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The first house I bought when I was nineteen years old, with the unlikely sum of twenty thousand dollars in my pocket, from the sale of my first book. That one was a two hundred year old farmhouse at the end of a dead end road in a small town in New Hampshire, surrounded by fifty acres of fields and woods, with the sound of a waterfall audible, just down the road and fireplaces in every room.
was married and gave birth to my three children in that house, and because the place had come to be, for me, linked with my dream of the marriage and family life I envisioned in my youth, it seemed necessary -- though heartbreaking -- that when the marriage ended, so should my occupancy of that house. I said goodbye to the pond and gardens my husband and I had built there over the years, the little cabin I used to go to write, where deer grazed just outside the window, the blackberry bushes that yielded the makings of many summers' worth of pies. No sooner did I part with one beloved home, though, than I made myself a new one.
The second house -- the house of my divorce, I think of it now, purchased as a kind of refuge in the first terrible weeks after my marriage ended -- was what I thought of, at the time, as my city house. The city, in this case, was a town of twenty thousand inhabitants, just thirty miles away from our old farmhouse, but to my children and me at the time, accustomed as we were to nights illuminated only by stars and a road that saw no traffic but our own ancient station wagon and the occasional visitor or UPS truck, the new place seemed thrillingly, though sometimes disconcertingly urban. For the first many nights I slept in that house I couldn't get used to the streetlights outside my window, the sound of cars going past.
But there was something good about that too. My children -- in their school age years by this point -- loved the autonomy of being able to hop on their bicycles and make their way, independent of chauffeuring, to little league games and friends' houses, or to walk into town, on summer evenings, for ice cream.
And the house itself, though totally different from our old cape, was wonderful in a completely different way. Gone were the stone walls and the bread oven, the wide-board floors and exposed beams. Now we lived in a big old Victorian with a wraparound porch and a yard big enough for the largest trampoline you could buy . That house had so many rooms we were able to designate one for nothing but valentine making, another for ping pong, another (a huge pantry full of built in cupboards) for dishes.
All my life I had been an acquirer of possessions, but now I had space enough to let my love of yard sale shopping go wild. During the years in that house, I built up my teapot collection and my cookie jar collection, a waffle iron collection, even, and built shelves to house a hundred pairs of salt and pepper shakers. I saved scraps of fabric, acquired mismatched china enough that once I held a dinner party in the yard, for a hundred people, and had enough plates for every guest, no two the same. I didn't just accumulate china either. When a plate broke, I saved the pieces, for future mosaic projects, to be carried out in -- where else? -- our art room.
When my oldest child, my daughter, graduated from high school -- with her brothers only a few years behind her -- we sold most of our furniture and (not without pain) nine tenths of my collections and moved again, this time across the country, to a town just north of San Francisco. ( I hauled my broken plate chips three thousand miles cross country, though, for future mosaics). Real estate prices being what they were in the Bay area, I traded our huge Victorian with its big yard and endless flower beds for a house less than half the size, perched on a tiny piece of hillside with room enough only for potted plants and baby tears -- no lawn, and not enough flat land to set even the smallest trampoline. When my sons played basketball in our driveway, now, and missed a shot, our ball would roll down the hill and, very likely, vanish forever, our lot was so steeply pitched. Even so, the mortgage I took on, for that house, was more than three times what the mortgage for our old place had been.
Like my other two houses, the one I bought, at the age of forty two, possessed its own uniquely lovable qualities. This one sat in a grove thick with redwoods, looking out over the San Francisco Bay and the peak of Mt. Tamalpais, where I could hike, and did, every day. I drank my coffee, mornings -- or my wine, late at night -- on the deck, and though (as in the Victorian) I could see the lights of the town and of the city, beyond that, the spot where I would sit was far enough up on the mountainside that -- just as it had been in our old farmhouse -- I could once again make out the constellations of the night sky.
Now my daughter was gone, the house was filled mostly with teenage boys, and their teenage girlfriends -- music and drumming, beat up cars with skateboarding stickers on the windows parked out front, rows of very large sneakers lined up in the hall, sometimes, when my sons' friends slept over as they often did. Though it was small, the Marin County house occupied three floors -- one for the kitchen and eating and living areas, a big downstairs where the teenagers hung out, and a tiny but wonderful bedroom, above it all, where I could watch the sun rise over the bay in the mornings and sleep, undisturbed by the sound of jamming musicians two floors below. Nothing audible but the pulse of drums, like a heartbeat.
