To hear this essay read aloud, check out An Irrevocable Condition.
On Friday I left my apartment. Moved out. It was a hard decision to leave that place, a home I spent two incredible years living in. Two years during which the walls came to know intimately the faces of those dear to me. My ear, placed to the wall as if it were a plaster conch, would hear love, made audible, and my happiness now runs in the marrow of that majestic Painted Lady’s bones. It’s hard to leave any place when your memories of it are good ones.
“Oh, cool!”, friends say when they learn you’re moving out of an apartment. “Where’s your new place?”
In response to this question, “nowhere” is rarely an acceptable answer. When you’re seated at a restaurant and the waitstaff approaches to ask what you’d like for dinner, you can’t say “Eh, I’m not hungry”. However, “everywhere?” and “I’m not sure” are similarly unsatisfying replies to the question of where you will be living. So too, notably, is “Help. Help! I have no idea what I want to do with my life and I literally feel like my brain is leaking out of my ears”.
The answer to this question is “nowhere” because starting this week, I don’t have a lease. Not in San Francisco, not in Burlington. Not anywhere. I don’t own a house, nor am I squatting. Popular culture uses the word “nomadic” to describe the lifestyle I’m about to adopt, but what do you call it when you’re mostly just hanging out in a few different places, albeit without a place to call your own?
There are three predominant reactions to telling a person that you are choosing not to live in one place.
The first type of response is what I would describe as awe, colored by jealousy. This is the “woahhhhh, that is awesome” response, often followed up by “I wish I could do that”. This category of response is the one that most often leads to awkward conversations when I reply with, “wow, I mean… I’m not even sure why I’m doing this”, trailing off into a puddle of uncertainty that leaves the other person unsure of how to respond.
The draw towards being footloose and home-free is American through and through, so this type of response is hardly surprising. Less often examined, though, is why so many people feel this way, because on the opposing side of this sentiment is the absolute bliss of a comfortable space to call home. What defect in our fallible human brains allows us to entertain these diametrically opposing ways to live?
The second, and most common, type of response is reserved optimism. This is the response you will hear consistently from the people that care most about you. The reason, maybe, is that there’s an implied unhappiness in the act of leaving, even if that departure is in the pursuit of greater happiness elsewhere. The statement I’m making, if only implicitly, is that this home is not the best home for me, which statement can leave somebody who cares deeply for me feeling hopeful for my future happiness but sadness over what surely will be a less constant friendship.
I remember feeling, at sixteen years old, the terrible weight and simultaneous inevitability of leaving my friends after high school. And when I finished college, I remember feeling the same way and thinking to myself “why do we do this to ourselves?” Perhaps I found solace in the unspoken consensus that this was what one was supposed to do, that I was dutifully echoing the slogan of overachieving youth everywhere that says “We’re all Doing It!”
This time it feels different.
The third, and thankfully least common response, is confusion, tossed with a light vinaigrette of respectful pity, which flavors together make for a bitter “That Sounds Like a Terrible Way To Live” house, or shall we say house-less, salad.
A couple of weeks ago, my upstairs neighbor knocked on our back door to let us know that our laundry was done. I asked how their renovations were going upstairs, a line of questioning which led him to assume I was discreetly asking when the all-day floor sanding and machine drilling would stop, which I was. Before our small talk was through, I wished him good luck and let him know that I would be moving out shortly. Predictably, he asked where I would be moving to. “I’m going to start living in Airbnbs, or housesitting for friends”, I said.
The expression which befell his face said more than he could speak aloud, and lacked even the feigned courtesy of his words. But back inside I was first tickled, then confused, then understanding of his reaction. What I am doing is not universally enviable. For some of the people I’ve talked to about this, the mere thought of life without their sacred home space makes them, well, uneasy. What I read on my neighbor’s face was disbelief that any human might want what I was proposing. Retrospectively, I might have expected a reaction such as this from a man who, last year, purchased a condo for two and a half million dollars.
Books are often used as a metaphor to describe phases of living. “I’m starting the next chapter of my life”, or “I’m turning the page”. Personally, I don’t like the allusion to predestiny. It’s easy to forget the immeasurable amount of control we have over our lives. And while it’s extremely important for me to acknowledge the privilege involved in having that control, it’s also something I want to play an active role in.
So what I’ll say is this: I am right now beginning to write the next chapter of my life. A tentative title might be “What is Home?”. Deviation from the more common “Where is Home?” is intentional, because I know from experience that I feel at home in many places, and with many people who are spread widely across our country, and the entire world.
As many adults in their late 20s will admit, I had a certain teenage obsession, one which has unashamedly continued into adulthood, with a movie written and directed by Zach Braff, of Scrubs fame, called Garden State. I saw this movie just as I was beginning to contemplate the idea of leaving my hometown for college and beyond. This, while exciting, involved something much less attractive: leaving, at least geographically, my closest friends.
In Garden State, the main characters, cozied up in a steamy, heated pool lit from within, have an intimate conversation about home, one which runs through my head in endless loops.
“I still feel at home in my house”, says Sam.
“You’ll see one day when you move out”, Andrew says. “It just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist.”
The more time I’ve spent away from Connecticut and my earliest friends, or from Vermont and the amazing people I know there, the more I’ve come to know that those places do exist, and that what I’m homesick for isn’t a place; it’s those people.
And so it is, stepping out into the infinite abyss of whatever it is I’m doing, that I look forward to exploring this idea. The idea of home: what is it? Where do people find it? And, at least in the physical sense, what does it feel like to not have one?