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Struggling with the Meaning of Home

by Angela Petersen on 04/29/2014

Standing over my cellphone, I’m at a loss for words despite the utter simplicity of the concept I’m trying to convey. All my mom wants to know is that I’m at my apartment safely after flying back to San Francisco from Dallas. Otherwise, she’ll worry. It’s a simple request, and I’m happy to comply. “I’m back.” “Back at my apt.” “Safe and sound.” “Just got in from SFO.”  They all sound weird, forced. And they are. Texts full of extra words, when a single word would do the job. “Home.” But I just can’t seem to make my fingers type those four letters. It doesn’t feel quite right, and it’s loaded with connotation and implications. Am I staying in San Francisco? Is it my home? Instead of Dallas?

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The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. –Maya Angelou

I’ve been thinking a lot about what home means since I began splitting my time between San Francisco and Dallas — two very different cities. I’ve been trying to make both places feel like home, trying to have my cake and eat it too. I want to remain close to my friends and family in Dallas in the same way you can be when you live just a short drive away. I want the unstructured time, last minute weekday lunches, and the ordinary silliness of my niece and nephews. Among my friends and family in Dallas, I can unquestionable come as I am. Dallas is definitely home. But I’ve also wanted the freedom to be separate and distinct, far away — in San Francisco. When I got an apartment here almost 2 years ago, I needed a big change. I wanted to be reinvigorated by new surroundings, challenged by exploring a new place and making new friends. Whether I realized it consciously or not, I need to embrace my creative side, to find my voice, and San Francisco seemed to be the perfect muse. In that way and in many others, San Francisco has given me back to myself. People who move to San Francisco are quick to call it home. They’re proud of this beautiful city and feel lucky to be here. They tell stories of visiting once and knowing instantly that they wanted to live here because they immediately felt at home. If home is a place “where we can go as we are and not be questioned,” then it’s easy to see why so many people call this city home. It takes a lot to raise anyone’s eyebrow in San Francisco. It’s easy to come as you are here. Surprisingly for someone who currently makes her home in two cities, I tend to lean more toward the ideas where home involves roots, often deep roots. Maybe that’s just the Texan in me talking…

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“More and more we thought: We have to take the children home. Our children must have the experience of living in a country where everyone looks just like them. Where we can go into a restaurant in a small town in the country and all heads will not automatically turn to stare at us. In India they can grow up with confidence; they will get a sense of their unique selves, which will be welcome in the larger self. Home is not a consumable entity. You can’t go home by eating certain food, by replaying its films on your television screen. At point you have to live there again.” –Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

“Studies of hunter-gather societies show that a person’s turf helps provide identity, privacy, intimacy, and protection from stress.  One reason our homes are so precious to us – and being homeless is so debilitating – is that every time we cross the threshold, we wrap ourselves in a cozy protective mantle of memories that helps sustain our persona.” — Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place

“To me, a home is where your heart feels most comfortable. It’s a place you step into with ease and your heart says ‘yes, this is it’ and wraps that place around itself like a warm, cozy blanket. A house is simply a physical structure filled with stuff, but a home… that’s where you know you belong… For me, that’s Paris, Stockholm, New York, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, and Bangkok… Traveling has taught me that the word home transcends a physical place. As I’ve traveled the world, I’ve learned I fit into many places.” — Matt Kepnes on Nomadic Matt, That Place Called Home

“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s alright.”–Maya Angelou

“[H]ome has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul. Where you come from now is much less important than where you’re going. More and more of us are rooted in the future or the present tense as much as in the past. And home, we know, is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.”

“But I do think it’s only by stopping movement that you can see where to go. And it’s only by stepping out of your life and the world that you can see what you most deeply care about and find a home. Movement is a fantastic privilege, and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing. But movement, ultimately, only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to. And home, in the end, is of course not just the place where you sleep. It’s the place where you stand.” –Pico Iyer, TED: Where is home?

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These are few of the thoughts on home that have resonated with me lately, even if they may seem to conflict. Home is not a consumable entity. It is precious and sustaining. It transcends place. It’s where you become yourself.

It turns out that home can be awfully complicated, and maybe that’s alright.

Photo by  ikewinski.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Summer April 29, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Aw, I love this, and can surprisingly relate to it. It was just a few years ago that I was in my hometown and mentioned that I was “ready to go home.” It caused me to do a double take! I refer to the home I grew up in as “my parents’ house” (…but it’s still “Home” in my phone ;) ).

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Angela Petersen April 30, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Thanks, Summer! I’ve relaxed a little about using the word for exactly that reason… :)

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Carrie May 6, 2014 at 4:34 pm

What a lovely meditation on that word. I’ve often wondered this myself. I know that home is not a place– it’s an idea, feeling, something that feels warm in the core of you. When I was traveling in New Zealand, I found that certain towns and farms where I stayed – even for just a week – felt like home to me. But I often felt homesick for the specific home I had back in the States (even just longing for a cup of coffee with my childhood friend or to sit quietly and read on my old couch). For some of us, though, home can be anywhere at all.

For the record, I still often call my parents’ house “home.” I catch myself doing it all the time, even though I haven’t lived there for years. It’s worth escaping from your idea of a home for a while to gain perspective and grow, but I think you also need to respect where your heart pulls you.

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Angela Petersen May 19, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Thanks, Carrie! I tend to think a little differently about the places I have roots and history versus the places where I feel immediately “at home” even on a short, first visit, but they all get at the same underlying ease and comfort — just like our parents’ houses!

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