I have been thinking a lot about the concept of "home," and what it really means to me. I am sure this is being stirred up as I have spent many months setting up temporary residence with my family, all of my things in a storage unit hundreds of miles away, not feeling particularly rooted to any place or anyone. This question naturally comes up as I shed each of my identities, one by one - lawyer, widow, and even daughter, friend, and auntie.
What do I think of when I picture what "home" is? In the past, it has always conjured up visions of a physical structure, one where my possession are housed, where I go to lay my head at night. But, I have moved so many times since leaving my family for college that I began to question whether it could possibly be the actual brick and mortar that made me feel like I was home. With a few exceptions, I have moved almost every year for the past 17 years, and I certainly have not spent that entire time feeling homeless. If not the structure itself, was it the stuff inside? Well no, that couldn't be it either, because I am constantly acquiring and getting rid of things and I have but a few items left from even several years ago let alone my childhood.
When I started doing some casual research on the subject of home, familiar themes popped up. "A home is a foundation; a place where everything begins." "Home is a safe haven and a comfort zone." "Home is a place where we can truly be ourselves." There were, of course, other ideas that were more directly tied to the concept of a "house" rather than a "home" (i.e. "A home is a place where we build memories as well as future wealth"), but I was more interested in the responses that evoked feelings rather than facts because I have established that, at least for me, home is not the building I live in, nor the things I put inside.
What words do I associate with home? Safe. Comfortable. Peaceful. Warm. Calm. Love. Love - yes, maybe that is what it is all about. As a child, I envisioned my home being where my family was. More recently, it was where my late husband Patrick was. But what about all of the years that I lived alone, or with roommates whom I had no relationship with apart from our physical proximity to one another? I don't remember having a constant feeling of being without a home in those situations. Actually, it was quite the contrary when I lived alone - those years were some of the most grounded I have ever felt.
Another one of the words that popped up frequently in my search was "stable." I constantly saw people talking about how their lives were going to unfold, from vacations they would take to families they would start, once they had a "stable home." According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "stability" is defined as "the property of a body that causes it when disturbed from a condition of equilibrium or steady motion to develop forces or moments that restore the original condition." So, it would seem that many people regard home as something that is unchanging and reliable; something we can count on to stay the same, regardless of the circumstances life throws at us. Right there, it should be obvious that this concept of home is a dangerous one, because there is no way to secure life with a safety pin at any point, tethered in time to remain unaltered. As soon as something unexpected occurs, in this scenario the sense of security that home brought would be violently yanked away leaving the person again drifting aimlessly through space. This idea of home is nothing but an illusion, because it assumes that things cannot, will not, and should not change.
I was recently in San Diego for my annual trip where I visit friends and celebrate another year sober. (This time it was ten years, which still blows me away. I know what an absolute miracle it is, and I don't take it for granted anymore.) While I was there, I spoke about my process of letting go of attachment to the different roles I have engendered for myself, and just how hard -- but how freeing -- it has been. A close friend of mine commented that she does not have attachment to her job in the way I did, but that instead her attachment was to her family. I cringed a little when I heard this, beautiful as the intention behind it may have been. What happens if the family unit falls apart at some stage, or a relationship is irreparably damaged? What happens when (not if) members of the family die? Who are you going to be when your husband gets ill, or even when your children are grown and leave the house? Will your sense of home be gutted as well?
Also during my visit, another friend was packing up and getting ready to sell her house. Her husband mentioned to her that the change would be hard, as this was the place where they had all three of their young children; where they took their first steps, formed their first memories, and started becoming tiny people. Having moved out of my childhood house after my freshman year in college, I recalled my own experience with this painful process. I was completely devastated at the time, and angry at my parents for making a decision to leave. I thought, "You can put all of our stuff into some new place, but it will NEVER be home." Now, of course, it has been 16 years since that move and the house they now live in unquestionably has all the feelings that our first house did.
The hardest detachment from "home" that I have ever experienced was when I was forced to move out of the apartment where I lived with Patrick. It was not only where we had built a life together, but it was also where we had gotten married, where I cared for him during his blisteringly painful experience with brain cancer, and, most importantly, where he died. I felt like I was somehow betraying him in leaving, but minus his substantial income and the disgustingly high rent in the Bay Area, I was no longer able to afford to stay. I remember tears streaming down my face as I packed not only our things but the hope of our future into countless boxes. I had to have a loving friend come and take the things of Patrick's to be donated, because I could not stand the thought of watching someone carelessly unload what I had come to view as our lives into a dusty bin to be redistributed. It certainly did not feel like just "stuff." It felt like memories being stripped away from me, replaced by fear that someday it would be as if this part of my life never actually happened.
When I left Northern California in November of last year, I expected my stay with family to be short - maybe a month or two. So, I put all of my worldly possessions inside a 10x15 foot storage unit which is completely full from floor to ceiling with stuff, all of which at some point seemed incredibly important. The largest items are the couch and living room tables that belonged to Patrick. When he was sick, we rarely talked about how it would all end, but one day he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said "I want you to have the sofa." We held each other and cried, as this was his first real acknowledgment of his mortality and the fact that the end of his life was drawing near. Patrick spent almost all of the days he was sick on that sofa, aside from the times he was in the hospital. It was where we laughed, where we cried, where we loved - and my attachment to that piece of furniture has been real. It was symbolic of our love story, of his death, and of my own journey back from the devastation of his loss. Much like when I gave away many of his clothes, I was afraid that letting go of the couch would be like losing him all over again.
For the last few years I have been believing my own delusion that I will again have a home once I move into a place with that sacred sofa. I have been grasping to hold onto a life that no longer exists by holding on to the things that represent that life. What I have refused to see is that no matter where I put that couch, Patrick will never again sit on it. We will not laugh together watching "Elf" at Christmastime. I will not find him lounging there with the Warriors game paused because he knows I don't want to miss a minute. By continually dragging the evidence of our lives with me wherever I go, I am actually causing more harm to myself than good because it allows me to continue relying on people, places and things to give me a false sense of security.
So if it's not the stuff, the people, the actual building, what - and where - is home to be? The answer, for me, is as surprising as it is painfully obvious. The only place that home can possibly exist is within myself. It is the quiet, peaceful place where my soul can rest comfortably no matter where I am. It relies on no one, on nothing, to be okay. It is not dependent on having even basic physical or emotional needs met. Home asks nothing of me, least of all the impossible request that the facts of my life remain unchanged. It needs no specific location, or even roots at all. It is not rattled by wandering the planet without a fixed address, because it does not demand one. Perhaps most importantly, it does not need anyone else to play a part in my story, and it exists whether others come or go. All it needs is me.
It turns out that home is, in fact, where the heart is.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.