“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
—Vincent van Gogh
Ever since spending three months in a yurt on Canada’s Salt Spring Island last year, I have wanted—to paraphrase a long-time hero of mine, Virginia Woolf—a yurt of one’s own.
There was just something about living in a circle that won me over—waking to the pink clouds of dawn in the domed window above me, listening to rain and snow fall on my canvas roof, and watching the moon cast white moon-shadows through the roof window at night. Aside from a brief infestation of carpenter ants when the weather turned warm (during which I yelled to the ants at one point, “You guys are totally ruining my zen—get out!!”), I loved the sense of connection I felt with the natural world.
But it wasn’t just the yurt itself I wanted—it was the entire arrangement my landlord had set up for himself on the island: the separate kitchen building that took exactly 23 steps to reach across the tree-encircled yard; the raised flowerbed lining the path to the kitchen, where an abundance of fresh mint and rosemary grew; and the three-sided woodshed next to the yurt, piled high with stacks of cedar firewood, which filled the air with their heady fragrance when I split them into kindling each morning.
It wasn’t long after I arrived on Salt Spring that I began scheming to build a yurt of my own one day—but when talking to others on the island about my pipe-dream plan, I’d always follow it up by saying:
“I don’t just want this yurt—I want all of this.”
* * *
When the time came to leave Salt Spring, say goodbye to the yurt, and return to the U.S. from my rural Canadian abode, I assumed it would be a while before I’d have the chance to build my own—if ever.
Still, I spoke often with a good friend of mine in Seattle, who shared in my yurt-life aspirations. He talked about building one on another island in the Pacific Northwest, one just a couple of hours north from Seattle called Whidbey Island. It sounded very similar to Salt Spring, and so I started browsing real estate sites every so often, just to see what kind of land was for sale on the island. This was largely an exercise in wishful thinking—that is, until, January of this year.
I’m making my monthly visit to the real estate site when I click to the last page of listings on Whidbey (i.e. the least expensive lots…), and stumble across two listings of land for sale not on Whidbey, but on another place called Hat Island—land priced so low it’s actually in my humble artist’s budget. Having spent several months in the Pacific Northwest, I’d prided myself in getting to know the many islands scattered across the Puget Sound. But I’ve never heard of Hat Island, and at this, my curiosity is piqued.
As it turns out, Hat is located right next to Whidbey. It’s a private island home to 26 permanent residents; just a half-mile wide by a mile and a half long; its only roads are gravel; and while it has a marina, yacht club, fire station, and even a 9-hole PGA-rated golf course, it has no stores or other commercial establishments. In other words, it sounds adorable.
After binge-reading about the island for a few hours, I summon the courage to call a real estate agent named Sherri who is listed for the two lots I’d found. She answers immediately.
“Um, hello?” I stammer, feeling far out of my depth, every sentence coming out of my mouth like a question. “I’m calling about some land for sale on Hat Island? I’m a writer and artist looking to build a yurt…”
Sherri interrupts me before I can say anything more. “Oh my god, you’d be perfect for the island.”
Relief courses through me—followed by a few solid waves of adrenaline, that surging sensation that always hits you when a dream takes its first wobbly steps towards reality. I explain that I’m leaving the country for three months, but we agree that I’ll come out to Seattle after I return and have my first look at Hat Island.
* * *
I then spent this past spring traveling across Europe—from the Lofoten Islands in Norway to the island of Guernsey in the English Channel to the Costa Brava region of Spain.
But I think it goes to show where my head and heart were at during that season of traveling because through it all, all I could think about was the yurt. I’d come back to my room each night and fall asleep reading, So, You Want to Live in a Yurt? I pored over endless articles on how mortgages work, crunched numbers, wrote up lists of the many permits I’d need to obtain. The more I moved around this spring, the more ready I was for roots. For a home of my own. For a place that I could not only leave and travel from, but begin returning to.
There was only one catch—somewhere down my endless rabbit trails of research, I came across the building covenant for Hat Island, and read that the island doesn’t allow yurts, given that they’re technically considered temporary structures.
