Joan hated the house. Hated the wood floors, the bare walls, the sheer curtains. Who needed all this light pouring in when there was nothing to look at? How many different shades of brown could there be? Everything was neutral, just like the inhabitants.
She’d spent a week with her in-laws and now knew the shape of her life. That dull heavy feeling in her stomach let her know that her worst fears would come true. Not soon, certainly, but surely. Within a handful of decades her husband would grow into the same sort of people he’d been raised by. There was no argument over nature versus nurture. He’d gotten a double dose. She was done for.
They’d not had a chance to meet each other’s family before they got married. Well, perhaps that isn’t fair to say. They didn’t make time. Perhaps they were so enraptured with each other that they didn’t want to allow anything to trespass onto their self-made island. Perhaps they felt they were old enough to not have to seek parental approval. Perhaps they forgot that such meetings work both ways, just like with a job interview. With both, it isn’t just the potential new member that gets looked over. S/he too has a chance to see if these people will be agreeable (or at least reasonable) to spend a lot of time with. Spending 40 hours a week together was one thing, while spending every major and minor holiday together was another. When you married, you spoke vows to that person, but the unspoken vows were to their family. So much for the idea that “a man shall leave his family and be united to his wife”. You never really left your family of origin.
It was a very long trip to Birmingham, Alabama from where they married. But then again, everything was a long way from Arctus 3. The planet was so newly discovered by Earth that the settlers hadn’t agreed upon a name yet, so it had a holding name, comprised of the name of the sun it rotated and how many orbital bodies back it was. It was kind of like how the indigenous peoples of America named their children – a holding name for starters, and then a new one when they showed who they really were. Nobody is who they are at first. You wouldn’t try to identify a flowering plant until it bloomed, would you? People and planets were the same in that regard.
Joan and Clifford had first saved up money for their wedding and then their trip back to Earth to meet the folks. They agreed to not make that the honeymoon. Something seemed wrong doing it that way, like getting a dishwashing machine for Mother’s Day. Honeymoons, like birthday gifts, should be enjoyable, not obligatory. There should be no hint of work involved. Meeting the in-laws was most certainly work.
So here it was, not quite a year after they had exchanged vows in the 24/7 Chapel of All Faiths in Homestead, Arctus 3 that they had made time to show each other off to friends and family back home. They managed to save up enough vacation time to be away for a month – a week at his folks, a week at hers, and two weeks between to travel all over the country by car and jet rail, letting their eyes soak in all the greens and blues of the Earth before making it back to their new home. It was going to have to be at least a decade before they could return so they decided to make it worth their while.
They had met at that little Chapel, having both come separately to Homestead to seek their fortune. Just like in the gold rush towns of the Wild West, everybody and everyone came, hoping to find their future in this forlorn frontier. There wasn’t gold here, of course. People had gotten over their fascination with that meaningless metal three centuries back. It was too soft to build anything with. Sure it was good for electronics, but almost nobody used those gadgets anymore. Well, not anybody worth admitting you knew. Cultured people didn’t fall into that sort of addiction these days. When schoolchildren today were told that kids as young as six had been given smart phones and unlimited access to online games back then, they shook their heads with amazement the same way kids many hundreds of generations back were amazed that cocaine had been in sodas and opium was in over-the-counter preparations for malaise.
The Chapel had been the first place of worship that was built in Homestead by the settlers. It was assumed that other such sites had existed for the indigenous population, but there was no trace now, so they couldn’t be sure. The entire planet resembled one huge abandoned house where everyone had suddenly left one Saturday afternoon just after lunch. Dishes were in the drying rack, food was in the pantry, and clothes and suitcases were still in the closet. It appeared that they had all just walked away for a stroll and simply never came back.
