Heart of Two Homes

Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

It was at the Portland International Airport.

Ten ‘til midnight on a snowy evening in mid-December, and I sat curled around my laptop, breathing in pumpkin spice and black-bean coffee from the Starbucks next door. My fingers swiped over the keyboard, filling in a graduate school application due the next day, while I trapped my cell phone between my ear and shoulder and talked a frantic friend through his first time driving uphill on ice. My back to the frost-glazed window, pressed against it from head to hips so that the bite and the cool seeped in through the worn patches in my jacket – kept me awake.

Four hours of sleep had left me like a frayed nerve, twitchy and raw. Held loosely together by plans and necessities and what seemed like a god-ordained level of stress, all bloodshot eyes and shuddering fingers and–

I just wanted to go home.

South Carolina was about a five-and-a-half hour flight from Portland, as the crow flies. Eight-and-a-half if the crow had to make exchanges in Chicago and Atlanta to get there. It would be a long red-eye capping off an even longer day, but I was at my gate and on time, waiting to take off so I could touch down in my hometown by the time my dad woke up the next morning. So I could step right out of the airport and into the fold of his huge, warm arms, his dopey grin shining down on me, all white teeth and crinkles around his eyes. I hadn’t seen him in person since last January, and the two-thousand miles between us – the three hour time difference – ached in my chest, low and throbbing. I wanted to see him.

But, even so, I kept thinking about it: a half-woken daydream of dropping everything and making my way down to the bottom floor of the airport. Catching the last Red Line train out and hopping on the 57 bus back to campus. Shoving open my dorm door and stumbling through the dark and the warmth and the scent of stale sausage burnt into the carpets. Slumping down onto my bed, face-first and starfished. Sleeping for weeks. For months.

I just wanted to go home.

And that was the problem. Oregon was steamy soup and plastic Christmas trees, rainy naps and a caramel mocha melting the chill off my fingers. South Carolina was golden wheat fields and mist-cool air, sunset silhouettes and a step-family I loved and feared. Home and not, home and not. Caught so perfectly between them that, at times, I felt like I had no home at all. Just waypoints.

I swayed to the right, side pressing into the stiff, navy nylon of my suitcase. The yellow polyester of my laptop bag, sandwiched between. My life and living, distilled down to two carry-ons. I could tuck them under my arms and walk for miles, if I had to.

Packing wasn’t hard anymore. I’d learned how to do it at age sixteen, after my parents divorced and I split the days of the week between their houses. I made a system for hedging a life between two places and lived it, every day, until I had everything whittled down into four bags that I toted between two houses.

And I remember that late-summer afternoon, the sun on my back and warm dust brushing my cheeks as I hovered in the open door of my car’s backseat. As I stared down at those four bags, barely filling half the bench, and realized that I could take them anywhere. That whatever place I stopped in could be my home just as much as either parents’ house. That my real home amounted to an armful of items tucked in canvas bags and the waving hands of my family as I once again drove out of sight.

The woman at the counter came over the gate’s PA system then, calling for the pre-boards and first class. I saved the application file and shut my laptop, telling my phone-friend to pull over and call his dad to come pick him up and bring him the rest of the way home. He’d come far enough.

With trembling hands, I tucked my laptop into its bag and fastened it closed. The black canvas straps slid threadbare beneath my fingers, a touch more familiar than the down of an old quilt or the burnished handle of a favorite skillet. It pulled the breath from my lungs; one part solace and two parts longing.

I wanted to go home.

Throwing the strap of my laptop bag over my shoulder, I grasped the handle of my suitcase and stood up, stretching.

Time had passed since I was sixteen and empty. I’d distilled those four bags down into two now. My second home was across the country. I only moved between twice a year, and only ever on planes. I know now what a home was not: South Carolina, Oregon, and the two bags I carried with me. Not the place you lived, nor the people you loved.

Something more than all of that. Something deeper, or something else.

I stepped out into that drafty jet bridge at midnight, a suitcase at my side and a bag on my shoulder. Breathed in the crisp smell of frost that swept the sleepy haze away, steadied my shudders as I braced against the chill. I remember looking out through the bridge window to see the stars and snowflakes studding the sky and thinking to myself:

I didn’t know what home was, then or now. But I knew that I would step onto this plane. I would keep fighting and working and searching for home.

