When I was 12, a third state was added to the “where I’ve lived” roster. At 17, #4, and at 22, #5, with another country thrown in at 20 and a third imminent at 22, almost 23.
At state 3, I began to wonder about the notions of “live,” “from,” and “home.” During every major life change (college, studying abroad, new endeavors, moving, etc.) such questions are all particularly poignant, but I’ve always been able to come up with some satisfactory answer.
This time, it’s harder. Partly, the increased difficulty is due to having a traveling companion. A second person makes an already complex issue even more so. But even without the other half, the nature of extended travel is such that when asked, “where are you (guys) from?” I am inevitably stumped. Is the answer the most recent state or city on the itinerary? Is it the most recent single location of extended habitation (what might qualify as “living”)? Or it is possibly your place of origin which, when each significant stage of growing up occurred in a distinctly different locale, is extraordinarily hard. Forget adding a second person – and more states – to the mix.
Until this trip, I had a standard way of answering. If a stranger asks, “where are you from?” the answer in usually the place of current habitation – where I live, so to speak. If an acquaintance, or someone who knows enough to know where I live (or in the instances that the interrogator knows I’m not-from-around-here) asks the same question, the answer is Maine. This is for no real reason other than my family lives there are it’s my longest-running permanent residence which, post-high school, really only matters for purposes of voting and W-2s.
So the question remains. What are the qualities of a place that constitute, respectively, where one lives, where one is from, and even more difficult, home?
In my experience, where I live is the most volatile. I live wherever I have a ed that I return to on a regular basis, wherever I have clothes, a toothbrush, my computer, etc. Unfortunately, right now that means I live in/out of a car. But for the most part this works. This definition has also meant I can “live” essentially anywhere I can bring a suitcase.
More unfortunately, however, people don’t usually need to know I’m living out of a car (although if they know you’re on an epic road trip it’s generally assumed), and the question of “from” rears its tricky, ugly head. My usual standby of Maine (upon further dissection we also find New Jersey and Massachusetts) doesn’t really work in this context. I could go the “I’m from Maine, he’s from Minnesota” route but that leaves it open to more questions that you don’t really need, say, the guy selling you tires to know about. I could go the Colorado route, but that’s not entirely honest. Rather, since neither of us is “from” Colorado, only just recently departed from said state, it would just be a blatant lie. The question usually gets settled with a tactful yet somewhat lengthy “well, we both spent the winter being ski bums in Colorado, and now…” from Dan while I look on dumbfounded, trapped in my own confusion and panic, running through place names and scenarios in my head, trying to apply my carefully worked out algorithm at breakneck speed to answer simply, truthfully, and uninterestingly enough so as not to encourage further conversation. Unfortunately, my algorithm isn’t very good so I just sit there deer-in-the-headlights style and let Dan answer or, if god forbid I’m stranded by myself, I settle on the completely non-committal “all over.” Ha. Take that, question-askers.
Now that it’s settled that I live everywhere and have no idea where I’m from, we can address the final and most perplexing of this triad: home.
I think my aunt came closest to hitting the nail on the head. We were talking about second homes, vacation houses. She asked if Black Butte felt more like home than our lake house in Maine (acquired when I was in college). Unhesitatingly I said it was so. Black Butte I have known my whole life, Wilson Pond only a few years. So partly, I think, “home” has some quality that grants it an innate familiarity. Hence “home is where the heart is.” That idea of familiar people transcending unfamiliar surroundings. But how to explain the phenomenon wherein an unfamiliar place becomes, over time, so familiar as to be home, replacing or supplementing other, older homes? I don’t think it’s inevitable – just to live somewhere for some amount of time does not automatically bestow upon it “home” status. It’s a combination of things: comfort and familiarity (both in a material and non-material sense), welcomeness, growth, safety, kinship.
Then there’s home in the immediate sense. Not necessarily one’s “true” “home” but used interchangeably with “where my bed and everything is”, also known as “living”. “Let’s go home” can as easily mean “head back to the tent” (certainly not a home) as it can “drive 2,000 more miles.” But these are vastly different. You can have a home, but not be living in it. I have a bed (still, hopefully) at home but I’m not living there. This doesn’t lessen its home-ness. Then there are other homes – like Black Butte, say, or my house at college, or the home of a good friend – that fit the other requirements but whose lasting relevance is more a product of memory and emotional significance rather than any active role in life. These other homes are places whose walls you know and whose walls know you. Places you will know forever despite years-long – possibly eternal – absences.
New places – dwellings – always give rise to the question, will this ever feel like home?, a question only answerable with time.
Luckily I do not have to digress into such ruminations anytime a stranger asks a seemingly innocuous question. No one asks where home is, or where I live. They as where I’m from which, difficult as it is to answer, has a concrete string of responses (ME, NJ, MA and then PA, CO, Dan’s car) that can be neatly summed up with a smile, “all over,” and a quick exit.
Again, into the sunset we ride.