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How Can I Make a Home After Moving Again?

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Culture Therapist

“Create constancy and continuity for your family,” writes our advice columnist.

Credit…Ilya Milstein

  • Dec. 17, 2020

In T’s advice column, Culture Therapist, either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at advice@nytimes.com.

Q. Dear advice-givers: My husband and I and our two young kids are moving to Sweden. I’ve been thinking about moving there for years and, for many reasons, it’s finally the right time. I was born in Russia and moved to the U.S. when I was 4. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, but never felt at home there and was thrilled to escape to New England for college. I’ve since lived in New York and the Bay Area and L.A. again — and while I liked aspects of each place, none felt quite right as a “forever home.” I’m excited about the move to Sweden (democratic socialism!) even though I don’t think of it as a permanent destination (darkness, homogeneity). I love travel and adventure, and I’m good at maintaining friendships over long distances, but I feel like I’m missing out by not really investing in one community for decades. I worry that my own rootlessness will leave my kids in the same predicament. Can I (and my kids) lead a meaningful life if we don’t put down permanent roots?

A. Ah, a “forever home.” Where, I wonder, is that place? As I write this, I’m unpacking from my eighth move in 10 years. There’s a bear in the yard and ash in the air, and the cardboard boxes in my office are still full of things, but of all the wrong things. Somewhere in my brain, an old Talking Heads song plays:

Home, is where I want to be,
But I guess I’m already there.
I come home, she lifted up her wings,
I guess that this must be the place.

For many of us, the true fairy tale isn’t about landing the right partner but the right coordinates on the globe. I have the same question you have, about what exactly is lost when one is a serial monogamist of geography, when the very concept of home is ambivalent. We leave home for all kinds of reasons — seeking security, opportunity or a different scale of existence — and, once we do, we can never really return in quite the same way. I doubt I’m the only one unconvinced by the ending of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy awakes in her bed, back on the farm. “There’s no place like home,” she says, but we — at least, any of us who have fled our equivalent of a farm in Kansas, uncertain where the tornado in our hearts might land us — know that Dorothy, having had such adventures in courage, won’t be happy there for long.

Because you chose to bring your question to us cultural therapists rather than to credentialed ones, I’m guessing that your own furnishings of mind and memory are bound up with formative adventuring into worlds of language or art, realms that promised a different kind of home. As a child, it didn’t seem strange to me that the people and places described in novels seemed much more real than my home in Kansas, where I, too, grew up (though not on a farm but in a suburban housing development). After all, I spent most of my waking hours reading novels, and it was in novels that I learned what life looked like for those whose days weren’t passed in church or in a shopping mall, on the football field or in the “corporate sector.” Home, in children’s books, is so often a hollow tree, a shelter to return to after the day’s adventures, but how quickly that idea is complicated: We all learn, eventually, that home is something we leave in order to become ourselves. “Home is so sad,” Philip Larkin wrote on New Year’s Eve in 1958, while visiting his mother for the Christmas holidays. “It stays as it was left. Shaped to the comfort of the last to go.”

I wish I could tell you that I’m old enough now to have stopped believing in place as destiny. I’ve moved for all the usual reasons — for education and work, to learn Spanish, to teach English, to avoid student loans, to see who I might be in a different context. I’ve moved for love, and also after a breakup. I’ve moved when I didn’t know what else to do, like David Bowie’s character in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” ill-equipped and under-informed, wishing some sturdy Mary Lou-like figure would scoop me up and take me home. Each time, I felt the tension between the lure of the open road and a desire to belong somewhere, the competing demands of freedom and obligation. I still haven’t given up hope that this might be the place.

In my experience, moving to a new city has mimicked some of my most profound encounters with art, relieving me of my old assumptions, my way of being and beholding. What is art, after all, but an adventure in a land in which no one knows you? When we leave a place, we are un-selfed, removed from our usual bearings. Perhaps like you, I have often thought that I’m happiest when I don’t belong, before I know the names of all the streets, before my thoughts have burrowed their familiar pathways, when anything still seems possible. The fact that you’ve already discounted Sweden as a more permanent roost might indicate that you share this tendency.