And someday, weeks or months or years in the future, I’d be standing under this sky again. Staring up at stars and snow – chest full, hands steady, eyes clear. Looking up at this very same sky, and knowing that I’d finally found it.


By: Claire Pillsbury

The Difference a Smile Can Make

highway image

Credit: Gillian Reimann

When we think about different cultural perspectives, the regions of California versus Oregon, the Bay Area versus Portland and its greater area, rarely come to mind, but to me, they’re vastly different. Four years ago, I made a twelve hour drive up to Forest Grove, Oregon from Concord, California, to start my college experience and Pacific University, and I didn’t really expect anything to be that different. Well, I did expect more rain. But, a funny thing happened as I started to go to my classes and talk to local Oregonians, and I realized, there is a difference.

Back home in the Bay Area, everything is fast-paced. We don’t sit outside, reading books or listening to music as we take in the sunshine; because it’s always out in California, and there’s so much more to do. We don’t walk to restaurants in town, even if they are ten minutes away. And we certainly don’t stop and smile at people we vaguely recognize. Instead, we bustle along on our busy paths, we keep our heads down, we drive to get dinner, and we do our best to avoid the sun (since it’s always out and it’s always hot).

Honestly, life back home is abrupt, which has made the past four years in the Portland area a bit of an eye-opener for me. To be honest, not all of it is grand, starting with the rain—the endless downpour is annoying, and for a self-proclaimed sun-hater, even I’m happy on days when it’s out and there’s no precipitation in sight. The constant rain was a bit of a shock to try to adapt to, especially since I was going back home every few months for break. But even with the rain, when I’m in Forest Grove, I’m more likely to see people out walking around town and campus, stopping to talk and smile with one another, even in the rain. Back at home, I’d be hard pressed to see that kind of simple friendliness, and while I’m not saying that we’re all rude, there’s just not that level of comfort involved. Making the transition between the two states is difficult, especially because as soon as I get into the swing of smiling at people and asking how they are, I have to switch, going back to the head-ducking, antisocial attitude. And when I finally get used to sitting in traffic for hours and blaring music to entertain myself, I get thrown back into the fast lane where I’m constantly avoiding being cut off and going at least fifteen over the speed limit.

As a junior editor at Silk Road for the past three semesters, I’ve had the privilege of reading unique cultural perspectives and see various diverse tales across several genres, and so it’s difficult to see how my experience translates in comparison. But then, I remember that ‘unique’ and ‘diverse’ are subjective words, and they vary from case to case. My experiences from city life in the Bay Area and Portland, to the town life of Concord and Forest Grove illustrate a distinct gap in human contact and comfort. Back at home, people rush about, avoid eye contact, and set out for themselves. Contrastingly, when I’m here in Forest Grove, or the larger Portland area, people stop and start up conversations.

At a bookstore in Beaverton a couple weeks ago, I was stopped by an old man in the Science Fiction section who asked my opinion about some books. I stopped my perusal of the shelves, smiled at him, and offered up a few titles that I had read that were similar to the books in his hand. He grinned back at me and thanked me for my time, and I watched him go on to grab one of the books that I recommended, adding it to the pile. It was a

For me, the difference in culture between the Bay Area and Portland is just enough of a shock so that alternating and adapting between the two is difficult. Twelve hours of driving and a few mountain ranges separate the two states, making their differences subtle but certainly there, at least for this college student.

By: Gillian Reimann

Showcased Writer: Coleen Muir

Interview by Gina Warren

Coleen Muir

COLEEN MUIR is finishing up her final semester in the Creative Writing Workshop at University of New Orleans and working on completing a collection of short, lyric essays that center around her family and home. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre and Silk Road Review; her essay nonfiction essay, “Home,” was included in volume 6, issue 2.
Read “Home“.

The Interview

GW: How did you get the idea to write this story? Was it one of the images that hit you, an overarching want to capture the theme that you portray here, or something else entirely?

Coleen Muir: This essay originally wanted to be an essay about the afternoon my father had to take the barn cats to the animal shelter. Yet, as I began trying to write about the situation, I became more and more aware of the context of it – why did he have to get rid of the barn cats? This led me to begin describing the setting, and also created the destitute tone. Loss was a big element of this piece, as was desire. The desire to keep the cats, but also having to rid the barn of them. Desire, pushed up against the idea of loss, becomes the piece’s tension, though I wasn’t conscious of that while writing.

