"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

July 30, 2012

Bloom Where You're Planted

Big Edie Beale in her ruinous home, "Grey Gardens," c. 1975,
in front of her younger portrait.
Something I've accepted at midlife is my complete ability to fall prey to the blues and for no particular reason. Little things (especially with many details) seem more complicated, transitions more weary. There is a constant restive state of not fitting in, not feeling at home (no matter where I seem to be), and yet a kind of disabling inertia. It's like I'm back in that adolescent fugue state of chaotic expectancy, only without the span of decades of unknown future ahead of me. At twenty-five, half my lifetime ago, there was that poignant wonderment of what was to come.

Now I feel like I'm on some kind of teeter-totter, not sure how or where things will land. Whatever it is, it's a bit wobbly and disconcerting. I keep telling myself that my mind and soul are preparing for 50, that seven-year cellular change at 49 (every seven years the body is supposed to slough away itself, as well as the psyche), or maybe even the confusion of early Alzheimer's. (Hey, there are days!)

Our garden gate in Kentucky with "Golden Glow" from our New Hampshire garden and mint from the Gray Goose Farm (via Sawyer Farm) further on. I love to bring plants from former homes along with me. [The garden is in transition and I will use it to free-range some "Cornish Cross" chickens.]

We've been here four years this week (full time, pending the sale of our house in September 2008, back in New Hampshire, which it did, bittersweetly, despite the complete and total economic collapse that ensued that week.) There are days that I feel completely at home here in Kentucky and there are other times when I want to return to the homes that were. I suspect I would feel this way at this point in my life no matter where I was living. It's more a state of mind than a state of place but it is a state of being with which I need to reckon.

"Home should be an oratorio of the memory." 
Henry Ward Beecher

My broody chicken mama and one of her chicks.
Like any woman or person who enjoys nesting, I like to feather my place with mementoes, favorite books, photographs, things that have meant something along the way. Many of these things are still in boxes and my fear is that they might remain there if I don't go through them or if we never build that "dream farmhouse." Borderline hoarder am I but I prefer the title, "curator of collections." After all, I have a museums background in historic preservation and I sought a vocation that came from my collecting avocation. But this "stuff" is also cumbersome.

Here, surrounded by the natural and private world of our farm, I find I feel at home with the little things. Discovering a bird's nest, admiring volunteer morning glories that have emerged along my chicken house from gardeners past, seeing a Mama chicken and her brood enjoying the yard for the first time, the lowing and bellowing of cattle. Farm life is hard and uncertain but nature provides a backdrop of what we can count on each year: the renewal of the world around us. Nature seems to make herself at home wherever she is and there is a constancy to that and a comfort.

The large heart-shaped leaves of the heirloom "Grandpa Ott" morning glory
are as lovely as the purple-magenta blossoms. They "volunteer" themselves
every summer on my hen house fence and I love to see them until frost.

We just moved our twenty-four year old daughter back to Kentucky for a transitional time before her fall job. I was amazed by the amount of stuff she had accumulated in four years but realize that when I was in my 20s, I, too, started on that path towards accumulation.

With each progressive move I have had more, not less. At fifty, it seems that we should start deaccessioning things, stuff, the past, old boxes of useless crap. That is my intention: reorganize, reshuffle, pitch, sort, repeat.

Little Edie Beale, in front of "Grey Gardens," c. 1975, East Hampton, New York. 

Little Edie Beale, who returned to her childhood home in her mid-20s and stayed on there with her aging mother, said it best: "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It's awfully difficult." [As quoted in the Maysles documentary, Grey Gardens, 1975.] My daughter and I watched this documentary the other day for the first time together: it was sad and haunting and we laughed at how things might be if we co-existed together for all of those decades! [I hadn't watched it since with friends back in New Hampshire in 2007: here's a blog post about that viewing.] Unlike Big Edie, I believe in theory that children need to leave the nest and find their own home in the world, too. But as Robert Frost wrote, "Home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in." [From the poem, "Death of a Hired Man"] And we've all had to be taken in from time to time in our lives before going out into the world again.

"But whatever else home is–and however it entered our consciousness–it's a way of organizing space in our minds. 
Home is home, and everything else is not home. 
That's the way the world is constructed.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, "The Definition of Home," 
Smithsonian, May 2012.

Life provides that constant tussle between feeling at home where we are and longing for what has been. But as I approach fifty, I realize, too, that home can just be in the presence, or mere thought, of a dear friend or family member. A friend back in New England still visits the former homesite of her ancestors: the old house where she spent many summers is long gone but the site is still there, on the shoulder of a mountain, and family members still gather among the ruinous columns and gardens that long ago naturalized into the hillside. While visiting a few weeks ago, she treated a friend and I to a picnic there. In that very special spot it was a tonic to the soul to be able to breathe in the mountain again, the surrounding landscape, the distant hills to the west, and the company of friends on a glorious summer afternoon. For that brief time, all seemed right with the world as we connected with the place and each other.

My children and I outside of Stan Hywet Hall
in Akron, Ohio (built in 1915 by my
great-grandparents, F.A. & Gertrude Seiberling).
Now they love to come here as much as I do.
In Ohio, I return each year to visit the museum home of my great-grandparents and to pass by the home, and other houses, of my childhood. There, in this perfectly preserved museum home, among the photos and the memorabilia, I feel a strange connection with my family and a past that even I did not know. Here in Kentucky the "homeplace" is a revered spot of hallowed ground where a family member once lived. Even if the house is no longer occupied or falling into ruin, it is kept as is, in a kind of stasis, while the fields are mowed or cultivated around it.

Home is as much a place in the mind as anything else and as much comfort as we might have in the world. We can visit former homes in our dreams, as I often do, or in our daytime wanderings or make a home wherever we are. We can be lonely in our homes, surrounded by loved ones, just as we can be homesick for the idea of home.

I suppose it doesn't have to be so complicated and yet, it is.

You come back when you're ready!