Home: A Love Story
Essay by Jefferson Navicky | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
We met in an especially fiery October beneath Battery Steele, the sprawling concrete bunker on Peaks Island. It felt like the trees were burning down around us. We didn’t exchange phone numbers but instead sent tiny letters in handmade envelopes through the confounded but conspiratorial postal system, which delivered our love notes in protective plastic bags. Sometimes, we simply appeared on each other’s doorstep, nervous, yet also somehow sure we’d find each other. I rode the ferry back to the mainland from her tiny cottage on Peaks in the chilly fall air. Romance like that is heady and rare.
How do we know a reckless act from an inspired one? How can we distinguish impulsivity from our fate asking us to act immediately? Important questions, undoubtedly, but not the ones I thought about much while falling in love. By December, we’d moved in together into a beautiful, cavernous, rundown apartment with an antique pipe organ permanently abandoned in the front hallway. The building was on Spruce Street in Portland’s West End, and so began our parade of homes—six in seven years. In my experience, there’s nothing as exhausting as moving, and of course in those days we did it all ourselves. Mothers and sisters would arrive and graciously pack the kitchen, and we were rich with strong, generous friends, but still, we did an awful lot. It started small with a move to an apartment directly across from us on Spruce Street. You might think moving across the street is easy, but in reality we made millions of small, inefficient trips. “I’ll just come back for that lamp … and then for that box … and then for that box of laundry detergent.…” On the other side of that move was an apartment whose kitchen layout still makes us wistful. There were big, sunny rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, but we made our bedroom in the tiny library under the stairs. The steam that circulated through the cast-iron radiators started in the front of the house, hissing and clanking its way back. It never made it quite as far as the library bedroom, so we nestled under a huge down comforter and woke up to fronds of frost on the window above our head. It was the first apartment we had that came with dishwasher, washer, and dryer. We thought we’d never leave.
Six months later, we were offered a grand old house in the Willard Beach area of South Portland for the price of our one-bedroom apartment. Reckless or inspired, we couldn’t resist, and off we went to our new home with its elegant front hall, punched tin ceilings, and a bathroom so large that the shape-note singing group we hosted took to singing in it, mesmerized by the acoustics. As on Spruce, we holed up in the smallest room at the back of the house, and friends taught yoga classes in the third-floor master suite on Sunday mornings. We felt expansively at home, miraculously scraping together fancy dinner parties from my adjunct instructor’s salary. And then winter came, and the first heating bill. The house had been a dream, but we knew our time was up.
So back we went to Portland’s West End to a Thomas Street apartment that was cheap and charmingly dilapidated. The bathroom was a cobbled-together closet without a window or ventilation, but the ceilings were 18 feet high and the living room walls curved at the corners. The apartment had the most stunning sunporch where we ate oysters in the sunset and watched the heart of the West End walk their dogs. A year or so later, a job in Rhode Island fell through after we’d already given notice on our Thomas Street apartment, and we spent a frenzied two weeks searching for a new home. We ended up in the East End in a gorgeous apartment on Quebec Street with two huge parlors and oak leaf molding where we hosted parties and readings, and where we eventually got married in a small ceremony on a freezing cold February afternoon. We vowed we would never move again until we bought a house, and we meant it.
Even though the moving part was always wicked stressful and exhausting, I felt enriched by each place we lived. I loved Portland’s West End with its huge brick houses and curvy nest of streets. I loved writing at Aurora or Arabica, loved the way the first snow made our neighborhood quiet for a little while, and I even loved the pungent rotting smell of the ginkgo fruit smushed all over the sidewalks and streets of the West End. And I loved the East End’s expansive views and foghorn, seaside tennis, and Wine Time at the Blue Spoon. I’d biked around the bike-path heaven of Boulder, Colorado, and the tightly packed but exhilarating death trap of New York City, but Portland was by far my favorite place to live and bike. It was just so architecturally stunning and so easy to get around. For a writer who enjoys a good bit of background bustle when he writes, there were a lot of friendly cafes and bars to choose from.
