into what kind of space I want as a home and what relationship I’d like it to have with other people and the larger world.

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Confabulate: to talk informally; chat. [Latin confabulari: com-together + fabula, story, conversation]; informal, confab.

In June 1997 a group of friends received an invitation to a confab, a chance to spend up to a week together in a beautiful natural location an hour and a half outside the city to consider “Home: Arrangements for living and aging.”

The invitation included this about the theme:

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The confab was a chance not only to be part of discussions that could spin out from these ideas about home but also to simply try out our individual ideas by living them, together, in a cluster of small houses. Everyone invited was welcome to stay for all or some of the time to . . .

talk together (the “confab” part)
have time for yourself
share a few meals
sing or play or hike or . . .

Five cabins at Fort Worden State Park served as our home base. Located on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula on a high bluff overlooking Puget Sound, the park covers 434 acres with over two miles of saltwater shoreline. Originally designed as a military base in the early 1900s, it never saw active fire, and many of its historic buildings and battlements remain. In the early 1970s, it became a state park and a home for Centrum, a center for arts and education.

Fort Worden map1 cropWe occupied five of seven buildings that are collectively called, for reasons still mysterious to me, the “Suds” houses. Over the course of the week 21 people participated, including four children of participants. A few of us were able to stay the entire time, others were there for as many days as they could manage. I was given use of the houses as part of a deal I made with Centrum in exchange for services I’d provided in planning and reshaping their artist residency program in the Suds.Fort Worden, suds map crop,jpg

A focused time for conversation was scheduled each day, with many of us taking turns identifying talking points. Our discussion ranged widely: the relationship between the place where you grew up and the place you make for yourself later in life; balancing time alone and time with others; asking ourselves who we want to live with; distinctions between private and public space, or maybe better put, between private, public, and social or shared space. For some, work is an important part of “home,” as it is in artists’ live/work spaces. Would common spaces be too distracting for concentration? For some “a shared space should begin with a stove!” but others felt 50 years of experience would make sharing a kitchen really difficult. We need new language – “commune” doesn’t work; perhaps proximity rather than communal better describes the aim.

Photo of suds houses 1 (fm above) crop

We considered city/country and urban/rural preferences and getting beyond the stereotypes; the importance of wildness; relationships between home and landscapes; the desire for a long view and for close-up views and a sense of enclosure.

Ideas about “a place to age and keep on living” from the invitation wove in and out as a theme (and we were 20 years younger then!): the anxiety about how we’d sustain our lives after “retirement;” our dissatisfaction with the isolation of today’s retirement communities; our role as the advance guard of the baby boom; the desire not to segregate ourselves according to our age; the value and importance of connections with the “larger world;” the importance of a place being “kid friendly” as well as questions about how a single person would fit in a multi-generational setting. We heard both of a desire not to be a burden to others as we age and also of the joy generated by caring for an older friend.

We described individual fantasies about what this might look like: a lodge; a hotel as a place that’s inviting not just to its residents but to outsiders; spas, resorts, and other escapes; sustainable eco-resorts; Buddhist retreats; taking over a whole city block that faces outward on the street fronts and inward into more private central spaces; W.S. Merwin’s description of a region in southern France.

Photo of suds house 260

Specific examples and stories added to our ability to imagine the possibilities: the Western Front in Vancouver, BC and its rural extension, Babyland; Chevy Chase on Discovery Bay; the Linger Longer Lodge in Quilcene; the Mountaineers’ lodges; Project Row Houses in Houston; and examples from co-housing projects and Seattle’s Anhalt apartments to clusters of homes built of a shipping containers.

Over the course of the week we also shared at least one meal together each day. Notes from the week refer to: “a wonderful dinner of David’s fish soup,” “a special meal of Laura’s cabbage rolls,” “Lynn and Rita’s salmon dinner,” “pasta from Jim,” “soup and sweet potatoes from Marcie,” “Norie’s pasta and Anne’s roasted vegetables,” and pizza from a Port Townsend cafe. In addition to solitary walks, time for reading, and pick-up games on the lawn, shared experiences punctuated our time: “a walk on the beach and sitting around a bonfire,” “Hillela’s banged up knee,” “Tomo playing nearby on the beach as it got dark,” “a sunny morning at low tide and a rainy afternoon visiting Port Townsend’s Secret Gardens.”

By the end of the week it felt as though we’d only just begun. We didn’t reach a conclusion about a specific future direction and didn’t resolve the many, often contrasting thoughts and stories. The week’s experience, however, did spawn more confabs that included more people and continued for four years until mid 2001. During this time, interest in the idea spread, and my mailing list for notes from the confabs grew and stretched across the country.

