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Wanderlust 

A For Sale sign has gone up in my next-door neighbor's front yard, beside the carefully edged flower beds flanking the freshly painted front porch. The house is a century old and has been meticulously kept. The neighbors saw their two sons through elementary school, junior high, high school and college from this place, and now they're moving on to something smaller and easier to keep.

When they bought this house, in the early '80s, it was dark and rundown. Over the years, they brightened the walls, peeled off the antiquated wallpaper, repaired the crumbling plaster, replaced the primitive kitchen, modernized the bathrooms and refinished the fine woodwork throughout the house. During the warm months of each year, my neighbor scraped the peeling paint off the wood siding of the house, primed the boards and repainted them a light blue-gray. Moving from south to north, it took him two years to complete the job. The garage out back is as clean as my living room, the cement floors sparkling.

I'm sad to see my neighbors go, but at the same time I feel a creeping excitement, a vicarious pleasure in the possibilities of their move. Much as I love my own home and have come to think of it as my children's permanent place in the world, I am frequently struck with the mobility bug, a peculiar wanderlust that comes partly from frequent moves over a lifetime. But the wandering bug is also fed by restlessness, by a sense of possibility, by the impossible dreams of an addictive dreamer.

All it takes is a road trip to set me wondering. Last spring, rolling through central Texas in the early morning hours while my sons slept in the back of the van, I daydreamed about moving to one of those small towns as I watched the mist rising from the grass. A leaning farmhouse with a screened-in side porch, a clothesline in the back yard, soft squishy grass beneath my bare feet. I ignored the reality of snakes and bugs and burrs, the smell of the stockyard on the edge of town. In my fantasy, I would wake at sunrise on the sleeping porch and watch a golden eagle take flight from the surrounding woods. I would need only a thin sheet to keep me warm. My kitchen floor would be covered with shiny, buckling linoleum and a squeeking screen door would be the only thing separating me from the vegetable garden out back.

Moving fantasies, extended, soon become nightmares. The mortgage, the real-estate agents, the endless deeds and paperwork, tax considerations, a moving van, change-of-address cards, telephone and utilities deposits, loud neighbors and loose dogs. A mysterious sinkhole in the new lawn that smells faintly of sewage.

Nevertheless, when the bug bites, I am enchanted by the thought. What is most appealing is the vision of empty rooms, scrubbed and full of potential. I imagine a room with one huge white wall where I can hang all my favorite art. I'll discard everything superfluous and fill the closets with bare necessities. The kitchen table will flank a south-facing window, and in winter I'll start seeds there in tiny peat pots. On Sundays, I'll sit at that table, pay my bills and write letters. My office will adjoin the bedroom, so I can work and nap in alternating phases. I'll pull out the old white chenille bedspread that has been cooped up in a trunk for 20 years, and will brighten the bedroom with it. Thin muslin curtains will be all that hangs in the windows. The television will be buried in the back of the house. My bathroom will be a study in simplicity -- a sink, a tub, a pile of soft towels, a small cabinet with bars of unopened soap.

I remember each time my family moved when I was growing up. The best moment was when I ran into the empty house before all our stuff arrived. "Mama!" I screamed, "There's a window in the kitchen!" I ran down bare hallways, slid around corners, peeked into empty closets, found my room, figured out where the bed would go, where the chest-of-drawers would sit.

I strain against my lust for mobility, telling myself I need to sink roots and grow a thick trunk right where I am. Then I see a For Sale sign, or drive a thousand miles in my car, and the possibilities seem infinite. I'm a transplant, I'm afraid, and the thought of dropping roots in new soil lingers hopefully in this gypsy soul.

-- A version of this essay first appeared in the Independent in 2000.

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