Dispossession, I think, can be both engine and highway, creating the space for art and inciting the need to fill it. Imagine if W. G. Sebald hadn’t left Germany, or Joseph Conrad, Poland; Chantal Akerman, Belgium; or Shirin Neshat, Iran. Imagine the work of Jacob Lawrence, Edwidge Danticat, Valeria Luiselli, Sybille Bedford, Adam Zagajewski, Yaa Gyasi, Jhumpa Lahiri or Cathy Park Hong, to name just a few, without their grounding histories. The clarity of the exile; the double vision of an immigrant — no doubt these are things you’re familiar with, having left Russia for suburban Los Angeles, and now the United States for Scandinavia.

To be “at home” is a certain perspective, a relationship with one’s surroundings that — I hear your note of worry — you may never quite feel again; maybe you never did. But then: How much can we mourn something we never really had? On a macro level, so many of us alive today are the product of history’s diasporas, and our sense of rootedness (or lack thereof) is, as your question suggests, not just about the emotions we associate with our present-day location on the planet but with an entire history that precedes us, passed down in ways that are often not straightforward and are partly, of course, works of narrative imagination. We can inherit things like eye color or a predilection for blarney, as well as trauma and its associated losses — loss of our sense of community, customs, perhaps even language. That any of us are where we are can feel to me sometimes like a whim of fate, an accident of circumstance, geography and demographics.

If Americans still have anything like a common story, this is probably it: the leaving of one place to be remade in another. For this reason, I suppose it is only natural that many people seek meaning in genealogy, “crossing ancestors” and genetic testing, looking for a toehold in history’s panorama. I have cousins who can tell you in which cemetery in Chicago our Irish ancestors are buried and find in that a sense of belonging to a larger story, one of famine and survival. But because I don’t quite share their sense of pride and meaning — the disconnects are too vast; I am wary of sentimentalizing bloodlines — I want to think that there are other ways to feel rooted in the world, to create a sense of belonging and meaning for ourselves and our families.

We carry the places we’ve lived with us as we carry the people we once loved. I can close my eyes, and I might be in a bar with a friend in Berlin, or watching steam rise from Lake Michigan on a winter morning so cold the geese seem to be frozen in place. Surfacing in my thoughts with inexplicable frequency is the blinking red stoplight that was visible from my second-floor apartment in Cambridge, Mass. In these memories, it’s always too early or too late, and I’m carrying my daughter, then just an infant, in my arms. Also ever-present is the enormous pink bathtub that belonged to the flat I lived in when I taught English for a year in my early twenties in Poland, a bathtub so unaccountably vast I could recline in it crosswise. These things — the stoplight, the tub — mean something only to me; they are emotional thumbtacks on the globe, not always happy ones, but banal treasures nonetheless.

ImageAn installation view of Do Ho Suh’s “Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home” (2013) at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea. An installation view of Do Ho Suh’s “Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home” (2013) at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea.Credit…© Do Ho Suh. Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London; and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

I’d like to say that all of these memories are neatly arranged in chronological order, as in the Korean artist’s Do Ho Suh’s “Home Within Home Within Home Within Home,” a 2013 model of his childhood home in Seoul nested within one of his first homes in the United States, in Rhode Island. Made of translucent purple fabric at a one-to-one scale, the sculpture captures memory’s ghostly accessibility. Visitors can walk inside the space, which is eerily vacant. What is a home when all of the people have gone? But while my own memories are just as haunting and weirdly precise, they lack comprehensiveness. They are fragments, largely, of alienation, of estrangement, of not belonging. I cannot remember a single birthday, but I remember the coal-scented air in that industrial Polish town, and the monochromatic red hair of the woman who operated the grocery counter on my street there, as well as the contempt on her face as I tried to name the items I wanted to buy from her. (I could, but I could not yet embed the words in polite requests.) I remember how, on Friday nights, one of my neighbors would come home with his friends and throw empty beer bottles against my apartment door. “Pani Amerykanka!” they’d shout — “Miss America!” — daring me to open the door. I felt a deep sense of isolation in which I might well have become completely submerged, just as I submerged myself in that many-gallon tub.

