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

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Afternoon sun

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.

FancyWhen 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!

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

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

  1. Lovely post. It made me think about my childhood home — in the middle of nowhere, also with no neighbor-friends, also wandering by myself for hours. Days. I simultaneously miss it and never want to go back.

  2. i must say, i grew up in the ‘burbs and experienced that same case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). MTV fueled mine so of course i took off for new york city as fast as i could… that eventually burned me out too – FOMO was WORSE in the city because I COULD NOT DO IT ALL – tho god knows i spent most of my twenties trying, lol. These days i think i might do best in a commune. seriously – people AND nature. but i am back here in portland, and it also has a heavy draw for me – the sidewalks and neighborhoods and access to stuff for me and paloma… so confusing!

  3. This was such a sweet post, you’re lucky you can go back, I constantly long to walk inside the house I grew up in and to go sledding down the old hill or sneak off to the graveyard, or smell the familiar spring air of lilacs mixed with go-cart engine fuel from my youth.

    But the one thing I have to mention, is that for all the Mack Astin photos from all those magazines, why does wikipedia not have a single one! hah.

  4. TOTALLY relate – from the left-out feeling of growing up in the country to the learning the value of it when you’re an adult.

    My father still lives in the home I grew up in and, when he recently ripped out a staircase as part of his remodel, I nearly cried – remembering all the times I’d bumped to the bottom as a kid (it was very steep and carpeted and awesome).

  5. This might be a weird question Ariel, but this post left me wondering what your personality type is? My husband and I discuss Myers-Briggs personality stuff all the time, and this has led me to wonder how different folks tend to do in various locations and circumstances. I find it really fascinating!

    Apart from that, this was a cool piece! I think everyone has a sense of home-that-was and finds new ways to relate to those spaces and memories as an adult. I really miss my childhood home, which my dad sold a couple of years ago. I grew up in the suburbs, and was kind of isolated as a young kid because I was just painfully shy.

  6. Hi Ariel, I, too, grew up in the middle of nowhere (n. wisconsin), and while I was, like Tavi, an outdoorsy, adventurous kid, I still longed for culture and normalcy in much of my childhood. I credit NPR for keeping me from going crazy. It’s funny where we find salvation, and where we had to find it in the pre-internet age. I wonder if my childhood would’ve been easier or harder if I’d had more opportunities for connection via the internet . . . at least I would’ve had the opportunity to realize that I wasn’t quite so alone as I thought.

    • Despite my childhood isolation, I’m not sure Bainbridge qualifies as middle of nowhere. The island is a 35 ferry ride from downtown Seattle, which makes it technically more of an exurb than a true nowhere. I was VERY sheltered and isolated, but the reality is that downtown Seattle was door-to-door only about an hour away.

  7. I wish I could go back to my old house. I’m not that far removed from it, only having Moved Out For Good when my parents sold it three years ago, but the place has been completely changed. My mom told me that it’s up for sale again, so I looked at the real estate website photos… it doesn’t even look like my house anymore. Walls have been removed, my old bedroom is a pink nursery, and they fenced the backyard and tore out a TON of trees (which is the worst part, IMHO). In a way, I almost feel like it’s a good thing, since it means that I can only go forward in life and not backwards… but it’s still kinda sad.

  8. I relate to this in so many ways…. rural, isolated upbringing, hippie mother who couldn’t help me tease my bangs and a jam packed social life as soon as I had the means.

    Thanks for the great post, Ariel!

  9. I find this so fascinating since its in such contrast to my experience growing up and still so much the same. I think every kid goes through at least a little of the im missing out fear.
    P.S. even though there were lots of neighborhood kids we did not have sidewalks, my sister and I would purposefully go the long way to the pool for the sidewalks 🙂

  10. I’m loving these posts! This one especially brought back so many memories of my own isolated home in Northern New Mexico. The bedroom loft, the adobe walls, the un-skatable dirt roads, the exact spots to touch as I climbed the stairs, the hum of the solar panels as they charged, the daydreams of a normal house…

  11. Well, I have to say that growing up in the woods in a cabin sounds like heaven to me. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit – and frankly hated it. I loved when we’d go to my grandma’s farm because I could play with the dogs and wander around anywhere and see no one. Sadly, my grandma sold the farm when I was 7 so I didn’t have my outdoor refuge for long.

    I think it’s definitely a personality thing. And while all personality tests are not entirely accurate for everyone, I am ALWAYS an introvert and every time I’ve taken the myers briggs, I’m an INTJ.

    Maybe we should have switched childhoods!

