Progress

Nestled on twenty-six acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is an artist residency that I am calling home for five weeks. The property includes housing and studios for three artists, a library, a wooded trail, a waterfall, five goats, five cows, and a tail-less cat befittingly named Bob. The accommodations are modest but thoughtful: mine is a 300-square-foot cottage with a bed, a bathroom, a writing desk that looks out onto the trees, a dining room table, and an abbreviated kitchen with a dorm-sized fridge that I have stuffed to bursting with familiar foodstuffs from home and grits that were ground yesterday in the 170-year old gristmill down the road. Everything here is just down the road.

The bookshelves and walls are home to sculptures, photographs, drawings by former residents. A screened-in back porch doubles the square footage and provides a place to listen to birdsong in the mornings and the chatter of insects at night. I’ve come here to work on a book, to make quantifiable progress that I can take home with me.

The director of the residency program calls the cottage in which I’m staying The Runaway From Home House for its history of tenants who have stayed here during a difficult life transition. I wish I could say that I was the exception. I applied for the residency after separating from my husband of ten years with whom I was, and still am, in love. Not to run away, because our problems follow us wherever we go, but to get away.

The first week of our separation, while I was heaving on the kitchen floor, a local developer began construction on a 21-unit apartment building across the street from our house in Portland, OR. In our neighborhood, no structure is over two stories, which is part of what lends it a sweet, lazy, bohemian charm. The neighborhood does not strive. In the last year-and-a-half, 15 condo complexes have gone up within a 20-block radius of our house, including the one across the street. They are all four stories high.

My beloved city’s idea of progress, as it is in cities all over the country, is to gentrify a neighborhood until all of the things that made it special can only be heard in echoes. In Portland this does not happen gradually over time. Developers conspire to take on an area and two years later it is unidentifiable without dental records. In order to get their building permits, the developers are required by the city to attend a neighborhood meeting to listen to the concerns of local residents about the potential ramifications of their proposed projects. A year and-a-half ago, our neighborhood newsletter informed us that one such meeting was happening in a church basement nearby. We turned out in force and discovered that the developers were not, in fact, obligated to hear our concerns. They were obligated to sit in a room with us for two hours and look in our general direction while we made impassioned pleas about our concerns.

One of the proposed buildings, an 80-unit behemoth, would be, like many of the others, going up on a street where parking was a significant problem. We wanted to make sure that they were allowing for enough parking places in the building’s garage to accommodate all of their residents. Additional demand for street parking would cause considerable congestion, and the overflow would clog nearby sleepy residential streets like mine.

“There wasn’t anywhere to put a parking garage,” said the developer matter of factly.

“I used to live in San Francisco and the developers there had great success building underground parking lots for their buildings,” one local resident offered.

“Yeah, we looked at that option, but building a parking garage would’ve made the cost-per-unit too high and the numbers wouldn’t have worked out.”

Bless her heart, my former neighbor who no longer lives in the neighborhood but still cares about what happens there, and who has a bit of an anarchist streak, raised her hand and said, “Let’s just call a spade a spade. You guys are here to make the largest profit margin you can, and that’s it. Otherwise, if you’d crunched the numbers and found that the cost-per-unit was too high to build something in a responsible way that honored the neighborhood and its residents, you would have come to the conclusion that that particular building in that particular location should not be built.” The meeting erupted in unproductive screaming after that and we all went home deflated.

Cut to present day, when construction crews, cranes, bulldozers, and earthmovers line the main thoroughfare that the residents of our neighborhood need to travel in order to get anywhere. One lane of the two-lane road is often blocked in multiple spots along the 20-block drag of condofication. We line up in our cars behind the man in the orange hat who flips his octagon from SLOW to STOP, which gives us time to see how much higher the steel skeletons loom since we last went from SLOW to STOP at this same spot in the road.

Six days a week, I am awakened at 7am by the sounds of pneumatic nail guns and two-by-fours crashing to the ground and men with tool belts calling to each other across the span of a building. Early on, while I was on the kitchen floor and, later, when I graduated to crying in bed, it was only the sound that affected me. I didn’t see what was being built across the street because I never looked out the window. My gaze was inward, myopic, collapsed.

At the behest of loved ones, after a couple months had passed, I took forced trips from our bed, which was now, devastatingly, my bed, to the living room. I did this because getting out of bed in the morning and walking into the living room is what I used to do. I’m going to sit on the couch and check email because that is what I used to do. I’m going to get a drink of water and look out the window because that is what I used to do. When a marriage ends, life is like a waking dream. You are still you, you wear the same clothes, you have the same phone number, but nothing is recognizable. You are still technically a wife, but you are not a wife. You still have a future, but it is not the same future that belonged to you a week or a month ago. It’s as though someone has cast you to play you in the movie of your life.

