on home

When I was 13, my house was demolished to make way for a parking lot. My parents and I lived on a school campus, some of the few year-round residents of an international boarding program. But, when the school needed to expand, our corner, along with the dorm rooms that made up my eclectic childhood, had to go.

It wasn’t an easy decision, razing dorm rooms and a way of life, a long chapter in the history of our 100 year old school. After our head of school delivered the news in our kitchen, my mom did what my mom always does. She faced the future head on with her awe-inspiring mix of gumption, irreverence, and pizazz. Within seconds, she had put on Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and I remember laugh-crying, as Joni and my mom harmonized on the line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Since then, our school has continued to change. The corners where I first rode a bike, practiced free-throws with my dad, or learned to swim, all have become something else entirely. My mom’s office is now perched 100 feet from our old kitchen. When I visit her, I park in my old bedroom.

I’ve long believed that places become homes by the moments that happen there. Places merely have coordinates and faces; homes have memories. My home had meaning not because of the walls that made it not-a-parking-lot but because of the rowdy noises that come with living in the boys’ section of a boarding school, of the smell of cup-of-noodles during Saturday sleepovers, or fried rice mornings in the school kitchen on Sundays. The dorm staff were my babysitters, the teachers my aunts and uncles, the boarders my siblings. My mom’s defiantly jubilant Joni Mitchell serenade was a reminder that no bulldozer could take down the home we had built during those 13 years.

15 years after they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, my school community is still central to who I am and how I navigate this world. I met some of my best friends in kindergarten, two dorm parents were my honorary family at my college graduation, and a dozen fellow teachers organized a food delivery for my parents and me during my dad’s hospice. Hell, I met my partner in middle school (he would like to assure everyone we did not start dating at age 12). Each of those people is a piece of me, and in turn, a piece of my home.

In the years since we moved off campus, I’ve continued to build that house. I met my platonic soul-mate in college and slowly collected grown-up friends. When I started my most recent job, I knew I had found my people. My home grew.

When I planned this trip, I wondered how much I’d feel pangs of homesickness. Though my home did not have coordinates, it had stories that were indelibly linked to the terrain where they happened. The Bay Area had long held the stories of my belonging — the smells of my favorite coffee shop, the backroads that lead to my friends’ childhood homes, the faint sounds of highway 280 around the perimeter of my school. But it also held something else.

I never envisioned returning to the Bay Area after college. For what would be his last birthday present to me, my dad painted a wine glass, at its stem the words “NYC 2010.” I had dreams of a future spent in a Manhattan archive, losing myself in the newspapers of the 1840s and historical salons. But as he faded away that year, it was clear that dream would too. The Bay Area was where I should be.

And, just like most things we don’t realize at the time, it was precisely where I needed to be as well. But staying also meant that some of my fondest childhood memories — the moments that wove together to form the fabric of home — were now layered with new associations. My favorite coffeeshop became the site of one of my dad’s bad falls. A week before he died, we went to a James Taylor concert in the same place I graduated high school. 3 years prior, my dad had handed me my diploma. Now, we sat in the audience, he in his wheelchair, my mom and I holding back tears. A month later, our school, the place I grew up, hosted his memorial.

In the years that followed, I crafted new memories in those places. I wanted the land to recall the good, the ugly, the full range of feeling that had happened there. When I left, whenever that might be, I wanted to be able to return to a land that did not just recall loss. I wanted to recall beginnings, too.

By the time I did leave, I had etched new memories into the places of my childhood. My mom and I attended a joyful yearly scholarship celebration, in my dad’s name, in the same school building as his service. We curled up on the couch, eating candy and drinking wine, in the same spot his hospice bed once stood. I moved to San Francisco, then to Berkeley. I wore an old boarding school shirt to bed, lined my bookshelves with my dad’s old history books, and hung photos of childhood friends on my apartment walls. I hosted Galentine’s Day parties, watched two of my dearest friends get married, adopted a cat. The new and the old Bay Area coexisted to create a home — a home finally strong enough to walk away from.

I write this on day 63 of this journey. I do, on occasion, feel homesick. And it is one of the most welcome, wondrous feelings. It means my home has shape. It is not a vacuum of loss. It is not a razed parking lot or scattered ashes. It is something I built and rebuilt. It has texture, story. It fills me to the brim, even from thousands of miles away.

