The myth of the ruby slippers

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors and a certified treasure to humanity, has some simple and direct advice when it comes to writing. It goes like this: “Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.”

I’ve been writing – or pretending to write – this blog post for months and it’s high time I got my butt back in the chair, although it’s not always a bad thing to let a piece of writing sit for a bit. I’ve found it often marinates into something richer than it might have been. I guess it could also grow mold, but I’m hoping that’s not the case with this post.

My original piece was going to be a reflection on my summer sabbatical in California and the importance of place in my life. For some reason I stopped working on it in early November and well, somehow the daffodils are now in bloom. To be honest, I know the some reason was that the holiday season is a roller coaster of emotions for me (and a bazillion other people).

Me as soon as I see the first Lexus Christmas commercial.

A typical day for me during that time from Thanksgiving to Christmas is not unlike a NC weather forecast – sunny skies early, thunderstorms in the afternoon, some containing hail and heavy winds, followed by partial clearing. In short, I’m all over the place – which is where this post originated – place.

When I returned from my summer (a civilized no humidity summer) in California, I began thinking a lot about Dorothy – yeah, that young girl from Kansas. Or was it Missouri? How was she so very certain that there’s no place like home? Maybe it was those ruby slippers that fortified her resolve. Me? I’m more of an Allbirds kind of girl and when I bump my rubber heels together, well, there’s no magic.

Don’t get me wrong – I was delighted to be back with my dear wife, but it hit me when my return flight approached PTI that my connection to North Carolina becomes more tenuous each time I leave this state. It was dark as we made our descent and I could see the lights of familiar places, but I didn’t feel much different than when I landed in Atlanta on my layover. I realized that Winston Salem is a destination for me, but it doesn’t feel like home. It never has.

Home is not always in plane view.

I envied those passengers I heard talking about how good it was to be home and I tried to remember when I last had that feeling. It made me sad that I really had to think about it. I suppose I would have to go back several years ago to when my parents were still alive.

The truth is that I’ve always felt like an accidental tourist in North Carolina. I moved here in 1995 when my partner at the time was recruited for a good job opportunity. I was a Virginian for the first 39 years of my life, and I had always thought of myself as a southerner – until I arrived in the Old North State. I’ll never forget my first trip to the post office and after a brief conversation with the clerk behind the counter, he looked at me a bit suspiciously and said, “You’re not from around here.” Not a question. I felt like I was in one of those old Westerns and waited for him to say, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” He wasn’t unfriendly, but his statement surprised me and before I could respond, he asked if was from up north. I said, “Yes. Northern Virginia.” He nodded slowly and told me he thought I was from New York City. That’s exactly how he said – true story.

My first trip to a NC post office. He didn’t make my day.

That memory is harmlessly amusing and oddly affirming to me today as I ponder the nuances of home. NC is never going to be home to me no matter how long I live here. And that’s okay, because I figured out this summer that for some of us, home is more abstract than an address. Most often for me, it’s a state of mind – and heart.

I talked to Kelly, my hairdresser/therapist/dear friend about this recently. She’s married and has two young children and moved to this area in her late teens. I asked her what popped into her head when she thinks of the word home. She took her time answering and said, “Home is the place I feel most filled.” I think I startled her when I responded, quite enthusiastically, “Yes, yes, that’s it.” I’m so lucky that my hair stylist completes me.

For some of us, home is not an address or a house. It’s a space where we feel in harmony with the world. Maybe it’s not even a space – it can be a sound or a smell. The Episcopal church I grew up in had a musty woody smell when you entered the front door. I left the church for several decades as an adult and when I made my way back to a small church in Greensboro on Easter Sunday in 2007, that same smell engulfed me like a hug. I was home.

The red door of just about any Episcopal church feels like home to me. This one is All Saint’s in Greensboro, NC. Watercolor by Mike Tiddy.

And I suppose that my church here in Winston Salem is one of the physical spaces that feels most like home to me these days. And that was certainly the case this holiday season. Church was a sanctuary for me in all manner of ways.

My mother died almost twenty years ago, but I’m still stopped in my tracks when I smell Chanel No. 5. That was her perfume. The morning after she died, I walked into her closet just to breathe in that scent still lingering on some of her clothing. I felt comforted. I was home.

Tastes can feel like home, too. My father always made oyster stew for breakfast on Christmas morning. Hey, don’t judge, I’m from Virginia and we didn’t have Moravian sugar cake. The first Christmas without him, I steeled myself over the stove to try and replicate his no-recipe recipe. It must have been divine intervention, because I came pretty darn close. I remember taking a deep breath before that first taste and there it was – that familiar briny tang.

