I Think This Is Our House

A Sunday of Sundays began with a friend.

I always go to church with my friend Randee, she of the unfortunate name. I ask you to remember her better for her good husband, fine mind and lovely garden, for these things are far more hers than the name she never chose. Imagine her as a well-preserved and handsome blonde woman in early middle age, riding with me to church every Sunday. In the car together, an agnostic Ohio Jew and a science-worshipping nature mystic a la Chet Raymo. Going, of course, to church.

Our church was founded by a man who recently defrocked himself when the Methodist church threatened to defrock him for marrying a local gay couple. It still sounds weird for me to say I go to church, for I have never yet found a way to clearly describe exactly what we do there, and why I crave it so deeply. It’s my fix of community and sanity, and a constant reminder that life is more than my daily concerns. It takes me outside myself, makes me think about others more, reminds me of how I should be living, which is to say, with maximum joy and generosity. I like that my church strongly celebrates creativity, and is just absolutely clotted with very, very talented singers, dancers, musicians, artists, you name it. I suppose the best way to describe the church I attend is as an organization that gives tens of thousands of dollars to charity annually, always involves a meaningful message from a wise teacher, and is such an enjoyable community experience that quite a few atheists regularly attend. It’s sort of a church for the spiritual rather than the religious, one that is inclusive of many religions and truly welcomes any and all.

I never can make it sound right. I suppose it’s a church that even people who hate church might like.

After church we drove around a shaky neighborhood looking for the beautiful old 11-bedroom Queen Anne mansion that, hidden away in a poor and drug-ridden part of town, is one of the most beautiful residences in the area, rising by the street-side like a vision.

Then home. I’d risen too late to make coffee, and by noon all I wanted was a hot, sweet cup. I sat down to quickly check email, and then vacuum, dust, clean the bathroom floor and write up a little program copy for some friends’ comedy festival they very bravely are sponsoring on a shoestring. The usual. A mild day, not dull but milky. Plain vanilla and spent mostly alone.

The phone rang, and it was Rowan inviting me over for breakfast and coffee, and, if I would bring the Blue Sky organic ginger ale, a Pimm’s Cup each, which Americans really do drink (even outside of New Orleans), especially when their mums are, as Rowan’s is, from Sussex.

And after breakfast we’d do the program copy together.

I arrived to find waiting for me an amazingly good cup of agave-sweetened coffee, a fine breakfast of mozzarella scrambled eggs and fried sweet potatoes, and of course my excellent friend. We gobbled down our delicious food and had Pimm’s cocktails on the front porch. Rowan put her feet up on the rail.

And the rest of the day just unfolded like a flower.

I think we went for a walk first, to the local “edible garden,” a wonderful idea that from the looks of it was soon mostly abandoned by its founders. The idea was to install a fruit-bearing garden in a low-income area, bringing peace, beauty, sustenance and a connection to nature. But its care and upkeep were never funded, only shrugged onto a cadre of volunteers who are clearly overwhelmed, or too few, or have mostly given up. The frost and drought hit the garden hard, but it had already been blighted by broken bottles, condom wrappers and a broken boardwalk missing a plank and all but ready to break an unwary ankle. Kudzu covers some of the forgotten park, and three-foot weeds, and even the mint and catnip struggled in the dusty, arid earth. But there were still hazelnut trees, hard green grapes and a lone crabapple which was bitter when I bit it. The pear, peach and plum trees were fruitless, the cherry tomatoes green and few on dry stems.

There were flowers, too. Rowan wanted a bouquet, and as this was a community park meant for people to share in, we broke off stems of sweet pea, Queen Anne’s lace, mint and catnip. The nigella was done flowering, so I broke off a handful of pods and stuffed them in my pocket to harvest the seed back home at Rowan’s. I also dug up a little comfrey plant for her garden.

Even in its sad condition, we loved the edible garden. Heavy weeding and weedeating, a little pruning and a normal seasonal rainfall would do the place a mighty good, and a little love and community presence might encourage the illicit sex and liquor-drinking to move to a less public spot. We promised each other to contact the volunteer group and see what we could do. I’d love to learn how to husband fruit trees, have always loved them, and do not get enough sun on my property for anything but serviceberries. I can’t resist a commons that is falling apart, and certainly not when there are a dozen mature fruit and nut trees in it.