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That first confab marked the beginning of a conscious exploration of the meaning of “home” – the particular configuration of physical, social, emotional, and creative space that altogether means home for me and for others. Deep in my interior somewhere, home has always been both a private and a social place, shaped as I was by the first home I knew.


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A jumble and a hideout – home

For nearly two decades now I’ve been imagining, usually in conjunction with other people, where I want to live, in what relationship to others and to a larger world, and in what kind of space. Even as part of a couple, the atomized way so many of us live, scattered in small units, wasn’t satisfying. A few years ago, I decided that one way to understand what I long for was to look back at my first experience of home.


A jumble and a hideout – home

My mom and dad must have known they’d have a large family when they bought the two-story white house at the top of a dirt road in the hills above Pacific Beach near San Diego. They’d been married about a year and moved in with two children, a ten-year-old son from Dad’s first marriage and me, just six weeks old. Four more sons arrived over the next five years.

An unfocused 2016 image of where I spent my earliest years
An unfocused 2016 image of where I spent my earliest years

When I visited as an adult, not only was it on a paved road surrounded by subdivisions, but the house seemed to have shrunk in size. For my first thirteen years, though, it was a large, expansive place. In addition to the main house, a little cottage was tucked at one end of the drive, in the shade behind a huge pepper tree and under a tall fat palm. For a while it was occupied by Richard, a mute man with a hunchback, who, though certainly gentle, was for me at five or six just a little scary in his mysteriousness. My mom’s mother, a little scary in her own way, moved into the cottage after Richard, when Mom’s health no longer allowed her to manage all the work required by such a houseful of children.

The house with its surrounding yard was always full of people. Five cousins, an uncle, and two aunts lived nearby. When my aunt Petie died, three of the cousins moved in with us for a time. What with brothers, cousins, grown-ups, and neighborhood kids, the house was a gathering place, especially when Gran’s cookies came out of the oven.

The property Mom and Dad purchased included eight acres, most of it a sagebrush-filled valley behind the house. Dirt roads were the norm in the neighborhood. In addition to a few homes, there were flower farms, cactus ranches where hybrid varieties were bred, and, in the valley behind, a chicken ranch, dairy farm, and our fairly wild section, full of caster bean plants, eucalyptus, and some sort of wild greens that Gran often boiled for supper. Both our immediate yard and the valley were perfect for exploring, building forts and secret living rooms, and creating fantasy worlds.

My older brother took cars apart in the driveway turn-around. It seemed the younger boys regularly got into little fights that I, a little older and, of course, “wiser,” felt compelled to try to break up fearing they’d really hurt themselves. My mom’s sister Helen may have died there; a photo of her standing in the front doorway is the source of the only memory I have of a visit she made when I was quite young. Death wasn’t talked about much.

For all the activity of the place and all the people living there, as the only girl I always had a room of my own, tiny but my own. At the end of the upstairs hall that led to my room, there was even a small bathroom, far enough away that almost no one else used it much. The little pink corner room, just big enough for my bed and a built-in closet and set of drawers, had two windows that let me look out toward the ocean. I may not actually have been able to see the ocean but the long perspective allowed me to dream and imagine I could see it and much more.

Living in that jumble of a place, with people of many ages coming and going, combined with having in easy reach a quiet place to get away and be alone probably set a pattern I look for still. Perhaps, like the modeling clay we used in elementary school, the kind that never really hardens but gets a little stiffer over time, we all get molded and shaped in our early lives and, even though we’re constantly reshaped by new experiences, some memory of earlier forms remains in the clay.

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The image here, appropriately fuzzy like memory, comes from online maps and only dimly reflects a few physical attributes of my actual first home. The human, social, and emotional aspects of the home have to be added to this photo through imagination.


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Breaks

In addition to being a prompt for new writing, another way I’ve imagined using this site is to create a kind of anthology – or maybe it’s an archive – of pieces I’ve written over the years.

With this in mind, here’s a piece I wrote two and a half years ago to let friends and family know about a move I was making.

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Breaks

July 31, 2013

Some things benefit from shock.
                      – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In late spring this year I became aware that a mostly unspecified impatience and feeling of antsy-ness or anxiety ran just under the surface of my day-to-day life. I could make a list of specifics, but the feelings touched on or grew from many sources – financial, social, intellectual, sense of purpose and worth in the world.

“I think I need a good crisis,” I told Ted on one of our walk & talks in May. He ran through various options for the crisis I could have – a major health crisis, dramatic accident, financial crash of some sort – and quickly crossed them all off the list as too messy, or painful, or simply unacceptable. Sitting at my dining table a few days later, Edie commented that my home feels really settled. “Right,” I said, “too settled,” thinking more broadly than just the physical place where I live. “I need to shake it up.”

