It sounds like fall is arriving in Pennsylvania. Strangely, summer seems to be holding on in Toronto, although the mornings and evenings have grown cooler and less humid. Today has been gorgeously sunny, and we don’t take days like this for granted in a place defined largely by winter. Truthfully, I’ve never paid more attention to the weather in my city since we began a house renovation 12 months ago. (For the record, we’ve had a very rainy year.) I wrote last fall that I felt like Noah watching from the window of the ark, wondering when the clouds would close again and the sun return to her perch.
You wrote in your last letter that you and Maile have been mulling over this important question: “What are you building?” I love that question, love it for its present-tenseness. I really do think that the present is absolutely where all the action is for us in our lives: not in the stored-up anguish over the past we cannot undo; not even in the future, although as a follower of Jesus, I believe the end of the story has everything to say about the middle. No, I like the present-tense because it’s only this moment—this one—for which I can be responsible.
What are you building? It’s a good question, and I like how it echoes what Annie Dillard said about time, that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It is easy enough to think of this day as nothing more than deadlines and lists, but that would be to ignore that something is accruing, something is taking shape in all of these accumulated days. I suppose Ryan and I could say that these past twelve months, we have been building a house. But much closer to the real answer to your question would be to say that over the past 23 years of marriage, we’ve been building a home. We’ve been at the hard work of staying together and raising the kids, at the hard work of what makes life banal and beautiful. We’ve tried not taking for granted that home requires a lot of everyday housekeeping.
After so many kids, so many years of marriage, you and I both know a little something of what it takes to build a home. I recently listened to a recent episode from Emily Freeman’s podcast, where she mentioned Christie Purifoy’s book, Placemaker. Emily recalled a part of the book that I remembered, too: how a friend of Christie’s recalled her small Chicago apartment where she’d lived as a graduate student, not by any of its permanent design elements, but by some of Christie’s small and ordinary gestures: pouring maple syrup into a glass jar before serving it; lighting a candle when the sun went down; having clean cloth napkins pressed and ready for use. Although I’m not very good at those kinds of small gestures, this feels like the right way to describe the welcome of home.
Interestingly, in some of my research for Keeping Place, I learned how Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminist Mystique came out of a survey she did of her Smith College classmates, fifteen years after graduation. She wanted to gauge how they were reconciling their career ambitions with their domestic responsibilities. In her survey, she included typical questions about professional work and household finances, but she also included other questions, which betrayed more of her bias. Namely, she wanted to know how women were serving the milk (were they decanting it into pitcher or simply placing the milk on the table?) and what kinds of napkins they were using (paper or cloth?). It seemed obvious the answers she was hoping for.
I wonder if you can see the ambivalence into which we are formed as women—that on the one hand, we can be deeply convinced of the value and beauty of the ordinary gestures of home, and on the other, earnestly apologetic that we’ve indulged them. In other words, apart from certain circles, we can’t say that we are building a home without sounding as if we’ve gotten oppressively stuck in the 1950’s.
Still, as I think about your question, I think I can say it more clearly now than I ever have: I want to build more than a home—but I certainly don’t want to build less. I want to write—and I also want to cook and clean, water houseplants and gather people around my table. I want to read good books—and I want all the pleasures of unhurried conversation.
Tonight, Gerry is coming over for dinner. He’s worked with my husband for years and has just recently lost his wife. Several weeks ago, Ryan noticed how terrible Gerry looked and insisted, despite his protests, that he come for dinner. The invitation will mean a bit of a crazy day for me as we finish up our school shopping, make it to the doctor, get the house clean, shuck the corn for the chowder and slice the strawberries for the shortcake. (There will be no time for freshly pressed cloth napkins.) With the day breathing hot on my neck, I was up at 4am, finishing this letter as well as some other work obligations. But this is part of what we’re building: a home. A place for people to be recognized, received, invited in.
I think of little Poppy out of diapers and off to kindergarten in a couple of years. I think, with joy, about the space that might open up for Maile with the kids off to school and the house suddenly quiet. No matter what might come of that space for her, whether more committed writing or paid work outside the home, I wonder if she and you will feel as I do: that part of what you’re building is a home. This might always prove to be a constraint. A very good one.
All the best,
What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers has become an exchange of letters. Here is a list of our prior letters for Postmarked: