When I returned to Washington, I went back to live in the first house I had acquired. I did so without a clear plan, but I found a certain charm in living in an old home. Like an old comfortable pair of shoes. I was back after twenty years, and many things had changed in the community. Still there were some familiar faces and known landmarks. I grew slowly accustomed to my home.
It is really a modest home by local standards. By my standards it was much more. It more than satisfied all my needs. With three floors and one occupant, it gives me enough space to spread all my wordly possessions. In fact, I feel my possessions have grown because there is so much space. I would like to reduce those if only to reduce the clutter in my life.
A female architect, Chloethiel Woodard Smith, built the house fifty years ago in a contemporary style, with simple straight lines and large windows. Because of its age, it lately needed a little more than a facelift. I resurfaced the hardwood floors, renovated the kitchen with granite counters and modern appliances, put in recessed lights and added some color to its bland, beige look. Once I had refurbished the four bathrooms, I felt I had done enough.
It feels that way because it is quite a large deck. It spans the entire width of my home. It has thin, white, unobtrusive rails around that let you feel unbounded when you are on the deck. Most of all, around the deck are large trees with their verdant foliage that give you the impression that you are in a garden. The solid elms, oaks and maples surround you, and spur you to look around and walk around instead of just peering at your books.
I have to confess that I am often on the deck to do just that: peer at books. Reading is a pleasure for me, often enhanced by a cup of robust Colombian coffee or a glass of chilled mellow Campari. My preferences are modest. If I make a special, venturesome cocktail, a martini with absinthe or ginger liqueur, I want to savor it under the sky while reading Ian McEwan or Haruki Murakami.
This is where the deck makes an unexpected difference. In between sips of wine or McEwan’s elegant prose, I am tempted to look up or look around. To see the flecks of floating silver cloud or the massing blobs of dark clouds hinting at the torrential drama to come. To notice the swaying branches that tell me the advent of a storm. Or simply to observe one lonely leaf, separated from its long-held anchor, undulating in air before making a delicate landing on the ground – or just at my feet on the deck.
My Judeo-Christian ethic of hard work, which applies even to reading, inclines me to read seriously, without distraction and without stopping. The deck has begun to act as a seductive, pagan temptress. It tempts me to watch the pretty red cardinal winging across the deck in sublime confidence that a rapt reader will do no more than admire its prettiness, the squirrels scampering up the tree and then scampering down with no greater purpose than the apparent pleasure of scampering, a rotund overfed cat slowly passing under the deck and savoring its constitutional before returning to a favorite sofa in its owner’s home, the occasional whistling stroller striding through the woods behind my home, and, if I am very lucky, a hungry deer emerging from the thickets to search for a morsel from somebody’s garden. I am a city slicker and not an eager observer of nature at all. Yet the deck has made me aware of the spectacles hourly surfacing around me that I have so far been insensible enough to overlook.
When I write I sometimes refer to the different places I have been; it comes naturally as I have spent years in different lands. When people refer to my years of exile, I tend to minimize the experience, for I instinctively feel that I have been living an ordinary life like everybody else in a slightly different place. Location seems unimportant to me. Yet I have come to see how my perspective changes when I move just a few feet from my living room on to the deck just outside it. Realtors, in assessing the value of a home, often cite the three things most important: location, location and, yet again, location. Heaven know how critical location may be in the way we look at the world and our life in it. How different life would be if I were to look at it this moment from a wrecked home in Mosul in Iraq, Aleppo in Syria or Diyarbakir in Turkey, all famous historic cities that are now embattled and perilous. Perhaps there is value in changing locations as there indubitably is in changing perspectives.
Rabindranath bemoaned how we sometimes visit mountains and beaches, but overlook the drop of dew on a blade of grass right next to the door. Yes, we need to see the drop of dew, then pack our stuff and make a move for the mountains or the beach.