“Look at him!” said M one morning, pointing out an odd bird hopping erratically up a tree. “Every day he does this”—meaning he carries sticks five times longer than himself, grasping one at a time in his beak, making his way through the dense bare branches and twigs of the linden tree in the middle of our inner courtyard, the one that towers over the trash and recycling containers below.
The next morning I looked for him myself and found him busy at his task. The squat blue bird neared the nest, attempting to settle an unwieldy stick into the existing network of twigs.
Placed, it almost blended in with the other ones, but a second bird’s tail feathers now appeared, twitching. Dissatisfied with this latest offering, she removed it from the nest and dangled it over the edge in her beak, poised to drop it to the ground. The other bird hopped over and took it from her beak, flapped upwards, and tried again, aiming to nestle it into the existing framework. Again, rejected. Back and forth, he tried to wedge it in here or there, but over and over, she tossed it out. Even I from my kitchen window could see it was a hair too big, too long a stick to blend with the others; it would forever mar the look of this otherwise round and symmetrical bedding. At last he dropped the stick and retreated to the clay-tile roof.
This avian dispute reminded me of a recent conversation with our neighbor Birgit, an architect who is still adjusting to her new roommate, Doris, who moved in last summer. Doris had a flat of her own before they met, of course, and her things remain in a storage facility somewhere in Berlin. Birgit has lived in her flat for decades, outfitted the place fully, and nothing is needed; anything Doris could offer would be a duplicate. The rooms felt spare yet complete without her things.
Still, “she’d like to be able to see herself in this place,” Birgit acknowledged, free to talk about her partner as she was at a choir rehearsal for the evening. “She thinks the books belong in the living room, but I don’t want them in here. And she likes curtains!” she said miserably. We looked over at the living room windows, stark in their nude state, the neighbors’ windows squaring off across the street. I thought of the curtains I’d sewn for our St. Paul home and secretly rooted for Doris.
Oh, the accommodations we must make to blend another into our lives. It’s an odd dance, and it takes on a significance it perhaps does not deserve, but surely we all want to see ourselves in our own home.
In our flat the tug of war of space and property takes place in the children’s room. Our girls started the year with their beds as the landlord had placed them, as far from one another as possible in the large, carpeted room. A few months ago our youngest edged her bed halfway across the room with the help of her sister. Last Sunday while I was rowing and M sleeping, the girls dragged the bed all the way to the window, wedging it next to the other to fill the narrow opening. Now they sleep side by side, as if in a double bed.
They talk about how they’ll rearrange their rooms when we return to St. Paul. Our middle child wants the third floor for her bedroom, but I vow never again—last year we gave her a corner of it and she took over the whole thing, our family room overrun by preteen dishevelment.
I can’t help but think of the last time we came home from a sabbatical, recall the anguish of that first month, all the trappings of our St. Paul home intact and waiting to embrace us, but tempers lingered from things unsaid during our half year with M’s sister and her husband. Disagreements that could have been parsed and dismissed during those months had been shunted until our return, and we opened the door to our house and there lurking among the furniture were all the arguments we’d postponed, not wanting to raise our voices in someone else’s home.
Almost four weeks of venting, teeth gnashing, and silence had passed, until one bright, bitter Sunday I knew what I could do.
I claimed a tiny room on the third floor that we’d never known what to do with. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission; I just took it over. I gathered the bits of me from around the house like that bird, sweeping through each room for the distinct pieces of me that sat drowning in the sea of “us” and rescued each one, carried each piece up to the third floor like some stick: rocking chair, writing desk, garage sale vase, carved wooden pencil holder. Before this each item had stood at risk of a future culling, to be packed off into a box of unnecessaries to Goodwill when I wasn’t looking; some were already lost, culled by my own hand, unable to see how my old self fit in.
As I walked down the stairs empty-handed and climbed again with another claimed object, I thought about how I’d homeschooled the kids and telecommuted and spent every day in New Hampshire doing the things I’d promised others I’d do, but hadn’t written a word, not a word that whole time, and the magnitude of that omission slayed me, such regret, such a wasted opportunity. And retrieving each piece of mine that foundered in our home I felt a stirring of joy, breathing life into each one again. And no one was there in the room to reject a single piece! No one fluffed their tail feathers and said I’ll have no bric-a-brac in my room!
And the accumulation of the objects in one place was pleasing; at the center, the unraveling rug from my childhood, on a grapefruit crate a dozen books, eclectic yet mine, every one of them a gift or a book I had chosen for myself. Merie’s colorful painting, the one she’d offered to bring cheer to my barren walls when I got the gumption to leave a boyfriend. My collection of aluminum knitting needles splayed in a vase, my nubs of charcoal awaiting coarse paper. A stack of love letters from Michael, the ones he’d written longhand and mailed off to France where I’d pined away for him. A wooden ironing board, unstable and impractical, perfect to display my 16 mm. projector from when I thought I might like to be a filmmaker; my balls of yarn from when I thought I could fill my nights with knitting. The room swelled with the craft projects I’d pursued and abandoned over the years—supplies for making paper, candles, soap, cards, jewelry, magnets; scraps of material saved for unrealized sewing projects—anything but writing. My one published essay on the shelf, tucked among my other books; photocopies of stories read aloud to me by an almost boyfriend, ones that made me bawl.
And by the end, twig by twig, discard by discard, I constructed a mirror of myself, diffused all those years; gathered my thousand splinters from across the house, and seeing them together in one place I was pleased. At last I saw myself in our home. And I sat alone and rocked and rocked in the tiny room by the low windows under the eaves, surrounded by affirming things, until I felt calm and at peace and could descend the stairs and join my family once more.