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Letters Between Friends

This pearlmoonplenty is lengthier than most; the author asks her readers’ indulgence for her own.

 

My dear Virginia

How much I like getting letters from you. 

With what zest do they send me to meet the day.

So much do I like getting them, that I keep them as the last letter to open of my morning post, like a child keeps the bit of chocolate for the end—

Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, 2 September 1925

 

Virginia Woolf was born 130 years ago today. She has long been an important writer and role model for me, but I didn’t know much about Woolf’s seventeen-year relationship with Vita Sackville-West until friends gave me The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf for Christmas. Reading these letters not only introduced me to intriguing aspects of Woolf’s life, but also inspired an appreciation for Sackville-West beyond her historical status as Woolf’s lover, friend, and muse behind her most imaginative character and novel, Orlando. A poet and novelist herself, Sackville-West strode through Woolf’s life in breeches and pearls, a devotee of Woolf’s artistic genius and maternal protector of Woolf’s fragile health and self-confidence.

The book contains all the surviving letters written by Sackville-West to Woolf, as well as relevant excerpts from Woolf’s letters to “My dear Vita.” Together they sketch a charged and complex friendship that evolved from romance to affection to deep appreciation and support between two avant garde women well matched in their conflicting personal desire for love and independence.

Begun in 1923 when Sackville-West invites Woolf to join the P.E.N. club of which she was a member (an invitation Woolf politely declined—she was no joiner), the letters continue until March 22, 1941, six days before Woolf’s suicide. Woolf’s last letter did not allude to her ensuing madness and her death shocked Sackville-West, who years later confided to her husband, “I still think that I might have saved her if only I had been there and had known the state of mind she was getting into.” Perhaps that help was something Woolf intended to avoid.

Both women had been raised with the privilege of English upper-class consciousness but were determined to live beyond the gendered expectations for propriety it bestowed. Sackville-West used her aristocratic position and open marriage to a diplomat to shape a life of sexual freedom and world travel; ten years older, Woolf used her intellectual capacities and marriage to a supportive husband to pursue literary achievements that have earned her lasting renown. Their letters portray a mutual impulse for pushing life to its edge, an emotional necessity for Sackville-West, while for Woolf, an artistic one.

As their relationship turned from recognition of each other’s social rebellion to a more intimate level of affection, they often used pet names or their own pets to express their feelings. Days after their short-lived sexual affair began, Woolf referred to Sackville-West as a “dear old rough coated sheep dog,” an image she repeated over the years, while Sackville-West jokingly referred to Woolf as “Potto,” a name Woolf created for the child-like creature she became in her desire for Vita: “Potto kisses you and says he could rub your back and cure it by licking.”

Over the years, both women used letter-writing to discuss their ideas about writing that reveal important insights into both their literary styles. For Sackville-West, Woolf is the writer to whom her own writing can never compare: “[Passenger to Teheran] is a rambling, discursive sort of affair. And I think of your lovely books, and despair.” She complains that Woolf has “the mot juste [Flaubert’s term for the “right word”] more than any modern writer” she knows: “I wonder whether it costs you a lot of thought or trouble, or springs ready-armed like Athene from the brow of Zeus? I don’t believe it does cost you trouble (confound you!) because you have it in your letters too, where you certainly haven’t made a draught (draft?), and where there is never anything but an impatient scratching or two.”

Woolf sidesteps this compliment by debating literary strategy instead: “As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.” For Woolf, rhythm “goes far deeper than words”: “A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, . . . and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.” [Click here for the only surviving recording of Woolf, speaking in a radio broadcast about words]

Although their writing was quite different in style and story, their letters share a concern for novelistic form. Writing from Germany in 1928, Sackville-West begins to imagine her novel The Edwardians (for which she and the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press made a nice sum) as “a sort of patch-work counterpane . . . beginning to form, but so far the patches are only laid side by side and I have not yet begun to stitch at them.” Wondering whether it is better to “fail gloriously than dingily succeed” (the clear answer for Sackville-West being the former), she concludes that “one’s pen, like water, always finds its own level, and one can’t write in any way other than one’s own.”

