Seeing With Eyes Shut
by Joan Stockbridge

        "I'm going home," I announce every June, to anyone who is interested.

        "This is home," my children howl in protest. Their dismay is not contrived.

        It disturbs them that their mother posits a home that is elsewhere. They refer to our destination as Grandma's house or the beach and are quite definite that home is the hilltop house we live in, surrounded by acres and acres of whispering pine. Regardless of its designation, every summer we travel back to the place I have thought of as home -Gloucester, Massachusetts, or to be more precise, 69 Witham Street, a brown shingle house on a tarry road that runs to the beach.

        When memory takes me back to that place, I can almost feel a network of footpaths and trails arising like a hologram in my body. To the west, the Bridle Trail snaking through miles of hardwood forest; to the south, the pond with its sleeping snappers buried in the mud; north, the salt marsh with red-winged blackbirds swaying on the tips of rustling grass; east -Good Harbor Beach, a mile of white sand bounded by granite and the stormy Atlantic.

        Having grown up in such a place, I am marked forever by its beauty. I am reminded of the baptismal prayer uttered as the child receives the tracing of the cross, "With this cross you are marked as Christ'sown forever." I knew joy, freedom, wonder, gratitude, and exhilaration as I moved about in that coastal landscape. Although I didn't know it as a child, the place was a mediator of grace, and I soaked it in. To have grown up with benevolent parents, and a great deal of freedom, in a place that sang of the endless love at the heart of Creation has given me a way to understand the Divine.

        Home was not the house, with its claw-footed breakfast table where we ate our meals and did our homework. It was not the bedroom I shared with my older sister or the backyard with its cherry tree and granite boulder for climbing. At school, when I longed for home, I longed for the moment of stripping off my uniform and running down the street to see if there were any eggs in the seagulls' nests or whether the pussy willows had yet come into bloom. So another blessing of that place was that intuitively I sensed that home meant movement. Home was not a static, accomplished fact or a given location I could fit myself into; it was activity and a way of being.

Etching of Rain over Water
"Rain" by Olivia Kuser. Etching ink on panel.

        Not only did I move between different places -marsh, pond, woods, beach, creek, cliffs, island -I also moved through time, ingesting it in the orderly march of the seasons. An abstract principle of human existence nested into me as I experienced the predictable rhythms and harvests of the year. In the spring, lilies of the valley struggled out of the frozen ground, releasing their fragrance on the first warm day. Summer brought wild blueberries and blackberries. Around the foundations of farmhouses abandoned fifty years earlier the kitchen gardens flared with roses and rhubarb, the labor of earlier generations still yielding fruit. I buried my face in armfuls of lilacs, the hedges not looking as if a single blossom had been gathered. When the frosts of autumn arrived, I clipped bittersweet blazing on the cliffs above the beach. In the winter I read, gathering ideas and impressions while the natural world slept under its covering of snow.

        As a child I felt at home in the natural world, but not in the social world. The same eyes that beheld the summer's roses looked bleakly out the bus window at the swarming school play yard. The language of social interaction was foreign to me. I did not know how to start a conversation or enter into a game. Perhaps the contrast between the two worlds heightened both experiences: that of belonging and that of outcast. Daily I experienced a version of the Fall as I trudged down the tarmac road to wait for the bus, that short ride signaling the end of innocence, harmony, and bliss. But I had eaten no apple. I had merely been born into the world. At the age of ten, if I had been given Eve's choice, I would have run shrieking from the serpent, and remained an innocent child in Paradise, knowing none of the earthly pleasures, fulfilling none of the earthly tasks.

        But perhaps that statement is not entirely true, for by ten I was already a diarist, and I was already tasting the pleasure of art, the joy in discovering a form and shape for experience. I moved through the landscape like a fish through the sea, but with a significant difference: I observed my reactions. I paid attention to my responses. I can still remember walking across the dunes one exhilarating afternoon, winter's torpor blown away by the Gulf breezes, new grass tender as asparagus on my tongue. In an ecstasy of spring, I dropped onto the sand and rolled, dizzying myself even further as I spun down the long, soft slopes. Now, otters will frolic in waves, and jays will go out of their way to get drunk on pyracanthus berries, but only humans make records of their giddiness. I remember this incident largely because I wrote about it in my diary.

        By the age of ten, although I loved the natural world passionately and consumed its experiences hungrily, I was already beginning to travel in another world -an inner world of imagination and meaning. An intense love of the natural world opened a doorway to an inner world. Delight fountained up in me and called for form. I brought beach roses home and arranged them in vases; I described and reflected and sketched in my journals. Through these activities I began to travel the paths between the natural world and the world of the spirit. As a human, and particularly as a writer, I move continually between these worlds. Much of the art and joy of my adult life consists of travelling the paths between these spheres, whether through writing, prayer, listening, reflection, reading, or conversation. My growth depends on deepening my sense of connection to both places, both spheres.