I spent some time in Charlottesville over New Year’s – a place I lived for over a decade. Several times during my stay, my heart felt full – most especially when I shared time with my friend of over three decades, Chris. She and her husband Ed live on a farm in Crozet, just outside of Charlottesville. The farm has long been the backdrop for all sorts of celebrations – including a memorable 4th of July when we almost burned the front yard down. Our bad – Ed did warn us that the grass was too dry for sparklers.

Friends since the first Reagan administration. Hoping to live long enough to see a Democrat in the White House again.

Chris and Ed were both so dear to my parents – in life and death – and it is an abiding comfort to me to have such a rich history with them. Their house feels like home. And hugging Ed reminds me of being in my father’s arms – he’s a strong but kind man like my dad and he’s okay with me crying into his warm flannel shirt. And just like my dad, he is always so happy to see me. He greeted me this time with perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. “Addy, you know we just sort of set our watches until the next time we see you.” I mean, who says that? Ed does. And then I cry.

Me after hugging Ed.

I often feel at home in nature and what a glorious gift that is. I’ve always enjoyed walking, but after the apocalypse of November 8, 2016, walking became a spiritual practice for me. Yes, it’s good exercise, but it also gets me away from the turmoil of our BREAKING NEWS world. There are just so many screaming words flying back and forth, and I for one would much rather hear the tweet of a bird over one from a president.

Budding blooms > Breaking news.

It’s taken me a long time to accept that for me, home will probably always be a moving target, a fleeting yet often visceral moment. On my best days, there are several moments when I feel at home and as Kelly said, I am filled in glorious ways.

Mary Oliver, the beloved goddess of poetry who passed away last year, exquisitely captures the feeling of home in the poem below. I read it at my best friend’s wedding several years ago outside on a warm day in May while her dog barked. It was perfect.

Coming Home

by Mary Oliver

When we are driving in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown,
when we are weary,
when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look,
I imagine us rising from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing everything from another place–
the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea.
And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us,
but which we cherish.
And what we see is our life moving like that
along the dark edges of everything,
headlights sweeping the blackness,
believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things.
Looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns
right down to the thumping barriers to the sea,
the swirling waves,
the narrow streets, the houses,
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.

I’m glad Dorothy made it back to Kansas, but I’m going to just keep trying to enjoy the ride home wherever it takes me. You see, for some of us, there’s no home like place.

Chris and Ed make my heart feel home.
When a familiar view feels like home. Holidays up on the farm.

Searching for my true home

A ranch on a gravel road in Clinton, N.Y.

I dreamed of New York last night. I was in Ithaca, where I first went to college, and the first place I lived on my own. In my dream, Andrew and I were living there. I was in grad school. Andrew found a great job. It was summer. The sun was shining, but the air was cool. All I can remember from the dream was the downtown square with its cobblestone streets and lots of sunlight. I woke up at 7:40 a.m., surprised to find myself in our apartment. The dream felt so real. I should have been in Ithaca.

What is home? Is it a place or a state of mind? I’ve been in North Carolina for almost 11 years now, and it still doesn’t feel like home. But this is where my community is, my friends who have become family. This is where friends have laid flowers at my doorstep or brought me homemade chicken soup when I was sick.

The day after I found out I miscarried, two of my dearest friends came by just to be with me. I was on the couch wrapped in a blanket and wearing black stretch pants and a hooded sweatshirt. It was February. I hadn’t showered all day. My eyes were still puffy from crying; they felt scratchy. It was a no contacts kind of day.

Miriam brought me Chinese, pork lo mein. My favorite. She always tries to feed me when I’m depressed. She knows how I reject food when I’m grieving. She sat on the couch next to me and just listened. I don’t remember what she said, but I know that she made me feel better. She knows me in a way that not many do. She sees me straight down to my core. That’s home.

My best friend Addy arrived at my door with a tiny square box tied with a bow and containing truffles. She also brought Kleenex, the rectangular size, with blue and white splatters like an abstract painting. It reminded me of my grandma’s house; she always had the larger, rectangular Kleenex boxes. Addison sat with me for hours. She let me cry. She held my hand. Somehow, she managed to make me laugh.We binged on “Barefoot Contessa” episodes and talked about how Ina needs to be friends with us and invite us over for dinner every night. We took a selfie and sent it to my mom in California to show her I was OK. I was in good hands. That’s home right?

The best of friends will sit with you and your grief and see you through your darkest moments.

Maybe home isn’t a place. Maybe home is people, your village, the ones who lift you up in your darkest moments.

