Moving in Madrid

I have a new home. That makes 25 in 35 years.

Moving days

On September 1, 2017, like so many September Firsts before it, I moved. Not from one US city to another, but from NYC to Madrid. As of today, I have been in Spain for exactly a year and a half. Of the 13 cities I have called home in my life, I have lived in Madrid the third longest amount of time.

At home in Madrid

I came to Madrid to teach English; rather, I used teaching English as an excuse to come to Madrid. Upon arriving, I joined with friends to finagle our way into a flat on Calle de Alcalá, a historical street that bisects the city, cutting a diagonal line through Madrid’s center. That four-bedroom flat was imbued with unassuming charm and the Madrileño aesthetic of a generation that had known life under Franco.

I technically lived in that flat for about nine months, enough time for one roommate to be replaced by another and the group to settle into individuals routine. While I lived there, most of my income came from online English tutoring, a workable if not consistent (or consistently enjoyable) endeavor. 

Though I’ve given up teaching online, for a few hours a week, I still teach/tutor English to working adults and a couple preteen boys. The majority of my income, though, comes from a variety of freelance editing/writing gigs. Freelancing is both the worst and most OK way to work. It’s the definition of sufficient.

My 18 months in Madrid have been good – okay to great depending on the day. Early on, though, it become clear that my new life was just another version of the lives I had lived in all the other cities I had passed through. I worked, I drank, I wandered, I met people, I washed, I rinsed, I repeated. Okay to great, usually somewhere in between.

But, in March of last year, I met Helen.


Helen and I GlowHelen celebrated her tenth anniversary in Madrid back in January. For almost every day of those ten years, she has lived in various flats in Malasaña, a rapidly evolving neighborhood that in roughly a generation has turned from an at-times dangerous barrio to one of the hippest (and most expensive) places to live. Yes, your city guide recommended it.

Helen moved here from a town in the north of England not far from Liverpool. Before moving to Spain, she studied optometry and had lived in various cities across the UK. She has now lived away from her birth country long enough to have developed excellent Spanish-language skills, but she still starts most every day with a cup of tea and will always prefer English bacon over American bacon. No, she doesn’t want to talk about Brexit.

For over nine years (before we met), she made a life for herself. She taught English at schools and in corporations, before becoming involved in a TEFL academy. She’s built a network of friends here, both Spaniards and expats from the UK or elsewhere. She has a favorite Indian restaurant, a favorite terrace, and even a favorite apartment building (not one she’s lived in).

Ripple Flat.jpg

Wine and Whiskey

Helen and I matched on Tinder and arranged a date for a Thursday in early March of 2018. Then, as so often happens, she had to cancel due to work issues and reschedule for the following night. I agreed to the change, but I was dubious.

I hadn’t been on a date in well over a year, yet I knew, last-minute cancellations were almost always a sign that a date was never going to happen – for one reason or another. I was thus pleasantly surprised when I spotted her approaching on the street that Friday night. I had been preparing myself to be stood up.

My original idea for a stylish cocktail bar in Conde Duque floundered when the compact bar was packed. She suggested another spot a few blocks away and we wound up sitting in a brightly lit bar against a mirrored wall drinking wine (her) and whiskey (me).

Our conversation covered topics both common and less so, as first dates do. We went through the big three: Home, Family, and Why Did You End Up Here? Lulls in conversation were rare. At one point, when I inelegantly tried to explain the tone of my novel by referencing the incredibly niche book/TV series, The Leftovers, she not only knew the reference, she said she had enjoyed the show. A good sign.

Dates and Appendicitis 

When, the following Friday, she invited me to meet her for drinks with her cousin and her best friend, I probably should have been freaked out – this was only our third date – but I didn’t think twice. If I had to choose between being grilled by (friendly) inquisitors or not seeing Helen, it was an easy choice.

I don’t suppose either one of us expected or even hoped there would be such a quick, thorough connection. It wasn’t based simply on similar tastes; in fact, despite having The Leftovers in common, we actually shared few pop culture points of reference. Rather, we aligned in more conceptual ways. For instance, when it came to our senses of humor, we never had to feel each other out. 

We share a pugnacious investment in politics that’s tempered, somewhat, by our mutual senses of irony and pragmatism. Her reaction to the Brexit vote had been remarkably similar to my reaction to Trump’s election, even down to the celebration-turned-drunken-commiseration that we had on the nights of our respective votes. From afar, we follow the ongoing turmoil of our home countries, some days with more interest than others.

The world is a disquieting place – more often than not these days – but life goes on.

Helen above Madrid

And then, on the evening of what would have been our sixth date (give or take an extended weekend), Helen had to cancel once again. This time, she told me she was headed to the hospital because of stomach pain. She was sure it was no big deal. She might even be able to still meet up with me, she said by text. When the process was taking longer than expected, she wrote:

Well the doctors are all panicking over appendicitis but my guess is it’s something less dramatic

That was a bad guess.

