What Makes Home?

The other day, I was settling down for an afternoon nap. My dog Quagmire was curled up beside me, and I could hear my husband doing something or other on the opposite side of the house. The sounds of home. How lucky am I?

I do feel at home in my home, thank goodness, and with my husband and my dogs, and at work… but to be honest, I still don’t feel at home in the Pacific Northwest, even though I’ve been here nearly 5 years. People confuse me out here. I don’t understand them. And the weather is strange. And I still don’t know my way around. When people talk about small towns in another part of the state, I don’t know where they are. All these things make me feel like an outcast.

So the question is, what makes home? What follows are my stream of consciousness thoughts on the subject. (Special thanks to Cris, Ray, and Martin for ideas.) It’s a dense topic. And, spoiler alert, I don’t think I’ve managed to fully define it, but here goes…

Home is familiarity. It’s knowing where everything is, and also knowing alternate routes to that place. I think GPS has punked me in this regard. I no longer have a full map in my head. I don’t know where places are in relationship to other places anymore.

To help me with this, my husband has hung a local map in the garage for me. It has made a difference. But I really need to stop being lazy by relying on a mechanical voice to get me to my destination. I need to get some sense of context.

Home is also being able to make your way around in the dark without stubbing your toe.

But it’s not just familiarity, because I knew my way around Jacksonville, Florida, and there was a sense of relief there, a sense of predictability, but I don’t miss it, and if I never go back again it wouldn’t upset me overmuch. I miss my friends, I miss the fried chicken, I miss bodies of water that are warm enough to swim in, and I miss a few other places, but I don’t miss the city at all.

Home is what you’re used to. I’m used to flat land and straight roads that are on a grid pattern. If that’s what I need to feel at home, I’ll never feel that way in the curvy, hilly, mountainous state of Washington.

Home is knowing what neighborhoods you can walk through after dark. Back to familiarity again. But maybe there’s a feeling of safety wrapped up in it.

It’s recognizing the priorities, the politics, and the culture of the place where you are. Is it where everyone shares your politics? If so, we’re all screwed these days. But I must say I feel a lot more politically at ease in Seattle than I ever did in Florida.

Home is knowing the history of your location. I’m working on that.

Home is what makes you feel normal. It’s what you expect. I’m definitely not there yet. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt completely normal.

What is so un-homelike about where one is living that so many people are willing to leave everything they’ve ever known and relocate to another part of the planet? What’s missing? Why do they think they’ll find it elsewhere?

Do nomads ever feel at home? Is home where your yurt is? Does home reside in the people you love? I’m loved out here. And I’m at home in my house. But then I drive away from it, and I’m back to feeling like I’m in a foreign country again.

Is it a sense of belonging? Is it being made to feel welcome? Is it having a restaurant where you can say, “I’ll have the regular,” and they know what you mean? Is it being worthy of the gossip of your neighbors? (God, I hope not.)

I always felt at home in Western North Carolina. Even the very first time I stepped foot in the area when I was 17. Whenever I am there, it feels like I can exhale. Like I can breathe. The mountains embrace me. I can sleep, knowing the crickets and fire flies mean me no harm. But why? Why that place?

If all you ever knew was prison, would you consider that home? Is home where you’re resigned to your fate?

How can one person’s home be someone else’s hell?

Home is a feeling, more than a place. Because you can feel at home in more than one place.

Is it an emotion? It’s not happiness. Because you can be sad at home. Is it contentment? Contentment is fleeting for me, albeit highly appreciated when it comes around.

And I think home takes time. I never feel at home at first. I can’t even sleep the first night in a hotel room. But jeez, how much time does it take?

The craziest thing about home is that everyone will have a different definition of what that is.

I know it’s more than the house you live in. It’s your community, your region, your environment, your loved ones. It’s the place where you’re accepted as you are. It the place you can find your way back to.

Home is your comfort zone. But what causes you to feel like you’re in that zone?

I love to travel, but I can never 100 percent relax while I’m doing it, and after a few weeks, I want to go home. Home is where you can rest. I can’t completely rest here. And I want to be able to. So I need to figure out what makes home for me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, dear reader.