But in New York , when I was there last week, it felt like home to me. I miss it. I miss the feeling I had when I was there. It felt familiar. Being with my sister. Sipping white wine from stemless glasses. Giggling together, crying together. Gina is home.

Every day, I drove from my sister’s house in Albany to the Omega Institute outside of Rhinebeck, N.Y. where I was participating in a week-long writing retreat. I never minded the hour and 15 minute drive. It was peaceful. It gave me time to ease into the morning and space to decompress and digest the day on the way home. It gave me time to ponder and time to observe this beautiful land around me. Every day I crossed the Hudson River twice; it was my favorite part of the ride. The Hudson is breathtaking. It’s wider than most rivers I’ve seen and, damn, the light it’s just magical there. Most of my drive consisted of two-lane rural roads that careened through the countryside of fields and ice cream stands and rivers and golden sunlight and wildflowers and mountains and open roads.

On those drives, I felt a longing that I could not explain. It felt like home to me, even though I didn’t live there. Often during that week, I would catch my throat tightening or my eyes welling up with tears as I drove, taking in the landscape and all its beauty. At first I thought it was a side effect from all the intensive, personal writing I did during the day at my retreat. But this was more like a deep sadness, and I realize now, looking back, that what I was feeling was homesick.

One evening, I got to watch the sun set on my drive home. As I turned off the Taconic Parkway and headed north, the sky revealed a beautiful sunset of orange and pink dotted with clouds in various shades of blue. The Catskills looked like giant blue shadows along the horizon. Their presence was a permanent fixture, grounded and unmovable. Now I understand why so many painters have fallen in love with the Hudson Valley. Its beauty made me weep. Why do I feel such a deep connection to this place?

Somewhere along Route 9 in New York. (Photo by Carla Kucinski)

I’ve been sad since I’ve been back from New York. Tuesday night at the dinner table, I burst into tears. “I miss my sister,” I told Andrew. I choked on each word as it tried to leave my throat. We had just come from looking at a house to buy. We’ve been unsuccessfully house-hunting since July. That night we toured a split-level with green shutters, tan vinyl siding, white columns holding up the front porch. It’s in a great neighborhood — actually, one of the neighborhoods we want to live in. It’s woodsy, quiet.

As I walked to the front door of the house, I saw a dad teaching his son to ride a bike. Images like that still have the power to break me. Inside, the house was beautiful. But way too much house for just the two of us and our dog. It hit me that night as I cried over my ratatouille that we don’t know what the future holds. Even looking for a house makes me sad. As we walk through each new home, I count bedrooms, I imagine where the nursery will be, if the yard is big enough for a child, if it’s in a good school district. And then I think: “What if there’s no baby in the picture?”

Sometimes I feel like I’ll never be pregnant again. The concept feels so out of reach. It feels impossible, deep down in my gut. This feeling has replaced the hope I’ve been carrying all these months. I don’t know where it went. It just slipped away.

“Your true home is in the here and now,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddist teacher. “Your true home is not an abstract idea; it is something you can touch and live in every moment.” He says home is in your body, in your mind, in your present moment. But what if in the present moment all you’re feeling is anxiety and fear and questioning everything? Then what?

Greensboro was supposed to be a temporary stop. I thought I’d be here for three or five years. But then I bought a house, got married and got divorced all in that order. This was 2010. I wanted to leave North Carolina and go anywhere, live anywhere but here. I wanted to run from the present and start a new life. I could have left then, but my heart already endured so much heartbreak and change that the idea of picking up my life and starting over scared me. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends; that would have been another loss too difficult to bear. They had become family. Without them, I wouldn’t have survived my divorce.

And then, Andrew came into my life. I fell in love. He reopened my closed heart and showed me how to trust again. He gave me hope. That was 2011. And now it’s almost 2017, and I still feel like I’m straddling a line – one foot in North Carolina and one foot out.

“Don’t think about leaving,” I told myself the morning I was flying back to Greensboro. I usually start crying much sooner before I get to the airport, like in the shower or while putting on my mascara, my lashes damp with tears. Saying goodbye to any of my sisters is never easy. Last time I left, I cried so much that the TSA agent came up to me in line to make sure I was OK.

Gina and I are partners in crime. The magpies, my dad called us. We’re two years apart. She’s the middle child; I’m the baby. As kids she gave me piggy back rides around the house. I was afraid of jumping onto her back for fear she wouldn’t catch me. (I have control issues.) She’d sit on the edge of the bed and let me crawl onto her back, and at the end of the ride, she’d return me to my bed as promised and let me roll off her back like I was falling backwards into a lake. She’s always looking out for me, even though we’re both adults now. I still need looking after.

