When I walked down the alley of my building the other night, the lamplight from an apartment caught my eye. The mantle was decorated with stockings and tinsel, and the walls were artfully covered with photographs and fixtures and taste. The lighting was warm and the furniture I could see suggested a cozy interior, with couches and chairs at angles towards one another for optimum space and comfort.
This looks nothing like my own apartment. There are currently two refrigerators in my roommate and I’s kitchen, one broken and thus emanating a mysterious smell, the other swiped by the handyman from a vacant apartment to replace the first. Our living room is haphazardly occupied by an admittedly beautiful Ethan Allen couch from a thrift store and a table that has a monopoly on most of the space. The walls are bare, with the exception of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar my roommate bought for me last Christmas. Our one truly decorative piece hangs in the bathroom: a shower curtain populated by various cats with the face of Nicolas Cage superimposed on their lumpy bodies, purchased with money we raised on a GoFundMe page in college. There are no Christmas decorations, as neither one of us felt like buying one more thing we didn’t know where to put.
While at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the end of this summer, I was reading through the program and landed on a profile of the festival’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Odyssey. She saw the story, as so many do, as the most basic human quest, in which there is “the longing for the journey, but the ultimate longing is to go home.” When Odysseus comes home to Penelope after twenty years, it’s with a lot of sexy stories to tell marred by the shared awareness of 20 years spent apart. The gratitude for coming home is always compounded by how long you’ve been away.
Her quote is clearly rife with metaphor, but let’s stick with the literal for a moment. In terms of your first home, you don’t choose it. In Meet Me in St. Louis, Tootie, a five year old, says, “How lucky am I that I was born in my favorite city!” I was born in Carmel, Indiana (which has since been voted, hilariously enough, the best place to grow up in America multiple times, despite its biggest attraction according to the Internet being a very long walk), and felt decidedly the opposite. Even through the magic haze of the 90s and a relatively miraculous high school experience, I always wanted to live somewhere else later, which was more than a little influenced by the fact that I was raised by gypsies who met in California and spent years on the road as musician and manager. I was born into forward momentum, at least geographically. I grew up across from a cornfield that doubles as a soybean field in the appropriate harvest years. I grew up learning about these crops in school, how it’s good for the soil to change crops during a certain rotation so that the nutrients are not entirely sapped from the soil by these respective plants. I grew up learning about the peony, the state flag, and William Henry Harrison, but never Michael Jackson or James Dean except when I went in search of them. I grew up in places John Green writes books about now, with people so funny I often double over in laughter by myself from a memory.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about musicians and other celebrities who, for all their successes, choose to keep their home base in their original hometowns. Bon Iver (who I mostly actively dislike but cannot ignore) chooses to live in Eau Claire, WI, which is about the most boring place I’ve ever been. The members of Sylvan Esso stay in Durham, North Carolina, and the members of The National in Cincinnati, Ohio (perhaps because the lead singer was in marketing up through his 30s). Chance will never leave Chicago, and I don’t think anyone has ever been more enthusiastic about living somewhere than LeBron James has been about Cleveland. I am fascinated by this, that people with so much momentum and opportunity choose to stay where they came from, or at least leave a leg in it. That forward momentum and changing geography are not mutually exclusive. I used to think the only place worth living in America, or the world for that matter, was New York. Part of me still feels that way – who knows if it always will – but a growing part of me cannot ignore the pull of the homes we didn’t choose, the places where the deepest longings were cultivated and therefore either the most satisfied or the most disappointed. It is the place where the comparison of all others begins, a decision that informs so many others made completely out of your hands. Geography isn’t so much a place as a feeling. I think this every year when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life and see George Bailey get thwarted again and again every time he tries to leave Bedford Falls. I don’t know what it means that he never leaves, if we’re trying to come home to somewhere we’ve never left.
I grew up other places, too. Philadelphia, Connecticut, Chicago, Holland. I shouldn’t say grow up because it’s not limited to childhood. Spent my childhood? Came of age? These are the places I came from, come from. I think what Mary Zimmerman is talking about is, of course, more the longing for the place we will feel safe, or the ultimate home of heaven. There are plenty of people who genuinely hated where they grew up, and hated even more the people they grew up with. I don’t think she’s talking about the tension between the actual geography of where you grew up – the literal streets and landscapes and buildings you spent your time in – and what you longed for it to be either. We make our homes everywhere. If I had my way, I would live out of my suitcase on the run, returning to the tiny homes I’ve made and building new ones. I’d haul around the essentials, but I would also carry as cargo the conversations that have been homes, too. I’d run and run until I remembered what a dining room table looked like and would maybe consider not running to set one of my own and then I would probably look at the moon and not do either thing.