She went in for surgery the next morning. That same evening, I was flying out to Portugal for eight days, so I was desperate to see her that afternoon. After my persistent badgering via texts, she agreed to let me stop by. A couple of her friends who were already at the hospital rushed to throw some makeup on her before I got there, unnecessarily.

I texted her every day from Lisbon and Porto. Meanwhile, with a few more days stuck in the hospital, she read my novel. The first night after I returned, I went to see Helen the first opportunity I could. It turned out, her mother, who had come to help out during the recovery period, was there too. The three of us spent the evening together. Again, maybe a reason to be freaked out, but I wasn’t.

I knew by how I felt the moment I saw Helen again that we weren’t just dating.

A Relationship

In part because of her lack of mobility post-surgery, and in part because we just wanted to spend as much time together as possible, by the end of April, I was practically living with her. By the end of May, I was. In the first week of June, we submitted my empadronamiento with Helen’s Malasaña address to make it official.

This was the first relationship I had been in almost a decade that had staying power. If I’m being honest, it is probably the first relationship I’ve ever been in where circumstances – either within or beyond my control – aren’t precluding it from continuing. Later this year, we’ll file for pareja de hecho (de facto couple).

In almost a year together, we’ve had our ups and downs. We have fights, we sometimes struggle to communicate our perspectives to each other. But even in the arguments, what comes through is our similarity, our nearly unthinkable alignment in how we view matters, in ways both good and bad. The central frustration underneath every disagreement is that we both know how the other person would think and act if roles were reversed.

Which is why the good times are so great. We know how to make each other happy, and we’re constantly learning how to better be in each other’s presence when one or the other of us is in a bad place mentally. I’ve written quite openly (and often) about my struggles with bipolar, a disease that makes me want to hide away from everyone. I don’t want to hide away from Helen.

Which is all to say, I’m in a relationship. It’s a stable state of being, which is not common for me. It’s worth fighting for.

Puerta del Angel

All PackedOn Wednesday, Helen and I moved in to her newly purchased flat in a neighborhood called Puerta del Angel. This neighborhood, that is clearly on the precipice of gentrification (whatever that means in Spain), falls on the western side of the Manzanares “river”, across from the Palacio Real. Like my first apartment in Madrid, this barrio reflects the older generations that built it, but youthful energy is moving in.

This marks the first time since I was a teenager that I’ve moved to a new apartment because of a decision someone else made. Which is not to say I’m moving because of Helen; I’m moving with Helen because it’s where I want to be.


When I lived in Chicago, I had a coworker with whom I had many conversations about love, life, and all that other stuff. One day, he told me that he imagined I’d move to Europe someday and wind up with a European woman. (This guy also said he wanted to learn how to play saxophone to impress girls, so he probably isn’t clairvoyant.) I liked that sound of that back then. I like the sound of it now.

I don’t know what comes next, other than a few more days of unpacking boxes. My 10 Cities/10 Years may only ever exist as a collection of blog posts on this site. If so, let it stand as a testament to change. The young man writing angry atheistic screeds and making silly (and fruitless) attempts at internet infamy has grown up and moved on. I changed a lot over ten years of traveling, and I celebrated that change through my project.

But some things remain the same. I’m still an atheist, I’m still internet unfamous, and I’m still in Madrid.

None of those truths are changing soon. I’m all the better for it.

Helen (Variadas)

Happy anniversary, LB.

Three Months

It’s been a minute.

In so many ways, I’ve just begun.

Three months is how long one can have a “Tourist Visa” for the Schengen Area, the territory made up of 26 European states (including Spain) that have a common visa policy. Everything after that is, well, just life.

Fly by night

I have been in Madrid just over three months. I am still a visitor.

I’m surrounded by Americans here. My three roommates are all from the States, as are most of the people I associate with on a day-to-day basis. My situation is unique among the group because I am the only one not enrolled in the language school, and thus lack those direct connections and gateways into the wider culture here.

Admittedly, it’s made things difficult.

I never had any illusions. Moving to Spain was always going to be more difficult than any of my 10 US moves for one obvious reason: I don’t speak the language. Every challenge associated with relocating is amplified by that deficiency. Which, of course, is the point. Each challenge should be harder than the one that came before, otherwise, there’s no growth. 


I am on my own.

As I said, I have a group of Americans around me, and I’m grateful for their company. We spent Thanksgiving together, traveled to Toledo as a group, and have enjoyed a wide range of activities, both Spanish and otherwise, including photo shoots, dance classes, and bar hopping. Like so many other cities before Madrid, I have landed within the comforting fold of a collective.

But after my many years on the road, I’m acutely aware of the solitude inherent to my life. Carpool lanes don’t exist on this highway.

Under the Bridge

I scan through a lot of travel blogs and social media posts by people who have moved to another country. A common trope across almost all of these mediums is the grandiose self-examination, the “What have I learned so far?” post. 

I get it. Not only are we a species prone to taking stock of where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going, but our friends and family are always asking us about all that David Copperfield kind of crap. Why move across an ocean if you aren’t going to learn new things about the world and yourself?

So, here’s some knowledge: Mahou, the name of a ubiquitous beer in Madrid, is one syllable and rhymes with “wow.”


Something else? Well, hm, a euro or two is sufficient tip for a full meal.

Still more? I’d rather not.

Three months isn’t long enough to “know” anything. I am new to this country – to this continent – and I have experienced relatively little in the grand scheme of things. If I returned to the States now, I could certainly share insights into life in Spain and on how it differs from life in the US. They would be shallow observations, though, because I haven’t come here to report back on my findings.

I’m here to live. Solo mirando solo.

Basketball Dreams

When the original 10 Cities/10 Years project concluded, my biggest struggle was explaining the “why” of it, both to others and to myself. I did it, it happened, there was nothing more to it. The project was such a massive undertaking that it’s nearly incomprehensible to suggest there was no grand purpose to the endeavor, and yet.

Now in Spain, I feel a similar disconnect. The people I know have different reasons for being here, either seeking a break from their life, or improving their Spanish, or even escaping a painful past. Some will be here a year, others might push it to two. In the end, though, they will return home, because home is something definite to them.

I’ve nothing to return to. I’m home here. And then, some day – a year, two years, a decade from now – I’ll be home somewhere else. Home is always the future, never what’s past.

Los Portadores de la Antorcha

I have no idea where I will be in a year. In some ways, that’s standard operating procedure for me, but in the past there’s always been scaffolding to provide shape to the uncertain future. I might not have known what city I would be in, but I knew I’d be somewhere new, starting over, getting on with the process of life and building towards New York.

A year from now, I could be in Madrid or Barcelona, some other European country, or somewhere in Asia. Maybe circumstances will force me back to the US or into some heretofore unimaginable corner of the planet. I mean, probably Madrid, but also, if the wind blows, so be it.


I am on my own.

This much I know. Everything is up in the air and the roads undiscovered are plentiful, but there has been one truth to my life that hasn’t changed: I will find my own way.

May it not always be a lonely path. Cada camino es un buen camino.

Watching the sun set

Madrid sure is pretty, isn’t it?



“All I want now is to be happy”: Culture shock and echoes from the past

[Warning: Brief offensive language]

It’s not all technicolor photographs and sunset cocktails.

There have been difficulties. There always are. If you’ve read the account of 10 Cities/10 Years, you couldn’t have possibly come away believing that this is an easy way to live. It’s not just the financial and health concerns, the physical and mental toll, the loneliness and isolation, the unending self-doubts and recriminations… you know, actually, it is just those things. But that’s a lot of mierda.

Now, add to that list full immersion into a foreign country. Got your Xanax?


You may not know this, but the first major city I lived in was not Charlotte, NC. A year before 10×10 launched, in the summer between my junior and senior years, I moved to Washington D.C. for three months.

My college girlfriend – with whom I would move to North Carolina the next summer – had landed an internship with the D.C.-based Stars and Stripes newspaper. She attended Northwestern and I was enrolled at Kansas University, so we rarely saw each other during the school year. Against the better judgement of our parents, we decided to live together for the summer in our nation’s capital.

We found a studio apartment being rented out by a woman who was leaving the city for the summer (for India, if I recall correctly). It wasn’t easy making arrangements from two separate cities, but we managed it and locked down a place to live from June through August.

My semester ended in May, but NU’s quarter didn’t conclude until mid-June. With no reason to stick around Lawrence, I moved to D.C. on my own. For the first two weeks, I would be alone in a new city, my first experience of being a stranger.

It was an auspicious time to be in D.C.: On June 5th, four days after I arrived, former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, passed away. (I had nothing to do with it.) A seven-day state funeral followed.

I had only been seven-years-old when Reagan left office, so I have no specific memories of life under his administration. For me, the Eighties are defined by Back to the Future and Family Ties. For all intents and purposes, my president was Michael J. Fox. Still is, frankly.

Depending on who you ask, Reagan’s legacy covers the spectrum from the Second Coming of Christ to a worse war criminal than Pol Pot. At the risk of being labeled a “Centrist,” I suspect it’s fair to say he falls somewhere in between those two poles. At the time of his death, I had next to no opinion of Ronald Reagan, so when I heard his funeral procession would be reaching the Washington National Cathedral – a mere 15-minute walk from my new hope – I thought, “Let’s ‘ave a look, aye.”