There was no majority faith tradition represented with the settlers, and in an effort to foster a harmony which had been elusive on Earth and other planets, they chose to pool their resources and create one building for those of all faith traditions. Sometimes they had group worship events, and sometimes they met separately such as the Muslims on Friday, the Jews on Saturdays, and most Christians on Sundays, for instance. The rest of the week the place was a hub of activity for all the faiths to practice the tenants they all held dear – a food kitchen for the hungry, a clothes bank for the needy, and a center of learning, sharing, and understanding for all. It was not uncommon to find children of every tradition playing together outside in the 40 acre park the Chapel had chosen when the settlers had agreed upon a building site. Only 1 acre was allowed for buildings – the rest was to be perpetually preserved as a nature sanctuary. The pagans, Wiccans, and atheists were especially pleased by this. There was also a farm on that one acre, where the Chapel grew its own food.
It had been difficult at first for the settlers. Nothing grew on Arctus 3 that they were used to. They had brought seeds and starter plants from Earth to produce their own food, but none of it would grow in the acidic soil or under the glare of the red giant star at the center of that solar system. Arctus made all plant life on its now third planet appear in reds, pinks, and oranges, with magentas and deep purples making an appearance in what passed for its autumn season. The settlers resorted to eating their travel rations a few weeks longer than they intended until the survey team’s scientists could analyze the local flora to determine if it would be safe for humans to consume. While it was safe, on the whole it wasn’t very palatable. Most vegetables had the taste and texture of cardboard or Styrofoam, at least for the first month of consumption. After then, either you got used to it, or enough of it was in you that it changed you so that it actually started to taste good. Nobody was really sure what was the truth.
The philosophers thought that it was a defense mechanism of the planet, to keep the local produce from being consumed. Who would want to stay in a place where the food was terrible? It was as if the planet was trying to keep travelers away, showing its inhospitable side. Perhaps it was like parents who downsized after children moved out, hoping that they’d never come back to stay, or even visit for very long.
But something changed after a month of eating the indigenous food. It was as if the people themselves changed, transformed. Perhaps it was that they became part of the environment, so that it no longer seemed foreign, because they were no longer foreign. Return visits back to their home planets then became difficult. If away from Arctus 3 for more than a week they had to undergo the acclimatization process all over again.
Most settlers saw their trip to Arctus 3 as one way. Not just because of the food issue or the distance and cost to get there. It was a chance to start over with a clean slate. The majority had felt out of place on their home planets, so felt no need to go back. They’d shaken the dust off their feet from those who persisted with their perverse cravings for anything and everything that caused them to feel unwell in body, mind, and spirit.
Joan had come to help start up the postal system here, while Clifford was a language teacher. They’d met because of the natural overlap of their professions. Clifford often had his students practice their letter writing skills by sending letters to people within Homestead or in any of the other nearby settlements. With so many people moving here from all over the galaxy, they all had to work hard on learning three different languages so they could make themselves understood. The founders had modeled this after the state of Israel that overcame the polyglot cacophony it experienced upon the rapid settlement of so many Jews from all over Europe after the last World War by teaching everyone a language none of that generation had ever used for communication before. Hebrew had been an everyday language for thousands of years, but after the Diaspora, it had only been used for worship.
In a similar way, everyone who immigrated to Arctus 3 had to learn Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic. They were allowed (and in fact encouraged) to learn at least two other languages. It was very common to hear people speaking blends of these languages – words, syntax, or idioms – to get across their meaning. Sometimes one language simply doesn’t have enough words to express how you feel. Sometimes the other person hasn’t learned the word you want to use. There had been an attempt to create a whole separate language to fill the communication needs of so many people from so many different places. In the end it was decided that too much time would have been wasted trying to develop it. The need for communication was immediate, and this patchwork of languages actually had a sort of charm to it.
The postal system was a real necessity here, as it was how people communicated when not in person. The founders of the settlement had decided to forgo electronic technology of all sorts to create community. They learned from the collapse of society in 21st-century America. Everyone spent so much time interacting with electronic devices than each other that they forgot how to live as human beings. The devices no longer served, but enslaved. Their children preferred to text their conversations rather than talk with each other. Not only did conversation skills degenerate, literacy became nonexistent. Spelling was arbitrary, and nobody had the patience or desire to read anything that took longer than 30 seconds or didn’t have animations or sound effects.
