Nearly a year after trading our steady midwestern routine for this nomadic life, our travels circled back to the very city we left: St. Louis, Missouri. From four different Airbnbs, we explored neighborhoods we scarcely knew despite calling STL home for a combined twelve years. A mix of novelty and nostalgia, the month lent itself to reflection on what’s changed and what hasn’t. Jotted down over the course of April 2018, here is a daily catalog capturing one month of Airbnb living.
Week 1: Tower Grove
Once again, we forgot it was Easter. This has become a chronic problem for us. Last year, we were tipped off by a laminated sign of a burrito in an Easter basket taped to Chipotle’s locked doors. The year before that, the epiphany occurred in the grocery store’s deserted parking lot. This year, we managed to inflict our perennial oblivion on generous friends by asking to stay with them for the weekend. Consequently, this morning was an apologetic scramble to extricate ourselves before the family festivities began. As soon as we’d left, we became starkly aware that our Airbnb wouldn’t be ready for hours and that, with the exception of brunch restaurants and parks, the city was effectively closed. It was cold and windy, and so we wound up at the Cheesecake Factory. These awkward gaps between Airbnbs never occurred to us when we jumped into a life of full time travel. As our drawn out meal came to its inevitable end, our host unknowingly saved us with a small text letting us know the apartment was ready early. When the appointed 4:00pm check-in time rolled around, we were already unpacked and snuggled up on the couch as the hail started. Within minutes the bright green garden below was solid white. St. Louis’ weather is notoriously finicky this time of year.
We’re in St. Louis because Jay is starting a new job. The position will be remote, but he’s spending the first month in the office getting to know his new team. When he left for work, Odin didn’t know what to do. This Airbnb sits on the second of three floors, and Odin stood with his nose pressed into the lowest window staring at the sidewalk for several minutes before whining at me to fix it. For the last ten months, the three of us have spent almost everyday together. It’s funny how quickly new patterns become normal. At lunch, Odin and I walked across the street to Tower Grove Park. Now it’s too warm for the coat that just yesterday wasn’t heavy enough. Throughout the park, ornate pavilions stand majestically over worn picnic tables. Brightly painted with delicate woodwork, each Victorian pavilion jostles for attention with its own distinct flair. Signs are posted before each: The Old Playground Pavilion, 1870; The Old Carriage Pavilion, 1873; The Turkish Pavilion, 1892. The trees are just starting to bloom, each limb laced with an almost indistinguishable pale green, and the pavilions look like bright candies floating amid the branches. I realize I’ve never been here. I rack my memory and only come up with a friend mentioning that she’d joined a kickball league and a vague notion that food trucks gather here on summer nights.
For the first time since we’ve been here, the sun finally came out this morning. We woke up flooded in a soft, early light and realized the bed faces east. I love these little moments in Airbnbs, subtle surprises different spaces reveal during a longer stay. This apartment reminds me so much of the one I had when I lived in St. Louis. A second floor apartment in a three story building, two homes per landing in the tiled stairwell. The original dark wooden doors that have been painted white on the inside to match the white walls and baseboards painted during a recent renovation. The bathroom still has the 1950s tile and the tankless toilet sounds like a jet engine firing up when it flushes. The only big difference is that it’s a studio and for years, I paid for a one bedroom. Sometimes I think we pay for more space as soon as we can afford it, and then when it feels empty, we buy more stuff to fill it. In the afternoon it rained, a quiet happy spring shower. I cracked the window and curled up on the couch to work by the sound. Odin slept in a tight ball in his bed.
In these last few days I have cranked out more work than I managed to produce during entire weeks in Amarillo and Albuquerque this winter. I’m trying to figure out why, but too many variables have changed at once to isolate the cause. Jay’s gone during the day. Odin’s adjusting well to the footsteps on the ceiling. I’ve been getting up at the same time each morning. I make bed. They say win the morning, win the day. We spent the last few weeks camping our way up the California coast and then bolting back across the nation to St. Louis. Ideas have been percolating without the ability to pull out the laptop. I have a presentation tomorrow, so there’s a tangible deadline. Or maybe it’s just that this Airbnb feels so familiar, so much like home, that the environmental noise has quieted into productivity. Who knows.