Some citizens waited for upwards of seven hours to catch a glimpse of the body in person, but I wasn’t that invested. I opted to stand on the side of the road with the rest of the plebeians to watch the procession of limos and police cars. There were celebrity newspersons and politicos popping in and out of view, a sort of morose red carpet affair.

By some ironic twist, I happened to take up a spot directly to the left of a small coffle of protestors. Now, in today’s political climate, that might seem unremarkable, but these discontents represented a rare contingent among those gathered. Stranger, still, the group of protestors were not voicing opposition to the former president’s policies.

Brandishing brightly colored signs, a handful of conservatively dressed women and children chanted messages echoing the sentiments of their poster boards: “God hates fags” and “America is doomed.” Flying out from their home base in Topeka, KS, the Westboro Baptist Church (sans patriarch, Fred Phelps) were protesting a man who many blame for worsening the AIDS epidemic and who few would call a friend to the LGBTQ community. Baffling.

As it turns out, Reagan, a former actor, had been friends (to some degree) with Rock Hudson, a famously gay Hollywood star who died of AIDS in 1985. Though Ronald and wife, Nancy, have been accused of refusing to help Hudson receive AIDS treatment – which you would think would put them in good standing with the WBC – the fact that Reagan never publicly disavowed the movie star was enough to earn the church’s ire. No one does purity tests like brain-rotted bigots.

As confounding as all of that is, for me it was more bizarre that I had relocated over 1000 miles (~1600 km) and somehow ended up in the aural radius of a hate group from just outside my hometown. That didn’t seem fair. I mentioned my incredulousness to the man standing next to me who had been engaging in some futile sparring with the WBC protestors.

“I can’t believe these people are here,” I said. “They protest everything. They show up every year for my high school’s graduations.”

One woman, looking to be the leader of the WBC troupe, overheard my comments.

“Oh, poor baby,” she mocked, “did we protest your graduation? Fag lover.”

Internet trolls, meet your forebears.

As unexpected as it was to find myself in the presence of the WBC, it was a reminder that, though for me this was a humongous move, I was still in America, and state lines are not borders.

Culture Shock

Maybe I wasn’t really all that far from home, but I felt like I was on the moon.

I’ve rarely discussed just how depressed and overwhelmed I felt during those two weeks. Back in Kansas, I’d been going through one of my lowest periods, stuck in limbo with no clear path forward; but at least I had friends to distract me. Sitting in an empty D.C. apartment, there was nothing to mute the roar of my unhappiness.

I’ve never been one to keep a day-to-day journal. Even this blog at its most active has hardly been about detailing my life in the moment. Yet, in D.C., alone and terrified that I had leapt into something way over my head, I pulled out a college notebook and began writing almost daily entries.

Those anguished scribbles detail a boy completely unsure of himself, depressed naturally, but also scared and angry and utterly directionless. I worried I wouldn’t find work; I had doubts about the sustainability of my relationship; and I was certain that I would fail as a writer. I poured all of those fears onto those college-ruled pages.

“I need to work. I need to write. I need to read. I need to get dressed and get out the apartment.”

All these years later, it’s paradoxically comforting and discouraging how much I relate to that sentiment.

What I didn’t recognize at the time, what, in fact, I didn’t recognize until this past week, was that I was experiencing a form of culture shock. Generally, that term suggests the hardships of adapting to a different country where familiar touchstones are no longer accessible. Sure, D.C. was much bigger and more populated than my Kansas hometown, but it wasn’t all that dramatically different. I could still speak the language, for one.

And yet, reading back over these old entries (I’ve kept them all these years though they embarrass me terribly), it’s impossible not to note all the symptoms of culture shock: the loneliness, the anxiety, the shame at not knowing how to behave in new situations, and the certainty that deep down I didn’t belong.

Those are the same emotions and doubts I have faced with every move; though they lessened to some degree with each successive year, they never went away entirely.

Those same emotions and doubts have hit me intermittently ever since landing in Madrid. It’s been a long time since I experienced cultural shock this acute. To be honest, I kind of haughtily believed I was beyond that, that I was too well-traveled to succumb to it. But, here we are.


I’ve met a splendid array of Anglos here in Spain, many from the States, plenty of others from the UK and other locales. As with all moves, I’m sure many of them will slip out of my life sooner than later, but the hope is to cultivate a few friendships from the group.

I’ve been fortunate to find a smattering of expats with whom it’s been possible to have more intimate conversations. One recurring theme in those conversations is the feeling that it’s not possible to fully express the difficulties of adjusting to a new home, that for Facebook and Instagram friends back home, it’s easy to assume the bright images and smiling selfies tell the whole story.

It’s not all technicolor photographs and sunset cocktails.

The answer to the question, “How is Madrid?” is a long and complicated one. It can be answered with some simple (but accurate) platitudes: It’s beautiful, it’s welcoming, it’s awash in delicious food and copious amounts of affordable alcohol.

While all of that is true whether you’re a tourist or a new transplant, for those of us in the latter camp, this new city life is also challenging, providing a mixture of housing complexities, occupational difficulties, and cultural barriers. Madrid is a superb vacation destination, but this isn’t vacation. This is life now.

To be sure, Madrid will be a wonderful experience, a transformative one. Just as D.C. was a move I needed to make before I could hope to take on 10×10, there are hurdles to bound over in this city that will make future opportunities possible. I’ll make it; it’s not always easy to believe that to be true.

By this time next week, my best travel companion, Emily – of Boston and cross-country road trip infamy – will have arrived, ready to take on the next year in Madrid with me. As with all things, we are on our separate journeys, but we will travel this road together for a time. That’s exciting and, yes, even comforting. Not every challenge has to be met alone.

It’s probably because of Emily’s looming arrival that I’m reminded of that summer in D.C., the way that I struck out alone and was forced to confront my anxieties – myself – on my own.

I have been here before; but, of course, I also haven’t. In the emptiness of each new home echoes the memories of past homes, until you’ve filled it with new furniture.

It’s strange to be this deep into my 30s and yet still feel a kinship with a 21-year-old version of myself who had seen and experienced so little. What did he know?

Meh, what do I?

“All I want now is to be happy. Is that too much to ask?”

I’d make fun of your emo earnestness kid, but honestly, it’s not a bad question.




Count the days

Eight years ago, yesterday, I launched this blog with a post entitled “Count the days.” At the time, I was already four years deep into my project, one month out from moving from San Francisco to Chicago, so I decided that it was about time I started documenting the journey. Well, sort of.

From the very beginning, my blog posts had a schizophrenic inconsistency, covering a whole litany of topics and themes (my second post, published the same day as my first, was a poem I’d written about two girls merged into one composite character). Truly, it was a blog in the most tedious, cliché sense of the word. Good thing it’s gotten so much better since then, right?


One Month

Last days are never as profound as they appear on TV. People don’t confess their love in airports or spend one final day doing all the things they always dreamed of doing but never did. Goodbye parties, of which I’ve had my fair share, have become increasingly subdued over the years, especially as the thought of waking up hungover before a flight has grown unappealing. I’d rather show up to the airport well rested.

People leave; life goes on.

Some years back, I began a tradition, one of many small affectations-turned-habits I’ve picked up over the years in an attempt to create a faint sense of constancy and purpose in my otherwise pointless life: On the night before I leave a city, I go to a bar by myself, a joint I’ve never been, usually in a neighborhood I hadn’t gotten around to exploring. I sit down, have a few drinks, maybe chat with someone, maybe not. Then, after an hour or so, I pay my bill and leave. No grand affair.

I could justify the tradition with some post factum literary explanation: it signifies how I came to the city alone and will leave alone; it reminds me that no matter how long I spend somewhere, there will always be somewhere I haven’t explored; it’s preparation for my reemergence into solitude.

The real explanation is so much simpler than all that: I’m tired. A lot of work goes into making a move, and a great deal of energy is expended in the gauntlet of goodbyes. I’m grateful for a chance to see people before I take off, but it takes a toll. Holing up someplace where no one knows me or cares if I sit in absolute silence is restful. It’s my Irish Goodbye to the whole city.


I will miss New York City, both a final city and a first. It has been my home for longer than all but my birthplace, and its inexorable glow has been my guiding light for as long as I’ve held dreams for the future. From the moment I set foot in Brooklyn, this city has tested and resisted me.

The very first time I found myself running late here, I had a quintessential New York experience: Without explanation, the train I was on shut down and held in the station. After waiting nearly ten minutes in confusion, a man came rushing past the car, not an MTA employee, just a fellow passenger, and bluntly informed the lot of us that there had been a shooting in the next station. A typical welcome, I suppose.

No wonder I love this town, I’ve always been a sucker for a lady who plays hard to get.

I don’t mean to imply life here is always a challenge. There are great pleasures to be had in this city, both cultural and personal. From a sunset rock concert in Central Park to a vibrant, surreal burlesque/musical/fashion show in an unmarked theater in Bushwick, the city has indulged my cravings for new. I’m a boring person in a city that expels boredom.

New York makes a lot of promises; it’s up to you to see them fulfilled.


