Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 19, 2006
I’ve uprooted myself over and over again in a short time. Now I don’t know where I belong.
Two and a half years ago, I left New York to move to Chicago to be close to my family. I was burnt out from working too hard and my mother had breast cancer. I telecommuted from home and attended a seminary at night on weekends. I was happy.
My mother’s cancer went into remission and my company decided to rein in the telecommuters. I was offered the choice of returning to New York, going to California or going to Dallas. I chose California. It had its ups and downs and I wasn’t always happy, but I really grew there. But after a painful breakup and an increase in layoffs at my company, I chose to respond to a job offer in the Netherlands. I got the job and moved here last summer. I was not prepared for the increase in racism, ethnocentrism, and the general anti-immigrant climate that is sweeping much of Europe. The more I got over my loneliness here, the more I realized that I had no long-term future here (due to extremely restrictive government policies) and there wasn’t much joy in the day-to-day. On several occasions, I was told that this was not the country for me and that I should return to the States. After one time too many, I quit my job, and am now packing up for my return.
But I know you can’t go home again. Yet, that is what I am trying to do. I am trying to figure out how I’m going to rebuild my life after having started over so many times in such a short time. And what am I going to think of the Midwest or East Coast after my experiences in California and Europe? Can I really stand yet another trip to Ikea to furnish my entire flat in one go for under $1,000? Can I keep investing in places and lives not knowing if I or they are going to come or stay? Nothing feels permanent anymore. I feel like a perpetual transient, yet that is never what I intended to be. What I want is a place to call home, but I don’t know where that is anymore.
I admire people who go away and always have a place to go back to. I am in awe of those who are constantly on the move and never return, yet never seem to break. But I seem to be neither of those kinds of people.
So here I am in Europe trying to force myself to pack to return, but not really wanting to. Unfortunately, it’s not legally possible for me to stay. What do I do? How do I orient my thinking so that I can move on and value the experiences I had?
It makes sense that you feel the way you do. You have been a transient. Nothing has been permanent. So nothing feels permanent. You feel like a perpetual transient. You don’t know where home is anymore. And you feel caught between a committed state of nomadism and some kind of rooted existence.
So how do you orient your thinking? I think that first you just acknowledge that what you are feeling is appropriate. It is a reflection of reality. It would be strange if you didn’t feel this way. And it is natural that when you look to the future and imagine more of the same, you say, I can’t do this forever. Of course not.
Sometimes when we are in a situation that seems intolerable we forget that it is a story and it does have an ending. Stories begin with disruption. In your case your mother got breast cancer and that uprooted you, started you on your journey.
Then there are ripples of that original disruption, and complications and revelations. You went to the Netherlands and found the natives unfriendly. You went to California and ate delicious fruit. You had a breakup that you learned from. But always you were trying to find your home.
You haven’t just been wandering. You’ve been responding to trouble — first your mother’s trouble, then the needs of work. You’ve made choices, but in a narrow realm defined by powerful forces beyond your control. So it would make sense not only to feel homeless, but powerless too.
But here is something key to remember: The fact that powerful forces have narrowed your choices doesn’t mean that if you had the freedom to choose to live in Maui or Santa Barbara or anywhere you wanted, that you would feel at home. Rather what seems to affect your happiness is the kind of limits you are dealing with, and their source. Where the job has limited your choices, it has led to this chaos and isolation. But where it was your mother’s condition that limited your choices, somehow that led to happiness. While caring for your mother, you found a life that worked for you. You felt at home. Interesting.
Many things make up a home. If we are accustomed to thinking of home as an ideal environment, freely chosen, a place that reflects our dreams and aspirations, there is one element that might seem surprising or counterintuitive: Home is often a place we do not choose. Rather, home is the place we have to be. Our very first home we do not choose. And after we emerge from the womb it is still many years before we will live in a home of our own choosing. When we finally exercise our choices, we often think that what will make us happy is a home that suits our aesthetics, or reflects our values, or is in the image of what a home should look like. And so we move into this idea of home and start rearranging furniture. But we are unhappy in this idea of a home. We are unhappy in this place we have chosen for ourselves. Why is that?
I think it is because of the overlooked element of necessity and service. To be a home, a place must choose us. It must require something of us. It must need us.
In what sense is this true?
Well, home is where we give up our separateness, and we do not give that up easily. It must sometimes be taken from us by force. We cannot will ourselves to merge with the landscape. We are pulled out of ourselves not by the beauty of the landscape but by the fact that it requires us to dig a drainage ditch or fell some aging trees. That is why one can move to a beautiful place and be beautifully unhappy. Beauty alone does not suffice. What we need is what needs us, something that requires our presence, something that will bleed us of our insularity. It can be a landscape; it can be a community; it can be both.
I see in California many pretty houses. I see people go in and out. I wonder whether the landscape has invaded their dreams. I wonder if their mothers live there.
I hope your mother is OK now.
So we do not choose our home is what I mean. It chooses us.
It sounds to me like your home is in Chicago. That is the place that chose you. That’s where your home was the last time you were at home. I would start there.
Now maybe you will go back to Chicago and find your home is gone. Perhaps your mother does not need you there. What then? Then I think you have to search for the elements of home somewhere else: service, commitment, family, spirituality. Where are you needed? Choose the place that chooses you. That will be your home.