I loved that house -- do still -- but the cost of that mountain and bay view ran high. For the first time in my life, I found myself calculating how many dollars it took, per day, to live where I did, and the answer was: a lot. I always managed to meet my mortgage payments and pay my taxes on time, but to do so required constant work and stress, and I was always conscious, now, that the meter was running not just on my electric bill, but on my whole existence.
I was still writing for my living, as I have been since I was eighteen. But I also knew I could no longer afford to try out kinds of work that might not yield immediate financial reward. I couldn't afford the luxury of creative experimentation, and possible failure. No doubt I voiced this concern, more than a little, to my children -- particularly at times when they didn't put their pizza boxes in the trash, times when they got in a car accident that caused our insurance rates to soar, or when I watched them head off on camping trips, or snowboarding, while I sat at my desk working on a Saturday. I was living in a beautiful place, all right. But I had less and less time and peace of mind to enjoy it.
My youngest son graduated from high school a year ago -- his older brother having headed off to college the year before. Willy had been asked to deliver the graduation address at his school -- but remained inscrutably silent as to its content, so that when he rose to address the crowd of parents that day, I was as unaware as any of them as to what my son might say.
As it turned out, his words spoke directly to me, though I wasn't the only one. We're going off on a big adventure now, he said, referring to his classmates, most of whom where leaving home now for college, though Willy himself had chosen to take the year off and head out, backpacking across another continent, on the proceeds of his earnings as a waiter that year.
But it wasn't just the children's adventures that might begin now, my son suggested in his speech. Suppose you parents give yourselves an adventure too, he said. You've sacrificed all these years, driving us places, paying for camp and lessons and schools like this one. Now should be your time. You were hippies once, for god's sake, remember? Tell us to take out college loans. Leave us to care for our selves for a while... you've done your job. Why don't you go try those things you've been wanting to, that you couldn't all these years you were being responsible for us?
Go write that novel you're always talking about, my son said, looking straight at me. Go find a man... or better yet, find your own self.
He got a standing ovation, my son.
Two and a half months later, Willy took off on his travels across Africa. As for me, I covered my car with a tarp and took the insurance off it, found a tenant for our house, and headed out on the very sort of adventure my son had advocated that last June.
It was the first time in twenty five years that I found myself without an address or a telephone number. I didn't even know where I would be living. Only that it would be a place where I could live very cheaply and simply -- without the comforts of my car and my thousand CD's, my fax machine and DSL line, my kitchen full of cookbooks and specialty baking pans and interesting spices. I would not have my houseful of beautiful paintings, my books, my thirty pairs of shoes, my photograph albums, my twenty five year old two seater convertible, my pots of plants, my heirloom Christmas ornaments. But neither would I have the responsibilities of taking care of all those things. For the first time since I was eighteen, twenty nine years earlier, I would not be living in a home of my own.
My plan, as much as I possessed one, was to find myself a place to rent, cheaply, where I could settle in to work on a book. I thought I was heading to Hawaii, with a two week stop in Guatemala to see my daughter, who was studying Spanish there before heading off to a year's volunteer work in the Dominican Republic.
At the tail end of my time with my daughter, she and I spent a couple of days in a little village on the shores of Lake Atitlan -- a town of one-room adobe houses, a couple of restaurants, two outdoor vegetable stands, a Catholic church. The morning we were to leave, I woke very early and dove into the lake, watched the sun come up over the volcano across the water, and decided to stay.
Audrey took off a few days later, for her job. I rented a little house in that village on the shores of the lake and unpacked my one bag.
For six months that's where I lived. My house was very simple: a couple of rooms with bare plaster walls, a bed, a few chairs. The kitchen contained a couple of old pans, a half dozen dishes, a handful of forks and spoons and knives. The beauty of the place lay all in what nature had provided: a small garden full of bouganvillea and calla lilies, roses, oleander, a palm tree, a lime tree, and a couple of banana trees. Beyond that was a stand of tall grasses, alive with birds in the early morning hours, and just beyond the stand of reeds, the vast expanse of Lake Atitlan, surrounded on all sides by the outlines of towering volcanoes. Mornings, I'd rise with the sun, light a fire in the little stone sauna at the edge of the lake, and while it was heating up, I'd swim, calling out my greetings, sometimes, to the fishermen in their wooden dugout boats. Some days the water would be almost pink from the sunrise. Sometimes a haze lay over the volcano. Other times, I could make out the outline of every tree.