When – if – I come back to the US, I don’t know to which city I’d return. New York is the obvious choice, but it is exorbitantly expensive and its capricious social circles will only be harder to pierce with more years on my back. Chicago? Fun and pretty, and friendlier than NYC, sure, but also just a smaller version. Seems like stepping back. Seattle still holds a part of my heart, but who knows if it would be the same nearly a decade on. Of course, there’s always Kans…. haha, nope. Couldn’t even finish the thought.

I’ve had many homes here in the States, but I wonder if they would still feel like my homes if I returned to them. For that matter, will the United States? Granted, there are still massive portions of the US I’ve never seen, so I could always find some new corner, maybe a secluded cabin in the mountains, a babbling brook and towering trees for neighbors.

Who can say?

I’m a man of fleeting desires, though, so all I can speak to is how I feel in this moment, and right now, my heart wants to see the world, to cross borders and time zones and watch sunsets from lost horizons; to not look back.

“I don’t know” is a phrase I’m using a lot lately. I have left behind the realm of long term goals for an open road. With each new endeavor I set out on, there are fewer signposts to provide me guidance. Potential calamity, a constant companion throughout my ten year project, remains reliably by my side, and we’re packing light. Everything else is up in the air.

Thirty-one. As I have done so many times before, I’m counting the days until my next departure, both overwhelmed by the long list of things I have yet to do (and would like to do), and filled with anxious excitement for the unknown. Thirty-one days is a lifetime; also, merely an instant.

I’ve called many places my home little darlin, but I only come from one

On the wall next to the pool table in the basement, there was a plate cover that always hung loose. It had been missing the bottom screw for as long as I had memory and, when slid back, would pivot up to reveal an empty black hole behind it, an opening for a non-existent outlet. In the eyes of a child, it wasn’t just a gap in the drywall, it was a secret cave, a limitless expanse; a hiding place.

I used to fold up a dollar bill, even a fiver on the rare occasion I accumulated such a bountiful harvest, and tuck it into the crevice between the wall and a pair of loose wires. My hope was that I would forget about the stash and then some day, a few months later, maybe years, I’d come across it again, and it would be like finding buried treasure. The only problem was, the moment I slid the cash behind that plate, I thought of nothing else. The bill never remained back there long.

As I grew older, the game – and I suppose that’s what it was, a game I played with myself that I lost every time – took on a different objective. Now, instead of hiding the money so that I could stumble upon it at some unknown date, I hoped for enough willpower to resist removing the money at all so that, in some unknown future after my family had left, a different kid from a different family, would find the treasure.

I can’t say when I was first struck by the realization that I would not always live in that house, that my family would not own it forever, but it must have been fairly young. Our home was perpetually in a state of flux. I never had visions of growing up to raise my own family there.

I wish I could say that the last time I stuck money behind the face plate, I left it, but I’m ninety-nine percent sure I did not. I was consistently cash strapped and there was a new Spider-man comic to buy every week. Still, it’s fun to imagine some curious six-year-old playing around in that basement one afternoon and somehow managing to uncover my secret stash. It would be the greatest discovery of her young life.

Following the diaspora of my siblings and my parents’ divorce, my mother and I moved into a two-bedroom, loft apartment in the middle of Lawrence for my senior year of high school. Many different homes would follow. Over the ten years of my project, I lived in thirteen different apartments, some by myself, most with roommates, all of varying degrees of comfort and disorder.

These homes have been, at times, shabby and, at others, luxurious. I’ve had isolated apartments, and I’ve lived in the heart of the city. I’ve gone from having two floors all to myself to sharing one bathroom with six people. Whatever the amenities, wherever I’ve ended up, like a hermit crab making use of a found shell, I’ve made it home in my own way.

Home Sweet Home

After three years in Brooklyn, I’ve yet to fully settle; I still exist in the vapor. No art on my walls, cardboard boxes serving simultaneously as storage and tables. I live like someone with one foot out the door because that’s all I know. In just over a month, I’ll move again.

I tried. When I settled into my first Brooklyn apartment, I purchased a desk and a chair, and a bookshelf. I picked up some cheap pictures from a street vendor and even bought a wall clock for some inexplicable reason. I made an effort to spread out, to accumulate, to slip into the nooks and crannies and feel attached. It didn’t take.

The clock’s batteries have been dead for two months.

Home is a bed

I have this kind of strange habit when I’m traveling, I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. As a child at camp and even now on a trip, I’ll refer to whatever temporary facility I’m staying in as “home.” If we’re out and I’ve forgotten something at the hotel, I’ll say, “I’ll just head home real quick and grab it.” It’s a quirk that occasionally earns an eyebrow raise, but I’ve done it all my life and I don’t think it’s so strange. Home is where I lay my head down to sleep.

I love having my own space, I crave it, but I’m not too picky about what the space should look like. I just need to be able to find my peace.

