(or Caterpillars & Cucumbers, Confusion & Clarity)
I’ve got the idea of home on the brain again. It’s probably not surprising, given the time of year. Well-meaning friends and neighbors casually ask “are you going home for the holidays?” to which I can only reply “no, we are staying right here.” But it is actually fitting because, for all intents and purposes, this is home now. It’s the place I’ve lived the longest. It’s the only home my boys have ever known. Yet this idea of “home” seems to elude me, and gnaw at me, a kind of still unresolved story line.
My wife and I often play the “where should we move to” game? I actually get unnerved when we do this because we just seem to talk in circles, feeling more unsettled each time we take up the discussion. “If you don’t like where you are, just picture where you want to be” extols August “Auggie” Pullman in the movie version of Wonder. It sounds easy enough, but this particular vision seems impossible to see. Earlier this year we flirted with packing it all up and moving somewhere else, a kind of “anywhere but here” mission. But in the end, the stars just didn’t align. Job offers never materialized. Negotiations stalled. Dreams and desires and hopes collided. It was as if the universe was clearly sending us a message. We are meant to stay put, right here. For now at least.
And then over the summer, I took a new job. I had spent months applying for jobs in other cities and nothing seemed to stick. Then I saw that a colleague got a new role, and it hit me like a ton of bricks, that in my searching out there, I stopped looking for what was available right here. And sure enough, when I stopped letting location drive my next career move, I found a wonderful new challenge. I only had to apply for that one job and, at least on the career-front, things started to shift into place. Sure enough, the universe sent the very sign I was looking for. It wasn’t the message that I had hoped for, not the one that I was willing to happen. But it was a shift just the same.
And so, after 20 years in technology, I’m doing something quite different. I still get to use my analytical skills, but I’m much more of a generalist and strategist than I was when I was branded as “IT.” My new team has spent a lot of time these past months working on storytelling – the art of telling stories, and particularly, how to synthesize complex information and data, and craft meaningful, compelling, easy-to-digest narratives.
We’ve been practicing our skills by telling our own stories. Using just one Powepoint slide, you must tell your story – where you started and how you got to the present day. Many of us approached this assignment with a map, markers representing places we’ve lived and studied and worked. When I plotted out all the places I’ve called “home” in four decades, the points revealed a near-perfect linear trend line, that maybe only a data-loving statistical nerd, such as myself, could truly appreciate. It was as if I’ve been on the right path all along, slowly plodding my way from the Deep South to the Northeast.
So why do I still feel so unsettled?
Over Thanksgiving, we went to the Edison museum. Now I knew that my maternal grandmother’s family lived for a few years very close to where we live today. And I knew that my great-grandfather worked at the Edison labs at that time, a few years after Edison’s death. But it wasn’t until we were at the museum, and the guide was describing the R&D work done in the labs, that it suddenly dawned on me. This is where my great-grandfather worked. It wasn’t some obscure building somewhere, but right here in a national park! Parts of my family history are right here, right under my eyes, but I haven’t always known where to look. And most of those who hold the keys to that past are no longer with us, stories and facts and explanations obscured if not lost forever.
Several of my peers have recently left the big city and moved “back home.” They have moved in search of a lower cost of living and family nearby to help share in the work of raising children. They have been drawn home by the pull of having their children attend the same schools and walk the same paths of their parents before. Perhaps I am jealous that I have no such place to lure me back to. My parents settled thousands of miles away from their hometowns, for my dad’s job. They raised a family without any immediate family nearby. I never got the impression that either of them was particularly at ease in the place we all ended up, nor did I get the sense that they longed to move back home. Then they left our adopted hometown almost 7 years ago, to settle in yet another adopted hometown, so I don’t even have a reason to go back and visit this place where I grew up.