Home

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People Have to Live Somewhere

Every single day, I commute past tent encampments for the homeless here in Seattle. When I first came out here, I found this shocking. I came from Jacksonville, Florida, and I had never seen anything quite like this. You’d think the Florida climate would be more amenable to homelessness, but no. The West Coast experiences much more of it than the East Coast does, according to most homeless counts. It disturbs me greatly that I’m getting used to the sight of these encampments. The shock is gone. The sadness remains.

I’ve got a few theories, now, as to why there’s such a difference from one coast to the other. First, of course, is that living out here is about 3 times more expensive than it is in Jacksonville. A lot more of us, here, teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Second, there are fewer places to hide such encampments. While Seattle has a much lower population than Jacksonville, it’s much more densely packed. There are not huge swaths of woods in which one can disappear. Third, I suspect we’re a good deal more tolerant out here. I know for a fact that the Jacksonville police tend to drive people out to the county line and dump them, making them continually walk the 20 or 30 odd miles back to civilization in the oppressive heat, without food or water.

That county line solution is just cruel. People have to live somewhere. Every creature on this planet does. It’s not a homeless problem. It’s a home problem. And it isn’t new.

A friend of mine shared with me this photo of Seattle’s Hooverville from the 1930’s. After reading about it on historylink.org, the amazing free online encyclopedia of Washington state history (specifically here and here), I discovered that this photo only captures about half the shantytown that existed there at the time, and there were others scattered about as well. The conditions were appalling. People built shacks out of whatever they could find. The city burned them down twice before they recognized the futility of it all. People have to live somewhere.

Incidentally, that Hooverville is not far from where Starbucks corporate headquarters now stands. Irony, anyone? And as long as REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) are allowed to exist, giving the richest among us the ability to make huge profits from housing, thus artificially inflating rents, this problem will only get worse.

When I get off work at 11pm, on my way home, I often see an old man with a walker standing by the stop sign at the end of my highway exit ramp. He holds a sign that says, “Homeless veteran. Please help.” The cynical side of me thinks about all the stories one hears about people making very good money through panhandling, and the stories about how some people want to be homeless. But this guy… I’ve seen him out there at midnight, in the pouring rain, in 35 degree temperatures. No financial return or lust for a freewheeling life can explain that.

The man needs help. And I feel very inadequate to the task. I couldn’t even help one person for more than a few days. And there are just so many out there. I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I resent this man. He doesn’t let me forget. He doesn’t give me the peace to drive home to my nice house at the end of my shift and climb into my hot tub and forget.

But then I realize that he probably would like to forget, too.

Seattle Hooverville

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10 day album challenge #2: Leo Kottke, Greenhouse

If you haven’t been following this series of posts, a friend of mine nominated me to do an album challenge. “The task is to post once per day for the next 10 days about the top ten albums that have an impact on your life, and to pay it forward by nominating someone else each day to do the same.”

Okay, so I’ll play. But I’m changing the rules to suit me. First of all, I’m not writing about this 10 days in a row. I will write about 10 albums, but only on the occasional “Music Monday”. And I refuse to nominate anyone else, because I try to avoid adding stress to the lives of the people I love. Having said that, if you’re reading this, and would like to take up the challenge, go for it!

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I had the distinct privilege of seeing Leo Kottke in concert several years ago at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida. (And incidentally, the opening act was Leon Redbone. What a night!) Up until then, I’d never heard of Leo. I had no idea how deprived I had been.

This is a man who has been putting out albums since 1969, and yet he keeps a pretty low profile. When I mention his name to people, more often than not, they’ve never heard of him. Oh, but they should. Leo Kottke, in my opinion, is the most talented fingerpicking acoustic guitar player in the world.

Whenever I hear one of his songs, I have to pick my jaw up off the floor. The sounds that this man creates with his fingers should not be humanly possible. He is a cut above anyone else out there.

