How to Gather a Life

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The week we moved into our new, sparsely-furnished rental house in London, I realized I needed something of my own to make the place feel like we lived there. Without something of us, it looked as if we’d embarked on Rent-a-Life rather than rent a home. Our dishes, clothes, and a few poorly chosen decorative items (collectible teddy bears, I’m looking at you) sat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, bobbing across the sea, making their way from our East Coast past to our United Kingdom future.

It was a fifteen-minute walk from my little house with the bright blue door to the Charity Shop. A charity shop is the English version of a thrift shop, a place where one could find almost anything from old lady brooches and children’s clothing to tattered furniture and portable potties. After an enormous international move, our finances were stretched thin. I had a few British pounds in my pocket, and I needed to spend it wisely. Naturally, I spent it on something that would be dead in a week—a pretty little posy of flowers from the local grocery.

Flowers in hand, I stopped by the Charity shop for my next purchase—a second hand vase of thick, wavy glass. Just big enough to hold a few stems of something light and green and lovely. I came home, filled the glass with water, cut the stems of the flowers, and breathed easy for the first time since our arrival. There, on the kitchen table, sat proof that even the smallest effort to make us feel at home made a tangible difference. We might survive the upheaval after all, and I had daisies on the table to prove it.

Over the three and a half years we lived abroad, I mapped a carefully curated Charity Shop route throughout my little corner of London. I faithfully visited each shop every few weeks, bringing home a random assortment of items someone else had discarded. Every time I brought home something new to me, I thought about the hands that had previously held it. Who knit the little hand-made doll with the jaunty yellow hat now sitting on my daughter’s bed? Who gossiped with her best friend over this teapot around a table set under gray skies? Who turned the pages of this novel before me?

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I began assembling a life out of the everyday, worn-out wares of women who had gone before me, women who had raised children and read books and warmed their hands and souls over cups of strong tea. Gathering forgotten treasures from the charity shop helped me build a real, full life for my own family. I didn’t have to settle for renting one.

During our years living in London, I collected not only dust-covered books and vintage tea sets, but friendships and experiences. I collected photographs and prayers and long-walks on urban streets. I collected memories. I learned we create our lives from the things we gather, and so I gathered people and places and things with purpose.

Most of the lovely bits I gathered from my charity shop curation, have gone on to live other lives elsewhere, although the tea set still sits proudly in my china cabinet while the knit doll hides, gathering dust in the basement. The thick-bottomed vase disappeared years ago, and I keep hoping it will show up, miraculously. Even if it doesn’t, in my mind’s eye, I see it sitting on a rented, nicked-up and dented kitchen table in the terraced house with the blue door. I see it as the promise of a life gathered, full, expectant. I see it filled with a handful of daisies.

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What are you gathering to make a life?

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  • marian vischer

    What a beautiful and timely read this Monday morning as I’ve worked like a crazy person for weeks and sit now with a sick child. Life at home has felt so “off” and I realized yesterday it’s because I’m still living in someone else’s house. So I ran to Lowe’s on a Sunday afternoon and spent hours priming the knotty pine of our living room. It’s one small step toward making a house our home. I’m feeling a dash of hope already. I love how you put things so perfectly: “gathering a life.” I think I may just borrow it. : )