Before my marriage ended, I spent most of my time on the couch writing. I have always sat on the middle cushion, which bears the contour of a spine slightly hunched from working over a laptop, because it provides the best view out the window. For six to ten hours a day, the world has lived inside of that 91-year-old leaded glass frame. Through it, I can see the house across the street and the houses to either side of it, the street, the sidewalks, telephone towers in the distance. The top third of the frame is filled with sky. I am a country girl living in the city, and when everything else in my frame is manmade, that sky is what reminds me to exhale. I have watched the sun turn it from black to blue at dawn and I have seen fuchsia clouds streak across it at dusk. I have been witness to countless firework displays exploding in the distance, rainbows that appeared to sprout from my neighbors’ roof, the silhouettes of thousands of birds soaring past on their way to or from somewhere else. The sky keeps me grounded in the natural world and, so, relatively sane.

As I pretended to be me for longer periods of time in the months following my separation—sitting in the same spot where I used to sit, mechanically performing the tasks I used to perform—I watched the condo rise across the street. At two stories, it was of little imposition. It was sharp and rectilinear and did not fit in with the surrounding Arts and Crafts bungalows, but its stature was humble. You could scan the roof line from one end of the street to the other and not have it announce itself. When the construction crew put up the third story, I became agitated. I looked out the window to find that 25% of my sky was missing. The week before I left to come to South Carolina for this residency, the fourth story went up, leaving me with only a sliver of blue at the top of my frame.

Part of the grieving process is to learn how to accept what is unacceptable to you, to imagine the unimaginable. I am slowly, painfully, coming to terms with the fact that I have lost my husband, that I am no longer a wife, that my future is uncertain. How can I be expected to give up the sky?

When I said that I came here not to run away but to get away, it was in part to leave a place where men are daily blotting out more and more of the sky. Here, the sky envelopes me. It is not just overhead. It touches the ground. It is everywhere.

_______

When my husband moved out, my computer became a kind of security blanket. I dragged it from room to room like Linus, a movie always playing on it: in the kitchen while I made myself tea, in the bathroom while I took baths or brushed my teeth, in the bedroom while I got dressed. I streamed movies in one tab on my browser while I wrote emails in another. I couldn’t fall asleep unless a movie was playing on the pillow next to me. Without the voices coming through that 13” white rectangle, there was nothing to drown out the grief. I can conservatively estimate that I have half-watched 400 movies in the last six months, sometimes half-watching the same comforting one on loop for days, with special preference to stories about women starting over, building new lives for themselves, often in beautiful places with an abundance of sky.

Yesterday, my computer died when an air-tight storage container with a hole that I did not know about emptied its liquid contents onto my keyboard. All of the writing I’ve accomplished in the past two-and-a-half weeks is unrecoverable. After the panic and anger subsided, I felt overwhelming loneliness. I was without my companion, my co-worker, my bedfellow.

Seeing it written so plainly, it sounds pitiable. I used to make fun of old ladies who kept the TV on all day at full volume, but I understand now. It is company. It fills an empty house with chatter, laughter, love, adventure, with whatever things you cannot for the time being provide for yourself. We do what we need to cope. A friend said to me, “If you feel like you’re going to die, take a breath. If you still feel like you’re going to die, take another one.” There were days when two consecutive breaths seemed more than I could accomplish.

Without my computer, the cottage was uncomfortably quiet. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I went out to see the goats, a small herd of white female Saanens, which are known for their mild temperament. Upon opening the gate to the pasture, no matter how far away the five of them are, they always come running and BAAAAHing at top speed so that they can greet me, which they do by attempting to eat one or more articles of my clothing. They are like dogs, these goats. If you stop petting one of them for a moment, she will rap a hoof against your leg as if to say I noticed that you aren’t paying attention to me, which is unacceptable. They are better company than many people I know.

Afterward, I took out from the library the thickest book I could find, a sixty-five-year-old cloth-bound tome with a four inch spine. I walked the property and pressed between the book’s 1617 pages: a violet, a buttercup, a feather, a maple leaf, and the full bloom of a dogwood. When I returned to the cottage, I cooked a peasant stew for myself, marking the first time since the separation that I have prepared anything with more than three ingredients. I pressed the translucent purple skin of the onion I’d just caramelized inside the book too.

After dinner, when I would normally watch a movie or half-watch a movie while catching up on work, I sat instead at the desk that looks out onto the trees and wrote a letter to a dear friend who is also in the middle of a divorce. I told her about the goats and about my loneliness. Later that night, for the first time since I’d arrived, I looked at the books on the bookshelves in my cottage, which, like the sculptures next to them, had been handpicked to live here in The Runaway From Home House. There are novels with titles like Refuge and All’s Fair. There are books about making art and books about cooking and books about building small houses, each in their own beautifully curated sections. I read myself to sleep.

This morning, I woke before the sun, before the birds, and I watched the gradual blueing of the sky out my window. I am writing this essay longhand with my favorite pen, a Pentel .7mm liquid gel roller ball, and my favorite pad, a Rhodia Number 19, which, together, make the physical act of writing a sensual pleasure in a way that the clickety clack of a backlit keyboard does not. 

I feel a million miles from home, from a place where progress is being measured by developers in cost per square foot. I am making my own progress here, the kind of progress that happens gradually over time, that can be measured in steps from the bedroom to the living room or in consecutive breaths. My progress is hard-won, but I am making it by hand, with the help of the goats and the birds and the sky.

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