Living with other people can complicate that, not everybody was meant to be a roommate; or, at least, not my roommate.  Sometimes I’ve made a home in an apartment despite living with people with whom I had nothing in common. Other times, it’s the people that have made an apartment home.

Home is a base, a starting point, a fixture to which I latch a tether, however temporarily. Like a climber reaching for the next anchor point, I’m always searching for somewhere new to fasten a hold.

Yet, home also remains, stubbornly, Lawrence, Kansas, and a blue, three-story, behemoth of a house ever sliding incrementally down a steep hill, now the residence of a family I’ve never met.

Lawrence: home to the University of Kansas and its rabid basketball fan base; home to the best hillside views in the entire state (maybe the only hillside views); home to artists, writers, and musicians; home to liberal reactionaries and a church on every other block; home (for a time) to William S. Burroughs, Erin Brockovich, and Langston Hughes; and the home of a family of seven, sort of okay.

View from Campus
Pictured: Setting of beloved TV movie, The Day After

The weekend before my next leap into the unknown, I’ll fly to Kansas to spend a few days with some of my family that now includes three nephews and a niece.

It used to be, when I’d return home for a short trip, I couldn’t walk downtown without running into a half dozen people I knew, just by chance. Now, when I go back, unless specific plans are made – and even then – I can go the whole visit without seeing anyone I know outside of my family. I’ll walk into an old haunt and anticipate hearing my name called only to be met by the disinterested stares of a whole new generation.

With each passing year, Lawrence, the small town in which I spent 22 years, transforms into something increasingly unfamiliar, even though in structure and physical layout, it remains persistently recognizable.

There was a time when my family name carried some cachet among (the less reputable) establishments in the town (in no part due to me), but those days have mostly passed. I suspect name dropping one of my siblings would only be met with confusion nowadays. As a college town, Lawrence is a constant churn of population turnover. You don’t have to leave a place for it to leave you.

Time will change our relationships with everyone and everywhere. I haven’t lived in Kansas in a very long time, and each visit reminds me of that fact. Yet, I haven’t broken the habit of saying, “I’m heading home” when I talk about returning to Kansas. I will never live there again (and I shake my head in dismay at almost every bit of state politics that makes national news), but it remains for always, my home.

My first home.

My room looked out from the two windows in the upper right hand side.

I’ve done this silly thing over the years, before leaving some of my apartments: I’ll take one of my original 10 Cities/10 Years stickers and press it directly above the door frame on the inside of my closet. It’s unlikely anyone will ever find them, but who knows. Maybe some curious 26-year-old will be messing around in their room one afternoon and somehow manage to uncover my surreptitious memento.

It will be the stupidest discovery of her young life.

Lost in a dream

Plane ticket bought. Living arrangements for the first two weeks settled. Bosses given notice. All over but the movin’.

Right on cue, the stress dreams have begun.

Every move involves dozens of details, large and small, from finding a place to live to packing the suitcases. Some things can be done months in advance, some in the final few days. And then there are those details, like finding a job, that can only be tackled after the physical relocation.

After a decade of this lifestyle, I’m pretty damn good at moving. If I could turn my knowledge into an app, I’d make hundreds, hundreds! Alas, such talents aren’t easily monetized, and mostly they boil down to common sense: Take care of your business.

There is another aspect of moving, though, that no matter how many times I do it, will, by definition, remain a challenge: the unknown. For all the planning, for all the hard-earned knowledge, the whole point of moving to a new city, a new state, a new country, is to explore the unexplored, to take on a fresh challenge. No matter how many books read, how many websites visited, how many personal accounts accumulated, when it comes down to make the actual move, my arms remain outstretched in a darkened room.

I don’t dream much. I mean, obviously, I dream every night, but I rarely remember them or even wake up with the sensation that my mind had been at play. When I do remember my dreams, they’re usually so prosaic and boring that the details meld into my day-to-day memories, which can lead to some momentary confusion.

On the verge of another move, though, my dreams start to take on a more consistent tenor, a pensive hum of uncertainty and doubt. My first such dream happened about a week ago.

In it, I’m back in college, still on the verge of moving, but now waiting for graduation to set me free. To my chagrin, I’m being told by a faceless bureaucrat that I’m not going to graduate. I’m six credits shy of my degree and this shadow figure is explaining that I had skipped too many classes and am going to fail my course. And now it’s too late to do anything about it. I feel my future slipping out of my grasp.

We’ve all woken from that kind of dream, filled with a piercing dread that slowly dissipates as reality comes into focus. The anxiety tends to stick with you, though, and even as you rationalize away the source of your mental anguish – I’ve been through with college for over a decade – the underlying emotion remains.

The dream didn’t create the anxiety, the dream was a byproduct of it.

