Book Review: On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again by Louise DeSalvo

My son and I just moved again, from Yakima to Seattle, Washington.  We took a walk to the local branch of the Seattle Public Library to check it out and apply for library cards.  Waiting for the librarians to do their processing thing, perusing the collection, I naturally gravitated towards books on writing and literature.  I found one fascinating book on literature about which I will comment in due course, and then I came across this book.  “On Moving” – fascinating.  The story of my life.

Since I came back to the United States from Greece to help my sons find better employment and educational opportunities, I have been moving frequently, but in each case the acquisition of a domicile has been a matter of necessity, not of choice.

My first thought upon realizing I had to move on from Greece to the United States was to find a place in the Seattle area, where most of my relatives lived.  Seattle had gotten expensive, though, and housing was difficult to find.  My son in the Navy stationed in San Diego suggested I move there and we could find a house together.  So I flew on ahead, we searched for housing, and finally found a small two-bedroom house just two days before two more of my sons were scheduled to fly in.  We stayed there a year, one of my sons got his high school diploma there, and my youngest son, near the end of that stay, joined us from Greece.  I go into much more detail of that year in San Diego in my memoir “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad“.

But then my Navy son received new orders and had to move elsewhere.  My thoughts turned again to Seattle, and again the expense and the paucity of available housing frustrated us.  One of my brothers suggested Yakima, just a few hours east of Seattle.  And so it was that we journeyed north to Yakima, not having seen our new abode.  My brother had booked a two-bedroom apartment for myself and my three sons, but we didn’t know exactly which one it was or what it looked like until we arrived and moved in.  We got by in Yakima, but it was unsuitable for a number of reasons.  It’s a small, isolated city without much to do.  There are no writers groups.  The public transportation system is very limited and infrequent.  During this time the two older sons living with me enlisted in the military and took off, and I was left with my youngest son, who was attending Middle School.

I determined to get out of there and move to Seattle.  One of my sisters told me of a nice apartment complex with reasonable rents in a nice neighborhood.  I looked it up on line and liked what I saw.  A two-bedroom apartment there inevitably cost more than one in Yakima, but it was within our means – barely.  I called the manager.  She was very congenial but told me she got at least three hundred queries a month for apartments but rarely had vacancies.  She told me to be persistent if I really wanted one.  So I started e-mailing her every day and calling at least once a week – and lo and behold, after a couple of months of daily queries a place opened up.  I accepted it sight unseen, as I knew I wouldn’t find another deal like it within the city of Seattle.  It turned out to be a good choice.  Another two-bedroom apartment, this one upstairs on the second floor, with views of the greenery of trees from all windows.

But this is telling you of the least of my wanderings.  In my hitchhiking days I wandered down the west coast of the United States, through Mexico into Guatemala, back up, across the States, all around Europe, across the Middle East, through Iran and Afghanistan, over the Khyber Pass, through Pakistan and India, to Sri Lanka and then through India again to Nepal, back across to Europe the way I’d come, around Europe, back across the States, back again to Europe and across the Middle East back to India.  Places I’ve stayed and lived in for considerable amounts of time include India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, New Zealand, Italy, and Greece.  And I’ve lived in more than one city in a number of these places.  Yes, I’ve done my wandering.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever settle down.  I thought I had, in Greece, until the economy crashed and I had to leave for the sake of my sons.

So I found a lot of interest, a lot to empathize with, in DeSalvo’s anecdotes of writers and artists and their wanderings and homemaking.  Some stories affected me more than others.  Two, in particular, touched me profoundly.  The first was of the painter Pierre Bonnard, who moved to the south of France and bought a villa overlooking the sea. He created an ambiance there to suit his artistic temperament, and began to paint pictures of the house itself, over and over, all the different rooms, as it evolved and his life evolved in it.  He took to the task with spiritual dedication, seeing it as a life’s work to not paint just the appearance but the essence of things.  The other story that deeply moved me was of Henry Miller.  I have heard it before; indeed, I have read most of Miller’s works, but it was interesting to hear it in the context of DeSalvo’s thoughts on the moves an artist often feels compelled to make.  DeSalvo’s own story is also intriguing.  Though her moves were mainly within the state of New Jersey, she brings out the significance of each one and how it affected her life and work.

This is a slim volume.  I would have enjoyed more detail.  But it is what it is.  As the author brings out, moving is a profound, unsettling experience which can be either liberating or devastating, depending on why and how the move is made and how the artist uses the resulting emotional material in his or her life and work.

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