Readers Write-High School

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by January 1, 2016, for consideration for the July 2016 issue.

This year marks 50 years since I graduated from high school. One of the buildings that housed the high school back then no longer exists. A grocery store fills that block now. The primary building still exists (see below), but serves a completely different function.

MHS

I loved my classes, except for one. Physics. Now I’m not saying I didn’t like physics. I didn’t like my physics class. I never got the chance to discover whether I liked physics.

And that’s because the teacher ignored all the girls. He assigned the boys to seats in the rows closest the window and the girls to seats on the opposite side of the room. And then he talked only to the boys. He didn’t even make it convenient for the girls to daydream by looking out the windows.

If one of the girls raised a hand and asked a question, he’d tell us we didn’t need to know the answer. If we pressed him by asking if there would be a question on a future test, he’d tell us that didn’t matter. We were only going to look for a boy to marry anyway.

The boys loved the guy. Maybe they even learned some physics.

I don’t think any of the girls ever complained to anyone other than one another. We were used to things not being fair by then.

I’m going to my class’s 50th reunion. Maybe I should test out just how much physics those boys learned. Any ideas how I could do that?

 

 

 

Readers Write-Holding On

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by November 1, 2014, for consideration for the May 2015 issue.

I was ten when my baby brother, Brian, was born. He was the younger of twins my mother hadn’t known she was carrying. Brian was just a tiny bit bigger than his older-by-four-minutes brother, so he was able to get out of the incubator and come home from the hospital first.

Since I was the oldest and already had experience babysitting my younger siblings, I felt possessive of Brian. He was the cutest baby I had ever seen. When his older brother came home, I didn’t even pay attention to him. Brian was the cute one. Bruce was the other one. And because Mom needed help when both babies wanted to be fed at the same time, I fed Brian while Mom fed Bruce.

Brian was my baby.

Because of the difference in our ages, it didn’t take long for me to leave Brian behind in favor of other interests, such as boys my own age. Ten years later, I was ready to leave home while the twins were still in elementary school. I considered them both cute by then, but they were just twerps who happened to share the same living space.

Then in 2010, my brother Brian went to the emergency room after spending a weekend at the lake with his wife and kids because he thought he had come down with a cold. He never left that hospital.

It wasn’t a cold that brought him to the emergency room. It was the early stages of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia, AML. In his case, the A could as easily have stood for aggressive as acute because just seven weeks later, Brian was gone.

He made it through one round of chemotherapy, but the remission lasted only two weeks, not long enough for his body to regain strength for him to breathe on his own. And the tube in his throat that permitted the ventilator to keep him breathing had taken away his ability to talk–but not to communicate. He used a board with letters to spell out words. Or he whispered.

During his seven weeks in the hospital, Brian taught me three things through his example. He taught me the importance of saying thank you. He taught me the importance of saying I love you. And he taught me the importance of maintaining a sense of humor.

Brian knew he was dying. He had plenty to complain about, but he didn’t complain. When the nurses came into his room to give him a shot or to take a glucose reading or to change the bedpan, Brian always whispered, “thank you,” before they left the room.

Brian had plenty to be angry about, but he never expressed anger. Whenever someone came to visit him, whether family or friend, whether the visit was one time or every day, Brian always whispered, “I love you,” before we left his room.

Brian couldn’t eat or drink anything. Tubes delivered both food and water. What he wanted most of all was a drink of cold water. And whenever a doctor or nurse asked him if there was anything else they could do for him, he would whisper, “I’d like some water, please.”

I can’t let go of Brian. His name is still in my iPhone directory. When I want to talk with his wife or his daughter, I look up Brian’s name to get the number. I have a folder in my GMail account where I keep all the messages he sent me. It also contains eight messages that arrived several months after he died, the result of someone having hacked his old account. I’ve never opened them, but the previews include statements I can just hear Brian saying, if he ever got his voice back:

“hey Sandra, I told myself to stay positive at first. . .”
“hey there Sandra, I found something that could change how you live. . .”
“hey there Sandra, I wanted to prove I could amount to something. . .”

I will hold on to those messages in order to hold on to Brian.

What are you holding onto?

