spring

This time of year, there shouldn’t be birds outside, in the early morning time. There shouldn’t be bare stretches of shoreline, raw and mud-brown, circling the lake. There shouldn’t be green buds shrugging themselves against the half-thawed earth of our yard.

This time of year we should still be hunkered down, holed away under blankets and space heaters and old wool sweaters pulled from the bottom of the pile. We should be wading through snow drifts up to our knees. We should be trekking across frozen lakes, red-faced, frozen-teared, feeling the sting of thawing noses and fingers as we end up at the coffee shop on the other side, leaving our snowshoes and skis at door, shaking the ice from our heavy-coated limbs and stomping inside. We should be frozen under ice. We should be aching toward spring, the idea of it existing as whisper, as vaporous half-memory. The warmth of any sun should feel as foreign as moon-travel, as the art of walking upside down.

The birds woke me up again today, as they have since Saturday. The lone pile of snow that remains behind our house has shrunk to a husk of gray ice. It is so forlorn that “pile” doesn’t suit it properly — it is more a half-hearted reminder of a winter that never quite came.

withdrawal

It’s official. I’m an addict. (Luckily, I’m not alone.)

Lately I’ve found myself in the following pattern: I wake up, check Apartment Therapy on my iPhone, get up and make coffee, drag myself to the computer, check Pinterest and Design*Sponge and follow the bread-crumb trail of links from design blog to design blog to design blog, until I realize I’m late for work and hurriedly throw my unwashed hair into a ponytail. I’ve found myself openly coveting other people’s homes, disparaging the sudden spike in Chevron-covered pillows at Target (“now there’s a fad that’s passed its prime!!”), and worrying whether the breezy, beachy shade of faded turquoise I love is becoming too popular for me to love anymore.

I have always been a nester. It’s amazing how you can breathe new life into an old space simply by moving around what’s already there. When I was a very small child, I would rearrange my bedroom on what felt like a weekly basis. I would heave heavy dressers and bed frames across the floor until my spindly little arms were covered in bruises. I have always loved bright colors and patterned fabrics, and have long decorated my apartments with fringy tapestries and original art scored from flea markets and the like. I have always liked the look of a wall crowded with artwork, shelves with books arranged by color, big windows with airy curtains and lots and lots of light.

I have always enjoyed creating spaces on nonexistent budgets that feel warm and welcoming, places that feel like home. And I never — or at least, rarely — judged my ability to do so as anything other than sufficient. Until a handful of years ago, I only vaguely knew what “mid-century modern” meant, I thought “Chevron” was just a gas station, and I considered a wall covered in chalkboard paint to be among the most unique ideas I’d ever seen.

Then, last year, we bought our first house. Here I had a blank canvas — truly mine to do with as I liked! The opportunities were only as limited as my own imagination and my budget would allow. I quickly started combing through the archives at Apartment Therapy and other blogs of its ilk, in search of new ideas. I learned my color-coded bookshelves were trendy, and that they inspired hate and dismay among a large and vocal portion of the design blogosphere. I learned chalkboard walls peaked, oh, three or four years ago. And I learned a whole new vocabulary: “Editing” no applied merely to cleaning up words on a page, but also the knick-knacks cluttering up your living room; “curating” no applied only to museum exhibits, but to the adhesion of certain design aesthetics across entire homes.

I became obsessed. I carried color chips in my purse. I spent hours every night combing over the furniture section of Craigslist. I set up a Pinterest account and starting pinning like a mad woman.

Until last week, when I hit bottom. We were getting ready to host a friend’s surprise birthday party, and the sudden prospect of 40 people in our house caused me to fly into a home-decorating panic. I convinced my husband to paint the living room. And the dining room. And the stairwell. And the hallway. When he finished, the walls looked great, but the furniture suddenly looked wrong. “My god,” I thought, “have those bookshelves always looked so dreary? Has that chair always looked so dingy? Has the love seat always looked so Pottery Barn??”

The room felt cramped and thrown together. It felt juvenile. Had months and months of Apartment Therapy-browsing taught me nothing? Suddenly I hated my own house. Instead of inspiring me to try new things, every new blog post only reinforced the fact that no, I do not live in “Carl and Angie’s Bright and Spacious Bungalow” or “Zed and Fred’s Modern Loft with a Vintage Twist” or any of the other homes that are daily offered up for admiration and envy.

Utterly disgusted with myself and my environs, I Googled every incarnation of “narrow living room furniture arrangement” and clicked until my eyes bled. I bought and returned three sets of curtains, two rugs, and four throw pillows, never settling on a single one. I rearranged our living room five or six times in one night, and then again the next morning. I moved heavy furniture from room to room, up and down the stairs. And in the end, I gave up. Except for one bookcase and the record player stand, everything went right back to where it started.

I began showing up at work looking more and more dejected. “I hate my furniture!” I would tell Emily, my office mate. “I hate my house! It’s all wretched! Every last end table! Every last oak bookcase! What was I thinking?? Didn’t I know that oak was so pedestrian? Why did I buy those?!”

Emily raised an eyebrow. “Have you been reading Apartment Therapy again?” she said.

Rendered speechless by the sheer depth of my own despondency, I merely nodded.

Emily sighed. “You need an intervention,” she said. “You need a detox. You need one week without Apartment Therapy!”

I winced. “What about Pinterest?” I said, meekly.

“No Pinterest, either! And no Craigslist, and no real estate websites. None of it. Cold turkey.”

“But what will I do in the morning?” I said.

“You’ll make coffee, and you’ll take your dog for a walk. Do you remember that you have a dog?”

I realized Emily had a point. “Okay,” I said, collapsing into my chair. “I’ll try it.”

