The idea of home is one that has given me some trouble in recent years. It’s sort of intangible, the assemblage of places and people and feelings that make up a home. It’s hard for me to come to grips with things I can’t fully define. Perhaps that’s why I stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy at the age of three or so and, rather than really committing to my inclination toward atheism, have remained stoutly agnostic in my adult life, mostly abstaining from attributing things to any sort of god but occasionally feeling swayed by beautiful scenery and heartwarming human interest pieces.
But I digress, as I usually do when faced with a notion I find challenging.
You could define home—even satisfactorily, I think—in a number of clichéd ways. There’s this notion of going home, which is supposed to make us feel nostalgic, and the expression make yourself at home, which implies that home ought to be comfortable.
It’s the idea of leaving home, though, that I’m most interested in; it’s what happens when you fly the coop that defines—or at least indicates—what you’ll do next.
I didn’t leave home when I was supposed to. Most of my friends left the state after high school, destined for bigger and better and more expensive schools. I stayed in town, telling myself it was because my family couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition, but knowing it was really because I just wasn’t ready. I spent lots of weekends at home, and, a mere thirty minutes from the house I grew up in, was often homesick.
Four years later, I made up for my extra time spent at home with a vengeance, announcing my intention to move four thousand miles and two time zones away to a place many friends suspected didn’t have real grocery stores.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not exactly rustic. I’ve lived in places with electricity and running water throughout my time in Anchorage. With the exception of the cumulative months I’ve spent in the Alaskan backcountry, I call my mother every day, sometimes more than once. (Numerous former significant others have indicated that this is not normal, and I am now perfectly comfortable with that.)
My first few weeks in Alaska were the hardest, and the same has been true after every subsequent trip home. I wonder constantly what my friends are doing and, after a couple of drinks, will readily admit that I hope they haven’t forgotten about me. I imagine this is a common sentiment; accounts of adventure and exploration often specify an acute sense of homesickness near the beginning of an expedition.
And then—whether I’m on a glacier for three weeks or settling into another semester of grad school—routine sets in. I get busy with a project, be it navigating a crevasse field or finishing a paper, and my homesickness recedes. Before I know it, I’ve made myself a home: the view from my tent at sunrise, the camaraderie with other grad students who haven’t exercised or eaten properly in weeks, the occasional much-needed moments of solitude: all coalesce until I feel at home.
This feeling remains until, inexorably, I return home, turning on its head this whole notion of making a new home for oneself. Sometimes this means hopping out of a truck and heading inside for the first time in many days, ready to shower away weeks of grime and eat whatever it is I’ve been craving so desperately; sometimes it’s stepping off a plane and spending a few comfortable weeks at my parents’, where I will enjoy the creature comforts I can’t afford, such as speedy internet access and a variety of condiments.
At the end of these forays, I used to say I was heading “back out” or “back to Alaska,” but, as with all things, the waters eventually muddied and I found myself saying it was time to head home.
Anchorage, for all its foibles, feels like home now, and it’s part of a growing list of places for which nothing but the word home will do. I feel at home in my friends’ yurt, just as I am at home in a tent at the toe of the Exit Glacier.
I have found home in Milwaukee, too, where Bix’s old friends have become my new ones, welcoming me into the fold as though I belonged there all along, showing me the people and places that make this city home to them.
I’m certainly no closer to a definitive explanation of home, but perhaps it’s one of those things that will continue to evolve as I do. It’s much easier to avoid homesickness when I determine that most any place can feel like home, if only for a minute or two, if I look at it in the right light. That’s plenty of time to hold me over until I make it home again.