This morning I went back to the university where I worked the entire time I lived in St. Louis. The anticipation of seeing old colleagues, folks who I adore, who encouraged me to take the entrepreneurial leap, was a steady drip of happy warmth all morning. But the weirdest thing happened in the moment when the sidewalk I was on met up with the path I used to take everyday from the parking lot to the building where I worked. I had this tiny blip of resistance, this momentary wave of not feeling free to come and go by my volition. And as soon as I was in the building, seeing the people I wanted to see, leading the data visualization workshop I had asked to lead, I was on cloud nine. But that momentary reaction stuck with me the rest of the day. That subtle hook of resistance, of suddenly wishing it were Saturday, it felt simultaneously foreign and utterly familiar. Looking back, I think I stepped over that sensation walking into work every morning until it was rubbed dull. And yet today, after nearly a year away, that threshold was a sharp prick. That slight sense of coercion, however gently its hand might have be on my back, underpinned years. I’ve taken stock time and again of all the wonderful new experiences that have been added to our lives over the last year, but rarely have I returned to what’s been, gratefully, taken away.
Most moving days we wake up with a little spark of excitement about going to the next place, but every once in a while neither of us wants to leave. This Airbnb was the least expensive of our four stays this month, and I wonder if that undercut the expectations I carried to its door. This stay has been exceptional and shorter than most, and that combination has left me feeling like maybe we haven’t experienced everything this place has to offer. Jay went to work, and I moved us to the next Airbnb. I approached the top-bottom duplex in an overly ambitious trip from the car: backpack on, duffel slung over the shoulder, dog bed folded in half under my arm, with a bag of groceries in one hand and Odin on his retractable leash in the other. I’m sure I looked off-kilter and loud when an older woman came out the front door of the bottom apartment and informed me that her daughter has just had surgery and had finally fallen asleep inside. Odin was barking, I was apologizing, attempting to wrangle the bags and the dog. They’ve been praying for her health, I’m told, and there are two young kids, and her husband had just started a business, and that house next door with the city construction permits taped to the window is theirs, mid-renovation when all this hit. As I climb the stairs to this week’s home, all I can think is that an Airbnb is the last thing these folks need hanging over their heads.
On the road, the best Saturdays are ones like these, when the travel and unpacking has already been done, and we wake up feeling like we’re on vacation. The Airbnb itself is very basic, but it’s sunny and clean. The main reason we booked this spot was its location. We’re just a few blocks from St. Charles’ historic Main Street tucked against the Missouri River. We walked downtown for lunch, and it felt like stepping into the 1800s. Each brick in the road has been smoothed and polished with time, and the second story porches come off the brick buildings on thin legs that straddle the sidewalks below, like a western movie set. A local winery has a restaurant among the myriad of shops, and its patio had several fire pits going, which looked warmer from the street than they felt once we were sitting next to them on the deserted patio, splitting a pitcher of sangria. I only came to the St. Charles riverfront twice when we lived here. The first time at the prompting of a friend visiting from the southwest, and the second for a seed exchange recommended by a friend. We never ended up planting the seeds we so eagerly picked out that day. I’d like to think, well we moved that spring, so we couldn’t have planted them, but that’s not true. If we’d ever intended to actually put them in the ground, we would have had trays of samplings in our window sills by the time we realized we were going to leave.
Week 2: St. Charles
I spent the morning counting quarters at the laundromat and watching our clothes go round and round, sloshing against the soapy glass. I’ve heard this moment so often mentioned as a metaphor for meditation, watching the internal movement from outside the machine. Today, it just looks like laundry. Jay and I divvied up the chores with sticky notes on the fridge. He’s in charge of reconciling the budget, figuring out how to get our latest batch of mail to an address we can access here in St. Louis, and finding a new pair of jeans. His old pair finally gave out, in Vegas no less. I’ve got laundry and groceries. Traveling full time has eliminated a huge swath of auxiliary tasks produced by living in one place. There’s no home to deep clean, no lawn to mow, no basement or garage or closets that perpetually need to be organized, no garbage bins to remember to take out on a given day, no utilities to pay. But there are also no systems in place. We’re inevitably reinventing the laundry doing, grocery buying, mail retrieval wheel. We used to rely on Amazon Prime deliveries so heavily that the first time Odin’s kibble started to run low on the road, we had to figure out which pet store actually carried that brand. Petco, it turned out.