Woolf’s reply reflects the anguish she experienced about form and voice echoed in her diaries: “I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that its to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Now when I sit down to an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel, as I say, to be good should seem before one writes it, something unwriteable: but only visible; so that for nine months one lives in despair, and only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable. I assure you, all my novels were first rate before they were written.”

Despite the commercial success of Sackville-West’s novels and poetry, both women recognized Woolf’s superior artistry. “When I read you,” writes Sackville-West, “I feel no one has ever written English prose before.” In reply, Woolf reminds her friend of the work involved in writing well: “Yes I do write damned well sometimes, but not these last days, when I’ve been slogging through a cursed article, and see my novel [To the Lighthouse] glowing like the Island of the Blessed far far away over dismal wastes, and cant [sic] reach land.”

But for all their literary aspirations, Vita and Virginia were friends who wrote about the common things that women share: food, family, small gifts, gossip about friend’s love affairs. Early in their friendship when Woolf earned money from the publication of Mrs. Dalloway and The Common Reader, she wrote, “And, dearest Vita, we are having two waterclosets made, . . . both dedicated to you.” They pierced their ears together, after which Vita wrote, “Are your ears still sore? Have you enjoyed the sensation of twiddling the rings when they have stuck?” They took only one extended trip together to Burgundy but until the later years, they met in London frequently and dined at each other’s houses like friends do. During the war, Sackville-West sent butter on Christmas Day, eliciting Woolf’s grateful delight: “Oh Vita what a Cornucopia of Bounty you are!”

Woolf and Sackville-West used letters as a space for first creating, then maintaining a long and loyal friendship that survived jealousy, distance, debate, illness, the boredom of predictability, and the distractions of their busy lives. As WWII brought fear that each visit would be their last, their correspondence assured each other of their continuing love and affection. In 1939, when Sackville-West sent Woolf a copy of her book Country Notes, Woolf called it “a dose of sanity and sheep dog in this scratching, clawing, and colding universe.”  In April 1940 as bombs fell around their homes, Sackville-West wrote, “Your friendship means so much to me. In fact it is one of the major things in my life—.” And in August, Woolf lamented the bombing near Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle and reaffirmed her love: “What can one say, except that I love you. . . . You have given me such happiness.”

Reading such an intimate friendship between these vital women makes me value my own correspondences with women friends all the more. Email has taken the place of twice-daily postal service by which we can keep in near constant written contact, but the sentiments are the same. Writing to each of my friends has its own timing—some weekly, some monthly, some more intermittent, but all valued for the support they lend to my goals and my sense of self.

One dear friend and I still write letters on stationery and mail them in envelopes with stamps; I look forward to their arrival and read them as Sackville-West did, like children save chocolate. I’ve kept every letter she’s sent in pretty dresser boxes; perhaps someday I’ll read them all straight through again. Another friend mails postcards from her travels; I’ve saved those too, as well as the poems she sends in exchange for my ramblings. And I have stopped corresponding with a few friends when I felt the support became less mutual and interests no longer met.

It seems letter-writing for me, no matter the form, is as important an indication of continuing love and affection for my friends as it was for Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. My friends, near and far, are lively correspondents. How excited I am to find their letters in my mailbox or In-Box. A letter says “I’m thinking of you” and so much more. Preserving our friendship’s history and anticipating its future, we write of ourselves, our dreams, our joys, and our sorrows, trying always to find the right words to say, “Thank you for being my reader.”

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Taos Portrait Found

I’ve been looking for this picture for years. I knew that I had stuck it in a book at some point in my various moves, but I didn’t know which book, although I’d searched through many. The picture was taken in Taos and I knew the book had something to do with that region, so occasionally I’d think I’d remembered the title and searched through the pages of that book. For fifteen years, I hadn’t been right.

