Searching for Home

“Home is Wherever I’m with You”, I painted on a 12x12x2 inch square of wood. That was four or five years ago, and I did mean it then. My husband and I were contemplating the idea of moving abroad, far away from Utah, something we’d often talked about in a “what it” kind of way. Now though, it had become a possible reality; we were actively taking steps to manifest this dream. The plaque was to demonstrate my commitment to taking this leap with him.

The plaque now rests on a bookshelf in the living room, or ‘lounge’ in the Australian vernacular. Like I said, I was sincere about the sentiment when I gave it to my husband. I wanted to learn what living was like outside of the US. My friend Joanne, another American expat here in Australia, says, “it’s real life, someplace different.” I didn’t know that when I was still back in Utah, but I was ready to find out, to make a new home in a new country and culture. I believed that no matter where we were, we could make it home.

We spent a year in limbo, waiting for confirmation that the relocation was actually going to take place. We didn’t know whether or not we should start packing or put our house on the market. We didn’t know how much we should tell our friends and family about our plans. Why stir things up if it wasn’t going to materialize? I remember I felt frozen, in a state of inertia, unable to move forward in my life because I didn’t know what my future held for even the next few months.

As we come up on the end of our four-year visa, I find myself once more in that limbo state, and pondering the meaning of home. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve come to realize that the concept of home is much more complicated and multifaceted than I understood when I made the plaque. I decided to poll my friends to get their take on the concept of home. Their answers reinforced the notion that home isn’t just one thing or in one place.

I’ve just spent two and a half months in the US, first in Texas, then Iowa, Colorado, and finally Utah, all places I’ve called home at some point in my life. When people here ask us where in the US we’re from – as soon as they hear our accent, that is the first thing they ask – we tell them we moved here from Utah, but rush to assure them (us really) that we are not from there, but consider Colorado home. Even when I say that, I have a question mark in my head.

Back in May, the plane I was on came to a bouncing landing in Dallas, Texas. I quickly pulled out my phone, seeking reassurance that my new granddaughter hadn’t arrived first. She landed in the wee hours, a day later. Over the next few weeks, I navigated the once familiar roads of the Dallas Metroplex, running errands and picking my elder granddaughter up from the same school my own children had attended. I had the oddest feeling of déjà vu, like I’d been picked up out of my world in the present and plopped back down at a point in my past that I had worked hard to escape from; this is actually a reoccurring nightmare I have.

Ellen, who responded to my polling question, talked about her parents’ experience immigrating to Australia from Slovenia in their 30s. “As an immigrant, you become homeless in a way. You have a past you cannot share with your new home and you no longer belong in your old home, because time has moved on.” She said that home for her parents is a point in time that no longer exists. My Texas home was certainly that. Driving around, the streets became more and more familiar; I remembered routes I’d taken regularly during my life there, and even a few times when I was lost in thought, I’d find myself on auto-pilot, taking one of those routes. Where was I going? Not home. Home doesn’t exist there anymore.

People and relationships were a common theme in my friends’ responses to my question. Maureen told me, “I consider both Australia (been here 16 years) and the US home. The hardest part for me and it doesn’t get any easier, is missing my family in the US. However, the love of my life is here along with my step daughters and 7 grandchildren plus lots of friends so that means home to me.” Sarah added, “Home is about feeling adapted to a place, rather than ‘out of place,’ about the connections I make with the people there, friendships I make, and the memories I build. But I think for me, my family is really what I think of as Home.”

After six weeks in Texas, I joined my husband in Iowa. I moved to Iowa as a young girl; my mother and brothers live there still. All these many years I have traversed the corn-field lined country roads, every summer taking my own children there when they were young, and now my daughter brings her daughters. I feel a comfort there in the nest of my family; they are ‘home’, but Iowa has never been home, even when I lived there. I never had that feeling of having adapted to a place as Sarah mentioned. Back then, I longed for the other home we’d left behind.

When my daughter and I arrived in Colorado many years ago, I immediately felt at home. The mountains gave me a feeling of being grounded, safety and comfort. This idea of feeling at home in a place you’ve never lived or perhaps never even been before, was something else I heard from my friends. Carmen told me that she feels a strong bond to Italy, the place, people, their behaviors. Her family is Italian, her parents having immigrated to Australia. She was born and raised here, yet when she goes to Italy, she feels like she’s arrived home. She tells me that she can be her authentic self there, and isn’t self-conscious about speaking loudly and animatedly. Everyone else is doing it, too! Sally says, “the first hour I was in Germany, the bus came up over a hill, and it hit me, ‘I am home.’ So what is that? I didn’t know people, culture or scenery, but felt a connection.”

Like Carmen, Merrolee spoke of the “shared values and experiences…ways of being and doing” that she finds when she returns to her New Zealand home. I, too, experience this when I return to the US, particularly Colorado. When I am there I can be myself in a different way than here in Australia. I’m not constantly aware of my otherness. And yet, while in the US this last time, there were several occasions when I bumped into a reverse otherness. I would find myself stumbling trying to perform some task, because I was doing things the Aussie way. I had to stop and say to myself, “oh yeah, it’s done like so here.”

