“Yep, just those four!” I say sheepishly, pointing to an overstuffed suitcase, a black tote heaving at the seams with laptop equipment and notebooks, a reusable shopping bag overflowing with shoes and laundry I didn’t get to, and a plastic bag full of toiletries. My best friend/devoted knight whom I’ll call Kyle grabs them deftly and good-naturedly, I grab my purse, yoga mat, and a pile of clothes on hangers, and we’re off.
In a few days’ time, this scene repeats, and a few days after that, it repeats again. And again, and again, and again. Sometimes it’s not Kyle; sometimes it’s just me, hauling a reduced load of bags on the train to see girl friends for the weekend, or piling my suitcase into the back of my mom’s car for a visit to my sister’s. But my bags are always packed. I never unpack my suitcase.
Some things in life you envision and plan for, others sneak up on you without realization until they’re staring you in the face. I’ve always thought I would become a crazy cat lady in my later years. I had been so excitedly myopic on that point, I failed to realize that for the past decade I’ve been steadily transforming into another cliché about unmarried, unsettled, eccentric women: the Bag Lady.
My current stint of Bag Ladyhood has been going on for a full year now, ever since I moved back to my native New Jersey from London. The first stirrings of my bag lady tendencies emerged long before then, in the sleepovers I’d have nearly every weekend growing up. But it wasn’t until college that the cat really got out of the bag.
Ah, the first year of college. The times they were a’changin. In the few years before high school graduation, my parents had gotten divorced, my mom had come out of the closet and found a new partner, my dad had moved out and remarried, and when I was a senior in high school, my dad died after a short battle with cancer. (Oh yes, therapists love me). So this was already an unsettled period of my life. Then, a month into my first semester at university, I was called home to pack my things. My mom, eager to be rid of the house and its ghosts so she could move in permanently with her partner, had sold the house I had called Home ever since pre-school. Her partner’s house, my new de facto home, was 45 minutes away from my hometown. Close enough for me to still visit friends, but just far and unfamiliar enough where I didn’t want to drive home after hanging out late at night, and only the deeply devoted ever wanted to make the hour and a half round-trip to pick me up.
During semester breaks I spent A Lot of time sleeping over at friends’ houses. I accumulated an unseemly amount of bags filled with clothes and overnight supplies in my car, just in case I ended up sleeping over somewhere after a late night, just in case one night turned into the weekend. The spare room at my best friend’s house became affectionately referred to as My Room. But it wasn’t my house, and it wasn’t my room.
In the decade plus since college, between three different countries and a dozen different addresses, I’ve had ample time to ponder the idea of Home. I haven’t lived in one place for more than three years, and even then, not in the same apartment. Often I was aware from the outset that I was only in that spot temporarily. Other times, I didn’t plan on moving around so quickly. But life will have its way with us.
Since my return from London, I have spent the year as something of a transient. Even now as I write these words, I am in someone else’s house, my bags in a pile in the corner of the room. I split most of my time between Kyle’s and my moms’. I’m undergoing a bit of a career shift and I’ve not yet been able to get out on my own again. So for now, it’s a delicate dance of to and fro, cautiously testing how much of me people are willing to put up with and trying not to overstay my welcome. I rarely know more than a week in advance where I’ll be next. I am always hyper aware of the need to be pleasing, pleasant, and helpful, because my shelter depends on other people finding me tolerable enough to keep me around. Kyle is my favorite person and thankfully he and I rarely fight, but I don’t have such a smooth history with my mom’s partner. This sense of transient impermanence, of being in a place not quite my own for an indefinite period of time, at the mercy of other people’s hospitality, with the omnipresent if unspoken threat of being kicked out if I don’t mask my RBF enough or become too much of a burden, haunts me. I am quintessentially Unsettled.