My favorite part of my little rented Guatemalan house was the big, open, virtually unfurnished thatch roof ranchero, perched on the shore of the lake. I set the table there, and spent my days, with my laptop plugged in to an extension cord, writing my long-deferred novel, stopping every few hours for a swim or a walk, and sometimes to visit with a villager or fellow gringo passing through town, from France, or Italy, or Germany or Belgium and now and then (but less often) from the U.S. I knew almost nothing of what was going on in the world, during those months (and they were months when much was going on, and not much of it good). Mostly I remained simply and happily alone, attending to less, and more, than I had in my entire adult life, probably.
There was no phone at my little lakeside house -- no microwave, no washing machine, no television, for sure, and no desire for one. To use the Internet required a one hour boat ride to a larger town at the far side of the lake, in a wooden speedboat bringing villagers to the market, or home again, with baskets of avocados or fruit and babies who never cried, wrapped in their shawls.
My possessions were very few. I had four tee shirts, two pairs of pants, a skirt, a dress, a couple of sweaters. When those got dirty, I gave them to a woman in the town, who washed them in the lake and laid them to dry on stones. When my sneakers were stolen one night, when I left them outside, I bought myself a pair of sandals and lived in those. I had brought a few books with me and when I was done with those, I traded them for others at the used English bookstore in the town where I went for the Internet.
I made a few friends ... local people, and some travelers passing through, and others who had thought they were passing through once, and settled down instead: Enrique, from Vienna, whose perfect little thatch roof cottage sat on the shore, surrounded by magical gardens, with furniture he'd made himself from pieces of twisted coffee wood, lamps with banana leaf shades, a shower inlaid with blue glass walls that looked out on the garden. Nils, a young German who gave up his record store in Hamburg two years earlier to build a kind of castle, rising out from the rocks along the lake, with turrets jutting out above the palm trees and stained glass windows -- no two the same -- made from old glass bottles and pieces of hand blown glass he brought from his weekly scouting missions to the glass factory in Xela, all constructed by artisans to whom he offered free room and board, in exchange for work on his place. Jeff and Wendy, homesteaders from the U.S., were building their palace all themselves. Manuela, from Italy, had made a restaurant where she served tiramisu in the garden. Daisy had quit her job as a schoolteacher to build her adobe houses, three of them -- one for herself, two to rent out. Mark had sailed around the world in a seventy foot trimaran he'd built, before settling down in his thatch roof casa above the lake, with a woodshop below where he planed wood for other builders in the town, and a solar heated outdoor tub where I could stop in, afternoons, when I felt like a steaming hot bath. Beside it was an outdoor four poster bed where a young british woman, who'd settled in the town some years before, had given birth the year before.
Sometimes, in the evenings, I'd walk into town to buy a restaurant meal or visit friends, but mostly I cooked my simple meals of vegetables and rice on my little stove and ate by candlelight on the ranchero. I had a few tapes with me, of music from home, but often what I found myself choosing was the sound of the lake water lapping at the shore, the birds, the lancha boats passing. I went to bed early most nights and slept with the window open, listening to the water outside. When the moon was full, though, I waited till it rose, and stepped into the lake to swim, sometimes at midnight, sometimes before dawn.
Early on in my time at that house, my days took on a rhythm that seldom changed. The morning swim and sauna, the mid-day walk to town for my day's supply of fresh eggs and vegetables, the once-a-week trip by boat or pickup truck to read the emails from my friends and my wandering children -- my daughter in the Dominican republic, my sons in Senegal, then Guinea Bissou...Other times I worked on my novel -- begun in October, finished in March.
Evenings, watching the sunset, I'd have a beer or a glass of cheap wine from a box and guacamole from avocadoes that were probably still on the tree, the day before. Sometimes a family of little girls from a nearby house would stop by in their traditional skirts and huipils. Carmen, Clarinda and Rosario found beauty in the simplest things: the flush on my toilet, the ice that built up in the freezer section of my refrigerator, a glass I'd bought on a trip to the city. One day Carmen spotted a single bobby pin on the floor and asked if she could have it. Another time, Rosa retrieved, from my trash, the cardboard box that had held a visiting friend's cigarettes and came to ask if she could bring it home. Here in my little village, the simplest things were rare and precious. Not only to the little girls from the village but, more and more, to me.
