25 October 2011

What is home? A Blog Off post

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?"


It's Saturday morning and I've been mulling over this topic since we settled on it last week. So much so that I decided to fly back to my homeland to see my family of course, but at the same time to do a bit of reflection on the very idea of 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.


  1. Great post! Home is where the heart is right? I want to blog off with you :-)

  2. For 22 years, Dayton Ohio has been a temporary home as a stop to someplace else. I was only supposed to be here for 4-5 years. I resist long term leases or anything that would acknowledge any sort of root structure here. In truth, Dayton is the kind of town that nobody allows you to call home unless your parents and their parents before them (at least) grew up here and worked at the GM plant that no longer exists. Maybe it is the fear of dying in the "country" that is the most terrifying.

    I once heard a transplant from California (whose wife was from Dayton) refer to here as "Dayton Quicksand." No matter how far away you think you can get, you will always return and never leave... I'm beginning to think he was not such a nut after all...

  3. When we are younger the sphere/circle of what we experience and want grows larger, but as we age that same sphere starts to contract inwards and we long for more of what we started with.

  4. Donna: Thanks for chiming in. I'll Blog Off with you any time.

    Rufus: I think all hometowns are like that. For years I tried to shake the Pennsylvania out of me, then I realized I couldn't and now I realize that I don't want to.

    Nancie: You are welcome.

    Todd: Boy you can say that again.

  5. Well said. I relate to the angst. Right now home is where I try to get everybody to come visit, and Wisconsin is "the Motherland."

  6. Paul, I know what you speak of so truly. I flew the opposite way when I was able: South to North. But after having a family of my own and yearning for the community my family built for me when I was young, I too find myself missing the familiar and questioning what is home. It's a tough struggle and one I'm not sure how it will resolve. I look forward to following your quest for home.

  7. You know, I was born and raised in Pleasantville, PA...about 1 1/2 hours south of Erie. We're talking the real sticks, one blinking traffic light town. I left there as fast as I could after graduating high school and moved to Lancaster County. I was in the "city" and commuting to college, but longed to be "home" where my family was, where everything I knew was. But, that was 18 years ago now. I still refer to the two yearly visits as "back home", but it will never be home again. I am home now in Lancaster County and have found areas down here that remind me of "back home" and comfort me. I still miss my family, but have found family here. It is a beautiful area where I can sustain a family and help provide for them without worry and still stretch my legs out :)

  8. What a terrific article. I fee humbled being a newcomer to Lets Blog Off. This is really good stuff you have here Paul.

    I have always felt a bit like "Never been there, never done that" because my wife and I were born in Detroit and have lived in a norther suburb thereof for the last 30 years. Looks like we are going to finish out the game in this house, too. We live in a beautiful area and have a nice home, but it's always seemed like something is missing because we haven't lived in another state or another country.

    Perhaps that's why we have traveled so extensively to Europe. I don't know. We love visiting, but coming home is always a highlight of each trip. And by the way - Italy sure is gorgeous, isn't it? But so is the south of France and so many other spots, too!

    But home, my friend, is wherever the family is and home is also what you make of it!

  9. Thanks Amy, where you call home now has more than its share of appeal.

    David: Thanks for the comment and you're right. Home is where family is, however that's defined.

  10. Kim and Elise: Isn't funny that when you're young you flee but pine for the thing you fled once you have a few years under your belt.

  11. The definition of home can be just as transitory as the "place" that you select. Hooray for some possible new homes in your future. ; )

  12. I'm just feeling pangs, I doubt I'll do anything any time soon.

  13. "My sense of home started inside of me and worked out from there." That is my FAVORITE quote of the day. Simply perfection.

  14. Beautiful, Paul. Your nostalgia (& occasional free time) is a gift to the rest of us.

  15. Thanks Leah, my day started out in Beltsville yesterday by the way.

  16. Wow.

    I think this is the most introspective piece you’ve written. Certainly it is the most inside view of Paul Anater I have read!

    For me home was Helena, Montana, but we left when I was 16, as the Montgomery Wards store closed, and my father was relocated to Idaho Falls, Idaho. It was only 300 miles away, but we went from the most beautiful place on earth to the most ugly. Later I went to Long Beach, California where I enlisted in the Army at age 18. When I got out, my family had relocated to Long Beach as well, so that’s where I went. But, still, I yearned for Helena. I lived in that area for almost 17 years, and never stopped yearning for Helena. In the interim, though, I’d married my wife, who was not about to leave southern California because of her family ties. We compromised on San Diego, and the moment I got here, I knew I was home. Twenty-nine years later I still feel that way.

  17. Thanks Joseph, this topic couldn't have been better timed. I've been traveling so much lately that I never know where I am when I wake up and it's shown me a thing or two about home.

  18. There is something about being a transplant to Florida that is hard to settle. I no longer have relatives up north in my hometown, which is a strangeness in itself, but which makes me more comfortable with staying in my adopted state long term.

  19. You're fortunate Joanne, my relative up there don't say anything overt but they whisper to me, "come back."

  20. sounds like someone has quite the adventure ahead of him. can't wait to watch it unfold. you have such an awareness about you, there's no doubt you'll create "home" wherever you land. great topic!

  21. So lovely, Paul.

    Having moved frequently in my youth due to an executive Dad, I'm firmly in the camp of home being where my stuff is.

  22. Hey, Paul... We share some of the same sentiments regarding "home." Loved your take on you can be "in" and not be "of" the country.

    My ancestry dates back to 1780 all the way from Ohio to, you guessed it, Pennsylvania. More than two hundred years and only an 8 hour drive??

    Funny thing is I ended up going to college in Pittsburgh! As much as I enjoyed Pittsburgh, I couldn't wait to get back to Dayton Quicksand!

  23. Wow. As usual Paul, you give one a lot to think about. Very lovely post.

  24. Denese: It's always an adventure!

    Raina: On of these days my venturings will lead me to Denver. I'm looking forward to the day when we meet in person.

    Scott: Where in Pittsburgh? I went to Pitt.

    Ming, ming, ming: It's great to hear from you and I'm thrilled that you still read me.

  25. I really enjoyed your post! Very thoughtful.

  26. Thank you for the beautiful post, Paul, and for the glimpse into your heart and your mind.

    It's a story that I know all too well and your observations brought tears to my eyes.

    After living in several countries, far, far away from the land of my birth, I'm nostalgic, homesick and want to give my kids the network of cousins and relatives that I grew up with. My experiences living and traveling abroad have been amazing, but with a family, when does it become not so much about your wants and needs, but the long term of all the people you love?

    I'm going to go call my Mom right now!

  27. Lisa, thanks. It wasn't my intention to write a tear-jerker but having just re-read that post I'm sitting here weeping like a baby. Man! My own writing never does that to me! Navigating this home thing as a middle aged man is difficult and I have to caution myself against getting too carried away with nostalgia. But family really is forever and I know that no matter what happens, there's a ready community in MD and PA who will welcome and accept me regardless. Just knowing that is a comfort.


Talk to me!