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Home: Self and Space

Simona's picture

Many of my friends envision bright futures for themselves living in cities like DC or Boston, or Madrid or London, working for non-profits or law firms or architecture companies during the day, and exploring the sleek streets by night. A good existence to be sure. 

But when I shut my eyes and imagine where I’d like to be, I conjure up images of a yurt placed softly on harsh fields of tundra and dark basalt, a delicate scent of ocean intermingling with the perfume of anticipation as rock and soil emanate that one smell only found right before it rains. The sky is lightly grey and overcast, but not without light or warmth. My fingers feel slightly cold while my cheeks are warm with mild windburn, lungs invigorated as they sip fresh cool atmosphere. My booted feet move with the excitement of places unknown, almost dancing as they tread rhythmically across the land. Exploration calls, and my smile widens. Now if only the leafy greens, avocado tree, and fresh strawberries I also imagine planting in that cool damp earth could flourish as much as my hopeful dreams… Potatoes it is.

I have a long bucket list of things I’d like to do someday. To others, this list may appear to be composed of pure fantasy lacking all feasibility. Go to Antarctica. Swim with a whale. Summer alone in a yurt in Iceland. But for some reason I don’t dismiss any of these hopes, maybe because I’ve relaxed into an easy feeling of invincibility built by my untouchable youth (I’ll never die) and by my privilege as an educated white person (I know I can achieve). While this faux-invincible recklessness and its causes seem problematic, my bucket list of hopes and dreams keeps my mind, body, and soul blissfully restless and inspired.

Yet, I wonder why my vision for the future is so elementally different from those of the people I’ve grown up with. The thought of working 9 to 5 practically drains my soul of all the happiness I once felt. In fact, the thought of an organized facilitated job at all worries me. Subsisting somewhere on the land, alone in the solitude of the elements and my own self, maybe with a ukulele for company, intuitively feels more like home than a Boston apartment ever will.

I grew up on the top floor of a little house in Somerville, Massachusetts, but despite it’s name the neighborhood hardly felt summery. I would commute to a wonderful small private school in Cambridge each day, but our sacrifice for that education was evident in the sinking foundation that caused our bedroom doors not to shut completely and little cracks to form in it’s walls. When my friend outgrew her bike and gave it to me, all I wanted to do was ride it. My disappointment was grave when my dad said “no, you can’t go outside alone,” eventually causing him to agree to a compromise: you can ride around the block while I sit here on our stoop and watch for you to pass with each loop. They didn’t ever explain why, but by the time I was thirteen I knew it had something to do with the crime in Foss Park a couple blocks away. In this home, I was distinctly separate from nature.

Occasionally I was exposed to nature, prompting a disjointed and dividing sense of our world—there was city, and there was what seemed to be a lack of city, a world so foreign to me. I cried the first time I touched sand and was terrified by the waves, but fancied myself a mermaid as I easily cut through the chlorinated water at the local pool. When visiting our cousin in Maine each year, I would dread the 15-minute hike to ocean overlook, but each year I’d be slightly more excited and less resistant. Today, my parents laugh at the stark difference between the childhood me and the Simona now who sails across oceans and works in national parks.

I still struggle to pinpoint what spurred this change. Growing up in that little house, nature was a mystery that made me nervous on the rare instances when I’d find myself connecting with it. Perhaps eventually those nerves wore away and I was left with appreciation. Home, which growing up was my parents, has been shifting away from specific people and more towards spaces and experiences, the most exciting of which immerse me in new natural environments. Change often feels like home.

My close friend looked at me intently the other day while sitting together in her car: “You’re a nomad. I’m a family. There’s a big difference.” And although the word “nomad” seems cliché, it’s true, I almost never spend more than two months in a certain place, then never return. Last year consisted of Arizona, Alaska, Cape Cod, Hawaii, sailing through the Pacific with a couple of island port stops, Tahiti, New Zealand, then Boston for a few days, then Bryn Mawr. The world map I’ve hung above my bed is a constant source of new dreams while I’m spatially stationary at Bryn Mawr. My restlessness prompts growth, as I float and travel and experience. 

So, if I were to really inhabit this yurt on the Icelandic summer tundra, my restlessness would eventually push me to relocate the temporary structure to a completely different environment in an entirely different section of the world. But I constantly struggle with my definition of “home.” I grew up in Boston with my parents and live in Batten House at Bryn Mawr College now, two definite structural homes inhabited by people I love. Why, then, when I think of my most pure feelings of home, do I always circle back to when I was backpacking through New Zealand with my two friends Souha and Matt? Why does the image of a yurt, a structure created for the specific purpose of movement and flexibility, appeal to me so much? 