At lunch I took Odin for a long walk down by the river. Once we turned around, I came back on Main Street where there are more people and shop doors propped open. I’m trying to prepare him for Brooklyn where we’ll spend four weeks this summer. Right now, he pays decent attention in more crowded areas. He’s indifferent to most of the people, eager to say hi to the other dogs, but remains terrified of plastic bags, skateboards, and as it turns out, the seated statue of Daniel Boone positioned halfway down Main Street. One of the most memorable pieces of parenting advice I’ve received for future use is this: raise the kid you have. In the meantime, I try to keep this thought in mind with Odin, each day training the dog I have, this lovable leggy mutt who happens to be terrified of a cast iron statue with an outstretched arm and a coonskin hat.
Lewis and Clark left for their famous expedition from the banks of the Missouri river here in St. Charles. Any bravery we’ve summoned over the last year feels humorous in light of theirs. Situated at one end of the park along the river is a towering statue of the two explorers with Seaman, Lewis’ beloved dog, sitting obediently between the two men. I followed the wikipedia rabbit hole. Seaman, a grandiose Newfoundland, was the lone animal survivor of their extensive voyage. He made it through a badger attack and the subsequent makeshift surgery Lewis and Clark performed on his hind leg, a kidnapping by a Native American tribe, and the crew’s dinnertime, which apparently included meat from over 200 dogs during their two year voyage. As I read that, Odin is stretched out napping in a patch of sun. I chuckle to myself. He might have been deemed too lean to eat, but I think a badger could take him. On the inside of Seaman’s collar these words were inscribed: “The greatest traveller of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacific ocean through the interior of the continent of North America.”
When I imagined working for myself, I never pictured days like this. After two days of knocking out projects for my data visualization business, I spent today fighting an uphill battle with a blog post that didn’t want to be written. After each failed session, I’d try to reboot: I took Odin for a walk, I got coffee, I cooked, I meditated, which I haven’t remembered to do in weeks. Habits like that feel like they get derailed more easily on the road, although I don’t actually have any data to back that up. It’s possible that I was just as inconsistent when we lived in St. Louis but I didn’t notice the days I crafted like I do now. When I imagined working for myself, I pictured calm productivity, a steady stream of ideas and follow through, surrounded by neatly kept whiteboards of to-do lists with mostly completed tasks. Instead, I feel more like a pendulum oscillating in two to three day streaks between respectable output and uninspired slumps. Living in Airbnbs does not prevent sulking at the end of a frustrating day with fatty food and Netflix binges. We just do it from different couches.
Today, for the first time ever, I encountered disdainful disapproval of our lifestyle, from a millennial no less. It wasn’t just disinterest or irritation. Within moments of meeting this young man, I realized his rather abrasive reaction to my story was rooted in activism. He said that he’s from New Orleans where Airbnb’s presence is so entrenched in tourist areas that the cost of living there for locals has become untenable. Then he backpedaled with an offhanded comment of, I mean, sure I use it when I travel, but you know, just saying. This morning, I had literally come across this article by fivethirtyeight about Airbnb’s impact on the housing market. In late 2016, it concluded that while, yes, the majority of Airbnb hosting revenue comes from listings categorized as entire place that are rented out for more than half a year (debunking Airbnb’s claim that most of the spaces guests rent would go unused any way), the actual number of Airbnbs is such a tiny fraction of the overall rental market in big cities that it isn’t able to disrupt them in any meaningful way. But of course, I want to believe that. I don’t want to think our travels are making it harder on local residents to live in their town. And the data fivethirtyeight used isn’t granular enough to analyze the impact on individual neighborhoods. And while yes, many of the places we’ve stayed were basement suites or nestled over garages, we’ve stayed in just as many units that could have been rented out to local residents, some of which used to do exactly that. And as much as I was taken aback by this stranger’s blatant judgement of our way of life, I also know that our current host intends, when the family downstairs moves into their renovated home next door, to turn that unit into an Airbnb as well.
Today was moving day again. We’re back in Tower Grove, this time just west of the Missouri Botanical Gardens. The entire time I lived in St. Louis, my mom encouraged me to go see Shaw’s Gardens and I never did. Now I can peak into the gardens each time I take Odin outside. The trees are starting to flower. This afternoon I was running late to meet up with some friends for a poetry reading near Grand Center, another neighborhood I’ve never been too, and I couldn’t get the shower to work. At one point, with the H knob cranked to the left and a free fall of icy water, I considered skipping the shower altogether, but that wasn’t a sustainable solution for our ten day stay here. Exacerbated, I finally looked down at the knobs again and realized that both were labeled with a red H. The one I’d seen first was actually responsible for the cold water. Little quirks like these have a way of anchoring us in the present moment. It’s hard to drift too far off in mindless routine when the physical environment around us constantly shifts. Some days, those little nuances delight me. And some day, like now, they just piss me off.
