From the time I was a kid, ever since I got old enough to challenge my mother's cautionary wish that I not roam the streets by myself, I've taken walks in the evening and looked into the windows of other people's houses.
I know... that's kind of creepy, kind of voyeuristic, and I promise that if I ever saw actual people through the windows, I looked away immediately, guarding their privacy and my anonymity. But it was an automatic thing for me to do when I went out walking, and sometimes the only thing there was to do as a kid was go for a walk. I did this, too, when my Mom, brother and I would go on rides through back-country roads, following my Mother's favorite habit of trying to get lost and seeing if we eventually ended up in Blacksburg, which happened with surprising frequency. We'd roll along two and sometimes one laned roads, up mountain sides, through narrow valleys, beside rushing brooks, and I'd strain to look up on the hillsides at the little shacks and bungalows and occasional ostentatious mansions, trying to peer into the windows, trying to understand the people who lived so far away from the city proper.
I found particular satisfaction in my night-time walks past windows glowing with yellowed light, looking into houses decorated according to a sort of redneck quasi-Better Homes and Gardens sensibility, complete with images of geese and ducks and artistically painted sheep on the walls which always struck me as surreal, but comforting in their banal domesticity. There were houses I particularly liked to look into, and I would sometimes plant myself in a location I thought was partially hidden, making myself as small as possible, studying my favored window, and feeling the warmth of that room spread through me, growing steadily happier as I dreamed of a life I might enjoy in a beautiful little room like that... but somehow knowing it was far more satisfying to hunker down on the street corner beneath the stars and dream of it than to actually walk inside such a scene and try to live it.
I don't do these walks with the same frequency now. I appear unmistakably grownup and am much more likely to be arrested if someone sees me gazing steadily into their windows, particularly in these Tough Economic Times. At some point though --I don't remember when-- I came to see this image of me standing outside looking in as one of my particular defining metaphors... always on the outside, always observing, a studier of persons and their lives, but never quite able to fully inhabit mine. Whatever the reasons for this are, I attributed it –again at some mysterious point now lost to memory—to a fear of marriage, of the slow grind of domestic life that is so beautiful when viewed from the outside, but can be truly unpleasant on the inside. I knew how awful marriage could be, and I considered it capable of bringing out what was truly worst in people. I've also come to acknowledge that it brings out the best in people, but through the worst, right? It's a very raw, craggy best, like a sore throat on the mend... you know there is goodness and healing on the way, but the memory of the badness that you had to pass through clings to that goodness, forming a dark aura, leaving you with that sense of rawness long after you've mended.
I guess my preference for standing on the outside comes from a kind of idolatry of the ideal domestic life and of romantic love. I don't want to traverse the bottomland of my personal worst, of my deep dark selfishness and my lack of concern for those closest to me. I know this, and I also know that failing to submit yourself to the realities of what love actually entails consigns a person to a sort of shallowness, a two-dimensional emotionality... or at least, it means all the familied people in your life can think this about you without a crisis of conscience, and can hold you at an emotional arm's length as though you smell of 2 day old tuna. In my defense though, I was a Calvinist before I went to kindergarten. My illusions of personal good are hard fought and hard won, and I'm loathe to give them up.
I’ve been musing on the domestic life and my lack thereof (again) for the past week due to my time at the Common Table Retreat and due to several days of solitude recovering from some sort of horrible stomach ailment. At the retreat, everyone was constantly surrounded by children and most people seemed to be trying to ignore this to some degree most of the time. Parents wanted to have adult talk. Non-parents didn’t know how to handle the sudden onslaught of children who seemed to be constantly running or hurling toy trucks down steps for reasons that were entirely opaque. It was like there was this wild band of very small gypsies running around in a pack, and the knowledge of their presence controlled the goings-on at the retreat somehow, tethered us to the common knowledge that any one of them could hurt themselves at some point and we would all feel responsible.
I wasn’t sad to go home at the end of the retreat.
That being said, though, being home, by myself and very ill, gave me plenty of time to think upon the virtues of having someone around to help care for you when you’re in that sort of state. Our good family friend Karen Zimmerman once told me that I should only marry a man that I knew would take care of me when I was sick. That made more sense to me than almost any other advice regarding marriage I’ve ever had, and maybe partially explains why I’m still not married. Marrying an obviously selfish person makes NO SENSE, as does marrying someone who has no domestic skills, male or female… because at the end of the day, the pragmatic reason why folks aren’t meant to be alone is that we all find ourselves helpless from time to time, and we all need care. By the same token, having someone to care FOR takes our minds off ourselves, and believe me, I was dying to not have to think about myself anymore the past few days.
So. I think, as time has passed, for better or for worse, my efforts have slowly turned towards inhabiting my own life, solo. I buy lamps that cast a soft yellow light like what I saw in my favorite windows. I place candles in the windows and light them on these damned winter evenings when it’s totally dark by 5pm. I have friends that I see and talk to regularly, and they are like a family. I’ve started hanging things on the walls of my one-bedroom apartment that I like, and that tell my own, particular story of places I've been and things that I've done. I have company over, and now have a routine for preparing my couch for guests. Except for times when I am ill, or lonely, or libidinous, I’m ok with what I have.
I have, finally, created my own enviable window.