Already Home :: A Topography of Spirit and Place
Barbara Gates searches her backyard for personal meaning, exploring what’s hidden behind the obvious.
A neighbor on her Berkeley, California street has started sleeping in Gates’ car to avoid household turmoil. Gates tolerates the backseat sleepovers, though other middle-class neighbors object that she’s encouraging bad elements . Reminds me of the hilarious (and bittersweet) Alan Bennett novella The Lady in the Van.
The woman seeking refuge in the backseat of a car and other events propel Barbara Gates to investigate the street where she lives and the extended neighborhood.
What starts out as a tentative exploration of self and the meaning of home broadens as the author gains confidence in the mission. She notices drug dealing on the street, the poverty of certain neighbors contrasted with the prosperity of others. She explores abandoned industrial facilities a few blocks from her door.
The narrative includes high and low crises in her life (a rat in the kitchen, raising a daughter, cancer) and chronicles her aperture to the broader world. She learns about herself by exploring the neighborhood; and that’s when the story becomes more engaging.
It threatens at first to be another slightly irritating Oh-poor-me-and-my-inner-life narrative (the Eat, Pray, Love genre) from a privileged person. What a change when they jump off the meditation cushion and notice the world, or even where their feet fall. In contrast with her neighbors, the author can read, has a stable home life, an income and time to meditate. What’s her problem, a reader wonders, at the mention of a rat in the kitchen? The rat turns out to be a linking device jolting the ecology of the neighborhood, like street crime and encroaching development. The book turns interesting once the inner-gazing and self-glazing ends and Gates notices the windows, street, people and neighborhood.
The author is cofounder and coeditor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind. She is brave enough to show the process of how she opens to the world. She explains and exhumes the history of her house and surroundings, then realizes the lesson is simply to let go of the past and embrace her present life there.
Book information: Shambala, Boston & London, 2003, 229 pages, $21.95 hardcover, ISBN: 1570624909
This review appeared in a slightly different format in The Bloomsbury Review.