I went home last week—to Michigan—if home is what I can still call it, having moved away thirty years ago. I was visiting Ann Arbor, where I went to college, and where my sister and her family now live.
Like most college-aged people, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do with my life when I was a student in Ann Arbor. Besides studying, partying, hanging out with my roommates and working all the odd jobs I could to make ends meet, I didn’t expand life too far beyond the borders of campus. I knew the dorms and the streets that went from one university building to the next; the cheapest pizza place nearest the dorm; and Dooley’s, the bar everyone wanted to get into (although once I finally could, I rarely went because it smelled so bad). I knew the Kinkos copy shop, the computer labs (remember those?) and the travel agency where I worked my junior and senior year and which probably sparked my later craving for distant places.
But being back in Ann Arbor, I realize that although I still recognize the street names, I don’t remember where they are now or how they connect or how they’ll get me where I need to go. Which is odd, to be in a place where once I felt so connected, and now can’t even find my way to the mall.
It’s not that the city’s sprouted new streets or neighborhoods in my absence, but I wasn’t looking for them, back then. Too absorbed in finding myself.
The interesting thing is now, when I’m there, I see the place with an outsider’s eye. Noticing things I wouldn’t have seen back then: the whiteness of the place; the plethora of university sweatshirts advertising local allegiances (in green or blue); the playground moms who look chicer and younger than the ones in my New York town; and especially, the overt friendliness of the place.
Ann Arbor—and generally, Michigan, in fact—feels very Midwestern to me now. Which is funny because when I’m in Michigan I don’t feel as Midwestern as when I’m back in New York or overseas. Which is one of those weird by-products of living somewhere: that you take part of it with you, no matter where you go.
When I left Ann Arbor and went into the Peace Corps, I lived in a tiny village in Kenya. Kajire was as far from Michigan as I could imagine—which is what I wanted, at the time. It was hot all year round with only one natural stream that almost disappeared in the dry season—a far cry from Michigan’s beautiful, deep Great Lakes that bound us in all directions.
Kajire had a few wooden homes and some made of cement, but most were still built of traditional mud and thatching and were distributed along the bottom of a hill, stretched out for less than a kilometer along its base. Without too many large trees to encircle the village, there was mostly scrub brush around, with a few cashew and papaya trees dotted in, along with the occasional Baobab, looking like someone had pulled the tree up by its roots and stuck it back in the ground, upside down.
There was nothing about Kajire that reminded me of Michigan—and yet, after two and a half years, it also felt like home. So much so, that as I was leaving, I grieved to realize that if I ever returned to the village, it would only be as a visitor. I would never again belong to that place and its people the same way.
I wouldn’t be called, early in the morning with all the other women, to gather around a fire in a smokey hut, awaiting the birth of the newest member of the village. I wouldn’t be asked to sit with Mama Theresa, the grandmother of the family I lived with, to accompany her dying; holding on to her as long as she wanted to stay.
I wouldn’t have any more opportunities for what I called my “matatu trance”—waiting for hours, sometimes, for a shared transport vehicle to fill with enough people to make it worth the trip–time I would spend reading or chatting, or just sitting and thinking. The same thinking I would do as I lay on my bed sometimes, staring up at the ceiling, watching the slow trek of a gecko across the wall, having the largest thoughts of my life. Thoughts about who I wanted to be; what mattered; what life was all about.
Sometimes, because I was in a hurry or just feeling adventurous, I’d forgo the matatu ride and hitchhike to Kajire, asking the Kenyan drivers who picked me up along the highway to drop me at Kilometer 120.
“What’s there?” they’d asked as I ambled out the door.
“Home,” I’d say, marching into the bush. Looking forward to my little cement block room, a cool wash from the basin of water I would carry from the well. Maybe celebrating my return with a warm orange Fanta as I sat on my stoop, watching the chickens peck for insects in the middle of the compound I shared with three generations of parents, kids, goats and mosquitos.
So, what was it about that place that made it feel like home?
Not the setting or surroundings, with Kajire camped in the middle of a game park full of rampaging elephants, baboons and lions. It wasn’t the language or the people—they spoke Swahili, Taita and Sagalla—and I was a lousy language learner at the time (luckily my teaching colleagues spoke English with me) and the only non-Kenyan in the village.
So, what was it?
Recently, someone quoted to me Pico Iyer, the travel writer.
“Home,” he writes, “is where you become yourself.”
Kajire was the first place I had to entirely start anew. Creating a life of my own in a world I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t a matter of ticking off familiar boxes to move forward; it was about finding the boxes—searching them out, asking a lot of questions, getting lost (frequently), making a lot of mistakes, learning to ask for help. But it was also about sitting still; sitting uncomfortably still at times and feeling deeply alone or sick or afraid. It was listening, in the quietest of silences for what is there when all the noise is gone.
It was learning the depths of homesickness. Crying myself to sleep sometimes because I couldn’t bear the moment I was in.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that homesickness is the opposite of home. It’s the lack of everything familiar that usually makes you feel safe and comfortable—and yourself.
For some of us, it starts early in life. Going on a class trip in the fourth grade to Camp Timbers when the moldy, pine-scented bunks are too cold and the nights too long; or in high school at Pompon camp at an empty college campus in the summer, with all the other high school girls, competitive and overworked, dreading the 5 am practices; or those first weeks of college, when Sunday afternoons have a way of carving out all that’s left of your stomach with a hole, filling it with loneliness and choked-back tears.
In Kenya, my homesickness at first was unbearable. With two years stretched before me, every night I would dream that I was home, again, with my sisters—meaning that I woke, each morning newly alone, standing on the edge of sobs and the Great Rift Valley, staring into the realization of just how far I was from everything I knew and loved.
That ache of loss made me wish in those early days that I could speed up time and just be done with Kenya; that I could be at the end of my great Peace Corps adventure without having to go through it.
It’s so sad, now, to think what I would have missed if I could have pushed the fast forward button. I would have missed all the experiences that came because I was so far from home. Learning, for instance, that such extreme homesickness could pass. That I would find my home in that strange-to-me place. That eventually the people around me would become familiar; that they’d become my family for the time that I was there.
It took so much of that first year for me to realize that home is not reliant on a particular place or people, but that we find home, time and again, through life.
Last week in Michigan, I got to see a whole host of family members, so on a warm Saturday night, my two cousins, my sister and our kiddos had a rowdy outside-party of cocktails (for the adults), games (for the kids), and stories and laughter (for all of us).
There was so much joy.
We re-told stories from when we were kids, misremembering things and arguing or correcting one another. We looked back on things that had happened or times in our lives that hadn’t made sense then—but now do, with the perspective of being older, wiser, more attuned to ourselves.
We said, over and over, how lucky we felt to be together. How lucky we were to be able to gather—even if at a distance over a big table—but also over so much time, so much space. So many experiences that have taken us all out of the selves that we were as kids growing up in Saginaw, Michigan and into who we are now.
That night I had a deep, visceral feeling of home. It didn’t have anything to do with the place we were. It was the feeling of belonging—to those people, to our shared experiences, to our valuing similar things in our various lives and places. But it was also a return—to the me of my childhood, to my history. Connecting it to all the other versions of me that have existed over the years.
As we sat together, even saying nothing (which wasn’t often), what we shared most was ourselves. The selves we are now.
Which took me back to Kajire. Where I first learned to appreciate the value of sitting and sinking into the life happening around me. Not looking forward or back, but just being. It was those times—just sitting with others, exploring where I was in the moment—that helped me dig into who I was at that time. And to learn that in those little tiny moments, there is so much life.