Saturday, November 16, 2013


We've been in our new place for about two months now, and the process of re-establishing ourselves, our habits and our goals, has me thinking a lot about what makes a house a home. There's some kind of magic in the way that a bunch of wood and drywall and glass arranged at right angles on a slab of concrete can become something more than a mere assemblage of construction materials.

I've lived places that had no soul. Places that seemed little more than shells, uninspiring storage containers for living bodies. These are often in-between places, places in which you don't want to invest too much because you may not be around for long. Places that accumulate clutter like flies. And then once you've cleared it all up, it doesn't feel tidy; it just feels empty.

But now we're in a house that we hope we might have for the long haul. I love the pine trees outside, the fireplace, the high ceilings, and the view from our front door.

Addison took this photo while wandering in the back yard

All of these things, and more besides, add up to make a wonderful place to nest. It's not perfect; a lot of people might be turned off by living in less than 1000 square feet of home with little-to-no insulation and decor and appliances straight out of the 1970s. A place where there's no trash pick-up, the postal service only delivers to a P.O. Box, and where half the population doesn't get cell phone reception.

Despite its utility, there's something rather clinical about comparing all of those pluses and minuses in coming up with an abode to call "home." Such lists are stoichiometric -- more "scientific method" than "poetry." They're about cancelling things out to see what's left over. They're about neutralizing and off-setting instead of celebrating. And if you've got such a list in your head, it's hard to ever enjoy something without qualification.

Watching Addison shows me that there is another way.

Kissing her "nicest, most favoritest" rock she's ever found

It took Addison a little while to adjust to our mountain cabin, but it's a special thing to watch the way she finds magical moments here, moments that never made it onto our pros and cons list. Kids don't cross things off of some master list as they decide whether to commit to a place. I came across Addison, the other day, reading a book in her room in a ray of light.

It reminded me of my own childhood in a house in Northern Virginia, and the bay windows under which I'd cast myself, basking in a glowing patch of sunlight warmed from a hundred million miles away.

Me (with the wide eyes), my siblings, and dad all sitting in front of those windows.

I have many fond memories living in that house, but the sunlit patch and those accumulated cozy afternoon moments of Zen reside at the forefront of my recollection.

It's impossible to predict which experiences, which memories will mean the most, at least when we're right in the thick of them. It might be decades before the teasing presence of a certain memory or routine finally coalesces into something we can articulate. And whatever item Addison loves in one moment is so often cast aside a day later (with the exception of her Bunny); the activity that she craves so constantly for a few weeks or months is largely replaced by another as she matures and her interests evolve.

But I hope this one lasts.

I hope that anytime she comes across a spear of sunlight illuminating an otherwise ordinary space that she perceives the miracle in it. That she can see in that gentle glow that crosses an impossibly large, impossibly empty and dark expanse, an analogy for finding warmth, comfort, and hope in unlikely places.

It strikes me that while I want my daughter to love and miss the home of her childhood, to yearn for it (and us) and seek to return to it (and us), the most wonderful thing about a patch of sunlight is that she'll be able to find it in most any place she ever finds herself. That sense of "home" never needs to be too far away.

These sunlit memories may or may not inhabit my daughter's subconscious as they do mine; I suppose she'll have the rest of her life to explore and define her own psychological safe-havens. But watching her settle in has, for me at least, conjured the magic to make this house a home. Thanks for that, Addison.


  1. Reading feels like home to me, and warmth adds to the experience. Sunbeams are excellent, of course, but I have very fond memories of stretching out next to a space heater with a book, my mom sewing at a table above me, and the clouds pouring rain onto the roof above her.

    Enjoy your space, and thanks for writing this.

    1. I could totally see that about a space heater, and the proximity to a loved one. The key is coziness, however that manifests itself. And like you say, a storm can be one of the best times to be cozy in-doors. I'm particularly looking forward to snow here, for the specific moment that we can get the fire going in the fireplace and do family reading time there while watching the snow-flakes fall.

  2. What a beautiful, ethereal piece, Neal. The pictures seem in the same key, or use the same palette, or evoke the same mood as your always beautiful, careful, loving prose. You can certainly line up words better'n most, and that's the truth.

    I so admire the way your family has made a move to find something new, something I suspect was difficult for you. It's a heartfelt piece and I am better for reading it.

    1. It's true, Bill, I don't always handle change well. And there have been some trickier moments in the transition. But overall, this was a move that I was really looking forward to, because I've never really felt like a city boy. In fact, even though our town is only a couple thousand in population, it's probably still more crowded than my ideal. But as long as we've got a kid at home, we're going to need to live in a place close to a school, park, etc. Then, maybe we'll move to a Fire Lookout tower in Alaska.

  3. You have a nice eye for photos. Really like them.
    I also think about what moments will be memories that are talked and thought about down the line.

    1. Thanks! I'm enjoying taking a little extra time with the photos, myself. It helps me think a little more deliberately about the way I observe my daughter, and our surroundings.

  4. It just shows that a home isn't a place, but a state of mind. Plus, kids can find happiness anywhere.

    1. True words, Jack. Though the physical world can affect our state of mind . . . it's a balance. I think the key is not feeling like you need ALL THE THINGS in order to enjoy the simple good ones.