When I was 9, my parents moved my family from Tampa, Fla. to Winston-Salem. I said goodbye to the bay, the palm trees, the grapefruit tree in our backyard.
There were few unchlorinated spots for me to swim in my new hometown, no lizards in the backyard to catch. It felt like devastation, even though I think it was fate.
I was at odds with Winston-Salem and North Carolina. By 18, restlessness had grown into gnawing impatience. Go! — the default setting in my brain — propelled me forward after graduation, north to Vermont. During the two-day drive to college my freshman year, everything was exciting in its newness. But the closer I got to school, the more confused I became: Why had I left, again?
Almost everyone feels homesick during college, but the ache I felt that first year shocked and engulfed me. New friends were concerned. Was I depressed? Did I want to talk?
Everything’s okay, I would say. How could I explain wanting to see a bottle of Texas Pete on a restaurant table anywhere, or missing the feel of driving on 421 North at night?
In time, I grew to love Vermont. It’s impossible not to. I explored the state with a passion, but it was never quite mine, never quite a place to call home. In those four years, I flew and drove south whenever I could, becoming familiar with Winston-Salem and my state in ways that had felt impossible before.
Home is an important word to me. I use it more than any other, except maybe coffee or books. I want to feel at home in my house, at home in my city, at home with my partner, at home with myself.
Like other weighty words, overuse of “home” can fool a person into thinking it’s a trickier objective than it really is. Home becomes fantasy and fiction, something necessitating endless striving. Sometimes home prevents you from seeing the place and the people who’ve been there all along.
This is it, I thought when I moved to Maine after college graduation. My home!
My boyfriend at the time, from a small town near Portland, had introduced me to his sprawling state our sophomore year. By senior year, we were visiting at least twice a month. Some homes are chosen for us, and some homes we choose ourselves. Maine was a little bit of both.
We lived for a while between two lighthouses, the howl of foghorns lulling us to sleep each night. Crisp sunshine was abundant in the summer and blizzards swept through in the winter. If we wanted shrimp rolls or crab cakes, we simply walked half a mile downhill toward the sea. Often I was awestruck with gratitude, incredulous at my life.
Yet on those sunny days, I missed the drive I used to take through Pfafftown when I needed to think, and in winter I craved the smell of Dewey’s Bakery, the look of Old Salem coated in light snow. To be able to walk next to my younger sister or watch silly movies with my parents was an aching that seized me Hulk-like at times. Lobster rolls, lighthouses and LL Bean were at my fingertips, but here I was sobbing for seemingly no reason other than want of a Moravian cookie with coffee, or an afternoon traipsing around the Blue Ridge Mountains, where my parents had stopped the car that time when I was 9 to say, “Look! This is snow.”
Blessed are those who know intuitively where they belong, I’ve always thought, and blessed are those who bear with the rest of us. My father’s favorite saying is “Blood is thicker than water.” Yet location always felt important to me, a much more defining thing. At night as a kid I would kick around, my bones aching. Growing pains — still the best words I can think to use to describe the mix of curiosity, confusion and pride that has taken me away and back, away and back, ad infinitum.
Three years into life in Maine, a breakup found me packing my belongings for Winston-Salem. Only here for a few months, is what I said. Two years later, I still hadn’t left — and leaving still felt important, and home like a pin on a map. Go! was still my comfort zone. So I signed up for a help exchange opportunity online, bought a ticket to northern Iceland, and at the beginning of 2013 quit my job in public relations and flew away.
It was a relief to see friendly faces when I returned. Just to exchange stories on the street. I moved into a home in West Salem and started volunteering with animals at a nearby farm, a simple 45-minute task that would leave me soaring for the rest of the day, sometimes week. It was refreshing to be a five-minute walk from the Cobblestone Farmer’s Market, a 15-minute bike ride from Fourth Street and a 20-minute drive from both mountains and lakes. And I was meeting all these wonderful people doing wonderful things, people making Winston-Salem greater just by being there, just by being themselves.
I wanted to join them.
But less than a year later, I left. Those growing pains kicked back up, imploring me to reach. I assumed this meant outward and away. Home was on the horizon, and I was killing time. I rented an apartment in Minneapolis, a city I had never visited before, slowly packed up the house in West Salem, and left again.
“What should young people do with their lives today?” Kurt Vonnegut said. “Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
For many of us, family creates home. A job or a cause sets the foundation. Sometimes a close group of friends designates home. For those struggling with any or all of the above, the answer, I’m learning, is still surprisingly easy.
Where can you be of service? Where do you want to be of service?
There it is — you’ve found your home. At least that’s how I found mine in Winston-Salem, nearly two decades after arriving a Floridian intent on leaving.
As I write this, I am a North Carolinian who happens to be perched on the sofa of an apartment in uptown Minneapolis. The windows are open and the snow is melting. It’s nearly spring here, and I think it’s time to come home.
Lynn Crothers is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. You can find her at awelcomingplace.com.