Still, my transient lifestyle is (mostly) my own fault. I chose to go away to university, then move away after that; to commit to years of postgraduate work and the transitory lifestyle it entails. I chose a semester abroad in law school and then chose a graduate school in London. I chose to remain in London for work, incidentally with a job that entailed routine travel. And I don’t regret doing any of that (except maybe law school… probably could have done without law school). But a rolling stone gathers no moss, and moss is a beautiful thing. While I was living abroad, exploring Europe and ogling its smorgasbord of men, my friends were at home, getting married and settling down, with kids and cats and homes of their own. Roger Waters warned of lolling about your hometown until “one day you find/ten years have got behind you/no one told you when to run/you missed the starting gun.” I always took those lyrics to mean, Get out there and experience the world, chase your dreams before it’s too late. And so I did. But now that I’m older, I see it a little differently. I’ve spent so many years running around, I seem to have missed the “settle-down” gun.
To be fair to myself, I loved London; I felt like I had finally found “my city” and I wanted very much to settle down there. I had in fact begun to do just that; I had my own flat in a fantastic neighborhood, a great job doing what I wanted to do; I even had a cat (well, sort of; it was more of an unwitting loaner from a neighbor, but let’s not dwell on details). Sadly though, this was all short-lived. The company I was working for was going under. This was the year before Brexit and companies were already shying from doling out visas to Americans. I reasoned with myself that I missed my friends and family and it was for the best. So I repatriated, crying into my complimentary wine the whole way across the Atlantic for all that I’d left behind; crying for London, for the perfect darling flat I’d made my Home, for the neighbor’s cat I’d fallen in love with, and for the boy with whom I’d been starting to do the same. Crying because I had felt so good at adulting, felt I had finally come into my own after so many years of preparation and false starts, and now, suddenly, it was all gone. I had no place of my own, no job, no boyfriend, no cat, and no London. When I arrived at my moms’ and one of the first things they said was, “I’ll bet you’re glad to be home!” it took everything I had to smile and nod. I had just left Home; this was their home. And as thankful as I was to be able to stay with them, and as nice as it was to see my moms, I had a hard time being happy about it. I felt completely uprooted and regressed.
Understandably, between the endless schlepping here and there and the recurring pangs the nesting instinct inflicts on women of my age, thoughts of Home have been on my mind a lot this past year. Lately, when I need a quick mental health break, instead of turning to my usual standby, the “Des Hommes et Des Chatons” Tumblr, my longing gaze is now directed at real estate sites and interior design blogs. You know, so I can find the perfect house I can’t afford and then the window treatments to go with it.
Even The Universe seems to be tuned in to my preoccupation with Home. The classic movie The Enchanted Cottage was on around Halloween and I started tearing up when the protagonist, whose name is also Laura, heartbreakingly soliloquies about having no real home or love of her own. On a train into New York, a Remax advertisement asks me if I’m “Looking for Home?” Why yes, yes I am. A different real estate ad promises, “Whatever Home means to you, we’ll help you find it!” Even my bank, who should really know better (have they not seen my balance?), taunts me with an eager email: “Ready to put down roots? Let’s help you find a house!”
But what does Home really mean to me? And why does it feel so elusive? In thinking about my current state of Bag Ladyhood, in trying to understand how I’ve gotten to this point and how I might extricate myself from an increasingly likely and terrifying fate (The Homeless Lady who Pushes a Shopping Cart Full of Bags and Cats), I’ve come to realize several things.
We Are Legion
First, I am not the only one searching for Home and trying to come to terms with what Home means. There are millions, if not billions, of us in various states of transience, from the emotional vagrants to the physically homeless, from those who have left their homeland for greener pastures in a foreign land, to those of us who have returned to our homeland to find it strange, and ourselves strange in it. Unsurprising, then, that popular culture has a lot to say on the subject of Home. (There are so many songs about Home that instead of working them into this essay I decided to create a separate playlist, “Just Like Home”). Sayings and slogans about Home abound: “There’s no place like Home”; “Wherever you wander, wherever you roam, be happy and healthy and glad to come Home”; “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in” (Robert Frost); “You can’t go home again” (Thomas Wolfe); “Home is where the heart is” (Pliny); or, “A Home is not a Home Without a Cat.”
What is this “Home” you speak of?
