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John and I made our way up the walkway to Mary’s house. It was a sunny, spring afternoon. We had just come from our local political convention: 1994, a year in which we failed, again, to win the Governor’s election, a year in which I would be on one of many versions of the staff that could not get our guy into the mansion on Summit Avenue. That day, Mary had invited several people over. I don’t know who we endorsed that day, for what offices or what issues we decided. I’ve been to more than my share—and a good share of other people’s conventions—a constant blur and while I can remember the details in the moment—but don’t ask me today about any moment of years of beautiful spring days spent inside school auditoriums when more sane people would be outside playing in the newly arrived Minnesota warmth.
I don’t remember, either, what John and I spoke of on the car ride to Mary’s. I don’t remember who drove, although I think it was me.
John was a not-yet-old but past grownup California blond who was way too serious to waste his toe-headed noggin on surfers’ waves. My much younger nappy head was willing to listen and the two of us spent the trek from convention to Mary’s in tandem—until we stepped onto Mary’s walkway.
I walked a step ahead of John. We came to the front door and I reached up to open it and began walking in. John was a bit startled and shot me a what-the-hell-are-you-doing glare and said, “Do you live here?”
I did not live there. Not really. But John did not know the substance of my over-familiarity. He did not know that over-familiarity was more than a function of how many times I had been there. He did not see the implied welcome invitation of the woman who rarely locked the door to her house. He mostly did not see my relationship with Mary, one that was more than familiar, but one that made it a place to lay my weary head as much as my dusty satchel.
Months before, Mary’s dog Beau’s made his first visit to my house. We walked in the door and Beau shot in and made his way down the hallway. We did not notice at first, but a minute after we arrived our noses told us that he had left something in the hallway.
We both laughed. “It means that he knows this is a place where I belong,” she said. He had done the same thing when he walked into her house for the first time. A pet-savvy friend told her that pets will do this: leave droppings in places that they know are the places of their people. I don’t know how Beau knew this. He saw no tooth brush in the bathroom. He saw no clothes in the closet or a favorite mug in the cupboards. Maybe there is a smell. Maybe it was the way that she walked to the door, a step ahead, that told him that this was a place she belonged. At that point, I was not sure if Beau belonged. We laughed some more. I let Mary, her body still heaving with laughter, pick up the mess while I opened a window.
Dogs are like people. Or maybe people are like dogs. Or maybe this is just a false, crude and convenient anthropomorphism. There is something about the places where we will leave our mark and our precious possessions; drop our weapons, our hair and other things that we hold tightly inside when we are somewhere we belong or somewhere that is our own. There are places where, when we show up at the door, they have to let us in, places where we get to decide who comes in and places where we get to poop—just once—and the other creatures living there will still want us.
These are places where we will tolerate our mess for a period of time and the messes of someone else for a much shorter period of time. They are places where, even in that mess, we are content to fall asleep in the middle of it, whether that mess is one of physical things from our closets, kitchens, toy bins for kids or toy bins for adults; or the emotional messes even if they stir our dreams and make sleep restless.
And sometimes those messes are so bad, they can’t be ignored, even when the eyes in our head and the mind’s eye are closed and we try to settle a heart that won’t be quieted.
I listen to the dreams of friends and, just as often, the nightmares that have left them restless. I listen because the friends will tell me, want to tell me, seek out my ear. I listen because it is much easier than sitting on my own couch and having mine analyzed with a scrutiny that makes them hard to put to bed. And just as often as I hear the dreams that led my friends, way too young and anxious to fly out of their parents’ nests, I hear the nightmares that chase them away with a ferocity that makes me cover my ears, not wanting to believe that their child-selves had to sleepwalk through such caustic purgatories.
A friend talks about the “distant murmur and hum of traffic” that perforated the darkness in which she slept as a child. First in a two-story blue house set on a busy, small town highway in southeastern Wisconsin. Later, after her parents split up, it was the front bedroom of her father’s place during the weekend visits. Today, she still needs the white-noise drone for slumber, a necessary accessory in that place where she lays her head. It is the lullaby that lets her body and psyche know she has arrived at the place she is supposed to be.
Where we are supposed to be changes, nests change and so do the people who occupy them. But these are places with familiar sounds, familiar smells, familiar walls, familiar faces and familiar pillows. It is said that the smells are the most powerful, wresting memories from our subconscious. Still, I think the faces are most important—or more so what is behind those faces.
My parents lived in the house, in which my siblings and I did most of our growing up, well into my 40s. They were there long enough for it to be grandma and grandpa’s place. Long enough to be the oldest people on the block. But it was always the place where I could lay my head, my satchel and almost every version of my stuff, my material possessions—even the messes that were created by my string-saver mentality.
There are places where, when I show up, they have to let me in. There is a place where I can sit without worrying if it is my chair. I can go to the refrigerator and take what I want—or maybe ask, not if I can have what I want but, rather, if anyone else had plans for it already. Someone will either offer to do my laundry or ask if I can help with the laundry that is there. I will be fed or expect to feed someone including myself. All of this is a step of intimacy beyond that which makes us merely welcome.