But the habits of a nesting type of person die hard. As the months passed in my little rented house, I found myself beginning to accumulate things again. A few wine glasses, a better cooking pot, and then a good blender, for fixing my morning drink of fresh mango, papaya, blackberries, pineapple and banana. In the market, I was drawn to the wonderful hand woven textiles the women laid out on the ground, old huipiles, cross stitched with flowers and birds and traditional mayan designs that haven't altered in centuries. Those I turned into pillows, and tablecloths. Once I had a tablecloth, I wanted more dishes to set on it, so at the market in Chichicastenango I acquired a set of wonderful, hand painted bowls. Then I had to have a dinner party, of course. Then I needed a pie pan, to make a blackberry pie. Then I needed more forks.
For thirty dollars I bought, from a man on the street, a set of bent twig furniture -- a couple of chairs and a little table. I bought more fabric, that I wrapped around the ugly plastic chairs on my ranchero and secured with safety pins, and made seat cushions to conceal the safety pinned parts and give the look of real upholstered chairs. I covered a bare lamp bulb with an upside down basket, laid mats on the floor, made from the woven reeds along the shore of the lake, cut by men in home-made dugout boats and woven by other men, in the next village. Four mats, at three dollars apiece, were enough to cover the floor of my room and fill it with the smell of fresh cut grass.
For fifty cents, in the market, I could fill my arms with flowers -- a dozen calla lilies, five different kinds of roses, birds of paradise, and some flowers whose names I didn't even know. At first , when I brought them home, I stuck my bouquets in pop bottles with the tops cut off, but before long I was buying large earthenware pots in the market, a dollar or two apiece, and hauling those home from the market too. Then came bouganvillea vines... I might not be around, by the time they'd climbed the arbor outside my window, but still I felt the urge to plant and water. Then I was seeking out horse manure to fertilize the vines. Then I was starting a compost pile.
The familiar habit had overtaken me again. My mind had turned -- as it always does -- to ownership. I so loved my rented house, I wanted it to be mine not just for a season or two, but forever. I began imagining the things I'd add... a fireplace for the rainy season, a larger window over the kitchen stove, so I could look out at the volcano while I stir-fried my vegetables. If I laid tile on the ranchero floor, instead of the rough stones that were there, I could invite friends to come and dance. I would build an outdoor cookstove, an herb garden. I would sew curtains. First, though, I'd need to buy a sewing machine.
I leave my little paradise village in Guatemala next week. I have not bought property here yet, though I dream of it still. I will return here as a renter, anyway. And maybe that's enough. Nobody can really own a piece of a lake or a volcano anyway.
For now, I am returning to the house in Marin County. When I first walk in the door, I expect I will feel a little overwhelmed, maybe even bombarded, by the complexity of my space there. All those dishes, all those books. A thousand CDs to choose from, instead of eight. I will receive mail again, for the first time in six months. And of course, that means there will again be bills to pay, lots of them.
It's not as if I am returning to a place bereft of great physical beauty of course. There is that mountain out my bedroom window, the bay, the hawks circling below my deck, the mist over the trees. No fishermen in dugout boats, in Mill Valley California, and no lake water lapping . No smell of Bella de Noche blossoms in the night, making me almost drunk with their sweetness.
I will no longer need to spend an hour in a boat, or in the back of a pickup truck, careening over steep mountain roads, to pick up my e mail. I will once again buy my groceries in a supermarket, and after I get through the checkout I'll pile the bags in my car instead of carrying them in a sack, over dirt roads, for that night's dinner. I can choose from fifty kinds of cheeses in Whole Foods where, in San Marcos, there is only one, queso de vaca... cheese of the cow.
What are your volcanoes like, back where you come from, my young friend from the village, Carmen , asked me the other day, as we sat on the ranchero, drawing together with the four colors of precious watercolor pens I have left, that haven't dried up yet.
How to explain to her what it's like at the house I return to next week? We have an amazing machine, I could tell her, that dries your laundry in an hour, so you don't need to lay your clothes out on the rocks, and another one you can put these things in, called videocassettes, so you can watch movies in your own house. First, of course, I would need to explain to Carmen, what a movie is.
There are no volcanoes, where I come from, I say. She looks at me with sympathy.
There is both much more where I come from, and infinitely less.
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