Home Row

A few days ago, I caught myself referring to our condo in Malaysia as “home.” It didn’t particularly bother me at the time, and honestly it doesn’t particularly bother me now. However, I did spend quite a long time thinking about why I would do that–or at least why so soon. I considered the idea that it is just a word of convenience; home is where I go when I’m not “out.” Simple, right? As far as I can figure, there are two schools of thought on this, both horribly cliché at this point, but at least decipherable: home is where the heart is; and anywhere you lay your hat is your home.

I always call the San Francisco Bay Area home, and I think I will continue to do so even if I end up spending the rest of my life somewhere far, far away from it. I spent seven years in Boston, referred to my apartments there as “home,” but I would always go home for the holidays. My parents could retire and move to a different city or state or country, but that place wouldn’t be home. I could go on grand adventures, start speaking a different primary language, and have children that bear only partial resemblance to me. My lifeless body could be covered in sand and rocks, or I could be buried deep in the ocean, but my heart would still be at home. Broken in two, my heart could be forever split between places. If we ever wonder where nostalgia comes from, this is it. Instead of a physical place, however, time seems to be the anchor to which we tie our heartstrings. The further we get from that place in time, the tighter those strings get until something plucks them and they resound loudly. But this line of thought seems to be a weird way to live, in a constant state of sorrow for the once-was and could-still-be.

Alternately, we could refer to home, as George Carlin said, as a place to put our stuff. When I was a child and a teen, my stuff was in Oakland. When I was in college and grad school, my stuff moved around a lot, and I called my apartments in Santa Cruz and Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville my home. Now, my stuff is in Malaysia, so it’s home, for the moment. Actually, only about half of my stuff is in Malaysia. The other half is on a boat somewhere, on its way to me. Does this mean I’m only half at home here? First of all, I’ve realized how little stuff I actually need, and I’ve wondered if that changes things. If I had no stuff, except for a house, would I even have a home? It certainly wouldn’t feel like home, just an empty box–or would it? I would go “out,” and when I came back, I would be returning “home.” After a while, the box itself would have meaning, and I would miss its cold, empty embrace when I left.

Malaysia also has its own complications. I have to leave and return every ninety days to renew my tourist visa, and there’s a lingering question on how long the immigration people here will put up with that before they tell me to get married and get a real visa or get out. It’s comforting, in a way, because it solves all these questions. Malaysia isn’t home because it can’t be. But this place here, in black and white, in an endless sea of ones and zeroes, can be a home of sorts. I don’t have much stuff, but I do have my home row.



  1. Perhaps the saddest trope ever tromped is Thomas Wolfe’s “You can’t go home again,” because it implies that there is only ever one home, the one you first leave, and nowhere else will ever evolve to replace it. T.S. Eliot said it too: “Home is where one starts from,” as did Robert Frost: “Home is the place where when you have to go there / They have to take you in.” No place like it, eh? Thank god for the dissenting voice of John Steinbeck (ironically, an author profoundly associated with his geographic birthplace, even though he traveled the world and spent his final decades in NY): “I think I have no ‘place’ home. Home is people and where you work well. I have homes everywhere and many I have not even seen yet.”

    Maybe they’ve all been, and all will continue to be, “home” in some way. The way that shapes us, that moves us forward or holds us back or simply covers us for the night. I came “back home,” and instead of feeling like a new snake trying to slip awkwardly into an old skin, I feel more like an aardvark trying to wear a duck. So maybe there’s no good answer. Maybe, as you so potently point out, home is wherever our fingertips most instinctively rest.

  2. Bob the Englishman told me once that you get five years away from a place, and that if you don’t go back in that time, you can never go back again; you would have lost the thread of changes that made that place continuous with and connected to the place you left.

    I don’t have nearly the globe-hopping bona fides you or Kent have (or Bob had). My sense of home is still pretty obscured, though. I lived in one town for 22 years, but I more escaped it than left it. And even there, as a product of split custody after a bitter divorce, “home” was a part-time and heavily-litigated experience. In some ways, home was more the walk between my parents’ separate houses than either destination; neither place belonged to me, but that walk did.

    No anchor, then, to hold the heartstrings ripe for plucking. I get a quick catch in the throat every time I leave somewhere I have lived or made happy memories, but thoughts of where I grew up are more likely to be anxious, claustrophobic, than pleasant. So I fall more on the Steinbeck/where-you-hang-your-hat school, having no heart to place elsewhere, but at least a hat to my name.

    Perhaps, for me, home is more the space created with others, the porch where people always gather, the basement table where games are played, the trails walked and parks talked in. Houses almost always feel temporary to me, but these things are the parts of places that stick, though they are far less permanent.

    A note for both writers above; you’ve got a hook on the hatrack here anytime.

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