Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Another house story

You know, as I was re-reading this last post on the tent house, I saw in myself the shadow of someone I recently described to a friend in a not-so-kind way.   How easy it is to throw stones, especially if you live in a glass house!  

Here is a snippet of my own experience as the newcomer the neighbors wondered about.  I recently wrote this in an email to a friend of mine to describe one sort of "welcome" I received:
We live on a little island.  Our town is immediately recognizable as the classic New England village, with fewer than 4000 people in the wintery off-season.  I discovered when we moved here that many people had the curious habit of rocking back on their heels and saying with smugish satisfaction, "Yep, I'm born and bred." I had to hear that from four different people before I figured out that they meant "I have always lived in this state." Some of them have always lived on this island, in fact. When I heard this born-and-bred expression from the fifth person, I wanted to say, "yeah, I happened to have been born and raised, too. It's pretty common for humans." But I bit my snippy tongue.

These multi-generation islanders don't always take kindly to people like me, who move here from parts unknown to promptly remodel a decrepit house beyond recognition. When Ada was four, I once had a well-meaning woman (4th generation town resident, thankyouverymuch) visit our home for tea. It was the strangest thing--I had asked her to come because she was always seeing Ada in town and giving her little trinkets, etc. She went so far as to write an editorial in the local paper, saying she had found an angel named Ada, and she wanted to become her adopted Aunt (I was a bit uncomfortable at her blithe use of adopted, let me tell you--let alone that she wrote the editorial at all). She started referring to herself as Ada's "Aunt Nancy," stressing that Ada pronounce it "Ah-unt", a challenge in itself since Ada was used to my midwestern twanging of the word to "ant."  In any case, we kept up the pleasantries for a few months, and at some point I asked her to tea.
She came, a vase of lilacs from her garden in hand. It was one of the odder encounters I've had, though. I love having tea, and we had a little spread with cookies, etc. It was a bit of an effort for me at the time because I was pretty pregnant, and Ada had a bladder infection and needed "to go potty!" every 5 minutes. But we managed, and I recall being pleasant and welcoming. Nancy, however, seemed suddenly much colder than she had when she talked to us in town. The kicker was when she sat at our dining table, waved her hand around, and said, "I know there are a lot of people in town who don't approve of people who move here and do (here's the wave) all this. But I'm more open-minded." I don't recall how we ended tea, but she stayed for almost two hours total, I think. Funny, it was such a strange visit that if she hadn't left the lilacs, I swear I would believe that I dreamed it. She never called or spoke with us again. Some of it must be that she changed jobs, and we didn't see her in town. But there were no more calls, either. I left a message on her answering machine a few times, still nothing. I still have the vase and some trinkets, so I know she really did come. Did I say something wrong? I have no idea. I do know that I was one of those "new people" she referred to. 
I felt a little set up--she knew where our house was before she started talking to me in the grocery. Did she just want to see the inside of the house? Maybe--but what a lot of effort. So bizarre. And our house is just a remodeled 1980 cape, not a mansion, or even very large or anything worth wanting to see...

If you read my post about the tent house, then see my anecdote about curious "Aunt Nancy," you must see the contradiction.  I recognized it when I reread my post this afternoon, and I am stunned by it.   It is embarrassing to be caught as the judgmental one. I am blushing as I write. 

I considered deleting the tent post before too many people saw it, and saw me for the mean person I can be (a shameful blush again).  Should I perhaps try to convince you otherwise by making excuses--Do you care that my house isn't a sixteenth the size of that guy's, or that we built it green, or that I was the general contractor myself, accountable for all the ruckus we may have caused? Would any of this convince you?  It doesn't convince me.   I myself built the custom house of my dreams, albeit smaller ones.  The dreams of Mr. Tent house are just bigger.  

So, at the remove of years out from my own arrival here, do I now have I the mindset of the oldtimer myself?  Or am I still the new and ostentatious neighbor renovating at will and whim?  I have no idea.  

If I let myself think past my humiliation, I do know that I am capable of holding contradictions in my own perceptions, and I see the dangers in assuming that I am free of judgment myself.  As open-minded as I proclaim to be (just like Aunt Nancy), I'm a prisoner of my own limitations, my own assumptions about other people and their desires, their actions.   It's okay to admit this weakness; recognizing it in myself will make me a stronger and more empathetic person.

I am pretty sure that won't be going to tea at the "tent house," under the guises of a welcoming party or not.  But I do think I should prepare my own mind for being truly open to new people and their experiences, as different from mine as they may be....

I am a work in progress.

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Lisa said...

Wow! I'm working backward through the posts so I "tainting" my experience of this, but I think you've done an amazing job of tying together the contradictions, examining them and taking from them the real knowledge that we are all works in progress (hopefully - I imagine a finished person is dead person) and that we are all bags of contradictions.

This is really a thoughtful, interesting post.

angela said...

Hi Kirie

I can hardly wait to show Daddy this post - it is so interesting and thoughtful. We are all full of contradictions and your post makes me examine some of mine.

I love you so much, this was really good and helpful.

By the way, you are hardly a "mean" person - and wouldn't it be fun to be invited to tea by the owners of one of those "dream" houses!

love, Mom
Love, Mom

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