The Place of Our Affection
Recently my husband and I had another in a series of conversations about leaving our home on the outskirts of Davidson County in Nashville to move closer to the city. This subject comes up from time to time as the years add up, and when it does, we’re ambivalent, full of emotions equal to the meaning the house has for us. On the one hand, the house and property are a heavy weight, one we can’t imagine carrying all the way through our lives. On the other hand, it has everything we need for life and work now, and we love it intensely—every knob on every cupboard, every flower in the gardens. We’ve created this place together, each in our own way, and poured ourselves into the life we’ve been given here. It fits us like second skin and holds a lot of our identity. We wonder who we’d be in another place—would we still feel like ourselves, would we still be ourselves? But even so, we sometimes dream of being free, of lightening the load by moving to a place that’s small, inexpensive to maintain, easy to manage, and just a house, not a recording studio, office, meeting place, gathering space, or anything else.
During this last round of talks we decided to take a weekend and try out what it might be like to live closer to the city, able to walk to coffee shops, restaurants, and even to work. We stayed in a hotel downtown and spent mornings in coffeehouses, one at Crema and one at Fido, sipping lattes, thinking, and writing. We drove through potential neighborhoods, touring one little house on a street where homes are selling the day they go on the market. We went to a studio on Music Row, walked up and down 12 South, browsed Holly Williams’ new store White’s Mercantile, and savored late afternoon appetizers at Epice, the Lebanese restaurant next door. On our second evening we met friends for dinner in East Nashville and told them what our weekend experiment was about. As good friends do, they listened with their hearts, asked great questions, and gave us their honest thoughts.
For me, some of the conversation about moving was spurred on by the fact that we’d been living for five months inside of two family emergencies, sharing our home with loved ones who were in physical, mental, and emotional pain. I was so often sad, angry, and full of grief over what was happening to the people I love, especially the children. I couldn’t sleep without Ambien. I was an introvert with no time alone to recharge my batteries. We were sandwiched between the overwhelming needs of three generations, sometimes feeling the grace of being carried along, and at other times feeling crushed beneath the weight of it all. On my worst days, the thought crossed my mind that if we didn’t have this place, we wouldn’t always be in the position to take everyone in.
By the time we had our weekend getaway, I was aching for the ability to reengage my life and work, to do the things that ground me and make me me. In order to accommodate all the extra, Chuck and I had rearranged our schedules, cancelled things, and said “no thank you” to most any offer or request that wasn’t absolutely necessary to making a living. In the beginning I tried to maintain the habits of a writing life, but each day had a mind of its own and the hours of solitude necessary for writing slipped away. In response to my dehydrated and shriveled state of mind and heart, I fantasized a completely different life, one where all of our work happened away from home and we came back in the evenings to a cozy little house, just us.
Though we’d booked the getaway hotel for three nights, after the second night, Chuck woke up in the morning and said, “Honey, can we please go home?” He spoke what I was feeling. I was enjoying the time alone with my husband and the freedom to roam around the city, but I wanted to go home, too. My soul had rejected every neighborhood we looked at and every house that wasn’t ours. I grew quickly irritated with crowds, traffic, waiting in lines, and noise. All I could think of was going home to all that was ours. I wanted to watch the perennial gardens come to life one more time, and listen to the birds and quiet. I wanted to be surrounded by things that matter to me — the books and photographs that fill every room, the pantry wall in the kitchen with dates and names written in pencil to record our grandchildren’s growth, and the mural our daughter Molly painted in her room when she was a teenager. I wanted my husband to have the perfect fit of his studio and I wanted my small but beloved writing room, made beautiful only a few years ago with a wrap around desk, floor to ceiling book shelves, and a painted blue wood floor. I thought of summer mornings and evenings in our screened-in porch, winter conversations in front of the fire, and my kitchen, designed and equipped for the hard work of cooking. And I wanted to plant the whimsical vegetable garden space that Chuck had been creating with master carpenter Richard Kapuga, an outdoor room so inspiring that even in its early stages total strangers stopped their cars to take pictures.
With all of this in our hearts, we got in the car and left the hotel, returning home to what we love. Before long, the acute stages of family emergency had passed and everyone moved on to more permanent situations. As things returned to a more normal state, I found myself feeling more placed than ever, letting go of questions about the future and digging in to life as I know it right now.
