The Quietest Place: Suburban Detroit

This post is part of The Art Assignment #5, The Quietest Place.

I spent the first two decades of my life in very rural environments–I grew up in western Colorado, miles from anywhere, then attended college in Virginia on a campus with thousands of acres of woods, away from any major cities. In those environments, it was never very difficult to find quiet places.

Then there my small city in the Philippines, where quiet was practically nonexistent. You can’t cram so many people into such a small space without hearing your neighbors washing laundry, or having a busy street right outside your window.

And now? Suburban Michigan. Oh, how I resisted moving here. What could possibly be less glamorous?
I came around on the subject of Michigan, and I love living here now. But I hadn’t really confronted the idea of the suburbs until this assignment. The assignment was to take a walk from your home and find the quietest place, then absorb and document it. I actually began my walk at my inlaws’ house, because that was what worked for me. So here it is: the quietest place in my inlaws’ neighborhood.


Or is it? The first thing I discovered when I started walking is that noise is fairly homogenous in the suburbs. Once I moved away from the busy roads, it was a thin soup of dogs barking, robins chirping, cars passing, and always, somewhere, someone using a power tool.

It was really hard to find a quiet place. Every time I thought I had, a dog would start barking at me, or a car would pass, or standing still would cause me to hear the wind chimes I’d missed while I was walking.

I walked for an hour. It was Easter Sunday, and as I walked, I slowly began to become amazed by how much of people living I was observing. I heard a lot of radios, and because the weather was so lovely that windows were open, I caught a lot of snippets of people’s Easter celebrations–well wishes, arguments, complaining, and several parents stepping out onto the front porch to smoke and escape from their kids for a minute.

I’ve somehow always thought of suburban neighborhoods as faceless blocks of houses with no personality or distinguishing features; I had a lot of contempt for them, in fact. I’m actually ashamed to admit this, but it wasn’t until this walk that it clicked for me: Every house has people in it. All of those people have stories. Every single nearly identical house is absolutely filled up with the stories of people living their lives. They’re people who have buried parents, who worry about their children’s developmental milestones, who like yellow mustard but not brown.

There is no quietest place in a neighborhood like this. People’s lives are moving through it constantly, leaving ripples. I realized, I wasn’t looking for the quietest place: I was looking for the quietest moment.

So, after an hour of walking spanning a couple of miles, I finally stopped, just two blocks from where I started, and waited. And for a few moments, there were no dogs barking, no cars passing, no one mowing their lawn or calling to their kids.

So, here it is. Two photographs of a still moment between the waves of life on an Easter Sunday in Michigan.


Leaving a mark


I found this mug in a thrift shop, yesterday. It’s custom-printed and features an older man repairing or building a chair using Elmer’s wood glue.

I had to explain, both to the girl who bagged my purchase, and to Jon, that I suppose I felt sorry for him. Someone loved this man and respected his skill (as a carpenter? handyman? husband?) enough to both take this picture and immortalize it on a mug. Then, some time later, someone (someone else? the same person?) sent the mug to a thrift shop, for reasons unknown. (De-cluttering? Painful memories? Clearing out an estate?)

I felt that, whoever the man on the mug is or was, he deserved some respect. And as he was clearly a maker, I feel some kinship there.

(Jon: “So do we have to keep it forever?” He indulges my flights of fancy but doesn’t necessarily understand them.)

As it happens, I stumbled across this mug at a time when I had another dear craftsman on the mind.


I snapped this photo in the park, while watching the twins play. I recently took up spinning again, and have found it remarkably well-suited to child supervision. But that’s a subject for another post; right now, I want to talk about the spindle.

My mom was, for some years, married to a man who built fiddles. He was an artist and a craftsman, and as I was living with them at the time I took up spinning, I asked him to make me a spindle. I had visions of some hand-turned, polished object of beauty, so when he delivered this, a dowel fitted rather poorly into a plain disc of wood, I was a little disappointed. But on it, I learned to spin.

Over time, the unfinished wood has developed a smooth, glossy patina. The spindle is just the right size and weight for my purposes. It holds a great deal of yarn. Since it’s a bottom whorl spindle, I can let it rest on the ground while I draft out extra twist, without getting the yarn dirty. It has no notches or hooks, no frills. It’s useful and it’s been used, and it was a gift from one maker to another. All that makes it beautiful.