By the time I got to see him, he had already had severe tendon issues, major hearing loss, and his hands were nearly unrecognizable from the ravages of arthritis, and yet he still was without peer. I knew I was in the presence of musical genius, and I was in awe.

It’s really hard to choose one album to highlight when you are talking about Leo Kottke. But this is an album challenge, so I’m choosing Greenhouse. If you are so self-loathing that you only allow yourself to listen to one Leo Kottke song, I’d suggest Bean Time from that album. If you aren’t completely amazed once you realize that this sound comes from one man on one guitar, you have no soul.

I’m hoping to see him in concert again at the end of this year, so watch this space! And see him while you can! He’s 72!

Leo Kottke Greenhouse

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Another View

Sometimes I just need a blog break. So I’ll share with you one of my favorite drawbridge views, this one taken years ago when I worked at the Main Street Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida. Experiencing it moved me to tears.

May your life be full of beautiful views that remind you how truly fortunate you are to be alive, dear reader!

sunset bridge

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Andy Johnson: The Punchline of a Cautionary Tale

Well, well, well… I got a very interesting phone call the other day, from a private investigator in Northeast Florida. She wanted to hear more about my lawsuit against Andrew E. Johnson, former member of the Florida House of Representatives, long-time progressive talk show host in Jacksonville, Florida, whose branding is “Never neutral, but always fair.” I was more than happy to share.

If you want to hear the whole dirty story about how this shyster stole $3,500.00 from me and refuses to pay it back, check out the many things I’ve written about him here, or refer to Duval County Case Number 2010-SC-000516-XXXX. I won the case. I have a lien on his house. (For all the good that does me.)

The reason Andy even popped up on this investigator’s radar is that there apparently is a big kerfuffle going on at the moment about whether people should be able to drive their cars on Jacksonville’s beaches. You can drive on many Florida beaches, but for once Duval County did something smart by prohibiting such behavior. It’s an environmental nightmare, and it changes the very ambience of our coastlines.

But Andy has let his health deteriorate to such an alarming degree that he most likely will never stick his toes in the surf again without motorized assistance, so he decided to stir up this controversy, environment be damned. (Because the world, apparently, is supposed to revolve around him.) The investigator, dismayed at this turn of events, decided to look further into his character, and that’s how she found me.

Our talk was quite interesting. She directed me to a website called CORE, which is the Duval County Clerk’s list of cases. This is public information, and is quite fascinating. Check it out. Especially, do a search of Andrew E. Johnson.

What you’ll find is my case from 2010.

You’ll also come across a boatload of traffic citations as it seems Andy doesn’t believe in paying his tickets. (It’s been my experience that this former lawyer has always felt he was above the law.) These citations include multiple counts of speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, suspended license, no proof of insurance, tailgating, and there’s even one in there about tampering with a pollution control device on his motor vehicle. My, my, my…

But there are two court cases that I wish I had known about before having anything to do with this despicable man. In the first, someone loaned him $15,000.00, and Andy never paid him back. Hence the lawsuit. There was a default judgment against him, as, just like in my case, Andy apparently didn’t show up in court. Even scarier, there’s another case in which he did not pay approximately $50,000.00 that he owed to another poor schmuck.

Given the timeline, this situation is probably why he felt the need to steal from me. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.

Make no mistake: Andy Johnson is very much like a cockroach. He does not like to have a light shined upon him. He told the investigator he would sue her if she talked about his debts. But like I said, all of the above is a matter of public record, so I’m more than happy to shine a light on them. He also told her, “If you know anyone at all who considers Andy has cheated them, please give them my phone.”

ANDY, YOU CHEATED ME.

And while I have the phone number in question (and will be happy to share it with you, dear reader, privately, if he has cheated you), I’m not going to bother to call. What would be the point? The only way I’ll ever see my money is if he’s forced to sell that house and therefore honor my lien. So I don’t want to hear any lies that would emerge from his fetid, overindulged pie hole. All that would do is put me off my feed.

But oh, I can shine a light. I can certainly do that.

