The winter holiday season often provokes strong feelings about the concept of “home.” The months of November and December reverberate with “I’ll be Home for the Holidays." Water-cooler chat revolves around what everyone is doing for Christmas. Our voicemails are full of family inquiries as to whether or not we're coming home for the holidays.
In thinking about where our homes actually are, we naturally reminisce about all the homes we’ve belonged to over the years. We're taken back to all the spaces we’ve claimed as our own: childhood houses, grandmothers' living rooms, backyard forts, college dorms, mid-town apartments, woodland cabins, conversion vans...the list goes on.
Where’s the real "home"? Or, more importantly, what is “home”?
Some answers to these questions might be:
Bella DePaulo, of Psych Central, affirms that home is a “place, a space, a feeling, a set of practices, or an active state of being in the world.” And, each one of us obviously has a similar, yet subjectively different, concept of home.
In studying the concept of home, and thinking about all its nuanced meanings, I've found that "home," stripped of all abstraction, must be composed of four intangible elements:
These four in combination create a rich base from which we can grow, thrive, and reach our full potentials.
In order to become actualized, complete people, a home should provide order and stability, freedom from fear, and protection from negative emotional and physical elements. A home should be a place where we fit in, a space where we can trust ourselves and others, a place where we belong, a space where we are loved. A place where we are treated with dignity and respect. Where we feel we deserve all the best things, even on our worst days.
The concept of home is also an aspect of our personal identity.
Since personal identity is a story that we put together throughout our lives, where we choose to live shapes part of that story. By changing our location or surrounding ourselves with different objects and people, we are altering our sense of home, and modifying our personal narratives. Once we change our story, it is very hard to mentally and physically return to reside in a previous edition.
Here’s an exercise —
Write down every single place you’ve ever “lived” after the age of seven. Why seven? Philosophers largely agree that seven can be considered the age of reason: by the time we are seven, we can tell right from wrong.
Scan your list, contemplate each item, and think about the following:
- How did you feel about yourself in these places?
- How have these places shaped you as you’ve grown?
- How much of those experiences you had in those places has (consider deleting “has) affected you?
- Suburban Chicago (several locations)
- San Diego (multiple different apartments)
- Various log cabins in northern Minnesota
- One dusty East Hollywood apartment
- London (two distinct flats in two distinct boroughs)
- Boston, MA
- Various hostels in New Zealand
- My grandma's house in suburban San Francisco
- A convertible van in Iceland
- Rural Loveland, CO
- Fort Collins, CO
In thinking about my list, I can attest that every place and space I’ve occupied over the course of my awareness has been my home, and my experiences in those places and spaces make up who I am.
Often times I am wistful for one of these places, longing for those people with whom I spent time, the comforts I felt, or those experiences I’ve had. However, I couldn’t possibly return to live in any of those places I once called home. My story has changed over time, and my identity has become more solidified. I wouldn’t feel comfortable living in one of my past places since I myself am completely different, while those bygone homes, experiences, and people I once knew stay the same in my mind.
When I visit a place I used to live, I am initially enthralled, but many times this excitement morphs into anxiety. This is due to the fact that visual cues from these past environments trigger nostalgia, and I am overpowered by poignant memories. These memories, while lovely, can be detrimental. I worry they might cause me to return to the person I was when I lived there. A person not fully formed. A person still searching for her truth. It’s also strange and unsettling to encounter myself in these spaces, as they’ve stayed the same in my mind, yet have changed over time.
This anxiety happens every time I visit the place I used to live in when I was a teenager. Every other Thanksgiving or Christmas, and a smattering of other occasions throughout a year, I visit a former home in suburban Chicago. Though this was not the house I grew up in — my family moved there when I was 16 — it is a beautiful, bright house on a quiet, meandering street. It is surrounded by flourishing trees and foliage; the backyard is home to bunnies, birds of all kinds, and the occasional fox. The house is also large enough to host our family and friends during the holidays. In a sense, when I visit, I am returning home. But, in this place, I never really approach that soul-serving feeling of being at home.
When I lived between those walls, my family was in tumult. My parents were nearing the end of their marriage. While facing an inevitable dissolution, our household went through every stage of emotional chaos you could think of, making the energy inside very toxic. I didn't feel comfortable or safe; I doubted I belonged there, and I believed the love I received was conditional upon making my bed, coming home before curfew, or getting straight A’s. So, I stuck to my room most of the time, listening for clues as to the mood, purpose, and whereabouts of each family member. This experience was emotionally scarring for me, and, by suffering through it, I developed a moderate anxiety disorder, highlighted by panic attacks which I still sometimes experience in my adult life. I moved to San Diego soon after I graduated high school.
However, upon returning during college breaks, the atmosphere was even worse. It was almost as if the house was the epicenter of an emotional tornado, ripping and tearing at its occupants, testing them, pitting them against each other, reducing them to raw, primal beings.
Almost 20 years have passed since that time, and the atmosphere of this house is different now. For the most part, the toxicity has dissipated, and a sense of calm has pieced old wounds back together again. But some of the tumult remains, like tiny embers smoldering from a forgotten fire which are fanned back to life soon after I cross the threshold. For this unfortunate reason, I rarely feel comfortable here, in what my family universally calls home.
From observing my family's attempts, I know that creating and cultivating a comfortable, safe, and loving home is a very difficult task. Building an ideal environment to thrive might even be an impossible task, but it is an essential task.
The mission to build a complete home has recently taken on extreme importance to my husband Josh and I: we are expecting the birth of our first child in May (!!!). We have no idea what to expect in bringing a new life into this world, but we do know it is the most important job we will ever have. And, we have made a few vows regarding the space where our family will grow and thrive:
Home isn't about the house, the yard, or the town. Home is what all occupants build together, a shared journey of love and belongingness. Home is the collective effort to honor every family member. Home is the mutual promise of safety and comfort. Home is where the heart is, but it is also where the heart thrives.