“Home, how to know what it is when you’ve never had one?
Home, I don’t know where it is but I know I’m going.”
These lines from U2 have always resonated with me. Not that I’ve never had a home, but I’ve never really felt I chose it. There were always imperatives: educational, professional, romantic. As a result, the actual places felt somewhat random and incidental. Until last year, when I finally had a totally free choice. Since you never know how long these windows intend to stay open, I leapt through and chose a northern place without too many people, three miles from the ocean and three blocks from a river.
My one-year anniversary here is approaching, putting me in a reflective mood. Part of me is still amazed I actually made a choice and staked so much on it. I never do well in Chinese restaurants with twenty-page menus because I feel you have to look at all the possibilities to make an informed decision. Then you have to know what the options actually represent, like how chicken feet really taste, but the only way to find out is to try them, and who wants to do that? Not me. But still I feel bad on some level for having a closed mind about chicken feet, because then how many other things am I ruling out without even trying, which seems arrogant, and besides maybe chicken feet are mind-blowingly delicious and I’m missing a fantastic experience in this one and only life I believe in.*
I remember walking into a Seven-Eleven with my ex when he was still smoking despite my best efforts (this was in the days I believed it was possible to change people). He asked for a lighter and the clerk asked what color and he said, “I don’t care,” and I was taken aback. I would have to see all the colors, or at least hear them, and then pick from the available choices. I remember thinking, “This is a totally different kind of person,” which did in fact turn out to be true beyond the matter of cigarette lighters, even if they weren’t necessarily a valid reason to think so.
So you get a sense of why it’s surprising I actually made a choice out of a whole country full of places I’ve never lived in or even flown over. But it’s one thing to make a choice, and another to keep making it, day after day, “choosing again what we chose before,” as poet Wendell Berry wrote about marriage. Before I moved here, I was talking with a good friend about the mystique Maine held for me, which I mistrusted because it seemed a flimsy foundation for a long-term decision and I didn’t want to have to move again. What if it wasn’t everything I hoped? There was no way it could be, because actually I didn’t know anything about it; Maine was just an idea — a seductive one, but still only an idea. My friend said, “Well, you could ask whether a place will have enough to make you happy, or you could ask whether you’re determined to be happy there.”
This statement rang in my mind like a zen koan: how much is happiness a matter of what you find “out there,” and how much is it simply a decision? A commitment, in other words. A serious determination to be happy, regardless what happens. To me commitment has never signified a refuge from time and change; I don’t believe there’s such a place to be found or made in this world. Commitment isn’t measured by how long something lasts, but by the quality of heart with which it’s undertaken — by giving yourself completely with nothing held back, day after day, for as long as you honestly can.
So is a home found, chosen, or made? A few years ago, for an art exhibit on this theme, I wrote: Home is warmth, nature, company, solitude, sunlight on the floor, rain on the roof, a bathtub, a dog, peace, an idea of order, and a small cup of strong coffee. By these measures, Maine and I are doing well (with the exception of the bathtub and a traumatic 24-hour canine adoption that I’ll discuss another time, maybe, but which I don’t hold against the state — that one’s on me). The thing that impresses me most is that within my first year here I’ve made a handful of friends I feel totally comfortable with, at home with, if you will. That’s never happened so fast, and I’m taking it as a sign, because why not? Jung said as long as our beliefs don’t contradict proven realities, we should pick the ones that are most helpful. It helps to believe I might be home at last.
*I finally did try chicken feet with my Chinese sister-in-law a few weeks ago, and I have to say they’re not nearly as bad as they seem in your mind, like a lot of things.