Clams and Other Mysteries
10 Stories about Finding Home in the Moment
by Joanna E.S. Campbell
Aren't we in a constant state of traveling from one tiny world to another?
When I was a child on road trips to the Gulf Coast, I often played mind tricks to occupy myself during the ten-hour drive. Particularly on those stretches between Pine Bluff and Lake Providence where rice and cotton fields filled the horizon only to be dotted with the occasional cotton gin or forlorn house, the beautiful melancholy of the land begged for attention. In those moments riding in the family van, my dad at the wheel, my mom listening to a book on tape, my brothers with their headphones on, I stared out the window and looked for an object to let my imagination land on. It might be a rusty lamppost that once served as an important marker for someone’s home. Or it could be a faded sign for a Baptist church that may or may not still be in existence. Whatever object I chose, I zeroed in on a tiny space. If I chose the lamppost, I searched for a corner in the black metal, high up near the bulb, and from that space, I imagined myself tiny enough to occupy the corner, and my entire life would be from that perch. The golden light of the bulb would keep me warm in the winter, and I would have cotton fluff for a bed and curtains made out of moth wings. When I lifted the silvery wings, I would see the most beautiful sunsets because it is the Delta, and I would marvel at incredible bird migrations. I would watch the farm equipment scrape away at the land. And I would count the cars zooming by. And from within the comfort of the van, I would think to myself, I could do that. I would be happy. That could be home. I only ever scanned the landscape for little worlds that I felt drawn to call home.
We start out tiny and mysterious. Early human civilizations were much less complex, I’m guessing, than our current western day-to-day demands. I look out my office window and see Beacon Hill, Puget Sound, the downtown Seattle skyline, and on clear days, the Olympic Mountains. I wonder about early settlement and the need to survey the land, create maps, draw lines, and delineate boundaries. I am beginning to think the more finely tuned our maps are, the busier our lives become. My favorite pastime in Seattle is to walk the city without a plan or map. The feeling in my body is like caffeine without the jitters. It’s the same when I climb the Bitterroots in western Montana. I get to feel tiny.
Sometimes I visit the coastlines. When I see a smooth, metamorphic rock on the beach or when I stumble upon massive driftwood the size of dinosaur bones, wonder is my first heartbeat. Swirls are woven in both, and though it’s possible to digitally create shapes from nature using the Fibonacci sequence, these swirls have wildness in them. The push and pull of elements twist them into individuals no computer can simulate. I hold the round rock in my hand, and it looks like a small planet, and then I remember we are made of stardust. The rock and I are the same, and the rest is up to mathematicians.
Living in Seattle comes with the unexpected benefit of mouth-watering seafood. Upon arriving here three years ago, a parishioner told us about the best place to get fresh fish and oysters. Esther Mumford thrust a cutout newspaper ad into Dennis’s hand at the end of the Sunday service and said, “Here, Father. This is where you want to buy your seafood.” Pike Place Market is the known hot spot, and many have seen the bustling open-air market in the film, Sleepless in Seattle, where Meg Ryan is sweetly stalking Tom Hanks. Mutual Fish Company, however, is just down the road from us. When you step inside, it’s like entering part-ice box, part-aquarium, part-produce, (for the ingredients you may have forgotten like lemons, horseradish, and fresh ginger.) Look down into the aerated seawater tanks, and you’ll see multiple species of oysters, petite Manilla clams, Pen Cove mussels, sea urchins, abalone, and the sci-fi-looking geoducks. Alaskan king crabs rest on ice chips. Chilled cases are full of cod, tuna, salmon, sole, and rockfish. We try to visit as often as possible.
When Dennis was in ICU, our world shrank to the space occupied by beeping IVs, plastic tubes, a breathing machine that almost sounded like ocean waves, hand sanitizer, music, origami sculptures, a globe lamp, leg compressors, yellow gowns, yarn, poetry, and Starbucks cardboard sleeves cut into the shape of hearts and strung together with dental floss. When he woke from the medically-induced coma and began eating and laughing, there was a moment when I thought, I could do this. This could be our home. We could live in a hospital room forever and be happy. I told myself this was forever, the here and now. We were so happy. The nurses could hear our laughter from down the hall.
Gratitude List for Sometime in February
Glass pickle jar now filled with wasabi peas on my antique desk.
Thunder, sunshine, and hail out my window while I write.
French press coffee.
Elliot Bay Book Company this afternoon with Dennis.
Lunch at the Mexican place.
Talking about tiny house ideas.
Ridge Fitness across the street.
Granola with yogurt.
A room of my own.
