I don’t know how old I was when I first heard I live in a very small house, but my windows look out on a very big world. But as one of my dad’s favourite quotes, I’ve known it as long as I can remember. Up until recently, I’ve attributed the quote to Thoreau. But it’s apparently drawn from the works of Confucius. I neither know nor care whether it’s me or Dad at fault for this misattribution. It’s the quote itself I cherish since it has long been a portal from the depths of my mind to the depths of the universe. To be clear, I’m not claiming some Platonic union of my mind with a greater universal consciousness. What I mean is that whenever I feel trapped or limited in some way, the quote serves to remind me I need only look out my windows – i.e. pull my head out of my arse — to change my perspective. And that shift in perspective is very powerful. How so? I’ll explain by example.
Having learned the quote as a youngster, I first took it quite literally. I did live in a very small house. And my windows did look out on a very big world. The Canadian wilderness. So, initially, the quote was a factual statement. When asked my name, I answered Pam. When asked where I live I replied, I live in a very small house…. This answer usually sufficed, but if pressed for details I’d add that I live with my Mommy and Daddy. It took some years for me to grasp the nuance of metaphor and expand the utility of Confucius’ quote to meet my psychological needs. And to this end, this quote has done a yeoman’s service.
Where I grew up, most people lived in very small houses. Local families usually lived in one-floor company houses. It was a rarity to have an upstairs, and no one had a basement. The largest housing unit in the area was a bunkhouse comprised of tiny rooms rented for a pittance to sawmill employees. And a number of bachelors, retired from the mill, lived in one or two room cabins dotted throughout the region. The small living spaces weren’t a bother since we spent a lot of time outdoors all year long. During my earliest summers, I’d while away days in a small field of daisies and wild strawberries neighboring our house. I wove daisy wreaths to crown my white blonde hair, oblivious to the slender black thrips writhing from the yellow-button center of each flower. And I probably ate as many worms as I did berries. But I hadn’t a care. Mom looked out for meandering bears while I explored the world, weaving my natural discoveries into a colourful and expansive imagination.
In these early days, we’d lived in a tiny village five miles away from the sawmill camp where my dad worked. We had no phone and no running water. Mom packed water in buckets from the creek to fill large barrels in the porch. It wasn’t uncommon to find a small fish or frog in our water barrels, usually by startling the poor thing when we plunged in the water dipper for a drink. Mom used our water supply for her laundry, but also to fill our folding rubberized army tub for Sunday night baths…in the living room. We bathed in the living room because we had no bathroom. And, having no bathroom, we had no toilet. We had to take our business outside to the outhouse. Some people find outhouses charming, but I’ve never been a fan. They stink. They’re full of flies, yellow jackets, and spiders. And you never know when you’ll step outside to meet a bear. For these reasons, and they’re as good reasons as any, I was relieved when, at the age of eight, we moved to the mill camp.
My parents’ lives became easier in some ways when we made our move. We had a phone, albeit one hooked to a party line that was always hosting a party. Placing a phone call was nearly impossible at times for all the gossip and horsing around. Still, the phone lessened Mom’s isolation from our extended family. And indoor plumbing, an automatic washing machine, and an electric dryer freed Mom from a huge part of her household chores. My Dad no longer had to walk five miles and back to do his eight-hour shifts piling green lumber. But, there were trade-offs. With her newly-freed time Mom took jobs tree planting and doing sawmill clean-up, which took a toll on her health. And living across the road from work made Dad an indispensable labourer who felt personally responsible for keeping the mill running, which took a toll on his health. Meanwhile, my little brother and I were growing up. We, too, were faced with trade-offs. Once we hit our teen years, we left our small country school to make the hour and half trek by bus to a city high-school. And neither of us, nor our mill-town peers, found the transition easy.
I’ll not say too much about these transition years, except that dropping bumpkin kids into a wealthy urban school is a recipe for bullying; i.e. the city kids bullying us. Not that there was any love loss by staff toward us either. We dressed funny in our attempts to trade gum boots and ratty jeans for fashion. So we were picked on. We were mortified by Phys. Ed. Change rooms where we had to strip in front of strangers. So we refused to change, and had to sit out. We were segregated into boy’s and girl’s gym classes and expected to know the formal rules of play for games we’d never heard off. When we screwed up, such as by playing too rough, we had to sit out. When we complained or skipped out in frustration, we were seen as problem kids. Our drop-out rate was very high. Boys usually quit school at fifteen to work in the sawmill. My brother did just that, and nearly forty years later he is still a mill labourer. Girls weren’t hired at the mill. So we were forced into other routes, such as marrying young or going through alternate education. I schooled myself by distance education in grade ten as an alternative to quitting. And it’s here that I bring you back to the quote, I live in a very small house, but my windows look out on a very big world.