Last night I came across an old journal entry from 2006. As I read my own words, I could feel my sadness and desperation. I was lost. “What’s my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing? Why am I here?” I laughed as I read the questions aloud. Ten years later, the questions haven’t changed. Will I always be searching? What is this void that I continue to carry and can’t seem to fill? Has this feeling always been there? Maybe the answers are waiting for me in New York.

Gina and me toasting to my last night in New York. The picture is blurry because we were having so much fun.

 

Connecting to place

It’s a cloudless, sunny day – the kind that doesn’t feel much like January. Coats will be worn, but unzipped. Gloves will be off, but tucked in the coat pockets just in case. When I take my dog to the big open field by the middle school in our neighborhood, I un-clip her leash from her collar and she runs into the wind, smiling. She too feels the shift in the air.

Molly

By Carla Kucinski

It is my day off, and I’m spending it writing, reading, reflecting. Though I will confess, I spent the morning working on a presentation for work, but I did it in my pajamas and slippers, and therefore, it felt less “work-like.” But I surrendered at noon, not allowing it to take over my entire day.

I am in my living room, sitting on the couch, notebook in my lap, sunshine streaming through the French doors, warming the room like an oven. My dog lies on the living room floor in a patch of sun the shape of a rectangle. She is breathing softly through her nose, the way dogs do when they first drift off to sleep.

I live essentially in three rooms in my condo: the bedroom, the kitchen and this room. These spaces occupy the majority of my time. It’s been a few months now since we moved into our condo. I like it here. It’s cozy and compact, but not in a claustrophobic way. I like that I can talk to my husband in the living room while I prepare dinner in the kitchen and we share moments from our day. I like that when I step out onto the balcony, which seems to always be bathed in sunlight I can look out over the tree tops and roof tops, and watch the seasons change. Sunsets from here are spectacular in their various shades of pink.

IMG_2858

By Carla Kucinski

What’s not fun is hauling three bags of groceries up three flights of stairs, and the dogs next door that bark every time we set foot on our doorstep. But it beats raking a yard full of leaves. In any case, you get used to it. Sometimes, you grow to love it, even the force of the train a half-mile down the street, whose blaring horn slices the dark and stillness of the night. There’s comfort in knowing someone else is awake early in the morning.

We drove by our old house the other day. It felt strangely foreign to me, as if we never lived there. Everything about it was the same, except for a pair of white lace curtain hanging from the front window. I never hung curtains in that window; they would have blocked the view.

I’ve realized that I’ve learned to adapt easily to new surroundings. I can quickly turn a house into a home. Start from scratch. I dream of one day owning our own house, a quaint bungalow with a forest for a backyard and a front porch for swinging. I can picture the house, but never the place.

Angel Oak Tree by Carla Kucinski

Angel Oak Tree by Carla Kucinski

All this moving sometimes makes me feel rootless. Without roots, there’s no commitment. I’ll always be searching for the next thing. Owning a home both terrifies me and excites me. Owning keeps one from moving, which is the part that scares me. Renting gives one flexibility, prevents you from getting stuck. But wouldn’t it be nice to paint the walls the color I want?

“It is difficult to commit to living where we are, how we are. It is difficult and necessary. In order to make art, we must first make an artful life, a life rich enough and diverse enough to give us fuel. We must strive to see the beauty where we are planted, even if we are planted somewhere that feels very foreign to our nature.”

These words struck me today while reading Julia Cameron’s “The Sound of Paper.” She goes on to talk about how while living in New York she had to “work to connect to the parts of the city that feed my imagination and bring me a sense of richness and diversity instead of mere overcrowding and sameness.”

Perhaps that’s what’s at the heart of my “rootless” issue. I am not connecting to the parts of my city that feed my soul. Instead, I’ve felt very reclusive lately, drawing inward but not finding inspiration and thus blaming my lack of imagination on my environment. Cameron says we become victims if we aren’t willing to connect to the place we live to feed our imagination.

Foggy Morning Walk by Carla Kucinski

Foggy Morning Walk by Carla Kucinski

Photography has always connected me to places, moments. It helps me see the beauty in everyday life. Maybe I need to see more of my city through my lens or put it down and actually experience it instead of observing it.

“We must, as the elders advise us, bloom where we are planted,” Cameron writes. For if we don’t “our art dries up at the root.”

What an evocative image.

What feeds your imagination? What parts of your city do you connect to that feed your imagination? How do you connect?

By Carla Kucinski

By Carla Kucinski