I’ve always said that clichés are clichés for a reason. The reason we hear those tired sayings so often is because they are generally applicable. That’s also at least part of the reason we find them so annoying: we know they’re right.
I don’t know if I’d call home a cliché, but there are certainly a lot associated with it.
There’s no place like it.
It’s a man’s castle.
And, apparently, it’s where we bring the bacon.
In truth, I never really gave it much thought. I now realize that was because I didn’t see a need. I knew where home was. There wasn’t a question. It wasn’t in doubt or dispute. Until, of course, I didn’t have one.
It’s true, you really don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Another cliché.
Honestly, it didn’t start when I moved out of my parents’ house at the, admittedly somewhat embarrassing, age of 26. It didn’t happen when they in turn moved up to West Point, NY, farther away than I had ever lived from them. It didn’t even happen when my sister, and roommate, also moved to New York, leaving me living alone for the first time in my life.
I see now that leaving a place isn’t when it stops being home. The process usually starts earlier. It’s something like putting on a coat before going out. There’s a set of actions that happens before you ever step out of the door, and it begins, as all things do, internally, with the decision to leave in the first place.
Sometime, nearly 2 years ago… I say 2, but even now I imagine it was closer to 3… But sometime, a while ago, I decided that my home was not my home anymore. There was absolutely no way I could have realized it at the time. I don’t think it was too gradual to notice; it was just something invisible, intangible, undetectable. A dark matter moment.
Then came the decisions. The choices. Like slipping the coat off a hanger in the closet and throwing it, one sleeve at a time, over your shoulders.
I decided to leave Austin, Texas, a city I had lived in more of my life than hadn’t. I couldn’t tell you what prompted it. A thousand smaller things. But it had become clear that I wanted to move, if not needed to. (I don’t know if I could ever have said “needed” at the time. I likely didn’t think I was allowed to use the word.) But I certainly wanted to. Which was, and still is, a big deal for me. I had never had a desire that strongly before nor the energy and will to act on it.
The object of my desire, my destination in mind: Atlanta, Georgia.
I had my reasons. I knew people there. It seemed to have a culture that I thought inviting. I can’t remember all the reasons, though I can tell you none of them were really that important by comparison, because what was the most important thing was that I wanted to go there because it wasn’t where I was.
I had never, as an adult, lived in a different city. There are innumerable reasons why I hadn’t, but it has always seemed a kind of rite of passage, something that most of the people I knew had experienced at one time, and, likewise, something I had not. But needed to.
Like I said, this was something I had never done before, partly because, honestly, I wasn’t the kind of person to do it. But, in an uncharacteristic act of boldness, I decided to forgo renewing my apartment lease, thinking that if I didn’t have a lease holding me in place that I might be able to make Atlanta happen. So, on a hot Texas morning in July, I packed up everything I owned in a storage unit and became a nomad in my hometown. I had done it. I had slipped on the coat, determined to leave.
It would take me another thirteen months to make it to the door.
I cannot stress enough how surprising and very much unlike me this series of choices has been. I am and always have been the good child, the teacher’s pet, the rule follower, whatever name you can think of for the person who does not make waves and is happy not doing so, that is me. I don’t move to new places just because. I don’t live like a loafer in hotels and on people’s couches because I don’t want to sign a new lease. I certainly don’t take blind leaps of faith. Yet, in the last year, I have found myself doing all those things.
It seems so strange to look back on it. Very much like it happened to someone else.
First, an extended stay hotel. Then the spare room at my brother’s house. Another hotel. And finally, another spare room, house-sitting/renting for a friend/landlord.
I learned a lot.
Like it doesn’t matter how often it’s cleaned, sharing a bathroom, using a bathroom with the full knowledge that it is and has been used by other people, makes it nearly impossible to be comfortable in it. The same goes for kitchens.
Hanging pictures, hanging anything is a sign you own a place; you notice this most when you have nothing to hang, on walls that aren’t yours.
Also, no adult human being should have to sleep on a twin bed for any extended period of time.
The end of the story is: I’m here. I made it. In the sense that I am in Atlanta.
After a full year of waiting, trying to find employment before I moved out here, failing to do so, I did something again very unlike me. I decided to go anyway. So, on another hot Texas morning in August, I took all my stuff out of storage only to put it then into a moving truck, hitched up my car, and proceeded to drive to Atlanta, with nothing more than the address of another hotel, and another storage unit, as my GPS destination.
I’m smart enough to know getting here was never going to solve everything. That this wasn’t the end of the process but, very likely, the beginning of an entirely new one. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I found. A set of challenges, a struggle that I have come to realize is wrapped up in that very clichéd concept.
In the same way that losing home doesn’t start when you leave, finding it, as it turns out, doesn’t happen when you arrive.
I didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, but I also didn’t expect to feel as if the city was trying to reject me like a bad organ transplant, which is one of the many things I’ve felt since I got here in mid-August, coincidentally, right on my birthday. And despite everything that I have accomplished, I can’t help but focus on the things I don’t have, like gainful employment.
The fact is it took me nearly three months just to find a place to rent, nearly impossible when you don’t have a job, causing me to use up most of the savings I had counted on funding this little endeavor of mine. (My bank account, consequently, has turned into a nice, little timer counting down to failure.) And, though I have been in my new place two months, the walls are still bare. I have yet to hang a single picture.
I think I finally understand what a wise, old man with half-moon glasses meant when he said someone would be protected as long as he could call a place “home”. Because I know how it feels when you can’t. And I don’t know when it happened. When the word slipped out my under me. At some point, Austin, my old house, where my parents were, where I was, stopped being it.
If home is where the heart is, then where have I been putting mine all this time?
Miranda Keegan said in her amazing essay that we lack a word for the “Opposite of Loneliness”. I’m beginning to think Home would best qualify. After all, you can be lonely in a crowd as easily as by yourself. In the same way, if home isn’t a thing you have already, it doesn’t matter where you are or who you’re with. No place or person will be able to give it to you. You will not be able to find it just by moving.
Home, like everything else, is a process.
A friend, who knows something of this journey herself, has told me, “Stay, stay, stay. That’s the rule.” You have to stay, that’s the only way it’ll ever work, the only way the new place will ever become home. I know she’s right. That doesn’t make it easier.
Obviously, I should have known. You have to build it.
So, I’m building. Putting down roots, as the cliché goes. Searching for a job. Searching for a place. To live, love, and belong. It hasn’t happened yet. I’m beginning to suspect I won’t see it when it does. Another dark matter moment.
And whatever anyone gets from this, I certainly hope it isn’t that I’ve come fully out of the darkness into the sun, endowed with renewed confidence and determination. That’s not it at all. The process has only begun. There are days when I seriously doubt it is actually leading me anywhere. The timer is still counting down.
But I’m learning. That’s as much as I can say at the moment. I’d love to report on my accomplishments, but this is all I have right now. Hope. Which is a tricky, tricky thing, that has felt far too fleeting lately yet finds me in odd, unexpected moments.
I got a couch, for instance. A nice one. And when I saw it finally assembled in the living room, in my living room, I couldn’t help but feel, for a second, that it looked right where it was.
And maybe, someday, so will I.