  12. I grew up in log cabin, too, in what has become the inner suburbs of a Mid-Atlantic city. (And, therefore, can absolutely relate to the log-wall-hanging-dilemma!!) I liked being there and appreciate it even more now, although visiting my grandma in the more-developed northern suburbs was always a treat *ahem* because we could hear the occasional car going by at night. (Living on a main drag in Berlin that was extremely loud nearly 24/7 — and vowing to never do so again — makes me chuckle about that last part.)

    I also love that I could travel the world and then settle in a small — more like teeny — city now, where I can walk everywhere and don’t have to worry about snakes and squirrels finding their way inside. I didn’t worry so much about fitting in growing up — my family is just too weird and I love them/us for it — but it was extremely annoying dealing with others’ stereotypes, namely those from the rather clueless kids in the rapidly-appearing McMansions. (“I bet your dad has a shotgun!” Conversely, friends found the place fascinating and cool and, well, different.) The great irony is that I live out farther west, near the very place that seemed SO backwoods to me, and I realize it’s really not the case at all. (So much for stereotypes, right?)

    I like your piece, Ariel, because it shows how much growing up where we do shapes — but doesn’t have to restrict — us. Moving around a lot can be great but I consider myself really fortunate to have spent my entire childhood in one home and a home I can still return to, even if my new home feels more like home these days. Hooray for fellow former log-cabin-dwellers! And how nice that your son can experience the best of “both” worlds.

  13. Reflecting on what you had to say about ghosts, I realized that the “home” that I grew up in for the most part still hangs over me.

    Not because it was a negative experience in my past (it was a great home), but because after I moved out for college and my mother moved out and passed away, my father drastically changed aspects of the house (mother’s living room into an Irish bar, new walls in places, different colors, etc). Even though my father and brother still live there and they have invited me to visit, I feel haunted by the fact that I will never be able to set foot on that property again without thinking of the “missing” parts of my past.

    I guess I will have to deal with it when the time comes.

  14. I had the exact opposite childhood! Lol. I grew up in a medium-sized city in residential-only neighborhoods (the oldschool suburbs) with plenty of sidewalks and within walking distance of my schools and biking distance of the local library, pool, and bike paths. But every summer growing up we’d go camping and/or visit Tuttle, ND where my great-grandmas’ houses were and I’d find myself wishing I lived out on the prairie or in the deep woods of MN. I LIKED the gravel roads and all the emptiness and no people around. Lol… Of course, it was always nice to go back to hot showers at the end of the week.

  15. This was lovely.
    I too felt resonances reading this. I grew up an only child on a farm (although not a working farm). I was also more the indoorsy type but, being imaginative, I played “corn fairy” in the fall and managed to replant asparagus all over my mum’s garden, wandered our land during the summer, played in the ditches during the spring thaw and fondly remember running around naked in the rain (mostly when I was a little girl). At the same time I was lonely. My stay-at-home mum had housework to do and we had no neighbours even remotely close with kids. I used to be significantly more social or at least I wanted to be. I longed for an easy way to go see my friends and to be included in impromptu trips to the ice cream parlor or movie watching that they had. It was uphill both ways (it literally was, I lived in a valley and our town was in a valley) to ride a bike into town and I just wasn’t that enthusiastic about my bike. I never learned to rollerskate or rollerblade or skateboard on the gravel. I too became very busy in high school, being in multiple bands and jazz bands at school and eventually taking an advanced art class, both because I enjoyed it, and to avoid even more time alone in my head, hiding in my bedroom. Living in a large house, it was all too easy to be even more alone, although my frustration with parents who were significantly older and (at least to my teenager self) incredibly out of touch.

    They sold the house a year ago (during the exceedingly amicable divorce process) and it was odd being back while they cleaned it out. My mum had moved out but my dad had been there a bit before moving in with his fiancee. Things were not as they had been, and seeing the boxes in piles was strange. A family friend bought the house and I’m sure has done a wonderful job with it, although I haven’t seen it. My dad and his fiancee have now built a house nearby and from some of their windows you can just see the edge of my old house. It’s extra strange looking down at the land I used to roam from a different vantage, having that “almost back” feeling but without being back, and realizing it feels like a dream rather than like coming home.

  16. Great post. I like the part about body memory and swinging up the stairs. Sometimes I miss the house I grew up in (which has since been sold) for exactly that reason. I used to swing myself down the steps every time, and I can’t quite do it in other places.

    I was fortunate enough to grow up in the suburbs and have other kids on the block to play with, but still had acres of woods behind my house to play in. It was supposed to be a big development, but they started building before they acquired all the land, and the other seller backed out at the last minute. I loved those woods!

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