And then, when I wasn’t looking for this photo at all, I found it, tucked not inside a book but between two books by Linda Hogan, one of my favorite authors. Recently I’ve been purging my book collection to make room on my shelves for books brought home from my office and for artifacts I’d like to look at from time to time. I was rearranging books by Native American authors when I picked up Hogan’s Dwellings, a book I use in teaching, to place it with Hogan’s other works on the shelf—and there was the envelope between two of her novels. I knew immediately that the picture was there, even though I had forgotten that I’d put it in the envelope at all with others from that trip.

It’s not surprising to me now that the picture was with Hogan’s works. Not only is she a favorite author of mine—I’ve taught her novel Solar Storms in my coming-of-age in women’s lit course for years—but she even writes about losing and finding objects in an essay in Dwellings called “The Feathers.” Here she details discovering that her granddaughter’s umbilical cord was missing from the black pot where it was kept. She searched her entire house, looking several times in a cedar box where she kept other important items, but the cord wasn’t there. After performing a ceremony to call the cord back, she returned to look again in the box, only to find that the feather she kept there was now missing too. Getting down on her hands and knees to look for the feather, she found it pointing toward the umbilical cord on the floor she had already searched.

So here’s the picture, found again, of me in 1996 standing in my blanket coat in front of the adobe church in the Old Taos plaza. Over the last fifteen years, I had remembered the picture differently: in my remembered picture, I could see the colors of the coat (navy, purple, and tan) as my body cast a long shadow across the adobe, and the look on my face wasn’t so severe. I had made the picture in my mind more vivid and stylized than the picture actually was. Call it the O’Keefe effect.

Even though the photograph doesn’t quite live up to my memory of it, I still like this picture of me. This was my first—and for now, only—trip to Taos and Santa Fe, and I loved the area, especially the church I’m standing against. I had never been that close to something that old, that sacred, built out of the earth itself as if it had grown there from the very mud of which it was created. I felt—as the picture depicts—very small standing against the back of the church but safe at the same time, perhaps because the wall seemed so solid and so warm on that early spring day. I’m not casting a shadow because, in the photo, I am the shadow, the only darkness against the light of the adobe, absorbing rather than reflecting the power of that place. I imagined why artists like O’Keefe had been so drawn to the Southwest—the textures, the heat, and the severity of light that draws our eyes to the shadows in relief like the pattern of a Hopi design.

When this picture was taken, I was just starting my career at the university and was about to buy the home where I would raise my daughter. I wasn’t young, but I was starting out once again on a new phase of my life. Now, fifteen years later, that career is finished, my daughter is raised, the home sold, and I’m once again facing new and exciting changes in my life.

This picture reminds me that we sometimes find ourselves in unexpected places that we don’t even realize we’ll remember years hence. Sometimes our days seem so settled, so sedentary or even senseless, that only looking back across our lives tracks how far we’ve come. Perhaps I’ve searched for this picture from time to time because I needed that reminder. Perhaps I’ve found it now because I’m ready for another change.

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For Other Virginias

Today is the 70th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death. Woolf was 59 when she drowned herself in a river near Monk’s House, the country home where she and Leonard then lived.

In 1941, the threat of Hitler invading England was very real; Woolf’s London houses had already been destroyed by bombs and the countryside around Monk’s House had been shelled as well. Woolf suffered most of her life with depression and mental breakdowns; her writing brought stability, despite the anguish it often caused her. Yet even writing failed to provide solace as the war came closer. Amidst the possibility of England’s fall and her own fears of returning madness, Woolf’s despair was evident in the note she left for Leonard before she walked into the river: “Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.”

As a writer and critic, Woolf expanded the boundaries of literature. Her novels experimented with point-of-view, time, and structure, bringing a unique and feminist voice to a patriarchal literary world.  I first read To the Lighthouse as an undergraduate thirty-some years ago and it is still one of my favorite novels. Following its shifting viewpoints is like watching a shell game: despite how closely we observe each movement, we still can’t understand how everything ends exactly as it should.