Then my in-laws moved from Massachusetts to Freeport. They bought a huge tract of forested land. There was a small shingled cottage. “What if we move to Freeport?” my wife proposed one night. What?! What happened to never moving again? There were many things about this proposition that made me nervous. The prospect of living a stone’s throw from my in-laws, surprisingly, wasn’t one of them. But Freeport? I mean, there is a time and place for outlet shopping, and I appreciate it as much as the next guy, but was that the sort of place we wanted to live in? However, my in-laws’ property was way out near the Brunswick line, but where could I get a good cappuccino in the woods? The thought short-circuited my mind and brought a low level of panic. It would be a few-mile bike ride into town, where I’d find myself among bus tours from Pennsylvania.
It had been almost ten years since my now-wife and I dropped everything and moved in together after dating for about a month. Neither of us thought about it too much. It just felt right, and so we did it. This decision felt different, more calculated. Maybe it was because we’d moved so darn much. Maybe it was because age checks one’s impulsivity or makes us more averse to risk taking. Whatever the reason, it felt harder to drop everything and leave our beloved city. And then I surprised myself.
I agreed to move to the cottage, because I really love my wife. She is a country girl who craves things like darkness and quiet and wood smoke and chickens. To be honest, though, that wasn’t the only reason. I also needed a change because despite my love for Portland, I’d fallen into a bit of a rut and my rides around town had begun to feel less inspired and more scattered. My wife assured me that there was lots of stuff to do in the country. Stuff to do? Like watch the trees grow? Like watch out for Bigfoot? She thought I’d like raking leaves, stacking wood, mowing the lawn. And it turned out, of course, she was right. A few of my woodpiles toppled over at first, but I eventually got the idea, and I grew to love the hiss and pop and crackle of a good fire newly struck in the stove, and especially the deep-heat satisfaction of a shimmering bed of coals that would glow all night. And it turned out I didn’t need to write in cafes as much as I thought I did. I still enjoy a good macchiato when I’m in Portland, but mainly these days I write at my desk in the early morning before work. Instead of the bustle of cafe customers, I watch the flitter of birds to the feeder outside my writing desk window, and I have a front-row seat for the drama of the squirrel trying to work his way into the supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeder. It’s surprisingly good entertainment and has opened up whole new worlds in my writing practice. (Who knew I could write so much about chickens? Not me.)
But what I’ve really fallen in love with is the forest. I grew up in a small town in the Ohio Valley. My parents were both relocated city slickers from Cleveland and Chicago, so vacation was a trip to the city for art museums and plays. We never went camping in my childhood, and the one time I was supposed to sleep in the woods with my Cub Scout troop, my parents got a hotel room in the nearest town and brought me back in the morning. A psychic once told me I have a lot of viney energy in me. In other words, I like to hide out under leafy things and watch the dappled sun. The psychic was right, but I never knew that until I began walking the miles of conservation trails out our back door. The other thing I didn’t know I’d love so much is a dog. Growing up, we had a cat who lived in the garage and whom we’d see every few days when she was hungry enough to eat cat food instead of rodents. I never knew what good company a dog can be on a walk. Olive is an almost two-year-old beagle-Weimaraner mix and she tears through the woods after scents like she might never come back. But she always does. She chased a coyote once, and another time she came charging back to show me a freshly torn deer hoof still dripping with blood. It’s all quite exciting. I’ve even come to appreciate L.L. Bean, especially at six o’clock on Easter morning when I’ve forgotten to get candy for my nephew’s Easter basket.
I never thought I’d find myself living in the country, but it turns out that after all these moves, I’ve discovered that there’s a lot more to home than the physical location. Creating a new home is not only an imaginative act, but it’s also an act of fusion. With each new home and all the work involved in its creation, we too grew stronger in our love. It was like all our shared dreams and sweat further solidified our bond. And each time, the bond not only strengthened, it also deepened, as if we were watching the movie of our life together play at various cinemas across Maine; each time, the environs might be different, but we remained ourselves. There’s nothing so liberating as starting over, and also there’s nothing so unifying. It’s like each home creates a new chamber in our hearts. I’ve come to understand that for us, home is not a place so much as it is a process, something you take with you, something that fills and warms whatever space you live in, something closest to love, or maybe the container in which you find it.