This morning we had the best. breakfast. ever. We went to a restaurant that opened just before we left STL called Roosters. The building itself is uplifting, with light-hearted sketches of roosters on the yellow walls and floor to ceiling windows flooding the space with morning sun. One of our favorite things about full time travel is the constant rotation of new restaurants to try. We went to town. Fresh orange juice, biscuits and gravy, crepes, a breakfast burrito filled with bacon for Jay. They even gave us a to-go coffee as we walked at the door, which set us up perfectly for a productive day chipping away at our own projects, side by side on the couch. This type of parallel play has underpinned our relationship since we would study together in high school. In the afternoon I called my mom, gushing about last night’s poetry reading, the Botanical Garden’s flowering trees, Tower Grover’s stunning pavilions, how decadent the breakfast was. I told her I’m still struggling to understand why I didn’t enjoy these things during the years I lived here. Without missing a beat she said, Well you know that Buddhist saying: The trouble is, you think you have time.
Week 3: Tower Grove (Again)
Odin spent the afternoon curled up in his bed under the table. Our latest Airbnb has two stairwells connecting the building’s four apartments, one set at the front entrance and another set at the back. Odin made quick peace with the footsteps on the ceiling, but he’s reluctant to believe that the boisterous travelers clomping up and down the stairwell past our door don’t pose a threat. In fact, he’s rather confident that his bark serves as the sole deterrent keeping our fellow Airbnbers from bursting through our door, which is how he wound up with his bed under the table. After getting up and down several times, we positioned him in arms reach of our workstation so we could more consistently reward silence and scold woofs. This training has led to Odin’s latest invention: an apartment bark. It’s a muted version of his full-bodied bark which he manages to produce without opening his mouth. He generates the sound from his throat which then fluffs out through his loose cheeks while he keeps his jaw closed. Afterwards, he looks back at me to see whether he’s actually discovered a loophole in the no barking policy. I inform him that he hasn’t, but I admire his attempt. The walls, after all, are super thin.
Today two competing bike sharing programs were launched in St. Louis. Upon seeing one company’s lime green bikes positioned at the edge of the park, I assumed the program was specific to Tower Grove. It turns out that I was actually seeing three of the 5,000 app-controlled bikes that have been sprinkled across the city. Unlike bike sharing programs we’ve seen in other big cities, there’s no docking station associated with these programs. There’s just a GPS tracker on each bike and an app that will tell you where the nearest bike is located. You unlock it with your smartphone and ride away, presumably once they’ve got your credit card on file. On yet another trip to Ted Drewes that evening, I pointed out the bikes to Jay. My inherent optimism was met with his equally engrained skepticism. Isn’t that neat? Followed by. It’ll never last. They’ll be lost, stolen, or damaged in no time.
I put on makeup today, which has become an increasingly rare occurrence. I was getting ready for a networking meeting and listening to a fascinating TED talk by Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code. Her argument pivots on how much more easily young girls meet the expectations of their elementary school teachers. While the boys squirm, fidget, and are frequently informed they’ve failed to meet the expectations and need to try again, the girls easily comply and in turn, are rewarded for a behavior that came naturally. The long term consequence, Reshma says, is that girls are more likely to pursue what comes easily in order to maintain their pattern of perfection. Unlike the boys, they haven’t been acclimated to failure through a multitude of small stumbles followed by renewed attempts. While the boys are primed for bravery, the girls are primed for perfection. Reshma said her coding instructors tell similar stories about the beginning of their coding courses for high school girls. With a blank screen before them, the students will call over the instructor and say they don’t know what to code. If the instructor hits the undo button a few times, previous coding attempts will pop up on their screen. “Instead of showing the progress that she made,” Resham reports, “she’d rather show nothing at all.” So I left the Airbnb, went to my networking meeting, and when it didn’t result in an immediate gig, I found myself at Ted Drewes again, sitting alone in the parking lot with Reshma’s TED talk spinning around in my head trying to understand why I felt so crappy. Have I only ever pursued work that came easily to me, where the likelihood of success was almost guaranteed? Is this why entrepreneurship feels so different? So scary? What goals have I cut short because the initial attempts were rough? What evidence of imperfection have I deleted out of shame? Luckily, I’d ordered the big cup today so the soft serve lasted through the majority of this self-examination.
