My senior year of high school my family moved 600 miles away from the social center of my universe and into a 100 year old condemned house. The entire structure of the house leaned precariously to one side, giving the impression that it could topple over at any moment. The back wall of the house was not a wall at all, just a gaping hole with plastic stretched across it. A very large snake lived in the half torn apart ceiling of the kitchen. From the reports, the ghost of an old woman also inhabited that room. The only room in the house that appeared inhabitable for a living human being was on the second floor. To get to this room, you had to climb a creaky staircase that looked like it could crumble at any moment, and then make your way down a hallway coated with thick brown dust, all the while being careful to sidestep old boards with rusty nails poking out. Hang a right at the end of that perilous journey and you would find yourself in a clean, freshly-painted room with a high ceiling and huge windows. This was my room. My dad, who is a genius at building and constructing things, had worked hard to make sure that my room was fit for a princess. The problem was I couldn’t sleep in it. I wanted to. I tried. I really, really tried. But I couldn’t. There were squirrels (or something with claws) that lived in the bedroom walls. They would scratch around all night long. In this room there was also a “closet,” or at least a door you would think was a closet door until you opened it to discover nothing but a wall behind it. When I would manage to fitfully doze I had terrible nightmares about the creatures that clawed at the walls and about all manner of terrible thing behind that door. Invariably, I would wake in a terrified sweat then stumble and tremble my way through the dark minefield of the hallway (there was no working light source in the hall) to the stairs and pray they wouldn’t crash down as I descended. I would feel my way to my parents’ bedroom and sleep on the floor. This was rather unbecoming behavior for a seventeen year old.
There’s a lot more to that story, but that’s not for this blog. This blog is about the memoir I just finished reading, The Glass Castle, which has me all stirred up with memories like the one above. The author, Jeannette Walls, tells the story of her crazy childhood with her crazy parents and the profound effect their alternative lifestyle had on her development and the way she looks at the world. As I read this book, I was horrified. How can people live like that? I asked myself. And then I realized her story touched me in all these little tender places because I know. We took different highways, but we saw a lot of the same sites along the way, and arrived at many of the same conclusions about the world.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with someone who was talking about how her affluent church wanted to help people, but couldn’t find families that needed help. Pretty outrageous that, but poverty – and pride – are largely a matter of perspective.