The second realization is that the very notion of Home is deceptively complex. As Robert Frost says in “The Death of a Hired Man”, the same poem quoted above, “It all depends on what you mean by home.” Many popular Home aphorisms tend to crumble on examination. Take for example, “Home is where the heart is.” Does that mean Home is wherever the object of my affection is? What if he leaves me to move to Tokyo (true story)? Is my Home in Tokyo now? If I suffer a broken heart, do I also suffer a broken home? Does the fact I come from a broken home predispose me to a broken heart? If I never have more than a temporary Home, am I committing myself to a temporary heart?
While I was living in London, my sister once asked me if I was dating anyone. When I said there was no one serious, she said it was just as well, because I really didn’t know where I would be in a year, did I? I had to admit she had a point, but it stung just the same. In my citoyen du monde fantasy world, I was perfectly capable of meeting my prince wherever I was (Harry, darling, I still live in hope). But if my sister hadn’t quite burst my bubble, it definitely burst months later when I had to leave London and, with it, the guy I’d been dating for a few months with whom I never had the chance to try and make it work because I wasn’t around long enough. Now, that relationship was not without its problems, and maybe leaving was an excuse to romanticize and pretend those problems weren’t really there. Under the best of circumstances it isn’t easy to find a home for your heart. I will tell you, though, that it’s even harder when your physical home doesn’t have a steady foundation.
Maybe, though, all of that “home-is-your-romantic-partner” stuff is a bunch of malarkey anyway. Maybe what that saying really means is that Home is wherever the physical heart, as in, “I am, therefore I am Home.” This too is less than convincing though – somehow, thinking of standing on a crowded train during rush hour or on a queue for the toilet as being “home” doesn’t quite conjure the feels Home is meant to – but there is something to be said for the idea of Home as something we carry within us. Hold that thought.
Part of what makes Home so complex is that “home” functions as a sort of code word for a host of other human needs and desires – security, autonomy, ownership, love, acceptance, identity, familiarity. When we search for Home, and when we try to build a Home, what we are attempting to locate or create is more than just a shelter and a place to store our cat memorabilia. In The Wind in the Willows, which I had read in childhood but happened to re-read in October for the first time with my adult eyes (aside: is it just me or is there a MGTOW thing going on there??), Mole leaves his own little hole and meets a new friend Rat, whom he ends up moving in with. He doesn’t set foot inside his former hole for many months until they stumble upon it one day during a walk, and Mole becomes teary-eyed and nostalgic. He and Rat pop in for a visit, and Mole is very pleased and satisfied and thinks, “Gee, this is really nice, having my own little spot where I can leave all my tchotchkes that I’ve spent years amassing and placing just so; how nice to have a place in the world a mole can come back to that’s all his own. This means something!” before he closes it up again and heads back with Rat. Even though all of Mole’s things are still in his former hole of a home, his real Home now is with his best friend Rat. Which tells us that Home is not only about where our personal things are and where we make our lives, although those things mean something too; it’s also about who we make our lives with.
For all the feel-good Home-is-other-people stuff, though, Hell can also be other people, as Sartre famously wrote and as I’ve muttered to myself a thousand times. Some of us prefer to make our home’s max capacity one. This leads us back to the idea of Home as security and autonomy, and thus to the third realization.
Please, sir, can I have some more Home?
The third realization is that having a Home of our own is a privilege. Home is a privilege not just in the economic sense, although it is certainly that. Being able to rent or buy a place of one’s own is something reserved for those with the economic advantage to do so. As housing costs continue to skyrocket in markets like London and New York, fewer and fewer people have that advantage. More than that, Home is a privilege because Home is a place of security, autonomy, and sovereignty (or at least, our ideal of Home is). When you’re Home, nothing outside is supposed to be able to touch you; the elements, crowds of people, crazy cat ladies chasing you down the street with their shopping carts full of howling cats – Home is supposed to keep all those undesirables at bay so that you are safe, sound, and in control. We expect Home to be our castles and our own little kingdoms in which we reign with total (or shared by agreement) authority and sovereignty. As children, we have to share our homes with our parents, and we have to obey their rules so long as we live under their roof. As adults, we want to be able to kick back and do as we please, and reaching that point is for many Westerners a key characteristic of being a full-fledged adult.
