Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Homeless at Home

aphorisnt's picture

    “Home is where the heart is,” so said Pliny the Elder. Home need not consist of a physical place, a city or location one can visit or the material structure in which a person grew up or currently inhabits. Rather, home comes to exist more as an emotion, a feeling of belonging and comfort, of safety and welcome, a space–be it physical or mental–one can claim as one’s own. However, when asked to describe home and what it means to me I find myself grappling to identify one single physical location, thinking of the houses in which I have lived (four in total, though only three of which I honestly remember), my dorm rooms this and last semester, the three states and four cities I have inhabited. In each of those places I can clearly picture my house (or the dorm building), my room, the environment just outside, the people and rooms and structures nearby, and I almost feel compelled to identify one as unequivocally home. The problem is, when I really consider home, which in itself is quite a charged word loaded with myriad connotations, nothing stands out as my one true home. I can talk ad naseaum about the different places in which I lived at one point or another, and I can turn right around and launch into a discussion about how home need not be a place but can instead take the form of people or feelings or smells or air temperatures or the taste of the tap water. What I struggle with, and am struggling with even now, is how I define home for myself, or how I should define home for myself, and the feeling of hypocrisy that I can spout rhetoric that more or less boils down to Pliny the Elder’s assertion and do so with conviction yet in my heart of hearts not truly believe a word of it.
    What I do know to be true is, when asked where I am from, I always offer the same reply, “I was born and raised in Orange County, California, but my family now lives just outside of Dallas.” I lived in Southlake, Texas for six full years, now only returning for extended breaks in the school year, and still consider it my permanent address when filling out official documents and the like. My parents and my two siblings live there now in our two-story stone house with the circular drive and nearby creek that occasionally floods during the rainy season. I have friends from middle school and high school who relocated to the same area right around when I did and have adopted the Lone Star State as their place of residence. I, however, never did and probably never will. I never really claimed ownership–or home ownership–of Texas and could never relate myself to it beyond existing within the physical location of the state. In short, I just do not identify with the state in any way, shape, or form. This is why, when asked to describe home, my mind immediately lights upon souther California, my first “home” and the first place I felt like I belonged. Both my parents are native to the state and both my siblings and I were all born in the same hospital in Newport Beach. I can clearly remember both my houses in Dove Canyon, especially my room and the backyard, the places in which I spent the most time. I recall the insect wallpaper that covered my bedroom; the white, wooden Ikea twin bed I kept till I was thirteen; the white bench next to my bed that opened up to reveal books and toys and when closed was lined with stuffed animals, and the jagged corner of that bench where I cracked open my head at the age of three. I remember moving when my brother was born, since the child could not simply live in my parent’s closet forever, and claiming a new room, this one with bright purple walls and posters of horses and Britney Spears, same bed and bench but more windows and light and a brand new dresser. I think something about the continuity through furniture provided comfort despite the move, as if although I had changed physical locations these signs of home softened the process of adaptation. As physical locations go, California certainly is not a bad place to claim: beaches, mild winters and summers thanks to a Mediterranean climate, rather easy access to mountains, deserts, and valleys should the want or need arise, Disneyland, In-N-Out Burger, San Diego Comic Con. However, I do not know if I can really call it home. My family and I moved to Texas the summer after I turned twelve and, while my residence time in California doubles that of Texas, I cannot help but feel I somehow relinquished my claim to this place as home when I moved.
    I return to California often, at least once or twice a year, to visit family and friends or for certain events, but something about returning to what should be home always feels off. I recognize the landscape, the homes of my relatives, the stores and restaurants and neighborhoods  I used to know, but I always exist as an observer rather than a member or a participant. Visiting my old house, the neighborhood looked almost unchanged. The trees were a little taller and a few different cars sat parked in driveways, but all else remained the same–except the people. Folks had moved out or in, children who had once been so small were near as tall as me and some I almost did not recognize. Observing some of my former neighbors through the window of a rental car, I felt the community I had once called home no longer belonged to me. I refused to get out of the car, to walk up to the curb of my old house, to call out to the neighbors I recognized. I simply sat and watched, feeling awkward and intrusive. That moment still bothers me sometimes–which is probably why I prefer not to dwell on it–when I think about what I expected as opposed to what actually happened, the absence of that sense of immediate belonging I was so sure would appear. I have never given it too much thought, to tell the truth, but I honestly do not know why I always identify California as home or why when I think of home I picture my room in Texas but everything else back west. If I had to come up with a reason, though, I suppose it is just easier, to pick one singular geographic place, the one in which I certainly spent the largest portion of my life age at which I lived there aside, and part of me feels compelled to assign home a concrete, specific, constant location rather than something more nebulous like a feeling. Yet even when I try to identify people, I find I struggle some as well.
