I got some good news the other day. After several months of mild anxiety I have found a new place to live. It’s a little condo in Chandler, very close to the school where I began teaching in August. It’s a sweet little place in an area that I think will be good for me, and though I will eventually have a roommate, it is the first place time in a long time I’ve had on my own. And most importantly I have decided it will be my home.
With 2015 being the year of connection, I met a lot of new people. Which was great, but most times that initial conversation includes some version of the question, “Where’s home?” For a long time this questions has induced complicated emotions for me. It’ a question without a simple answer and one that reminds me of several of the pressing issues in my life, primarily my issues with impermanence.
I am writing this from my mother’s house. I have inarguably spent more time in this space than than in any other in the world. This is the home to which my parents brought me from the hospital. It is the home from which I returned after my first and last days of school, and from mission service.
Growing up, the kids who moved homes seemed exotic. I wondered what would be like to be the new kid. Sometimes I envied their opportunity to start fresh with new friends and teachers—to not be surrounded at age sixteen by all the same people who knew me at age four. But even then the idea of leaving behind the physical space of my home filled me with nostalgia. I knew and know every corner of this house. I’ve sat on its roof and dug into the earth around it. I’ve seen the bones inside the walls and the concrete of its foundations. It has been a distinct character in the story of my life with an arch all its own. Instead of remaining fixed the place of my memories, it has transformed again and again to suit the needs of my extended family. The rooms have been repurposed, the carpets changed, and since I moved out at age seventeen, the house has been home to more than a dozen of my kin-folk with as many as four generations at a time living under the roof my dad put on it. But through it all, it has been home: the place to which I return.
For many years after I left I felt disloyal whenever I referred to any other place I was living as “home.” What temporary dwelling could compare with the home of my youth? None. I’ve had 15 mailing addresses in 14 years. A few lasted as long as 18 months, but many were less than 12. And some, like my mission home and the PO Box in Italy were more like tethers securing me while I wandered. And as the years have passed, though I have always been welcomed back home, this home has released some of it’s hold on me. I have found that I am increasingly able to define home on my own terms. Just as my mother has refurbished her home again and again while maintaining its basic structure, so have I redefined myself to fit changes in location and personal development while still remaining at my core the same person.
Yet, as I have moved further and further away from home both physically and emotionally, I’ve never been sure what exactly what I’m moving toward. I’d always intended to define the specifics of my home with an as yet as unknown husband. In the years around my mission I kept a list of ideas (have General Conference camp outs), to dos (plant a garden), and even specific items (collected works of Dr. Seuss) that would ensure that I would be the cheerful mistress of a happy, productive, and peaceful home with a husband and children of my own. While I wasn’t aiming to win any mother of the year awards, I figured that with a little preparation I could do as well or better than the average Mother in Zion.
Here you see my miscalculation. Instead of focusing on building a home for myself (even a portable one that mostly fits in my car—as it has had to do) I bought my favorite children’s books and Disney film and set my sights on my future prospects rather than living in the hear and now. I’ve spent years trying to become the kind of person I would want to marry, which while it has certainly done me no harm. This focus, however, has had the side effect of making me less present in my life than I might have been. I want to change that. I want to make a home for me.
Home is a process of self-definition.
In an ice-breaker game I love, participants take turns stepping into the circle and completing the phrase “Where I’m from…” in order to learn more about each other. If I step in to the circle and offer “Where I’m from there are lots of big family dinners” and you remember how your mom’s best friend’s kids would come to supper on Sundays, you could choose join me in the circle, then you and I would change places and someone else would step in and make the next statement about where they are from. We’ve identified each other as being from a place where families eat together—and we know who isn’t from that kind of place. Everyone seems to love this game. The key, as I explain to participants, is self-definition. Though I say “lots” and “big family” and “dinners” you have to decide how that applies to your life. How many is big? How frequent is lots? What time is dinner? No one can define your home but you.
