Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Onward and forward to Home

Things were getting tense in the apartment in Amsterdam: my roommate turned good friend, Lara, had been searching for a new room with mounting pressure; the landlord figure of the apartment was flip-flopping his opinion of us daily; my short-term room rental was coming up anyway. The internship I had arranged with IISH before I left California had been put on hold due to troubles on their part to obtain a work permit, and by extension, a residence permit for me. Winter was closing in on Amsterdam; I would put on all the clothes I owned before going outdoors (long johns, pants, an under shirt, a long-sleeve backpackers top, two wool sweaters, two scarves, wool socks, a jacket, and fleece gloves) and was almost warm enough. The days were growing shorter and the temperature lower as I grappled with how to pass a dark, cold winter mostly alone.

My routine in Amsterdam primarily revolved around staying sane, which is to say I came up with arbitrary tasks for myself to give structure to my days. This roughly equated to switching off making dinner with Lara, cycling to the library to write and do any necessary research, catching the open nights of the local museums, wandering Borneo Eiland, and spending a lot of time online, trying to avoid dwelling on the fact I was alone, needed to again find a room to rent, and that my tourist visa was about to expire.

One afternoon Facebook flooded with the news an important friend from my High School years had died. I was in shock. No one even knew Jeremiah was missing, or that he had been missing for almost 2 years, or that deer hunters had come across human bones on his parents’ property in Big Tujunga Canyon, or that authorities were DNA-testing the remains that had been found.

All of a sudden everything came together. The call was undeniable. I booked a ticket on a Saturday to fly back to California on the following Monday. Besides, the holidays were nearing.

It’s funny to think about it now: all the packing and freaking out I did back in July, thinking I would be gone for a whole year; the day I ran up and down Avenida Sante Fe in Buenos Aires, referring to my pack as all my possessions for a year; the same two pairs of pants I wore every day and my refusal to buy souvenirs in Dakar, maintaining I would have to carry them with me everywhere for a year. Somehow I had come to regard a return to California before a year had passed to be a failure, or a sign of weakness.

Lara and I talked about this as we waited for the bus in her new neighborhood in Amsterdam. Night had fallen and Dutch teenagers were zipping by on bikes, off to whatever Saturday night held for them, while cars and trucks drew the long gaze of their headlights over the bus shelter. Lara had finally found a great room and we were in the middle of moving her stuff to the new place and had the left overs of the enchilada pie I made the night before—a family recipe of Americanized-Mexican food—to look forward to for dinner. “This is what you need to do now, and it’s not failure,” she was saying in her Lithuanian accent. “A friend of yours died and you want to remember him.” I nodded and also thought of my mom and my dad, and how much they had worried about me and missed me.

When I did see my mom after returning to California, I surprised her and she cried real tears of joy. I’ve seen my mom laugh so hard she’s cried, I’ve seen her cry from extreme mourning, and I’ve seen her cry from pain, but I’ve never seen her cry tears of joy. At that moment the concept of home firmly installed itself into my notions of family—I thought to myself, without the least hint of bitterness, that home was wherever my mom and I were together.

Lara and I often talked about home and what drew us from our respective homes to Amsterdam. We both have some gene that compels us to leave home despite the pain and uncomfortable feelings it causes because the alternative—wondering what could have been—is not an option. In the stress of again needing to find a place to live—the high cost of housing and super-competitive housing market in Amsterdam tends to churn out crazy landlords and insufferable roommates—she would often toss around the idea of going back to Lithuania. In better, more optimistic moments, she would return to her lone-wolf determination, and we would gush about the beauty of Amsterdam’s tree-lined canals in early winter, when the last of the crispy leaves fell on the water and obscured the bike paths. Lara’s own frequent change of heart regarding her home reflected mine, yet ultimately it was up to us to bring “home” with us wherever we went. Home is not a place you left and it is not the place you’re at; it’s something you must guard inside of yourself, readying it to share with the good people around you, no matter what country, city, or cargo ship you’re in.   

In this part of the story, Lara’s struggles resulted in her finding a new room in a great apartment—and by extension, a place to bring her own home—while my struggles resulted in me bringing my home back to the place I came from. For me, this created a composite image of memories spanning childhood to my life as a young professional overlaid onto the new open-minded perspective I’d developed while crossing the Atlantic on a freighter. Never before had the image of home seemed so multi-faceted, so nostalgic, and so translucent.

When I arrived at the airport in California, I was delirious with the pleasure of understanding the signs and being able to speak American English with native speakers. I actually exclaimed, “Thank you! It’s so great to speak English! I’m in California!” to the airport worker who directed me to the exit. Although Christmas was still some days away, every morning felt like Christmas morning for about a week. Walking outside in the 65 degree sunshine, taking a hike in the hills or just a stroll to the bus stop brought out a hardy, “California weather is a panacea for all that ails me!”

I made arrangements to go to Jeremiah’s memorial with Christie, one of my best friends from High School. We got in her forest green Civic and began the familiar trip up Angeles Crest. Here, the familiar curve of Oro Vista that showcases the looming texture and rockiness of Big Tujunga Canyon’s ridges; here, the fork in the driveway that leads up to my great aunt’s former property; here, the first bridge that crosses over the wash. Finally, the exit into Rancho Ybarra, where Jeremiah grew up and where his family runs a Christian camp. The familiar descent past the house (those funny memories of “caking” Jeremiah’s car senior year), down past the swimming pool (where us girls tried to get the guys to skinny dip one summer night), and into the parking lot by the dorms and auditorium. We got out of the car and started towards the folks milling around, one of which was Jason, another good friend from High School and Jeremiah’s best friend. I stopped Christie short of meeting Jason and pulled her in for a big hug while I staved off tears. “I love you, I am so glad we’re here together,” I said to her.

