“Where’s home?” the taxi driver asked. After two beats and no answer from the back of the cab, he looked up into his rear-view mirror, smiling. I smiled 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 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 I live “home?” I smile again and say, “I’m from here,” and let it go at that. But the question bothers me long after the cab ride. What does it feel like to call 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 move to new apartment or house in-between. Like most Americans, I've never stood on the ground where my great-grandparents once stood. And as the years go by,
I find myself asking, what would it feel like to stand on that ground? What does it feel like to come from somewhere? Where’s home?
I grew up around people who knew where home was, but they couldn’t return there. They were refugees. Their ties to kin and ground broke long ago and is irreparable now. I cannot quickly 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 ever happened to break them. 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. Many people were forced to come here. Many moved deliberately. Native peoples were pushed off their traditional lands. Some of us come from slaves, some from immigrants and some from refugees; 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.”
I stood on these words many times. They're carved into the floor of the Providence train station, where I'd wait for the Southbound train to take me to New York. I'd leave student life for a few days and climb back into black separates and expensive makeup and nice shoes— climb back into the Natalia suit of my late twenties to live my dream for myself, to live the dream that our American rootlessness promises of self-transformation by change of place. Deeply, I felt that that the end of movement would be the end of dreaming, the end of possibility. I had a horror that should I finally settle somewhere, I’d 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. It's in your head, your heart-- your memory. You carry it in small things. When I was in the Army in Louisiana I had an old sweater at camp. I’d come back from four days slogging waist-deep in the swamp and I’d be exhausted and hungry and I’d just bury my face in that sweater and go to ground. I'd forget the mud and the snakes–and the world would reorder itself. That sweater was home to me.”
My father’s view of home as something you can take with you–an essence you can embed in portable things– is the coping mechanism of the soldier and the refugee. It’s the coping mechanism of the person who cannot afford to be attached. Increasingly, it’s our coping mechanism. Has our idea of home changed from "center" of a grounded life to " base camp " supporting operations? 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.
We want to feel at home, and so we hold on to what we think will make home. 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.” Yet most of this home-making doesn’t make home. For many of us, a house is not a home: it’s a nicely tricked-out caravan.
We live in expensive caravans, but unlike Romani or Bedouin, we don't 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 grew up, that area has often changed so much– with the building of strip malls and highway exits–that it might as well be a different place.
What's the emotional toll of having no place to call home? What's the psychic cost of moving for the corporation every three years? What's the price of a BestBuy 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 are we such a depressed people, staring at Facebook, scrolling our Instagram feeds? Could our loneliness have something to do with our need for a real home?
My friend Gil's 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. He buried the horse and made home right there, he never moved again, 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 got tired of New York,” I said. “Well, you better not get tired of the island,” he quipped, “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 heard what he was saying: you’ve run this far, this is as far as you can run. The land ends here: make home.
© 2009 Natalia Ilyin First published in Metropolis Magazine.