 

 

IWSG-July

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Once again, the first Wednesday of the Month has arrived, the date on which many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

For the past five weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of catch-up reading; not novels or memoirs or anything else with a hard cover. I’ve been reading back issues of magazines that have been piling up on a cabinet next to the sofa. The result has been both inspiring and anxiety producing. The range of topics inspire, as does the excellent writing. But that also explains the anxiety. Following are some examples:

Most occupants of my complex, as far as I could tell, had a mental disability or illness. Meghan’s speech and mannerisms suggested that she was no exception. . .she didn’t seem to fit in with the group, standing off to the side, looking miserable and rolling her eyes at their immature wisecracks. . . .

Wearing her usual frayed blue sweat suit and graying sneakers, Meghan plowed past me, head down, swinging her free arm, dragging that leg, and ignoring me for all she was worth. Though we had encountered each other six or seven times in the hall, she had not greeted me once, as if she were angry about something I’d said or done.

Poe Ballantine, “Even Music and Gold,” The Sun, November 2014

I love this description of Meghan though not a word about her height, weight, hair color, body shape, face shape, or eye color appears. I can see her, though I know I have supplied all those usual descriptions missing from Ballantine’s description. These sentences inspire me to describe one or more of my characters using behavior and actions in place of the usual.

One evening Cole invited me to his house. I didn’t want to go, but I had no strong sense of self, nothing to steer by. I had no way to say no. . . .My deepest fear wasn’t death at the hands of Cole, although I did fear that. I was more afraid of being like him.

. . .I’d thought college would be like the library table in high school, but instead of skipping school, we’d stay at the table and turn into smart people. . . .I knew more trees than people.

. . .I felt I was making a mistake. But, then, I always felt I was making a mistake: walking into a classroom, going on a date, eating dinner with a friend. Everything I did felt wrong, wrong, wrong. . . .I simultaneously wanted to protect Cole and to pretend not to know him.

. . .But I hadn’t discovered a bold, brave part of myself. It was nothing like that. What I’d discovered was that I could pretend to be someone I was not, and that people could be fooled by this, and that this could save my life.

Heather Sellers, “I’ll Never Bother You Again,” The Sun, February 2015

Much of the above feels very familiar. But that would probably be true for nearly any woman who survived her teenage years. In addition to their familiarity, these passages are frank and brave for their self-revelation (a note on the article indicates names were changed to protect privacy, indicating the piece is not fiction). I hope I can become as brave in my memoir writing. I suspect what I have been hiding of myself in my work may make the difference between a series of sometimes humorous vignettes and a story worth sharing.

Readers Write-Leaving Home

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by January 1, 2015, for consideration for the July 2015 issue.

Leaving home had been my goal from the time I learned the world was made up of more than one country. Of course, I had to grow up before acting on such thoughts was possible, but even then my parents and I disagreed on just how much growing up was needed.

My first attempt at leaving home was when I applied to a college in the southern half of the state, one where I would have to live in a dorm. I would have considered such an arrangement to meet the definition of leaving home, but my parents insisted that I instead attend a college in town so that I could stay at home.

After one year of college, our next door neighbors moved to Wisconsin, leaving their daughter, Margaret, behind so she could complete college. Margaret was my age, though she attended the other college in town. Her parents rented out the house. Margaret lived in the basement apartment which she shared with a friend from her work. After one year, her roommate decided she wanted to move back home. Margaret asked if I would like to move in with her, rent free. I was convinced my parents would agree. They didn’t.

Another year passed. That summer, I applied as a volunteer with an arts and crafts and recreation program for children in Jersey City, New Jersey. The program wouldn’t pay anything, but they would reimburse my plane fare and provide housing as well as breakfast, lunch, and dinner five days each week. It was only for seven weeks, not exactly leaving home, but my father objected to my going. Fortunately Mom intervened, saying I was over 18 years old so he couldn’t stop me. I think she stretched the truth a bit since I was still under 21. But Dad relented, and I spent the summer living in a house in Union City, with seven other college coeds from the Midwest, and working in nearby Weehawken.

While my excursion in New Jersey lasted only seven weeks that summer, it marked my leaving home more profoundly than my eventual departure. Most of my second grade students that summer were children of Cuban immigrants. And their parents did not all speak English. I had always wanted a career involving foreign languages which led to my studying both German and Russian. But being around my students’ parents, I realized that I already knew a foreign language–English.

