My husband is very careful with his language. He has taught me that an Autistic child should not be defined by their diagnosis– so she is a child with Autism. A mentally disabled person is a person struggling with mental disabilities. A homeless person is a person experiencing homelessness because they are not defined as a person by the fact that they have no place to live. Having two beautiful little sisters with Down Syndrome has driven this point home for me. They are my sisters and the fact that they have Down Syndrome is merely a part of who they are– it is not the defining piece in their puzzle. Before Justin helped me relearn the importance of my language, it wasn’t like I defined my friends with Autism by their diagnosis or the folks experiencing homelessness by their lack of housing– it’s just that now my language intentionally reflects that. It takes a lot longer to say “person experiencing homelessness” than “homeless person.” That annoys me sometimes; to save my energy, it is tempting to say less words. But to honor the person I am speaking about, I make the effort because they are worth those extra syllables.
So I have been thinking about what to call myself lately, in an effort to be linguistically intentional. And I have reached a decision– for now. For the past six months, Justin and I have been homeless. We are not experiencing homelessness in that we are not at odds with the systems in place because of our substance habits, family situation, ethnic identity, etc. The fact is that we have no home. This reality is so big that it defines us at the moment.
As humans, we are looking for a place to belong– that is the constant struggle of the human race, I think. To belong somewhere. To find identity in the fellowship of others. To have a community and a physical place you call your own. And the “physical space” part is really important: Whether it’s a house on the Nantucket Sound or a shack in the Kibera Slums in Kenya, it makes a difference when you have four walls and a roof you can claim as your own. We do not have that right now– and I acknowledge that many others are in the same situation with more of a finiteness than we have. Justin and I have each other, and for that I am infinitely grateful in a way few will ever understand. He is my home. But Justin cannot provide a bed for me to snuggle into. He cannot be the wall on which I hang our art collection. He cannot be the IKEA wok in which I make Trader Joe’s fried rice. We have been transient for six months and probably will be for another six. In anthropology, this is called the liminal stage. In transit between two other stages. It is not sustainable and it is unhealthy when prolonged.
In August, we left Philly to go to Miami where we lived with some gracious people in their guestroom for four months. Then we moved into an apartment with friends for a week before we left to go to Rwanda for three months. Here, we live in a guest house. Then we’ll be in Europe, skipping around in hostels and the couches of friends, and then finally back to my parents’ house in Virginia where we will collect ourselves before trying to move back to Philly posthaste. It’s exhausting just writing that. All this time, we’ve schlepped our things along with us, but haven’t settled ourselves and our belongings anywhere in any sort of permanent state for a long time. Chances are, we will have been homeless for over a year before we find an apartment, a physical place to call our own again. I am weary of this.
That makes me sad. Not sad in the whiny, teary, dramatic way that I *ahem* sometimes succumb to. But deeply sad, in the pit of my stomach. We have no home. Wait, seriously? Yes. I hate that that is a very large part of our identity right now. But I am trying to turn this reality around, into something generative– I am willing myself to recognize the gift of running water every time it rushes over my hands. I pray that it would sink into my very spirit that it is a privilege to have a toilet that flushes, soda bottles on the desk next to me with no large cockroach sitting at the bottom, and a car. Oh, a car! I can’t wait to dive into my life in the US headlong again. I miss it. Not having a home makes me realize what is important here and back in the US.
I long for home. Sometimes I say the word to myself over and over again. Home. Home. Home. Home. Home. I miss our tiny apartment in Wayne, with all of my treasures all around me. I miss my Indian tapestries and the bottles I decoupaged with Sarah and Kathleen for my wedding. I miss my clothes and my jewelry. I miss being able to read the signs around town and navigating transportation without the aid of an interpreter. I miss my blanket I splurged on at Anthropologie and the hand-made wedding quilt that Aunt Lori painstakingly stitched for us. I miss our sheets that are quite literally as soft as a baby’s bottom. I miss my spices, our amalgam of kitchenware, our thrift store flatware, the plates that Justin and I have collected for years. I miss Justin being able to wear his “fancy boots” from Aldo with his skinny jeans tucked in. I miss watching “Downton Abbey” and “Jersey Shore” in the same sitting and having clean water to drink from the faucet whenever I want it. I miss my things in a way that is far from superficial– I miss that they are indicators that I am home, that I am settled, that I am not homeless.
I am so thankful for my belongings. I can’t wait to enjoy them again! I will wear the hell out of my pants, snuggle the hell out of our pillows, drink the hell out of that tea, use the hell out of my sewing machine. My things won’t know what hit them, I will enjoy them so.
Why is it that we have to leave home in order to realize it was there in the first place? We were just settling into our nook in Philly when we left. I can’t wait to get back there, to friends and real concerts and a church and our weird patchwork culture in general.
I read a short story where a Nigerian author said she pined for the warm weather and palm trees and fufu of her home when she lived in New York. I am pining away for the fall and spring, boots and scarves and jackets, record players and concerts, coconut water and fried rice and salmon and anything without potatoes in it, for Pete’s sake. How does that song go– you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?
I remember when I studied abroad in India and how I was deeply homesick. I wasn’t ungrateful for my experience there, just as I am not ungrateful for my experience in Rwanda. But I think you can be present and appreciative of an experience while still counting down the days until you are home again; in fact, it is that outside experience that makes you thankful for returning to where you left. It is in leaving that I have found where my heart lies, where my home is. In experiencing other cultures, I have found and made some efforts to claim my own.
Justin’s dad commented on our blog a bit ago that we need to stop with the negative white United-Statesian crap. And he’s right. We jokingly employ self-deprecating humor about our Patagonia rain jacket and backpacks, our Nalgene bottles, Justin’s floppy hats, my affinity for “authentic” jewelry, our inability to do laundry by hand or exhaustion at walking up the village hill twice a day. But we have, feel, do all those things and that’s okay. We are white kids from the US with expendable income to buy treasures. That’s just how it is. We are constantly identified as belonging to this illusive tribe, Hipster, despite having no trust funds (which, you should know, is the mark of a true hipster). I have tried to buck this yoke for a while now, but I think I’m beginning to accept it.
I guess that’s our culture. Hipster. Scenester. Bands before they were cool, plaid shirts, farmers markets, Fair-Trade coffee, Whole Foods. We are white kids who try to live simply, who enjoy ethnic cuisine but still want a good grass-fed hamburger every once and a while, who shop at thrift stores and Urban Outfitters and also make our own clothes, who may have a problem with hoarding arts and crafts, who love and miss their family every day, who like being outdoorsy with nice gear, who can’t wait to see their friends when they get back to the City of Brotherly Love. Sunday dinner with the Pham anyone?
We are homeless right now but have hope that someday we will be back in a city where we think we can finally put down roots. Where we will camp out in Grace and Patrick’s guest room for a bit until we can get our stuff together– haha kidding maybe. Where we will be able to nail in our decorations, happily aware that we won’t have to rip it out and pack it up again for a while. Slowly by slowly, we are accepting what India, Uganda, Rwanda, Costa Rica, and all of our other travels have taught us– that it is not shameful to be proud of your culture and to miss your other life when you are away from it. That you need to go through a searching period before you finally accept your culture, your community, your life. I am praying that this reality will settle itself into my soul like a Tetris piece into its neighboring bricks. That it will be locked there, that Western consumerism will not be able to dislodge it with its whispers that I need more art, travel, experiences, jeans, shoes, spirituality to belong. I am trying to enjoy this struggle of getting home again, of being shaped by my liminal life and the truths I am discovering while on the road. This struggle is normal and healthy and reveals that you are finally– maybe– finding a place to call home.