On Becoming “Homeless”

Photograph of a dark window, which overlooks a very green and very rainy lawn. Between the two windows, a tall tree is obscured.

Last night, I said goodbye to my childhood home forever.

Ever since I began teaching diasporic world literatures, I’ve been toying with the concept of “home.” I asked my students–a diverse bunch from all around the world–how they would define home. In attempts to get them to think more deeply, I told them how I had several homes: my parents’ house that I’d grown up in, the first apartment my wife and I shared in my aunt and uncle’s home, and the new place we had just moved into. I even joked that “home is wherever my shit is.”

Some of my students answered in the way I used to: it’s the house(s) they grew up in; it’s their families and friends; it’s a geographic location where they spent their summers growing up. Some couldn’t define it at all.

One of my students was born in Eastern Europe and then grew up in Kenya before moving to New York. When I asked her how she would define home, she couldn’t answer. None of those places particularly felt like “home” to her.

Another student had tragically lost her father, prompting her mother to move her and her siblings to New York. When I asked her where she considered “home,” she answered that it wasn’t a place but the time before the tragedy had transpired, and her family was all together.

These conversations were always hard for all of us. Someone (and not just me) always ended up crying. They always ends up on end-of-semester course evaluations as being the most meaningful or students’ favorite, and, on long drives, I often find myself revisiting these conversations. My memory plucks new “sound bits” from these memories, and I find myself trying to define and re-define home with each curveball life throws at me.

My parents decided to sell–and then subsequently sold–my childhood home in the span of a week, and I was faced with the task of emptying what remained in my parents’ house: American Girl dolls, gaming systems, diplomas, graduation gowns and tassels. If “home is wherever my shit is”–and right now, my shit is in my car, my apartment, my storage unit–home is everywhere and nowhere all at once.

When I cried on my way out of my parents’ house for the last time, my dad laughed. He said the house would still be here for me to visit any time. Of course it would be, but it wouldn’t be “home” anymore. The place would be there, but the people are gone. The furniture would be different. It would become the vessel of someone else’s desires, hopes, dreams, nightmares. The only “home” that would exist would be like the one Nell Crain visits in The Haunting of Hill House: empty, dead, overgrown–vacant except for the ghosts of the memories that only Nell was able to see.

Now that “home” is gone, I find myself revisiting all the other places I’ve called home over the course of my life in attempts to not feel “homeless.”

My aunt and uncle sold the home where my wife and I rented our first apartment together, and now it’s a rental, occupied by dozens of strangers. I don’t long for that home as much as I long for the memories that were created in that beautiful home.

I never considered my mother-in-law’s (now sold) house my “home,” but I find myself longing for the countless nights we spent falling in love there. When I think of that “home,” I’m in her hot pink room, and I see her face, illuminated by the rainbow Christmas lights draped over her headboard. But that house was sold years ago, and there’s no “going back.”

I’ve caught myself calling nice enough hotel rooms “home” during particularly long or relaxing vacations, even though a hotel is the furthest thing from “home.”

When I stepped through the doors of my alma mater to begin adjuncting, and then again after the pandemic, I found myself relieved: “Home at last,” I thought, the feeling wrapping around me like a familiar blanket, even though the campus and many of the faces had dramatically changed.

So, then, where is home? What is home?

In New York, where most people are just one paycheck away from homelessness, I’m well acquainted with the idea of not having a place to “hang my hat.” But to think that the one place that’s always been a constant is now gone forever absolutely threw me.

Ever since I graduated high school, I’ve been desperately trying to cut away the chaff. I’ve been trying to outrun all of the horrible things that happened to me, and I’ve been largely successful. I stopped visiting my childhood bedroom years ago because of the years I’d spent locked up in that room, struggling to see the way forward. So why was it so difficult to say goodbye to that room once and for all? Wasn’t this the perfect way to start fresh and move on once and for all? (I jokingly stepped inside my closet and then “came out” again. I was trying to laugh, not cry.)

Homes are structures of belonging. When the house is gone, the people scatter to different sites, different states, different families and friend groups. It’s impossible to accommodate everyone’s desires for any extended period of time, so scattering is necessary, inevitable. But now that someone else’s name is nailed above the door and someone else’s belongings fill our closets, it’s no longer ours. There’s no “going home.”

Leave a Reply