Mapping the Topography of Grief — A Travel Memoir

“I asked my Mother Map to open-up those crisp folds and let me draw paths across her paper skin. Let me find what I was searching for.”

The Education of an American Houser — A Selection of Observations

“Lacking a tree for a treehouse and having to substitute a military trunk was an early indication of the flexibility and creativity that would mark my endeavors to define the essence of a house and the inequities of housing stock. In short, become a houser.”

About me

Back in college, I was attracted to the creative endeavor of dovetailing words with images and therefore chose marketing as my major. Although I liked the playfulness of the studies - when the shyster side of selling began dominating a few of my classes - I began doubting my decision. Fortuitously, the university’s archeology department had begun the study of garbage. Carless and longing to get off campus, I joined a weekend fieldtrip to collect trash along a highway south of Tucson. While stabbing at another piece of well-marketed garbage, the young man walking beside me - an archeology major – asked me what I was studying. Now, as I replay my memory of that moment – brushed by the hot wind of passing traffic and feeling ashamed to say I was in marketing, I made a momentous decision. I answered, “I am thinking of changing my major to education.” The following Monday, I enrolled in education with a minor in history.

When I moved to St. Louis after graduation, there were few options for high school history teachers, so I wandered down the hill from my home and took a job in a daycare center. I loved the joyful exuberance of the young age and eventually began a Master’s degree in early childhood education. While I was studying at the university, a professor offered me the opportunity to co-author an early childhood mathematics book. Dry stuff, but an interesting endeavor in publishing.

Over a number of years, I worked both as an administrator in elementary schools and preschools, and as a teacher. I wrote thousands of words in children’s memory books in a Reggio Emelia program and plied the writing field through policies, articles, talks and handbooks. I intended to write a book on administration with the principles grounded in stories… for instance, how my school initially was financed with a single donation of one-hundred- and-forty dollars.

Before the administrative book took shape, a new plot appeared in my life. My husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I grieved three-and- half-years anticipating his passing and then two more years after his death —equaling a five-year degree in grief. That education combined with my years of writing laid the groundwork upon my retirement for my blog boxoftales.com. Packing my car with my dog and my maps, I began the travels that led to the book, Mapping the Topography of Grief – a Travel Memoir. I have began giving readings and talks on grief and writing a second book named The Education of an American Houser – a Selection of Observations. Next up? Maybe that book on administration…

Writings

Mapping the Topography of Grief - A Travel Memoir

A completed manuscript


“Step Six. (Of nine.)

Chart roadways,
by-ways,
lanes
and paths.
If your grieving is brief, then you will need only one road,
a super-highway, upon which to hurry off to other pages of your map book.
Otherwise, draw your roads crisscrossing…”

With my slightly unruly terrier, I set off on a journey of 15,000 miles over seven months. I carried maps. One of them I called a “Mother Map”, a crisp new map marking the destinations for my travels around North America. A second map I named my “Map of Grief” – an imaginary charting of my widow’s sorrow. That second map began as a blank mental image with a dot – a blotch of consequence marking the death of my good man to pancreatic cancer. As I tell stories from the road, the reader comes to understand how traveling alone is not so frightening and how being a topographer of sorrow provides one with relief. Eventually, I roll and store my “Map of Grief” and my travels continue on to new maps.

A Reading:

The Education of an American Houser – A Sampling of Observations

A Work in Progress


“I was a mere child at the time in the 50’s at the beginning of my education as a houser. … I would come to specialize in middle-class houses.”1

Growing up in a home built with cinder blocks in a suburb of Reno, Nevada, I began a lifelong fascination with how houses influence inhabitants. Cruising through neighborhoods in Newport News, Virginia in my Uncle Charlie and Aunt Margaret’s Buick, I furthered my education: “Quietly from the spacious backseat, I took in their house critiques. By the time I was ten, I assumed all children studied rooflines, window styles or were conversant in architectural terms like vestibules, saltbox, and corbels.”2

The Education of an American Houser, as a literary memoir, adds to the conversation with the documentation of one woman’s observations of houser skills and ideas acquired along her path from being a child to a widow living in a cabin in the woods. The term “houser” might be an unfamiliar word, but in Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer, 1905-64, Peter Oberlander, one author, describes a “houser” in this quote from the preface: “Catherine talked about housing not only in terms of architectural or urban planning, but as social responsibility. As a “houser,” she saw housing as a bridge between architecture and planning.”3

Like Catherine, I became aware of an imbalance of resources, ideas and roles in housing. While design, funding and construction of common housing have traditionally been male-dominated fields, the beginnings of female input – a new bridge – began during my lifetime. Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, upended the traditional notions of residential planning. Female entrepreneurs – like Janie Lowe and Virginia Young, cofounders of the non-toxic paint company called Yolo Colorhouse, or the tiny house designer-builders, Dee Williams and Lena Menard – have become models to inspire other women to contribute in making a new world of more equitable and nurturing housing.

I was older and a single mom before I began gathering tools – bear claws, a hod, a chop saw and sanders. Becoming a “houser” with my hands, as it were. Now, there are opportunities for young females to learn building trades, as with “Girls Build” started by Katie Hughes in Portland, Oregon, a company offering summer camps in the construction trades for young girls. I would have loved this as a child!

In the writing of this work, I hope to place the word “houser” into the toolbox of a wider range of women, girls, and men as well.

_____________________________

1McConnell, Kathy, The Education of an American Houser — A Sampling of Observations. Observation One.
2McConnell, Observation Five.
3Oberlander, Peter H. and Newbrun, Eva, Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer, (UBC Press, 2000), XIV Preface.

Photos

As if writing with a shutter, I look for a hook with my lens. In a paragraph of images, one will be the hook. Each image has a backstory and is created with an agility honed by having taken thousands of snapshots. Two skills, nay three, are present at each good shot. Playing with the framing, being quietly alert and remembering to hold the camera still. Enjoy.

Permission from the author is required for reprint or reuse.

“Girl Crossing the Millennium”
London, England
2016

“Cat Hunting from a Cushion”
Montreal, Canada
2013

“Tinted Beach”
Ocean Shores, Washington
2017

“Women on the Ferry”
San Juan Islands
2015

“Flying Above”
Los Padres National Forest, California
2015

“The Dog's View”
Multnomah Falls, Oregon
2017

“Love Made It in Stones”
McWay Beach, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California
2014

“The Sky is Falling”
Baker Valley, Oregon
2006
Film

“Dinosaur Mirage”
Bath, England
2017

“A Maypole of Electricity”
Bath, England
2017

“Cheap Red Transport”
London, England
2012

“It Is All About the Hats”
Pendleton, Oregon
2017

“Tulips”
Descanso Gardens, California
2016

“Sun Squared”
Orcas Island, San Juan Islands, Washington
2015

“Dry Cleavage”
East of Canyonlands National Park
2014

“The Space Needle's Flagpole”
Seattle, Washington
2009
Film

“Self Portrait with Sugar Cannister”
Portland, Oregon
2014

Upcoming Events

To be announced

Awards

Helen R. Whiteley Writer’s Residency, October 2016, San Juan Islands
Pacific Northwest Writers Association Memoir Finalist, 2017

Contact Me

Email: kathymcconnell5@gmail.com