More than a decade ago, my world collapsed.
A marriage crumbled. Undesired change attacked from every direction. Powerless to stop it, too shocked and confused to be anything but reactionary, I limped along, wounded but not quite dead. I couldn’t pay my bills. I nearly lost my house. I’d been a stay-at-home dad for years, and all my former business connections lived hundreds of miles away on distant coasts, so I struggled to find work, to make money. I cashed in 401ks. I borrowed money from family. I racked up debt I never thought I’d pay off. I awoke each morning sick to my stomach with fear and anxiety, only to spend most days pretending all was well, especially when my babies were home.
One of the few constants during that period — and all the years since — was the house in which I lived. True, it had been built for a family that had suddenly splintered. Sadness had infiltrated it. Ghosts had taken up residency in every room. For a time, it served as both a prison and refuge, but it was always home, whatever that means.
Years later, once I had found work and built a decent employment history, I managed to refinance the mortgage, which helped pay off my other debts. I had coped with unexpected catastrophe, survived dark depression, and emerged with a decent job, emotionally stable children, and a house.
Now, I’m selling that house, and there’s a part of it I may miss more than all others: a tiny window near the main entrance.
The window runs alongside the upper half of the front door, almost like a glass-paned arrow slit in a Scottish castle. Of course, putting glass in an arrow slit makes it difficult to protect against an attack by cookie-selling girl scouts or stealthy religious proselytizers, but this is the price we pay to live in modern castles. The window is narrow, considerably taller than wide, and it’s always dirty.
As a result, the view is limited. You can see the front yard and parts of the driveway. You can see a handful of teenaged trees. In the summertime, you can watch kids riding bikes on the sidewalk. In the winter, you can watch snowplows, with flashing orange lights, barreling down the icy pavement. Year round, you can stare into the garage of the new owners across the street, who only close their garage door at bedtime, and wonder why other people’s garages always seem better organized than your own.
It’s not much of a view, but it rarely changes. That lack of change makes it special.
As I pace around the house, be it out of anxiety or a simple need to think, I often unintentionally put my forehead against that window and stare. Grass blows. Snow falls. Leaves dance. Bugs congregate. But the houses across the street don’t change. The sidewalks and driveways don’t move. I lean my head against the glass, and the unchanging nature of the world beyond that window is a relaxing counterpoint to all the other chaos in life.
For years, I’ve been staring out that window. I’ve laughed while doing so. I’ve cried while doing so. I’ve slammed my fist against the door while doing so.
Markets have risen and fallen. Kids have grown up, attended new schools, made new friends. I’ve switched jobs, been sick, suffered heartaches. I’ve agonized over years past and days ahead. I’ve lived part time downtown, part time with a friend in the city, even part time at my parents house to make train schedules work. But I’ve always finished the week at this house, staring out this window, lost in the safety of an unchanging view.
Maybe that’s what the word “home” has come to mean to me. In a world of endless uncertainty, home is where you can gaze at the world from the safety of a glass-paned arrow slit.
Occasionally, I lean my head up against the glass only to find a stranger approaching my door to deliver a package or walking a dog along the sidewalk. Dogwalker and dog turn toward me when they notice movement in the window, and I smile or wave because my brain isn’t sure how to react. It’s rather startling. Those moments of shock are usually the ones that make me wonder why I bother staring out this particular window. Other rooms have bigger windows. I could gaze into the backyard from a couch. But I don’t. I pace and stare out this tiny window. Why?
Perhaps a narrow view of the world is sometimes better. Less to fear. Less to know. Less that can unexpectedly change. I can easily see out, but people can’t easily see in. I can shift from one side of the glass to the other to hide from passersby. I’m comfortable with solitude, but I like to know what’s happening beyond my front door. This window let’s me gaze without too much exposure.
Soon, however, I’ll be saying goodbye to my little unchanging view. There’s a For Sale sign protruding from the front lawn. Echoes of children still bounce off the walls, but those children are older and less noisy than they once were. Ghosts of the past appear on stairways or in the kitchen, but they grow fainter and quieter with time.
This house served as a sanctuary during dark days. Then, during the housing crisis, with foreclosures abundant and home values in the gutter, it served as a prison I couldn’t escape. Now it will be a memory.
Thankfully, it will be a memory of sadness overcome, a memory of joyful time spent with my daughters, a memory of accomplishment and hard work. The house has never felt like my own, despite the name on the mortgage, but that doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.
For the first time in a long while, I’m off to find new windows to call my own. We can find life and movement while staring through a window, but we can also find stillness. By itself, stillness means nothing. It is neither progress nor advancement nor achievement. As an escape from life’s chaos, however, stillness can be priceless.
Also published on Medium.