And when I finally visit the island on an overcast Wednesday morning in May, Sherri the real estate agent confirms this. I try not to be too disappointed.
“Why do you want to build a yurt anyways?” Sherri asks as we drive to a marina on the mainland, where we’ll then take her boat to the island.
“Well, I lived in one last year and loved the simplicity of it. There’s just something magical about living in a circle.”
“Listen, honey,” she says. “I want you to keep an open mind today. There’s a cabin that just went up for sale on the island that I think you’re going to love.”
I give Sherri a smile that I’ve been perfecting since I was about four years old—one that says I’m acknowledging the idea you’ve just put forth, even if I can already tell you it isn’t one I’m going to follow. A smile that conceals layers of deep-seated stubborn independence.
I’m reluctant to let go of building a yurt, but resolve to try. Once we’ve settled into Sherri’s boat, we cut across the choppy silver waves of the Puget Sound, the sky a sheet of pewter stretched out overhead. We approach Hat from its southern end, where we pass a community of pretty wooden houses built on a low section of the island accessible only by boat, or a steep walk down the bluff. After docking in the marina, Sherri takes a phone call while I wander off for my first look at the island.
Just beyond the marina, I come to a small rocky beach, its shoreline covered with driftwood, some of the weathered pieces arranged into forts. I can hear the distant drone of a construction vehicle working somewhere on the island, but beyond that, there is only the sound of the waves at my feet, the scent of salt in the air, the shape of neighboring islands on the horizon. I’ve returned to a place in which the world is only sea and sky. Tears fill my eyes as something clicks into place inside me.
“Let’s go see your new home,” Sherri says from behind me, and the crazy thing is, she’s right. As soon as we reach the cabin, I’m in love. It’s that classic example of not knowing what I was looking for until I found it. Until I duck beneath the fir branches separating the lot from the road and feel as though I’m walking through the wardrobe into Narnia.
Until I stand in the front yard, entirely surrounded by cedar and fir trees, and realize I want to live in the woods; that the other open lots we’ll look at later in the day won’t hold the same mystery and magic, no matter how stunning their views.
Until I look up at the most charming cabin I’ve ever seen, with powder blue siding, white scalloped trim, and a steep A-frame roof, and at the totem pole positioned below the roof, at the outstretched wings of its carved wooden eagle, and feel myself being welcomed into a sacred space I hadn’t known existed.
Once I’ve walked through the house twice, I realize that despite the inherent differences between a cabin and a yurt—namely the lack of canvas walls and no fishbowl-shaped window in the roof through which to glimpse the sky—I could still have a similar set-up to what I’d had on Salt Spring. I could once again start my day with splitting kindling before making a fire, the view from my desk’s window would still be filled with fir trees, and there are even raised flowerbeds I can soon have overflowing with mint.
“I just have this sixth sense,” Sherri says as she drives us back to Hat’s marina. “A way of sensing what a person is looking for and helping them find it.”
I give her a different smile then, one that tries to convey thank you a thousand times over.
Perhaps what I’d been looking for wasn’t so much a literal yurt, but rather the simple-living, solitude-loving state of mind that often comes with being in a yurt. So what if I wouldn’t be living in the round? My days could still be built around the rituals I’d come to love from life in the Pacific Northwest—I could buy a kayak, pick blackberries in the summer, and watch the sky turn a thousand shades of pink at sunset. I could still drive away from the water and spot the Puget Sound in my rear-view mirror.
* * *
In the days after my visit to Hat Island, everything seems to fall into place.
I call Sherri, officially express my interest, get pre-qualified for a mortgage, submit my offer to the seller, and do an oh-so-subtle happy dance in my busy Seattle hostel when Sherri calls to say the seller accepted my offer.
And that’s when the second catch happens. I return to Hat Island for the home inspection, which subsequently turns up the world’s longest list of issues with the cabin, to the point that I feel I should lower my offer in order to have enough funds leftover for repairs. The seller doesn’t accept this new offer, and Sherri suggests giving him a few weeks before resubmitting it.