The three of us de-boarded the bus and tossed our heavy backpacks to the cool pavement. The summer sun was almost gone, and we were in Rotorua, New Zealand, completely clueless. “I really need to pee,” uttered Souha. “Will you stay here while Matt and I go find a bathroom?” I sat on that bench, completely alone, in the dark, phoneless, in a strange new city, with three backpacks piled at my feet. I watched the bus drive away, and slowly started wondering where my friends were. Half an hour passed. 45 minutes. Where were they… Where even was I?  Finally, after what felt like hours, I saw two figures walking towards me. One third of me was worried about them, another third was completely flabbergasted at why finding a bathroom took 45 minutes, and the last third (on which I was ready to act) was angry for being abandoned. As I was about to blow off the handle at them, Matt announced with a huge smile, “Simona, magic just happened. Come with us.” Magic while finding a bathroom…okay. We walked through the quiet city streets like a beautiful ghost town, reveling in the excitement of change. We stopped in front of a dark little hippie shop with racks of organic clothes from India, where a woman popped out like a cat and came to the door. She had been living in her shop since she broke up with her husband, but regardless of this hardship she welcomed us in with a warm smile. We shared the bag of red wine we’d been sipping throughout our journey, some cheese and bread, travel stories, and pure human connection. We slept the night on her floor in the back of the shop, surrounded by colorful saris constructed into flowing pants and headbands. 

Each moment in New Zealand brought a new experience. Waking up each day not knowing where I’d be by the time the sun set, and not knowing where I was going to sleep until just before I closed my eyes was the ultimate definition of unattached and liberated.  Homeless, but by choice. Looking back on this, I believe not having any structure to which to return each evening challenged me to find “home” within myself, within my own spirit. And for me, this was the most pure feeling of satisfaction I’ve ever felt. Now, instead of reaching for a foundation I can label “home,” I search for this foundation of self. Clarity. 


Anne Dalke's picture

“You’re a nomad”

Yours is the first essay I’ve read (so far!) that finds home in “restless wandering,” in “a structure created for “movement and flexibility,” in alternatives to the “spatially stationary.” Like Eli Clare (as you observed in class on Wednesday), you are able to find “home” within yourself--in part, you say, because you have “no other structure to return to each evening.” The “foundation” of your life is not architectural or geographical (or intellectual?), but psychological.

I’ve enjoyed reading your description of your ‘unattached and liberated” wanderings (and wish you many more of the same). And/but.

At least two nudging questions. You open your essay with a stark contrast between your friends’ “living in cities” and the “call of exploration” that takes you into wilder spaces, between “a Boston apartment” and “living on the land.” I want to interrogate this sharp boundary (as our whole cluster will continue to interrogate it, as we search for “environmental transformation,” say, in Camden).  The blog by “Larval Subjects” ((Levi R. Bryant), which we’ll read this coming Wednesday, and which focuses on the ways that systems sustain themselves through flows of matter-energy, argues that “cities constitute the countryside”: they need wood, coal, electricity… water…flows of information, and many other flows besides.” If you have studied with Ellen Stroud, who has shaped the Environmental Studies Program @ Bryn Mawr, you also know that wilderness needs the city—that preservation efforts kicked into gear about the time urbanization did, as city dwellers sought restorative alternative spaces. So I want to challenge the bifurcation that you use to frame your essay.

In saying so, I also recognize, of course, that in setting up this binary you are testifying to a deeply felt sense, in childhood, of a “distinct separation” between life in the (dangerous) city and exposure to (dangerous) nature, “a disjointed and dividing sense of our world—there was city, and there was what seemed to be a lack of city, a world foreign to me….nature was a mystery that made me nervous on the rare instances when I’d find myself connecting with it.”

I guess I’m asking the adult Simona to re-think that story, to imagine telling it from another point of view. You have already revised the conventional narrative of home—not as a known, safe, stable place, but as “change.” Can you revise, too, your notion of “homelessness,” not as “faux-invincible recklessness” (though I’m glad you realize that your sense of invincibility is a false one!), not as choice, but as something more akin to what Timothy Morton calls our attention to: “the strange stranger who lives within (and without) each and every being”?  

What happens, in this formulation, to the “foundation” of self?

To be (of course!) continued…..

In the interim, please read the essays written by  Kelsey and Jo. 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!