My brother, John, lives in Franklin, Tennessee, on Leanne Way. His home borders a farm, so his kids occasionally find the odd raven-pecked corncob while pretending near the split rail fence. The dried vegetable transforms into an array of imaginary props – one moment the cob is foreign currency only to become a carrier for secret messages before its final resting place as an exotic talisman wrapped in kite string and worn with pride.
On River Ridge Road in Little Rock, Arkansas, my brothers and I knew our home as latch-key kids. We lived in an old house built by the apprentice to Fay Jones who was the apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. Its size made it easy to sneak in and out of, but that wasn’t necessary until I was a teenager. As young kids, we came and went as we pleased while our parents were star physicians, helping put Arkansas Children’s Hospital on the map. I always thought our childhood home looked like Noah’s Ark with its twenty-foot arching wooden roof. The floor to ceiling windows led me to pretend our boat was coasting through a glittering canopy of hickory and oak leaves. My dad grumbled over how poorly insulated the house was, how even though it was a work of art, heating and air cost a small fortune. “It’s always something with a house,” he often says, echoing the lament of his own father. But he bought the house because it is the house my mom fell in love with. She wasn’t interested in the traditional colonial brick with the gilded iron door and manicured lawn just up the street.
Email to My Mother during Holy Week
I love you, Mom. I was thinking it would be nice to take a break from Jesus this week. Not the Jesus in my heart but the Jesus Jesus Jesus of organized religion. I'm sure there is a great theological lesson here for me. I'm not really up for knowing what that is at the moment. I helped Dennis reassemble the baptismal font a little while ago. Afterward, I sat in the pew and stared at the reserved sacrament candle. I feel okay in the quiet of the sanctuary - the lit candle - the Stations of the Cross - purple cloth draped over the crucifix. I picked up the Bible from the pew and began reading Luke. I think Luke is my favorite. How could the Catholics not idolize Mary? It feels sacred and calm sitting in the church alone. I know the congregation is supposed to be the Body of Christ, but I need a break from that particular body. I want the Body of Christ that is quiet and peaceful. I don't even need the promise of Easter. Give me easy breathing and a room of my own while the tide recedes. I know that's only part of the answer. Let me hold off on the other half just for a bit. Maybe my prayer should just be for grace. I keep thinking back to Fat Tuesday. It was a glorious dinner. Shrimp, clams, oysters, cheese, artisan crackers, wine. Don’t get me wrong - I understand the necessity of Lent. I even welcome it. It’s Holy Week that has me turned inside out.
The Next Day during the Good Friday Service
I sit in the pew and close my eyes. Deep breath. I open my eyes to find all the crosses covered in black. The table, bare. Dennis turns the tiny red lights off. As he passes by in his stark cassock, I lean over and whisper, “Even the red lights? Even those?” They’re high up and don’t put out much light. His nod says, Yes, even the red lights.
The reserved sacrament is gone, along with its candle. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. Some part of me knew this would be gone, but a bigger part of me longed for the sacrament to remain. For the candle to still be there – an eternal flame. Where is Jesus, I think. Where is Jesus in this dark, cold room?
The day before, I had washed the feet of people I pray with each Sunday. The choir sang the Psalm while the altar was stripped bare. When I heard the cries of counting one’s bones, I turned into a snotty, tearful mess. I tried to wipe my face, but the tears kept coming. We left in silence, and I walked home and cried more. Dennis saw me and asked what the matter was.
“I don’t like it when the altar is stripped.”
“You’re not supposed to.”
“I know, but it just hurts so much.”
He hugged me, and I cried into his shoulder. Blew my nose. A few more tears. Then we ordered pizza from That’s Amore across the street.
As the time approaches for the Good Friday service, I begin to wonder if anyone will show up. Then Paul Hill, the Junior Warden, arrives and sits next to me. Well, I guess it’s just us, I think. We’re going to have to see Christ in each other. I can do that. I get what the Bible tells me. But not having the candle and the reserved sacrament makes me realize how much I need to see these artifacts each week. I realize just how much of a Christian I am. It’s not enough anymore to experience God in the mountains, to worship at the nature church where I am the only member. And it’s not enough to only live a life trying to see Christ’s love in each other. I need all of it. I need that candle. I need the church. I need the ritual, the hymns, the prayers, the gathered community, the physical building, and the reserved sacrament. I need the flicker of light that is always burning no matter what is happening in the world or in my life.
After the service, I walk back to the rectory and wipe tears from my face. Dennis begins preparing another meal of clams with garlic. Our Fat Tuesday dinner was so delicious, I had said, “Why do we have to give up this good food up for Lent?”
“You don’t,” he said, “Why not let that be your Lenten discipline? To enjoy food as a celebration at each meal?”
“That sounds like a good plan,” I say.
Feels like home.