If you’re feeling heat as you read this, it’s because I’m writing from the middle of a house fire. My fifth, by the way, if you believe the theoretical equation that four house moves equal one house fire.
Today marks my 20th house move in 25 years of moving globally. I’m working elbow-to-elbow with a sweaty moving crew who will compress nearly all my mortal belongings into one big orange container, wheel it off to the edge of this continent, shove it onto a ship, and let the wind pulse it toward the waiting horizon. Most of my moves have been like this; international, passing over oceans and time zones, cultural borders and linguistic limits, sailing over the edge of the known, plummeting into the strange.
And you know, I’m pretty chill. In a manner of speaking, this piled high cardboard landscape I’m trekking through with its eventual arrival shrouded in mystery has become its own kind of home for me. Relocation, its own habitation. Transience, my truest home.
We’re part of a global floating tribe
I know someone out there feels as I do. You make up part of a global floating tribe, a term author Pico Iyer coined in his popular TED Talk, “Where is Home?” As a member of that tribe, you are one of hundreds of millions of migrants, wanderers, refugees, or serial expatriates like myself who, without sharing one land mass, do share one truth: “home,” as a term, is more fuzzy than warm and fuzzy.
Our home, without tangible cornerstones, is not, as Iyer says, a piece of soil, but a piece of soul.
In contrast, I have friends who have not only a home on a piece of permanent soil, but a white picket fence around it. They’ve lived in the same town — even under the same roof — for as long as I’ve been bobbing through bubble wrap. From their beginnings as newlyweds, as they’ve built careers, birthed babies, planted pear trees, taught toddlers to walk, pruned said pear trees, raised teens, sent them to university, harvested pears, married off kids, bottled pears, and even received grandbabies and began to teach those babies to walk — their life’s panorama has unfurled on a single, uninterrupted backdrop.
Unimaginable to me. But my scrappy patchwork is equally unimaginable to them.
Is home even a place at all?
These friends sometimes say they envy certain aspects of our family’s international life. (The stimulation! The world view! The Instagram possibilities!) But they also question it. (The exhaustion? The children’s wellbeing? Where does one retire?) Yet of all questions, we’re asked one more than any other: “So, then, uh … where is your home? Exactly?”
We get that question a lot, and still don’t know quite how to answer it. Here is how I try to describe it in Global Mom: A Memoir:
“Home means something more than a where. It is not a structure, not an address, not a city, not even a country. I am beginning to wonder if home is even a place at all … Home, perhaps, is a disposition of the soul, an acknowledgment that I share with another soul a certain intimate narrative. That narrative, that story, twists and curls and splutters and flows; it folds back on itself defying conventional chronology, suggesting timelessness while weaving the strands of our most consuming questions and even exploring those questions for which we have no language yet.”
How do kids fare in a floating tribe?
How does our daughter Claire, raised her entire life outside of her parents’ passport country and now married to an Italian, answer the same question? When my husband and I were invited to speak at a leading university’s business school on the vicissitudes of globally mobile families and careers, the hosts went first to our children to vet us. What had life in the floating tribe really been like? How were the kids, products of that life and harvested out of rootlessness, really doing now? And, by the way, where is your home? Exactly?
Claire was concise: “Home is my relationships with my family. Wherever we have lived in the world, I’ve been at home with my family.”
“Home,” Claire might add, is less roof and more canopy, a constantly stretching, forever expanding, ultimately evolving sense of shelteredness. The Germans have a word for it: “Zugehörigkeit,” a term that evokes fitting, a literal belonging-in-ness.
And the French, of course, describe being at home as chez soi, which goes well beyond being physically under one’s own roof. It implies being settled and centered in oneself, wherever that self might be on a map.
Authors besides myself have wrangled with the idea of home. Home might be what author James Baldwin concluded: not a given place but an “irrevocable condition.” Or what German author Herman Hesse described as that unreachable place “where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, for a time.” Or home is a notion, wrote Wallace Stegner in his masterpiece, Angle of Repose, “that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”
And where is home for migrants?
And it is precisely from the exiled and homeless nations and in the course of this last “Year of the Migrant” that I have thought most deeply about home. Throughout many months of working intensely with refugees in central Germany, I’ve looked into the eyes and heard the intimate stories of those who have fled their homes — also leaving behind jobs, family, belongings, cultural identity, language, everything — to trudge by foot across perilous terrain in search of a new “home”.
Geeta, an Afghani mother of eleven, who made it to Frankfurt by foot, when asked where her home is now, places her hand on her threadbare backpack. In it are her prayer rug and pictures of children. It is all she brought. This is home.
Dozan, a Kurd from Iraq, tells me that more than to his apartment, car, and job, his heart and soul are tethered to his native culture. Where is home now? His eyes say he will need a new heart and soul to find home in this culture.
Amira, a math teacher from Syria, who has arrived here without husband or three of her four children, has shown me on her phone live footage and grisly pictures of the home she fled last September. Aleppo is now a cratered wasteland, less inhabitable than the moon. Since stepping off a train in Frankfurt, Amira has known three “homes”: two refugee camps and now a compact village house she shares with 25 other Syrian refugees, mostly women and children. Is this home? She glances at her phone. I know she’s thinking of those pictures of Aleppo. And I can nearly read her mind: Home is where you survive. Home will be here.
Pico Iyer almost didn’t survive his home. When it went up in flames — not the figurative house fire I began this piece with, but the real thing — he realized that, with nothing but a toothbrush to his name, his home would have to be whatever he carried around inside himself.
Is it about where or more about what, how and whom?
Home, for those like Iyer, Claire, Baldwin, Hesse, Stenger, Geeta, Dozan, Amira and myself — all people who have had to define the word many times over — is less where and more what, how and whom. It might very well be, as I conclude in Global Mom: A Memoir, not a fixed port at all, but the nexus of many individual narratives:
[Home is] a portal through which lives have passed and are passing, seeking definition and connectivity. Home, for me at least, has come to mean that sense of intertwining, one of unity and comfort, a state of being where you no longer need to tug at the seams and hemline of your spirit to feel at ease. It’s when you feel something deep and native within you expand, enlarge, illumine.
Countryless. Homeless. Exiled. Expatriate. Nomad. Pilgrim. Refugee. Human. Home.
I am only just beginning to understand those words.
But no matter where I might find myself, home, quietly yet quite remarkably, always seems to find me.