My parents seem perfectly adept at creating a home wherever they happen to be. Maybe this was a skill that there were forced to become proficient in given our family’s many moves and relocations. Maybe they were both running, from their own over-bearing parents and crushing parental expectations. Whatever it is that drives them, then and now, did not get passed on to me. I often feel this very distinct pull back to the hometowns of my ancestors, maybe from the generation of my great-grandparents, who I knew, and probably from generations much before them too. It’s why it does not surprise me that I’ve ended up a stone’s throw from those family roots.
I actually knew from the age of 9 that I needed to find a way out. I felt that sense of unease and not quite fitting in from a very early age, even if I couldn’t name it or explain it. When I learned that our state had opened a boarding school for gifted students, I announced my intentions to go. My parents said “no” but the seed of that idea had been planted, and sure enough, 6 years later I was on my way. Not just to boarding school, but on my way out. It was my escape plan coming to fruition. It was a decision, formed back in the 4th grade, that set me off on a path outward, possibly homeward too.
So why am I still left with a feeling of needing to keep moving? Was this just a stop along the way and not the final destination, a means to an end? Was I meant to come here, but keeping going?
For a time I thought it might be good to return to my wife’s homeland. But I’ve come to realize that she can feel as unsettled and displaced as me. She hasn’t lived in the country of her birth for more than two decades now, having adopted not just a new hometown but an entirely new country too. The one family home where she grew up was sold long ago, and relatives are now scattered far and wide. We could go there, but it would not be going “back” – more like starting anew, in a place with echoes of familiarity, but greatly changed just the same.
Everything else on this planet, except for us humans, seems to come encoded with some kind of innate, inborn destiny. This spring we had a butterfly garden in our own kitchen. A cup of caterpillars arrived in the mail (yes, the mail!), and we got to watch each phase of the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation right up close. I think my wife and I enjoyed it more than the kids, actually. It was amazing to watch the rapid changes, and it occurred to me that caterpillars are quite lucky in a way. They know exactly what they must do to become a butterfly. Their future is preordained and nature just takes its course. I wonder if the caterpillar sees it that way? Or if they are jealous of humans and the seemingly non-linear, unknowable paths that each of us leads?
The butterfly kit instructions stated that we should release the butterflies within a week of emergence, before they start to lay eggs (female butterflies can easily lay 100 or more eggs – decidedly more caterpillars than one wants in their house!). But with a lifespan of only 2-4 weeks, we didn’t want to keep them inside any longer than necessary. So after a day or so of watching our new friends, we set them free. Most flew away immediately, but one lingered as if not quite sure of what to do. But even that butterfly took flight in search of a new home.
We also have a vegetable garden in our backyard, and this summer we decided to grow cucumbers. We didn’t exactly do this the right way – we know now that we need to stake the plants because if you don’t, they grow like wild. And sure enough, we soon had cucumber vines wrapped around the entire raised box. We had such a harvest of cucumbers that I was handing them out to friends and neighbors like some crazy cucumber lady. But what I loved about watching the cucumbers grow was the way they wrapped these tiny vines around the chicken wire as a means of support and literally to hang on. The vines were so thin and intricate, and I would have loved to have seen a time lapse video of just how they accomplished such a feat. It was a wonder to watch and a vivid reminder of the complex programming of nature. Even the mere cucumber knows exactly what to do.
Newton’s first law of motion tells us that an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by another force. A moving object will only change its speed or direction if something else causes it to do that. So for now I will stay on this current course, in motion, until the next shift. Who knows what that shift will bring, when it will come or where it will take us. The new therapist has just one catch phrase that she likes to use whenever I am staring down the inevitable unknown: out of confusion comes clarity. (I’m totally going to produce a line of shirts and coffee mugs with that tagline!) And it does, in time, as the fates of the universe direct.
And until then, home is where we are, right now. It’s not where I came from or where I grew up, but it’s where I am today, where I am raising a family and doing my best to live a worthwhile life. So for me, there is no “going home.” I’m already here.
Hermione: Feels strange to be going home, doesn’t it?
Harry: I’m not going home… not really.
~Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
May your holidays be merry and bright, whatever you choose to celebrate. And may your own inner star lead you home, wherever that may be.