Claiming Home

One of the most bothersome things a person can say to me is, “where’s home for you?” In all fairness, I dislike it mostly because it lands - for me, however justifiably - as an overly cute and cosy attempt at conversation. Even if I’m willing to be

forgiving, the question seems to want to avoid the ambiguities of the usual, “where are you from?”- yet rests on the idea that home is singular, and means the same thing to everyone: where you grew up. When I’m not annoyed on principle, the question only makes me unsure, because I’m not decided what home actually means, where mine is, or how to make a new one for myself.

From where I am sitting now, I could easily say that I am either 3,460 or 4,315 or 4,290 or 0 miles from home, as the crow flies. To say that home is different for everyone, or to suggest that we all at different points make new homes for ourselves is not itself anything new. However, in all my many moves to new places, I’ve never felt a new sense of home as supplanting the old one.

There are homes that I can’t claim as mine anymore in the legal, economic sense—the house I grew up in that was sold when I left for university, the dorm rooms of freshmen, sophomore, and junior years, the apartments I rented the summers between, and maybe even the orphanage I spent the first year and a half of my life in. There is the house my parent’s built on a lake at least ten years my senior, the new apartment from the downsizing phase, and my small room on Fitz Street.

I will adamantly claim these all as mine, and I realise how lucky I am to have found so many homes in the world. Sometimes, though, I resent my transitional, nomadic life. After I graduated high school my parents made plans to sell the house; and, in the interest of downsizing, anything I didn’t take to university wouldn’t be kept. Thus, I and all my possessions flew in one big move to New York that first fall. Every year since the first, I pack up and push, carry, and drag all my possessions from dorm to summer sublet and back. Even as I seem to collect places that become homes, I necessarily leave them behind. Whether I might describe my life as home abundant or home without, I can definitively say that I have never been homesick.

A friend once described her way of seeing home, and her inevitable homesickness, as something like a bird. More specifically, she reasoned, that without fail there was, like a homing pigeon always a place—singular—in her mind’s eye of return. But even as a child at camp, I never experienced the feeling that a place, or even a place with a set of people, was calling me back. There was always an indescribable feeling of rightness when I return, but it’s never any specific return. Leaving for the Pembroke library and then returning to Fitz Street later gives me the same calm of coming home as the flight I often make from New York to Alabama or vice versa. I have missed people, missed places but it never seemed I could actually leave home behind.

Another friend explained to me what he thought he remembered from an introductory biology class about homing pigeons.

There is something, he thought, about magnetic fields and their ability to sense their place in relation to them. He seemed to think he confirmed my other friend’s view that home was about origins and physical place. But what I see in the pigeon is just proof that home is a feeling. The pigeon supports a one-home sense, but regardless of the scientific how of the pigeon’s flight home, the pigeon experiences a sense of not being right. Whether that manifests in pain or emotional trauma—is that not what homesickness is?—fundamentally the pigeon flies until it feels right.

Maybe, then, if we think about home as not just being a place, but a place where we feel a certain something—a feeling perhaps of rightness, that is of belonging in and to a place—it becomes easy to see how we make homes. I’ve never felt like leaving made a place no longer mine. A place as distant as my childhood house, or as silly as my freshmen dorm room still feel like home, not because I used to live there, but because I claim them as mine and see parts of myself as there.

I’ve never thought about the places I am as places I won’t be soon, or places that are only provisionally mine; I’ve always thought of them as mine, and I’ve always felt I belong there. It becomes easy to see, also, how we can hope to continue moving and to continue being at home no matter where we go. It can come from making a place your own, and giving yourself a chance to belong to it. Home can come from believing—not in some fluffy sense, but in actually letting ourselves think—that we can feel right here. •

Virginia Gresham-Jacobs is an English Literature student on exchange from Barnard College, New York.