Roots vs. Wanderlust: On Home, Accumulation & What’s Missing

I’m standing in front of a gray EDLAND nightstand, tracing its edge with my finger. I glance at the tag dangling off its side. 32 1/4 inches long.

I stare off. At nothing in particular. I’m in the bedroom showroom at IKEA; it’s overwhelming, just as the living room section had been. I stare off until the space between this $149 three-drawer nightstand and the $79 single-drawer nightstand next to it blurs. Am I blacking out? I’m still standing, I haven’t fainted, and no one is looking at me oddly, so I think I am fine.

In my daze, I envision the corner of my bedroom next to the window.

Will this fit?

I study the side of the nightstand. The tag says it’s 20 1/4 inches in depth.

It’s gotta fit.

I hate paying attention to these kinds of details. But with the handy miniature pencil I picked up at the start of this maze, I write down the product name, article number, price, aisle, and bin. My furniture-induced trance is broken by the piercing scream of a little boy pulling away from his mother.

I wait until they pass—actually, I wait until several groups of families with strollers pass—and then follow an arrow to “Wardrobes and Storage.”

It feels like I’ve been here for hours. Descended to the Third Circle of Hell, wandering amongst the gluttons who can’t choose between chests and wardrobes and two drawers or five drawers or creme or gray or red or blue that they end up buying them all. Part of me wants to be here, to continue building my new home. And part of me wants to run away.

Because it’s sunny outside. I think about how lovely the park probably is today; how I could fancy a stroll downtown; how I could call a friend to meet for a 3 p.m. pint at Zeitgeist and stare at everyone who should be working but aren’t working and we wonder how they are able to not work if they appear to look like they need to work. Like us, I guess. I think about how nice it would be to lie in a hammock with my beloved, somewhere on a beach along an azure sea. How it would be wonderful to wander the white-walled alleys of Granada again, gingerly following feral cats up steps. And then sipping sangria on a hot day before taking a nap on our balcony, our arms intertwined.

Oh, my eyes. They often let go and lose focus, and I find myself somewhere in Europe.

And then I notice I nearly run into a child playing on the ground in the children’s accessories section, come to my senses and see the exit to the “Market Hall,” and run down the stairs.

* * *

ras shaitan

My daydreams are rich and vivid and intense in a satisfying way, where when I close my eyes I see colors and loved ones; I hear beats and laughter. For years my daydreams were weak: they were fragments, populated by only me. But they are complete now. I dream of places I want to explore, of the person I want to be with, of sounds I want to hear, of textures and sensations and warm night breezes I want to feel.

* * *

I wrote about “home” not too long ago, as I had moved into a new place, but realized that having my own physical space didn’t make the meaning of “home” any clearer. I have bought rugs for both bedrooms, a floor lamp, a world map decal from Urban Outfitters and Marc Johns prints for my walls, a hat and jacket rack, an assortment of shelving, and a pretty sofa from Room and Board.

All these things.

But it still does not feel like home.

And then there will be the floor pillows and a coffee table, and the circular ottoman that will double as a table on which I will strategically place my favorite illustrated books, and the hanging lanterns for my high ceiling, and the large-format prints for my bare loft walls, and the blinds for all three windows facing the street, and the designer corner chair to complement the sofa. (But god, not the Eames Chair. I shouldn’t buy this. Could I?)

And of course, the EDLAND nightstand that may or may not fit in the corner of my bedroom.

And then I think about the night that I invite people over for housewarming cocktails: when I’m done decorating my living room, when there is food on all three shelves of my fridge, when guests can sleep in my downstairs bedroom and think: this place is cozy, I love being a guest here, what an amazing place.

living room

* * *

But I close my eyes and am reminded of my fear of things.

And that, come Christmas, I will get nervous about how to explain to most of my family members that I REALLY, TRULY HATE STUFF: stuff I don’t ask for, stuff I don’t need, stuff that is given just to be given.

I’m not a grouch, I explain. I just want experiential gifts, you know? I want dinners or museum tickets or things I can consume and make disappear. I want plane tickets. I want time with those I love. I want something you cannot buy.

I think about how splendid a hike in the woods to a secluded swimming hole would be. How we could have a picnic on the grass like we had done, eating fruits and bread and cheese as the sunlight filtered through the trees, and we looked at each other and realized where we were and how we got there. How we could snuggle by a fire in a cabin somewhere cold, and read parts of our books to each other so we could share the worlds in which we were immersed and listen to each others’ voices.

trees fisheye lens

* * *

And then I flip through the latest CB2 catalog that arrives in the mail. And I salivate and dog-ear pages of thousand-dollar area rugs and wine racks and cute outdoor dining and lounge sets that I want.

(But no, I don’t have a backyard.)

The CB2 catalog sits on my dining table for weeks. Then the Crate and Barrel summer sale catalog arrives, and then the 20 percent Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, and then the private Bloomingdales friends and family postcards. And then the bills trickle in, and I get my checks ready. And I buy nothing.

Five months later, my home remains mostly bare.

Yet deep down, I’m okay with it.

* * *

It’s quite confusing, all of this.

How seeing the accumulation of my things in a space that I own is both exciting and suffocating. How roots and wanderlust continue to battle. How I am eager for “home” to be something concrete, but know that no place I inhabit will feel like home until I have the one thing that’s missing.

Two Oregonians mused on home and things, too, after reading my post. Check out “Home: Letting Go of Place and Things.”