My namesake is the Biblical Joseph. Not Jesus’ stepdad, but the Old Testament punk with the fancy coat and pissed off brothers. If you’re unfamiliar with the story – and since Bible literacy is pretty low in the Christian west, I’ll assume you are – Joseph was the second youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons and his father’s favorite. Jacob’s favoritism did not go unnoticed by his other sons, especially after Joseph was gifted with a brightly colored coat. Such overt favoritism might have been a non-issue if not for the fact that Joseph was also kind of a little shit.

Joseph had dreams. I don’t mean, he wanted to someday be a stand-up comedian. He literally had dreams in which he saw visions of celestial bodies bowing down to him. Now, a smart person might have just written these down in his dream journal and moved on. But this kid decided that he should tell his brothers and parents about his repeated visions of the entire family supplicating themselves to him. They really enjoyed that.

As a younger brother who was, himself, a bit of a shit, I enjoyed the story of Joseph, especially because in the end, the visions come true. Through a series of ludicrous events I won’t recount here, Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh and his entire family does, indeed, end up bowing down to him. Score one for bratty kid brothers.

Even more than the happy ending (well, for Joseph), what I enjoyed most about the story was the dreams. I obsessed over the idea of interpreting deeper meaning from dreams, of unlocking some cosmic secret. Joseph isn’t the only Bible character who has and interprets dreams. In the old testament, prophets and kings are always foreseeing the future in their sleep, usually laced through with dire warnings about an impending famine or a lousy season of the Simpsons (show’s older than you realize).

I thought that would have been a pretty cool skill to have. The only problem was, I never recalled my dreams. Kind of hard to divine the meaning of a prophetic vision if you can’t remember it.

 A dream is what you want to do, but still haven’t pursued

People love to tell you what dreams mean. Bookstores will sell you dream dictionaries and there’s a whole industry built around the dubious idea that our minds are mystic entities communicating to us through universal symbols that stretch back to our earliest ancestors. Bullocks, the lot of it.

When I was a child, maybe 9 or 10, I dreamt that I was at a summer camp with my brother and a group of other kids from school. In the dream, some of my fellow campers come across a little, talking creature in the grass. We determine, by some unspecified means, that this creature is, in fact, the Devil. Immediately, the group splits into two factions: the boys want to squash the creature, but the girls think that’s cruel. Presaging pretty much my entire life, I side with the girls.

The chronology gets screwy here, as tends to happen in dreams. Suddenly my brother and I are walking back to our cabin alone when we are abruptly attacked. For some reason, I’m holding a ruler in my right hand – as you do – and just as we reach the cabin, the ruler morphs into a snake (a la Moses and the staff) and wraps itself around my neck, choking me to tears. Panicking, I try to call out to my brother but I can’t make a noise. It makes no difference. When I turn to face him, he’s also being choked by a snake.

And then I bolted awake.

That is one of the only dreams I have ever remembered, and it’s stuck with me for more than two decades. I know there are those who’d have a field day parsing the details for some spiritual meaning, but I’ll save you the time: I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home that insisted on a literalist interpretation of the Bible and all its related myths. Also, I’d just watched that episode of Quantum Leap in which Sam fights the devil.

Oh Boy

I know it’s fun to imagine otherwise, but there’s no great mystery to dreams. When we’re asleep, our minds are still active, still processing, but without the rigid rules of reason that generally guide our thoughts (some of us more than others). Many will protest, even some professional psychiatrists, but searching our dreams for Freudian imagery like it were some subconscious Dan Brown novel is pure puffery.

It’s not my intention to suggest no meaning can be found in dreams. My stress dreams are actually very informative, not in that they possess information I don’t already know, but because they forefront anxieties I’m feeling but which, because of my hectic schedule, I’m ignoring. There’s benefits in not dwelling on one’s anxiety, especially when there’s nothing to be done about it, but it’s also important to be conscious of what’s going on underneath the surface. Our emotional state alters our physical state, often in ways we can’t fully appreciate.

Before a major life change, anxiety is normal, it’s healthy. It’s fuel.

Having had a brief, two-year respite from regular relocation, I’m slipping back into my old rhythms. There’s the excitement for future possibilities, the sadness of leaving behind another home, the motivation of working my ass off to achieve a financial goal. But there’s also this boiling anxiety for the unknown, and while it’s necessary to put a lid on it in order for me to function, it’s also very good that I’m reminded every once in a while that it’s there. It keeps me alert; it focuses me.

So, when I’m asleep tonight and dream about being in a subway car that’s going the wrong way while the faceless crowd blocks my egress, I can wake up in the morning knowing that I’m just one more day closer to another leap into the unknown. That growl in my gut, that’s just letting me know I’m headed in the right direction.

Oh boy, indeed.