What Exactly is Home Anymore?

While the rest of the passengers pause as they come out of the jetway at Atlanta International Airport to get their bearings straight, I only pause  to take a big sigh of relief and continue on to the right, like I’ve done so many times before. I take the escalator downstairs and hop on the train toward baggage claim, where I then meet my family at our usual pick-up location. Everything feels so familiar, from Turner Field to The Varsity to the Georgia Dome to Spaghetti Junction. I’m back in the south, the place I spent 27 years of my life. Just my second visit since moving to San Francisco three months ago, this familiarity is short-lived. While I grew up in North Carolina and have spent so much time in Atlanta, what I once called home, doesn’t feel quite so homey anymore.

What does “home” really mean? Is it like the movies when they travel back home to see this old shack with busted out windows, a leaning mailbox, and a wooden porch with their name carved in it that says: “Brad wuz here”. Or maybe it’s the town where you went to elementary, junior high, and high school and formed so many of your early memories in life. Or, in the words of Elvis, home is where the heart is; whatever the hell that means.

For years, home was a hodgepodge of elements, all relating to the place I grew up: Graham, North Carolina. Even after I graduated college, going back to Graham felt like going back home. I would often drive around the town (Which took all of 10 minutes), making stops on Main Street to walk by the old courthouse and cinema, my high school, and Cook-Out for a mint chocolate chip milkshake. There was such a familiarity to it, almost like I still lived there. However, when I set out for a stint of long-term travel last year, something happened. Actually a lot of things happened, but relevant to the ideas discussed here, when I returned to Graham a few months ago, home no longer felt like home. It was disconcerting. I no longer walked into the convenience store expecting for someone to call out my name and people no longer honked and waved when I walked down the driveway to pick up the mail. I was at a loss, uncertain of what or where home was anymore.

“Wait, let me guess.” The barista paused briefly as I stepped up to the counter at one of my favorite coffee shops in San Francisco. “Passion fruit tea!” I smirked and nodded my head as he began making my passion fruit tea, which I’m still musing the meaning of, as it has yet to make me feel passionate about the things that I assume a passion fruity drink is supposed to make you passionate about. I grabbed my drink and started adding sugar, when over my shoulder I heard someone say: “Are you Spencer?” I peaked out of the corner of my eye and didn’t notice a blue uniform, so I turned and confidently exclaimed: “Yes, as a matter of a fact I am.” As I turned, I immediately recognized them as someone I had seen at a recent meetup, but who I didn’t actually meet. We chatted for a couple minutes and exchanged social media profiles before he left. I went back to stirring my tea, at which point I chuckled and said under my breath: “I believe I’ve found my home.”

San Francisco is now home. That’s right, just four months in and I already consider San Francisco home. It’s not even my apartment that I consider home, since I’m just moving into a permanent apartment next weekend after living in a couple short-term places. However, it’s not just the city itself that makes it home. It’s so much more than that. It’s the experiences and people that go with it. It’s the bartenders that know my name, the newsstand I visit every Friday afternoon, the travel meetup I go to every month, the people I frequent food trucks with, and the texts, emails, and tweets I receive when I’m out of town asking when I’m getting back.

I’m of the opinion that one’s love for something can often be measured not by the time spent with that thing, but rather, measured by the time separated by it. This is now my third time leaving San Francisco and each time I’m away, I miss it a little more. That’s a feeling I don’t think I’ve ever had about a place, except maybe Chuck E. Cheese when I was a kid. Next week when I return to San Francisco, my schedule will be unnecessarily packed. It’ll undoubtedly include food trucks, coffee (passion fruit tea for me) with colleagues, visits to Fog City News, a hike at Lands End Trail, and lunches and meetups with friends, some of whom may regret the texts, emails, and tweets when I step off the plane and start bugging them to hang out.

I’ve listened to a lot of songs this week about home, including songs by Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe, and Zach Deputy, all simply called Home. They all seemed to do such a good job of putting the idea of home into a few words. I tried doing this, but couldn’t quite do it. That’s because the idea of home isn’t something I can put into words. To borrow off the words of Søren Kierkegaard, it’s not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. Next weekend when I land at San Francisco International Airport, it may not seem quite so familiar as Atlanta International Airport, but from then on it will feel familiar and I’m sure I’ll take a deep breath as soon as I ascend the BART Station and say: “It feels good to be home.”

What is home to you and how has it changed over the years?


19 Comments on “What Exactly is Home Anymore?

  1. My home has never changed. I definitely take it for granted though I know that. Every time I go away and then come back home I get almost disgruntled that the city and everything is still just the same. But then I sit at an outdoor patio and it seems as if I know every second person that walks by, if they aren’t a friend or an acquaintance they are at least a local familiar place.
    I still live at home and recently my parents told me that they are selling the house in the spring and building a new one near our cottage 30minutes from the city. Although they told me I could still live with them there too, I dread the idea of not being able to come home to what I have known as home for 27 years now. It will be sad when I can no longer walk through the doors of this house, but the city will still be here and it will be the same and where ever my parents live next that will be home enough for me :)

    • Thanks Cailin. I think your thoughts are probably closest to the majority. I feel like going back to my Graham, should feel like home, but it just doesn’t anymore. I didn’t really come back to visit that often after I left for college, which probably has something to do with it and we now often do holidays either on our own or at my sister’s house. I’ll be interested to hear if your thoughts change after they move.