Apple woke me up this morning with a banner message on my phone informing me: “You have a new memory.” The iPhotos algorithm had generated this little video that stitched together the latest images I’d taken on a particularly photo intense day. Fading one into the next with upbeat ukulele music in the background were all stock photos I had taken two weeks back for the Airbnb Host’s Kitchen Checklist. This was my new memory: a montage of kitchen utensils, a toaster oven, a musical crescendo climaxing in the photo of the olive oil and vinegar shot, which was actually soy sauce because the host had stocked a yummy red wine vinegar instead of balsamic. I was told once that photographers use white glue instead of milk when they’re creating cereal ads to keep the grains from getting soggy. I wonder what iPhotos could do with a Mini Wheats photoshoot.
There’s a U-Haul this evening outside the Airbnb. Someone from Utah is moving. A few days ago I heard about this guy who was writing a book called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. In it, he creates terms for nebulous emotions that up until this point have lacked their own word. The example he’d mentioned resurfaces as I look at the rust colored Arches depicted on the license plate and hear the owner’s soft footsteps upstairs. Online, I find the full definition.
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
As I was waiting in line for coffee this morning, I saw the front page headline on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Were some of St. Louis’ new shared bikes thrown into the Mississippi River already? I wonder whether this is really news or just the analog manifestation of clickbait headlines. When I drive back to the apartment, I scan the park for lime green handlebars, which are now positioned near a different entrance. I was getting coffee because we never bought groceries at this Airbnb. We never unpacked. My clothes have become a lopsided pile loosely held together by a duffle bag base, and the leftover bread we purchased last week is starting to mold. Ruts like these seem to be correlated with the physical space. When an Airbnb falls flat, we seem to be more susceptible to toppling over with it. A lack of natural light or comfortable work spaces and suddenly it feels like we’re swimming upstream to take care of what we know we need to do. The upside is this. With a constant rotation of spaces, opportunities for renewal are ever present. It’s like New Year’s Day knocking on the door every couple weeks.
This evening, I finally got up the nerve to do laundry in the eerie basement. We’re heading to our last St. Louis Airbnb tomorrow morning, and there’s no washer and dryer in the amenities description. The machines sit along the wall beneath our bedroom, and when I listen closely standing upstairs, I can hear whether they’ve finished their cycle yet. The basement is dimly lit and extends beneath the entire building, making it twice as big as the unit we’ve been staying in upstairs. The space is a sea of different furniture pieces, odds and ends I assume our host has collected over the years for one of her many Airbnbs. Near the washer and dryer stands a tall metal shelf with four plastic bins labeled for each of the units upstairs. The fabrics for the next guests spill over the top: clean towels, wash clothes, sheets, duvet covers, mats for the bathroom, rags for the kitchen. When I was little I’d play this game with my mom as I’d fall asleep that hinged on analogies of magnitude. As I fold our laundry looking at the rack, I think this would be a good one. I love you more than all the laundry Airbnb hosts have ever done or ever will do.
Week 4: Soulard
This place is stunning. Our latest Airbnb feels like walking into a Restoration Hardware magazine cover: luxurious textures, rustic metallics, and a bed so beautifully made that it inspired its very own blog post. Within the first hour, we’d unpacked, popped open the bottle of white wine our host had set out, and kicked back with the Cardinals game that was happening just down the street. We could hear the fireworks celebrating a homerun just before the ball was hit on tv. The office where I worked for years in St. Louis celebrated opening day with a potluck, complete with hot dogs, cracker jacks, and cupcakes with icing piped into baseball seams. One of my colleagues would bring in red and white mardi gras beads for the celebration, but would always hang one string of blue beads on my door, the lone KC Royals fan in a city obsessed with the Cards. There’s a Seneca quote I return to often: “Everywhere is nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.” I can’t say this is completely unfounded.