The man who made it died of depression while I was in the Philippines. I cried for days, and no one understood why. “So… he was not married to your mother any longer?” They wanted to comfort, but they were confused. I couldn’t quite articulate at the time, but I think it’s the unfairness of the whole thing–that someone who added so many good and useful things to the world would leave it the way he did.

I think about him often. As a craftsman, he’s best remembered for his fiddles, but I have this spindle. I’m going to use it to make more good and useful things. It’s the best tribute I can think of.

Found story: All from a sweater

I’ve worked at Walmart for the last six months. Yesterday was my last day. It was a terrible job in many ways, but one thing I did love was gathering stories and characters–fleeting glimpses of people that stuck with me. I think of them as found stories. Mostly, I see just a brief image–an Asian woman, herding her tiny, round grey-haired mother into the store, or a man with wild grey hair and a wild grey beard and his all fingernails rotted away–but every once in a while, to my delight I get more details.

The other day, an older gentleman came up to me from the pharmacy and asked to borrow a pen so that he could write down his blood pressure. He was just turning to go when I asked, rather unexpectedly, “Did someone make that sweater for you?”

The sweater in question looked to have been made out of bright blue Red Heart Super Saver–solid, except for a couple stripes made out of matching variegated blue yarn. It had a crocheted hem and button band, and a zipper. There was a bit of dried food crusted onto the button band, by the zipper. It was obviously handmade, but also quite well constructed. It’s pretty rare to see someone in my town wearing a handknit sweater, so I felt it was worth asking.

I had to repeat myself before he understood, but then he brightened and told me his wife had made it; she’s Navajo, and her craftmanship, he told me, is superb.

I smiled, and told him it was a beautiful sweater. And then, I don’t know what it was, but he started talking to me.

He told me that because of his wife’s handiwork is so fine, he hasn’t needed a belt in thirty years. He used to teach school, and he favored jumpsuits, which his wife made for him. He saw her making them, once, and realized that she made the pants and top separately and sewed them together, so he asked her if she couldn’t make them out of different materials, so it looked like a normal shirt and pants.

So, he went around for all those years wearing jumpsuits that looked like normal clothing. He told me, people used to say, “How is it that Mr. Queen is the only teacher here whose shirttails are always tucked in?”

He told me how he earned the respect of the people on the reservation by eating their food without disgust or disdain. They would invite teachers into their homes, and feed them. One of the things they fed them was blood pudding–the other teachers would refuse to eat it, but he ate it.

(I could have told him how I had a similar experience, how I was initiated into my Vietnamese family over a dish of congealed duck blood, but it didn’t feel right to talk about myself; he was on a roll, and I was enjoying listening.)

The other teachers justified their refusal to eat it by saying that the Bible says not to eat blood. But, he told me, most people don’t understand what it means to be Christian. He took on an instructional tone. There are only two principles at the heart of Christianity, he told me. He asked me if I knew Matthew 6:14. I confessed that I didn’t.

Matthew 6:14, he told me, says that if you forgive, you’ll be forgiven. That’s all. And if you don’t forgive, you won’t be. That’s the first principle at the heart of Christianity. The second is love your neighbor as yourself. Those are the only things that actually matter.

I nodded, and listened. His Christianity had its heart in a very different place than the Christianity I grew up with, and I liked his quite a lot more. The Christianity I knew said that it didn’t matter what you did, you were condemned if you didn’t confess Jesus as savior. In his, though, there was more emphasis on attitude and action. It would have made my Sunday School teachers shake their heads, but I liked it.

He was clean-shaven, but he had long, wild, grey eyebrows, like down feathers, and his eyes leaked tears as he talked; not from emotion, he told me, but because he has a disease (his word) that makes his eyes tear up at odd moments. Every so often, he’d reach up and wipe a tear away from the weathered skin under his eyes.

I listened to him until I had to step away to help someone else, and before he left, he thanked me for talking to him. It was good, for once, to listen to someone else instead of talking about myself. I came away from the conversation with little pearls of beauty, and I think he appreciated having an welcoming ear for a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon in Walmart.