The first morning alone, I went to my chair in the chapel great room where the congregation gathered when our house was a church. I opened my tattered Bible, its front cover torn off and its pages crinkled and worn, and began reading and praying through psalms and other scriptures that are underlined and marked like a road map. I opened my journal and began to write, reveling in the peaceful quiet, breathing it in like oxygen.
On another day, I put on my Master Gardener T-shirt and Japanese gardening pants and went outside to clean up the gardens in preparation for early spring growth. I’ve been wearing those pants for twenty-one years and I feel sturdy when I put them on, ready to tackle the dirty work of plant life and soil. As the days warmed up and spring continued to unfold, Chuck and I began planting the new vegetable garden. He’s becoming a genuine urban farmer, reclaiming long forgotten edges and corners of our property to use for good — a potato patch where scrub brush has always been, fruit trees and berry bushes planted in places I’d never even thought of cultivating, a bean tepee for the grandchildren to play in. Every day now we wake up to look for the wonders God has urged into being through another cycle of day and night.
One of the things I do on a regular basis is cook — for our household, for family gatherings, for friends, and sometimes for recording or songwriting sessions. At the very least I keep the snack basket filled in the studio or bake muffins on tracking days. When it makes sense to a project and I’m able to devote myself to the work, I make a more concentrated effort to feed everyone. Just lately I’ve been cooking for Joy Williams’ sessions as Chuck produces her new record. So far I’ve made potato leek soup topped with sautéed asparagus, mushrooms, and proscuitto, Quiche Lorraine and quiche with asparagus, goat cheese, and bacon, spice-rubbed pork tenderloin tacos, and salads topped with the salmon we caught in Alaska’s Kenai River last summer, with more to come as the project continues.
As I’ve figured out menus, shopped at Whole Foods, and worked in the kitchen, I’ve realized in a fresh way how much I enjoy contributing my own creativity to the recording experience. It meets a real need, and when I have the time to do it well, it’s satisfying work.
As much as I feel the pleasure of imagining and creating with food, I also enjoy lingering over a meal in the midst of a workday. It’s my opportunity to connect with everyone and get to know new people. I’m not always patient with musician talk. It’s an insider’s language, born of expertise and shared experience. But around the table the topics are broader, more interesting to me. I love the mystery present at the table of hospitality. We all bring complex personal stories and part of life’s pleasure is to listen, learn, and share without having to untangle things for each other. My business is to feed and welcome, that’s it, and when I do that, I feel most myself. If I connect with someone on a deeper level and make a new friend, my pleasure is doubled and I feel relationally richer, privileged to have this life.
As I alternate between writing, reading, cooking, meeting with people one on one, occasional speaking engagements, caring for my family, and helping to make a place that’s beautiful and comfortable for us and for others, I know I’m on track. There is much to do here, and my friend Kate Harris has given me words that help. In her book Wonder Women: Navigating the Challenges of Motherhood, Career, and Identity, she writes about coherence, “it allows each aspect of my responsibility and effort, role and desire to flourish according to its distinct and diverse nature.”
In every dimension of my life there is a coherence that holds it all together. The connections are rooted in my life under God. Yet in all of these things there will be tensions, deep satisfactions followed by frustrations. The solitude necessary for writing will be trumped by the needs of family. The unending cycles of weeds and dirty dishes will make some days feel futile. When I can’t get out of our driveway because of so many parked cars, I’ll bang my fist on the steering wheel and long for privacy. And Chuck and I together will grow weary of the demands and complexities of our life and once again talk and pray about a new, simplified chapter. Everyone experiences the tensions. Sometimes they’re telling us something. Other times they pass.
Last weekend, Chuck and I heard Wendell Berry interviewed at a gathering in our city. In the same way his books do, he talked about life in a way that touched our longing to be more human in the best ways. His words about neighborliness, fidelity, belonging, and doing good work connected deeply. When he spoke of seeing our places as worthy of attention, affection, and care, it made sense of the pull Chuck and I always feel to stay even when we think we should go, to cultivate and care for the place we love, and to live fully here.
Someday we’ll have to find out who we are in a different setting. It seems inevitable. But for now we’ve decided to stop trying to write the end of the story.
Andi Ashworth lives in a century-old renovated country church with her musical husband, Charlie Peacock, where she cooks, writes, reads, and tends to people and place. Andi is the author of Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caringand editor-in-chief of the Art House America Blog.