By OLIVE AMDUR
The wall above the desk in my childhood bedroom is covered in sticky notes, index cards, and fading color photographs. They are haphazardly layered, held up by torn pieces of Scotch tape and pushpins at odd angles. Each time I sit, spinning in my blue, cat-clawed desk chair, I reread and remember.
My first college English professor told us everyone should keep a commonplace book: somewhere to put words, ideas, and sentences we want to hold. He said it was a way to mark the passage of time and the changes of our minds. I was intrigued by the idea, but aware it was the sort of thing I’d begin and then forget in the bustling adjustment of no longer being at home. So I wrote down the word—commonplace—but started nothing then.
Now, copied in colorful pen on those index cards spread across my wall are lines from books and poems I love, think about, or love to think about, next to pictures of special things: my parents when they were young, the upstate New York mountains, high school friends at prom, hidden spots across my college campus and the people I’d discovered them with. Scribbled on the index card in the center of it all is a quote from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I pinned it up a year ago and it no longer means what it did then. But I keep it in the middle, as a reminder of change.
I learned of Robinson’s book deep in the archives of the Amherst College website on a dreary November evening during my first semester of school. Scrolling through buried webpages of interviews with graduated writers, I read a series of email exchanges with David Foster Wallace. He reminded me of home, where his books took up a whole row of living room shelves; my parents and I read aloud the cruise ship essay on days when we needed to laugh. I’d spent a few slow Sunday afternoons wandering through the stacks on C Level of Frost Library, imagining him bandana-ed and obsessive in the sagging chairs. It might have been anything that reminded me of home in those early months though.
Already the Western Massachusetts winter had begun to set in, bringing with it frosty mornings and pale pink sunsets. I found I needed my warmer coat sooner than I expected and that days moved quickly but dragged in the quiet times: between morning classes, just before 4:00pm, the first hours after dinner. During those times I took walks around campus, making circles on paved paths past the brick building where I lived, the white pillars on the grander side of the chapel on the quad, and the parking lot where I’d checked in on moving day.
The air was fresh and full, and I took deep breaths of it but missed the smell of the subway and the feeling of the city during rush hour—everyone moving towards home. Home, still, was the brick house on our Brooklyn block. I walked, trying to un-cement those routines from my body—to settle in—but in those days, my new valley often felt lonely.
In the emails, DFW described carefully dropping a copy of his thesis in then-Writer-in-Residence Marilynne Robinson’s mailbox in the hopes she’d read it. She never did, but for him it didn’t wind up mattering, and for me it made her a part of the growing web of people whose words had shaped this place, who, here, had found their place.
I read Housekeeping almost entirely from a window seat in upstate New York, in a house loaned to us for the weekend by family friends. It was a spaceship-like place, with wide windows in the main room and all the nicest pieces from the IKEA catalog. There were tomato plants on the windowsill of the loft where I slept, and at night, when all the lights were out, I could see stars through the screened glass. We stayed only a few days, for momentary distance from the city, heavy with humidity and grief. But for those days I lay in the living room in a patch of sun, halfway immersed in the damp, dark world of Robinson’s Fingerbone and breathing the deep green, deeply familiar air of the mountains.
Brooklyn was my first home, but I’m named for a town called Oliverea in the Catskill Mountains. Our small yellow cabin there, surrounded by narrow branches of the Esopus Creek, was the place I learned solitude. All the neighbors were acres away, inaudible, the woods still, and each day long. On my own, I took books to the edge of the creek and built rock towers with river stones; I climbed our apple tree and wandered among the maples. At night, my parents and I sat reading on the living room couch—three in a row—and the world condensed around us, solitary in a good way, most of the time.
