On Not Going Home In The First Place

Back from sunny St. Paul, where we went to a nice wedding and got to see a lot of old friends, hung out with the Sofawolf guys, and got badly lost in an area that I used to know like the back of my hand.

Which probably proves something about not being able to go home again.

It’s kinda funny, really. You pick your road and it diverges rapidly from all the others you might have taken—or at least, there’s very dense undergrowth, so even if you’re running parallel, you don’t know it—but every now and then you hit a gap and you get to see down one of those roads for a minute or two.

There was a brief moment, after my divorce, when I almost moved back to St. Paul. Had the logistics not been nightmarish (and I did have friends who would probably have been happy to put me up for a night or two, but my best friend lived in a 300 square foot apartment, so…er…problematic.) I might have done so. I was desperately in need of familiarity right then, and wandering up and down Grand Avenue, seeing the shops I remembered and the ratty apartment buildings and the Vietnamese restaurant that they kept closing for health violations—those were familiar. Five years ago, they would have been even more familiar.

Had I done so, I suspect that I would not have moved again. I would be from St. Paul. That would be HOME, and I’d be a gardener with a growing season lasting about two weeks and a large collection of snow shovels.

For a minute there, I can almost see myself through the gap in the hedge.

I go out there now, and it’s a place I used to live. I feel a great affection and am delighted at all the old landmarks again, but it’s not home. Nothing whacks me in the head or the gut and demands to know where I’ve been.

Then again, by that measure, I’m not entirely sure if anywhere is really home. I hear people rhapsodize about homes and homelands and all that stuff, and I am not entirely sure I’ve ever felt that way about anything. (I feel a certain affection for my computer desktop, but I don’t think that counts.)

Is it genetic? I come from a long line of people who move all over the place. We were immigrants and then we wandered around the country once we got here. Whether we were criminals attempting to evade the law or merely cheerfully adaptable is up for debate, but either way, itchy feet may be in the blood. Upbringing? I think four years was the longest we lived anywhere before I moved out to college. (At nine-years-and-some-change, St. Paul was the longest I’ve lived anywhere.) When people ask where I’m from, I require several sentences to answer. Is there some window in your childhood where you imprint on a place? I feel something in the Arizona desert that seems deeper and heavier than anywhere else. On the other hand, as soon as I cross into North Carolina and see the rest-stop right on the Virginia line, there is a lot of cheering and I feel a bit of a weight lift. Is that what it feels like to be home?

Don’t get me wrong, I can make myself “at home” in a lot of places. I’ve moved umpteen times and settled in and figured out where the grocery store is and gotten used to the color of the walls and the vagaries of the heating system. But I’ve done it so often that it’s a bit like having an arm out of the socket—once you can pop it in and out at will, it really isn’t in there very firmly anymore. Once I move on, I rarely miss the old place specifically very much.

Following my divorce, I spent a stretch wanting to go home and not having anywhere that I could pin down as being home. It wasn’t any one thing I missed, it was just being from SOMEWHERE. I eventually settled on “the last place I lived” because it had a certain immediacy, and also somebody who’d let me sleep in their guest bedroom for a month. And it worked out well, obviously, and I have a hard time imagining moving out of North Carolina again, despite all those lawmakers determined to make us into the laughingstock of the country.

Kevin’s theory is that I am just responding to the proximity of my garden, and that home is where my garden is. There may be a certain amount of truth to that. He himself has a very concrete home. He’s from North Carolina. There is loblolly pine pollen in his bloodstream. I envy that a little. I always wondered if there would be a place I would someday walk into—a city, maybe, or a country, or a landscape—and go “Dude. Right here. This is home. How ’bout that?” Hasn’t happened yet. There are places I’m glad to live, but nothing where I suddenly want to dig in my heels and say “You will pry me out of here when I am dead, and not before.”

On the other hand, I’ve got this garden right here. so maybe I’m as home as I get. I get the sneaking feeling sometimes that I live here now, and this may be where I’m from. Unless Kevin drops dead tomorrow and I get a sudden mad urge to move to the desert, it seems likely that this is where I’ll want to stay. Which is fine by me.

So anyway it was nice to go back to St. Paul. And also educational. Nearly a decade. Someplace I used to live.

  • reply Wolf Lahti ,

    “Home is where the books are.”
    —Richard Burton

    • reply tanita ,

      And, as I prepare for my seventh move in five years, I feel you on the semi-envying people who feel a place is home. I’ve lived in the UK for the last five years and am preparing to move to Puerto Rico – which should be ridiculously weird – and I feel like I’m from nowhere. However, I also believe sometimes that the artist and the writer have to be observers … we can be glad to live somewhere, but maybe we won’t observe it as critically if it’s home? Who knows. Eventually the wanderlust will cease, and I’ll walk in that place and say, “Yes. Right here.” Until then, a garden and books sound like a perfectly good anchor to keep me somewhere for awhile!