"Let every one of us stay in his own parish, where he will discover more useful work than in all the making of pilgrimages, even if they were all combined into one. Here, at home, you will find baptism, sacrament, preaching, and your neighbor; these are more important to you than all the saints in heaven. "

-- Martin Luther

        Recently I talked to a friend at length about her experiences of home and pilgrimage.

        For fifteen years, I have listened to tales of her childhood home in Iowa, and her love of the people and history of that place. She has just returned to San Francisco after a three year sojourn back in her hometown, during which her father died,the childhood home was lost, and her siblings revealed themselves "in all their wonderfulness and awfulness."

        "Home is gone," she said. "Just like mom and dad are gone. But the nostalgia and sadness are gone too. My idea of home is not limited anymore to my family's homestead." Now she is trying to find a new definition of home. "Do I look for a place or a person or a community or something mystical -a home in God?" she asked.

        Sometimes when I write something I really care about, it is as if I am at the edge of a woods, and out of the thicket of trees I keep hearing faint cries, as if there is a child who needs to be found, a lost one who must be brought home. Every time I come closer to discovering what this essay is really about I bump up against the issue of leaving. Why did I leave my Paradise? Why am I writing this essay three thousand miles from Gloucester? Where and what is home?

        Leaving is costly. I left Gloucester at eighteen, heading for Montreal and university. I had a disastrous semester. I could not find my place. I felt raw and exposed, and after a disastrous love affair, I flapped like a sail torn by the wind. I did not call home. When I returned for Christmas vacation I came back under my own steam. I took the bus to Boston, the B&M back to Gloucester. Carrying my pack, I walked from the train station through the wintry streets, over the snowy beach and up the tarred road, opened the door of my parents' house, and watched their faces fall. My skin had erupted in acne. I had lost fifteen pounds.

        I had nothing to say. I remember the pain and shock and guilt on my parents' faces. It must have been as if some spectre of their daughter had arrived on their doorstep. The pattern of leaving continued for ten years. I left Montreal for Scotland. Left the East Coast for the West. Left San Francisco for the Sierra Foothills.

        My first married home was a pick up truck with a tent. We called it the Duplex. It held Karl and me and all our worldly possessions as we travelled in search of a place where we could make a home.

        When I think back to that first autumn in Montreal I can see myself so clearly, desk chair pulled up to the plate glass window that formed the back wall of my room. I sat with my feet on the radiator, staring out into the plaza between the dorms, the wooded slope of Mont Royal rising up behind the cafeteria. I can shut my eyes and bring back the feeling of being pressed up against that window, my eyes travelling out into the world beyond. I can bring back that same feeling from my pre-school days, before my family moved to the Witham Street house, when we lived in a tiny house downtown.

        It was the first, and only, time I was ever spanked and sent to my room. I remember staring out the window, the line of street lights glowing. The world seemed entirely unfair. The moment has imprinted into my memory as the image of a line of golden lights snaking into the distance and me, alone and staring from an attic room. When I heard my father's footsteps on the stairs, coming up to get me for dinner, I think, I hopped into bed and pretended to be asleep. The point is that I still feel, still connect with, still summon up and experience that feeling of longing, that gaze into the distance. And I mean not only that particular gaze, when I was five and my parents had revealed themselves as imperfect beings for the first time, but also the ongoing gaze that travels from the center of my being and connects me with the outer world.

        My youngest daughter's favorite lullaby is Swing Low Sweet Chariot. I suppose I sang it to her one night when I had gone through all the usuals -- Hush-A-Bye, Angels Watching Over Me, All the Pretty Little Horses, etc. -- and, in a moment of largesse or desperation, continued into uncharted musical territory. She immediately loved the spiritual and has asked for it repeatedly. For years I have felt uneasy singing it over her prone body, in her darkened bedroom.

    I looked over Jordan, and what did I see,
                                                coming for to carry me home,
    but a band of angels coming after me,
                                               coming for to carry me home.
    Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.
    Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.

        I imagine that Margaret pictures a sweep of angels, haloes glowing, sedan chair dangling between them, as they zoom in to help the weary worker get back to the homestead. A sort of celestial taxi service. I don't believe it could occur to her that the home longed for is Paradise and that death is the chariot so ardently desired. She cannot yet picture a world as brutal as the slaves' or an existence so painful that the blessing most devoutly sought is an imminent ascent into heaven. I have disliked sending Margaret off to sleep with these words lulling in her ears because I don't want her to reject the world. I want her to find a way to love it, to see it "charged with the grandeur of God," in Hopkins' famous phrase.