  2. I sensed a post like this was coming from you! As you know, I too have written about the concept of “home” after I moved into my new place a few months ago, and I concluded in that post that home was something mental, something fuzzy, something ever-changing, something comfortable. It’s this little place in my mind where I keep memories of my loved ones and childhood, but also a place that I just can’t explain (like you say above).

    It’s ultimately an elusive thing. But that’s okay, isn’t it? It’s a splendid state of mind to experience even if we can’t quite explain it.

    Your SF neighbor,

    • Thanks Cheri and I can see this topic is fresh on your mind as well with your recent post. I’m finding that I can explain it to a point, but because I think so much is based on experiences and feelings, there’s parts of it that I can’t quite get across. And like you said, that’s alright.

  3. I understand completely how the definition of home changes over time. We are about to leave Berlin, our “home” for the last three months (and 2 months last year) and visit our old “home” of Prague, where we lived for five years. Yet it’s Berlin and not Prague that feels most like home to us – it’s where we feel comfortable, have our favorite cafes, have met likeminded people and just feel like we belong here. It’s a good feeling to have.

    • I’m really fascinated by that Audrey. I feel like your experiences are somewhat parallel to mine. It often seems like it should be ages before a place feels like home, but it’s just taken a couple months in San Francisco. It’s funny how some places have that effect on us.

  4. Great, thoughtful article.

    I went away to college at 18 and thought I’d never live in the Detroit area again. I lived in 10 different places between 18-36, but I’m back here living in the D again. I never really felt like any of those other places were home. Even had I not moved back here, for better or worse, this place would still be home.

    • That’s great Erik and thanks for the words. I find that by talking to people, there are just places that never replace that original home and it’s often there that we find ourselves back at.

  5. I use the term “home” so interchangeably–mostly between wherever I’m living at the moment and Northern California. Home in the larger sense will always be Elk Grove/Sacramento–where my family lives, where I know the streets like the back of my hand, where I grew up. Not all of my friends still live in Sacramento, but most do live in California. However, when I’m on vacation here and I yearn for my bed, my house, my comfort zone, the cafe where the baristas know me by name–it’s St Kilda. Although I’ll only be here for another month or so…and then who knows? I feel super lucky that I’ve been able to adapt and call so many places “home” but I know as soon as I get on the road again, the only “home” I’ll refer to will be Northern California :)

    • Thanks Christine. I wonder if I’ll ever find that one place that will always feel like home no matter what. If I settle down somewhere for the rest of my life, then that’ll probably be it, but for now it seems be be wherever I am at the moment. That feeling of familiarity.

  6. This is something I’ve struggled with ever since I left “home” almost 10 years ago. While a little bit of everywhere that I’ve lived has rubbed off on me, and changed or affected me, now I’d have to say that “home” is where my partner and cats are, primarily. But when I think of my parents place in Trinidad, or of being with my sister or with friends who have scattered themselves all over the world, home is still a factor in all of those places, and in a sense, home is all of those places and none of them at the same time, because all of these places are within me.

    If I had to choose a physical place though, out of everywhere that has been a part of my life, Austin, TX would be it!

    • Thanks for the comment. I think this idea of “home” will always be evolving. I’m not sure there may ever be a place that will just always feel like home, unless I settle down somewhere for the rest of my days.

  7. Having just moved apartments, I have this weird feeling about home. My home was in Florida, but living in LA for almost 5 years and one apartment for almost 4, I now don’t know where I call home. This new apartment, new neighborhood, new adjustments are strange. Yesterday I was walking my dogs and said, “let’s go home” and they perked up and ran passed our new front door and to the car. They knew exactly where “home” was! Hopefully they will enjoy the new one soon!

    • Thanks Jade. I’ll be interested to talk to you in the coming months to see if that’s changed!

  8. I’ll second what Birdy said. Home is much more than a place or time, but some strange combination of places and time throughout our lives. A mixture of feelings, memories and dreams. It’s something we find pieces of along the way, but are always looking for more of…our hearts longing for our true home. For example, I’ve never lived in South Africa more than a few weeks at a time, but when I visit, I feel at home…even miss it. There are experiences there that connect deeper than just being on vacation with my family.

    Glad you’re settling into San Fran. Hope to make it to the West Coast for a visit sometime.

    • Thanks Natty Bumps. It continues to evolve for me. I’ll be curious to see how I feel even in a few months when the honeymoon period wears off. I like what you said though about experience that connect deeper. Well put sir.

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