The service was a bit typical, considering we all went to a private Christian High School and that Jeremiah’s parents run a Christian camp. Worship songs, sharing of memories, a sermon, and an altar call. After the service Christie and I slowly made our way through the groups of people eating and chatting. We ran into old teachers, parents of old friends, and even some old friends themselves. We shared stories of deaths, injuries, marriages, and babies. We gravitated towards Jason, and once everyone we needed to talk to had left, the three of us drove to the Big Tujunga Canyon Dam and Reservoir up the road. A heavy mist floated through the canyon and in turn coated the usually dry mountains, rendering them a brilliant ruddy color that popped behind the dark California chaparral. It was all so striking and I had trouble reconciling the fact I once considered this beauty commonplace while at the same time it occurred to me, in total, as home. I grew up here, I come from here, kept going through my mind. We shivered as the sun sat and the mist grew thicker, yet we lingered, sharing stories and reminiscing about all we discovered in each other’s—and Jeremiah’s—presence.

After that day I couldn’t help but conflate the concept of home with the physical traits of the place from which I come. I’m from the place where the great metropolitan sprawl of Los Angeles butts against the natural container of Angeles Crest, whose mountain faces radiate a deep purple when the setting sun lowers itself to eye-level. What does it say about me that only now, at 29, and after going half way around the world and back could I appreciate my hometown’s roads petering out into hiking trails and unclear property lines?

It’s been said that once you leave home you can never go back, which is to say the home you leave is never the same home to which you return. One reason is the changes you undergo internally—that whole subjectivity thing. Another reason is that you’ve made a new home in the absence of your original home, so to go “home,” you must leave “home.” What is home if you must leave it to find it? I suppose people like Lara and me make our life work out of unraveling that riddle.  

I lamented this to another of my best friends, Greg, at Christmas time. We were smoking a cigarette on the back porch of his great uncle’s house in Studio City. At 8:30 pm the temperature had dropped to 42 degrees and we were shivering. We watched the moisture of our breath condense into arabesques in the black air as I recounted my take on being back at my dad’s house, the house in which I grew up: while being there was the most comfortable I had been since I left San Francisco back in July, I approached the situation completely differently than I had on any other holiday visit. For the first time, I regarded my dad as more of a roommate and his house as more of a rental. I washed my dishes and put them away after each meal; I bought a pack of toilet paper when I used the last roll; I used my own groceries when I cooked and felt strange looting my dad’s chocolate box at night. I said to Greg, “I think part of my problem is that I feel homeless. I go from place to place, trying to carve out a niche in someone else’s space, but it always feels like I’m in someone else’s space, playing by their rules.” Only now was I realizing how deep an effect the weird situation in the apartment in Amsterdam had had on me. Greg said, with all the simplicity of a friend, “You have a home wherever you go, at your dad’s down here or up with your mom in San Francisco.” I remembered my return to Amsterdam in summer of 2011, the first time since I had studied there, and how it felt like home; I also remembered whenever I was in San Francisco and about to visit down south, I would refer to it as “going home for the holidays,” but when the time finally came to go back to San Francisco, I would say, “I’m going home.”

For the first time I thought, maybe the problem isn’t being homeless, it’s having too many homes. But now I see the problem was in the deficiency of the “home” I was—or wasn’t—carrying around with me.

In my more lonely moments, I would liken myself to Vincent Van Gogh, who spent most of his early years running from his parents and siblings, all of whom he felt didn’t accept him, in search of surrogate families away from where he grew up in The Netherlands. But now I saw it differently: one thing that made my long, circuitous trip to Amsterdam so special was the families I made wherever I went: Nestor and Julia in Argentina; the Italians and Mikhail on the ship; Bahar and her family in Belgium. I didn’t need to feel alienated from my own family to receive this blessing of making families out of friends and strangers.

Family became central to my visit, a concept defined not by blood but by kinship (after all, I am an only child). I celebrated my grandma's 94th birthday with her, I searched out one of my favorite cousins and spent Christmas with her kids, gladly invited my Uncle and his wife to Christmas Eve dinner (Chinese food!), met my dad’s girlfriend’s daughter for the first time, met up with my best friend from kindergarten, and spent New Year’s with my mom’s best friend’s daughter, making collages and getting up early for the Rose Parade. Reconnecting with these significant people, with whom I have a shared history and lineage of life, became important for my development of the “home” I carry with me wherever I go.

This part of the story is about the family I reconnected with over the holidays; it’s about the families I encountered while away from my home state; it’s about the homes I made during my unusual methods of travel. Above all this story is about what has been changing in me. In the past, my periods away from home never seemed long enough, and no matter how eventful they were, it was never enough. It was easy to routinely leave my friends and family when I was in my late teens and early to mid-twenties. But something changed this time. This was my personal version of becoming an adult, that age at which sentimentality creeps in through the cracks of freedom and independence. I did not check my apprehension and sadness I felt after saying good bye to my parents and my loved ones with my bags at the airport; I carried it around the whole time.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous about going back to Amsterdam in a couple weeks. I’m nervous about the loneliness, I’m nervous about figuring out the internship situation, I’m nervous about finishing the novel and poetry chapbook I’ve started. Above all, I am nervous about the challenge of bringing “home” with me to another new apartment and making it into a home. But I also know that this “trip,” as I so simple-mindedly refer to it, is not over, and there is much to look forward to, including my return to California next summer.