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The Epitome of a Great Man

When I was a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, one of my coworkers was a guy named Buz Wickless. I always enjoyed talking to him at shift change. He was definitely a people person. More than most of us crusty old bridgetenders, he liked talking to boaters and pedestrians.

He was also a family man. Never having had a father figure myself, I always loved listening to the way he talked about his kids. One of the stories he told me inspired a Father’s Day post called Pennies in the Parking Lot. I hope you’ll read it. It will tell you everything you need to know about what it means to be a kind, loving and thoughtful man.

That blog post meant so much to me that I included it in my first anthology, A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude. I mention Buz in the acknowledgements, so he will forever be a part of that book.

I’m very sad to say that Buz passed away a week ago. He was only 67. He died too soon. The world was a kinder, gentler place when he was in it.  I will miss him very much.

Rest in peace, my friend.

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The Ortega River Bridge, where Buz and I worked.

The Letting Go

When my mother died, I hung on to this bottle of deodorant she had given me until long after it had been used up. Because she gave it to me. I think I got it into my head that getting rid of that bottle would be like losing my connection with her. I just couldn’t do it. Not at that point.

I have other things that belonged to my mother, of course. Jewelry. Family heirlooms of one kind or another. Photographs. These things make sense. But an empty deodorant bottle? Come on, now.

Then, four years ago, my boyfriend died quite unexpectedly. Since we weren’t legally married, I was left with very little of his to cling to. Once again, I had a bottle of deodorant. This wasn’t a gift to me. But it had belonged to him. It smelled like him. Again, I held onto it for years.

Finally, several weeks ago, almost without thinking about it, I reached into my medicine cabinet with my eyes closed and threw that sucker out. Just like that. Just like I had eventually done with my mother’s bottle. It was time. My life is moving on.

And guess what? The world kept right on spinning. The sky didn’t crack open. My connection is every bit as strong. My memories are intact. All continued to be right with the world. And now I have more room in my medicine cabinet.

It’s okay to let go of things. Things aren’t people. Things only have an emotional charge if you give one to them. Yes, hold onto those photos and heirlooms. They are part of a family legacy. But don’t cling to someone else’s clutter. Make room in your life for your life.

No pressure, though. You’ll know when and if it’s time to let go. Only you can decide that.

Since the deodorant disposal (not because of it), my life seems to be progressing at a rapid pace, and I love the direction in which it’s going. So just the other day I decided it was time to let more go. It was time to scatter the last of Chuck’s ashes.

The fact that I even have any in the first place is a pure miracle. Some of his relatives felt I didn’t deserve any after “living in sin” with him for four years. Others, though, who knew how much we loved each other, liberated some and slipped a tiny bottle of them into my purse. So I had this tiny bottle, and have cherished it ever since. But it was time to set Chuck, and myself, free.

Where would I do this, though? He’d never even been to Seattle. He’d have had a love/hate relationship with it. I think he’d have loved it this time of year, but not in the winter. I think he’d have loved the many things there are to do, but not the politics.

He’d have loved the water and mountain view at my work. So that’s where I decided to do it. When I got there, though, it occurred to me that the only window that actually opens out over the water is the one in the bathroom.

You had to know Chuck. But trust me, he’d have appreciated that irony. He’d have thought it was freakin’ hilarious. So, after depositing a tiny bit of him in a perfume locket that I have (where he’s encountering my mother for the first time), I held the bottle in my hands and opened the window.

“Chuck,” I said, “I love you. I think you know that my life has become magical and wonderful again, and it’s time to let you go. I truly believe you’re happy for me. I’ll miss you. I’ve still got pictures and memories, and you’ll always have a piece of my heart. But I’m still alive, and it’s time to live again. It’s time to embrace the joy of the here and the now and the future. I know you get that. You probably get it more than most people do. So here goes. Safe journey.”

And as I scattered the ashes, a sudden gust of wind blew some of them back into my face. The bathroom and I were now covered in Chuck. I laughed as I cried, because he’d have laughed. I could hear him in my mind, that wonderful, infectious, breathless, delighted chuckle of his.

And it was good.

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