I’ve been thinking a lot about constants: things in my life that ground me. Last spring, in a series of epic, thoughtful email exchanges with someone I was falling for, I expressed my belief in such a thing. He hoped to find that grounding, too. In a person.
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Last year, I moved into my own place, a “home” that is mine. I wondered if owning a physical space would make “home” definable—if I’d finally be able to remove the quotation marks around that word.
But no, I could not.
In her piece on home, Celeste Brash says simply but beautifully: “It would be lovely to be able to have a home, that place where history, family, friends, and a house collide without explanation.”
I grew up on the Peninsula and now live in San Francisco, and have a massive extended family scattered between Monterey and Sacramento. The house I grew up in remains in my family—a space of comfort, and childhood memories, and an always stocked refrigerator that I try to visit at least once a week. These days, it stays fresh from the giggles and screams of my nephews, who spend time with their grandparents and continue to create memories within it.
And so this house will always be “home,” though it’s much more than that: it’s the rich, blessed intersection that Celeste describes. But it’s something into which I was born—a natural, blood-tied web.
Yes, I have my own place now. But between these walls, the space feels empty—and the air is stagnant—despite the sofas, the dishes, the lamps, and the pieces of art from around the world.
Something is missing.
So I’m always intrigued, even comforted, to hear that others who have a home keep on looking. One of my favorite bloggers, Miranda, says she still window-shops for places to live even though she calls Oxford her home. I do this, too, particularly when I travel. I’ve wandered cities like Montreal and Berlin and Austin and Granada and Tokyo and imagine living in these places, searching for a cute apartment building to live in and the neighborhood coffee shops and bars to frequent.
Call it daydreaming. Call it wanderlust. Or call it that illusion of endless choice that Elisabeth Eaves writes about: the option to work for this employer or that one, or to live in Hong Kong or the Outback. The “or” is what matters, she says.
Bart Schaneman writes about living in the right place at just the right time. But like all good things, it will end—it changes, or we do—and we spend our lives searching for that perfect fit again. It’s a poignant, romantic way of looking at one’s relationship with a place: cultivating and enjoying a home for as long as all the included parts align.
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I recently discovered Roxanne Krystalli’s Stories of Conflict and Love, a blog of gorgeous, well-crafted writing on storytelling, conflict zones, travel, and love. I came upon one of her posts at Gypsy Girl’s Guide, “Home, in quotation marks,” in which she, too, speaks of an elusive “home”:
I left Thessaloniki at the age of 17. . . . Since then, it is when the pilot says “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Boston Logan airport” that I feel home. Or when I crane my neck from a window seat over nighttime Bogota, trying to picture my new life there. Or when my love returns to our tiny apartment in a Middle Eastern desert with a new blue lamp, because he knows warm light is part of how I make a home.
We all have our own versions of “home.” But after entering the world of home ownership and attempting to plant roots, I’ve become even more confused over what my version is.
I’d mused on this last fall, salivating over the pretty things in catalogs to accumulate, but also pining for somewhere else with my beloved, the person I had fallen for. On Valentine’s Day (fittingly), I asked Roxanne to point me to some of her pieces on long-distance love, as I’d been struggling to write about my own relationship, which is currently transatlantic (or, more than that, if I may be geographically picky).
In one of the posts she suggested, she says that even nomads need ties. “They need something that reminds them that amidst the disorientation and overstimulation of constant motion, they are home.” She calls that something her anchor. An anchor of love. I read it and thought to cry because it made me miss him, but I did not because it was written so beautifully that I didn’t have to. She speaks of a nomadic life, which I do not lead, but I still relate to much of it given the distance: Skype calls and Gmails full of love, tearful airport goodbyes, and knowing that my anchor—my constant—is not a thing, not a place. It’s a person, and the days without him are a bit off.
But these words, anchor and constant, can be misleading: it’s easy to hope for a partner and love itself to be fixed. But this isn’t quite what I seek; I like the idea that the right place to live—the perfect fit—changes, just as I’m attracted to a partner, and love, that is open to the flow of life.
I met him in San Francisco, got closer to him in London, went to a wedding with him in South West England, stayed with him in Cairo, and explored with him in Istanbul. In between these meetings, we’ve created a space for us, just us, online: a portal through which that flow sustains. A borderless space that transcends geography, that exists somewhere only we can access.
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A couple’s anniversary: it’s an arbitrary date, really, on which two people agree to be their day: the time they first met, the date of their first kiss, that night of consummation, the afternoon they just knew. My beloved and I haven’t had as many opportunities from which to choose a date, given the distance and how things have unfolded, online and off.
Recently, as I wondered what date this would be,I realized this was my first relationship in which I’d considered selecting a date not marked by an occasion when my boyfriend and I were physically together, but rather a date between our meetings in the flesh—in that lapse when all we had to rely on, all we had to keep things going, was the Internet.
Could I choose the date of that one email that shifted my worldview? Or how about the date of that particular WhatsApp message that made me melt? Can electronic messaging alone mark a milestone between two people, or is this completely odd?
On Twitter, I follow Nathan Jurgenson, through whom I’ve discovered intriguing discussions on social media and digital life. One of Nathan’s arguments favors augmented reality over digital dualism: the view that our “virtual” and “real” worlds are increasingly enmeshed, and our “online” and “offline” spheres are not separate. We don’t have dualistic “first” or “second” selves, but rather an augmented self, made of atoms and bits.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may recall that at this time last year, I began to feel my way through this very discussion, without being fully conscious of it. Then, these two spheres were indeed separate: I wrote about the distinct nature of new but important friendships in my digital world; my compartmentalization of my friends, both online and off; and eventually, an opportunity to “unplug” and merge “virtual” and “real,” which is sterile, ambiguous speak for let’s see if this friendship, this budding relationship, will work when we log off our computers—when we’re face-to-face for an extended period of time.
Well, it worked.
Suddenly, I was in a relationship: a healthy, happy, and serious one. When I began to explain it to others, how I’m here and he’s there and we haven’t seen each other in months and we don’t know when we’ll be in the same place but we communicate online and it’s all well and good, I sniffed excitement but also doubt. Could it be that because it blossomed not in person but online—from a fragmented yet meaningful mix of emails, blog comments, and tweets—they thought it could not work? That it could not be?
But it was. It is. And the initial, uncomfortable feeling that I was continuing on two trajectories, online and off, has disappeared. We’ve created a space for us, to communicate and to nurture what we have while physically apart. But that’s all it is: just another layer where we connect, both to play and be serious, that rests among all the other layers. What we’ve built does not reside outside, nor does it develop parallel to, anything.
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So, back to that anniversary date. To select one, we both shared our suggested “occasions,” many of them the same. What was interesting was how our lists combined meetings in San Francisco, Las Vegas, and London with emails sent when we were 7500 miles apart—yet each date weighed the same. As I felt they should be. It was just another indication that we operate, naturally, on an entwined digital and physical level.
Some may or may not find that peculiar, but for me, it’s certainly a new way of communicating, of sustaining a relationship in a lapse of long distance. And amid the ebbs and flows, he will come. Soon. That piece I’ve been missing, that I’ve hoped for in this space, will be here.
And so if writing about “home” is really writing about love, I wonder: with this next step, will I finally be able to remove those quotation marks?
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.