I admit, I cheated the first day. And the second. I couldn’t help myself — I’d posted a comment to an Apartment Therapy story about homemade paper flowers, and I wanted to see if anyone had responded. But I haven’t checked it for two days now. Or any of the other sites on my banished list. And instead of wasting an hour or two online yesterday afternoon, I took the dog for a walk. I found him in a dark corner of the basement, barely able to stand and covered in detritus. He perked up the moment we stepped outside.

Not surprisingly, so did I. I remembered what the sun felt like. And though I had to shield my eyes from its all-too-natural glare, I had to admit it was far more appealing than the flickering of a computer screen. On our way home, I noticed small green buds poking through our neighbor’s yard. The dog and I paused, and as I bent down to admire that bright shock of green, the first sign of spring that confirms the season of new beginnings, I realized something incredibly important — it was the perfect color for a rug in our dining room…

the truth about tumbleweeds

Tumbleweed (noun) a. A densely branched plant that breaks off near the ground after maturity and rolls about in the wind, aiding in the dispersal of seeds and spores by scattering them as it tumbles. b. A troublesome weed in central and western United States. c. A cliché of Western movies.

My friend Jim and I were sitting at his kitchen table, drinking beer and discussing the nature of home. We had each moved to Wisconsin from Montgomery, Alabama, following our spouses here—his wife, Trish, for a Ph.D. program; my husband, Joe, for a job. At the time, Wisconsin was the latest pit stop in a litany of cross-country moves, yet part of me wondered whether we’d finally found the place that would entice us to stay awhile.

I shared this with my friend Jim, but he was skeptical. “You’re either roots or a tumbleweed,” he said. “You can’t be both.”

I thought about this for a moment and shook my head. “I don’t know if that’s true,” I said.

I grew up in the Texas panhandle, in the land of tumbleweeds. They rolled down University Avenue, cartwheeled across the pavement outside the Dollar Western Wear, lodged under pickup trucks barreling down I-27. My hometown smells like crude oil and cow manure. It’s a flat, treeless place, with endless amounts of red dirt, barbed wire, and horizon.

Each month, my parents would shuttle us into the minivan and drive south, to our grandparents’ pecan farm near Big Spring. The tumbleweeds and oil derricks and cotton fields that make up the west Texas landscape were as unremarkable to me as the gray, fabric seats of our Ford Aerostar. It was the first landscape that ever felt to me like home.

I wonder if that wide horizon is to thank for the insatiable urge to find out what was on the other side. Because once I left, I didn’t stop: Boston; Washington, DC; the coast of Maine; central Alabama; and, finally, Wisconsin.

There was something addictive about it. Each place became an exercise in shedding something old and acquiring something new, a constant re-invention of place and self and identity.

And there was so much to be found. In Washington, I came to love the concrete smells and many-bodied sounds of the city, the row houses and empanada stands, the known rituals of walking up and down the Metro escalators instead of standing on them. In Maine, I fell in love with snow, with waves crashing into rock, with the fierce independence of remote, roadless communities. In Alabama, I witnessed the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, honored Rosa Parks in the days after she died, and chronicled the brave and humbling stories of civil rights legends.

“Face it,” Jim said, raising his glass in my direction, “you are a tumbleweed.”

What I learned from tumbleweeds isn’t evident in old western movies: that the destination is less important than the distance traveled, than the arc and route of getting from there to here, what you pick up and what you let go of along the way. In that sense, we’re all tumbleweeds, dispersing our seeds and charting our courses.

  ***

 A lot of people have written about home—the joy of finding it, the desire to escape it, the pain of losing it. Maya Angelou describes the “ache of home” that “lives in all of us.” To Angelou, home is something to long toward, a mythical place where one might vulnerably, peacefully be oneself.

Wendell Berry describes home as an active state, as the primary lens through which we learn about, well, everything else. “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long,” he writes, “but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.” To understand the far-flung places, it seems we must first understand that which is right in front of us.

And, in honor of the cowboy poets of my homeplace, Andy Wilkinson reassures the weary wanderer, “When you wonder where you’re going, where you’ve been, and where you are, remember that the Wise Men followed nothing but a star…. Without the map, the road is still the road”—though elsewhere he warns, “The road that takes you cannot take you back.”

Each time we step out into the world, we have to learn these lessons all over again, for ourselves.

In all the wandering, I never stopped to consider what might be lost. It is a big place, west Texas, so vast and windswept that you sometimes feel you’re the only living thing for miles. There is a stillness there that to outsiders may feel stifling but to me has always offered room to breathe; time slows down and you can consider things. Yet when you leave a place and don’t go back, it can grow hard to claim it as your own. And so, after a while, I began to feel anchorless—a citizen of the United States, if not a particular one.

The truth about tumbleweeds is that sometimes they come to rest. They catch in barbed wire fences, in the gnarled roots of mesquite trees, in the muddy banks of the Brazos. When they land in a wet place, their branches soak up the moisture, and they loosen. Sometimes they dissolve. Sometimes they end up in a field, a whole cluster of them, and get caught in the rows of soybeans or cotton and stay there.

Against a backdrop of uncertainty—what will happen to the economy? who will lead our state? who will lead our nation?—the notion of rooting down has developed an appealing shine. This is no longer a pit stop, a temporary pause while planning other journeys. We woke up one day and realized we were home.

So this is our experiment: What do we lose when we put down roots—and what do we discover? How can we gather and disperse while we remain stationary? I am not a mystic or a deeply spiritual person, but I do believe one can experience stillness in a way that is active and inspired by a sense of seeking. Though we have decided to plant ourselves in this place, we still crane our necks to take in the horizon, the way the sun sets over the neighbor’s trees, the sound of urban wilderness at early morning light. There is an adventure and a purpose in this rooted place, and it’s our job now to find it.

originally published in ON LOST & FOUND, Spring 2012