      • reply Chris ,

        I totally understand. Not all, obviously, but the “I don’t really have a ‘home’ per se. We moved every four years when I was a kid (military family) and i think you’ve got something with the “imprinting” thing. I think it also has to do with a certain ratio of family…quorum, maybe. A friend of mine imprinted on the city he grew up in, but it’s only semi home to him because only his parents are there. Remove them and his only reason to come back…well…there wouldn’t be one. My wife, though….she spent her life in a small town up through junior high and most of her family is still there. Her dad lived there almost his whole life until they moved when she hit high school. They both occasionally feel a pull to go back that is inexorable and away we go. There’s absolutely nothing there…but it’s HOME t to them, so we must go. Which of us is better off? I wish i knew.

        • reply Laura ,

          I get where you are coming from, I think if I went to Jersey and Philly this year it would be the same glances through the hedges. When I split from TX last year it was that choice, CO or NJ/PA to where my family was… And I took the choice that was harder but in the end definitely the best thing I could do… To be fair though, I do believe CO will always feel like home. I feel this deep and abiding LOVE for the mountains. And specifically the rockies, I love the scale of them. But I could happily live anywhere really (though I beg of the universe not to send me back to Texas). I have never had a HOUSE or a specific location be ‘home’. But mountains? Living near nature? that is home to me.

          • reply Christa ,

            I get this so much… I recently moved back to a place I thought had become like home, but the glove seems not to fit so well the second time around.
            Im from a different city and I went through there to visit some friends a few weeks ago but I felt out of place there too.
            On the other hand there is this one state park that always feels like it has a piece of my heart…

            • reply Uzuri ,

              You’re lucky in a way.

              I moved 7 times before I turned 11, though not particularly far the last 3 times. Just recently, I moved far. Real far. And alone. Here will never be home, though I’m certainly comfortable enough. Clearly I can “live” anywhere. But it’s still not home.

              For me, home is where family is, and family right now is 800 miles away. Some day I’ll go back. For now, I take what was thrown at me and make some serious lemonade.

              • reply Hawksong ,

                Yes, I too know that feeling. Lot of moving around as a child; my mom had too much crap going on to take more shit from me, so I learned to adapt very quickly.

                I think (and this is just an opinion) that you CHOOSE your home. I was born in one place, moved and moved and moved (15 moves between ages 5 and 13)…and I’ve lived in one city since 1994. But I still don’t think of where I am now, as home.

                For me, it was a choice – a conscious choice to dispense with the seven-sentence explanation (or ripping off that one line from Highlander about where he’s from) – and just saying “I’m from Texas.” While it’s true I spent a lot of time there (and much of my father’s family lives in the state), I don’t know that there’s any special “oomph” to physically BEING there. To seeing my father, aunts, cousins? Hell yes. To the place itself? Not so much.

                Then again, the town that I think of (MIdland if anyone’s curious) has changed vastly since I was a child. Some ways for the better, other ways…again, not so much. The dearest landmarks to me are of course the ones that went away. But…having been back to old schools, old streets, old familiar sights…

                It’s not what was there then, or what is there now. It never was about the place itself.

                It’s about what you remember. The good, the bad, the weird.

                And the memories never move away or say goodbye.

                • reply Gillian ,

                  I had lived in six different houses (five states and Scotland) by the time I was 11, so I know a bit what you mean. “Where are you from?” has the standard answer “Do you mean where I was born, where my parents live, or where I live now?” For some reason Pennsylvania feels the most like “home” to me although I only spent 3 years there (from age 8-11) – that and Italy. When I spent a week there last spring I was completely happy and I did not want to leave. It had that “home” feeling in the gut that no place else except sometimes PA has.

                  • reply Charlotte ,

                    Thanks for writing this.

                    You’ve captured the feeling I had in April, when my husband and I went back to NS (where I grew up). I felt strange, as if it were no longer “home”, and instead just “the place I spent the first 20 years of my life.”

                    The wrenching feeling came when I visited the beach where I’d spent A LOT of my teenage and adult hours. It was my touchstone, my definition of “home” … and over the last few years, wind and rain and tide had mostly washed it out to sea.

                    I cried.

                    And it wasn’t until we crossed back into the US that I felt a feeling of belonging, of home. Of, frankly, relief that I was back in the place where I understood things. (I guess 14 years spent in the US, and 12 of those in Mpls/StP will do that for you.)

                    • reply Karon ,

                      “Home.”

                      It’s a word I’ve never really understood, not the way so many people seem to. My mother has a sense of “home” – the town of 3000 people in which she was born, and much of the older generation of our family lived. My kids have a sense of home – they’ve lived their whole lives in the same town (at the ages of 8 and 10).

                      But me? No, I don’t have a sense of home. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I had 105 different addresses in 4 cities. My current count is 128, including each of my rooms during college. I think the longest I’ve lived at any address was the apartment I was in after my divorce (4 years). My childhood is filled with living out of boxes, losing things in moves. Nothing was permanent in my house, though my extended family had permanent homes.

                      Home is now defined by people; my husband, my children, the people closest to my heart. And geography has conspired in just such a way so that I can never have all of them in the same place for even a few days. In many ways, excluding the people who live in the same house with me, the internet is now my home address.

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