The first time I was thrust out into the thrill of unfamiliarity was probably when I went to preschool. Until then I’d lived a blissful life in the lap of my family, crawling on tables and hiding in cupboards in relentless attempt to sate the aching agitating wander in my guts. I remember going into the classroom, leaving my mom in the hallway because I felt quite old and prepared. A kid named Joey cried and hugged his mother’s leg and I flushed with superiority. I wasn’t a baby. I didn’t need that comfort. I was too distracted by the new sounds and faces and colors.
It’s strange the way that the sense of home piles up in layers, like a massive onion of experience. At the very center is true first home, or at least first after the womb. Then each layer builds as we march out into the world, toughening our skins and freezing our spines. Each layer feels more comfortable than the one just outside of it, and so the farther we press the more space we have to move about.
I am a fidgetter. I am pushed by restlessness to expand out incessantly. I force myself out onto more precarious beams by deciding from far ahead and then when it is time to walk, I tense my stomach muscles in panic and master a calm exterior and go like I always do, my steely shell and pride the only things containing the petrified jelly that is my innards. I bound out into the uncharted, chasing the adrenaline of discomfort and hoping that some time, some place, I will stop and settle in a somewhere that will hush the gut wanderlust.
The worrisome thing about my imperialistic expansion, my desire to civilize as much of the world into my comfort zone as possible, is that the farther out I go the harder it is to turn back. Back to the inner layers of that onion. Back to my truest deepest home.
Real deep true home will always be my childhood house in Cincinnati, Ohio. Home is the kitchen in the evening with yellowy warm lights on and big windows of black night, a bubble of safety floating through the world alone in some strange dimension, my mom and dad reading the news or doing the crossword or making dinner and my siblings draped about like throw rugs, idly chatting reading, playing cards, and all filling the space not with our multitude but with a thick sense of unity as if we have all ten become one massive beast that jams into the room expanding to occupy every nook and cranny with sound and light and life.
In some way, I always will be ⅛ of something, even as I long for self-sufficiency, for the wider spaces and high ceilings of the edges of my onion. I cling to the middle and I feel it slipping through my grasp with every year my parents age and every addition to my siblings’ lives, girlfriends and fiancés and dogs and infants who will never leave. And as they all shift and grow, I change without my own permission, and what used to be nurturing becomes suffocating and I can no longer duck and cram all that I’ve become into the shrinking space of the center. Or at least not without bursting it open.
But that home while deepest is also smallest, and places like the grocery store, my freshman dorm, the library, the school I taught in, the bed I sleep in, the room my plants are in, wherever all my books are, where I sleep by the window, or when I sit on the floor, or really anywhere I can anchor myself with a belonging or person or enough space, those places are the layers that I’ve carefully built around the seed pit that was the home I was formed in. In those layers I can be more than a part of a whole, in those layers I can change and expand without bumping into anyone’s space.
Growing up, leaving home, going to college, it’s like I’ve been standing on a beach my whole life, chafing at its smallness and limits, and I never realized that the solid castle I held in my hands was made of sand. And when I see its fragility and impermanence, when I realize that I cannot stand with my toes in the ocean on this beach forever, I try to clutch it harder, and as my hands tighten it disintegrates and slips through my fingers into the sea.
My clinging cannot stop the marching time and I don’t want it to. But with every change, even for the better, something is gone, and my heart loses a piece with each new piece it grows.
This winter I’ll be going back to my home, or at least as close as I can get to it. It will be the same kitchen and the same warmth. But my dad might be late because of how tough his job has been. My older brothers will have brought their girlfriends. My oldest sister will be preoccupied with her newborn baby. My younger brothers will probably squabble over the attention of the out-of-towners. My mom will be stressed out about hosting so many visitors. It won’t be the home I remember, it won’t be the home I’ve ached for.
My truest home will always be that first kitchen, but that space can never physically exist again. Instead of being enveloped in it, I have to envelop it in me. I have to wrap it up in strands of guts and bone and hold it right behind my solar plexus to carry it with me, harvesting from it precious joy and peace and comfort. Because for me, that is what home is.
I am lucky to have that home in my gut, nestled up next to my wander, and so wherever I roam, seeking what I already have, I rip out a piece to leave behind and take root, hoping that someone else will find it.
photos taken by Emily Pfeiffer