I’ve only been at my parents’ house for 24 hours, but I’ve spent a lot of that time watching the birds. We’ve had birdfeeders my whole life, and I feel like I know them: the cheerful black-capped chickadees, the squabbling goldfinches, the hopping nuthatches who hoot like monkeys. From the kitchen table, I can see them all. There’s a baby red-bellied woodpecker right now; his squawks echo through the woods. He is bold enough to come to the feeder on his own, but he cries out for his parents even as he pecks up suet. He needs extra affirmation or something: “Am I doing this right? Am I? Am I?”

For the last week, when coworkers have asked where I’m going for my vacation, I’ve been unsure how to answer. “Home” isn’t quite right anymore. Neither is “my parents’ house” — that implies a house they moved into after I had already moved out, rather than a place I lived in during all four years of high school. “Massachusetts” isn’t informative. I’ve been using some combination of the three.

This trip is the first time I’ve felt like a visitor here. I’ve found myself hesitant to go off and do my own thing. Today, instead of flopping down on the couch with a magazine and my morning coffee, I stood in the kitchen with my father and we watched the birds together. It was nice; it was being home.

Massachusetts hasn’t been my home, technically, since I moved to New York in April 2011 and became financially independent and all that. Still, until recently—certainly throughout college—this house maintained its identity as home. But now, I’m into the second year of a lease (the first time I’ve had this experience since high school), with the same roommate, with a church community and people I love and work that matters to me, all in New York. That’s where I live. When I leave work to go back to my apartment, I say that I’m going home. Coming back to this house is more like going back in time. It’s strange to remember that I’ve come from somewhere; it’s hard to integrate my current life with what I do when I’m visiting, which is mainly sit around and read and run errands with my mom. Lovely, and a needed change of pace, but a break from real life.

It’s true that my sense of place and belonging may be a little skewed to begin with. “Where are you from?” is another tricky question to answer, as I grew up in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Then I jumped around between three different colleges and took a gap year. And now, although I live in New York, I’m not quite a New Yorker. (Yet.) Still, it’s rather a relief to be stationary. There is a greater sense of responsibility for how I live, because I have no plans to leave anytime soon and start over fresh. The choices I make matter more. But this means there’s the exciting chance to turn this city into my city—to cultivate ownership.

One of the songs my boyfriend and I consider to be “ours” is “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros: “home is wherever I’m with you.” Maybe the people come first and then the place becomes yours; maybe the relationships are the foundation for the dwelling. And yet, there are people I care about in other places as well. My parents, for example. But this house of theirs isn’t mine anymore.

Home is a sense of belonging and inclusion, but it’s also a sense of boundaries. There must be things that are not-home. I’m choosing New York right now, so I’m by default not choosing Whitinsville or Grand Rapids or Boston.

Am I choosing right? Am I, am I?

This week, I’ve had time to plow through and finish off books, magazines, and my new content page on Feedly. This weekend’s meditation at food blog The Kitchn introduced me to the concept of the koan, a paradox Zen Buddhist monks meditate on to lessen their reliance on reason and cultivate enlightenment. The koan referenced here has to do with balancing self-improvement against self-acceptance, and this sentence glued itself to me: “Maybe what matters isn’t so much which one we choose but what the choosing opens up in us.”

When I’m back here with my parents, I realize how much I miss the birds. But even in New York, I find myself magneting to the sound of cardinals chipping away from high up in a tree. I just don’t always see them.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This post is delicious. I love it. This prompts me to think about the concept of “home” as well — though in a very different sense, as I chose to live and work in the same city I grew up in, which is the same city I went to college in, which is the same city my husband also grew up in. Was it still actually a choice? Sometimes I wonder.

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  2. Avatar

    I think I’m siding with Edward Sharpe on this one… it’s the relationships, the people that grow and change us, the people we serve. I think they are the ones that make a place a home for us. I haven’t felt tied to geography all that much, but very very tied to the people that inhabit that geography.

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