It is January, and I am reading Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage while Jesse is in the kitchen with a measuring tape. I’m only on page four, but I’ve double underlined this sentence: “But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch.” I’m excited about the idea of this sentence: that a home is not only a place to be, but a place to begin — and begin again. I stand up from my reading chair to share this with Jesse.
We are days away from being married for 20 years, and the home we are in now is the seventh home we’ve lived in, and when we bought it, I imagined — or maybe it was that I expected — that a settling within me would occur. That I would create a rhythm of domestic and work life, and I would stop feeling so brand new and have this need to figure myself out. This sentence in An American Marriage suggests to me that a home — my home — is a place not so much where I figure myself out, rather, it is a place where I ignite.
I want to say this to Jesse, but when I get to the kitchen, he is staring at the floor, one foot on the measuring tape to hold it still and his hands out wide like he might be blessing the floor, or the rules of measurement, so I ask him what he’s doing.
He lifts his head and looks at me. These days, for a few seconds anyway, I have to adjust my memory when I first see Jesse. He’s growing a beard. We’re calling it “the furlough beard” because he hasn’t shaved since the government shutdown, and he can’t go to work.
His beard isn’t grown out of frustration, or some strange way to raise awareness. Jesse has such a sparkle in his eyes these days and I know this is him just trying something new. I know he’s stressed and upset about the situation, but Jesse is not a dweller. He’s a doer, and since he’s been forced to stop working, he’s begun to run again, he’s built a mudroom with the most gorgeous slate flooring that I’d prefer nobody walk on ever; he’s growing a beard.
It’s fun to have him home. It makes me dream up a life where I can work from home with him. He and I can take runs together, and go out for lunch. We have a small bedroom upstairs where I have my writing desk, but maybe we could get two in there, and he and I could work side by side.
“Remember that kitchen island we saw a while back?” Jesse asks me, his hands now on his hips. “It’s on sale and I’m wondering if it’ll work in here.”
It won’t. I know it won’t. It’ll be a cluttered mess, but the thing is so beautiful, I want it to fit, and so I put the book down and measure with him all the while saying exuberantly, “Oh, it’ll totally fit!” and dreaming up woven baskets with onions and potatoes on the island’s bottom shelf, colorful and pristinely clean kitchen towels hanging neatly from its hooks, me kneading and rolling out dough for bread and pizza — I’ll learn to make sourdough like I’ve always wanted to.
Our kitchen isn’t necessarily small, but as most kitchens in homes built in the 1970s, it’s designed for one person to work in. This is not how our family of four works. We all love to be in the kitchen, and all four of us have rather set agendas for what we will accomplish while in the kitchen. It can end up being a tense place, and one frustrating day I suggested to Jesse how heavenly it would be to have an island to chop, dice, knead, and stir on without getting in everyone’s way. I’d recently been in a friend’s home which isn’t any bigger than ours, plus she has three children instead of two, and she has an island in her kitchen, so clearly all our problems will be solved if we were to get this island that looks like it belongs in a Downton Abbey kitchen.
“I don’t know, Callie,” he tells me, zipping up the measuring tape and clicking the lock button on it. He walks towards the window above the sink that faces the golf course. “Maybe we should wait.” He picks up his mug of tea and takes a sip, still looking out the window. “I mean, I’m not even working, and who knows how long this will last?”
Jesse and I were married when he was a graduate student at Notre Dame, and because he was a student, he got a great deal on rounds of golf on the campus’ course. As soon as it was warm enough, he’d play before he went into the lab. His golf buddy was a Philosophy PhD candidate, and often, the two of them played with nuns who, Jesse would laugh as he told me, didn’t always replace the divots they’d made with their clubs.
At the risk of making Jesse out to be a perfectionist, golfing is the only thing I know of that he doesn’t get upset about if he isn’t great at it. I don’t know if it was that he knew that the next day he’d go out again and it’d be a new game, if it was the growing friendship with his golf partner, or maybe it was the combination of the two, but I remembered that Jesse from our first spring together when I stood on the deck of what would be our next home while our realtor told us about the golf course and the pool just beyond what would soon be our backyard fence. I believed I liked the house, but it was the golf course that made me whisper to the realtor as Jesse walked to the edge of the backyard and surveyed the nine holes, “This is the one.”
Maybe this is the place Jesse where would launch.
It’s not that he hasn’t launched in South Bend, or DC, or Maryland, and it’s not that he hasn’t made it so I and our two daughters have been able to launch ourselves into the world, but Jesse is a man of systems and schedules, goals to track, and rules to follow. He only takes risks he’s thought out so thoroughly that they are no longer risks. Call him Type A. Call him the first child. Call him a perfectionist. He doesn’t have much room in his life for play. And Jesse loves to play. It’s just that he forgets that he loves it.
