Log cabin contemplations: the weirdness of moving back into your childhood home

By on Aug 22nd

Afternoon sun

This is me welcoming you into my family home in 1977

As I mentioned last week, I'm spending much of this month in the rustic log cabin that my parents built in the mid-'70s. I lived in this house from ages 2-18, moving out 18 years ago — which means I spent roughly half my life living in this rustic log cabin my parents built on Bainbridge Island.

When I was growing up, my bedroom was the a 5"x8" room. The room had a built-in bunk bed, meaning that there was no rearranging the furniture. I used to have reoccuring dreams in that bed of moving to other houses, walking into rooms and saying to my parents, "Is this one mine?! Oh my gosh, I can do so many things with it!" I liked where I lived, but I'd never experienced a move and the idea of a NEW ROOM was intoxicating.

By the time I was in middle school, I was dreaming of a room that didn't have exposed log walls — it was impossible to hang up my Scott Grimes and Mackenzie Astin posters on those lumpen logs. I cursed the rounded surfaces, going through roll after roll of tape as I tried to get anything to stick to the oiled logs that ruined all my postcards and wrinkled everything I ripped out of Tiger Beat.

It was the '80s and GOD I JUST WANTED TO BE NORMAL. Seriously, I cannot convey how desperately I wanted to be normal — the more suburban, the better. I listened to La Isla Bonita on my bright red plastic FM radio walkman and wished I had a mom who'd show me how to shave my legs. Even the outcasts of '80s teen films had one up on me — at least they had sidewalks to ride their bikes down! I lived on a dirt road, with no neighborhood friends.

Keep in mind, this was just before the grunge era, when alternative Northwestern culture became a national trend. Seattle was still just a small working class city — not that I saw much of it: first one and then both of my parents commuted into the city for work, so the last thing they wanted to do was go into the city on their weekends. Instead, we went camping, while I strategized about how to spray my bangs up. (I didn't know how to tease my hair or know how to use a blow dryer — a cultural handicap of having a hippie mom.)

My parents and their uncool VW van and their log house and stupid drums didn't become interesting to my friends until high school. For most of my childhood and young adolescence, I was an only child who spent a LOT of time alone in the woods talking to myself and obsessing about things. Once I was old enough to be left home alone, summers were endless stretches of days trapped in the forest by myself. I read a lot of magazines (I am not being hyperbolic when I say that Sassy magazine changed my life) and had several dozen international pen-pals who I tracked my communications with via a hand-drawn spreadsheet. (Really, not that different from what I do now, if you think about it.)

Growing up, I spent a lot of time alone, up in my head, trapped in these woods, in this house.

I don't mean to make it sound like I was some miserable captive, held hostage by my cruel parents. I think many small-town/semi-rural children experience a sense of isolation; especially those of us whose parents sheltered us more aggressively from the outside world. I eventually compensated by being obsessively busy in middle and high school, working on my jazz hands in local children's theater productions, toiling over honors classes, and keeping my schedule jam packed to avoid long stretches of alone-time in the forest.

Since I spent much time alone in this house, I have an oddly intense, intimate relationship with the space. There are aspects of the architecture that are burned into my body memory in ways I can't even fully understand. Going up the narrow, bending staircase that leads upstairs, I found myself reaching out for a support post in the bend. If you get a good grab of it, you can swing around it a bit, getting you up the stairs that much faster.


Me age 6, outside the cabin

When I pointed this out to my mom, she said, "Weird, I never did that walking up those stairs," and I realized oh der: that's something I figured out as a child and just kept doing. Most adults don't go looking for ways to swing through the house in the same ways that, say, bored 6-year-old girls do.

Coming down from what was then known as "the TV loft" (home of the 13" TV I watched obsessively as a way to research this mysterious thing called "the outside world"), I find myself instinctively reaching out halfway down the ladder for the beam on the door frame near-by. Grab it, and you can swing the rest of the way down from the ladder — aaaaaand, DISMOUNT!

In other words, my body remembers playing in this house, even when my brain remembers mostly moping around, trying to impress my father with my vocabulary, bursting into tears and explaining that I was "melancholy" over a cancelled third grade slumber party. This bathroom mirror witnessed hours of me practicing the Running Man, and could tell stories of my ill-fated experiments with turquoise mascara and crunchy perms.

This house knows things about me that I've long-since forgotten, and maybe don't even consciously know. Body memory is weird that way. I find myself getting triggered by the shapes of light — the cut-out of the sunlight slanting through the gaps in the trees.

