The words must have slipped out of my mouth so nonchalantly that I didn’t even catch them.
“Alright, I’m heading back home,” I told my mom and gave her a big hug after spending the weekend at my parents’ house, the home I grew up in outside Philadelphia.
“You’re going home? Aw. I guess Baltimore is home now,” She observed with a bittersweet twinge in her voice, as if noting the change of time as my siblings and I continue our evolution into “real adults.”
I had been living in Baltimore for about a year and a half at that point, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that I referenced it as “home” until my mother pointed it out.
These days, I think back often to that late 2011 conversation with philosophical musings. Because I’m at a point in my life where I don’t know what “home” is any more. Is it a place? And if it is a place, is it the old-familiar they sang of in Cheers- the place “where everybody knows your name?“ Is it a feeling? Is it changeable, moldable, malleable with life’s ebbs, flows, and re-locations? If it is supple, is it infinitely so? Can “home” forever be renamed and reclaimed, rearranged like magnetic poetry sentences on a refrigerator, one day reading, “I love New York,” and the next “I love LA?” Can it be transferred from places to people, people to objects? Is home that mellow peace we feel when we kiss the one we love? Is home our cities or favorite thinking spots? Is home my bicycle, which has given my eyes the pleasure of seeing inexplicable beauty and the rush of feeling fully alive zooming downhill?
Sensing all of these shades and undertones of home cause me to realize that “home” must mean something different to all of us. Like a plethora of things in life, there is no one single definition, purpose, or black and white answer. In each life stage, it might mean different things to us.
Right now, one of the reasons why I’m even pondering all of this is because I’ve been offered a fellowship with housing in DC, the next city nearest to Baltimore. I know, it’s not a far move- a mere 38 miles southwest. It shouldn’t feel like a big deal. But I face it with a melancholy longing to both take a risk and hold onto all that I love, all that reminds me of “home.” Because over the past three years, Baltimore has felt like home in every sense of the word I know. Home in terms of beautiful people who each taught me something specific about life— how to play, how to fall in love, how to jump in the middle of chaos with undaunting activism, how to raise hell and create heaven, how to fix flat tires, how to not feel guilty, how to speak my mind, how to passionately engage in life— because it’s all going to end one day anyway, so let’s create meaningful scenes that will make us look back one day and say, “awww- that was awesome!”
It’s felt like home in terms of a place. I explored the world with a heart of a traveler as much as I could with what little vacation time and money I’ve had these past two years. When people ask where I’m from, I say “Baltimore,” to which they often respond with something slightly insulting, like “Oh, so tell me, is it really like The Wire?” I’d usually crack a smile that tried to say, “I love you and all, but you just don’t get it. And you never will unless you live here, not just visit the harbor, but actually live here, in it, getting your hands dirty with the people who create the ambiance that makes Charm City what it is. Come with me to the west side where I visit patients in their homes. We sit down together, celebrating and crying over the realities of living with HIV. Come with me to the east, where friends and I meet together weekly around a table full of wine and cheese discussing the intersections of spirituality and God in our everyday experiences. Come to the north and visit the farming coop where I feed chickens a couple mornings a week. Come to the south and roll down hills with kids you haven’t met before a top Fed Hill park. And then after you do all that, come sit next to me on one of our “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America” benches that line city streets and you tell me now, was that really like the wire?”
It’s felt like home in not just places and people, but a feeling. Not just the warm-and-fuzzies from sharing high-fives and bicycle rides with neighborhood kids at Bike Party, but also the feeling of creativity that transpires when you read about youth attacking cyclists, and all of the advocates understanding that if kids just had more community inclusion and opportunities for recreation and play, they wouldn’t be out here committing crimes like this. Crime, not being the problem, but the output of what happens when opportunity and meaningful activity cease to exist in an area. So activists instead of creating an us-vs them blaming mentality decided to booth volunteers in the area in which the attacks occurred to “bake some cookies and sell them! Make balloon animals for kids! Have a dance party! Whatever – the point is to be out on the street, watching for potential trouble, and nipping it in the bud before it happens!” (source: BikeMore Google group). It’s ok to angry about crime, in fact, humans harming other humans should arouse that emotion inside of us as a protective instinct to look out for one another. But what’s more beautiful to me- and to the other activists I know, is to turn around something tragic into a reason to bring the whole city together to dance in neighborly love. That’s beauty. That’s Baltimore. That’s home.
So if home isn’t limited to having to choose between places, people, or feelings, but rather, can exist as a “both/and,” then I’m accepting the fact that home can change when we try to live openly. When we open our palms to new opportunities that require leaving your hearth. When we open to meet new people. Open to seeing new places. Open to the feelings that come along with change and uncertainty, from bittersweet melancholy, anxiety, or fear, to knocking out fear flat in the face, trading it for excitement and embracing the uncharted, ditching planned out cradle-to-grave itineraries for spontaneity and the full realm of the human experience, which cannot be bound to detailed schedules by its very nature of being a human experience, ever changing, new scenes of unexpectations showing up at a moment’s notice.
And so incidents like new job offers serve as catalysts for adapting to the unexpected and unplanned for. The things we didn’t think wouldn’t really happen, but sometimes do. The moves we will never quite feel ready to make. I have a week to make a decision about my move. But no matter what, I think I will be better for having grappled with concepts of “home,” “comfort” and “uncertainty.” But especially “home.”
I still don’t have a definition for it, and I prefer it that way. It’s one of those special words that conjure up memories that can’t be stratified into nice, neat categories. I’m tired of nice, neat order. I like colors that splash onto canvas so hard that they ricochet back in your face and polka-dot your clothes. Because some of the most beautiful things in life, to me, are those things that cannot be put into words, which might sound strange as a writer. But it’s true, for me at least. So tonight as I write this, swinging my legs up and down over the ledge of my front porch, staring off at the moon, stars, and the familiar illuminated Pepsi billboard that was still lit while everyone else’s power went out after a bad storm in 2012, I think back on all these memories that have led up to my experience of “home” thus far, and it begins to feel like a living prayer. I think of Donald Miller’s traveling mercies that he wishes for each life adventurer in his book Through Painted Deserts:
“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you, about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God.”
That’s what I want and what I’m grateful for. Thankful for the people who’ve been a part of “home” for me. Thankful for those I have yet to meet because I still need to do some leaving. Thankful for the stars that have listened to my worries, fears, and joys throughout my life in different hemispheres all across the world. Thankful for the stars my eyes and thoughts have yet to meet because my feet have some biking and wandering to do. Thankful for the songs that served as the soundtrack of past take offs, landings, and dance parties. Thankful for the songs that I have yet to hear, because somewhere, someone is writing the lyrics and fiddling around with whether to begin the melody with a G or C chord. But one day, we will sing that song together, and it won’t matter where we are in the world, it will feel like home, in our hearts, in our eyes, in our voice. Yes, it will feel like it home, and we’ll know it not so much by the destination, but by the journeys its taken us to get here. And while we’re out there making our way, let’s look up and look out for each other, for we are creating home with every heart beat. And my heart is beating faster than ever before.