The next day, I catch a flight from Seattle to San Francisco, and a week after that, another flight to El Salvador. I’m spending the summer in Central America, the majority of it in a small house I’ve rented on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.
On the chicken bus from Guatemala City to Antigua, I meet a fellow traveler from the Netherlands. He tells me he’s in the process of traveling for a year from Brazil to Alaska; I tell him about the book I’m working on, which is about my journey to settle down without settling, and how the book is most likely going to end with me placing an offer on a tiny cabin in the Puget Sound. We have dinner together in Antigua that night, and during a quiet point in the conversation, my new friend turns to me and says:
“There’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you about your book. What about relationships and love? Because can’t a person be home for us as well? Like when a family moves a lot, the parents can still be home for their children.”
My hand immediately pauses in the air, my fork dripping with savory chicken and rice on its way to my mouth; my mind searches for an answer, but can’t come up with one.
I don’t know it then, but this question will mark a turning point for me, as though someone had suddenly appeared at the juncture of two tracks I could be heading down, and switched the points from one track to another, forever redirecting my course.
* * *
I spent the next six weeks in my little house on Lake Atitlán, and just as I’d compared Hat Island to Salt Spring, so too could I find many similarities between my arrangement in Guatemala to the one I’d have in the cabin on Hat.
There were plenty of good similarities—there was a sense of connection to the natural world, there was the view of the lake beyond my desk’s window, there was solitude and space to work. I loved my long work days, days when the power would cut off, my laptop would run out of battery, and I’d sit outside on my porch writing long-hand, feeling my book take shape and evolve into the story I wanted to tell.
But then there were the not-so-shining similarities, the hard ones, the days when the solitude felt more like isolation. Loneliness was never far off. I was alone in my little house, not plugged into community, and I couldn’t help thinking that while the seclusion was fine for a few weeks for the sake of my projects, it wouldn’t be healthy for me in the long run. Was this how I wanted my life to look? I only planned to be in the cabin for maybe half the year, but my time in Guatemala showed me just how long those six months might feel, living on an island with just 26 permanent residents, far from the people who know and inspire me.
Then I asked myself—did such a community already exist for me somewhere in the world?
This time, the answer came instantly. San Francisco. I’ve written here before that since attending the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference in 2012, I began passing through the Bay Area a few times a year, for a week or two at a time. I loved the writers I connected with there, and felt as though I’d finally found my tribe. I met artists and illustrators, too, fellow creatives who I soon counted among my best friends. But for whatever reason it never occurred to me to try and live near them—I always thought of San Francisco as being too expensive; in reality, I’d just never tried to make it work.
A series of steps soon unfolded that I could never have predicted happening when I first arrived in Central America. I wrote to Sherri and told her I’d decided not to resubmit my offer on the cabin. I found an affordable studio apartment to sublet in San Francisco for four months (because apparently, such magical unicorns do exist if you search long and hard enough on Craigslist)—and while I’d always felt that renting an apartment wouldn’t hold nearly as much weight as buying a home of my own, when I ordered the wire transfer to be sent from my bank, covering the total amount of rent for my time there, it felt just as momentous.
It occurred to me that a fitting metaphor for the community I’d found in San Francisco was that it was as though I had built a house for myself, but never taken the time to live in it.
Finally, the time had come to make that happen.
* * *
I’ve now been in San Francisco for almost four months, and I’ve since extended my lease so that I’ll be here through February, for a total of seven months. I haven’t shared much about this transition online because in many ways, it’s felt too big. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was embarking on at the start of this move, and I felt that I needed to give myself time to understand what was happening before attempting to put it into words for others to read.
Now, with just a tiny bit of hindsight behind me, I think that was happening—and indeed is still happening—is that I am learning what it means to come home after traveling. Although I returned to the U.S. often while traveling full-time, there was always another trip on the horizon; I always had one eye trained on the future. “Where are you going next?” is the question I have been asked incessantly for seven years, and for seven years I’ve always had an answer.
