“Where’s home?” the taxi driver asks. After two beats and no answer from the back of the cab, he looks up into his rear-view mirror, smiling. I smile back. Oh yes, I heard him. But I can’t think of what to say. I have no automatic three-word answer for “Where’s home?”
“I’m from…where?” I could mention the island where I now live. I have a nice place there, and know my phone numbers and those of friends. I know some good restaurants and where to take a nice walk, and I certainly get mail at that address. But is the place where I live “home?” I smile again and say, “I’m from here,” and let it go at that. But the question dogs me long after the cab ride. What does it feel like to consider one place— one place among all other places—home?
I have moved from state to state and country to country 12 times in my life, with many a change of apartment or house in-between. Like most Americans, I have never stood on the ground where my great-grandparents once stood. And as the years go by,
I find myself asking, what does it feel like to stand on that ground? What does it feel like to come from somewhere? “Where’s home?”
I grew up with people who knew where home ground was, but they couldn’t return to it. They were refugees. Their tie to kin and ground got broken long ago and is irreparable now. I cannot suddenly learn Russian, move back to Kazan, where my father was born, and claim roots blasted long ago. Nor can I drive down to South Carolina and start plaiting long-dropped threads of kinship as though nothing had happened to break them originally. Some spaces are too wide to cross in a single bound.
I’m certainly not the only American who’s looked at the compass and watched its needle’s slow spin. Most people here come from somewhere else. If we didn’t make the jump, our parents or grandparents did. Some people got got here by enforced transportation or slavery. Native peoples got forced off their traditional lands. Many moved deliberately, many got moved; some of us are immigrants and some refugees-- but upheaval is one thing most Americans have in common. And since it is a common bond, we’ve enshrined it. We view constant change as a good, as promise, as possibility. But is it?
“The great thing… is to move.” These words are carved into the floor of the Providence train station, and I stood on them many times as I waited for the southbound train to take me to New York where I could leave student life for a few days and climb back into black separates and makeup and nice shoes— climb back into the Natalia suit and live my dream for myself, the dream that our American rootlessness promises of self-transformation by change of place. Somewhere, I felt that that the end of movement would be the end of dreaming, the end of possibility for me. I had a sort of horror that should I finally settle somewhere, I’d somehow end up jockeying infant car-seats and eating pizza at Costco and gaining poundage and wearing Liz Co. until I dropped. Commitment issues, you say? Oh, yes. And fostered by our American myth: that redemption can follow the “fresh start,” and that we have an endless supply of fresh starts at our disposal.
I was talking with my father last week. He’s 89. He asked me what I was working on and I said I was writing this piece about home.
“Listen, “ he said, “Home’s not a place. You take home with you. You carry it with you. When I was on maneuvers in the Army in Louisiana I had a sweater. I’d come back from four days slogging waist-deep in the swamp and I’d be exhausted and hungry and I’d just take that sweater and bury my face in it. I’d go to ground. I’d bury my face in that sweater and I’d forget the mud and the snakes and the world would reorder itself.”
This is what I would argue. That my father’s view of home as something you can take with you, something you can embed in portable objects, is the coping mechanism of the refugee. It’s the coping mechanism of the person who has had to leave everything, and who arrived here like my Russian grandmother did, with a suitcase, an icon, a pot to boil kasha in, and an ornate ormolu traveling clock. Increasingly, it’s our coping mechanism.
I have a friend who once told me he could tell when I felt I was home because it was the place I unconsciously took off my watch and bangle. Where’s the difference between my bangle and my father’s sweater? I’m carrying home around just like he did. We all do. Unconsciously, we believe can make up for no ties to place by investing meaning in things and in people. That view worked for my father. But for my Russian grandmother, for my mother, and for her mother, a huge and important aspect of home was a particular place, particular ground—a specific place. Is our view that home can be captured in a sweater or a watch or bangle more mythically male than female? Perhaps. Has our idea of home changed from the notion of it being the center of a grounded life to the notion of it’s being a base camp? Most definitely.
Where’s home? There’s the quick answer we all give—San Francisco!—but what’s your deep answer? Where is the stake that marks home ground? And if you cannot find that stake, how do you move out from nowhere? If you have no center point, how do you find circumference? Newton’s great insight was not that an apple falls to earth, but that it falls toward the center of the earth. The primal movement of the going out and the coming in—the great emotional symmetry of the balanced life-- relies on our knowing center. How do we find it in our world, in our culture that does not value home as much as it values movement?
We do what we can. To make up for my lack of ties to the land, I spend a lot of energy on people. But because I have fewer relationships than a person does who lives where his grandparents lived, since I am not bonded to ground, I wind tighter to those close to me. It’s good to have close bonds, but it’s not necessarily good to expect people to take up the slack left by lack of place. I expect too much from too few. Anacondas kill their prey by squeezing.
I want to feel at home, and so I hold on to what I think will make home. Like my father, I embed the idea of home in moveable objects. I can’t tell you the amount I’ve spent over the years on “nesting.” We Americans spend huge amounts of money every year on matching loveseats and granite kitchen counters, on knocking out walls or painting them warm tones of rust, or, as the immortal bards of JC Penney’s marketing department now call it, “creating haven.” But for some reason, a lot of this home-making doesn’t make home. For most of us, a house is not a home: it’s a nicely tricked-out caravan.
We live in expensive caravans, but unlike a gypsy or a Bedouin, we do not follow an annual route of pilgrimage. We don’t hit the same oasis every six months. The circle that leads the nomad from oasis to oasis, from town to town—that great circle is broken for us. We are not migrating swallows, we are not trail-bound Cherokees: we take random routes. We stay for awhile: We don’t come back. We may admire Wendell Berry, and nod our heads wisely over his elegant prose, but we don’t have a family farm, we have no ties to the land, we have a mortgage on a house in a town in which we’ve lived for a few years. And if we do live near where we were brought up, that area has often changed so much, through the building of strip malls and highway exits, that it might as well be a different place.
What is the emotional toll of having no place to really call home? What is the psychic result of moving for the company every three years? What is the price of a Best Buys and Staples at every forty mile interval along the interstate? Of suburban houses that could as easily be in North Carolina as in California? Why is so much of America swallowing SSRI’s? Why are we such a depressed people? Could it have something to do with our need for a place called home?
I have a friend whose grand-uncle moved just once. In the early 1900’s he got on a ship in Vladivostock and got off the ship in Seattle. Not hugely knowledgeable about matters equine, he bought a horse and road it east, planning to tour America. Sadly, this tour ended abruptly when the horse died about forty miles from Seattle. Gil’s grand-uncle buried the horse and made home right there, and let life unfold around him.
Shortly after I moved to the island where I live, a small-time TV host in Seattle asked me where I was from. That question again. I said I was from New York.
“Why did you come out here?” he asked, vaguely incredulous that anyone with any sense would leave a media market like Manhattan in order to set up housekeeping on an island with only one public access channel and no radio station.
“I was tired of New York,” I said.
“”Well, you better not get tired of the island,” he quipped snappily, “because the only thing west of you is water.” I believe he was unaware of the existence of the Olympic Peninsula. He was a recent transplant, himself. But I took his larger meaning: you’ve run this far, this is as far as you can run. Here the land ends: make home.
© 2009 Natalia Ilyin First published in Metropolis Magazine.