In my first pearlmoonplenty post, I mentioned that the night before I started graduate school for my PhD, I dreamed that Woolf invited me for tea, which I took as reassurance toward my new endeavor. Woolf was, in fact, a mentor for many young writers, including May Sarton, who had tea with Woolf when Sarton was starting out as a novelist.

Virginia Woolf kept a diary for much of her adult life; after her death, Leonard anthologized the entries about writing into A Writer’s Diary. For the last couple years, I’ve kept this book by my bed, opening it at random every few nights to read a few pages as inspiration for my own writing life. Or maybe less inspiration than support, for Woolf was clear about the difficulties of writing: “Writing is not in the least an easy art. Thinking what to write, it seems easy; but the thought evaporates, runs hither and thither” (May 13, 1933).

Woolf was also honest about the financial aspects of writing, delighting when her books start to make money so she can afford a WC at Monk’s House. It’s Woolf’s blend of practicality and “you go girl!” spirit that draws me to A Writer’s Diary again and again.

In memory of Woolf today, I want to share some of my favorite passages from A Writer’s Diary for all of us who love literature and rejoice in the imaginative life of the mind:

May 11, 1920: It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything. I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work one is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book that I don’t enjoy writing. Yes, writing is always difficult.

May 1, 1925: This is a note for future reference, as they say. The Common Reader [Woolf’s collection of literary criticism] came out 8 days ago and so far not a single review has appeared, and nobody has written to me or spoken to me about it, or in any way acknowledged the fact of its existence; save Maynard, Lydia, and Duncan. . . I have just come through the hoping fearing stage and now see my disappointment floating like an old bottle in my wake and am off on fresh adventures.

March 20, 1026: But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo make of them? He would be disinclined to burn them; he could not publish them. Well, he should make up a book from them, I think; and then burn the body. I daresay there is a little book in them; if the scraps and scratching were straightened out a little. God knows. This is dictated by a slight melancholia, which comes upon me sometimes now and makes me think I am old; I am ugly. I am repeating things. Yet, as far as I know, as a writer I am only now writing out my mind.

August 12, 1928: We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock. We were all a little drugged with the country; a little bucolic I thought. It was lovely enough–made me envious of its country peace; the trees all standing securely—why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively “What’s the phrase for that?” and try to make more and more vivid the roughness of the air current and the tremor of the rook’s wing slicing as if the air were full of ridges and ripples and roughnesses. They rise and sink, up and down, as if the exercise rubbed and braced them like swimmers in rough water. But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes, and not only to my eyes; also to some nervous fibre, or fanlike membrane in my species.

October 11, 1929: And I snatch at the idea of writing here in order not to write Waves or Moths or whatever it is to be called. One thinks one has learnt to write quickly; and one hasn’t. And what is odd, I’m not writing with gusto or pleasure: because of the concentration. I am not reeling it off; but sticking it down. Also, never in my life, did I attack such a vague yet elaborate design; whenever I make a mark I have to think of its relation to a dozen others. And though I could go on ahead easily enough, I am always stopping to consider the whole effect. In particular is there some radical fault in my scheme? [Leonard Woolf considered The Waves “a great work of art, far and away the greatest of her books.”]

November 16, 1931: Oh yes, between 50 and 60 I think I shall write out some very singular books, if I live. I mean I think I am about to embody at least the exact shapes my brain holds. What a long toil to reach this beginning—if The Waves is my first work in my own style!

October 29, 1933: Yesterday the Granta said I was now defunct. Orlando, Waves, Flush, represent the death of a potentially great writer. This is only a rain drop, I mean the snub some little pimpled undergraduate likes to administer, just as he would put a frog in one’s bed. . . . But let me remember that fashion in literature is an inevitable thing; also that one must grow and change. . . . I will not be “famous,” “great.” I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self; to let it find its dimensions, not to be impeded.

