I lived in the same house for the first ten years of my life. When my parents mentioned the possibility of moving to a better school district, I was adamant that if they moved, they’d have to leave me behind. It was more than a house – it was my room with the run-away window, the overgrown backyard with the orange tree and bamboo forest, the neighborhood kids I’d grown up with who’d become some of my best friends, my whole lifetime of memories. Of course, I was eventually persuaded that our move across town was for the best, and in retrospect, I know that it was. But I still remember that last night in my childhood home – lying awake in a sleeping bag on my bedroom floor, the moving boxes making shadow monsters on the bare walls. That was the first sleepless night of my young life. I was afraid that leaving my childhood home meant leaving my childhood behind, that my life would never be the same again. And it wasn’t.
The spaces where we spent our time define the way we live. A house is not just a shelter from the elements and a place to store material possessions; it is the shell within which we allow ourselves to be our most true selves and shapes our relationship with the world. The way a house is laid out affects how an inhabitant moves within it. For example, a large picture window may let in light, but also make a nightgown-clad occupant feel exposed. The location of a house impacts the way its residents use the house. For example, urban windows may let in pollution and noise, while opening suburban windows may permit entry of only a gentle breeze.
I have never been good with change; few people are. But I know that change is inevitable, and that every ending marks a new beginning. Change is all around us all the time. Even so, a shift in location is a special kind of change because it sets off a domino effect of adjustments. Will we need blackout curtains? Who will our neighbors be? How will I get to school or work? Where will we get our groceries? What will we come to love / hate about living there?
The second house I lived in growing up was our home for five years. Since then, however, I have moved every year or two. In other words, my entire adult life has been a blur of constant motion. From dorm rooms, to host family homes, to group houses, to granny flats out back, to attic apartments, to English basements, to luxury condos … my stays have lasted from one month to two years. Every time I move I purge things that won’t fit, one way or another, into my new life in the new space. Maybe my new roommate already has a TV, or my coffee table can’t be carried down the stairs, or I no longer need my dictionary and thesaurus, or I want to leave behind curtains that smell of a past relationship. And each place I move into has challenged me to find new ways to accommodate my old belongings. Where to feature the huge fan a dear friend brought me from China, how to arrange my toiletries to allow for maximum efficiency on busy mornings, what to do with all my craft supplies . . .
Two weeks ago my family left the two bedroom, two bathroom condo we’ve inhabited for the last two years in downtown DC. Aside from the very first time I moved when I was ten years old, this move has been the most difficult – psychologically and logistically – of my life. For one thing, our life in this particular space has been particularly blessed. The condo itself was spacious, with lots of storage, a walled park for my son to run in, a rooftop pool, and a 24-hour grocery store/ pharmacy downstairs. I walked six blocks to work, and my husband could choose from a half-dozen playgrounds and museums to walk to with the kids. More than that, our downtown condo is where our son learned to crawl and then to walk, and where we found out we were pregnant and brought our daughter home from the hospital. All of our immediate family members, and several extended family members and dear friends, stayed with us in that condo, and their memories linger within its walls.
Flashing back to my ten-year-old self – after I’d adjusted to our new house – my fifth-grade classmates and I went on a field trip to Washington, D.C. We’d been here just a day or two when I called my parents (from a pay phone) to declare that this is where I was going to live when I grew up. Downtown D.C. has more or less been my home base for the past twelve years. I never owned a home or a car, but lived a true urban lifestyle in this unique, diverse, cosmopolitan city.
Now all that has changed. Since buying a car my family drives almost everywhere, even when it would be easier to take public transportation or cheaper to walk. We traded our 8-year-old condo for an 80-year-old house. Owning, as opposed to renting, means coming to terms with a building’s idiosyncrasies and knowing that if something goes wrong, you have no one to call. Our new home is only about a mile from the D.C. border, but it feels a world away. Instead of waking to grocery delivery trucks, we hear our neighbor’s lawnmower in the morning. Rather than walking to work, I now take a bus and a train every day. My kids’ afternoons are now spent in the backyard or local library instead of a Smithsonian Museum.
Most of my moves have involved big changes – a new school or job, new roommates and landlords, and often a new part of the country or world. In that context, this 6-mile relocation seems trivial. Plus, my husband did all of the heavy lifting for our move (literally and figuratively) and I only took one day off work, so there was not too much disruption to our normal routine. Or so I thought. Now, exactly two weeks later with half our belongings still in boxes and our routine in shambles, my family’s situation feels anything but “normal.”
Part of the reason I have moved frequently as an adult has been to avoid growing attached to places and belonging. Ever since that first traumatic move when I was ten I have treated each new dwelling and possession as temporary. It is my coping mechanism for dealing with change – making movement the norm so that it is less unsettling. What makes this move so different is that we anticipate it will be our last for a while. After a lifetime of meandering, I am putting down roots. In many ways, that is exciting. It means no more IKEA; we’re going to have “real” furniture. I ordered a bird feeder and patio furniture (bought from a store, not Craig’s List). We greet our neighbors every chance we get. We can paint our walls whatever color we want without having to check with the landlord, and we can repaint them if we change our minds in a year or two.
On the other hand, with years of living in this home stretching out before me, I am annoyed that I need a step stool to reach the kitchen cabinets. I realize how expensive utilities for a whole house are, not to mention the cost and time involved in yard maintenance. I am most surprised by how vulnerable I feel in our new home. I jump when the FedEx guy knocks on the door; there seem to be spiders everywhere. Heaven forbid there are train delays that keep me from my kids after a long day in the office (I hate being dependent on the train to get home). I’m frustrated that I cannot just stop in on a friend when I am “in the neighborhood” and that I have to schedule play dates far in advance. I live in fear of a large branch falling from one of our 100+-year-old trees and hitting someone or damaging the roof. I have nightmares about intruders, floods, and fires threatening this structure that has swallowed up my life savings and surrounds the people I hold most dear.
Each night for the last two weeks has felt like that night in my childhood home before I moved for the first time. I cannot help but wonder if the move from the city to the suburbs, from being a pedestrian to a commuter, from renting to owning, from just inhabiting a space temporarily to living somewhere for the foreseeable future, marks the end of a major chapter in my life. No more am I a young professional drinking in all that our nation’s capital has to offer, living the life I imagined for myself the first time I visited DC. Now I am a government bureaucrat, mother of two, with a mini-van and a nice house in the suburbs.
Perhaps, just as at ten years old when I feared my childhood was over, I am being over-dramatic. I am quite sure I will come to love the new life I will live in my new house, but for now, I am mourning the home and the lifestyle I left behind. Because, just as when I was ten years old, deep down I know that it is me who is changing. My family and I need a new space to grow into. And although we do not yet know when that day will come, we will eventually grow out of this first home. My kids will probably cry and refuse to leave, and I will try to convince them it is for the best. It always is.