In wanting a place that understood me, a forever home that would meet me on my own terms, I had the equation backward, but it was only much, much later — in Berlin, a city perhaps most predisposed to the pathetic fallacy — that I understood this. I had moved there in my thirties, seeking a respite from my New York life, seeking the proverbial “fresh eyes,” vagabonding around the city with earbuds as though in my own music video. One day, I was standing on the U-Bahn platform at Zoo Station when a crazy-eyed young man shoved me to the ground. He stood over me, ranting, and for an awful moment I thought he was going to kick me in the face. I got up and ran — and as I did met eyes with another man waiting on the platform, one of a dozen people who stood, impassively watching. I saw then all of my errors: my indifference to the language, to the city itself, which I’d been guilty of using as a stage for my own private melodrama. It would not be overstating it to say that my relationship to the city, to my surroundings, changed in that moment, when I was jolted from my estrangement. He did me a favor, really.

I thought that I was done with improvised homes when I started my own family, but my partner is from a different country, which necessitated yet another series of moves as he established himself in mine. Finally, in 2019, we settled down — for good, we thought, buying our first home together, a top-floor apartment in a small 1930s building in a Midwestern city with exceptional art institutions. One day, shortly after we’d finished the renovations and moved in, I was taking a shower when I heard a massive explosion from above. I fled, coatless, dripping, to the frigid street below with my husband and daughter, while eight fire trucks hosed down the smoking remains of our home. For the next month, we lived out of hotels and suitcases and a series of temporary apartments. Discussions ensued about our future in that corrupt metropolis, with its indifferent neighbors who had hired their unlicensed, uninsured buddy to resurface our roof, armed with a propane tank. It was hard to imagine it ever feeling like a home we didn’t long to escape. In losing everything, though, it becomes possible to imagine anything.

“The Little Virtues,” Natalia Ginzburg’s 1962 collection of essays, which includes “Winter in the Abruzzi.” U.S. military jeeps crossing a trestle bridge after a German retreat in the Abruzzi region of Italy, 1944.Credit…Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

And so here we are again, unpacking (again). All this is to say: You’ve asked a question that hits me all too close to, yes, home. I can’t fully answer your question, but what I do know is that places take hold of us in ways we don’t always understand in the moment. I often think of the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg’s 1944 essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” in which she recalls her family’s time in exile in a poor village. Banished from Rome because of their antifascist activities, the Ginzburgs spent these years dreaming of returning to their home and friends and bookshelves, to the beautiful, longed-for life they’d left behind. Little did they know that, immediately upon that return, Ginzburg’s husband would be arrested, never to be seen again. “I had faith then in a simple, happy future, rich with fulfilled desires, with shared experiences and ventures,” Ginzburg writes. “But that was the best time of my life, and only now, now that it’s gone forever, do I know it.” I look at my family and know that we are home enough, and that this is probably the best time of our lives.

I’m guessing that, more than you even realize, you’re already modeling for your children a mode of making a home in the world that meets each place on its own terms, rather than treating your adopted city as mere stagecraft, a provisional backdrop to life. I suspect, too, that you’ve already begun cultivating meaning and memory in your present, rather than living for a longed-for, indefinite future, and I’m here to remind you that these are the things that will create constancy and continuity for your family — roots, in essence, grown through those long-nourished friendships, stories told around the dinner table, all those rituals and books handed down that you yourself loved as a child. I can tell you all the usual advice: to learn Swedish and speak it poorly, then better; to have Swedish adventures and Swedish friends and neighbors; to read all of the books and see all of the art. Embrace the dark and the fika; be the diversity and the light. Encourage your kids not only to become citizens of the world but of the street on which they live. Because the strongest roots are always the kind that survive transplant, grounding us wherever we go.

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