    I have never been particularly good at “friends.” I am a very friendly person, the type who can talk to almost anyone about anything and has no trouble approaching total strangers for things like explaining a cause, and social interaction resides slightly outside my wheelhouse. As a child, I often experienced some social anxiety that, while not crippling, meant that I never sought friends but rather waited for them to seek me. I seldom initiate conversations, even with people I know really well, or let conversations drift past the mundanity of the weather or what was on television the previous evening. I have lost a decent number of friends over the years not due to any disagreements or conflicts, I just stopped communicating. I struggle to keep in contact when a person is not physically in front of me. Home has never been just friends, though friendship in the abstract does inform where I feel most comfortable. I like having friends, people with whom I can interact, whom I can talk to and spend time with and do things with, people who reserve judgement and offer unadulterated support, who are honest with me and I with them, and who can call me at three in the morning with whatever issues they are struggling. Having a community of people helps take the edge off some of my anxiety–it still persists even this far past childhood, but in a reduced state–and offers comfort in knowing I have a place I belong. The problem I have is when that group of friends shifts and changes. For the first few years I lived in Texas, I kept in very close contact with my two best friends from California. We had known each other since first grade when one had been in my dance class and the other in my Indian Princess Tribe, and were all lucky enough to be in the same class in fourth grade. Kayla, Briana, and I called each other every day, visited each other and went to camp together over the summer, mailed letters back and forth, and emailed constantly for the first two years apart. Then, in ninth grade, things changed. I never took the initiative to make contact or reach out to them but rather waited for an invitation. The time difference complicated communication, especially given the busy nature of high school, so exchanges became fewer and farther between. I could not return to California that winter like I usually did, and communication stagnated then fell apart completely. If someone asked me today where either of them were now, I honestly could not say. I know they are probably both at college somewhere, maybe back in California, maybe somewhere else entirely (Kayla’s dream had once been to attend Notre Dame), but I honestly cannot say anything with certainty. As for my friends in Texas, I know where they all are and some of them I do communicate with, but not with the regularity I once did, not with the daily frequency of before I left for school.
    Family is another matter as well. I come from a sizable family: five in my nuclear family, three pairs of aunts and uncles on my dad’s side, each with three children–my cousins, our grandparents, our three great aunts and two great uncles, our three second cousins and their spouses, each with two children; and my mom’s slightly estranged side consisting of my late grandparents, my uncle, my mom’s half-sister, and a number of cousins I have met on maybe four or five occasions (one Easter, one Thanksgiving, and two maybe three Christmases). For a while all of us lived in California, from San Diego to Pasadena excluding the cousins I did not really know and my grandfather in Phoenix, then people started moving. Some to Colorado, some to Texas, some to Virginia, then my family to a different part of Texas, leaving us spread across different parts of the country. I handled this distance much the way I did and still do with friends but to an even worse extent since the communication was not really there to begin with. I am speaking mostly of my dad’s side since much of my mom’s is a mystery to me. We visit for different holidays when we can, though travel is expensive and my coming from Bryn Mawr makes coordinating even more difficult now. Each time I see my cousins, I am shocked by how much they have grown and, as a person who finds change unsettling, part of me has an internal crisis at how much of their lives I have missed. Once of my cousins in particular has also fallen off the radar, which is difficult for me. Growing up, he was one of my closest friends. We were six months apart so very close in age and our parents coordinated naps at each family’s house during the week. We went to camp together, part of the same carpool, and spent a few years at school together. Now, we smile and exchange pleasantries at the occasional family gathering but during the rest of the year no one, not even his parents, could tell one much about his life except that he still goes to University of Colorado in Boulder and still snowboards. I do not have the same closeness with any of my other cousins as I did with him, all the others too young or already having found a similar companion. Most see me as the babysitter who is actually fun and happens to share some of their DNA.
    The closest thing I have to home right now is my girlfriend. I have known her since my sophomore year of high school and we have been in a relationship for about a year and a half and while it may sound trite and a touch naive, she is the most stable thing in my life at the moment. With her, I do not have a physical home yet, though we have talked of a future home together, an apartment or series of apartments with an eventual house (or maybe Hobbit-hole, the option is on the table) to allow for the presence of large canines–important for me since I have had golden retrievers in my home since the day I was born. I think with her I just feel I have a place to belong, the feeling I am right where I should be rather than feeling awkward and out of place or possessed by the anxiety that I should leave and retreat to where I better fit in. Bryn Mawr, as my school, is a partial home. It is where I lay my head at night, where I work and study and run and play, but my lack of certainty regarding my direction in life–major, future career, what I want to do going forward–colors my relation to the castles and corridors so many can call home with ringing certainty. My dorm room has “my” attached to it, but I know at the end of the year I will relinquish the space I constructed to serve as my place of residence for the year and move on to a new room that requires that construction all over again. Had I maintained the same room this and last year and kept that room till graduation, perhaps I would feel differently knowing that for all four years that space would be mine and I would have the time to fashion it into a home-like place and really put down roots. Adapting is a slow process for me and even just a year is sometimes not enough. Right now, my greatest hope is finding that future home where maybe I can find the certainty in belonging I still seek.
    Home to me still carries much uncertainty, a word I thought I new and understood until asked to really dig into its meaning. I soul-searched for for a place but came up empty, not even finding solace in the idea of family like I suppose one should. “House” did rely on family for the first eighteen years of my life since I depended upon parents for shelter, but home is different and remains separate from the stucco and brick two-stories whose roofs kept my bedspread dry. If I go by Pliny the Elder’s definition, then I suppose my girlfriend is currently the only home I have since she has my heart.


