Work in Progress

“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city. 

Dear friend,

You ask me to tell you what I love most about my town. How to describe this place to you, who have never been here? Is it possible to convey the feeling of walking in my city so that even a trace of it will reach you?

There is a house in my neighborhood we call Finnegans Wake, after James Joyce’s famously dense, fantastically challenging novel. During his many years of writing this book, Joyce called his manuscript Work in Progress—a name that suits my neighbor’s unpredictable, chaotic residence, where a number of projects are going on at any given time: a car raised on jacks, a huge tree being gradually reduced to logs, rows of planters half filled with dirt.

I wonder if it will surprise you to hear that if you visited me and asked to go on one of my favorite walks, I wouldn’t take you to any of the parks. We wouldn’t survey the landscaped grounds of the two universities or stroll downtown to the Saturday farmers market. Instead, I’d take you around my neighborhood, down Willow Street, into the angle formed by two main roads—Market Street, generally known as 33, and the heteronymous thoroughfare that has so many designations (High Street, Virginia Avenue, Harpine Highway) there is no point in calling it anything but 42.

In this sheltered nook between busy roads, we’d find the air I love to breathe, the inimitable essence of the city. These streets have a stillness, a somnolence, almost an aura of suspended animation, that encourages a relaxed yet heightened awareness, as in dreams. Above all, their unfinished quality enchants me—and I believe it expresses the spirit of this place in a profound way. The city lives in these old unpainted wooden steps, the dried wreath on the wall, the yawning screen door, the faded banner that reads Home Sweet Home.

How often I’ve walked these streets on days like today, fine and dry, the light clear gold, almost silver, pale and plentiful as bindweed, my steps uneven, urged on by the rousing breeze but slowed by my longing to look at every single house along my route. I immerse myself in these unhurried, ragtag works in progress. The rusty shutter, crooked on a white wall. Scattered cinderblocks, a gap-toothed fence, a plant pot lying on its side, bags of topsoil under a porch swing. The planks, everywhere, stacked on the porches, leaning against walls, the two-by-fours, the anonymous chunks and slats that will surely be useful for something, the mops and buckets, the lengths of pipe, extension cord, and wire, the pile of gravel beside a mysterious hole in a driveway. I pass a neighbor working on a brick wall with casual, almost leisurely movements. An empty garden bed, parched earth with a few thin weeds. A bathtub on a porch. From a distant street comes the low, murmurous, unending sound of summer: the droning of a lawnmower or saw.

I wonder, dear friend, if you would enjoy standing here with me in the shade of a mulberry tree whose fruit has blackened the sidewalk, facing this tiny house sunken down in its gloomy, sloping yard, where a cat gazes warily from a curtainless window. I’m trying to understand my own attachment to peeling paint, cracked concrete, fractured storm windows, and disorderly piles of stuff. After all, there are plenty of well-groomed houses on this little street, their gardens crisp paintboxes of lilies and petunias—why am I drawn to signs of incomplete or inexpert work, shoddy home improvements, compromises, and abandoned projects? A plastic-covered dormer window smothered in the boughs of a hickory tree, ancient bicycle frames hanging in the damp darkness of a porch, heaps of furniture crowded into garages, tables on top of chairs, a chipped ceramic owl perched on a lampstand—these are the sights that can stop me in my tracks. The chalk-white angel statue toppled over in the chicory sparks my imagination more than many grander works of art. And while I can admire a trim, shipshape house and yard, such places often feel a bit cold and dull to me—until, that is, I catch sight of a tumbledown shed in the backyard or a broken blind winking from an upstairs window.

There is a scruffiness to the Friendly City that might come from a lack of money, or time, or both, from a lack of ambition or initiative—but it might also stem from a certain ease, a contentment with incremental change, an acceptance of mess because there are young children in the home, a tolerance for transitional states since you can’t afford a professional so you just tinker with things on your own, understanding that a work in progress takes the time it takes. Maybe the city has made an unconscious, collective decision to embrace shabbiness. Maybe that says something bad about us, or maybe it says something good, but at any rate it’s a recognizable feeling in our neighborhoods, a quiet, sometimes muted but constant energy.

What is the beauty of the unfinished? How is a feeling of restfulness and resilience produced by raw boards, crumbling brick, and bales of chicken wire? Here are a few possibilities:

  • The beauty of animation. A deflated kiddie pool hanging over a railing, a crumpled sweatshirt, sneakers jumbled together, a skateboard, a shovel, an office chair: someone here is alive.
  • The beauty of invention. The fallen porch swing, trailing its chains, remains parked on the stoop with its cushions, transformed into a bench.
  • The beauty of making do. At the end of the street, two overhead wires hold a thick wedge of wood, left behind when the tree was cut down. Apparently, this piece of wood couldn’t be removed safely. It hangs there, not ideal but good enough.
  • The beauty of acceptance. If you came over to my house, would you want to find me wearing lipstick and neurotically sweeping the place? Wouldn’t you rather get a welcome hug from a friend in a baggy T-shirt and settle into a couch softened by a rumpled old throw? This collection on a porch—a battered cabinet, window boxes, a stool, a birdcage, a cooler with paper plates on top—it says, I accept myself, cluttered and under construction as I am. I accept you, too. Yes, even your shed.

Love ever . . .

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