When I returned to Minnesota, I remained in my parents home for an additional two years before I left home permanently. I changed my major from German to English and took every English course that didn’t involve reading literature to prepare myself for teaching English as a Foreign Language, a concept I had never thought of before my summer in New Jersey.

It turned out that leaving home wasn’t an event; it was a process that began with a group of seven-year-old children of Cuban origin who helped me recognize I had the knowledge and ability that ignited my passion for teaching English as a language. That was the inciting event that changed the direction I would head for when I finally left home.

Readers Write-The Backyard

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by November 1, 2015, for consideration for the May 2016 issue.

Few fences or hedges separated the backyards of the block I grew up on. That meant our backyard was huge–consisting of many contiguous yards behind our house and those immediately next to it. Clotheslines made up the biggest impediments to our freedom in the backyard. The T-shaped metal supports at the ends of the lines interfered with our football games. And if the lines held clothes, our backyard was off limits. I always knew when there were clothes on the lines; it was my job to hang them up after Mom completed washing each load.

We had an old fashioned wringer washing machine in the basement. In order to save both water and the energy needed to heat it, Mom always washed the light clothes first, the only load that got fresh, hot water. Instead of allowing the water out through the drain in the floor, Mom caught the soapy water in a galvanized tub, to be used with the next load of darker colors or heavier items. Clean, warm water rinsed the clothes before the washer tub spun to get rid of the majority of the water. But to ensure the clothes would dry as quickly as possible, each item went through the wringer to squeeze out the last, reluctant drops before Mom filled the basket with clothes for me to hang outside on the line.

I learned how to pin items on the line with the fewest possible pins by overlapping the edges so one pin held an edge of two items. Once the clothes were dry, I removed every other pin on all the lines so that the clothes remained in place until I moved the basket, into which I would fold and pile the dry clothes, from one end of the line to the other, then repeating the steps with the clothes on the line behind it.

The clothesline represented one of my chores, but it also represented something magical. With a few blankets held in place on the front and back lines, our backyard was transformed into a stage. An older neighbor, Gayle, organized the gaggle of younger kids from our neighborhood to form a circus. We performed for our parents who took seats on the back porch, on the grass, or on folding chairs carried to our backyard for the event. Gayle served as the ringmaster and pulled the front blanket to one side to reveal the performers behind it and then closed the curtain so we could prepare for the next act.

Gayle’s circus inspired me to write a play to raise money for the March of Dimes the following year, also starring my neighbors, the first step on my road to becoming an author.

 

Readers Write-Speaking Up

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by December 1, 2013, for consideration for the May 2014 issue.

Between second and tenth grades, I was a member of Camp Fire Girls. My closest friends from those years and through high school were other members in my Camp Fire Girls group. Mothers of members of the group took turns serving as leaders over the years, and we girls got experience electing officers and filling the many roles involved in holding business meetings. The President opened each meeting. The Secretary read the minutes of the previous meeting. The Treasurer collected the weekly dues (15 cents, I think), though I suspect the funds were held by one of the adult leaders. My memory is hazy on that point.

Each business meeting took no more than ten minutes after which we completed an activity organized by the adult leaders. We made presents for our mothers for Christmas, learned to embroider by adding designs on dish towels, and practiced interviews for jobs, though we were still years away from opportunities to consider work beyond babysitting for siblings or younger neighbors.

As we entered junior high school, one of the leaders noticed our discussions during the activities sometimes involved unflattering comments about classmates not in our group. Whenever she heard one of us say something negative, she would interrupt with, “I understand she plays the piano very well.” It always stopped our gossiping. We began using the same phrase among ourselves outside of our Camp Fire Girl meetings if one of us began sharing uncomplimentary news about someone.

 

 

 

Readers Write-Doors

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by December 1, 2014, for consideration for the June 2015 issue.

All through my childhood, I wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. I felt I didn’t belong, and if I didn’t belong where I was, I preferred to be somewhere I thought wouldn’t be so boring.

I wanted to get out of the common, ordinary life in the midwestern town I felt trapped me. I wanted be in a place that promised excitement and adventure. But I wasn’t brave, so I settled for finding someONE who promised to get me out of town, taking the traditional route of getting married so that those around me–parents, neighbors, teachers–expected that I would follow my husband wherever he went.

