Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "What is Home?"
In my admittedly wild fantasy life, home looks like the photo above. An ancient, moldering pile of ochred plaster on an obscure viale somewhere in an Italian city. However, as a non-Italian, Italy could never really be home no matter how appealing the fantasy. But man, it sure is pretty.
Reality now looks more like this, an old bungalow in the American tropics. It has its charms and it's certainly exotic by the standards I grew up with but it's more rife with caveats than I ever thought it would be when I arrived here.
Right now it's Saturday morning and I'm sitting in my brother's kitchen in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the land of my birth and a place more than a thousand miles from where I call home now. He never left and I couldn't get away from here fast enough.
Coming back years later, I can't escape the fact that the place is beautiful. The photo above is what I can see from his kitchen window. My brother's home and the land of my birth spans the divide between rural and urban living as he does. My brother is a cultured, worldly man and he proves what I know to be true. That it's possible to be in the country without necessarily being of the country. That's a distinction I could never see when I called that rolling-farmland-within-easy-driving-distance-of-Philadelphia home. In my mind back then, the very sight of cows meant that I was a hayseed and I couldn't handle it. So I left to look for something else.
My ancestors called Pennsylvania home for hundreds of years and I mean that literally. They arrived in Philadelphia before the United States was the United States. The same brother in whose kitchen I'm sitting and I once stood in front of our earliest ancestor's grave marker and it hit me like a ton of bricks that he died right after the Revolutionary War. The ancestor in question, Sampson Smith, arrived here with two of his brothers and I can imagine them arguing about whether they should rebel from English rule. It has to have been similar to the arguments my brothers and I get into over current events. Though the stakes were undoubtedly higher in the 18th Century, haggling brothers are and will always be haggling brothers and thank God for that.
My roots run deep in this part of the world and life in Florida has always felt like borrowed time. The wild rhododendrons and maple trees I grew up surrounded by are in my DNA and I can no sooner purge myself of them than I can get rid of my blue eyes. As I get older, I have a harder time resisting the tug of my homeland and the biases and allegiances I grew up with stay with me.
When I hear a Philly accent, no matter where in the world I am, I feel like I've met someone I've known my whole life. No matter how long I live away from there, that eastern Pennsylvania variant of the mid-Atlantic accent just makes me feel comfortable. One of my nieces asked me for a glass of wooter yesterday and I could have hugged her for saying wooter instead of water.
Man, somebody's feeling nostalgic.
To make up for my sense of borrowed time, for the last 20 years or so I've been guided by a quote from the great American essayist/ poet/ novelist/ playwright/ screenwriter Paul Monette. Monette wrote in one of his earlier non-fiction books that "Home is the place you get to, not the place you come from." Despite any lingering misgivings I may harbor for having left, that quote is so true it hurts. It would be true had I stayed and it's most definitely true from a distance.
I'm not one to collect quotes, but that one hangs in a frame next to my bathroom sink. I look at it every morning when I brush my teeth. I believe it. Even though I live alone and I'm removed from the places the rest of my family calls home, my home is home. When I go see my parents or I come back to Pennsylvania, I call it "going to see my family." It pains me when I hear other adults refer to going back to the places where they were born as "going home."
For years, that idea of home, my home, has sustained me through thick and thin. When I landed in St. Petersburg around 14 years ago I found here a great community of friends. I felt very quickly that I belonged. My and our gatherings for holidays and card games and drop-bys were legendary. I felt then that I belonged in St. Pete, that my presence there mattered.
Even though I was surrounded by people who loved me, I was clear that they were just a manifestation of something I was generating. My sense of home started inside of me and worked out from there. My beloved friends and neighbors were reflecting back what I was sending out.
That started to change when the economy tanked a couple of years ago. Florida took it on the chin worse than a lot of places and opportunities to earn a living evaporated seemingly overnight. One by one, the people I was close to in St. Pete started to leave to pursue their dreams elsewhere, in places where they could actually make a living.
At the same time, I started traveling around the country and indeed the world as I sought to make a living of my own. So as friends left and I left with increasing frequency, something started to change. I found myself growing impatient with life in a third-tier city and started to pine for the bright lights bigger places. When I'd return home, there were fewer and fewer familiar faces to greet me.
My distraction and strange sense of isolation brought with it something else, namely a hesitation on my part to generate a home for myself. The last year has been a strange one and I blame my getting older though that's not entirely true. I don't quite feel like I fit in St. Pete the way that I used to. My sense of belonging there is a lot less intense than it used to be.
At the same time, I find myself seeking stronger connections with people who aren't in St. Pete. I miss my nieces and nephews, my siblings and their wives, my parents and my colleagues who are now spread all over the US and Europe. The critical mass of the people I once clung to used to be in Florida but now that critical mass stretches from the DC burbs to New York. There are pockets of of them in Florida, New Orleans, Seattle, London and San Francisco too, but my attentions have shifted to places other than St. Pete. This mystifies me. I always thought that St. Pete was going to be home forever, but I'm not so sure anymore.
So what to do about it? I don't know the answer and I'm in no great hurry to figure it out. One of the benefits of having survived to middle age is that I've come to suspect sudden changes, be they mine or someone else's.
Whatever happens, I know that it's up to me to generate an answer and a path forward. It's up to me to generate home, where ever that may be.
This topic has been a great one, and I'm glad to be able to vent my angst. Ten years ago I would have written that home was wherever I found myself but these days I'm beginning to think there's a bit more to it. So to try to address the topic at hand, home is where I love and where I am loved. Wherever that ends up being.