So we bought the house, and I looked up prices for a membership at the club beyond our backyard, and the next spring and all the springs thereafter, Jesse’s been in the men’s golf league. Once, and at times twice a week, he leaves works and meets his friends – guys who are hilarious and kind – and plays a round of golf. Sometimes, after a long day, he’ll go out and hit a few balls, or even play a round by himself. Sometimes, he takes us with him.
I’m no good, and I probably won’t get good, but I like trying to figure the game out, and I like being with Jesse just for the sake of being with Jesse.
The day we got married, Jesse found out in the receiving line that he’d passed his exams that would allow him to begin work on his thesis — one that would explore the dangers of a surge a hurricane brings with it. It would be Katrina that would prove his dissertation correct, though there was no glory for him in this. When Jesse came home from work after being there all night tracking Katrina, he put his head in his hands and said, “I never wanted to be right.”
And I began my first teaching job nine days after becoming Mrs. Feyen. A couple months in, the principal approached me about starting a middle school. By myself. I said yes.
Jesse and I are lucky to have been able to turn our passions into vocations, but we tend to get consumed by them, leaving us anxious about failing because who will we be if we fail? We need to remember to play.
It is officially summer. Jesse is no longer furloughed. He is back to work on water, and his beard is gone. I think it was getting too warm to maintain, plus, I think he was ready for a change.
I’m sitting on the kitchen floor with three different work schedules in front of me. I too, have recently changed my hairstyle. What used to be almost hair down to my elbows, is now a blunt, graduated bob. I’m ready for a change, too.
We didn’t purchase the kitchen island we were both drooling over for about an hour one cold, January morning. We might still get one, or build one, but for now, we’re finding ways to share this space while we cook up a recipe, something we have a hankering for, something in our imagination we want to bring to the table.
As I look at my three different work schedules, I wonder how Jesse’s stayed in the same job for as long as he has, and why I can’t stay in one for longer than three years. It’s easy for me to respond to this query by telling myself that it is because Jesse is smarter, or stronger, or has a better five year plan, but today I’m trying not to look at this part of myself as a character flaw as I normally do when I experience a metathesis. It is not a change of place I yearn for. Rather, my condition has changed, but it won’t change completely until I accept that it is time to launch. So I begin on the floor of our kitchen, papers and pens spread out before me, and my husband listening to me dream concretely as he cooks.
Later, we golf. Jesse and I golf together either early in the morning or at night after all the leagues have finished and twilight begins to flirt with the evening sun. This is because anyone who wants to get a quick round in will not be able to as long as I’m on the course. I’m a solid par 3-times-9 kinda lady.
He and I don’t talk about work while we golf. I will tell him how pretty I think it is to be outside; how thankful I am that we found this place. At times, Jesse will give me tips on my swing. He never says, “You’re doing it wrong.” He tells me what I’m doing and what I could be doing instead. It feels empowering to play the game this way.
After a while though, I’m itching to go home. Recently, I redid our little front slab of a porch with red chairs, a small table for a book and a drink, candles, and twinkle lights. I like to spend time out there reading every night.
I lift my clubs and hoist them around my bag, and I tell Jesse thanks for the game. He’ll keep playing while I walk back home.
Once inside, I pick up my reading notebook along with the stack of books I’m alternatively reading: Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking by Jeanne Murray Walker, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I’m reading Jeanne’s book because I relentlessly follow her work as a mother, writer, and teacher as I pave my own way in these realms. I’m reading Mead’s book because I’m interested in learning whether one can be invested in a story without having read it, and I’m reading Martin’s book because my best reading friend, Megan Willome, told me if I read it, “every trigger [I] have [I’ll] have to reckon with.” That was all I needed to pick the book up.
I’m ready to reckon. I’m ready to launch.
I light the candles, and begin.
To Discuss With a Friend or for Personal Journaling
1. This month’s topic at Tweetspeak is play and, hence, was the inspiration for this essay. I took some rather serious topics—marriage, vocation, where one feels at home—and attempted to look at them from a playful perspective. Where can you apply a playful perspective to issues in your life that feel heavy? Is there a way that you and a friend could play through a situation that’s challenging?
2. The truth of a married couple that’s been together for 20 years is this: we don’t always remember we were friends first, and we don’t always remember that friendship is what makes our marriage fun. Think of a relationship you’ve been in with someone for a while, and consider the friendship:
-What first drew you to each other? Does that still draw you?
-What makes your friendship fun? If you haven’t experienced this as part of your friendship recently, is there a way to stir the fun afresh?
A Writer’s Dream Book
“Callie Feyen has such a knack for telling personal stories that transcend her own life. In my years in publishing, I’ve seen how hard that is—but she makes it seem effortless, and her book is such a pleasure. It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s enlightening. Callie writes about two of the most important things in life—books and clothes—in utterly delightful and truly moving ways. I’m impressed by how non-gimmicky and fresh her writing is. I love this book.”
—Sarah Smith, Executive Editor Prevention magazine; former Executive Editor Redbook magazine