When I’m here in Australia, I refer to the US as home, and when I’m there the reverse is true. I do feel like an outsider here in Australia. As much as I have adapted, I never really have a feeling of true belonging. And back in the US, I no longer feel I completely belong there either. I feel homeless in the way Ellen spoke of. And while I have shared experiences and memories while in Colorado, the place I keep referring to as home, I do wonder how much of that is just a point in time. Yes, my son is there, and friends who are family. They are home. But is Colorado home? When I look at those mountains now, it’s almost like looking at a postcard of a place I once was.

In Boulder, we held the gathering of “Americans who had met in Australia and just happen to all be in Colorado the same week”. As I sat there, sipping wine and discussing with these friends what home meant, I suddenly had the light bulb flash that I felt at home right there, in a way I hadn’t since flying away from Australia eight weeks prior. These people were my new normal, and they could be my “home” whether in Sydney or Boulder.

When we lived in Utah, each time we drove back there after visiting Colorado, as we came through the canyon and the Salt Lake Valley opened up before us, that song from the 1980 Popeye movie would play in my head, “oh sweet haven, god must love us.” That rust and sage colored landscape with the city nestled in the valley felt safe to me. During our renewed contemplation of moving across the waters, Utah has been part of that conversation. I did still consider it a possible sweet haven. Returning there after being away from that particular state for almost four years, I was much more aware of the ingrained passive-aggressive culture than I was when I lived there. There was nothing safe about it anymore.

At the end of ten weeks spent in the US, I longed for the quiet and solitude of this home, this room where I sit typing now, at this desk, this window with a view of the eucalyptus trees and the sounds of the currawongs and magpies. I was weary of sleeping in strange beds, sharing bathrooms with too many people, and cooking in other people’s kitchens. When the Delta ticketing agent told me there was a problem with my passport and that there was no proof that I had permission to be in Australia, I teared up and just about vomited on the counter. I was terrified that my return home would be delayed.

So here I am. Home. In limbo again, wondering what will happen with the visa; where will home be six months from now? When we left here to visit the US, there was no indication that the visa would be renewed, so we told people we were probably returning in the near future. Now I’m wishing I’d listened to my own advise from five years ago. It looks like the visa may be extended, after all. I do feel somewhat of a reprieve. The truth is, if my family were not in the US, I wouldn’t be rushing to move back there, even though I miss the seasons and the landscape.

My conversations with friends has helped to solidify the understanding that home is not a single concept, even for one person. Home is the people we love, it’s memories shared, a safe haven where we can be who we are, a feeling of familiarity and belonging. And home doesn’t have to be in one physical location. Perhaps understanding this can help me to move past the limbo and just be where I am. Perhaps I can do as my friend Joy, who I met when she lived in Australia and now lives in London, said, “we simply make our ‘home’ wherever we move to in the world.”

This Is Not My Beautiful House

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I’m sitting here waiting for the photographer to arrive.  The house listed on Monday evening, this house that already no longer belongs to me.  It’s beautiful.  It’s gorgeous.  It’s a beautiful, untouchable woman with her makeup and hair done just so.

I wrote awhile back about existing within this space but not actually interacting with it.  Now I feel like I can’t even breathe here for fear of messing something up and having to quick clean it before the next people come to see the place.

Years ago, I watched a movie, Steel Magnolias I think, in which the main character lived in a big, beautiful house full of shiny, dark woodwork.  She moved through the house serenely polishing all that wood.  Out of the entire story of love and loss, that’s what I took away from it.  Woodwork.  It wasn’t just the woodwork; that was a metaphor for a beautiful home that was all mine.

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In the years following, I dreamed of having my own home with woodwork to polish.  I’ve lived here in this house full of gleaming wood trim, mantel that stretches across the room, and original hardwood floors for five years.  When we first moved in I pulled out the furniture polish and soft cloth, and starting tenderly caressing that woodwork.  Weekly, I would move through the house, dusting every surface, admiring the trim that goes all around the living and dining rooms.

For awhile, a short while, I continued with regular polishing of the mantel – forget the door frames – once a month.  I kept up with the weekly dusting.  Over time, polishing sessions became farther and farther apart, until finally it was a once a year thing.  I’m embarrassed to say that the dusting, too, became rather infrequent.

Now that we are about to move to the other end of the planet, I feel regret for not polishing and dusting more.  I recognize that part of my housekeeping failure is completely attributable to the depression I’ve dealt with off and on during these years.  That and apparently a lack of sufficient lighting, but that’s another story.  Still, I have to ask myself, do I really believe I missed out on an opportunity to dust?  Seriously now.

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The woodwork is once again polished and gleaming.  As I write this, I realize that I was more comfortable in that dusty house with the unpolished mantel than I am in this sanitized, void-of-life, environment.  Like I said, it’s beautiful.  It is not my house.  Gone are my books, my needlework, my crocks of fermenting vegetables.

