I wanted to make a house for birds.
Actually, I wanted to make artsy birdhouses that would hang sweetly, Pinterest-style, from the tree at the front of our house. Initially, I wasn’t so concerned about the birds.
On Easter Sunday after an egg hunt and a ham lunch, my dad hauled out several birdhouse gourds he had grown the previous summer and dried over the winter. He displayed them proudly, walking us through the simple steps it would take for my sisters and me to make birdhouses ourselves. He would give us the gourds; we just needed to drill holes, paint, tie string, and hang. Simple enough.
“Do you have a large enough drill bit?” he asked. I looked at my husband. We shook our heads.
“No problem,” he said. “I’ll drill the holes for you.”
So while the toddlers ate their Easter suckers, my dad emerged with power tools. Eventually, holes the size of quarters hung low on every gourd, and we all marveled at how easy it was.
“Ewwww, what’s inside of it?” someone said. Honestly, it might have been me; I can’t remember.
“Oh, that’s just the seeds and the pulp. You can just stick a screwdriver or something in there and clean it out. Or the birds might like it and use it to nest,” Dad said.
So I brought home two gourds with holes, which could potentially be two little houses for birds hanging in our front tree. It was up to me.
The gourds sat on the workbench in the garage for days, a reminder that I don’t have much time for hobby projects anymore, not since I got married and became a stepmom to three boys. My full-time freelance work fills my days; making meals and making sure the clutter doesn’t take over the house fills my evenings. When the boys aren’t here—about half the time—my husband and I drive to the city for dinners out or schedule activities with friends or just lie idly comatose on the couch, hoping our recent subscription to Netflix will help us rest. Despite our work ethic and spiritual desires and good intentions at parenting, inertia often drives our lives.
While I felt slightly guilty about putting off the birdhouse project, I felt much worse about my 11-year-old stepson’s bookcase, which remained purple and yellow far too long despite my promises for more than a year that the two of us would paint it in his preferred camouflage motif. The patched wall in the hallway also took far too long for me to apply a little touch-up paint. My middle son had accidentally put his heel through the wall at Christmas. Sometime around Easter I finally called the handyman to fix it. I didn’t get around to painting it until after Independence Day.
We lived in a big, beautiful house on the edge of our small city. To the east, we looked out on cornfields. To the north, just outside our dining room window, the green leafy trees made us almost forget there were homes there. A serene golf course occupied several acres just a couple of blocks south—if we measured distance that way. But we lived in the country, so I’d guess it was a quarter mile.
I moved into that house with my husband and sons just after the wedding. Though it was the house he had built with his ex-wife, my husband welcomed me there warmly, giving me every freedom to rearrange furniture and hang pictures on the walls. We bought new living room furniture and a dining room set. I hung curtains in every room. I moved the spatulas to a ceramic pot next to the stove, and we used placemats instead of a tablecloth.
“The house is the stage set for the drama we hope our lives will be or become,” writes Rebecca Solnit, in the essay “Inside Out, or Interior Space (and Interior Decoration)” from her book Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. “And it’s much easier to decorate the set than to control the drama or even find the right actors or even any actors at all.”
I had great hope for our new life together in that house. The stage was set, many actors were gathered, and plenty of drama swirled within and around me.
But most days, I still didn’t feel at home.
It seemed like months, but within a couple of weeks after bringing the birdhouse gourds home, I had gone to the store for yellow spray paint and plastic scrubbers, sanded off the dried flecks of rind, and shaken out the seeds and pulp into the backyard. With help from my youngest stepson, we painted both gourds. It took another day or two for me to drill a hole at the top of each one, tie a piece of twine, and hang them low in the ornamental birch tree just outside my front window. Pinterest-perfect.
A week or two later, I saw my first house wren flitting around the birdhouse. Until that moment, I hadn’t given too much thought about whether birds would make a home there. I called my dad to let him know.
“Did you see two birds?” he asked. “You’ll usually see two together.”
Sure enough, the next day, I saw two wrens busy bringing twigs and leaves to the openings of the gourds. Seeing the birds find their place among our branches seemed like a sign that home could happen there: for them, for me. Home happens when you work to make it so, I thought.
But a few days after that, I saw the cat sitting suspiciously beneath the birch tree, and from then on, the house wrens were gone. I decided to believe the best, that the wrens felt uneasy about the presence of the cat and just moved on. Thankfully, I found no evidence to the contrary. I understood what it was like to try to make a home where I wasn’t comfortable. I’d been attempting the same thing for a year and half. I wished the little birds well.
“Maybe we all dream of being God,” Solnit writes, “the god who breaches dams, moves houses suddenly, erects bridges, decides where forests will be and who will die.” I realize now this was my goal, even if unuttered: to control, to ordain, to order. It started with the birds, but really, it was about more. It was about having our own house.
“And we graduate from the dollhouse [or the birdhouse in my case] to our own house if we are lucky, where we assume a role somewhere between God the Creator and the chambermaid, choosing but carrying out more painfully the clean floor, the dinner for six [five in our case], the potted plants, the framed prints.”
We had considered moving for about a year, but each time we came close to deciding, I hedged. Would a new house really provide what I was looking for? I had already uprooted my own life just months before; I had already left everything behind once. Would asking my husband and stepsons to do the same force us all into exile? Would we all be destined to roam like Odysseus, looking for the home that might now exist only in our memories?
In other words, would buying a new house be worth it?
“The execution is difficult,” Solnit concludes. “The dreaming is easy and unending.”
Just a few weeks later, we decided to move.
As we packed our belongings and prepared to settle into our new home across town, I walked around the perimeter of the old house gathering flower pots and garden flags and the decorative stones that were spread around the landscaping. I stopped at the birdhouses. I wanted to take them.
“Did you have any birds in those?” a family friend had asked one day as we hauled out a few pieces of furniture we weren’t moving. Since we were downsizing, we had to distribute several items among family members, the local Goodwill, and the town dump.
“Yes, two house wrens,” I said, “until the day I found the cat sitting there.”
“I think you have to hang them higher,” our friend explained. “At least six feet, I think. That’s what we did with ours, hung them like six feet or higher.”
As I untangled the twine from the branches, I peeked into the birdhouses to see if those two wrens really had made a nest there. Maybe I had imagined them. Not the first one; I hadn’t even expected him. But the two together, the two making a home. Maybe I had wanted them to come so desperately I had imagined them settling down there.
When I looked in one of the gourds, it was empty. Hmmm. Then I looked in the other. Bits of the pulp were there, along with a few tiny sticks and some dried grass. The birds had been there, after all.
I finished removing them from the tree and then packed them away in the storage bin full of garden implements we would be moving.
When spring comes around, I’m hoping to find a place in our new yard to hang the birdhouses, this time at least six feet off the ground. If I’m lucky, maybe a couple of new house wrens will find their way to the gourds and make a home, at least the one that hasn’t been occupied yet.
They’d be comfortable here, I think.
I hope I am, too.