Finding new inspiration in old places
Vol. 1, Issue 15
Two weeks before Christmas, I gave up on Santa Claus. Specifically, I gave up on finding a Santa Claus for my daughter to meet and pose with for some obligatory childhood holiday photos. The university Santa was cancelled due to COVID restrictions, and the downtown mall Santa was charging $20 per photo for masked kids to stand next to him. All signs indicated that in-person St. Nick magic simply wasn’t meant to be this year.
But then, I got a text from our realtor, of all people, inviting us to a private holiday gathering at the historic house her team is renovating, complete with a Father Christmas for kids to meet. So I dressed up my Little Bird in her Christmas sweater and we ventured out.
When I pulled up to the address, I realized the house wasn’t just any old building—it was the Dearing-Swaim Mansion, known locally as “The Peacock House” for the two large, bird-shaped topiaries in the front yard. Originally built in 1835 and renovated heavily during the Victorian era, it’s considered one of the best remaining examples of Greek revival architecture in Alabama. We climbed the stairs to the columned portico, and my daughter pointed excitedly at the Christmas tree high above us on the second-level balcony. Inside, our realtor did what she does best and gave us a tour of the house. Nine fireplaces, unique sinks, wooden snakes at the tops of the columns to prevent bird nests — every detail, every corner felt important and interesting.
In the front parlor, Father Christmas sat cheerily on a velvet throne. He waved to my daughter, who I’d anticipated would be eager to meet him. Instead, she scrambled into my arms, wrapped her hands firmly around my neck, and refused to look at him. I attempted to pry her off me, but she started to cry. It was not exactly how I’d envisioned the experience going. But Father Christmas was patient, and eventually Little Bird consented to getting close enough to him for a photo — though she drew the line at actually sitting on his lap. We ate a few donuts, colored a letter to Santa, and departed.
My aunt sent a Christmas letter suggesting I consider the word “palimpsest” for this newsletter, and I realized immediately that the word perfectly describes what my realtor is doing with the Dearing-Swaim: instead of turning the house into an under-appreciated local museum or a private residence for only one family to enjoy, she’s remodeling it into a living, functioning office, as well as a new space for small community events.
This kind of layering of materials and memories makes for an emotionally dynamic and creative physical space. Similarly, I love thinking about creative projects as aggregations of ideas over time; as makers, we are both preserving and renovating our personal emotional energy into something rich and new for other people to experience. We don’t ever have to start anything from scratch, not really. On the page we can model and re-model our ideas, over and over.
The Columns Hotel, Rick Bragg, Garden & Gun. “The older I get, the longer I am gone from it, the New Orleans I experienced as a young man seems more and more like a mirage, a shimmering, half-remembered thing, conjured not from shifting sands and searing heat but from humidity and hangover. Maybe nothing really looks the same, once the haze of dark rum or brown whiskey has burned off. I don’t know. But the very best of it, the finest moment that I remember, happened in a hotel in which I never spent a night, never turned a key.”
Seeking Home Aboard the Night Heron, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Audobon Magazine. “Owning a boat and living aboard in the historic town of Beaufort is an old dream, one that came to me as a child walking the local docks. I spent my summers staring at the sea, reading about maritime forests and shipwrecks. I pictured myself as an adult, living here on an old wooden sailboat, writing mystery novels. My imagination was forged in the coastal South, and that’s still where it feels most alive.”
A Tangier Home Has Passed Between Design Legends, The New York Times Style Magazine. “A 300-year-old house in Morocco has become a palimpsest of ideas and aesthetics, while both subverting and respecting the city’s own colorful legacy.”
Since 2017, writer Jamieson Ridenhour and actor Hayley Heninger have been producing Palimpsest, a bi-weekly fiction podcast with stories about memory, identity, and collisions between past and present. “When we tell an anecdote or a funny thing that happened to us, when we talk about the way things used to be, when we look at pieces of the past. When we feel nostalgic. When we desperately try to touch the things that have faded. Any time we remember, we're talking about ghosts.”
It’s worth a listen.
There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.
If you’re a writer, you almost certainly have at least one unfinished or unpolished manuscript or story outline hiding in a drawer somewhere. This week, I invite you to consider opening that drawer and thinking about how that old character, concept, or idea could be repurposed into something new. Maybe it’s as simple as a character name or an opening line — maybe all the rest of that first draft fades away into something entirely new. If you’re a creative of a different kind, maybe there’s some other abandoned project that could provide a starting place for something new.
Regardless of whether you try this particular prompt, I hope your New Year inspires some fresh, creative energy. Cheers to a (hopefully) healthier and happier 2022 for all of us!