Fri 9 Dec 2011
“There is no escape. You can’t be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen,
a wholesome, upstanding man.
You say yes to the sunlight and pure fantasies,
so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea
Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain,
the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death.
Say yes to everything, shirk nothing.
Don’t try to lie to yourself. You are not a solid citizen.”
i told myself i never wanted to be a solid citizen.
maybe everybody does that, when they are seventeen or twenty-three: or did, at least, before our culture started rolling out young Alex P. Keatons raised on the Disney Channel, with life goals and imaginations vanilla-bland and based on the accruement of millions. maybe it’s easier to idealize artistry when one is young: at that age the filth and the nausea belong to the most interesting people, none of them yet worn frayed and incoherent by decades of abuse.
the young make good outlaws: they can sleep it off.
but for every outlaw heart there is always a before.
that year i was eleven and twelve and we moved to the neighbourhood of solid citizens where all the girls i went to school with lived, i wanted to be a solid citizen too. i had the manners, the grades; my mother saved up for suede moon boots for the first day of school. i studied my role, went onstage everyday bewildered but keen. i relegated my dolls and my poems to the back of the closet, secret shames. i stumbled down the byzantine corridors of seventh-grade cabals, learning how power is played. i was a victim, then a mean girl: those seemed to be the parts available to solid citizens.
i liked myself in neither.
by the time a few years passed, i had found another compass. i had friends, some very dear, but my real world lived in books, in Elsewhere, in the mythology i made of Bowie and Iggy Pop and Dylan and all those models of debauched exceptionality.
i left home at seventeen, and it was easy to make myself one of Hesse’s vagabonds. i had no other life to step ready-made inside. i went hither and yon, tried everything once. saying yes to everything was my way of trying to find a door that would open and admit me.
yet i have never really believed that any doors would, not the doors of solid citizenry, of stable lives and sky’s the limit.
it is okay. i am good at being an outsider. i no longer like to remember that i was not born this way, blowing smoke from the womb.
but there is this house.
it’s low, cottage-shaped, shingled green, sage green. with yellow shutters. when i dream it reverts to the yellow paint and burgundy trim of my childhood.
it was the last house we trick or treated at this Hallowe’en. we approached the grand arch of the porch, kangaroo and dragon in tow, and i saw the sign on the lawn and one of those little swooning sighs escaped me, soft as dough, guileless.
my grandmother lived here, you know.
Dave glanced across the street. of course. across the street is the house my grandmother was born in, the other yellow house, the family home, the one i have dragged him by a hundred times since we first moved back here. nearly seven years. seven? can it be?
when we moved here, i thought i was bringing him to my hometown.
but it is this corner that is my hometown, really: the last trace of roots that go beyond me into the earth and history of the city. every summer and after-school, i walked these leafy sidewalks to my Nannie’s, to the old yellow house she’d been born in. this was the place that stayed the same: the family home, no matter where we lived. i know the way the light falls at this corner, every season and every time of day.
on this corner, my grandmother lived in three separate houses over a nearly ninety-year span.
my great-grandfather built here in 1901, already a rotund middle-aged businessman on his second marriage. the neighbours across the street – who were then the only neighbours – gave the happy couple a vase that had, so the story went, been given them on their own wedding some decades before. one hundred and ten years later, that vase lives beside my bed.
the neighbours’ son, a little older than my grandmother, built a house kitty-corner to his parents that was the mirror-image of my grandmothers. then he built an Arts & Crafts-style cottage next door to his parents. then they died, presumably, and he moved back to the home he’d grown up in.
so when my grandmother married in 1938, well into her 30s, she left her family home and she and husband moved across the street, renting the cottage from the neighbours’ son.
The Bungalow, they called it. my grandmother had a piano, there.
it is a pretty house, modest from the street and quaint. it looks like no other house in this city. a story and a half, with a concrete basement painted fifties rust-red. hardwood and all the horizontal lines of the Craftsman cottages.
my grandmother’s friends Doris and Mabel lived in The Bungalow when i was a kid. the neighbourhood was all old ladies in those days, the men vanished or barely visible: a land of milk and cookies. i pretty much had the run of the corner. Doris and Mabel had me over sometimes, when it was after-school and my grandmother had appointments she couldn’t take me to. they had a goldfish pond in the backyard.
Doris and my grandmother lived, respectively, in various houses clustered around that corner for nearly ninety years: i have a photo of the two of them, four years old, at a tea party the year Anne of Green Gables was published. the photo sits near the vase upstairs. i have been carting around the last remnants of this neighbourhood all my vagabond years.
here, on this corner, i do not need to be an outsider. on this corner, i am nine decades of a family history. it is whittled down, now, to my mother and i, my children, a few photo albums and a Freemason’s kid leather apron and a family Bible. in the context of this corner, all my baggage? just belonging.
i have flown around the world three times. there is no other corner of the world to which i have claim or pedigree.
the corner is my before. but it has been out of reach for nearly twenty years.
it was Dave’s idea, not mine. we should see it, he said. just a viewing. ha.
it is different than i remembered in my mind’s eye: same bones, but opened up, brightened. it had me at hello.
we can’t, i thought. but it appears we have.
we bought it this afternoon.
it doesn’t make me a solid citizen, no. i hope not. but the idea of going home to that corner maybe slides me a little closer to that balance between Hesse’s “laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death” than i ever expected to be again.
we closed on the house we currently live in the day that Finn was born: it has been a good home, but tinged always with that apprehension, that accident of circumstance, that wound. if we can all four of us move safely into the new place in February? grace, says me. new beginnings. full circle homeward.
(our friend is buying it. Finn’s trees will be with someone we love. that makes my heart quiet.)
this is our new home: the new crib. The Bungalow, where my grandmother lived. part of me still doesn’t believe it. but i am saying yes.