So, what is home to me? Where am I from and where do I want to live? How, based on my experiences and desires, should I define and then create home? What do I want for my home? What will I welcome? On what will I shut the doors? Here are some of the things I know I want my home to be:
From my childhood: I am able to sing loud and play dress up, or make silly faces and wear ugly pajamas. When friends come over invite them to stay for dinner—even if it’s not fancy. It might get loud because there is a lot of coming and going. Relatives may show up unannounced. Cereal is eaten before 10AM and ice cream is eaten after 6PM. There is a fruit bowl. Things can be messy, but not dirty. Clean up as you go. Christmas lights don’t go up until the day after Thanksgiving. Pans can live on the stove so you are ready to cook. We don’t say “shut up” and we don’t use harsh language. Family stories get told. And cleaning is much more fun with music playing. Books are the best decorations. Take what you want, but eat what you take.
From my time with roommates: Keep the Tupperware in order. Clean the toilet regularly. Paper towels are money down the drain. Dance parties are a go. Movie nights are much better with friends and extra butter on the popcorn. It’s better to do the dishes yourself than to be annoyed about them. Introduce yourself to the neighbors with homemade cookies. Don’t leave a mess in the living room. It’s worth the effort to put up Christmas décor, but be sure to take it down before February. Use the nice dishes now as they will likely get broken later. Have potted plants and keep the porch tidy. Always use a hair catch in the shower drain. Separate the rubbish and take it out before it stinks. Recycle. Cooking at home is better than eating out. Don’t lose the mail key. Eat real food, not too much, mostly vegetables.
Things moving forward: Learn how to compost. Spend more time in my home with the people I like. Make a space and a time for writing. Build a place of community with the people I like, doing the things that I like. Exercise. Play. Dance. Sing. Kiss. Don’t worry about measuring up to anyone else if you are enjoying doing what you are doing. Big dreams don’t have to take up a lot of space. Buy less. Make more.
While some of these things may seem piddling, life has taught me not to underestimate the importance of these small details. It is on these delicate balances that larger happiness rests. These details and freedoms breed feelings of peace, acceptance, and settlement.
Among the last words my mission president said to me were “never, never settle.” He was talking about making a choice on a husband. Boy, did I take it to heart. I do not regret not marrying any one I have met thus far, but perhaps there has been an element of fear wrapped up in my choice not to fall in love. Perhaps I have been prideful in my expectations. My best friend’s husband once said of me, “She’d fall in love if she ever stayed in once place long enough.” I think there may be some truth in that. In the last year I went on LOTS of dates. It’s been fun. I’ve discovered that there are men out there who genuinely like me for who I am. It stuns me a little every time I discover that. For one reason and another, it didn’t work out with any of those guys. One cause behind my singlehood is my constant view of my life being in flux. I am always half expecting to move in a year. Even as I sign lease documents on this new place I am questioning the decision. I love my job, but I still don’t know if I am supposed to stay in Arizona. Should I move back here to California and be closer to my mother? Is there a place where I am supposed to be? Is Mr. Right waiting in Salt Lake? Does anyone ever really feel settled or is everyone just pretending like they are sure they are in the right place?
I wonder if this is the curse of my generation. Being raised in the 80s and 90s I was taught to dream big and expect a wonderful life. But graduating and starting my career in the 2000s showed me that hard work and a degree are not the magical keys to prosperity and happiness they were purported to be. As it turns out, I have to make my own happiness, and it better not depend on having a Barbie Dream House.
Settling in might be connected to another new popular mantra, leaning in. (A book I will admit to admiring without reading.) One of my take-aways from it’s premise is to focus on what you can do here and now. Don’t start thinking about how maternity leave will impact your life until you are actually planning to have a baby. Don’t make judgements about a long term relationship after a first date. Don’t worry about what is going to happen next. Enjoy the moment as it is presented to you. Be present for the present. Be home.