Yourself and Your House Wonderful
How is Your Country?
When I was a kid, Mawmaw and her sisters – The Aunts (pronounced like the insects “ants”) – would take all of us kids to the beach on Emerald Isle in North Carolina for a week in the summer. (Their motto is "Nice Matters" – and you wonder where I get this smiley thing.) This was the highlight of my year. I think my childhood brain was mainly absorbed by dreaming about this yearly event and then there was some space left over for curling my hair, dance class, doing Barbie’s hair, and math problems.
Over seventeen years of going to the beach, I learned to ride the waves, flirt with boys, and eat my weight in Fruity Pebbles. My recurring fantasy was that my best cousin, Rachel, and I would grow up to live in a house together on the ocean front. Now, Rachel and I live on different continents and neither of us live in a house on the ocean front, but that dream helped to make me a dreamer and where I live now seems like a dream. Many of the places I’ve lived have seemed dreamy to me, in fact – a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, a fifth floor flat in Paris, a town house six blocks from the US Capitol, an Arts & Crafts house next to one of the most famous recording studios in Nashville, and this flat in the treetops in London where I can hear the trains pass gently night and day.
I’ve lived in fifteen or so different places since I graduated college and I’ve never stayed in any one of them the whole year round. When I left Nashville a few weeks ago, after a two month stay, I noticed nearly black gladiolus getting ready to bloom in my yard which I’d never seen before. And I still haven’t seen them because here I am in London . . .
But, as I was saying. The Beach. This summer, Rachel decided that us “children” should take Mawmaw and The Aunts to the beach. So, she rented a house on Emerald Isle and, after more than twenty years, we all went to the beach. Well, we couldn’t all go, because in the time since our last visit, grandmothers and husbands, fathers and brothers, children and mothers have passed away. But there we were, the matriarchs, the progeny, the second husbands or wives, the newborn babies, the boyfriends, and the step children – the whole gamut of modern family life.
Because of this and that, I could only go for part of the week, but while I was there I spent a lot of time with my third cousin, Trevor, who is seven. Trevor and I got on like hot cakes because I often say that I am mainly seven in my everyday thinking. We collected seashells, we played chase, we splashed each other with water, we watched a movie, we made shell-covered animal cracker boxes, we ate the animal crackers while trying to decide whether we were eating an elephant or a koala (ack!), and we ogled scary fish together at the aquarium. His pronouncements on me were that I was good at coloring, good at crafts, a good singer, and pretty. That made my year.
When we were combing the beach for the absolutely perfect shells to decorate our animal cracker boxes, Trevor, who had been told that I was moving to England, asked me, “Which is better? England or America?” This was quickly followed up by, “Who do you think is more powerful? America or China?”
Well, Trevor . . . I tried to say something adult like, “Don’t you think it would be great if countries could work together to make the world a kinder place, rather than competing against each other to be better or more powerful?” Oh, Jeni. You may be good at coloring, but world political analysis for seven year olds? Maybe not.
Poor Trevor, I don’t think he got a very satisfactory answer from me. I decided to make monster noises and chase him to cover up my complete haplessness at answering his questions.
Ten days ago, I moved to England. I’ve been visiting England since I was nineteen. I’ve been a tourist, a student, and a worker here. Since 2009, when I played the Beverley Folk Festival, I’ve been traveling to Britain nearly every year for a musical tour. I’ve loved visiting Britain. And I’ve loved mainly living here for the last two and a half years. My Englishman is here and he’s a good enough reason for me to move anywhere in the world.
But this particular border crossing was different because, when I crossed it this time, I began a seven year path to dual citizenship. And these are strange times to be considering what it means to be a citizen. I am an American citizen, and I am a British learner citizen.
My family are all very concerned about my giving up my American citizenship – which I won’t be doing, thus dual citizenship – and the British Home Office has made it as trying and expensive as possible for me to pursue dual citizenship here. Some of my American fans perceive my London home as an incredibly dangerous big foreign city full of snares and bombs. And my British friends are exasperated by the mass shootings and gun-related deaths in the USA and wonder how anyone gets through the day there.
Some of my American fans feel like I’ve abandoned my roots. Some British fans feel that I’ve come here to find my deeper roots.
I know that I am here because I surprised myself and plenty of other people by falling head over heels for an Englishman a couple of years ago. This is the natural course of things – to be moving here and starting a new life – and I have put my little paper boat full of poems, songs, and drawings into this course and the Englishman and I are towing it along the path by a silky red string.
