Start Fresh

Life is about change. While we’re usually focused on the shifts of home renovations around here, we know that change occurs in many forms: relationships, careers, and neighborhoods are but a few. In a monthly series called “Start Fresh,” we’ll explore the different ways someone can put a new coat of paint on their life, and how that decision shaped their current reality.

I remember the layered weight of feeling overwhelmingly tired. After renting in New York City’s West Village for 15 years, I was tired of throwing away $2,000 a month for a 400-square-foot studio. I was tired of haggling with my landlady every time I needed my leaky radiator fixed. And I was tired of having to make my mom spoon me whenever she visited because there wasn’t enough room for an air mattress.

I loved New York City. But it was exhausting. 

So I did what any worn-out person does when desperately searching for a break: I bought a 1919 craftsman bungalow sight-unseen. It was on the other side of the country in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, set on a quiet street in the St. Johns neighborhood. My realtor had emailed me pictures of the two bedrooms, bathroom, and living spaces, but only after my offer was officially accepted did I fly from La Guardia to see it for the first time. I was hoping to have a clean break from New York, and luckily, stepping into this property was love at first sight. 

The next thing I knew, I was alone in my new house with two heavy suitcases and my terrier mix, Mouse. I didn’t have a stick of furniture—not a single table or even a chair. I didn’t know the first thing about electrical panels or water heaters, either. I had traded my East Coast friends and the non-stop rumbling of the 1,2,3 trains beneath my studio for a few high school acquaintances and a nearly silent bungalow. I stood there and wondered if I made the right decision. But I reminded myself that I wanted to move forward, not backward. So I focused on the positives.

I stood there and wondered if I made the right decision. But I reminded myself that I wanted to move forward, not backward. So I focused on the positives.

The biggest upside was that the place was mine to fill. I had a vinyl collection, vintage Franciscan dinnerware, and sheets my grandmother embroidered that had been sitting in a Portland storage unit for over a decade. I could paint the walls any color I wanted without fighting my landlady. I could rip out the orange Formica countertops in the kitchen. I could turn up my stereo and stomp my feet as much as I pleased. I felt the load of tiredness lifting away, replaced with the weightlessness of hope. 

And yet, I had to confront the reality of going through a transition first. During those initial few nights, I slid into a sleeping bag on my basement floor because it was too hot upstairs and I had no idea how to use the air conditioning. I did know how to ask for help, and soon after, much-needed gains came in the form of a small loan from my mom and the help of a homeless handyman. He and I worked together to paint my entire house from top to bottom, and install butcher-block countertops around a gas stove. I had never used a power drill before, but with patience, I mastered that little beast. I also figured out my air conditioning, water heater, and electrical panel, but that took even more patience.

I could turn up my stereo and stomp my feet as much as I pleased. I felt the load of tiredness lifting away, replaced with the weightlessness of hope.

The first project I tackled by myself was building shelves in my bedroom closet. I found a long slab of wood and bought shelving brackets, and then stained and drilled it all together. I was so proud of my work, but when my mom came to visit for the first time, she just shook her head. I hadn’t used a level, and while the shelf looked pretty straight to me, my mom made me tear it all down so we could build it back up correctly. Once we were finished, my mom not only had her very own bed to sleep in, but she had her very own room. 

As time passed, light spilled in from the porch to my cozy living room and reflected off the pots I hung like Julia Child. My bedroom had a matching dresser and nightstand, and the guest room had a desk with a plant. My home was looking more and more like mine—eclectic, comfortable, bright—and surveying it all was like taking in a breath of fresh air. 

It’s the give-and-take of starting over that I remember most about my first weeks in Portland. I missed my friends at the Washington Square dog park and the directness of New Yorkers. But I was able to ride my bike to my new Portland yoga studio and not fear getting squished by a meat delivery truck, and I could cook food picked from my very own garden in my very own kitchen. If I acknowledged the lows as much as the highs, I could embrace this new phase of life with the balance I needed to do it right. 

It also helped that about three months after I moved to Portland, I fell in love for real. The first time I went over to Julie’s house, I brought her a bowl of blueberries from my yard and felt so confident to be navigating this whole home-ownership thing by myself. I was no longer (as) tired, or frustrated, or looking for an out. I was simply in my element, and it felt like she was seeing a renewed version of the person I wanted to be.

If I acknowledged the lows as much as the highs, I could embrace this new phase of life with the balance I needed to do it right.

The funny thing about our love story is that it eventually brought me back to New York City. Two years after we met, and long after I had officially reclaimed my title as a Portland native, Julie asked if we could start over as a pair in Brooklyn. I couldn’t say no—after what doing so meant for me—but I had one request. I needed to keep my craftsman in St. Johns and return to it every so often. Happily, she agreed. 

The home I worked so hard to create is still a haven where I can recharge, and I look back on its origin story as the chapter that sparked the details of my current life. Now, Julie and I keep our balance between cities, never waiting until we’re too tired to make a change. 

About

Michelle Kehm

Michelle Kehm is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Vogue, The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Allure, and AFAR, among others. She’s also the author of two books. She currently bounces between her apartment in Brooklyn and house in Portland.

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