For the first time, my answer right now is, “Nowhere.” For the first time, I have both eyes fixed on the present. Nothing has ever felt more necessary for me to learn.
I am also learning what it means to transition from the rhythms of a traveling lifestyle into a more settled daily life situation. The kind of situation some might call more ‘normal,’ in which dishes always pile up in my sink, the trash always seems to need taking out, and my weekly visits to the laundromat keep coming around with a speed that scares me.
It isn’t that I’ve lived without these tasks while traveling—I still went to the laundromat every week on Salt Spring, and my kitchen sink in Guatemala was always brimming with dishes as well—but when there’s a concrete end-date in sight, the drudgery of daily tasks is kept somewhat at bay. With the end of my current lease so much further out in the future, these chores can easily feel like exactly what they are—a chore. And so, as Courtney E. Martin writes here for the wonderful On Being podcast, I’ve been trying to give these chores my full attention and intention.
To think of them not only as routine tasks, but rituals. To look for the eternal in the everyday.
* * *
All of these lessons that San Francisco has given me so far are things I want to explore more in future posts, but for now, the greatest lesson and what I want to share you with today is that I’m learning what it means to be in community.
I’m learning what it means to make yourself available to the people in your life—that sometimes I’ll have to let go of my love for long work days in order to have lunch with a dear friend, and that the conversations our lunch will hold matter just as much as ticking off items on any to-do list. I’m learning how to be vulnerable, how to share both the highs and lows of my life, and I’m learning just how much relationships thrive when we’re present.
I’m learning that finding a home doesn’t have to translate into finding an actual place of residence. Home can be four walls and a foundation, but it can also be so much more. When I think back to the question my new Dutch friend asked me in June—“Can’t a person be home for us as well?”—I have an answer for him now. Home can be a person, but on a greater level, home is all of the people in our life, those who gift us with the blessing of their friendship, their humor, their understanding, and whose combined presence forms an emotional foundation just as significant as any physical one. There have still been low moments this fall, but as I recently put it in a conversation with my mom, “This is the least alone I’ve ever been.” I couldn’t be more grateful for that.
And I love that at the end of each day—whether it’s found me in the city, or meeting up with friends in Berkeley, Sausalito, or Pacifica—I do have a tangible home to return to. I love the anticipation I feel every time I climb the stairs to my apartment, I love turning the key in the lock, and I love placing my keys on the little wooden ledge by my door. As far as apartments go, my one-room studio isn’t much—my “kitchen” holds just a single-burner induction cooker, toaster oven, and blender—but I had an epiphany about it one day soon after I moved in.
The woman I’m renting from is Japanese, so all of the tables and even the bed are low to the floor. There’s a square table in the center of the floor, which means that to walk around the room, I inevitably end up walking in a circle—just as I would in a yurt. I thought about this, and about the high ceiling, which feels just as expansive as the domed ceiling of a yurt, and about how my apartment is mysteriously silent—despite living on a busy street in the center of the city, none of the standard city noises reaches me. My small urban abode somehow still offers me the same amount of silence, space, and solitude a yurt would.
Of course, that’s really where the similarities end. In place of a roof window, I have a faded yellow smoke detector in the center of my ceiling; and my sole window looks out not onto a sylvan scene of fir trees or the placid surface of Lake Atitlán, but the grimy interior courtyard of my apartment building, with just a few meager potted plants as a nod to nature.
But when I lie in bed beneath the window and look up, I can indeed glimpse a wedge of the sky; when I sit down at my low Japanese table to write, the air is quiet and ripe for thought; and for the first time, when I step out of my front door, I step out into a city in which I’m surrounded by community and friendships.
I keep a postcard on the little ledge by my door, that I look at every time I leave my urban yurt and head out into the city. On it is the quote from van Gogh I opened this post with:
“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
As a writer, as an artist myself, but most importantly, simply as a friend, I couldn’t stand by those words more.
* * *