So it is hard for those of us in this Lost Generation 2.0 who find ourselves unwillingly living back with our parents, or living with five roommates just to be able to afford a place. It is hard to be an adult who has to live according to someone else’s rules, to not be able to fully say or do what we want at home for fear we end up on the street or with a hostile home environment. It doesn’t quite feel like we’ve achieved the goal of creating (never mind owning) our own Home when neither the décor nor the bulk of the refrigerator contents is of our choosing, when the furniture and trinkets have little personal connection to us aside from the fact that we share the same roof, and when we can’t have a glass of wine with dinner because the people we live with are teetotalers. And we’re the lucky ones. These are mostly first-world problems, but they are problems nevertheless. As I read the news and think about the millions of displaced people in the world, many of whom have fled homes that were no longer safe and are now in only temporary accommodation, if any at all, often in a strange place where they have no idea whether or for how long they will be staying, I am affirmed in thinking that having a Home of our own, one in which we are safe, secure, and sovereign, is indeed a great privilege.
At Home Everywhere
Fourth, Home need not be just one place, or even a physical place at all. Familiar places feel like Home because we have history and memories there, whether personal or collective. Memories and history form a core part of how place influences identity. Maybe that’s why the town my moms live in doesn’t quite feel like Home to me, because my core identity was formed elsewhere and because that town in some ways conflicts with that identity. Kyle happens to live in the town my parents grew up in, where I lived with my Nana during her last few years before I went to law school. And in fact, that town is where Kyle and I met too. So even though it isn’t really my Hometown in that it’s not where I spent my formative years, part of my identity is still derived from and embedded in that town because of the personal history and positive associations. When I’m there, I feel at Home, but that’s not the only place where I feel that way. One of the reasons London felt like Home to me in part because I have English blood on my father’s side. While I lived there I got in touch with relatives and visited places where my ancestors had lived, died, and were buried. That sense of ancestral homecoming, of collective familial memory, made England feel like my Home, too. And back in my “real” hometown, even though I no longer have an address there, I always feel at Home.
In all of these places, it is the ritualistic retracing of steps and memories that conjures the feeling of Home for me. Which makes me think Home isn’t so much a place as something deeper within us; our memories, our identities, our sentiments and associations. The writer Anselm Kief once said, “My memory is my only homeland.” We tend to think of Home as an external place, a physical loci that tethers us in an ever-spinning world. But maybe Home resides more in our bodies and minds than we realize. Maybe Home really is where the physical heart is, more a state of mind than a physical state. As Tina Fey says in “Sisters” (my recent viewing of which is clearly another sign from the Universe), maybe “Home is a feeling.”
But as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can’t go home again, and that might hold as true for the physical Home as it does for the psychological one. Places and people change. Even when our parents still live in the same house we grew up in, there is for many of us a sense that somehow we’ve lost a bit of Home as we’ve gained in years. We may have physically lost it, our family Homes sold long ago. Or we may have lost the ability to feel truly safe and sound, our loss of innocence and naiveté as palpable as losing a roof or set of walls. Adults become invariably distanced from their first Home in one way or another, and in that distance, become physically and emotionally exposed.
Many of us spend significant portions of our adult lives trying to (re)imagine, (re)build, and (re)create something that stirs in us all the nice “feels” like Home does. Whether through raising children or cats of our own, decorating our homes a certain way, or cooking meals our parents made us, we perform all sorts of behaviors and rituals that are intertwined with the need to feel at Home. Consumerism would have us think that that we can conjure Home with a cup of tea that smells just so, or the womb-like embrace of cozy blankets and throw pillows. But all of this begs the question: if it feels like Home, does that mean it’s Home?
The Home Stretch
In the end, whether we succeed in finding or making our own Home depends on what Home means to us. Home is a deeply personal concept, one we imbue with meaning from within ourselves. And while Home may mean many things, we are the ones that give it meaning. If Home is a hearth, we light the fire with our souls.
Thankfully for me and all my baggage, I have plenty of kindling.