August 2, 1934: I’m worried too with my last chapters [of The Years]. Is it all too shrill and voluble? And then the immense length, and the perpetual ebbs and flows of invention. So divinely happy one day; so jaded the next.

November 14, 1934: A note: despair at the book [The Years]: can’t think how I ever could write such stuff—and with such excitement: that’s yesterday: today I think it good again. A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down—and Lord knows the truth.

August 21, 1935: Up in London yesterday. And I saw this about myself in a book at The Times—the most patient and conscientious of artists—which I think is true, considering how I slave at every word of that book.

March 24, 1936: A very good weekend. Trees coming out: hyacinths; crocuses. Hot. The first spring weekend. Then we walked up to Rat Farm—looked for violets. Still spring here. Am tinkering—in a drowsy state. And I’m so absorbed in Two Guineas—that’s what I’m going to call it [later Three Guineas]. I must very nearly verge on insanity I think, I get so deep in this book I don’t know what I’m doing. Find myself walking along the Strand talking aloud.

December 19, 1938: On the whole the art [of writing] becomes absorbing—more? no, I think it’s been absorbing ever since I was a little creature, scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa at St. Ives while the grown ups dined.

In memoriam: Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941

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The Girl Who Tells

“There she goes again! Why does she always have to be telling everything?” You probably know one of these girls, the kind who not only has opinions but feels compelled to share them. Maybe not even all the time, but when it matters most, this girl is brave enough—or angry enough—to speak up about the injustices she observes around her.

Young adult author Margaret Willey* calls this character the “Girl Who Tells”: “In both adult and young adult fiction, an adolescent daughter is often presented to the reader as the guide most willing and able to travel beneath the surface and into the deeper layers of her household.” Girls Who Tell play a “truth-telling function” in literature because “[i]f there is a weak seam in the family fabric, she is the one most likely to put her finger through it and make it a full-blown hole.” A GWT can’t stand hypocrisy or mendacity, even when she’s told that telling the truth isn’t nice or could hurt someone. She’s self-absorbed, true, but from that narcissism comes the ability to see more than the adults around her are willing to see themselves.

As protagonists, Girls Who Tell initially function as observers from the sideline of the story in what I call the “liminal space” between childhood and adulthood. When I teach this concept, I stand in the actual doorway of the classroom and put my hands on the sides of the doorframe to illustrate this “in-between” place. (The word “lintel” is related to the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold.) Neither still a child nor completely an adult, a GWT has a foot in both worlds, a limbo of ultrasensitivity that leads to impulsive responses, if not downright overreaction.

From this liminal space, a GWT can observe the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the world around her, which leads to a second GWT characteristic: asking questions, particularly about truth and authority. “Why?” is a GWT’s favorite word.

But when a GWT finds her questions ignored or the answers vague or even false, she must speak up and tell the truth from her special—and sometimes limited—perspective. She may not always be right in her analysis but her speaking is always a catalyst for change.

Observer, questioner, and truth-teller, the GWT is the perfect protagonist for literature that attempts to reveal the injustices of family and society. In classics like Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, The Color Purple, and Anne of Green Gables, GWT characters face consequences for their outspokenness but are still guaranteed happy endings. Reality must be faced, wrongs righted, and truthfulness rewarded.

And in movies like Rachel Getting Married or Girls Town or Real Women Have Curves (based on the play by Josefina López) or Precious (originally published as the novel PUSH by Sapphire), we cheer for Girls Who Tell because even when they’re arrogant, obnoxious, or ill-equipped to handle life’s problems, we know they’ve gotten a raw deal.

In real life, however, Girls Who Tell may face parental anger, peer ostracism, social harassment, or even or judicial punishment or mental institutionalization. Memoirs, diaries, and letters like Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and the Rachel Corrie’s My Name is Rachel Corrie recount the pain, punishment, and sometimes triumphs of young women overcoming prejudices that limit their lives. In real life, we may not always appreciate girls who tell it like they see it and, because of their youth and gender, their voices are easily ignored. They’re just teen girls, after all, what could they know?

