copyright S.G.H. 2001
I have decided that if windows are “the eyes of the house”, then the doorway is the mouth. It is the doorways that tell the tale, because doorways are the way in and the way out.
Viviers, an ancient town on the Rhone River, was, for me the central experience of my nineteen day tour of France a few years ago. We spent a few days in Nice, then scooted east to Avignon, backed up to Arles and then our barge slid up the Rhone to a quay east of Dijon before we debarked and rode off toward Paris. I saw a lot that moved me in that excursion, but the thing that riveted my attention more than anything else was the way the old narrow streets of little towns wound around, their center troughs now paved over, their buildings hanging over the slabs and cobbles like stuccoed pastel stacks of books or birds of prey or maybe attentive nannies.
Viviers is a very small town grown up around a locks on the Rhone. The ancient stone house I chose to sketch had an owner who spied me sitting on the pavement against a bare pollarded tree with my gouache palatte and brushes. He ambled over and we managed with his and my language limitations to communicate that he had for many decades been the locks keeper of the town and that one could still see the flood marks from two serious floods over the sixty or so years he had lived there. He showed me that the doorways were set purposely high from the street, and I have many photos of those narrow streets with strange doors some seven or eight feet up on the sides of houses – no steps to them at all!
I treasure the signature of the locks keeper on my sketch. He was very pleased to put it there, I could see, though I wonder if he wanted the sketch. I would not have given him it for a lot of money.
I suppose the interaction with people was my favorite part of my trip to France. I found, against my expectations, that these folks in April were not weary of tourists at all, and that they were interested in a strange middle-aged woman with paints who tried very hard to dredge up enough classroom French to ask them difficult questions. Often the painting was turned over and a sketch or diagram would help along with the conversation. Often as not, the people I talked to were children – not as shy as adults, and very curious and animated.
But the pictures I brought back were of back streets— alleys—narrow ones embedded with small clues and plenty of puzzles. The things I could surmise from a walk down a crooked street became allegorical as my adventure went on, and even more so after I came back to my U.S.A. life and looked over the pictures, color and black and white, that I took in Arles, Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Lyon, -- such places.
I have decided that if windows are “the eyes of the house”, then the doorway is the "mouth." It is the doorways that tell the tale, because doorways are the way in and the way out.
There were streets that seemed to have no doorways at all. And the streets were such that a corner of a house might block off a person’s view of what was ahead. The uneven street would be leading to some sort of new thing which was waiting—and it could turn out to be a thoroughfare or a sturdy wall forcing one to turn suddenly to the right or left and move further into the mystery.
There were streets with a lot of steps leading up to doorways—many of them very welcoming looking, with pretty curtains, and maybe a cat looking out. The ones with gardens, or potted plants were so like the “tourist pictures” I had often seen in magazines, but there were also very non-committal ones with solid painted wood doors and just a knocker.
Which is more interesting? Is it the door with the old lace curtains and the cat, or is it the door with peeling paint and a burnished brass knocker shaped like a woman’s hand? And why were there no people coming in and out the doors? Maybe they were now down at the town’s small square where there were seven or ten stands with vegetables and fruit. I found out that those markets open late in the morning, but close at noon and don’t open again until later in the afternoon, if at all. At least in April. One must hustle to get to the market during the open hours.
Outside the stone wall of my lock-keeper’s house where I had set up my sketching project, I attracted a lively swarm of little boys who came on bikes and told me mischievous lies about the town (“…c’est mon bateau, oui, madame! C’est ma maison, aussi!”), and asked me how close Seattle was to New York City, and how many floors were in the skyscrapers there. I have some valued video of that bunch, the rascals. They were so delighted when I told them I was onto their lies. They got on their bikes and raced away laughing. They came from behind some door or other in the town I had just explored, but who knew where or when. I had seen no one come in or out, nor evidence of children or their bikes.
Right now the doorways to my own house here in the U.S.A. are telling folks something as well.
I suspect our very tidy neighbors are curious as to what in the world hides behind the front door, with its eroded concrete steps and screen porch with the slightly saggy roof and a stack of plywood, plexiglas sheets, and old chairs piled up high. There’s a sign on it saying “Deliveries to the side door.”
The side door is also a puzzlement, I am certain. The post lady no doubt really wonders from delivery to delivery what to expect there, what with piles of two-by-fours halfway across the entryway, and a pile of topsoil sacks stacked up against the other side. In summer there is a snarl of clematis, cucumber vines, and even melons climbing the wire strung up over the little roof there, and a bumper crop of unruly tomatoes tumbling out of the narrow southern facing garden. She has had us sign things by that door, so I suppose she has seen in and knows that the previous owner installed a toilet at the top of the steps for an ailing relative who couldn’t use the upstairs potty. What an odd house! What odd people she must think we are!
And the back door is a story of its own. When we came there was a ramp for that same ailing person’s use, but now we have it dragged to the side with plans for its future. Sitting on it, jutting out toward our back woods, are lined-up plastic tubs of tools and supplies and also our recycle bin and the winter wood chopping paraphernalia. And on the concrete at the base of the astro-green-carpeted steps is the evidence of much wood splitting. There is a blizzard of stuff spread maybe twenty feet in all directions from the back door, all pending the completion of a fine deck and patio area. We can "see" the finished product, but of course no one else can.
A neighbor came delicately into this work zone in the dark a couple of weeks ago to give us a little Christmas treat. I saw her coming because I was walking the dogs out back, and I was terrified she would fall in the dark. “Be careful, it’s a mine field out there,” I said. She backed up and I met her in the driveway.
I do not need to wonder what she thought. Her house is letter perfect—nearly sterilely so—and so is she, all spruced up with her hair just so and surrounded with a serious “cologne zone.” If she was appalled, it’s really not a tragedy. We don’t really like to be too close to that neighbor anyway – her husband is a drunk starting at sometime in mid-morning each day and is not too easy to hobnob with. He tends to “lurk” and “mouth-off” if we give him any indication of neighborliness.
I think the state of our own doorways has a lot to do with where we are in life, my doppleganger and I. We, after having separately lived fairly challenging lives of some 70 years, are currently being hermits and we must like it that way. We like not being interrupted or embarrassed, and we both like to make things and do things. And we snooze between spurts of vigorously doing what we want to. Is the clutter in front of our doors like a sort of Berlin Wall to keep the business of The Outside separate from the business of The Inside? Yep. I think so.
It does bother me some. I am really quite a “people person” and I like spontaneity and surprise (like rounding the blind corner of a Viviers street.) I am basically extroverted and friendly, and in my pre-doppleganger life I had a swarm of people moving freely in and out of my daily world. So I am bothered by the message our doors give to others.
On the other hand, I have always jealously guarded my solitude. I have always kept a certain space between my social activities and my quietness. Aloneness is anything but an enemy for me, and there have been many passages in my life where I was swamped with the continual buzz of many people living lives in my space. In the long run I was not really able to find solitude frequently or long enough, and I developed a big deficit in that area.
So I think I have unconsciously weighed the matter and decided to allow the doorways to be obstructed just now. It makes a space, sanctioned and guarded by my doppleganger, for me to be alone. I venture out cheerfully now and then, to chatter with supermarket people, or on golden trips, to visit with my children and grandchildren. Then I am content to tunnel back into my quiet place with the familiar clutter and ongoing works.
In my guarded space are photos and paintings-in-progress of narrow streets with choices. One can go up or down, or through, or turn around. One can just stand still for a while and decide. Meanwhile, one can think what it means – this door halfway up the wall of a house with no steps. Are there steps inside that are put out when you need to use the door? Probably. I hope so.