When I was twelve, our family moved from the cozy center of town to a
just-built housing development on the outskirts. I loved it and I hated it.
My bedroom was unbelievably fresh and bright, and I had it to myself. My
two sisters and I had a bathroom to ourselves and the kitchen was a soft
purple with avocado appliances that sounds terrible and was actually quite
Mostly, though, I hated the suburbs. There was nowhere to walk. There were
no trees. The houses all looked alike. It felt cold and sterile and
lifeless, life in beige, the antithesis of everything I-moi! the creative
one! the different one!-wanted to be. I teethed on hippie culture and the
protests of the late sixties, came home from elementary school one day with
a scarf tied around my forehead and a pair of yellow sunglasses and felt
cooler than cool, man. (My father was not amused. In fact, this was a
seminal moment in our squaring off for a war of wills and ideologies that in
some ways still continues. He now introduces me as his "creative,
independent daughter.") I didn’t want to live in the suburbs.
So, once the choice was mine, I didn’t. I lived in houses in industrial
neighborhoods and crummy apartments on busy city streets and in old houses
and even, for about three months, shared a trailer with a girl I met at
school, but I never set foot in the suburbs. The last house I lived in,
for a long, long time, was a rescue from the wrecking ball, a hundred year
old house with lots of charm and great light. And problems.
Problems! Problems with plumbing. The tiniest bathroom in the known
universe with a beautiful window overlooking the tops of trees with a floor
that was rotting away. An ancient garden of heirloom roses and an mulberry
trees that tried to disguise the crumbling mortar between the bricks.
Spiders and spiders and spiders.
But mostly, the dust was what drove me crazy. Dust on everything, all the
time. Dust on sifting down from old ceilings, dust breathed out of hundred-
year-old floorboards. Dust from the year the Titanic sunk. Dust from the
day Hitler bombed Poland and the day I was born and when Saigon fell. I
loved finding old newspapers in the closets, and I loved my old claw-footed
bathtub, but the dust drove me mad. The neighborhood was pretty, with big
trees, but it began to be plain that it was never going to gentrify. It was
always just going to be quaint and weary.
The house I live in with Christopher Robin is in the suburbs. It is
unimaginably ordinary here (well, except the view, that view of the
mountains drawn across my horizon like a new painting every morning-today
blue, tomorrow pink, Wednesday white with new fallen snow). But you know,
there’s a lot of good, too. It’s quiet all the time! Kids wander all over.
It’s been here long enough that there are big Ponderosa pines, and
someone went to a good deal of trouble to diversify plantings so there are
dozens of kinds of trees, so for the first time in my life, I can enjoy an
autumn with more colors than just green to yellow to brown.
Every window in the house opens, and there are screens on them. All of them!
I love that everyone in the neighborhood has a dog and they go inside at
night. I love four bathrooms. Four. Bathrooms. Imagine if every family in
the world had four bathrooms-how much calmer would the world be then? I
love the garage. It was unbelievably fantastic the first time I didn’t have
to scrape my windows. I have forgotten about scraping windshields!
I like this kind of house, too, I have decided. I thought I only liked old
houses. House with character (dust). But I like the big windows with deep
sills for all my plants and cats to sit on, and I like big swaths of
cascading light falling across white walls. I adore the greenhouse window.
What a great invention! I like the kitchen beside the greenhouse window,
too. Cupboards to put everything away. Cupboards that almost don’t have
anything in them because I never had room for stuff like mixers and small
appliances before (and CR was a long time bachelor who doesn’t cook anything
not cooked first by Marie Callendar). I brought a coffee grinder and coffee
pot with me, a toaster, and a microwave with me. Enough. Since living here I am collecting tools. I am finding that I’m a rather excellent cook.
This house in the suburbs is big and spacious and ordinary and, well, yes,
beige. It is ordinary, but it’s safe and quiet and easy to clean. No dust!
Does that sound dull? Perhaps. Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve lost my fire or
I’ve let down my inner hippie. I admit I have deep admiration for the New
Jersey mayor who lives in the projects so he doesn’t forget what life is
like for a lot of the people he represents, but I am not an elected
official. The tasks I am given to do are to offer peace and escape to
other women (and men if they are so inclined). I am here to put down
stories to entertain and probe, to sooth the tangled nerves of my readers.
And in my non-working life, I want to make guests comfortable with special
soaps and throw parties sometimes that might involve people dressing up,
even. My office is still the same explosion of color and collages and art
supplies exploding everywhere. But I have discovered that sometimes an
artist–or perhaps only this artist–works more easily in calm and orderly
surroundings, from a stage of some beauty and quiet.
I have not given up my values. It is still important to me to work toward a
sane world of sustainable energy and an equality of resources spread across
the globe. We–CR and I–are mindful of excess and overconsumption and
recycling. We would like to build a "green" house in a beautiful place to
show how it can be done. But I do sometimes think, as I’m straightening up
the house, that four bathrooms for the world wouldn’t be so bad, either.
What I know is that enough food for every child on the planet isn’t even
done, so bathrooms are sort of a long way down the list. I know that the
luxury I experienced in my old house was riches beyond imagining in many
places, and that I live now like a king.
But a garage! Bathrooms! Smooth carpeted hallways and washers and dryers and
dishwashers. Don’t we really want sustainable cleanliness and beauty and
right vocations for everyone, in the end? Not just an okay world where
bellies are full, but much, much more–that Star Trek ideal of everyone
having enough to eat and good work and the luxury to indulge complete
self-actualization. It would be great if Africa could start worrying about
rising obesity rates and the biggest problems in Sierra Leone were that
teenagers were spending too much time texting friends instead of that pesky
Yeah. Plenty for everyone without ruining the earth. What say you? Is it
Like this? Try these posts, too.: