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Notes on Home, Life, and Love

I.

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.

* * * * *

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.

living room

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.

* * * * *

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).

PB+J sandwich

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.

II.

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.

* * * * *

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.

500 Days bench

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.

* * * * *

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?

Categories: love relationships the internet

Tagged as:

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.

36 replies

  1. Totally understand what you’re saying. The nomadic lifestyle is so addictive that when it comes to making roots, it’s unnerving and uncomfortable. I’m kind of in the same rut. I’m studying to plant my roots but can’t help it, I want to be unbound by barriers and geography and just explore endlessly. I guess at one point or another, you just have to have weigh in the choices and see what you really want. :)

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  2. Hi Cheri,

    Thank you for drawing my attention to this post, and sharing your thoughts.

    Like you, my husband and I began our relationship in the space between, in an exchange of long emails like old fashioned love letters which began fifteen years ago, about this time of year. I had forgotten, but yes, we also struggled to name dates and pick milestones without the physical world to ground our sense of time. In the end, I don’t remember the date on which we actually got married; we picked a day to celebrate our anniversary, something as arbitrary as anything in life. But over the years, I think we keeping finding each other over and again, in various layers of connection and communication, extending from where we began. We have been able to find our way back to one another through all the challenges, joys and frustrations that a marriage faces.

    I very much enjoyed reading this. Take care and good luck with your continued journey through discovering “home.” Michelle

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  3. Dear Cheri, sometimes reading online can feel like munching on tapas or junk food. Often, it’s taste-and-go for me. Reading your words, I want to sit myself at a table, arrange a napkin nicely on my lap, and enjoy every morsel and every moment of the experience.

    Thank you for writing what you do, the way you do. Back to reading more of your words now … :)

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    1. Thanks for such a kind comment. Glad that you enjoy the stuff you read here — I haven’t written anything in a few weeks (still sifting through photos from a recent trip to SE Asia) but will try to post something soon.

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      1. LOVING this blog. Clicked on it because of the word FOG….lol. Of course you are in SF. I moved from the East Bay to Pacifica a year and a half ago… and spend everyday at work in the City. I never knew how much the Fog would impact my life. Thanks for writing. :o)

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    1. Happy to hear that a post of mine (one of my favorites from the past) inspired you to write something of your own. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this elusive idea of “home” — always interested to hear others’ experiences and perspectives.

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  4. I’ve really enjoyed stumbling upon your blog. I’m new to this whole blogging arena and as this is one of the first blogs I’ve discovered, my expectations have been set incredibly high. You write with beautiful precision, that simultaneously encourages an audience to ponder with you. Thanks so much for being a source of inspiration for an aspiring writer!

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  5. I relate to this very much. I am “homesick” for everywhere I have been, and eager to mark out new lands. I am nothing like my childhood friends. I’m glad I stumbled across your blog. Glad things worked out with your love interest.

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  6. You know what Cheri, all of this struck a chord in me. Its so beautifully written that anyone would get immersed in its depth; and for me this post meant a lot because of the similar relationship I share with my boyfriend. This is how it has been for us too for the last five years and no matter the time and the distance, the digital world had the power to make our love and the existence of our relationship stronger day by day. Thank you so much for writing this one.

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    1. Thanks so much for checking on some of my posts. I’m especially attached to this one, which I wrote in the spring, because it reflects well my relationship (or a certain stage of it, as we now live in the same place and things are no longer “up in the air” anymore).

      Glad it resonated for you :)

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  7. Cheri, I have only found your blog recently (thanks to Mike from Fevered Mutterings) and I am catching up on your posts. This one caught my attention and I feel compelled to comment.

    It’s a wonderful post. I was never a believer in long distance relationship given my past experience. The expectations, the wondering what the other person is doing, the fight over the phone, the time difference, and what not. Then I realised it boils down to how much both of you want it to work. Showing the commitment, and that means, communicating and more importantly having that same level of expectations. And when I see those in friends who have made it work, it melts my heart, and makes me believe again.

    “….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”

    And with technology these days, there shouldn’t be an excuse for not communicating. And I love that line you wrote, about the anchor. That it is not a place, but a person.

    Thank piece from Elisabeth Eaves, is one I could never get bored of reading. I love it, and it gives me hope every time I meet someone through my travels (though, no, no one that captured my heart like that..yet) :)

    And oh, congratulations on the recent engagement :) Very happy for both of you and Nick.

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    1. You are so sweet — thank you for this comment and for wishing us well! I must admit, and have yet to really write about this in a direct way, but much of the stuff I have written in the last two years — exploring my place in a world immersed in technology — is because of this relationship. And so I like what you say here: “And with technology these days, there shouldn’t be an excuse for not communicating.” It’s interesting to see how our relationships, friendships, and ways we communicate are evolving.

      Thank you for reading — I’m really attached this particular post because it sums up the past year so well for me, and it’s nice to re-read it now.

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  8. I can’t add much more than my appreciation that someone brought up this topic, that home is being redefined in the modern world. I believe home can exist without the usual trappings of success, if your vision of success lies in experience and not tangible items. As a traveler, I am certainly biased against the idea of maintaining (curating?) a musuem of bric-a-brac and things that tie me down. But you put it succinctly when you note that,

    “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.”

    The communication networks people like you and I use are inhibitory vehicles to some of us, but in some cases, they are more conducive to making life more beautiful and memorable (even if others think it is ‘beautifutility’).

    Again, well written piece and look forward to more of these types of musings from you!

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    1. “I believe home can exist without the usual trappings of success, if your vision of success lies in experience and not tangible items.” Well said, Nathan. Really appreciate your thoughts here, and I completely agree.

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  9. I most certainly cried when I read this. Stunningly, beautifully, truthfully told. May our journeys always yield more homes, more loves — or at least, more anchors that ground us in the absence of permanence.

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    1. Roxanne, thank you for recommending some of your pieces to read–they moved me, made me misty-eyed, made me want to write. And I wrote this. So, thank you. I so enjoy reading about your own journey as well.

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  10. I’m far too inexperienced in these matters. But as I read some emotion, quite inexplicable, ran parallelly within. So perhaps I need to relook things in life.

    Out of my past experiences I’ve seen that finding a critique partner for my writing was an uphill task simply because I had the notion that the internet is too incredible a place to find people. And by your example I’m honestly moved to take my notions about the net to a less severe level. So thanks for this eye-opening piece.

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    1. “The internet is too incredible a place to find people.” Incredible, yes, in different ways. I feel like this relationship has encouraged me to accept/willingly adapt to changes in my daily life brought on by the Internet. Strange to say, but online tools have truly “nurtured” what I have.

      I think it’s a matter of figuring out how best to use it, to find how it can bring value to your life each day.

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  11. Beautiful. There’s so much here that resonates with me I could probably write an essay in response. I love the exploration of “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 came across a quote I’d noted down recently (from Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage): “Birds in flight, claims the architect Vincenzo Volentieri, are not between places — they carry their places with them” – which reminds me of what you say about how you and your love have “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.”

    Also like the idea of “cultivating and enjoying a home for as long as all the included parts align”…I know that it’s no coincidence that my relationship with Oxford has coincided exactly with my relationship with a man – I feel we see places differently when we’re in love, but also that our relationship with “home” (whether that’s a particular corner of a particular city or an imagined space that transcends geography) often takes on the same kind of trajectory that our relationship with a lover or partner does.

    Thanks for such an honest, lovely and thought-provoking piece!

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    1. Oh, I love that quote, Miranda. (I seem to like a lot of the Dyer stuff you reference in your writing — you’ll have to recommend something of his to read, as I’ve not read any of his books.) I wasn’t sure exactly what this post would look like — I’ve been meaning to write about “home,” or how place is an illusion. And I’ve been itching to write about love, specifically this relationship, which I knew was going to be a continuation (or perhaps crystallization?) of the virtual life musings I wrote last year. I initially was going to write two separate posts, but I started writing the second part within the same draft and it just felt right to combine them. Although, there’s definitely more I could have written — a part III — but to be honest, I was tired ;)

      Really glad you enjoyed it.

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