What elevates a place, with its sidewalks and local restaurants and smattering of churches, into a home? How does one gain or cultivate the sense of belonging in a place that is new? I’ve lived in Michigan for two years now, my husband Dirk for almost a year and a half, and yet outside of our apartment, we look on the town we live in as observers cataloging the unfamiliar behaviors of the locals, never considering ourselves as residents. When asked if we’ll stay in Michigan forever, we quickly respond “No”. But why is Michigan not our home? What is so different in the configuration of the neighborhoods and communities from the places we have considered home?
We were both born into the places we consider our first homes, me in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Dirk in DeMotte, Indiana. Raised in agricultural corners of the Midwest, we both feel a sense of belonging at the sight of never-ending fields of corn and need four seasons to know time is progressing. We both spent our childhoods and adolescence living in one house and attending a single church from the time we were born through high school graduation. But there were differences as well, while Dirk rode his bike on gravel roads, a mile from the nearest neighbor, I lived 100 feet away from my best friend who joined me in bike-riding adventures around our suburban neighborhood. Dirk and I both moved around in our early twenties, making homes of the places we lived: Denver, Washington D.C., and Nicaragua for him, Minneapolis, Waco, and Kenya for me. While neither of us spent as much time in those places as we did our home states, they nestled their way into our lives, stirring up longing when we reminisce. They became homes, even though we only scratched the surface of understanding the people and cultures wherever we roamed.
Home is the proximity of everything I love. In my corner cul-de-sac, childhood home, I was a bunk bed above my sister, a soccer ball’s kick away from my best friend, and a car ride away from my grandparents. I was close enough to see my cousins, who are like my siblings, at every holiday, family vacation, and times when our families just wanted to get together. I could keep my loved ones like baby birds close to my breast. In all of my iterations of home, the people that inject the place with meaning are close by. In college, my newfound sisters were across the hall or a quick walk across campus whenever I was lonely, bored from studying, or in a silly mood. In Kenya, my friends and classmates were in the same small home or “banda”, wary of the same huge bug whizzing about. While I interned and lived on a farm in Waco, my “farmily” was always in the same dorm or field, for better and worse. But in Michigan, I moved into an apartment alone. I lived in a city where I knew no one and the people I held dear were separated by hours on pockmarked Michigan roads. Even after our wedding and when Dirk moved to Michigan, we moved to a small town, 45 minutes from our church and my work, making any social activity an act of commitment and time. To be home, I need to be close.
For Dirk, home is being known and understood. Home is people who have seen his maturation from a loquacious, curious child who put nails under car tires just to see what would happen into an outgoing, creative man who finds better outlets for his inquiries. Even in his time spent in D.C., Denver, or Nicaragua, home was found in the moments when people took the time to ask about his work or his passions, in the quiet moments of companionship in the Denver afternoon after painting houses or over fresh produce in the evening in Nicaragua. Dirk is home when he and his college roommates gather together despite living in different corners of the country. He is home because despite time and distance separations, he is known completely by his roommates, his smelly feet and all. The experience of growing up in a church of people is more comfortable than joining a church as a fully-fledged adult with experiences no one knows. In Michigan, the process of meeting and becoming known to people is demanding, lengthy, and always influenced by the hectic schedules of adults. To be home, Dirk needs to be known.
So here in Michigan, despite offering home to one another in our marriage, Dirk and I feel the aches of searching and coming up short because we will never be known as we grow up or be as close to our family as when were children. That we wish for such things is the blessing of happy childhoods. Adulthood is a growing period once more; a time where we fall down, scrape our hearts, and don’t get what we want; a time when we have to learn what it is to be home and content when the forms set for us are unattainable and in need of revision. When we try to make a home and we fall down over and over again in our attempts, we have to push ourselves up like toddlers, realizing though that making a home isn’t like walking where once we get good enough we don’t have to think. And maybe Michigan will never feel like home, maybe we stay and always feel the ache or maybe we leave to find ourselves in another new place needing to dig a new foundation. Making a home as an adult is a daily ritual of being grateful for the homes we had and grateful for the place we have now. Being home is finding a place with good soil and digging in, rocks and all.