The title of this post is borrowed from this poem.
I have a lot of worry these days about where I’m going to live in six months, or in a year, or in five. I am – really, Brian and I are – in kind of a nebulous place, a place in which we’re philosophically ready to move – to try out a new home base – but not really logistically ready. For the last two years, we’ve made a home of our “cozy” one-bedroom apartment located somewhere in the fuzzy right-off-the-interstate area of New Jersey just before your car/bus/train crosses into Pennsylvania. We’re so close to Pennsylvania that it’s sort of like living with one foot in each state. When people don’t recognize the name of our town, I just pick the next town over, which is in – you guessed it – Pennsylvania. It’s literally the next closest one.
Living here, right off of the highway and right on top of each other (it really is “cozy”) is at once incredibly convenient and incredibly frustrating. We are right at the center of the map of our most-frequented destinations, and so the trip to anywhere we likely want to go is equally easy or difficult, from New York City to Philadelphia, Phoenixville to Pennington, Allentown to Clinton, his office to my dentist’s office. We live three minutes from the grocery store and I take full advantage of that fact, making frequent trips and not worrying that much about forgetting an ingredient here and there.
But as much as where we are makes it convenient to go to other places, our own place is far from convenient (for us, anyway). We’ve grown (read: acquired material crap), and the apartment itself is much too small. The kitchen – a place where I spend more and more time – is also much too small. The storage space is – you guessed it – much too small; in the last two years, we’ve curated an impressive collection of boxes, bags, and stuff that looks something like an ongoing isolated art project making commentary on materialism and/or TLC’s Hoarders. We have no backyard, no private outdoor space, and limited sunlight (especially in the winter, and especially with two north-facing windows). Beyond the spatial limits of our rented space, we can’t walk anywhere. We don’t have privacy. We do a lot of driving to the places that we’d like to be. We both know deep down that this is a temporary home.
My worry about finding a new home, then, stems largely from a desire to have a place of our own that makes up for what our current home lacks, from number of windows to inches of kitchen countertop to square footage of closet space. It stems, too, from the same feeling that spurred me to start this blog – I am antsy, anxious to challenge our status quo and to focus in on a new direction for us. My Zillow-crazed husband would agree with me.
That being said, I am also worried because while the home I have is far from perfect, it is my home. A trusted place, a sense of personal space – they are sources of comfort for me. The idea of leaving my home, the particular corners and particular lighting and particular scent of this space, is frightening even in my desire to do just that.
Space and place diffuse strong energies. Just as being in them and moving through them affect our memories of an experience, we pour energy into those places, affecting them in turn. We animate what’s built up around us, man-made or natural, with what we do and say, with history, with the significance we put upon it. Space is just itself – space – before we make a mess inside of it, bleeding darkly like a leaky pen, coloring it into a place.
It’s true of everywhere. For me, it’s particularly true of the space I color my home, and so many of you probably share that sentiment. Most of you know, too, that the more we pour ourselves into a place, the more we become attached to it.
The last time I worried about leaving my home, I was 23 years old and moving out of my parents’ house – my childhood home, my long-time home, my home – into the apartment I live in now. It was heartbreaking. I cried daily for weeks and had a genuine, full-blown, super ugly nervous breakdown. I felt as though I would never feel at home away from my parents’ house and my little yellow bedroom with its lace curtains and spindly wicker furniture. That space was the backdrop for my growing up, and for the amazing adult relationship I built with my parents. But more importantly – more tragically – I had poured myself into it. I had bled the black ink of my daily life all over it. I had screamed and cried and laughed hysterically all over that house. I’d mischievously hidden loathed prescription vitamins under its dining room rugs and wrapped Christmas presents on its living room floor and learned to cook on its funny electric stove. I’d turned 10, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 in that house. I’d sighed in relief driving into its driveway after a long trip. I’d stayed up late each weeknight after I got my first real 9-to-5 job, making double work lunches for my mom and me. I’d hugged my parents and my brother goodnight there, nearly every night, for 15 years. It was saturated in everything I had ever done, since the side-ponytailed age of 8.
One time, my mom told me that on the day our family moved from our very, very first home to the house my parents live in now, my dad sat down on the front steps of that first home and cried and cried, so sad to be leaving a place he had poured so much of himself into. I think I felt somewhat like that when I moved into my new apartment home.
When I think about leaving our little apartment now, fear and sadness take over me like they did when I left my parents’ house. I know my own triggers pretty well at this point, and I just know how leaving here will go. I just know it will be a repeat of the last time: a massive kind of disorientation, a distrustfulness of a new space, and a total meltdown.
But there is past evidence to suggest otherwise:
The first time I worried about leaving my home for a new one was in August of 2007, when I moved into my freshman dorm at Muhlenberg College. I was excited to move away to college and be on my own, but at the same time unaware of what that meant. I had no idea how it would go. I remember getting out of my mom’s car (one of many in a long line snaked around the dorms), walking into Brown, unlocking the door to my room, and feeling panicked when my new roommate was already there, her parents too, actively moving furniture and opening boxes in the middle of the floor. Five minutes into my new move, I already distrusted the space I was supposed to make into a home.