My husband picked a place as far away from my small, midwestern hometown as it was possible to go without getting on an airplane or a boat–Berkeley, California. I felt as though I had passed through a magic doorway that offered escape.

But life with my adventuresome husband didn’t play out quite like I had expected. In less than three years, we agreed we weren’t happy, and he decided we should separate and divorce. I didn’t object, so that is what we did.

It was about as simple a divorce as one could get. We had no home, no property, no children. I kept the apartment; he took the tent. I kept the car (and got the payments and insurance bills to go with it); he took the bicycle. When he walked out the apartment for the last time, I felt my magic door slam shut.

Even a simple divorce isn’t without pain. For the first year after we separated, I got very little sleep. Dreams interrupted my sleep, dreams that involved me chasing my ex or being chased by him. When I was chasing him, I sensed that I wanted to catch him in order to inflict some physical pain. When he was chasing me, I couldn’t seem to move my legs at all, somehow keeping just ahead of his outstretched arms. I woke up each morning more exhausted than I had been before my head hit the pillow.

Then, for the following year, he disappeared from my dreams. Rest returned.

He reappeared in a dream a year later, this time at a party where we were both guests. I took him into all the rooms and introduced him to the other guests, as my friend, not my ex-husband. There were no chase scenes. And I woke up with a smile.

That dream impacted me so strongly that I wrote my ex a letter to tell him I felt whole again. He wrote back and said he had also gotten through the negative thoughts and memories he carried with him when he left our apartment. He invited me to travel to the farm where he was living so he could introduce me in real life to the people he lived with.

I never made that trip. The next week I received a job offer that brought with it the opportunity to live and work half way around the world–in Tehran, Iran. While no physical door prevented me from embarking on that journey, I know that last dream broke a metaphysical barrier that would have held me back from the excitement and adventure the job offer promised.

 

 

Readers Write-Swimming

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by December 1, 2015, for consideration for the June 2016 issue.

My home town didn’t have a swimming pool, but the larger town across the river did. And each summer, for six weeks in the mornings, they offered swimming lessons.

The swimming pool was a mile and a half from my house. The summer after I completed first grade, I set out at 9 a.m. each weekday morning with three kids from the house across the street to walk to the pool for our 10 a.m. lessons. Charley, the oldest, was responsible for getting the rest of us–me, his sister Margaret, my age, and his brother Bobby, a year younger than Margaret–to lessons on time. We carried our bathing suits rolled up in a single bath towel stuffed into an empty plastic bread bag with a sandwich for lunch, Charley leading the way and the three of us younger kids following behind.

Margaret, Bobby, and I were in the Red Cross Beginners level class. Charley, three years older, was in either the Intermediate or Swimmers level. He didn’t spend any time with us once we arrived at the pool. The others in his class didn’t have younger children to watch out for. He wanted to spend time with his peers. He waited for us outside the changing room at the end of the lessons, staying as far away from us as he could get away with before we headed homeward.

I was afraid to put my face in the water. Until I could, I would never pass the Red Cross Beginners level swimming lessons. I could do everything else, including jumping into the pool from the edge, completely immersing myself in water for the length of time it took to bounce back up to the surface. But I panicked whenever I put my face into the water.

I practiced at home, filling the bathroom sink with water and then forcing myself to put my face into it. But instead of becoming comfortable, I held my breath for as long as I could until I pulled away from the sink, gasping for air.

I repeated the Beginners course each year for four more years, each year with younger and smaller children around me than the year before. By the time I completed fifth grade, I was embarrassed to be so much older than the others in my class. Especially since I already knew how to dog paddle and tread water; they didn’t require putting my face into water. I could even float on my back, completely relaxed with hands resting on my belly. But I couldn’t float on my stomach with my face in the water.

I don’t recall if I found a way to get over my fear long enough to keep my face in the water in order to pass or if the instructor just decided I needed to move on, even without overcoming my fear. I passed that year, finally advancing to the Intermediate class the following year.

By the time I reached the Intermediate level, my hometown had built a pool just half a mile from my house. I spent mornings, afternoons, and evenings at that pool every summer, even challenging myself one summer to swim laps at the five-foot stretch of the pool until I had swum a mile.  But I still didn’t put my face in the water.