There were telephones on Arctus 3, of course. They were voice only – no 3D hologram viddies here – and for emergency use only. If you wanted to meet up with someone, it involved making an appointment or waiting for a letter to get to them and their reply back.
It took a bit of adjusting to this vastly slower pace, but all the settlers knew what awaited them here. It wasn’t a surprise, but a welcome relief from the hullabaloo of what they were escaping from. Within a month, every settler’s blood pressure returned to normal and their stress dropped off to nothing, because there was no longer the need to keep pretending that life operated at such a frenetic pace.
There were no mental health facilities on Arctus 3. There was no need. After the initial disorienting acclimation, the planet’s pace coupled with the intentional and mindful choices of the settlers eased out any reason for stress.
Joan was still concerned. Stripping life down to the bare bones was part of the appeal of Homestead, but Clifford’s parents were at the extreme. Perhaps this was the draw for him. He was raised in an environment much like Homestead before anyone had even thought of it. It wasn’t a stretch for him to adjust to the vastly slower pace there, because “there” was a lot like his “then”. However, this was going too far. Perhaps he was going to become an extremist, refusing to buy anything other than the bare necessities. Those people existed on Homestead, but nobody really talked about it. Most figured it was a self-righting phase, where they careened from one extreme to another and eventually found equilibrium.
Sure, Clifford tolerated her dabbling with art now, but would that hold true a decade from now? She liked to do art-crafts which were seen by some as not suitable for a woman since the revolution in the mid 20th century. Women had risen up and declared themselves free from all feminine things, no longer relegated to playing with dolls and toy kitchen sets as children, no longer expected to be teachers or nurses and not inventors or doctors. No, all traditional female roles were abandoned and that supposed liberation. The only problem was that everything turned upside down. No longer would girls be mocked for playing with trucks. Instead they were mocked for wearing makeup and wanting to shave their legs. No longer were women discouraged from being engineers or architects. Instead they were discouraged from wanting to be housewives. The pendulum went too far, and it had never really come back.
Joan did her needlepoint in secret, just like her mother did, and just like her mother did. She painted openly, as that was one of the few arts still allowed to women, seen as non-gender specific. She even had half a dozen of her paintings on display for sale in the Homestead town hall. They were unofficially for sale, with no prices posted but given out upon request. On the surface it looked a bit like an art museum, but in reality it worked like a consignment shop. The fact that everything was for sale was one of the worst kept secrets there, but it amused everyone to keep up the façade.
But if things went the way she feared, she’d soon have to quit painting. Was her new husband just biding his time before he told her how he really felt? Was he already upset about her art? She suddenly realized that he would only allow three of her paintings on the walls of their small apartment. He said that any more would be clutter, so she’d taken to rotating them out. Some she sold. Some she gave away as presents. At one point when money was tight she even painted over a few of them because she had new ideas but no new canvases. She thought that one day when she was famous, someone could scan these canvases and recover the older work.
And then she thought more about it. Wasn’t that what she was doing now, with herself? Painting over who she was?
She had to figure something out, and soon, or otherwise she’d disappear, just like those paintings. She thought more about it and realized that she’d treated her paintings with the same attention and care she’d shown to herself, which sadly wasn’t much. Giving away her paintings was like giving away herself. Even selling them was bad because she always set the prices very low; sometimes it was just the cost of the materials. She’d always justified it to herself saying she was just a beginner even though she’d made art for at least a dozen years.
Then she thought more about it. There were plenty of people who commanded very high prices for art that she saw as less sophisticated, less skilled than hers. She remembered hearing about an artist in America in the 20th century who simply threw paint at the canvas and charged many thousands of dollars for it. It was time for her to start asking and expecting more.
Clifford wouldn’t like it, she was sure, but there was no reason she should always be the uncomfortable one. Ideally they’d both be happy, but happiness always comes with compromise. For too long, Joan felt she was always the one who had to move when push came to shove. She was forever making peace by letting others have their way.