It's no wonder I have zero heat tolerance — it is honestly never hot this deep in the temperate rainforest. This morning, mid-August, I woke up and put on a wool sweater. Is it any wonder I was completely confused when we lived in Los Angeles, walking around like a sad little hairy vole, blinking and feeling constantly naked? So… few clothes. Such… bright air. So… warm? My brain almost collapsed every time I went to desert parties.

"You have to take this picture," I told Kellianne, my friend who's time-sharing with me, hanging out with her son who's just six months younger than Tavi. Her son Niko was standing in the doorway of the log cabin, with the filtered afternoon sun coming through the doorway. "From here," I art directed, pointing at the floor in front of me.

"But it's all back lit," she said, squinting into her iPhone.

"I know," I said. "That's how it's supposed to be. Then it's all silhouette-y." The photo she ended up taking could have been any number of photos from my family photo album.

About to leave the woods for dinner at Canlis.  TRIPPY!

Photo by Kellianne Benson

The geometry of this space is so burnt into my mind that it's like I've got ghosts on my retinas — when I look into certain spaces, my eyes start pattern-seeking to match up the lines. Right, I think to myself. That Madrona tree shades the porch from 10am to noon, I remember that now. Growing up in the woods, we had to follow patches of sun around the property.

(Beauty aside: I credit this almost complete lack of sun with the condition of my skin. Thanks, forested childhood! I'm finally starting to appreciate you!)

With these comfortable fittings of familiarity come some of the weird darker moments too. Earlier this week, I found out that Andreas and our geighbor were watching our favorite TV show without me that night. I also noticed on Facebook that some friends were heading off to a music festival I bought tickets for (but decided to skip). I sat there in the woods and felt a tidal wave of MISSING OUTedness wash over me, and it tasted like the briny gnashings of my youth — a deep foreboding that Things Were Going On, and I was stuck in the woods. MISSING OUT.

This odd isolated sensation may have motivated much of my 20s, what with all the inner-city urban living, and 8000-person party attending and the like. MUST PARTY ALL THE THINGS! The world is happening and I'm stuck here and I must go do stuff! LOTS OF STUFF!

Even though I was able to intellectually recognize the MISSING OUT sensation for what it was (another ghost, only this one on my heart instead of in my eye), there was no arguing with the emotions. I could tell myself that far from missing anything, I was having an amazing experience — spending a month with family and friends in an amazing place! — but my emotional imprint was difficult to shake. The experience of living in this house has left its marks on me in ways I can't control, even when I throw the weight of my brain behind it.

Adding to the oddness of being in the house is that it's completely empty. It's an unfurnished rental, and aside from a few chairs and a futon I dragged over to use for the month, we're not bothering to fill the space with furniture. It turns the house into a blank canvas, letting me paint my own history onto the walls in my mind's eye.

As a parent myself now, I'm able to see the ways that this place is a magical spot to raise a child. Tavi L O V E S the log cabin. He's in a great mood from morning to night, and is layered in mosquito bites from his adventures in the forest. He likes to wander away, find a wood shed, and doodle back with a shovel. He likes to follow the dog around the forest, not quite chasing her, but winding around trees and stumps as he chants the dog's name. He's got a never ending stream of favorite people to hang out with — his Grandma T, her partner Tere, Grampa D who swings by on his bike to peel oranges and talk about eye balls. His baby buddy Nikko, who likes to grab things out of his hand but always has Cheerios to share. Tavi is good tempered at home, but he's in heaven out on the Island.

I'm able to look at him and see that yes, if you're an adventurous, outdoorsy child, a cabin in the woods is pretty much heaven. I'm also able to recognize that, well, I wasn't the adventurous, outdoorsy child my son is — I was an exceedingly cautious "inside kid" who preferred storytelling, play-acting, socializing, and lots of stimulation over exploring in the woods. As such, I grew up into a woman who loves living in the city, so that even in my mid-30s when I don't feel like going out as much, I still love feeling the city-energy of people and culture washing over me, like a steaming hot shower of my favorite everything. Even when I'm MISSING OUT, I can still feel the flow of the city. I love that feeling.

But it's an incredible blessing to have access to this quieter place, these dark woods, and this creaking log cabin. It's a great gift to be able to explore this forest with my son, watching him prod at the same dirt I prodded, and giving him a deep drink of both worlds.

After 18 years of making my own homes, I now have a different recurrent dream. Half the dreams I remember STILL take place in this house, on this land, on this island — and ESPECIALLY on the ferry you have to take from Seattle to get here. Despite not living on the Island for 18 years, the visual ghosts of my childhood home are still dancing in patterns on my inner eyelids.

Tavi on the ferry