Thursday, August 29, 2013

Home and Place: Where and When

" . . . home is as much about time as it is about place"  I think I may have felt this internally at some point but it wasn't until I read this piece by Spencer that I was reminded - once again - that home and place are intertwined.  And thanks to Spencer, he poses another value, which is that home is also a place in time.  I believe this.  This piece is full of complexities about transitions and brings out the contrast between feeling temporary and a longing to be rooted.  Many of my friends and family who have moved around will relate to this wonderful piece . . . Enjoy! 


Between kindergarten and ninth grade, I went to nine different schools. I wasn’t an army brat or anything like that—it just happened that circumstances aligned to move me to a new school almost every year, until I finally begged Mom to please let me stay in one place to finish high school. As far as I can tell, this had two main effects on me. The first is that I got really good at making new friends, since basically every year I was the ‘new kid.’ 

The second is that, for me, home is at least as much about time as it is about place: my memories are deeply connected to where and when something or someone is situated. One of my earliest memories is the day I figured out how to make machine gun noises with my mouth. I remember I was on the playground at my pre-K school, which means I was about four years old, which means that’s when Mom and I were living in San Jose, California. Another memory from that time is of Dad and me driving across the Golden Gate Bridge singing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” together as he brought me to his house for my weekend visitation. Dad had a perm, so I know it was the 80s.
This way of connecting my different “homes” to different times has been sitting heavy with me since my partner Emily and I moved from San Diego to Madison four years ago. In our first year here, I struggled to process new feelings of disconnectedness that had never come up before. We had said goodbye to our San Diego home, it had been ten years since we lived in our parents’ homes, and Madison didn’t seem like it would be home either.

At the time, I wrote a poem to try and articulate what I was feeling. Here’s part of an early draft:

It takes effort to be
who I think I am
when this city reminds
how displaced I’ve become.
These cornfields speak
no stories I know, these street lamps cast
no familiar shadows.

In my meanwhile,
charting maps
through a life I barely recognize
keeps my attention.

What, then, is left
by which to navigate,
to steer my course?
What horizon can I look toward, when
the home I call home feels foreign,
remote from myself?

It is the family I build from scratch
that must be the foundation to shore me up.
It is the tribe that speaks
my language.
It understands how to be displaced
and contented.

While it helps me to think of Madison as another in a series of places I call home, it has also felt different this time. We moved here for graduate school, which right away meant our tenure would be finite. We never intended to stay beyond five years, so sometimes it feels like this isn’t our ‘real life’ but just an extended vacation. As we begin our fifth year, I already feel us stepping one foot out the door.

This ambivalence sometimes makes it difficult to fully invest in a place. Because I don’t feel connected to Madison, I could easily convince myself that this isn’t my community, these aren’t my people. I have the privilege to keep everything at arm’s length, knowing that I’ll just move on again soon. And mine isn’t an isolated experience: the world is becoming increasingly transient. As we find ourselves moving around more often, the danger is that we’re never accountable to one another. This dehumanizing experience becomes our excuse for a whole host of acts—crime, assault, neglect—that would be unthinkable otherwise.

Now that Emily and I are thinking about what next destination might suit us, I sometimes find myself falling into this trap. On the one hand, we’ll talk about it with a what-the-hell abandon, thinking, “Let’s just try it out for a year or two! If we don’t like [state or country X], we can always move again!” When we see these potential places as disposable, we risk lapsing into indifference.

Other times, though, I long to make our next move be toward a home that’s more permanent, more rooted, than those I’ve known before. I need home to be not a place and time, but an enduring place that grounds us across our life. And more importantly, I need to hold myself accountable to the people and the communities of which I’ll be a part.


Spencer Atkinson is a husband, teacher, leraner, poet, musician, and a really good hugger.  He was born and raised on the Left Coast.  @spencerkinson

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