I constructed a full life removed from dwelling. 2020 made me transfer again
When Madison Michael moved to Portland, Oregon in March to be closer to her 83-year-old father, she didn’t expect it to be a permanent proposition. But she brought a few things from her apartment in San Francisco, just in case: a great-grandfather’s luggage rack that she uses as a bar, a one-line drawing of a man in a top hat by an artist she loves. She calls the portrait Leroy. “I brought Leroy with me and he feels at home,” she says.
2020 should be a wide open year for Michael, 30. She had just sold her stake in Merchant Roots restaurant in San Francisco and was excited to see what her next adventure would be.
Then … well, we all know what happened next.
Now she’s fully furnished apartments in Portland and San Francisco, trying to figure out the shape of her life. “I’m lucky to now have two places to call home, but at the same time I don’t feel like either place is really home,” she says. “All of the expectations I had about where I was physically or who I wanted to be do not match. There was a lot of mental gymnastics to calm me down. “
This year has pushed many of us past our breaking points. Some of us – who have the privilege of working remotely or taking time off, who have the resources to store our belongings and travel, who have no family or other obligations to establish us – have made radical changes to ours made life. Changes we could never have imagined in January, like moving to our hometowns because we are now aware of our parents’ mortality, or moving south because the darkness of winter feels like a burden on our everyday lives Depression cannot sustain or escape nature because it’s the only place we can forget about it (gestures on everything). Without the usual baggage that anchors us – office jobs, dinners with friends, gyms, nightlife – we had to ask ourselves if the life we built still made sense.
When I rented a tiny apartment in New York’s SoHo neighborhood in January 2018, the whole point was that I was never there. I went to work, then I went to happy hour or yoga or pottery class or dinner with friends. On the days I was home, I appreciated the silence. Then suddenly all I had was silence.
In late March, I fled to my hometown of Seattle to be quarantined with my family.
When I returned to New York in July, I had to admit that my previously full life was gone. The office was a distant memory. My yoga studio is permanently closed. The pottery class was canceled and my cozy apartment now felt claustrophobic. I finally admitted that New York didn’t feel at home anymore.
Home is an elusive term that changes as we grow, says Clare Marcus, a retired professor of architecture at UC Berkeley. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, she asked more than 60 Bay Area residents what their homes meant to them in her book, The House as a Mirror of Self. People have strong emotional ties to their homes, she found. She hypothesized that people’s significant physical environments might be as important to their psychological development as their relationships with people. People’s homes consciously or unconsciously show their emotional state, which in turn affects how they feel in their homes.
That was long before the pandemic, which Marcus believes radically changed the way we think about home. Suddenly they are jobs and schools – all at once.
“It causes some stress for people,” says Marcus. Most people have designed their living spaces knowing that they can move some of their needs to other, more suitable, settings such as offices and gyms. Now the house is doing all the heavy lifting to meet those needs for everyone who lives there. People “get by,” says Marcus, “but it’s not easy.”
For some, the idea of being home all the time made them itch so much that they gave up the concept entirely for a while. They spend the winter surfing in Mexico or go on road trips for months through national parks like Kate James. James lived in New York, stored her things, and spent most of the spring and summer in her friend’s Potrero Hill home, which had a large deck and a view of the bay. “At the time, it was like the epitome of serenity and calm that emerged from the chaos in New York in March,” she says.
Then the fires struck and San Francisco’s dreamy prospects were shrouded in smoke. At this point, James and her boyfriend decided to take friends on a three-month road trip through the national parks to the west. I caught up with them in southwest Utah. She had just returned to live with friends after an unexpectedly long stay in Wyoming, where her boyfriend came down with COVID-19. They were quarantined in a two bedroom apartment for a couple of weeks when he recovered and she made sure she was clear.
Despite the stress of COVID infection, the lack of a home base, and total uncertainty about the future, James feels in the right place for the moment. “I really needed this change of scene,” she says. “Even the hassle of packing the car and driving (from national park to national park) is a relief when you are stuck in the four walls of your mind for so many months.”
I had my own much-needed scene change recently. After admitting that New York no longer met my needs, I decided to return to my first home, Seattle, where most of my family still lives and where I can find the nature I desperately longed for. I’m with my parents while I figure out what my life should be like here. It is confusing to be back in my nursery surrounded by items from my past while my current life waits in a storage unit in New York. But in a deeper way, for the first time since February, I feel right where I’m supposed to be.
Anna Roth is a freelance writer. Email: [email protected]