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

17 thoughts on “Roots vs. Wanderlust: On Home, Accumulation & What’s Missing

  1. “How I am eager for “home” to be something concrete, but know that no place I inhabit will feel like home until I have the one thing that’s missing.”
    Good luck on your search!

  2. Thank you for striking a chord. The comforts of home (tangible or not) are both soothing and terrifying in their ways of wrapping around our hearts and keeping us tethered. We’ve tried to keep possessions to a minimum, and yet we still feel so surrounded by things. We’re letting go, soon, of the settled life, and I wonder what that independence will do to us in the long run. I’ve tried to picture our future setting, when we’re home from a year on the road, and I keep coming up blank. Your reflections on your current situation gave me a glimpse… Best of luck to you in this current season. xx

    1. Hi — thanks so much for your post on this. I’m really pleased that you identified with these musings and you, too, are reflecting on what home and things and place mean to you. Best of luck to you as well!

  3. What a beautiful, moving post. Love the format, too.

    I think it’s interesting how we choose to ‘own’ the space we inhabit. Looking around my (newish) flat, I realize I’ve done what seems to be very little to make it ‘mine’. Shifted the furniture around, which I always do. Stuck two cards up on a mirror in my bedroom. Hung a small wooden Franciscan cross on a door handle, despite not being formally ‘religious’. Put a photo on my door. That’s it. Oh, and I burn incense, stuck in blu-tac in the base of a chopped off water bottle.

    But I suppose it’s different if you know you won’t be somewhere for that long… if you’re renting. I think, similar to what you mentioned, for me ‘home’ is a concept that is as much about my relationship to the people and places in which I’m embedded, as about the stuff that sits in my shelter.

    And – more audio please!

    1. Thank you — I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think there’s an innate need to make a space our “own,” even if it’s small or bare, but I’m seeing how creating a place with things can only do so much. Home is indeed just as much (or more so) a concept rather than something to be built or moved through or slept in.

      Yes, Nick. Will do more audio.

  4. What a beautiful post, your voice so soothing and calm as you describe your internal conflict. I understand when you say “stuff I don’t need, stuff that is given just to be given”, I call them “grandma gifts” because my grandmother always sent me useless items. This post makes me curious and calm, and I want to keep reading. Then again, this is usually how I feel after I read your blog.

    1. So interesting to hear that a post describing my perpetual inner conflict makes you feel calm. I really appreciate your comments and that you continue to return to my blog! Have a good weekend and enjoy the supposedly nice weather we will have.


  5. Love. Love. Great narrative here Cheri and I really enjoyed the audio of it. I’m constantly torn on this idea of home and it’s always evolving. Is it things? Is it a place? Is it things that I can’t actually show for like plane tickets to far off destinations? It’s evolving for me, but I’m finding that it’s the things that aren’t so tangible that are making a place home.

    1. Yup, I know “home” is constantly evolving for you, too. I know you’re a fan of both LOST and Inception, and are familiar with the concept of a “constant” and a “totem” (which, to me, are quite similar). I’m actually beginning to sense “home” as a sort of constant/totem — it’s more a feeling (and a person, to be honest). I think this desire to understand what “home” is has actually brought out the romantic in me, as well as a need for nostalgia.

      For me, it’s definitely intangible.

      Thanks for reading (and listening)!

  6. All great stuff on the conceptual framework of your post. . .

    On the practical matter of “REALLY, TRULY HATE STUFF”, it’s seems better to overcome the nervousness by making your position well “advertised”. If, for example, there is some type of gift exchange that includes sharing your wish list, then preface your preferences with “PLEASE, NO STUFF that takes up space that I (nor you) would really want and only is slightly humorous or satisfying for half of a split second”.

    It doesn’t make you ungrateful, just honest.

    1. “It doesn’t make you ungrateful, just honest.”

      Thanks for this. I agree. And I think being straightforward about the gift stuff is the way to go. At times, though, I think some people don’t quite understand *why* I don’t prefer traditional (ie, tangible) gifts. But I’ll keep reminding everyone anyway!

  7. As someone who has a similar phobia about Stuff with a capital S, it’s strangely comforting to know that that doesn’t actually change once you have a place to put the stuff. That the answer isn’t necessarily to just stay put and fight through the wanderlust. I guess the fundamental conflict and dichotomy doesn’t shift, it’s just is a part of you. As difficult as it is, maybe there is nothing missing? Maybe it’s acceptance of that flux that’s the real home? I don’t know. I’m looking to you to figure it out for me 🙂

    1. “I guess the fundamental conflict and dichotomy doesn’t shift, it’s just is a part of you.”

      I think this is spot on. And I think this inner struggle, while confusing, is ultimately something that drives and inspires us. Kinda sick and masochistic in a way.

      I think the pull in both directions is natural, and I’d honestly be more worried if I *wasn’t* conflicted at all. “Acceptance of that flux” as the “real home” is also on point.

      Thanks for the note 🙂

  8. Nice. I feel like that conflict you identify between roots and wanderlust is at the heart of a lot of good writing (and the source of a lot of discontent, too). I always think of this quote (which I’m constantly using and repurposing in my own work, and foisting on everyone else) from Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place: “Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other.”

    I also love this detail: “how I could call a friend to meet for a 3 p.m. pint at Zeitgeist and stare at everyone who should be working but aren’t working and we wonder how they are able to not work if they appear to look like they need to work. Like us, I guess.”

    1. Place, space. Roots, wanderlust. Stability, freedom. I agree…it’s a conflict that drives a lot of good writing (and the writing I most identify with and enjoy).

      That quote is great! Thanks for sharing it.

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