GW: The narrator steps away from being a character in this piece. Why did you choose to pull yourself out of the story?

CM: Rather than choosing to take myself out of the piece, it just never occurred to me to put myself in, at least not as a character. I approached the essay in terms of images, which made me an observer. Of course, I’m there, in the “you” form, as narrator. I appear while walking outside to observe the rain, for example, and while observing the dead bird with my sister. So I guess I’m a behind-the-scenes sort of character, but I don’t give myself a “section.” My primary role, or function, in the piece seemed to be best-suited to that of an observer.

GW: I thought that the use of second person was an interesting stylistic choice, but one made with prowess; the transition to second person was seamless and provided an intimate sense of immediacy. Why did you decide to incorporate this point of view in the way that you did?

CM: I think “you” enables the narrator to speak of a situation she has lived through without focusing on herself in the telling of it. The “I” tends to force a narrator into commenting on the images, or taking a stance, or to be an authority in the piece. Removing myself from the piece eliminates that problem, and hopefully allows the language and imagery to speak for themselves. This essay isn’t about me, but it’s about my family (and countless other families, I imagine) who have experienced “going without.” I think I was interested in creating a landscape, as well as specific images, which spoke to the experience of what it is like living without money, without options. To write this in “I” would have made this an essay about me – my story. I would prefer for readers to flip through the images and interpret what they see without wondering about how to fit my, the narrator’s, story into it.

GW: One of my favorite aspects of Home was the syntax and how it affected pacing in various parts of this narrative. Shorter sentences juxtaposed with longer ones, such as in the first section starting the piece and the ninth section about rain, slows the pace and directs focus. “We find ourselves surrounded by pasture and telephone poles. Leaves. Scraps of metal and strips of lumber piled against make-shift sheds. Everything waits to be put to use.” How did you view the relationship between syntax and pacing when you were writing this piece?

CM: Syntax is probably just as important to me as what I’m writing about. I see the two – syntax and content – as inseparable, really. I want to make striking images, but the only way you can make striking images is by creating striking sentences. So, for me, I look at writing as similar to composing. Listening to the rhythm of each sentence. I often read back through the lines, over and over, motioning my finger along to their rhythms. I also often read poetry before I write, which inspires certain rhythms.

In “Home,” the search for good language helped me discover the essay, in a sense. “Mayflies live just one day, dying to fuck,” has a nice rhythm to it (I feel), but at the same time, speaks to that element of loss and desire. At first, I only had the line, “Mayflies live just one day,” which felt incomplete to me. So, to carry out the rhythm, “dying to fuck,” I was able to incorporate more substance to the sentence and bring it to a deeper level. If I allow myself to search long enough for the right words and rhymes, images and verbs will surface, and sometimes, they lead me in directions I wouldn’t have thought to go.

GW: There is an easy movement of Home as the focus shifts from different images and individuals, such as Mother doing dishes, Father attempting to revive dead cars, Sister smoking cigarettes, the barn cats that cost sixty dollars to spay, and the rain pounding against the roof. How did you structure this flow? Was it a conscious progression of images, or did the piece seem to progress more organically as you were writing it?

CM: Sometimes, when I don’t know how to begin an essay, I begin writing sentences that aren’t connected to each other, but that try to capture an image that I’m interested in exploring. This essay grew out of a series of images I associated with my parents’ home, which started off as a blank page of random sentences, but sentences that spoke to me in such a way that made me want to further explore them. Those sentences led me into writing the small vignettes that create the essay. And since the essay lacks a specific narrative thread – one single story from start to finish – I had to rely on tone and imagery to make the readers invested in this place and these people.

GW: Authors who write creative nonfiction have an incredible ability to push specific themes and tones by the details they select. How did you choose the particular images and details which color Home so fully and specifically?

CM: Like with sentences, I try to linger on images, mentally, before I write them down. For example, I can remember exactly how that black bird looked after it hit the window that day, but, to write about it, I had to go back in my mind to that day, step out the door with my sister, and find myself standing barefoot in the yard, and looking down at the bird before I could recount the its turned head, its legs, feathers, all that. The pebbles surrounding it. I guess finding the right images is a process of meditating on the experience long enough until you find yourself back in it. Once I’m back in the situation – once I feel like I can bend down and literally feel the bird’s slick feathers beneath my fingertips – then I feel confident in rendering the scene. The details will be there, and it is just a matter of choosing which ones I decide to write down.