        Of course one of the obstacles to seeing the world in this way is that suffering confronts us at every turn. I first encountered the suffering of a stranger when I was about five, and my mother took me with her door to door collecting for the Heart Fund. We were in a poor part of town, adjoining the highway. It was late winter, gritty slush and gravel scraping beneath our boots. We walked across the planks of an old porch and knocked. When there was no answer, we walked on. At the end of the block, I remembered the red paper flowers we were to leave at every door, and grabbed one from my mother's hand and raced back to the old house. As I bent to twine the flower around the doorknob, the door opened. A young woman with a baby on her hip loomed over me, out of a dark and empty space. Her face was haunted. Her eyes hungry. In the moment our eyes met, I was flooded with sadness. I thrust the flower in her hand and tried to smile, but I was already crying. The door shut, and I walked back across the porch, boots echoing against the old planks. When I reached the sidewalk, I slumped down and sobbed.

        The gaze that travelled between me and that woman still echoes every time I look into the face of a homeless person. And it also echoes when I refuse to look into the face of a homeless person. The gaze that connects me to the world connects me to pain as well as to joy. I surrender myself to the world's beauty. What can I do in response to its suffering? I have no answer to this question. I just keep stumbling along, trying to hold the question honestly in my heart, trying to muster the strength and will to follow whatever directions I am given.

        I sit now at my desk, the white narcissus in front of my window bowing beneath the winter-darkened bark of the pines. Beyond the curving lawn, the far slope is a weaving of different greens, the oaks, madrone, manzanita and pine blending into a rippling mass of texture. I have just misled you. It is 6:29 a.m., and it is pitch black outside. I cannot see the pine and narcissus, although I know they are there. I cannot see out into the darkness, and when I look at the window I see the reflection of my sleep-frousled hair and the slope of the terry bathrobe my husband gave me for Christmas. I don't want you to distrust my writing because I misled you about the narcissus and the pine. I have looked at that scene so often, and love it so well, that I can see it with eyes open and eyes shut. That is the point I want to make. What I have learned most so far in my life is that I can see with my eyes shut. I had to leave home to discover this. I had to leave the tangible, so I could explore the intangible.

        I am in the process of writing a novel about Gloucester. Every time I begin a new scene, knowing that something has to be accomplished for the story, someone has to betray another or save another or prepare a meal or go for a boat ride, I think -Where does this happen? I bring to mind the slant of light, the sounds and colors of that exact spot. I ask myself, what is the season? What do the shadows look like? What place does this place open onto? Who and what is beyond it? And so the scene builds itself in my mind once the place is established.The place of my novel is absolutely real. It is the grounding for my imaginative work.

        The novel is a fiction. I have dreamed up, invented, received, breathed life into characters who I have gradually come to care very much about. I have borrowed bits and pieces of people I have known or run across: the insouciance of one, the lyricism of another, the brooding of a third. When I saw a man in the grocery store feather his eyebrows while he waited in line at the check-out, I recognized the gesture as something my protagonist would do. Out of this process of assimilation, and further mysteries that I don't understand, I have ended up with characters that seem real to me. But I could not do this work of creation in a void. I needed the vessel of the place. Something to hold and sustain me. Something into which the imagination could enter.

        I have asked myself if I would write this novel better or more easily if I were actually living in Gloucester. During last summer's visit I carried a notebook everywhere and made constant notes, but I did not try to write the novel itself. I did not want to be imprisoned by the facts. Back at my desk in California, the place comes to me, as I sit, eyes shut, and remember. It comes back to me so easily, so richly, in all the relevant details. Unlike the characters, whom I have had to struggle to invent, and the actions, which I have wrestled out of thought, the place comes to me as a gift.

        69 Witham Street has a hold not only on me, but also on my brothers and sisters. My bachelor fisherman brother bought the 700 square foot beach shack that sits to the north of my parents' house. It is carved out of the edge of the salt marsh. Every winter it floods. Between fishing trips my brother digs his tools out of the basement of my parents' house and goes to work on his beach shack, making it a home. Another brother bought the cottage on the south side of my parents' house. With it he got the rock wall my grandfather built and the roses and lilies of the valley my grandmother planted. Now he tends those gardens, making them his own. As I craft my novel, I too carve out a home, one that springs from the world and transforms into the energy of emotion and idea. I see it as a fountain, welling up and falling back, welling up and falling back. Spirit finding form in matter; matter enlivened by grace.

        Ultimately, I have discovered that I left Gloucester to learn that I would never be exiled, never be outcast. I will never be separated from that place. It is 8:45. Beyond my window I see the narcissus, and yes, they are snow-white and yes they are beautiful and yes they shine before the black pine stretching up and beyond my line of sight.

Joan Stockbridge is a storyteller and writer who lives in Colfax, California



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