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Building One Home: Space September 13, 2012

When we chose to save the computers from the fire over other things I made the decision by standing in our bedroom thinking, “If we lost everything, what would I be devastated by if we lost.” I looked around the room and as my eyes alighted on this thing or that, I would think, “No, not that.” I looked farther out and then it came to me, “the computers.” I was right.

We have grieved the loss of many things and I have wondered why I did not save this thing or that. I have no answers to those questions. What I did not realize was what we actually had saved. Immediately the computers were our work. Twenty and more years of writing, research, teaching and the things that we do in our professional lives. What I did not know, and was reminded again tonight, was how much of the lives were on those computers.

I was looking for a document tonight and found photos of our house when I was on faculty at Dartmouth Medical School.  Because of my job, we had moved “Back East” from “Out West”. It was an awful time. New England and I just did not match. New England is gorgeous and I like to visit but living there nearly broke my spirit. People would ask us how we liked it and our standard response was “It is really beautiful here but it is a little crowded.” Of course, with so many people moved to the countryside from cities, or having grown up there, the concept of New England being crowded was inconceivable. It was not to us. Standing on a Western Plane on the high mountain desert looking as far as you could, you can see nothing but space. Space that goes on forever. Space that reminds you things are the same but they change. In that spot, a glacier churned in its slow path, a mother and her children with the dogs passed as they walked toward the hills to find wild berries, a wagon train came and went, boy scouts marched by, and ants and mastodons and badgers and beetles.

Space is dynamic be it interior or exterior. Sometimes the exterior space consumes the interior and sometimes it is the other way ‘round. The exterior space in New England simply did not match with my interior space of the West. I carried that image of Western space with me, for good or for ill and everything was compared to it. The good part of carrying that space inside of me was that I could take a breath there and not feel hemmed in by the density of people around me. The bad thing about carrying that interior space, and judging everything by it, is that I can not see the space that actually is around me, interior or exterior. It is a brilliant illusion that feeds the soul at the same time it starves it.

The past two weeks as I have searched through untold numbers of files on the computers I have found literally thousands of photos. The photographs are pieces of space that we have forgotten or that we remember. They are icons of what we have had over the years. It is interesting that we had imagined “the house” as if it were a fixed entity. As I have looked at the photos of our now-burned house, I realize how much change occurred in “the house” over the 13 years we lived there. Much of the furniture we had when we first moved back West from New England was gone. Many of the dishes were recycled. I don’t even remember where some of the rugs got off to. I suppose they graced a young person’s new apartment or were donated and then purchased for a small amount of money in a thrift store. These things being gone don’t bother me. They passed through my life in the natural ebb and flow of things. Some things stayed, some things left, some things broke, some things were given away and some things just “got gone” and no one knows how or why. The exterior space around us changed as things came and went.

A computer’s interior space is counted in terabytes now. How big is that space? It is larger than I had imagined. It holds icons of my exterior and my interior space from half a lifetime. Visiting that interior space and viewing the photographs of the evolutions of my home is both heartwarming and a harsh reminder that my frozen-in-time image of my house that burned is not right. The interior space that I carry of the house must incorporate the space that it was, not just the days and weeks before the fire, but the years and the decades before.

None of it was static. I must not entomb it as a static memory.