It turns out there’s construction going on above us. After spending last week convincing Odin with many treats that he should ignore racket in the shared stairwells, I’ve moved on to reassuring him that power tools and work books and levitated ladders floating pass the windows are also not cause for alarm. It’s a tough sell. At the worst of it, I took him for a walk. Soulard is a mid 1800s neighborhood constructed almost exclusively of brick. It’s home to the Budweiser brewery, the historic Soulard farmers market, and several stout churches that chime on the hour. Odin’s catching on to the fact that the little square patches of dirt around the trees are meant for him, which bodes well for Brooklyn. The funny thing is how quiet the neighborhood is. It’s chalked full of meticulously renovated homes, but with the exception of the occasional passerby, the streets are deserted. When I get back, I look up population statistics for St. Louis. At its height in the 1950s, the city’s population peaked around 850,000. Today, it’s down to just a smidge over 300,000. Wikipedia cites white flight and explosive suburban construction. For cities this size, only Detroit and a town I don’t know in Ohio have experienced an exodus this intense.
This morning I found myself tidying up the apartment and I remembered a blog post by 1 Chic Retreat about incentivizing Airbnb guests to clean up after themselves. The logic goes like this: make your Airbnb so beautiful, guests can’t help but keep it clean. This is exactly what’s happening to me here. Each evening before I go to sleep, I straighten up the living room pillows, recenter the magazines, load the dishes into the dishwasher. In the morning, I have this itch to make the bed. These four St. Louis Airbnbs are the first ones we’ve booked since we started bnbNomad. And I was just convinced as I sat at a beautiful breakfast bar in Albuquerque that I had analyzed the Airbnb world so thoroughly that I would be able to pluck out four consecutive winners here in St. Louis. But the truth is, our time here aligns with our previous 50/50 pattern. We had a location advantage for sure, but two of the places we’ve stayed in we’d book again in a heartbeat, and the other two we’d pass by in search of something better. We saw this split for the first time during our inaugural Airbnb adventure up through Canada and the pacific northwest. It held true during our first trip out east, and then our southwest tour this winter. The only trip we scored 100% was on our honeymoon when we were willing to doll out a significantly higher nightly rate. Our current budget seems to straddle this invisible line between fabulous finds and mediocre rentals. As we near a year on the road, I’m still trying to crack the Airbnb booking code. Right now, all our research seems to leave us with only coin flip odds.
Today the construction crew started power washing our back door which, understandably, completely freaked Odin out. My solution was to drive us to Forest Park for a long walk. We spent the afternoon making circles around the fountains and the art museum, an iconic piece of the park built for the 1904 World’s Fair. Just a month after I’d moved to St. Louis, we came to the top of Art Hill in attempts to see the fourth of July firework display taking place downtown. When the sun finally set and the fireworks started, we could only see smoke. As Odin and I descended down the hill, I could see a young couple attempting to figure out the lime green bike app. As we looped back up towards the museum, we passed an older couple. He sat upright with his arms stretched in a T, she laid with her mess of grey hair in his lap, legs kicked over the back of the bench. Does this doggie have a name? the man asked with a smile. Odin, I replied. Like the God! he exclaimed. I smiled at his enthusiasm. Yes, although he’s scared of plastic bags and skateboards, so we may have picked the wrong name. The man leaned back and grinned. Don’t worry. Gods take awhile to develop.
Last night, I couldn’t turn my brain off. Lists proliferated, anxieties about work ebbed, then surged, and I spent the morning attempting to transfer the fury of thoughts in my mind onto paper at a Starbucks where I was meeting a friend for coffee. As I scrawled a mess across the page, I suddenly realized that the black and white photo encompassing the wall in front of me was the original coffee shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. We were there last summer. We stayed with a dear friend who showed us around the market and gave us gum to chew and then stick to the infamous gum wall. Before we arrived, I’d heard on NPR that despite protests the city was powerwashing the gum off, but by the time we made our contribution, the entire thing was a brightly colored patchwork of sugary spit again. Sitting here in St. Louis, looking at that picture, I felt a wave of sentimentality. Where we’re not is always more alluring than where we are. There’s an embedded romanticism that could easily be critiqued there. But that feeling is also rooted, at least in part, in an anticipation that too often gets overwhelmed by the wake of our instant gratification pursuit. Our travels turn on the excitement of planning, the anticipation before we arrive, and then leave us with a bit of nostalgia to take with us. A few days ago I was listening to a podcast where a linguist was explaining how the meaning of words shift over time. It’s been many years since someone died of nostalgia.