And then something wonderful happened: I sucked it up (no idea how that came to pass), and I let the unknown happen around me. My parents did eventually park the car and come inside, and the student volunteers brought all of my boxes inside, and the other lovely ladies on my hall were friendly to me even though I probably looked like I was going to pass out. And it all fell into place. I learned how to build a home beyond my childhood home – from how to decorate to how to build relationships to how to share the real me with other people. Suddenly, the school year was over and I had lived at Muhlenberg, “on my own”, for nearly ten months. When I left for the summer, it hurt my heart to leave behind every friendship I’d made and every piece of growing up I’d done – every bit of myself I’d scribbled all over Muhlenberg.
For each of the next three years I was there, even when the kinks of growing up were particularly stiff and awfully painful to shake out, I poured more and more of myself out onto Muhlenberg’s beautiful campus. It pooled up around the people I shared that space with. It was now more than a space for me to occupy – it was a significant place in my life. I grew to deeply love it, all of it: the people who taught me, the people who lived with me, the archway of trees on Academic Row, the community that lived there. My love for Muhlenberg became personal – I kissed my now-husband for the very first time ever in the parking lot of my sophomore year dorm, on Superbowl Sunday of 2009. My love for Muhlenberg was beyond my personal life, too – it was there where I really learned to interrogate the world around me, to wield my opinions intelligently, to care about my community.
On the day we graduated – May 23, 2011 – I stood outside of the senior year house I had shared with three of my best college friends and cried like a baby. I cried all the way home, just like I had cried when I officially moved out of my parents’ house two years later.
Despite the many faults I find in my current home, it is pretty close to most places I drive to, Muhlenberg included. The drive takes no more than thirty minutes. A few weekends ago, I went back to campus for our fourth Alumni Weekend. I have been back to campus probably ten or more times since graduating, participating in alumni events and meeting up with fellow Muhlenbergers and even getting married there, in Egner Chapel, in January of this year.
I always love going back to Muhlenberg, but this last time felt more significant, probably because I’ve had a lot on my mind in terms of where the coming months and years will literally take me. Returning to the place I had called home for four years, I found myself looking at every tree and every part of every building and wondering what it had been about Muhlenberg that had felt like home to me, and what had made my transition to living there such a happy one. I walked through campus the way you might walk through your old house twenty years after a stranger had moved into it. It was familiar, like always – the same smell in the student center, the same color palette on everyone’s clothing – but I was looking at it differently, wondering why it still felt like my home even though I didn’t live there everyday or anymore.
So I came to a couple of tentative conclusions:
The first (and easier to reach) conclusion is that home, at least for me, really does have a lot to do with the other people I share it with. Muhlenberg became my home in large part because of the people I knew there. When I return now, for example, I am definitely excited to eat Tavern pizza, but even more jazzed about eating it with the people that love it as much as I do.
(Remember that snowstorm in February of 2011, when the snow fell so fast that by dinnertime there were already huge piles of it in the streets? I remember as the sun was setting walking through it in my boots (which weren’t waterproof), my feet soaking and my hair crusted in snowflakes, from my house on Leh Street to the Tavern around the corner. When I walked in the door and the heat and the lights and the smell of pizza and cigarette smoke hit my face, all of these people that I knew and I loved were all sitting there already, like they were waiting for me to get there to have a beer and enjoy the high possibility that class would be cancelled the next day and we could all sit there in our damp clothes and inhale pizza smell and cigarette smoke in our little warm cocoon. It was like Cheers or something.)
Those friends are integral to the foundation of my Muhlenberg home. Walking through campus and sitting in a booth at the Tavern are movements through space that clinically feel familiar, but it’s who accompanies me through that space that makes it a home to me. My parents’ house never would have been my home if we hadn’t all lived there together. I worked so hard to make my apartment a home because I shared it with Brian.
The second conclusion? Muhlenberg still is my home. Home simply means, I think, a significant place in my life that perhaps happened to be my dwelling place at some point in time, for however long and with however much fervor. Because I no longer sleep at Muhlenberg doesn’t make it less of my home. I poured myself into Muhlenberg, and colored it my own, and passing time can erase the memory of that but not the fact that it happened. Fifty years from now, it will still feel like a home to me.
When I call my parents, their number is still “Home” on my speed dial. That will never change.
If it’s late at night and I don’t want to drive and I ask my mom if I can stay over, she says to me, “This will always be your home.”
When Brian and I have dinner at his parents’ house, I feel myself aching for the days when he still lived there and we would spend every Saturday snuggled up on their couch and abusing their coffeemaker. I feel sad when we have to call it a night.
When we returned to our family vacation spot this year after a seven-year hiatus, I got out of the rental car and the particular smell of the ocean air hit my nose and it was almost enough to make me cry.
I stayed in Wyoming for six nights this summer and bled the black ink of my life all over that place. Being there was like finding something deeply meaningful to you so long after you’d lost it that you’d started to forget. I felt as though I’d finally arrived at home after a long winter away.
It’s kind of like that.
So I think that no matter where we move to next, I’ll be okay. I’ll always have a home to run to fearfully, even if it’s not the new one at first. And I might be terribly disoriented for awhile, but it’s nice to know I’ve got the important stuff figured out – that I am the one with the power to shape my home, to make it my place, to scribble all over its walls and floors, and that the beautiful people in my life will eventually come around and help me to do that.