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Assembling Home

solstice moonrise

Vernal equinox 2008

Many people have asked me what it was like to weed through a life that had been stowed for six years. Six years! Life, locked up and left alone. How did I feel?

Mostly I felt sneezy and itchy. In Oregon, six years in a metal room means mold. And mice. And dust. All those allergens quickly brought my throat and nose to attention with memories of why I love and hate the Pacific Northwest – love the immaculate summers, hate the sodden winters.

But seriously, how did I feel, tearing open boxes and sifting through so much stuff from such a long time ago? To be honest, it was a quick culling in the chilly parking lot of that storage place. We had business to do in Portland. We had a schedule to maintain. Though frequently sidetracked by old letters and photos and books, we remained largely focused on the primary task with one deciding question: Should it stay or should it go? Sometimes a simple question (all those old, baggy sweaters I would never wear again). But other times, it hurt just a little. That fine set of nonstick cookware, given as wedding gifts? Out they went. I’m aware of the debate, but I have chosen to take no chances. The old TV – out. Too many store-bought tchotchkes – out. Old running shoes? Out, out, out. And so, with the help of Jerry’s father, we loaded the car again and again, carving a path between that parking lot and Goodwill. So many little fragments of our past lives, now sitting on a shelf in a store or somebody else’s home. (And I’m aghast to think that somebody somewhere in Oregon accidentally ended up with a beautiful handmade cloth Tibetan door, which I had fully intended to hang in my New Mexico office! May it hang in peace, wherever it is.)

It wasn’t until we arrived home and started prying open the keeper boxes that memories really flowed. It’s a little weird for me to fixate on things, to focus all these words on inanimate stuff. But here I will gush a little because I do love our books…


… most of which still sit in boxes in the unfinished room on the south side. We simply have no space (yet) for the extent of our beloved, eclectic library. And music?


There is sublime pleasure in having all of one’s music — from blues to jazz to classical to big band to rock — in one spot. I think this privilege is not fully enjoyed until one goes away for a very long time.

And art. Oh, we have art…

office art

… carried across long, rugged miles in cardboard tubes and PVC pipe; on buses and trains and planes. That picture in black and white and yellow? I remember the artist, an older Vietnamese man who sold paintings out of a little closet of a shop in Hanoi’s French Quarter. I think he asked about $25 for this. Of course, we paid four times that much in framing…

Dao painting

Even more to have this print of Dao women properly adorned. But what price art? We had met Dao villagers up near the Chinese border. We had attended a wedding, eaten their food. And then to find this print, with colors and stories that blend so well with the rug we eventually purchased in India, the painted metal trunk from Tibet, the pillows from Thailand – as though they were all meant to be together in our living room. In our minds.

And dishes, I do adore my blue-and-white dishes collected over the years in Cambodia, Vietnam and Japan….


My favorite fish bowls…

serving dishes

… and serving platters.


And teapots! A teapot for every mood…

little bowl

… a bowl for every occasion. Same with glass…

depression glass

… even the (slightly) radioactive remnants of my grandmother’s Great Depression years. Or the proper topper for an opened bottle of wine…

pig stopper

… a gift from a friend’s mother, who knew I had an admiration for pigs.

Someday soon, I shall tell you more about the world’s sharpest knives….

Vietnamese knife

But I’ve gone on long enough now. I’m really not much of one to dwell on the insensate objects that fill our home, or anybody’s home. And I guess that’s the answer to the original question: What was it like, going through so many years of stuff?

Interesting, surely. But in the end, this was not nearly the emotive task I thought it might have been. Or could have been. (Although I really like the blender. And lamps, lamps are good. And I find the vacuum highly useful – I mean, just think how much cleaner our Thai condo could have been with a little machine to suck up all the dirt!) But generally speaking, things don’t inspire visceral reactions, not nearly so much as, say, watching the moon rise above the trees in our backyard, as the calendar turned to spring. Or waking to a plate of hot cornbread, cooked by my husband, as sunlight streamed through the eastern window. This sun, it happens every morning, as long shadows are cast across the kitchen table, across all those dishes I do love.

But it’s not the dishes so much as the moment. It’s not the music and books so much as the thoughts and ideas they inspire.

It’s not the stuff, so much as the people who made the stories around them.

cornbread morning

12 replies on “Assembling Home”

glad home is getting more Home-y.. still have boxes at my place yet to open..
Glad you’re back.

I have those same fish dipping saucers. I bought 10 of them in Hanoi for about a dime each. Each time I use a plate or bowl, I always think of where and when I acquired it, and the stories or people attached to each object.

On an unrelated note, will you be writing something on Dith Pran’s passing? I think I might but am trying to think of what exactly to say. I met him a few times almost a decade ago, back when I used to attend AAJA conferences. There were so few SE Asians in journalism at the time that we all knew each other. He was so nice, very gentle and modest.

That’s a really nice insight into how your travels have inspired your home. I feel exactly the same way, I have a beautiful antique rice pot which I bought in Singapore’s Chinatown. Every time I look at it I am reminded of a wonderful holiday. That said, my travel purchases pale into comparison with yours, you should consider a tour guide if you ever open up to the public!

Andy, so glad you still have moving boxes. It means you are in a new and interesting spot.

Wandering Chopsticks, aren’t those fish bowls great? We have fish soup bowls too. Love ’em. On Dith Pran, please see above. I never had the honor of meeting him, and wish I had.

Miles, I don’t think our house will ever be ready for tours. Nope. But that’s an interesting thought – maybe a way to raise money for the mortgage!

Hi Karen! Welcome back to the states. I am having a slow day at work and stumbled on your ramble once again. I hope you are adjusting well. Glad to see you went back to CMH. I would have liked to hear your lecture. Very cool. Can you believe our 20 year reunion is next year?! Take care.

Hi Shellie, good to hear from you. But shhhhh…. you’re not supposed to announce things like reunions, which rather precisely imply our age 🙂

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