A couple of days this week I brought Sylvia Plath’s Ariel to clinic with me, to read in the moments without patients in the triaje (vitals) unit I’ve been working in. This copy of Ariel is a thin ivory paperback, lent to me in a stack of poetry books from my dad, or stolen off his shelves at some point a couple years ago. Inside the back cover is his signature and a date – May 27, 1981 – and inside the front cover is a stamp with his name and his address at the time in Sunnyvale, California.
I sat in clinic yesterday having just finished the poems, and put my name and the date – February 12, 2016 – below his in the back of the book. But when I got to the front cover, intending to again echo his marks, I paused for a second before writing my name and not one but four addresses. One for The School on The Hill, one for the new house in Portland, one for the house I grew up in (that our belongings are being loaded out of as I write this), and one here in Cusco.
Since I left the house I grew up in to attend The School on The Hill two and a half years ago, I’ve been forced to think about home – what it means, what it entails, who is involved, and where might qualify. And since that initial departure, the answers, both by situation and the nature of my thinking, have become increasingly complicated.
I have settled into the feeling – like most people seem to do when embarking on place-related soul-searching – that home exists as a sentiment, a collection of often intangible elements held inside of ourselves. Routine lets us externalize these feelings by dumping them onto the objects and places around us. The t-shirt I’m wearing right now is no longer just a t-shirt, but a decorative memory of my sophomore Harvest Fest at The School on the Hill; my favorite shirt in the way it fits just right; a shirt I wore for a great number of soccer practices and trail runs; the one I usually wear with the long ivory cardigan I didn’t pack for this trip.
As a friend put it, home is like the clothes we wear – it holds physical and emotional fragments of past iterations of ourselves. And as the same friend also pointed out, because those fragments are from the past, we can go new places, put on new clothes, and have them be more us in the present than the things we cling to as pieces of our identity.
I sit writing this on my bed at my host family’s house in Cusco. The address on paper for this place is laden with markers. There’s the district – Wanchaq – and the neighborhood, or urbanización – Ttio – and then the sub-area, the paradero, which is like a block but not really. There’s a cross street, a jiron, and finally a house number – which is a letter and a number, then a hyphen and a second number. As someone who is drawn to order, I expected I’d love this system and learning the intricacies of it. But since I’ve been here, I’ve realized that it’s not the address making this place home.
Home – when Lulu, the younger of my host family’s daughters, makes a fuss about eating her chicken, and I get to exchange knowing smiles with the older daughter and my host mom. Home – turning the key in the outside door and greeting the family dog (“Hola, Fafi!”) on my way home from work every day. Home – writing in my journal before bed at night, the lighting its usual dim, this time with mechanical pencil in a partway broken overpriced journal I bought at the shopping mall the one time I went with the other volunteer who used to live here. Home is lived experience.
Yes, sometimes I still crave certain places. I’ll look at the clock in clinic some days and know exactly what my friends are doing at school, and on Thursdays around ten fifteen I’ll sometimes hum Sing songs and wonder which ones they’re singing a couple thousand miles away. Sometimes I wish I could run my old neighborhood again, running shoes on pavement, planning and altering routes depending on my energy level. There has been more than once this trip that I called my dad on Skype crying, wishing to avoid the loneliness that came by sitting alone in a foreign country thinking about the people I love.
I’m still learning, still adapting. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in How to Love (which, I’ll admit, I’ve maybe read one too many times), when a tree (or love) stops growing, it begins to die. This is still growing, changing. The current definition? Home is a work in progress.