I jumped the white picket fence. Not in the way the story usually begins, with the hero breaking out, busting loose, setting off across the wild world in search of her authentic, enlightened self. That would be uncharacteristically normal of me. I broke in, not out.
Some people need to break out. They’re called to distant, exotic places to find truth and wisdom: a monastery on a mountaintop, a boat on the high seas, the foot of a bodhi tree. There’s nothing wrong with that. I happened to be called to find it in the laundry room and in Cub Scout den meetings. That’s what I get for following my bliss. But those are exotic locations to me.
My children laugh when I tell them Mommy’s an alien. “Look, it says so right here,” I say, showing them my United States permanent resident card. To them, “alien” conjures images of E.T., the extra-terrestrial being trying to navigate suburbia, Sesame Street, and trick or treat. It’s more apt than they know. I came from “out there.” Way out there. Fifteen years ago, I pushed off from a forgotten island at the edge of the continent and landed in middle America. I came to marriage from an adulterous, scorched-earth love affair. I went from being a wild child to being a good mother. I grew up in a home that was free thinking, free loving, and free falling, and willingly entered a life of Cub Scouts on Monday, bills on Tuesday, play group on Wednesday, groceries on Thursday, errands on Friday, sex on Saturday, church on Sunday.
Some people come here automatically, this town called Ordinary. The straight and narrow route will take you right to the middle of it in a hurry. Some people never know anything else. But I hitched in by the back roads, peered over the fence, and chose it.
I choose it every day.
“Beeeee good,” I tell my sons, turning back to my field notes, the Web log where for five years I’ve recorded my outside-looking-in observations on this big, little life. Part Underwood typewriter, part Moleskine journal, part refrigerator door; it’s become a catchall for everything that digging in yields up.
“Look at this,” I’d say, holding up some fragment of everyday to myself and anyone who happened to be reading, turning it over this way and that. Look.
People began wandering over to see what it was I was so taken with. First a few online readers, then more. Then Good Housekeeping began to publish my essays, and the neighborhood suddenly got a whole lot bigger. “I have something just like that!” my virtual neighbors would say in a comment or e-mail, and come running back holding the stories they found in their own backyard. They offer them up with a mix of shyness and excitement. Sometimes they doubt themselves.
I thought maybe it was worth something, but I don’t know . . .
It’s probably too small to matter . . .
It’s kind of a mess and it’s broken in places . . .
“It’s beautiful,” I tell them. It’s funny. It’s deep. It’s extraordinary.
We live in an age that exalts lifestyle over life. We call caterers and decorators “gurus.” Whole television networks are dedicated to telling us how our homes, gardens, tables and wardrobes should look. Even our beliefs are subject to fashion—the more exotic, the better. But most people can only afford the extract—they get some of the flavor, but none of the substance. Imported spirituality is the new truffle oil.
I believe in seeking. I believe ardently that you should drop everything and run toward your true self, as far as you have to go. But I want to put in a word for the path that winds through the backyard, because it can be just as meaningful and wondrous as the one that goes up the mountaintop, if it’s your path. You want a spiritual discipline? Try staying vitally connected to the same person year in, year out, through surprise pregnancies, late mortgage payments, toilet seat battles, and the occasionally strong temptation to walk away and make a living tending bar somewhere on the coast of Maine. Domestic life is full of moments of truth, if you stay awake to them.
What follow are some of my moments of truth. Writing them down is what keeps me awake and alive to that which is everyday and near. I hope they speak to the possibility of settling down without settling for, and the power of small things to make a life infinitely vast. They are an apron-full of stories carried breathlessly up to the fence by that strange woman in town, me. They are for my neighbors who live inside the white picket fence with me, and they are for the wanderer who pulls off to the side of the road, looks over it, and wonders why anyone would want to live there.
Look. Look what I found. Come see.