When I was a girl, I dreamed of living by the ocean with Rachel, but I also dreamed of falling in love, getting married, filling a house with furniture . . . but then it all got a bit vague. It was really just an impression built out of television sitcoms, home decorating magazines, and the cosmic human push to pair up and procreate. I couldn’t actually imagine what kind of job I would have because I loved going to school so much and I loved making things. Maybe an art teacher? I also loved microscopes, stars, and math problems. An astronomer? An astrologer?
I loved to color, dance, sing, make up stories, sew, and bake biscuits. Is there a job for that? I think that is the job that I have – that I’ve created for myself.
I never dreamed about having children. I never felt that capable or brave or reckless (depending on the circumstances) to be a mother.
My adult life has looked very little like those vague dreams. Instead, I’ve traveled most of my life. I’ve fallen in and out of relationships. I’ve felt deeply bewildered, eerily calm, and uncontrollably ecstatic. I’ve buried a parent and I’ve buried friends. I’ve made friends and lost them. I’ve made enemies without even trying. I’ve been my own enemy. I’ve been rescued and I’ve rescued myself.
But have I been a good citizen? What is it to be a citizen? Is it remembering the victorious dead? Is it recycling glass, paper, and plastic? Is it joining a church and taking meals to housebound strangers? Is it joining the army or taking guns to strangers? Is it running for office or running a soup kitchen?
Is England or America better? Is America or China more powerful? What can I say to Trevor?
What I keep coming back to is being a good citizen of my own tiny little country of myself. My Mom and I love a children’s book from the early 1900s called Yourself and Your House Wonderful about bodies and how to manage your own body properly. You can read the whole book thanks to the stunning Internet Archive. There are all kinds of metaphors for how you keep yourself well and tidy in the same way you’d keep a house tidy. And though this may sound quaint, I think it’s terrific advice.
Because answering a question like is England or America better is really too big. What shall I compare? The price of milk, murder rates, gross domestic product, obesity, life expectancy, or moss health? What makes a place the best? And to whom?
So, instead, because this is my letter, I’m going to think about when I am better – at my best. Because I still espouse the old fashioned notion that, at the end of the day, a nation is built of its citizens and if they are sick, tired, and poor, that nation will be too.
I love brooms because I feel good when I use them. I sweep sweep sweep. (See the incredible broom museum that I visited in Jodhpur, India, here.) I see the pile of dust and grit on the floor. I brush the detritus into a pan. I knock the pan into the trash can and goodbye dust. I think we need to do this for ourselves, too.
We need a little nap. We need a good nights sleep. We need to clean off our desk and finally file away those old bills. We need to put our laundry away. We need to make our beds, wash the dishes, and take out the rubbish. We can do this in our houses, but we can also do this in our minds and hearts.
We can say, “Dear heart, why are you holding on to this old worry? What if we just took a broom to that old cobweb of self doubt and shook it out onto the sidewalk.” Achoo!
“Dear mind, why are you building up all of these barricades called failures? What if you had a little nap and then see how things look when you are rested?” Zzzzzzz.
Because it may seem like pop psychology or like a “me” generation kind of statement, but I firmly believe that if we can’t get a grip on our own little countries of self, what hope do we have of collectively making a great nation of ourselves? There have been times when my own little country was at war with itself – depression. Or when my country won gold medals left and right – high school. Or when my country felt like it was having a nationwide festival – giving a concert. I also know that the pirouettes of my little country sent those people-countries around me into wars and festivals, too, and so on and so forth, world without end. Amen, amen.
So, when I think of Trevor and his big questions about better and more powerful nations, what I want to say is look after your little person, Trevor. Rest and eat, make things and stretch, run and laugh, read and write, draw and swim, and always do these things. Resist ossification, domination, humiliation, exasperation, and big talk of nations. Let your little country spin beautifully. Let it rub like a purring cat up against the countries of your mother and father. Let it stand resolute in the presence of playground bullies. Let it dance around your third cousin Jeni when you find the perfect seashell. Do this always wherever you are and wherever you live, and those you live amongst will be well, too.
Fellow citizens of planet Earth, I hope you find the perfect seashell this summer. May you stand resolute in the presence of playground bullies and spin so wonderfully that all they can do is lie down and take a nap.
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
sweep, sweep, sweep
. . .
P.S. Yes, I sold the Airstream to people in Alaska who are retiring to the Ozarks! What a neat new adventure for the Airstream.
P.P.S. News to come soon of my Airbnb in Nashville!