In one of my most vivid memories of that house, I am ten and standing at the edge of the creek with a hiking boot in each hand. It’s a freezing winter afternoon, and I am gathering courage to wade through icy water, barefoot because it’s just deep enough to ruin a pair of shoes. I’d climbed across the river earlier on the trunk of a fallen tree and jumped to the rocky berm below, but from this side the trunk is too high and the only way to get back is through the creek. The sun has begun to set behind the bare trees, and beyond a bend upstream I see smoke rising from our metal chimney. I imagine my parents inside by the fire and, cold pressing at the bare parts of my skin, I feel suddenly, deeply alone.
It is different from the solitude of a quiet afternoon, one that scares me more. In the low light, a cold breeze pushes at the bare trees and I wonder if I’ll make it across before dark. I think for a moment it might be okay to stay by the stream: to sleep on a pile of leaves left over from the fall and listen to the water work its way over the rocks, all the way back to Brooklyn. Then the wind blows again and I run: through the creek, up the bank, across the front lawn, and into the kitchen where my mother stands by a pot on our old stove.
There is a scene in Housekeeping where Ruthie, Robinson’s narrator, and her younger sister Lucille get caught one night out in the forest. They leave the house during the day, prepared with fishing supplies, thick boots, and bagged sandwiches, but wind up too far in the woods to turn back when darkness settles. Next to the river that runs through the woods and drains into the lake of Fingerbone, they lie side by side in silence in a makeshift lean-to, listening to the forest around them. After a while they drift off, Lucille to fitful rest and Ruthie to a state between sleep and waking: dreams, memories, and echoes tossing in her mind.
Their story is, in many ways, one of collapse: of a slow and seeping sort. We meet Ruthie and Lucille just after their mother leaves them on a bench outside their grandmother’s house and drives her car into the lake, leaving them adrift and unsettled. After their grandmother dies, her bumbling and partially deaf sisters-in-law stay with them for a while, until Aunt Sylvie, their mother’s sister, arrives. Sylvie sings to herself and sleeps outdoors. She buys accessories at the local five and ten and tells strange stories about people she’s met on her travels. To Ruthie she is fascinating and intimidating and, she knows deep down, unwell.
Early in the morning, as soon as there is light, they follow the water and the railroad tracks back towards their house. Sylvie is waiting outside, reading National Geographic as if nothing has happened. She makes them Brimstone Tea, pleased to see them.
It is the first moment of transience, where the boundary between inside and outside—house and world, care and deep, sheer, solitude—collapses. The quote centered on my board, written in purple pen, and stuck in my head most of the time, comes after that scene: “Loneliness is an absolute discovery.”
All I could read in the book that summer was loneliness—because it was all I had thought about for months. I had been sent home from school for the pandemic in March, and found myself suddenly shifted back into life in the place where I grew up. The distant mountains surrounding campus had stopped seeming lonely, and Western Massachusetts more familiar, but instead of wandering in circles at school I passed my parents in the kitchen at lunchtime and sat at night in the living room with MSNBC quiet on our small TV. Home was suddenly in multiple places and no place at all.
Lying on that bench upstate, but no longer warm in the sun, I put Housekeeping down after that scene, that line. I pulled on my worn sandals and walked to the end of the driveway, where the gravel road turned, and the land opened wide over a low mountain range. The blue sky was broad above a field of tall grass and blackberry bushes, and I stood listening to the grasshoppers’ hum echo between the hills. Below, the town of Prattsville curved along the highway and the river through the valley, too far from where I stood to see. I strained to hear that river, which roared in early spring but mellowed in the summer, and any sounds of life around it: voices of people outside the grocery store or a car grumbling down Route 23.
Later that night, around the dinner table, the lights inside making opaque the darkness in the windows, I noticed my discomfort with our solitude, solidified: the way the whole world could disappear and the three of us would never know. We were back in the mountains where I learned to be on my own and always felt myself at home, but all I wanted were reminders of other people: sounds of our Brooklyn neighbors and wafting smells of their cooking. Instead, there was only nature, and quiet, and it felt absolute.
