A year or two ago, I began following a chap on Instagram who is engaged in a curious project. British, from rural Northumberland, he now lives in Manhattan and spends many of his weekends working on an 1830s cottage in upstate New York. His original home was “too sleepy and small” and somewhat “unaccepting” of him, his blog says vaguely, so he moved across the Atlantic. But he is now devoted to recreating his “little slice of England” on the cottage grounds. His Instagram posts document the radical transformation of an old American estate into something distinctly English: garden beds of foxgloves; William Morris wallpaper; his mum’s homemade pillows on the settee. He moved away from Northumberland only to return to it on his own terms — a version of home idealised through distance and nostalgia.
I understand this seemingly paradoxical impulse: the search for a home in places very far away from home. I understand, too, that moving can be about more than practical considerations. We move for school and love and work and financial reasons.
Yet moving can also be a purely emotional act. It can be a way of starting over — of starting something better. I like to think of it as drafts of the same creative project: your life. The original draft, or the original home, is a beginning that is inevitably unsatisfactory in some ways. Moving allows you to take what you’ve learnt and try again elsewhere in a new draft. Indeed, the common fantasy of a “dream home” is really just the hope for a final draft — a version of one’s life where all the problems have been ironed out and you can finally, once you move there, be your best self.
I have moved more times than I care to admit. My first major relocation was away from my family to university. The second move, less than a year later, was away from university and across the globe to London. It was not enough to drop out of my degree; I had to drop out of everything that was familiar to me. I was a confused kid, and the way I chose to figure things out was to start entirely fresh, with a blank page. In London, I lived in squalid share houses and run-down hostels. I made stupid mistakes and found myself in situations that could have ended very badly. I was, in effect, brainstorming ideas of who I wanted to be, like trying on costumes in a fancy dress store. And when I thought I had figured it out — “Oh, I am this person!” — I packed my bags and moved back to Australia.
This time I went to a different university, studying for an entirely different career path. I lived in Sydney for six years, got my degree, got a boyfriend, got an astonishing apartment in Potts Point overlooking the Sydney skyline. But then I decided the draft was not good enough: it was leading me to a conclusion that felt mediocre. I was destined, unless I turned the page, for unhappiness.
In 2010, I moved into a suitcase. I was like a snail, carting my home around with me. Everything that did not fit was either sold or put in long-term storage. I’d had some luck as a travel writer; I now made an unlikely career out of freelancing. For three years, I floated around the world with no particular destination in mind. Occasionally I would stop somewhere for a month or two, pretend I was “living there” while I caught up on a backlog of work. Then I would hit the road again, discarding anything I had unwittingly accrued.
There is an addictive thrill to moving so often, carrying so little. We are so accustomed to being burdened by stuff that a life committed to minimalism can seem like a kind of enviable freedom. In many ways, it was liberating to bounce between Kenya, Peru, Canada, Italy. I never knew where I was going to be from one week to the next. Looking back, though, I recall how I used to unpack and hang all my clothes in every hotel or apartment rental: an unconscious attempt, perhaps, to put down some roots, even fleetingly.
Eventually I realised I was lonely, too. When you’re always packing a bag, it’s impossible to make lasting connections. You become like a ghost in people’s lives, appearing and vanishing on the wind.
A new city, then, and a new draft. I moved to New York, a city full of residents who have mostly moved from elsewhere in pursuit of answers in Xanadu. “Nothing was irrevocable,” in New York, as Joan Didion once wrote. “Everything was within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about.” I got a master’s degree in journalism. I wrote a book. To my continual amazement, I even got married.
I could have kept working on that draft, living in that tiny apartment that was once a hotel room, its impractical kitchen fashioned out of what was once a closet space. But I moved again, because of my husband’s job — to Austin, Philadelphia and then Providence, Rhode Island. Sometimes the rewrites are taken out of our control. What has surprised me, however, is that these past few moves to cities that once had never interested me have turned out to be the best drafts yet. I have rearranged my furniture in some unexpected places and I have discovered versions of my life that are better than I could ever have imagined.
Sometimes I look at that Instagrammer with his faux-English cottage in Hudson Valley and I try to envisage my own dream home. Would I plant some gum trees and wattle, construct a Queenslander with a wide verandah on Cape Cod? Would I build an elegant replica of my original home in this adopted one? Would moving there make me my best self?
As I write this, I’m about to move again — to two places this time. Another house in Providence and an apartment in New York for a nine-month fellowship, commuting between the two on weekends. I have no idea if this is the final draft, but I’m looking forward to writing it.