My relationship with home has always been complicated.
I traveled with my parents quite a bit from the age of four onward.
It wasn’t until a decade later that I wasn’t the “new girl” anymore; then after a few years of being comfortable with Toronto, I was uprooted again. This time, on my own, across the Atlantic, back to England where I have happy memories as a child.
In the years that followed, I split my time between Canada and Europe, with regular trips to hardship places, often during birthdays and holidays. I tried to escape the holidays by being with those with greater pain. I didn’t understand that pain couldn’t be compared. A lot of those in development work are like that—people who are empty inside trying to make it better for people who are even more shattered inside. Perhaps this is why the world isn’t better yet—the wounded fixing the more wounded.
People who choose to be absent from home often carry the same baggage. I didn’t confront. I bypassed. A lot of us did. Even in the most remote of places, I never had trouble finding a group of expats who also came to escape. We had a lot in common. We weren’t the Hallmark holiday bunch. But running away doesn’t actually make us free. Everywhere I travelled to, I wondered about home.
This feeling isn’t just part of the “foreign tax,” as I like to call it. When there has been distance and time within the family, the sense of home becomes hard to grasp again. Why doesn’t it feel like home when you’re finally “at home”? Homesick for a place that no longer exists? The holidays only amplify these feelings.
So I continued to look to the outside world to find my answers. I ate-prayed-loved, and indulged in the fantasy of, “Maybe this could be home.” I looked to the outside world to find a sense of belonging, and I wandered in all the wrong alleys. I became detached as a coping mechanism. I didn’t care anymore, but the emptiness remained. Correction, I always cared; I just buried that care. Sometimes I wonder why in survival mode, we kill our darlings.
During my travels and music and art therapy work, I asked everyone I met, what does “home” mean for them. I asked this at refugee camps. The kids I met in these refugee camps are among the bravest and strongest people I’ve met. I asked them to draw their “homes” in attempt to find inspiration. They came back to me with drawings of houses that looked like a triangle on top of a square, with two windows and a door.
Home is a loaded word. During the years when I was in a long-distance relationship, I would never say, “I’m back home,” but instead I would say, “I’m back at the apartment.” This was a big development from the days when I would call hotel rooms and airports “home.” But perhaps more dangerously, is that I’ve planted a seed of home in a person, and that person wasn’t myself.
Calling someone a home might seem like a romantic thing to do, but for someone who’s never had a solid home, this was lethal attachment. Pop culture picks up this feeling and benefits from this emptiness by feeding us songs about finding home in someone’s eyes, or arms, or heart, and friends who have known my troubled relationship with “home” have also told me, “Sometimes, home could be another person.” To this tried notion, the most optimistic thing I could say is that our partners, if a home at all, would only be a second home.
As I continue to wrestle with the feeling of “home,” now for half of my life, I’ve also started to build a home within myself. Instead of looking outside, I started to mind the space inside, to tend to my own garden, where my heart lives.
If we believe home to be such a wonderful thing, then why would we ever relinquish our role in building it and outsource the design and care? Why would we pay our hearts and bodies as rent, so we could stay in a shack when we’ve left our own palace to collect dust? I’ve spent 17 years searching for home, and I’ve finally found it. I’ve always had it. I just mislabeled it as “baggage.” You have it, too. Just look into the mirror.
The pandemic years have put a temporary halt to a lot of these feelings as we’ve had to adjust to so many “new normals” and comfort zone expansions. It’s like a numbing cream. But now that the effect is wearing off, so much is coming to the surface, aggressively, and I can feel it, sense it, miles and countries away.
This holiday season, as crowds inundate stores and choose distractions over healing, the better thing to do might be to simply unpack our boxes and baggage and take a tour of the home within ourselves. Breathe into the spaces we’ve forgotten about. Take notice of the corners and rooms we’ve neglected. No gift wrapped in a bow, nor plane ticket, nor fancy vacations can help us find our way home. Trust me, I’ve been looking in over 30 countries, uprooted my life in three continents eight times.
As I reflect upon the holiday season this year, the greatest gift we could give ourselves is the gift of coming home. If the pathway isn’t yet clear, then it’s time we do our cleaning and building. The rent is too high otherwise—and if we don’t build a concrete home within ourselves, we will always be at the mercy of other people’s swamps.