Monday, April 21, 2008

Home is . . . where?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about home. About what makes a place home. Is where you grew up always home? Or can you build a home just by living somewhere long enough? What if you move around a lot? Will anyplace every really feel like home then?

Despite my recent footloose lifestyle, I wasn't one of those kids whose family moved around a lot. In fact, my parents still live in the same windswept house in the Michigan woods they brought me home to 32 years ago, as a newborn. But something inside teenage me was restless as hell. I wanted OUT of Michigan, and so I went 800 miles away for college in Boston, when I was 18. I lived there for nearly 7 or 8 years, but since 2002, I've lived in 5 states for a year or more, and a few others for a month here and there. There's something addictive about moving around that much. About always having a new neighborhood to discover. About getting to start fresh every 12 months or so, whatever mistakes you may have made where you lived before. I haven't traveled for pleasure as much as many people, but I've lived in more places as an adult than anyone I know.

But lately I've been wondering -- where's home in all that? Is it just the place I come back to at the end of every day? Where's home for any of us, really, in today's world, when everyone I know has friends scattered across the globe? When we can hop on a plane and be literally on the other side of the world in less than a day? I love that about the world I live in, the possibility of it, but I also sometimes crave the kind of stability that my grandparents had, living in the same town for their whole lives. A place where everything is familiar and stable. And I've started to wonder lately if it's ever too late to build that. If you can just pick a place and decide, this is it, this is going to be home.

I've been living in California for 18 months now, if you include the first three months I lived here when I thought it was only temporary. That's longer than I lived in DC. Longer than I lived in Chicago. And almost as long as I lived in Lansing while I was getting my MA. And in a lot of ways, it's really starting to feel like home here. I have a circle of friends that's growing larger every day, many people I can call who live in the same area code as me. My office finally feels lived in, decorated with heart-shaped rocks from my hiking trips and pictures of me with friends and family, the shelves full of books. I started a book group here and our next meeting is at my house. I'm playing on two soccer teams. I have favorite restaurants and trails and "local secrets" that I can pass on to friends of friends asking for advice about a visit. I have so many things that I would be sad to leave behind.

And yet at the same time, in some deeper sense, California still feels completely foreign to me. I still feel a bit like I'm in a Dr. Seuss book every time I see a lemon tree in someone's front yard, the lemons dropping to the ground and rolling in the gutters down the street. Each time I drive into the city, coming out of the Rainbow Tunnel to a sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge, I feel like I must be on vacation. This can't possibly be my life.

I still miss the first snow of the year, standing in my yard, or on the sidewalk of a city street, or in my ivy-covered back courtyard in Chicago, ears echoing with the hush of a world being coated in newborn snow. I'll probably always get a little homesick thrill every time I see Vernor's Ginger Ale or Faygo Redpop in the cooler at the candy store down the street. And my senses are oh-so-confused by California. Like right now, everything is abloom here. The wisteria is bursting off of arbors and porches, like the fizz on an exploding bottle of grape soda. The roses have thrown their petals open. The apple trees are letting loose their delicate perfume. Everything smells like flowers and just-cut grass. Like May in Michigan. And yet, simultaneously, the smell of woodsmoke hangs in the air, and the nights have a crisp dry chill to them that makes me feel like late autumn back home. And in the summer here, everything turns golden yellow and pale, crisp brown. It doesn't rain and the air is dry. And yet my body tells me that it can't possibly be summer, without the smell of the first raindrops hitting hot pavement. Without the earthy scent of lake-water in your hair after a 9pm swim on a sweltering August night. Without windy afternoons on a pale-sanded Lake Michigan beach.

At my soccer game last Thursday, I was talking to a woman who grew up in the northeast. She told me that she's lived in the Bay area for 20 years and it still feels just a little bit off every year when the weather is so warm and dry in April. It makes me wonder, will any place other than where I grew up ever really feel like home, or will something in my blood or genes or synapses always swing my heart back toward Michigan? Can you ever really leave behind the home of your childhood?

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