Fun fact: I lived in the same town in the same house for the first 18 years of my life. And yet part of my adult history includes moving 10 times in five years perhaps as a reaction to early life stasis. I don’t claim all of these locations as home.
My first home was defined by the presence of immediate family. With extended family in Los Angeles, Miami, rural Alabama, Detroit and the Bahamas, most of whom were no more than acquaintances, home meant monotony. And sure, child development experts would extol this level of stability. But if you don’t fit the surrounding homogeneity or if you crave variety and constant stimulation to feel most like yourself, this monotony makes home more akin to prison.
Until you move, you don’t really begin to think of the meaning of home especially when that pivotal move is college. I had always dreamed of the quaint romanticism of an East Coast college. I associated the locale with intellectualism, seriousness, and importantly, a certain openness to the rest of the world. Yes home was my family but it was not the environment that I lived in. I visited four universities and ultimately chose Yale, which luckily chose me as well. I believe the distinguishing criteria for me were the density of trees on campus and the awe I felt when meeting other students as they talked about their passions and interests.
Adults are full of advice, especially as it relates to young people. All of the adults around me freely shared their advice on how to “make the most of college.” If I’m being cynical, it’s a very capitalist, productivity-centric way of thinking. While I liked the academic experience I had signed up for, I was most thrilled about the social experiment of building a home. I had the opportunity to reinvent myself before new eyes and build a larger home outside the four walls that I slept in. I hunkered down into my institutional bunkbed that first night barely able to sleep as I imagined all of my future friends and boyfriends (yes both were plural).
The next morning I awoke speechless. Not due to excitement, but rather because of laryngitis. At first, I shrugged it off as a mere footnote in the budding coming of age story I had constructed in my head. Naturally, i spent the next month without a speaking voice, crushing my plans of auditioning for an a cappella group and dashing any hope of falling into a group of friends. Poetically, it was the physical loss of my voice that catalyzed the metaphorical loss of my voice. While I’m no wallflower, being voiceless and being out of my element made me want to hold back. I observed how several students knew each other already from their elite boarding schools. I sat in class, and felt lost when it came to written assignments. Public school success had not prepared me for the level of analysis and expository writing required for many of my classes.
Without the ability to talk, I felt as though my dream of home had turned into a nightmare. Why did everyone get it except for me? Eventually my voice returned even as my insecurity remained, mushrooming in isolation. I used to believe that Yale committed a grave error in admitting me. I would imagine that a pair of black stealth helicopters would come to whisk me away in the middle of the night. Once I realized that no one was coming to save me nor kidnap me, I had to figure out what would make me feel at home. I relied on old habits to build my new home. I relied on family to get me through childhood. In college I turned to the people I lived with — my amazing roommates. Proximity does have a curious way of fostering closeness. We were vulnerable about the challenges we faced adapting.
I realized that home could include a solo stroll past Gothic architecture and wrought iron gates beneath saffron colored leaves. However, the physical buildings and surroundings did not define home for me despite my initial expectations. I left home to find a home much like the one that I left. Home consists of the people around you: what do they know about you, how do they know you, and how these relationships shape your life. Just like my first home, I could be my authentic self around them. They comforted me when I encountered difficult situations. And most importantly, they provided a safe space where I could grow, experiencing the highs of stretching myself as well as the growing pains of understanding my limits.
I’m writing an unedited personal essay everyday of November for #NaNonFicWriMo, the non-fiction spin on #NaNoWriMo. You can find daily prompts on my Instagram. Want to join in? The only rules are at least 750 words about the daily prompt and tag #NaNonFicWriMo to share.