When the flood comes to Robinson’s book it comes slowly and seepingly, with spring. Ice on the mountain tops melts in the strengthening sun, then the creeks fill the rivers and the rivers rush towards the lake. Ruth, Lucille, and Sylvie watch as the town is overwhelmed by water: houses shifted from foundations, gutters overflowing, ground windows submerged. Their first floor fills, leaving the wooden floorboards slippery and the couch so soaked even the press of a hand leaves an imprint on the fabric. But Aunt Sylvie lets the lake stream in. In my mind, Massachusetts fall is cool and seeping like that.
I went back to school at the end of August 2020, to a campus both different and not from the one I’d left in March. Buildings were shuttered or repurposed as health clinics and Covid testing sites, and new white tents and plastic tables dotted the quads. There were fewer chairs at the tables in the library, all spaced six feet apart, and none in the sunny dining rooms where before we’d sat for entire days working, napping, and drinking stale coffee. I’d worried about coming back: doing online classes from a small room, feeling isolated, feeling homesick, feeling, as I often did those very first months, like I was standing at the edge of a freezing stream, surrounded by mountains, waiting to cross, and unsure whether there was anyone waiting for me on the other side.
One week into the semester, I knew it would be otherwise. Perhaps because that late August in the valley was warm, green, and seemingly endless, because we’d all been apart for so long that just being in one place was a joy, or because it felt like a momentary end to a time of stagnancy and sorrow, being back at school felt to me like waking up. We lay in the sun on fields across campus and stayed out under those tents late into the evening. I walked, wandered, and clung to the freedom of our closeness, to a return to our sharing of language, and to this place I suddenly—finally—felt home in.
In the first few days of the semester I stuck cork board squares to an empty wall of my room and covered them in the sentences and pictures I’d gathered slowly over the summer: my unbound commonplace book. Marilynne Robinson’s quote was the first I pinned up, right in the center like it had been in Brooklyn. At first the wall looked sparse. There was a line from a poem, one of my mom’s signature sticky-note doodles, and those same pictures of my high school friends and our yellow house upstate, but as the days wore on and picked up momentum, I began collecting words, moments, and ideas.
On a Tuesday night during our second week of classes, I sat at my desk in a warm breeze during the first hours after dinner. I looked through my second-floor window to the parking lot, its old-fashioned streetlight casting a misty glow over a stained picnic table and the pavement below. On a weekend night there would have been people in those chairs—voices and laughter filtering in through the open windows, but during the week all was quiet.
Blurry, multi-colored LED lights shone from rooms in the dorm across the way, and I knew in every one people were leaning over computers and notebooks, moving through the hallways and dancing to music in their headphones, writing, solving problems, and working at desks identical to mine. It was the time of night that had made me lonely the year before, but nothing felt more comforting to me in that moment than all of us with our lights on shining out into the darkness: all of us solitary in this shared place, among the mountains. I looked up at the Marilynne Robinson quote, still taped separate from the others, but Ruthie’s line about loneliness no longer felt like my discovery.
“Those days run under this one,” Anne Carson writes in “The Glass Essay,” a poem I’ve been reading and illustrating in an art class I’m taking remotely this January. I’m back in Brooklyn for the winter, and then for the spring, because there isn’t enough room for everyone on campus. I am solitary again after months of being surrounded by people in a place that feels my own. But I am trying to hold all of those close moments.
Sometimes at night, on the edge of sleep, I lie in bed and imagine myself floating down the upstate creek, feeling the icy water in the folds of my skin and the current in each strand of my hair. I move with the water, down paths carved into the mountains and onto the window seat of that spaceship house, into the backseat of my family car and towards the red brick dorm building at the top of the hill, down an unknown highway and all the way home. I imagine all those days running, flooding, seeping under this one.
I write about driving through the town of Prattsville on the way up from the city, opening my window to lean into the heat of the day, and watching a pair of neighbors shout to one another from rocking chairs on separate porches, their laughter carrying across the gap.
I write about my block each night at 7:00pm, when each family stepped out onto their porch with pots and pans to clap for the healthcare workers and the noise echoed between the narrow houses so forcefully it felt like the whole city could hear.
