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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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January 2012 Archives

Learning to Stay Home

As a career travel writer and a lifelong traveler, I am hardly a poster child for the famous slogan, "Bloom where you are planted.'' Nor have I been particularly good at making lemonade every time life hands me lemons.

This winter, I am being forced to do both.

Because of a painful back problem in late fall, I have been ordered into a heavy-duty physical therapy program - twice a week, through March. It's a clear effort to avoid having surgery. (As my genial neurosurgeon put it, "if I do surgery now, you are going to hate me.'')

When I first heard that, I was in enough pain that a solid winter of P.T. sounded delicious. Only later did the rest of its meaning sink in: I can't go anywhere.

No escape to the sunny Southwest, where I spent last winter. No continuing the silver-smithing class I'd enjoyed there. No painting vistas of desert and sky. No exploring new places. No having my old habits automatically erased by new geography. No finishing a pesky manuscript that I seem able to work on ONLY when I am somewhere else...

I recognize, of course, that if I want to get well and stay that way, I can't travel right now. I do have to stay home. The problem is, I don't know how.

Much as I love my house, it's mainly been where I keep my stuff, pay my bills, do laundry, and catch up with family and friends between trips. That's it. For me, "home'' has literally been the road itself.

At first, I grieved over losing that blessed distance. (And still do, whenever I get updates from the animal shelter where I volunteered last winter or, this week, when the historical society I'd joined out there asked if I'd like to be a docent at its February tour of homes.)

Eventually, it occurred to me that I couldn't mope all winter and expect to do very well at healing. I began considering friends who contentedly bloom here all year round. How do they spend their downtime, their wintertime?

I realized then that I had never explored the two cities I've always lived between. I don't know Minneapolis and St. Paul - or rather, I don't know them NOW. I still spend my home time mainly where I hung out in college. So there are whole neighborhoods I don't recognize, full of new restaurants, galleries, coffee shops, theaters, new things to do, and new cultures to explore.

I looked at my lists of things I'd planned for this winter in New Mexico and started wondering how many of those experiences could be had here, just as well. How much of "away'' could I have while staying home?

Plenty, I discovered, as I searched on line; I've already joined a book group and signed up for art classes.

But what about writing? I'm terrible about making myself work on that book manuscript here at home. How would I ever finish it, if I didn't go away?

The breakthrough came when I woke up one morning and thought, "What if I pretended this winter was a residency?"

Brilliant! But it brought me face to face with my abiding lack of will power. Here, I have to walk right past the TV set on the way to my upstairs office, and for a writer who procrastinates as a matter of course, that's a deadly temptation. Avoiding such temptations is much, much easier somewhere else.

This house is like my own skin. Everything I do here is a habit, honed by decades of repetition. For the residency approach to work, I'd have to break every habit I have. I'd have to make this so-familiar house unfamiliar.

Obvious solution: Move the furniture! Oh, wait, that's against doctor's orders. How do you rearrange your house - your life - when you can't pick up things heavier than 20 lbs?

There are, I am discovering, ways.

I've hung pictures in new places (where, so far, they look wrong); started sleeping in the guestroom (which my dogs think is wrong); abandoned the upstairs office (surprisingly not wrong) and set up my little netbook on a kitchen counter, where it actually feels pretty good.

To be honest, about all I've written there is a whole bunch of new lists, but then this literary residency is just getting started.