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Five Doors, Three Windows: Writing Against the Odds

A poet answers her calling in the sitting room of an old Appalachian Ohio farmhouse, a room with doors and windows that don’t quite hold the world at bay.

This essay appeared in the Summer 2002 edition of Now & Then Magazine, Volume 19, Number 2, published by The Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University.

Title page of essay

Title page of essay

Each day, I sit down to write in a room with five doors and three windows. The architecture is interruption enough. Add to this three children, a husband, four cats, one dog, plus the call of nearby kitchen and laundry, and the occasional roaming goat or cow, escaped from the neighbor’s farm, which I must shoo from the garden. Still, I write, for that is what I came to this place to do.
Fifteen years ago, my husband and I flew the coop on a whim–leaving Cleveland, secure jobs, and fairly certain suburban futures for the unknown world of Appalachian Ohio. Children of the 1960s and 1970s, we harbored some vestigial longing for the ideal simple life, back-to-nature living, something close to the land, where our lives and dreams could thrive.
Though a city boy, my husband wanted horses. He hungered for their wildness and beauty. I wanted space, trees, and water, a place to raise a family away from busy streets and day-care centers and endless cycles of mind-numbing work. Most of all, I wanted time–time to write, time to breathe, time to remember who I was.
After a year of struggling and searching, we settled into a farmhouse built in 1890, now surrounded by second-growth forest and tumbledown barns. With a four-year-old son, a newborn daughter, and a mile-and-a-quarter gravel road between us and pavement, my husband dove into a law practice and a search for horses, and I sought moments between diapers and dishes to commit to art.

I was not a good stay-at-home mother, though the world probably saw me that way. I did all the necessary things, but my mind wandered. I’d had a small taste of literary living in Cleveland, and I grew greedy, praying for longer naps and early bedtimes so I could write, wrapping myself in words the way the hills wrapped our farm, sometimes blocking out the sun.
I kept a journal, which grew poems, and the first tentative stirrings toward publication. A teacher by training, I took to the local public schools when my son began kindergarten, volunteering in the classroom of anyone who would have me, spreading the religion of writing with missionary zeal. Here I found true joy–no longer laboring over weekly spelling lists or timed subtraction, I whizzed from room to room planting poems in pockets, lugging satchels of books to inspire new writers, compiling anthologies of young poets’ work. Who needed anything more in the world than this creative captive audience?

At the same time, my own poems began to appear in print, first in local college journals, then spreading father afield. Having another baby proved tricky, but as she nursed or slept, I scribbled notes about motherhood on old envelopes or grocery lists. As soon as she could walk, I bundled her along on school visits. She toddled though the classroom aisles as my miniature sidekick or writing team mascot.
When she learned to climb out of the crib at age two, I began to scheme. If I moved her in with her sister, the nursery could be mine, a Virginia Woolf room of my own with one window and a door that closed against the world.
Meanwhile, my husband made friends with a local adventurer who had survived two plane crashes, one caused by an inflight hive of frantic bees trapped in the cockpit. This man regularly led hunting expeditions into the upper reaches of Canada. His home sported entire stuffed bears, coyotes, and antelope heads. For fun, he tossed pellets of dry cat food into the air then shot them to dust with an impressive-looking gun. And he had horses, lots of horses. Soon we had a mustang and two ponies grazing in our pasture and plenty of stories of our own to tell.

Living here, writing here, has never been easy. Stranded on our hillside for days during flood time, we’ve watched as Leading Creek and the Ohio River spread over the valley and washed away many of our neighbors’ homes. One winter buried us under 26 inches of snow. The thermometer plunged to 40-below, and we were reduced to breaking off and boiling down icicles for water.
The horses too prove troublesome, spending more time pushing down fences and throwing us than working their way into my heart. My husband, however, remains besotted, despite trips to a distant emergency room and midnight chases across the neighbor’s front yard.
Through it all, I write. Writing keeps me sane, gives me a way to get it out, get it down. And this place where I live, these hills, those damn horses, the children–my own and my young students–have molded me as a writer, given me a voice. I know without a doubt that had we stayed in Cleveland, I would be on a very different path. I belong to the trees, the river, these sometimes smothering hills, as I have never belonged to anything else.
I remember, as a child at school, watching a documentary about an Appalachian family forced to move to Cincinnati in search of work, leaving behind the woods and hills that fed both their bodies and spirits. Even then, I thought this was the saddest story I had ever heard. As a child of the flatlands of Ohio, I grew up with a love for the open fields of corn and wheat stretching off to the horizon; my house, however, nestled in the heart of rustling oaks and maples, delicate dogwoods, and a fragrant cherry at the back door. The forest was my playground, the setting for all my best adventures, and the muse that set my heart to words. The thought of losing that, either then, or as an adult–raising my own children without bird call, deer, or turkeys clattering in the spring woods–seemed unthinkable. So we persist in this experiment against the odds.

Cathy and son, John

Cathy and son, John

The children grow. My son, now almost eighteen, increases my gray hairs daily by driving these twisting, curling hills alone. My daughters, too, spread wings, bringing me back to five doors, three windows–for the sunny nook I claimed as mine years ago, the one with one door and one window, has been returned. A teen-age daughter also needs a room of her own.
So I have landed here in the old sitting room at the base of the stairs where everything lives and breathes and goes–in and out, round and round. As I write this, snow blows fast and cold, transforming the hillsides from the grays and browns of damp leaves to crisp, white sheets. Three windows give a panoramic view. Soon, when spring comes, I will open one of the doors, the one that spills out onto the porch. I will take my pen and pad out under the hundred-year maples, then circle the pond, scattering frogs and tadpoles as I go. I will watch for snapping turtles that sun themselves when the cats are away mousing and remember why we came to this place. I will write it all down and pass it on because that is who I am and what I am called to do.

A place to sit and write

A place to sit and write

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