Antifragile

When moving out of my apartment after nearly 25 years became a clear option, I was at first amazed at how easily it presented itself. Then I realized it was preceded by many small signs of the value of a break in the pattern of my life: a talk at Town Hall by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on his concept of anti-fragile – “Some things benefit from shock, they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors;” a determination in January by my writing group partner Sarah and me that 2013 would be a year of “clearing out;” Mary Ann’s observation that this phase of life is all about “editing;” finding thickly-crusted dust on protective pillow cases under the bed when preparing for an overnight visit by out-of-town friends; a comment from Cathryn, on hearing my complaint that it’s really hard to actually start clearing things out, “You won’t do it until you have to move;” visiting Anne and seeing how completely delighted she is with her new, much smaller home. And then there are the first lines of the piece I made for Scott’s Chamber Music exhibition at the Frye, “Get up, get up!/Let’s get going.”

Because of the age I am now, this editing is often called “downsizing,” which seems disheartening or depressing, a little too close to “downer.” I’d rather think of it as lightening up, gaining flexibility, maybe something closer to the “liberation” that author Dr. Gene Cohen attributed to this particular phase of life, a break when things open up, as in breakthrough. Actually, I’ve started referring to my pending move as “repotting.” Pull the plant out. Shake the dirt off. Trim the roots back to encourage new growth. And replant in new soil. Repotting may allow for new opportunities to engage with immediate friends and neighbors, civic affairs, the world of ideas, to be part of re-imagining a new role for older community members.

All this sounds good – positive, upbeat – and is definitely what I feel much of the time. But it’s also daunting and scary. It would be so easy not to. Or to say, golly, next year would be a whole lot easier. When I imagine not being in this apartment, I get wistful … the warm afternoon sun shining low through the summer foliage on my deck or the wonderful times I’ve had here with gatherings of friends. But too many things say now is the time. The next couple of months will be crucial.

Warm afternoon sun at 504

Then, about a week after returning from a lovely weeklong retreat in San Francisco where I cemented the decision for myself, I broke my leg.

Actually the orthopedist’s report called the break a “spiral fracture of the right fibula.” On a very pleasant Monday evening, Edie and I had headed out on the grassy terraced slopes by the Ballard Locks, picnic makings in hand. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention to just how steep the slopes were. I slipped, things went flying, and my ankle did things it simply wasn’t meant to do. We didn’t realize anything was broken because I was able to hobble out. Along with picnic supper in my living room, I learned about RICE – rest, ice, compression, and elevation – all the right things to do for a serious sprain.

Even so, after a sleepless night, I called the doctor. My upstairs neighbor Douglas had seen me hopping around on one leg, and when he learned I’d just made a doctor’s appointment, he (now saintly in my mind) said, “I bet you need a ride!” He proceeded to ferry me around from one doctor to the next, patiently sitting in waiting rooms, until he brought me home with my new pair of crutches and bright red cast. “Red goes with everything,” I’d told cast maker Michelle.

With a cast and crutches, everything takes longer. I learned new ways to do familiar things. Like how on crutches to get a cup of coffee from stove to table, water the plants, and keep a cast dry in the shower with a plastic bag and rubber bands. Carolyn gave me tips on going up and down stairs. I practiced on the eight steps from my building lobby to mail boxes before tackling stairs from the sidewalk to the front door of a friend’s home for a dinner party. Getting help from friends has been a big part of the solution. Gwen took me to get my toes repainted so they could feel happy when propped up, by doctor’s orders, in the middle of the room. Nice, but they longed to head out the door and walk somewhere, anywhere, fast!

New do for toes, for blog

little dance 1 little dance 2 little dance 3

Given current research on the brain, I’m sure all this is creating new neurons. My leg may be broken but my brain is rejuvenating. I also figure the whole thing may just be fate’s gift of lessons for how to slow down and learn to ask for help. Both are hard to do.

Although this break tested my conviction to make the big break in where I live, plans for my move are gaining momentum. With help from family and friends, I’ll clear most of my stuff out of Harbour Heights by the end of August, pack things away in storage, and then live in a temporary home and work in a temporary office for a few months. Apparently, in today’s market it will be easier to sell than to buy. This schedule lets me do one thing at a time and may allow me to have a little patience as I look for the right place to plant myself next. Unless I’m really surprised, this won’t be my last move. It isn’t the one I and others have imagined, but it could certainly make another move easier.

In and around all the necessary tasks of packing and moving, selling and buying, keeping my work-for-pay going, and maintaining some sort of connection with friends, I’ll be pondering the meaning of breaks and shifts, repotting and liberation, editing back and imagining forward. For me, both conversation and writing change the ideas I start with and make them more real. I’ll be looking for chances to do both. Richard recently told me that decades ago I referred to most of the things I did, including my artwork, as “projects.” The word has always carried positive meanings for me. Some things don’t change much I guess. All this is definitely a project.

Everything becomes a project


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