Anne Dalke's picture

on fitting in

You start with a cliché, a phrase that is over 2000 years old.


Then you laboriously work your way away from it—seeking a definition that is “more than an emotion, a feeling of belonging and comfort, of safety and welcome.” You try to identify a single space as “unequivocally home,” call yourself a hypocrite for quoting without believing what you say, refuse ownership of Texas, trace the awkward return to California—an observer rather than participant—trying incessantly to find a  “concrete, specific, constant location.” And then you find your way back to Pliny again.

I think the essay doesn’t really hit bedrock until you begin to talk about the sort of person you are, how—although “social interaction resides slightly outside my wheelhouse”—finding a “community of people helps take the edge off some of my anxiety.” How—“as a person who finds change unsettling”—you now realize that your girlfriend, “the most stable thing in my life,” is what/who gives you “a place to belong, the feeling I am right where I should be rather than feeling awkward and out of place or possessed by the anxiety that I should leave and retreat to where I better fit in.” Home, then, is where you fit in.

This is quite an account—it covers so much territory! And now I’m going to nudge it a bit beyond the boundaries it has already traversed. What would it mean to “fit in” if the world were actually more strange than you here allow it to be? If (to follow Morton, who will guide our thinking on Monday), it is “a practice and process of becoming full aware of how human beings are connected with other beings,” all of them strange—stranger the more we get to know them—“intrinsically queer.” (All of them fitting the ecology? And yet none of them “fitting” if the measure is some sort of norm that defines us all?)

What then?
Well, we’ll talk…

In the interim, please read the essays written by Lisa and Jenna. Make a private post, Sunday evening, about where you see exile in their stories of home (as well as in your own), and bring copies of all three with you, for discussion in Monday’s class.  Thanks!