But if we listened to the real voices of GWT as carefully as we listen to their voices in literature, we’d learn something astounding: their truth-telling depends on ours.

I’ll write in future blogs about GWT in works that I’ll be teaching this semester, but I’d love to hear from you. What GWT characters—fictional or real—have inspired you?

*“The Girl-Who-Tells.” Margaret Willey. Hungry Mind Review (Summer 1995): 46 & 48.

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Keeping Home

I had that dream again last night, the one where I suddenly discover a room in my house that I had forgotten or hadn’t realized was there. The first time I had this dream was the night after I turned in my dissertation: I opened a door in my hallway that I’d never noticed before and inside found everything I’d had to put metaphorically in storage while I finished my Ph.D.

Lately these dreams are less about reunion than about finding more space in my life for things that are important, like creative endeavors or spending more time in contemplation than in motion.

The essential feature of all these dreams, though, is that these rooms are already in my house, just waiting for me, like Dorothy finding she’s always had the power to go home.

I’ve always been pulled to the idea of home, of inhabiting a place where I feel rooted. Home for me is both inside and outside a physical structure; without a garden around it, a house wouldn’t feel like a home.

In the novels Housekeeping and Home, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson creates opposing ideas of home. In the earlier novel Housekeeping, the old house in the western (Idaho?) town of Fingerbone must be abandoned when the novel’s young narrator Ruthie and her aunt Sylvie can’t meet the domestic and social expectations of their neighbors, who suspect that leaves blown into corners and the remnants of swallows and sparrows on the parlor floor do not make a proper home for an adolescent girl:

So they had reason to feel that my social graces were eroding away, and that soon I would feel ill at ease in a cleanly house with glass in its windows—I would be lost to ordinary society.

Because Sylvie and Ruthie can’t make their house a home—and in fact can’t stay home because they are both drawn to the natural world—they are “cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping.”

In Home, published 28 years later, a middle-aged brother and sister return home to care for their ailing father, a former minister in a small Iowa town, amidst the background of the civil rights movement that the son defends and the father resents. Younger sister Glory is escaping a failed love affair; her older brother Jack, their father’s favorite, is returning 20 years after the disgrace that drove him away.

By caring for the neglected house and garden in their father’s final days, they invent a temporary refuge from the painful pasts they’re trying to leave behind:

The old prairie came back the minute a spot of ground fell into neglect. Suddenly there would be weeds head high, gaunt shafts of plants with masses of tiny flowers on them, dusty lavender, droning with bees. And there would be black-eyed Susan, and nettles and milkweed and jewelweed and brambles and some avid vine that wilted in sunlight and broke at the slightest touch, leaving tiny whiskers of thorn in the hand that touched it. The roots they put down were deep and tough. It was miserable work to get them up. And here was Jack in the new morning light wrestling weeds out of the ground for all the world as if something depended on it.

In the 28 years between these novels’ publications, Robinson’s idea of home seems to have shifted from domesticity as prison to home as the continuation of family from one generation to the next. Yet in both works, it’s the outside forces of society that threaten the safety and sanctity of home.

When women or people of color or anyone considered “different” don’t or won’t follow the rules for “proper” social behavior, they are denied the possibility of home by the very structures of power that prescribe propriety in the first place.

In both novels, the characters must choose between limiting their lives or leaving home. Neither choice is ultimately fulfilling, but both novels end with the fantasy of return, Ruthie to the sister she’s left behind, and Glory to the dream of Jack’s son finding the old house—and his aunt—waiting for him.

We dream of home as a piece of ourselves that exists even in our absence or outside our awareness. Home contains us in both the best and worst sense of the word, for from home, we long for release even as we are rescued by it. Home is what we most fear losing but most want changing. Never perfect, always yearning, we keep our home so that we can keep ourselves.

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