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The Most Comfortable Room in My House

(Seattle, 2002)

Woman Lying on Couch, PicassoMy son's latest school assignment is to write an essay about the most comfortable room in his house. "A boring, boring topic," he asserts. "How am I supposed to write about something that doesn't interest me at all"?

He loves to write, and so I want to help him find an answer to that question. But since moving to Seattle I have moved (as well) almost too far from the everyday practice of writing to remember how to talk to myself about the process, let alone to my son. I have been too busy working full time as the primary breadwinner for my family, and ecstatically carrying and (with great effort and difficulty and joy) giving birth to a daughter, to do the thing that keeps me fittest for all my duties, and my pleasures.

Still, I remember something about how to find the essence of one's own topic, it's true heft and breadth, within the confines of limited borders.

So while Keir is at school one morning, in between taking phone calls in my home office and entertaining my tiny, curious baby, I decide that the only way to tell my son something about how to turn a topic he has not chosen into a subject that he owns, is to show him. And in the process I rediscover the fact that assignments can be a gift, allowing us enough freedom from the seriousness of our own preoccupations to play; trusting that in the context of play we may find ourselves once more close to the bone of our real concerns.

So, to tell you something about the most comfortable room in my house: it's not a room, per se, but part of a room—a large couch dominating the room at the center of our house. Actually we don't live in a house at all, but in a small, cozy, intimate apartment, spare as we can make it, crowded as it can't help but be with two adults, a teen, and a baby crammed into three main rooms plus a small kitchen and bathroom.

When we moved here from Pennsylvania—my husband, my eleven-year-old son and I— we were still living with the casually collected and much-abused furniture we had inherited, held onto, or otherwise forgotten to let go of over the course of ten years and several moves, which included:

Threadbare orange loveseats and lamps with burned shades and shaky bases; brick-and-board bookcases, twenty years past the time when constructing such homely edifices to hold our many books might have seemed innovative or at least charmingly practical; an old television placed on a former coffee table made of torn green wicker; a newer wicker coffee table with a glass center that collected crumbs in the corners and required a near-daily wash down of the heavy glass in the kitchen sink and a shaking out of the wicker holder over the back stairs just to pass as decently clean.

Also, a stained, scarred, heavy oak table with two broken down chairs, given to me by an older man, a musician who had wanted to make me fall in love with him during the time I was breaking up with my son's father and falling in love with my husband. I took the table, but not his love, and his friendship fell away soon afterwards. After I moved in with my boyfriend (soon to be new husband), from time to time I would meet the musician on the streets of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we lived before moving to Pennsylvania, and he would ask bitterly when I planned to return the table. I would mutter back vaguely, air-kiss his cheek, and pass on. I guiltlessly packed it in the van for our move to the US some years later.

Now all the bashed, mismatched furniture we hauled with us everywhere is gone the way of the junk man or yard sale. Now I look out my window, not at a view of the upright gray ocean off Nova Scotia, or at the heavy, green-wooded suburbs of Pennsylvania, but at the light-aired, tender, wet, benign streets of a Seattle neighborhood. I can watch the shape-changing clouds form and re-form from morning through night while sitting on the most comfortable place in my house. I eat, nap, read, or numb myself with television when I need to from the large, opulent couch I bought along with all the other new furniture I christened this new life with when I knew that this was where we were going to stay, happily, for a long time.

The couch looks as if it belongs in a fancy furniture show room. It also looks like it belongs in one of those sitcoms populated with young people who have unnamed jobs lucrative enough to afford  two-thousand- dollar couches and matching plush chairs. (I have one of those too, on the other side of the new volcanic-rock-and-cherry-wood coffee table). The spice red of a good rich wine; embroidered with dull gold; solid, plump with overstuffed pillows: the couch also looks like it belongs in my home, in a life full almost to overflowing. A life filled with aspects I was never sure I wanted but paid much to achieve.

Not far from the sofa in what should be the dining room but is instead our home office, I work to make enough money to afford such items as my cherry wood dining table, which fits next to the couch in our large living room. I work to afford my new high bed, and my beautiful antique oriental rugs, and my son's clothes and books and video games and my very new baby daughter's... well, everything she needs.

I work to afford all the years I spent not working at anything but being free of having to work like this, those years I spent instead learning to write well enough to tell a coherent story, or capture something subterranean and fleet of foot in a poem. I work now at a job I just tolerate but am grateful for so that I can stay at home and break off whenever I want to fix my son a snack after school or sit on the couch nursing my daughter. While we nurse, I watch her improbably small bowed lips wrap around my breast as her stunned blue eyes search auras above my head and then travel to lock their gaze into my eyes. She is just beginning to understand, in some inchoate way, that the face above her is love incarnate. In turn, I know her to be a gift beyond anything I could have imagined or planned for (this surprise, this late baby of ours). I watch her in awe as she busily derives strength and life from my body.

The new bed that my husband and I made our baby in is high off the ground, also plush, and spread with a vivid, warm, multi-colored blue and red down comforter. The room is covered with cutout pictures of Chagall paintings, which I have arranged artfully (my husband tells me so) on all four walls. I love our bedroom, but I spent too many years ill in bedrooms after the birth of my son, and cannot bring myself to rest or work or read there during the day. Also, the bedroom is not at the center of the house where this busy life moves and spills over, intruding and insisting itself at every moment.

The living room is this center, heart of our life, and the fat couch—too large for the room, as big as a small boat—is the central chamber of this heart.  It's where I worry about certain of my friends, far away and suffering from the loss of their children, their lovers, their youth and strength, or rejoice at the new loves, newly published books, and new hopes of others. It's where I face my own fears of growing older, or of never finding the time to write in the midst of this constant and expensive life I have constructed for my family and myself.

It's the place from which I can hear the world outside with its children calling plaintively to their parents, the grind of trucks at the neighborhood store, the hush of traffic on the boulevard above our street. I sit here often and look at the art on our walls, at the paintings of dense forests and abstract shapes painted by talented friends who still dream of and are sometimes invited to show in prestigious galleries. I look with equal pleasure at paintings painted by my parents' friends in a time that seems almost too long ago to remember, because they are all dead now and their names remain largely unknown. I look at the black- and-white photographs of San Francisco that my father took in the 1940's, framed and arranged on a wall where they offer mute messages from that time both so long and not so very long ago.

Plants hang from the ceiling and sit in large vases on slender tables in this room. From the couch I can see the way the sun picks out the veins of their leaves, and I can look at the line of stones on the windowsill that we have collected at various beaches and mountains we have walked upon, adding to the store of memories that make up what we refer to as Our History.  The cherrywood bookcases are filled with books, including a collection of poems by Blake from which my son reads the "Songs of Innocence" to his baby sister some nights, to "start her off right," while I snuggle her on the couch, and my husband clicks his computer in what should be our dining room.

I sit on this couch and it's the most comfortable place I know, for from it I can live a life full to overflowing, and yet picture myself, someday, sitting on my overstuffed couch or its offspring in the center of silence. It will be a silence I have spent years preparing not to fear, filled with echoes of the sights and sounds that now fill my world.

I wrote these words on the couch that I earned, and they have made the space that it occupies and all it represents that much more my own.