When Does Home Become Home?

For me, the most recent happening of it was when I was scheduling my taxi to the airport.

I was visiting my family in Boston, back for a few weeks in order to get laser eye surgery (it’s been great!). But finally the last check-up was done and I was heading back to Chicago, where I’ve been living for the past year and a half. “Only a few hours until I’m home,” I thought. And I felt it too. And as soon as I had that thought, I felt a pang, the sting of my disloyalty to Boston.

I’ll always be a Boston girl. Boston is my home; every time I return, I feel that warm spark of affection for this dinky little two-skyscraper city, for the unsmiling, taciturn New Englanders on the train and the deep gray-blue sparkle of the Charles River. The suburbs where I grew up will always be my suburbs. But all too fast, my self, my body, has been splitting, bisecting and tripling itself. Because I feel strongly now that Chicago, too, is home. It’s remarkable how quickly that process can happen.

What makes a city feel like home? In a purely materialistic sense, it’s all the stuff you have there. It’s the books and clothes and knickknacks, all the things I’ve been missing while I’ve been away: my mug, my comforter, my skungy old slippers. In a hedonistic sense, it’s the sensory pleasures you have there: my special gourmet tea that I’ve been craving, the mac and cheese place I am too fond of, the doughnut shop (Boston’s doughnut situation is sad. Dunkin’ Donuts has driven every competitor, including Krispy Kreme, out of business). And in a deeper, more emotional sense, it’s the people and things I love: my significant other, even my cats. All of these things add up. You don’t start realizing what is home to you until you leave it and feel homesick.

But home is more than all of those things combined as well: it’s a sense of feeling in command of your place, of moving comfortably as a local down its streets and on its public transit, understanding the arguments in the local paper, knowing where to get lunch and what the best coffee shop is. In my years away from Boston, I’ve never stopped feeling it to be home, but I have gotten out of touch with its transformation. The seaport is a neighborhood that barely existed when I left, and now all the best restaurants are there. The farmers’ markets have moved. The stores, even the roads, have changed. The stops on the T have been altered, and in the years to come they’ll change even more. When I’m in Boston, I defer to old friends, letting them pick the meeting place and the restaurant, because I don’t know where to go anymore.

When people visit me in Chicago, on the other hand, I’m fully in command of my city. I know how to show visitors a good time and what funny quirks the city has. I’ve ridden its buses and trains, and I’ve gotten lost among vacant lots and deserted streets. There is much more to explore, but I’m happy and unafraid in that process of discovery. I know that no matter how lost I get, I can always find my way back.

Chicago is just a temporary waystation, though. Years ago I already started heading down a life path that wasn’t conducive to putting down roots, at least for a while. Rather, my S.O. and I follow career paths that will take us to new cities in the future, and I will have to say goodbye. Will Chicago always carry a bit of home-feeling with it, or will it become alien to me? Can I pick up and fall in love again with a new place, take command of it and wedge my heart somewhere inside, again and again and again? I try to keep my heart soft and elastic, ready to grow and stretch and take in another place. Is there any limit to the number of places in your life that can feel like home? I know immigrants have to struggle with this all the time; they learn to hold more than one place inside them, like a painted triptych in their hearts. I’m working on a similar structure encompassing all the cities I’ve lived in and felt loved: Boston, New York, Chicago, and onward.

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