 

Readers Write-First Love

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

I submitted this piece for consideration for the March 2015 issue, though it wasn’t selected.

My first love was far from traditional. My love wasn’t a person–a boy or a girl with the power to cause my heart to leap for joy–or a pet with the power to love me back. My first love was a place, a place I discovered at the bottom of a wooden trunk in the basement of my parents’ first house, a place so unlike what surrounded me every day in my Midwestern hometown, where everyone was either Scandinavian or Catholic.

The vision of my special place rose from the trunk attached to a purple silk kimono my father brought back from Japan at the end of World War II. Dad hadn’t been a soldier; he joined the Merchant Marines, encouraged by his uncle Bill’s stories of the adventures he would have. At the time, service with the Merchant Marines wasn’t considered military experience, but it brought Dad into the war nonetheless as the ships on which he sailed brought supplies and provisions to the military ships in the Pacific theater. His service extended beyond the end of the war, giving him the opportunity to step on the shores of one of our country’s then greatest enemies–Japan. And he brought back trinkets including the purple kimono that captured my preschooler’s attention so completely. I wanted to know everything about this place that I only knew was far away and very different.

It was 25 years later that I finally met my first love. After having lived and worked for two years in another very foreign place–Iran–I traveled home by heading east so I could stop for a few days in Japan. Four days were all I had, and by the end of them my jaws ached from continuously smiling from ear to ear. My love was everything I had hoped for.

But it took another 15 years to realize what a gift my parents had given me by allowing me to fall in love with this place. Then I was living on the east coast where I worked for the U.S. Department of State. My parents came for a visit and while we walked on the mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol building, a Japanese tourist stopped my father to ask for directions. When Dad rejoined us after having pointed the way, he remarked that he wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told him 40 years earlier that he would some day have a conversation with someone from Japan in the capital of our country. And it hit me then that while I was falling in love with Japan, my parents and their friends hadn’t yet gotten over the losses they held my first love responsible for.

Readers Write-The Sofa

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by September 1, 2015, for consideration for the March 2016 issue.

I managed to get through ten years as an independent adult without owning a single piece of furniture. I had always thought the first piece of furniture I would have to buy would be a bed. For many years I was pleased to have avoided that purchase. In my mind, not owning furniture was synonymous with being independent, being able to make my own way through the world, taking advantage of what serendipity offered. But the furniture purchase that affected me most was when I bought my first sofa.

My first apartment–while I was still a college student in my Minnesota hometown–was furnished. My hometown was a college town. The influx of students who attended one of the three colleges in the area demanded temporary quarters only nine months of the year. Most apartments were therefore furnished.

After graduation, I moved from Minnesota to Berkeley, California, where my first apartment again was furnished. Five months later, I moved in with an older woman who had recently lost her husband. She was confined to a wheelchair and didn’t like the idea of living alone. I slept in her fully furnished spare bedroom. That arrangement didn’t work out for long. By the time I knew I had to move again, I had arranged to borrow furniture from the church I worked at when I found my first unfurnished apartment.

Three years later, I moved across the San Francisco Bay to attend graduate school at San Francisco State University. My first apartment in the city was a studio that had been servants’ quarters a few decades earlier. Furnished again. In the next three years, I had three different roommates and lived in four different apartments. Each time, a roommate had all the furniture we needed, including a spare bed for me.

During all this time, I was able to pack up everything I owned into my 1969 VW bug. It felt liberating to be that free–to be able to pick up and move if something attractive enough to entice me came along, or if something disastrous encouraged me to move on.

My next two moves were overseas, first to Iran and then to Romania, where my sponsoring organization provided a place to live and the furniture needed to fill it. Even when I returned to the United States, to Illinois, I was able to find a furnished apartment just down the street from my first full-time teaching position back home.

But in 1979, ten years after I graduated from college, I bought a sofa–a brand new, three-piece sectional, big enough for two people to sleep on if one of the two curled up all through the night.

It was a symbol of my having truly entered adulthood. I no longer needed to shop at thrift stores or accept hand-me-downs from friends. It should have been a reason to celebrate.

But it also represented the end of my peripatetic lifestyle. As the first piece of furniture I owned that I couldn’t disassemble and somehow cram into a vehicle, it felt more like a millstone around my neck than a certificate of passage into adulthood.