Then a hard walk home, panting in the heat and admiring the hollyhocks and sunflowers on the way.

As we stood in the kitchen fixing ourselves icewater and more Pimm’s, there was a knock at the door. I answered it and two brown little girls ran in, running to Rowan for hugs. These were the piping-voiced gaggle of little girls that visited “Miss Rowan” almost daily. Long-lashed, with braided hair and beads, ketchup-stained shirts and huge brown eyes. Rowan is not quite sure of their names, a tangle of vowels said through little tongues and teeth, African-American names that are somewhat indecipherable to our ears. The next time the girls are there, I am going to play a game where we all write our names, so we know all the girls’ names at last.

The older, browner girl helped me shake the seeds from the nigella pods into a paper towel and then pour them into a porcelain egg cup for Rowan to plant next year. For such young children they were wonderfully well behaved, giggly and full of smiles. The little one sat in Rowan’s lap and played with her hair, while the other girl danced a set of plastic baby keys on top of Rowan’s head, asking her to guess what she had.

Another little one of about eight arrived with a grinning, drooling two-year-old boy of two. They all wandered the house for a few minutes, and then just seemed to file back out. “That’s what they do,” said Rowan. “They’re here and then they’re gone.”

We did not know what to think about a boy so young being looked after by children. However, the kids were all clean (except for food stains, which are part of being a 4-year-old girl, I think), well-behaved, curious and sweet. It could be far, far worse.

We were starving, and even though it felt like we had just eaten breakfast an hour ago, we realized that it was nearly five in the afternoon. I still hadn’t started the program copy. Rowan invited me to set myself up in the living room with her laptop as she fixed us a lunch, turned on her wall unit AC, and headed into the kitchen.

Rowan lives in a duplex with her partner Greg in a part of town that is poor but friendly and safe, with people always walking and visiting and the houses right up next to each other. The walls of their living room are a pale blue-green with pretty white trim. Their home is always clean but never neat. There is a purple couch that they got for a song, which is far, far too wide for the room and must always be canted at a ruinous angle. The bookshelves are made from concrete blocks and two-by-fours, and hold books on cooking, nutrition, yoga and childbirth. A long red velvet curtain on a rod keeps the AC in the living room and keeps the heat of the kitchen out.

The table I sat at was wooden and scratched, piled with papers.

I heard the sounds of my friend moving in the kitchen. I sat down to type and heard my fingers make the familiar tappity taptaptaptappity tap of a 60WPM typist. I realized that I had never worked in quite this way before, at a friend’s house as she made us lunch. And it’s no ordinary project I work on, but program notes for her and her boyfriend’s dream. Tickets are selling well. The event is in consideration for the cover of the biggest entertainment paper in town. I realize that this is as close to perfect as life gets, really.

Good food is coming, good work is being done. Two friends are spending the whole day together in the comfortable companionship of many years. And best, best, their lives go well. Two aimless, damaged people are finding more shape and stability in their lives than they ever dared dream. And I, who have somehow become a professional writer, sit awaiting a gorgeous organic meal of broiled-mushroom-and-fresh-mozzarella sandwiches from my friend, who is making bank as a wine-bar waitress, putting herself through college, positioning herself as part of a new comedy production company and basking in the glow of having recently found a happy home and the love of her life.

It was not always this way for either of us.

I am a professional writer and my assignment is helping my friend with a dream project that looks to set her and Greg up as a major local players on the comedy scene. What I am doing and what I would most like to do are converging. There is a winey, intoxicating richness to the afternoon. I realize that if I read my own blog, I’d be bitter with envy at my own life. Or maybe not bitter at all, as all these good times have leached the bitter right out of me. I like that I am going in reverse, from bitterness to joy.

As we eat we talk about how happy we are. Rowan says that she does not want riches, or at least not more than can get her a fridge full of delicious organic food. She does not mind her shaky wooden table, or her cluttered 3-room duplex home, or the battered cars she and her boyfriend drive. And I tell her that sometimes, in the evening when the world is blue, I drive up to my house, step out of the car, and look around at the new-mowed lawn, the white cactus flowers glowing in the darkening air, the branch of silver maple that drapes over the front walk like a bower. Whose beautiful house is this? I ask the cats. Oh cats, I say.

I think this is our house.

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