Today I was doing yoga when the blog post went live and our weekly newsletter went out. These weeks of preparedness are far and few between. There’s still so much room for growth. As I made lunch, I was listening to the TED Radio Hour again. This time, one of the speaker’s made me tear up. Her name is Steve Shirley. Steve is a British woman who figured out in the 1950s that if she signed her job application letters as Steve instead of Stephanie, she could get her foot in the door before anyone figured out that she was a woman. She created a technology company worth over 3 billion dollars hiring exclusively women as software programmers, at a time, she reminds the us, when women couldn’t open a bank account without their husband’s consent. Towards the end of the interview, she says offhandedly, “I feel I am so lucky because I have done what is in me to do.” That was the moment that took me. That recognition of how powerful human potential undeniably is, qualified by the rarity of its full expression.
We woke up early to pack up our things. When I took the trash out I saw a lime green bike someone’s been hoarding in the alley for their own commute. We went down the street to John’s Donut, which has an incredible apple fritter and walls coated in Superman memorabilia. We’ve rarely seen it during the day. It opens up at 11:00pm and stays open all night while they make the donuts, then closes up shop after the morning rush. It was a prime late-night study break stop in college. We leave an apple fritter for our host who’s never tried John’s Donuts, and then lock up the Airbnb. Jay’s heading back to Kansas City with Odin and on Monday I’m heading north for work for a few days. When I picture chunks of time alone, I fantasize about dog-free frolicking and unprecedented productivity, but it never goes like that. Just an hour after checking into a local hotel for two days, I’m lonely. I went to my old neighborhood and walked along the path I used to run on summer mornings. As I neared the bottom of the hill where I would always turn back, I noticed that those exact directions were written in chalk on the sidewalk: Turn around! with a smiley face and an arrow. The entire walk back I realized that the path had been marked up for a 5k, complete with chalk directions to look both ways when you’re crossing the street. I’d missed all of it. It’s funny how easily the world shifts when you’re primed to see its tilt.
One of my old colleagues started a flower business called Microbloomery at the same time I launched my own data visualization business. We bond over all the things we don’t know. Today I attended her brilliant take on a flower arranging workshop. She holds the event at a local brewery and uses one of their craft beers as the inspiration for the brewquet. We built our arrangement using Missouri flowers inspired by Second Shift’s Katy Trail beer. As I finished my first ever flower arrangement, I realized I didn’t have a home to bring it back to. There was a curious couple observing our workshop nearby, so I left my arrangement with them. As I headed out, they started asking Alyse about her business, which made me happy. I walked to my car ruminating about fresh flowers and I realized I still hadn’t made it to the botanical gardens. I’d peaked through the fence when we were living in Tower Grove, but after years of hearing that it was a top spot in the city, I still hadn’t been inside. I pulled up at 4:00 to a steady stream of folks exiting the park. Google maps said it would be open for one more hour, and with my ticket in hand I swam upstream until the gardens opened up in a quiet warmth. Endless tulips, bright greenery, red buds flowering in purple bursts. The famous Japanese Garden is nestled at the back of the park. By the time I reached it, almost all the other guests had left. Beneath the trees, running through the perfectly racked pebbles, two ducks had added their own set of parallel tracks.
For years, I would leave St. Louis at 4:30 in the morning and make the exact drive I made today. During college, we nurtured a long distance relationship with sporadic weekend visits. I attended a tiny school in a sleepy Illinois train town. Jay waded through a mammoth institution, a dense island in an urban sea. I always preferred driving back to school as the sun came up Monday morning instead of as it set Sunday night. Sunday nights are muted enough. Driving out of St. Louis, I pass the arch, cross the river, and then head due north. I know this drive better than any other in America. I know where the fields flatten, where the soybeans start, where the barn with the sherbert panels on the west side sits. Object permanence is a fickle thing. If prompted, I would have told you, of course, as we crisscrossed the nation, as we walked along Connecticut’s misty winter shore line, as we stood in the desert and plucked the lone cactus needle from our curious puppy’s nose, that barn has stood just there, in this prairie. And yet its presence, as it emerged, felt almost miraculous. You see, at any point I could have thought about the sherbert barn, but I never did. My mind follows my body around like a shadow, and my body hasn’t been in this Illinois field in a year. It’s an impossibility, simultaneously holding in the mind all that we know exists. Ours is such a granular gratitude. We appreciate this world one thimble at a time.