I grieved my failed transition to high school because I loved to learn, as I still love to learn. And for the first time, the open spaces that were my world felt like walls that kept me from the world. I was hungry to know what was out there. And I felt as caged and restless as a wolf isolated in a zoo. I paced the dirt streets of the village and paced the small square of my room. I threw myself into books in an attempt to escape. Encyclopedias. Dystopian novels like The Chrysalids. Anything I could get my hands on. National Geographic. Life magazine. I devoured issues of Life magazine, with its history, travel, popular culture, and science. As if in an effort to press myself in its pages, I began clipping photos and made a collage spanning two of my bedroom walls. On one of these walls was my bedroom window where I stood, staring out past the photos toward the endless forest. And I dreamed. My house is very small, I thought, but my windows look out on a very big world. I began to see the metaphor.
One may not be free to wander from a prison cell, or what she takes to be her cell, but she is always free to wonder. And whether she turns her gaze to the latter or withers under lock and key is hers and hers alone to determine.
With a shift in perspective, I turned my energy and attention to strategy. I focused. I sought examples of people who came from small towns or disadvantaged backgrounds and went on to write masterpieces or make great discoveries. I read about Immanuel Kant, one of the fathers of modern philosophy. Although it is not true that Kant never left his small town as commonly reported, he certainly didn’t travel far away from it. Kant travelled through books, and education, and his beautiful mind.
You might here think that with a change in perspective and with inspiration from the likes of Kant that I left my small town and went on do to great things. Or at least some very good things. If you do, you’re wrong. Perspective alone can’t change the circumstances you find yourself in. What it does change are your responses to them. I went on to have a life belaboured by significant adversity. For more than two decades. And it’s been remarked by more than one person on more than one occasion that for all I’ve been through, I’m remarkably intact. By which is meant, I’m still full of hope and wonder. I still have a sense of myself as someone with possibilities. I am still fully engaged in life and learning. How?
For every dark tunnel I trundled down, I remembered the quote, I live in a very small house…, and I let in some light. Note that I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. I had no idea where it ended. Or whether it would end. What I discovered was that I could place a window in the dank and leaden wall and look beyond. And if I could only manage a glimpse through its pane, that was enough. The view etched itself like a relief in my memory, and I could trace its form with my fingers on every surface I touched. My little house was big enough for the world.
One day, in my mid-forties, I went to school. To university. I knew my way through the books and the halls having travelled them so often in my imagination. There my windows never closed, and light from the words of countless scholars poured in unimpeded. I arranged and rearranged everything I learned like furniture, wearing some ideas threadbare like a favourite chair and storing others in boxes in the pantry. At my desk I wrote novel thoughts on sheets of computer paper, folding each into a little glass bottle which I cast into a sea of unread articles. Maybe someday someone will read my words, I’d think hopefully, and let them fall like rays through her own windows.
Curiosity is a fire that contemplates its own fuel. Eventually I consumed so many books I felt the same hungry restlessness as I had years ago, hungry to know more of the world. Who and where are these people, I wondered, that authored these works. What did they see that stirred them to such insights? I crossed an ocean to find out. I didn’t go to see Paris, London, and Rome. Though I’ll never forget seeing Les Miserable at a theatre in London. Rather, I perch on a bench perched on a cliff over-looking the Tyrrhenian sea and feel the breeze fall across my shoulder like a reassuring hand. I stare through the glass of a deli counter in a Mom and Pop corner shop, agonizing over which of a dozen cheeses I’d like for my panino. I fall asleep on my husband’s arm listening to the percussive undulations of sex-starved cicadas. Great people, I determine, do regular things. But they notice the greatness in regular things. And so one can travel the world without seeing the world. Just as one can see the world without travelling at all.
Last week I walked the cobblestone streets of a quiet medieval village in southern Italy. I stopped to take a portrait with my digital camera, my reflection in the window of a centuries old stone house. Later, I looked at the photo on my computer. And only then it occurred to me that someone might be standing behind the curtains, looking at me from the windows of her very small house. I can only wonder.