Home for the Holidays
I have a strange relationship with the concept of home. My childhood was difficult, and as a result I rendered myself incapable of returning to the apartment I grew up in after I left for college at the age of eighteen. “Found family” – a common trope in women’s fiction – became a fast reality for me. I spent my first college Christmas with the family of a girl who I still consider to be one of my best friends. Her mother had a breadmaking machine and made some of the most delicious bread I ever tasted. She also made savory, homemade Chex Mix. Their home was warm and friendly, and it was an actual house in upstate New York – a far cry from the pre-war building in Queens where I previously lived. She had two parents, a sister, and two dogs keeping the space lively and festive. I was used to a two-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment permeated by the noise of my parents fighting. Until one left, and silence filled the space where that noise used to live.
On Christmas Eve in 1997, my mother called that fresh-bread-country-house and informed me our family cat, Billy, had been put down.
The following year, I adopted two cats. The first one was a homeless, polydactyl tabby kitten who had red paint on her fur. I cleaned her up, took her in, and named her Joey. Then, a few months later, after reading a book that told me cats live happier lives if they have companionship during the day, I got a shelter cat who was a year old. She had been declawed by a previous owner and was put out on the street, pregnant and defenseless. The shelter that took her in had to abort her kittens because she had been in a fight that left them badly harmed. She was gorgeous, a white and pinkish-orange color, and she treated me like she was my mama. Her name was Annie.
Those two cats marked my transition to adulthood – as well as my attempt to create a home for myself as a newly minted grown-up. Since getting them, I’ve lived in almost a dozen different places, from basement apartments in Brooklyn and Queens to larger houses on Long Island.
When I was a second-semester senior in college, I lived in a four-story walkup on the “good side” of Main Street in Binghamton, New York. I had a cheap, metal desk and a hand-me-down desktop computer that I used to type out my English papers for school. The desk was in the corner of the living room with a window on either side. Annie used to curl up in my lap while I’d complete homework assignments or papers. That semester, I was enrolled in my first writing class: Contemporary Memoir. In the class, we read several memoirs including Angela’s Ashes and Pretty Good for a Girl (by Leslie Heywood, who was the professor), and our final project was the task of penning our own short memoirs. If I close my eyes, I can see the olive green carpet of my cold, rented apartment, the off-white walls, the snow falling outside those two windows well into April, and my pinkish-orange mama cat curled up in my lap. I can hear the clicking of the old keyboard as I laid words down memorializing the teenage years that broke me and shaped me into the woman I would become. I can feel the rush of relief that came over me when those thirty pages were done. It was better than any therapy money could buy. The act of writing those paragraphs made my story - the tale of a girl's abrupt transition to adulthood after her parents' toxic divorce - real. I felt seen and validated, even if my professor was the lone reader of those words.
In that moment, with Annie on my lap and Joey asleep on the ugly couch that came with the furnished apartment, I felt home in a way I had never experienced before. It wasn’t the oddball décor or the geographic location. It was the sentences, the consonants and vowels arranged in such an order that allowed me to express myself, judgement-free, for the first time since leaving the salmon-colored walls of my childhood bedroom behind.
I didn’t write another page until twenty years and six houses later. There were other priorities – real stuff, important stuff, like working and making money, settling down, buying a house, selling a house, switching jobs, moving, getting married, buying another house, having children, raising them, and running my own company. In 2010, my husband and I took a dilapidated split-level and transformed it into a home for the family we would raise, and then seven years later, we bought a second fixer-upper in Cape Cod and renovated it into a beautiful little vacation spot for the four of us. These two spaces are very much home to me.
But there’s another place that is home on a different level, and I’m not sure this will make sense to anyone who isn’t a writer or an artist of some sort. I discovered it when I went back to school in the summer of 2019. I had been given the gift of a lifetime – the opportunity to get a Master’s degree in anything I wanted, paid for in full. I wasn’t about to squander it, so I decided to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, remembering that moment between the snowy windows when I finished my first thirty pages. I enrolled at Fairfield University and began learning the craft of writing fiction. By the time I graduated last summer, I had completed over 1,200 additional pages. I’ve been asked by people how I can write as much as I do, and the answer is very simple. Writing meets my soul on a visceral level. It’s shaping truth and sharing it with the world. It’s changing the endings to stories in my life that haven’t turned out the way I wanted them to. It’s social commentary, it’s a way to make myself laugh, it’s healing and therapeutic and magic all rolled into one. Writing is home in a way that walls and people can never be. It’s simultaneously solitary and connective, and it brings me the deepest peace and joy I’ve ever been able to create for myself.
So you can imagine how challenging it would be for me to not write.
Unfortunately, these past few weeks and months have thrown conflict after conflict my way, making it the first six month period since I took it up that I haven’t completed a full-length manuscript. I can’t tell you how hard that’s been on me. Yes, I’ve been busy with other, very exciting things (more on that in January) – but the basic act of sitting down in front of my computer screen and putting words down is as fundamental for me as food and exercise. I’ve learned that, like many artists, I need to invoke the exact right conditions to get into the zone where I can create. Too many outside stressors compromise my ability to do that, and the holidays only add another level of tension.
It’s been a tough time, to say the least. I’m stuck at page 134 of my current work-in-progress. It’s a romantic comedy – and being funny is kind of my thing – but it’s hard to be funny when all you feel is stress. So, I’m in the process of rearranging some scheduling things for the new year, and I’m trying to allow myself the grace to accept the fact that this particular story is going to take a little longer to tell.
The gifts still need to be wrapped. The pies need to be baked, Christmas Eve dinner needs to be ordered, and I still have some last-minute presents to buy. But, once the hoopla is over, my little crew will head up to our Cape house for a week of relaxation in our happy place. And I’ll try to spend some time with my writing – almost like hitting the reset button – to get myself in a better position to get things going again in January.
Annie died in my arms on Christmas Eve three years ago. We now have a feisty little calico cat named Cici who is too busy batting my daughters’ paintbrushes all over the house to even consider curling up on my lap while I sit at the computer.
Things evolve and change, and the holidays can do more than just mark the passage of time. They can remind us of the journey – and for those of us who write, the journey is all fodder for our creativity. People (and animals) come and go, houses become memories, time moves on and sometimes all we have left is a Google Drive full of old photos. But the sentences, the pages you write – those are eternal.
I hope you all can find your way home this holiday season.