In 17 days, I’ll be back in California. The European leg of my adventure will come to a close — for now. A few days after that, I’ll be on the open road again, driving across North America for 3 months. While I’m home, I will watch my childhood best friend get married. I will be reminded of her dad and my dad, men we miss dearly. I will make new memories amidst my oldest friends. I will sit in my mom’s backyard with wine and tacos (mom, consider this my wine + taco request). I will likely hate saying goodbyes yet again. I will experience the full range of feeling that my home recalls. But at least I can take solace that my homesickness is an ache that soothes me. It reminds me again and again that there is and always will be a home to return to.

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on vulnerability

For most of my adult life, I’ve lived amidst the dizzying swirl of depression, anxiety, and grief. As someone who prides herself on spreadsheets and enthusiasm, it’s a reality that is jarring for most people with whom I peel back that layer. But, the thing is, the persona I outwardly present feels authentically me just as much as the ghosts that haunt me. I’m just the kind of person who feels most things at a 10 — the good and the bad.

Like many who’ve suffered, I’ve found that the deeper I’ve fallen, the more capacity I have for joy, surprise, and delight. I’ve had some of my life’s most beautiful days alongside some of the more devastating. The hardest part is not knowing which day you’re waking up into.

In the rituals of home, I have habits that add a buffer to the unknown of what mood a certain day will bring — morning coffee, the same smoothie bowl breakfast, the strange zen of adult coloring books, re-reading dog-eared poetry, listening to the same podcast round-up. They add infrastructure to a lot of unknowns; they form the pattern that reminds me of the rhythm of who I am when I tend to lose the way.

But the thing with long-term travel is that infrastructure instantly vanishes. Of course, I knew this going into it (my coloring book did not make the cut of what I wanted to lug on my back for months on end). And the prospect of having to rebuild that structure daily was somewhat freeing. Some habits can make space for fuller expression, but some confine. I wanted to get to the core of which structures built me up and which ones trapped me.

In the past two weeks, the groundlessness of a habit-less life caught up with me. I had multiple days of waking up into a version of me I didn’t recognize. And when you’re already in a foreign land, feeling foreign to yourself can be deeply isolating.

One thing I’ve slowly learned about myself is that I cherish time alone. And when you live and work in close proximity with a lot of people (we lovingly call it adult summer camp), that’s hard to come by. So I started to carve out time — time to bring some of the structure back, most of which involved intentional alone time. I walked to gelato listening to my favorite podcast (On Being, which you should listen to immediately), woke early to silently sip coffee in our staff kitchen, and recited the poetry that reminded me of myself.

I write this on the upswing, the place I most often write coherently and publicly. There isn’t much out there (and certainly not on social media) of people in their depths, but I felt the best I could do is share a piece of me from its brink. Because perhaps the most surprising piece I’ve discovered so far in this journey is the power of vulnerability.

While I live comfortably at the crossroads of joy, sorrow, and wonder, I recognize that I present largely the positive: the part of me that relishes a plan, who thrills at discussions of history, feminism, Harry Potter, Beyonce and Thomas Hardy. So this week, I did what I rarely do: I let it all go. When people asked, “how are you?” I actually answered.

One afternoon, I came into the kitchen to work a dinner shift. Our cook, a not-to-be-crossed yet endlessly endearing Italian woman, greeted me with her standard “ciao” and dramatic sigh about the impossibility of today’s dinner prep. As I put on my apron, I told her: I may not be on my best tonight; today had been rough. She nodded, and we worked silently for the next few hours. Known for her biting-perfectionism, she caught herself before yelling at my sub-par zucchini-cutting form. And when dinner was over and I came in to tidy up the kitchen, she pushed a plate of extra dessert over. “For you,” she said. She thanked me for being honest, and we chatted about her tough days. We agreed dessert solves most things.

In the days after that, I opened up to new friends here and life-long ones at home. I sent emails and made Facetime calls from the ugly moments, not just the ones when I was filled to the brim with awe, excitement, or wine.

Certainly, vulnerability is not a cure-all. It has not flipped a switch in me permanently, and I know the ebbs and flows will continue, as they do for so many. But I do feel it’s made a tiny crack in that perfect orb I so carefully maintained. These moments of honesty in a strange land have allowed me to see the rituals that perhaps tethered me to an unbreakable facade, and the ones that will allow me the freedom to grow. There are habits I can keep (obviously, coffee) and ones I can expand into — authenticity, self-care.

And while I’ve long intellectualized the notion that we are more similar than different, experiencing that sentiment firsthand, over a plate of leftover cake, moved me profoundly.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. Our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant, and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door. – David Whyte