How do you know you’re home?

Home--one of them
Home–one of them

Have you ever been in that in-between period, perhaps after moving, when “home” doesn’t refer to just one place? Several times a day I casually refer to our new house in Vermont as “home” (“I’m heading home now.” “See you at home.” “Are you stopping by home before you go to the meeting?”), but I’m about to leave for a weekend reunion in Michigan, and whenever I talk about that, I say, “I’m going home to see my friends.” These two invocations of the word seem at once casual and significant: the first refers to the home I have, the second to an idea of home I still feel and cannot simply discard based on changed circumstance.

I’m fascinated by what makes people feel at home in a particular place. Whenever I think the formula is simple–say, where someone grew up–I remember the exceptions: the friend I met in Germany, a transplant from another continent, who had settled definitively on her own in a small village outside the city and felt with admirable certainty that she was at home there; the friend’s sister who’d always felt out of place in her hometown and only settled happily once she moved across the country to a different climate; and even my own parents, who both moved to Michigan from different places but now call it their home above either of their “home” states (I know that took a while).

Home is, of course, defined practically by necessity; it’s wherever you find the job or the house, it’s wherever your immediate family lives. But once we get past the practical and focus on the felt, I’m fascinated by the question: what specific ingredients push a place from “here” to “home?”

Is it familiarity, particular people, or a sense of community, all of which grow over time and can’t be rushed? Positive associations (or the absence of negative associations), which can take root in early childhood? Personal values, which connect a person inextricably to certain elements of a place– presence of extended family, viability of career options? Hobbies (can you hunt and fish here, or can you go to a mall)? My peripatetic lifestyle has brought me to many places, but I haven’t felt at home in all of them– or even in most of them, despite living there.

I know that feeling “at home” is important to human identity. Despite the high mobility possible in our global society, identification with a particular place is grounding. My three-and-a-half year old son, who was quite shaken by our move this summer, still talks frequently about being at home now in Vermont. It’s a definite point of security for him, and I always reinforce it, even though this place is still an evolving home for me.

So yes, I’m going “home” this weekend, but I’m sure when I leave, I’ll say I’m going back “home” too. I’m leaving home to go home, twice in one weekend!

I’d love to hear some comments addressing these questions: Do you feel “at home” where you live? How do you know you’re home? How hard would it be to leave? Could you imagine yourself feeling at home somewhere else? 

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11 thoughts on “How do you know you’re home?

  1. first response: home is the vessel of the body, everything outside of me, that is a habit or a comfy niche is external and subject to change and in some form or another subject to change–out of my control

    second response: i have things, people, and energetic exchanges that are a ‘match’, they feel good, I can smell it, often these things, if not transient, become part of what I choose to surround me. But, if I pay attention, it is still a sense of inner match. It can be more or less ‘difficult’ feeling if one of these external exchanges becomes a go-to place for grounding. I can associate that with place, and feel adrift, should I not be able to locate another such simple source. That has me working to remember that I carry all of that within me, tools on the outside are gifts or crutches until I can get it myself.

    third response: I wonder again, after your words, if my daughter away at college is having some of your ‘home’ issues. I shall have to mention it, and remind her again of grounding(i have but there has been the OH MOOOM, response) but I never put the home, grounding, energy thing together. Thanks for that.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful response, Elisa. Home is definitely an external force that somehow works its way inside and becomes part of one’s identity. “Tools on the outside are gifts or crutches.” The challenge, perhaps, is to recognize the gifts in these outside situations that define us.

      I wonder what your daughter’s response will be! I left home for the first time when I went to college, and I think it was that time away that helped me develop a finely tuned sense of home.

      1. Oh, well it’s interesting for you to share your thoughts about it being an external force. I do not agree. I meant with my words to show that, though, reading them again now, I remember that I was just letting thoughts out. Pardon me for not sending a better message. ps. she brought up the grounding thing herself!

  2. I think you are in a transitional period, when you do, in fact, have two homes. But that will pass. After some years you will either come to find Vermont home or move elsewhere. And on future trips you’ll probably say that you’re going to visit your friends in Michigan. Time does a number on the “feel”.

    1. You’re right; time is such a healer. I hope that eventually I’ll be able to treasure the time I spent in Michigan without wishing for it to be part of my present. I already have so many moments here in Vermont when I really feel a deep connection to the place, and we haven’t even been here a year. As you said, with time, I’m sure the feelings of connection will strengthen.

  3. Sarah,

    I live in Wisconsin but grew up in Texas. At this point in my life, I’ve spent about equal time in both places. And, both places I call home. For me, it has much to do with the person I am/was in each place, formative years in both respects. My roots are in Texas, which is why I always say I’m going home when I visit. But my heart is on Wisconsin. I simply can’t deny the importance of either place.

    Lovely post, as always.

    1. Thank you, Christi. I like the way you distinguish between roots and heart while acknowledging that both matter. Perhaps people don’t even have to have just one “home.” Especially today it seems so many people have led somewhat mobile lives, and we can’t help but carry the different places we’ve been as part of us.

  4. Hi Sarah, Not to sound repetitive or anything but you are such a fantastic writer! I sure hope your last trip “home” was all you hoped it would be. You give me so much food for thought and at the moment, your thoughts are where I am right now. Even when KP and I are chatting and refer to “home” we sometimes don’t know to which place the other is referring. It can just be returning to a motel, the condo, 817 E Lake, you name it depending on where we are. Why it can even be Tecumseh where I grew up and I catch myself referring to “my home”. Perhaps it it the place I return to where Kendall is as well as our 2 pussycats. The word is not “perhaps”, “home” is where KP is : ) Love, Diana

    1. I like that answer, Diana. People do, in the end, make “home,” as KP does for you. I would rather be anywhere in the world with Matthew and the kids than in a specific place without them. The best antidote to homesickness is focusing on the people I’m lucky to live with, wherever I am.

  5. It is funny how we use the word home. We one read a great story by David Sedaris about this. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/06/16/030616fa_fact Jim and I refer to any place we live as our house….well one of our houses. We have so many homes. Not necessarily places with roofs over them, but places where we have lived and feel at home. If you think about which is Home home, I go crazy with analysis. So I just live in the home where I am knowing the other homes are out there waiting for me to visit or take up residence. Love you and miss you and wish you were at our home for dinner.

    1. I just read the Sedaris story and love it. Is there anyone better at being hilarious and poignant at the same time? I think your strategy to live fully in your “home” while you’re there is a good one. It’s really the only way to live, since nobody’s tomorrow is promised them anyway. I wish I could stop by your home for dinner too. I miss you guys.

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