I write, now, about a night at the end of summer when, spread apart on uncrowded streets, my high school friends and I walked across the Manhattan Bridge towards home, talking in bursts but silenced every few minutes by the rattle of subway cars. We paused right in the middle of the bridge, the river dark below, and pressed our faces against the chain-link fence, watching lights glow inside glassy apartment buildings, all those different city lives stacked so closely together. From my desk, in front of my notecard-covered wall, I write myself out of loneliness and into those days, and I discover something else.
When I open Housekeeping now, or when scenes of the narrow railroad bridge and Aunt Sylvie brewing tea play over in my head, I understand Ruthie and Lucille’s absolute discovery differently. On the night they spend outdoors, Ruthie lies unsleeping: listening, remembering, and feeling in the darkness a fluidity with the world around her. This feels like solitude, but I think it can be read, too, as a moment of oneness.
Ruthie dissolves into the memories that echo from the nearby lake, into the sound of her sister’s even breaths and Sylvie’s movements back in town, into the flood. In this dissolution she becomes one with Lucille, with the darkness, with Sylvie and her transience, and with all the histories of Fingerbone. And in this dissolution she learns to hold all.
“She considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping,” Ruthie tells us of Sylvie, who gathers empty cans and paper scraps and sparkly things from that five and ten until their house is messy and piled high. After those spring floods, most of the houses on Fingerbone’s main street broken down and unlivable, the neighbors stop by. They knock at the door with casserole and seem uneasy when they see the scraps in every corner of the house. Sylvie has let the water soak the furniture and carry in on its surface more trash to fill the space. But the neighbors leave, and theirs is the home that stands.
Ruthie’s accumulation is different. It is an accumulation of memory, experience, and feeling—hers and that of the whole, damp place. She settles there, one with all that she has gathered. This is the way I have come to think of housekeeping, and homemaking, too.
I feel my loneliness most acutely when I’m unsure where home is; when I feel unsettled, ungrounded. For the past two years, shifting back and forth between Brooklyn and school—the city and Amherst, my childhood home and the one I’m making on my own—I have been constantly aware of this. But amidst all this movement, I have been accumulating.
My accumulated home is haphazardly layered on the desk above my wall, covered in sticky notes, photographs, and index cards. Between sentences, feeling the cool air of my cracked window, I look at these things. There is the small yellow house and its cold river, though we sold it years ago when the water rose. There are the Massachusetts mountains across the Hudson River from that house, where I should be. Here in Brooklyn, at my desk and all at once, I feel settled in this collectivity.
In a while, when I’ve finished my writing day, I’ll leave this desk, tug on my jacket, and walk to the park before dinner. There is a lake on the path I like best, where in the summer clusters of geese gather by people tossing bread crumbs at the shore and in the cold it freezes over and snow piles on the surface, filling the sky with white light. I’ll stand in this light, looking across to the streetlights and blurred shadows on the other side.
On the way home, up my block, lights will be on in each of our narrow houses. Standing on my doorstep, I’ll fumble for house keys with cold hands and stop for a moment to remember: the summer Sundays we drove home from the yellow house and unpacked the car in the humid city air, the morning we piled my brand new college things into the trunk, then unpacked them again before the year was up, all the mornings I sat in our red porch chair watching the world move by.
Ruthie leaves Fingerbone on the tail end of flood, side by side with Aunt Sylvie on the railroad in the Idaho air. They are unbound and one with the world, but Ruthie’s voice remains and so do all her memories of Fingerbone. On the train, across the lake, to the East, to anywhere: they keep moving.
I’ll step inside. All my days will run under this one. I hold it all together with tape and situate myself on the wall: in that shifting, expanding common place. Because loneliness and solitude remain elements of everyday life, but togetherness is an absolute discovery too.
Olive Amdur is an Editorial Assistant at The Common. She studies English at Amherst College.