This was why she started painting so many years ago. She could express herself without ruffling any feathers. It was as if everyone was speaking English and she decided to speak Welsh. They’d never know if she was agreeing with them or not. The sad part is that they never even noticed she wasn’t communicating either, not really. Once she had decided to be silent for a week as a test. Her family never even asked her if anything was wrong. They were so used to overlooking her that she was the only one who noticed that the week was different.
She’d hoped things would be different when she married, like starting fresh with a clean canvas. They could paint whatever picture they wanted together. The trouble was that she’d not realized that just because the other person is different, you are still the same. No matter where you go, there you are.
Divorce wasn’t an option on Arctus 3. When you married here, you married for life. This wasn’t a religious decree, because all religions had gotten out of the marriage business centuries back. Rather than being expected by law to marry couples whose values didn’t align with theirs, they all relinquished performing marriages to the government, who was happy to marry anyone over the age of 21 who had enough money for the fee.
To avoid the unpleasantness associated with divorce (sadly just as likely if you had married in a church) the government insisted on a six month long premarital counseling course, which necessitated a psych evaluation, credit check, three letters of reference, criminal background check, and an extensive class on parenting skills. If the government and the couple agreed that marriage was a good option after all of this they sealed the deal in a simple no-fault ceremony that was a binding contract. Sure, some still got married in a religious building, for old time’s sake or to appease their more parents, but the former grand fetes were a thing of the past, now forbidden by sumptuary laws.
Rather than poor couples feeling left out, or middle-class couples going into debt to prove they weren’t poor, everybody’s wedding looked more or less the same. It made things saner. Couples had more money to start their new lives with, rather than starting out in debt.
Even death was equalized. Once people saw how freeing it was to not have to keep up with the Jonesevitches when it came to paying for a wedding, they started to look at everything differently. Religion got out of the burying business shortly after they got out of the marrying business. The councils started to regulate the funeral industry and immediately started to question the wild and extravagant expenses that it had insisted upon. With the monopoly crushed, people finally had real choices.
Weddings and funerals are more closely connected than most people realize. Both services are about 20 minutes long. What you are in is inordinately more costly than the length of time it is seen. Why should a wedding dress or a coffin cost a year’s salary, when both are viewed for at most an hour, and then never seen again?
The ground was too hard for burial on Arctus 3 so nobody got buried there anyway. Some practiced Tibetan or Zoroastrian style “air burial”, leaving the body for the wild animals to consume. Some built funeral pyres and set their loved ones bodies ablaze. Nobody suffered under the delusion that the body was going to be used again. In most cases that would have been a horror beyond mentioning, what with how they died. Who wants to resurrect with a body eaten up by disease or decay, or one mutilated by accident or war?
Part of getting married here was filling out a will and writing down funeral plans and setting up a savings account. Nothing was left to chance. Far too many in the past had said they’ll “do it later” – and later came sooner than they’d realized. They thought that by postponing making funeral plans for themselves, they were postponing death itself. Making each partner fill out these forms was another method of weeding out those who were not quite ready to marry. What with the extreme difficulty in getting a divorce, it was important to do this right. Sometimes another year of waiting was enough to allow one or both partners to mature. Sometimes it allowed an opportunity to reflect upon the pairing and decide if it was really viable. Sometimes what seems like forever at 23 looks like “what was I thinking” at 43.
(Background information – I have a collection of pictures from my grandparent’s old house and from the house I grew up in. I have been going through them and using them as journal prompts to work on my past, to dig up the roots and examine them. This is a very hard but important process and essential to my healing. I do not post those writings, as they are too personal, too visceral, too intimate. I was going to do that with this picture, but I started to wonder why I felt it was OK for me to make up fictional stories about pictures that I had no information on, but I felt that I had to write truth about pictures of places or people I knew. So this time I started to write a story instead. This picture is the front door of my paternal grandparents’ house, seen from the inside. The photo was taken by a realtor many years after it had been sold by my family after my grandparents had died/gone to a nursing home).
I broke up the story into small parts. I started writing it on vacation and did not realize it was going to be so long. I had to skip ahead pages to keep writing, as I wanted to write down other things from the trip as well.