I thought that once I got the place cleaned and staged that I would have some time to sew or do some art journaling.  NO!  I can’t do anything that might make a mess, and still my every moment is spent removing all signs of life from this place.

In many ways, this is reminding me of losing my Rose.  Just like with Rose, I thought I was prepared to go through the loss.  But in reality the loss came so sudden and unexpectedly, before I was ready, before I thought it was going to happen.

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And yes, I am aware that I am sitting here whining about giving up my house so I can move to Australia and live near the beach.  As much as I want to go live near the ocean and be surrounded by people who say, “g’day” and “mate” I love this house.  This house is not just a bunch of polished wood nailed together.  It is the first beautiful home I’ve lived in, and definitely the first house that was really mine.  These walls are the bones of my friend and I am reluctant to leave this friend behind.

We have another showing tonight.  I keep accidentally calling it a viewing, like a wake or something.  It is a little death.  Oh there I go again.  Ok!  So!  I need to get out to the kitchen and make our dinner in a manner that doesn’t mess up the kitchen, then feed us, clean it up and get out the door.  I think I see a movie in my very near future.

Transient Roots

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The other day while looking at pretty pictures on Pinterest, I had one of those ah-ha moments.  Throughout this summer, I’ve been existing in a state of uncertainty, unable to plan even a few months into the future.  I didn’t want to talk about it earlier, because I was afraid of jinxing it.  Now, so much time has passed with still no answer as to what the future holds for us, so I might as well jinx away.

There is a slight possibility that we’ll be moving to Sydney for my husband’s job.  We’ve been dangling on the end of the line since – when? May? June?  I haven’t known whether I should dust my tchotchkes or pack them in a box.  I don’t handle limbo well at all.  I like to plan ahead, not just a month ahead; I want to know what the next five years look like.  But I would really like to know what the next 5 months are going to look like!  I can’t even go shopping for much-needed new clothes, because I don’t know what season is coming next!

All of this has left me feeling incredibly displaced; I don’t feel a sense of belonging in my own home and with my own possessions.  My ah-ha moment was in realizing that the primary reason for this feeling of displacement was that I am merely existing within this space and not interacting with it.  I do the bare minimum of housework to make the environment safe and liveable, but that’s it.  I don’t nest.  I don’t decorate.

With the big black hole of information we’ve been given, I’m thinking it’s time to just pretend or assume we’re staying here.  I feel like I’m waking up out of a long sleep.  I’m ready to engage again with my space (and life).  The approaching autumn helps also; a homey, nesting mood always greets me with the arrival of cooler weather.  I still can’t reinsert my roots into the ground, until I have a definite answer, and I’m curious how people who travel or move frequently attain a feeling of rootedness or home without filling their freezer full of food for the winter or planting perennials.

While I try to figure this out, I’m going to go put a tablecloth on the dining room table and arrange some candles on the coffee table.  Do you have any advice for me?

On Home and Real Life

We’ve been away from home so much over this last year.  We were in Iowa for a few weeks last January, then in Colorado in June.  We went to Uganda in October and then took off for Iowa and Colorado again in January.  We returned home Saturday evening.  Oddly, the reality of being home didn’t hit me until this morning.  Saturday I was just too tired to know where I was; yesterday I was busy unpacking and cleaning house.  Preliminary nesting.   I woke up in the middle of the night, needing to pee, but I couldn’t remember whose house I was in and where the bathroom was, so I just went back to sleep.  Then this morning, as I stood in the kitchen pouring coffee in my favorite cup, and the long absent sun came streaming through the window, I felt home.

bicycle in Haarlem
I’ve always had this split personality when it comes to traveling.  Half of me always has wanderlust and the other half wants to build my nest and rest there.  Those percentages may have changed.  I do know that I used to have this five day thing, where I would feel restless and want to go, but after five days I wanted to be home.  I would argue with myself about how on earth was I going to live my dream of being a world traveler if I couldn’t be away for more than five days!  Having made a few extended visits over the last two years, I’ve learned to feel more at home away from home.  Apparently now I’m at five weeks.  I was doing good this entire trip.  Near the end, I knew that the time to be home was growing near.  Then the last couple days I just wanted to get in the car and drive straight home!

Part of that needing to be home is a desire to get back to real life.  I have to keep questioning myself though about just what is real life?  I’ve been re-reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude.  It really speaks to me; she writes about her depression, about a need for solitude, and her writing path.  I was blindsided by a return to depression a couple months ago and have been trying to pull myself back out of that, and reading about her journey helps me understand my own.  But back to the real life question.  Sarton writes in the beginning of the journal:

I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last.  That is what is strange – that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and discover what is happening or has happened.

That is what I questioned, if being with my friends and family isn’t “real life” what is?  But like Sarton, I need that alone time to figure out who I am and what I’m doing.  I have found that I don’t need quite as much alone time as she did!  I am reveling at being shut in my studio, at my desk, in front of the window.  This is my safe place, my favorite spot in my home.  I’ll try to stay here for awhile:)