When people ask me where I am from, I am never quite sure what to say. The short answer I give is “everywhere,” but the long answer is ever-evolving. Do I say I am from Colombia, where I took my first breath in a cold operating room (illuminated only by flashlights in the middle of a power outage) and spent the majority of the first decade of my life? That makes sense, as it is the only physical place in the world that I have ever truly, truly felt I could call home. But my home there is a place that does not exist anymore. I can never return and have it be the same.
Home is not Minnesota, where I spent one very cold, dark winter of my childhood.
I also refuse to say I am from Texas, even though I spent more time there than any other place. The house in which I grew up is not home, though it is mostly familiar when I return for brief visits.
Do I say I am from southern California? That is where moved here from, but I never really belonged there. I loved the four years I split between Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, and Pasadena, and still find myself craving satsuma tangerines grown in endless sunshine. I came back to life in that place and will be forever grateful for it, but I don’t think I could truthfully say I am from there.
Between leaving Texas after college graduation and moving into the house where I currently live, I have had ten different addresses in six different cities in three different states. I have spent much time packing and unpacking and packing and unpacking again. I have settled and unsettled and resettled quite a lot.
I have spent much time jealous of trees because they have roots. I have leaned my back against their solid trunks and gazed up into branches than have been home to many birds, and I have wondered when or whether I would ever feel truly at home in the world.
During panic attacks as a teenager, the most common sentiment that would arise from the depths of my anxiety was, “I want to go home!” I didn’t know where home was, or what it even meant. I kept looking for a literal place that felt like all of the things that I thought home should mean, and I kept not finding it.
When I was in Haiti this summer, during my relatively terrifying 24-hour stay as a patient in a hospital in Port au Prince, listening to the agonal breathing of people mere feet from me who died before my eyes, feeling dreadfully sick myself and attempting to coordinate travel back to the States and doing my best to advocate for my wellbeing in a healthcare system I didn’t understand, communicating in a jumbled mix of college French and self-taught Creole through my feverish haze after not having consumed solid food in five days, I had a moment. It was a moment so striking in its clarity that I doubt I will ever forget it.
I wanted to go home more than anything. I wanted to be off that sweaty stretcher, away from the fierce heat and the flies and mosquitoes I had to keep swatting away (the same ones that got me into that dengue fever-induced stupor in the first place!). I wanted to be able to sleep in my own bed. I wanted not to have a poorly-taped-on IV in my arm. I wanted not to be surrounded by the sickest people in Port au Prince, who were vomiting and seizing and gasping their last rattly gasps. I wanted to be in my own hospital with healthcare providers whose language and medical culture I understood and tests I could research and friends I could call on for support. I, without apology (at the time), wanted access to all my various forms of privilege, which was getting me much farther than the people laying in the beds beside me but was not getting me home. I wanted to go home.
In that piercing moment, I realized that if I could climb into my sick body and be at home there, I could be at home anywhere. I wanted nothing more than to escape the whole situation, but I chose to be exquisitely present, one breath at a time. I counted them slowly, breathing six deep belly breaths per minute as I was trained in meditation. I calculated how many breaths to get through an hour at that rate, and rationed them out. Breathing deep into my sick body, I felt as if I was sending love into the body of the earth, pouring out whatever medicine I could conjure into every wound she showed me. I reached my energetic love towards the dying man in the corner and, from my cot, felt the same ferocious love that helps me welcome new people onto the planet gently help him leave his body. I dug deep when the keening howls of his grieving widow threatened to undo me. I looked at every person in that intensive care room with me–the skinny elderly woman two feet to my right, the young man carried in by a friend during a seizure that would not stop, the woman propped up in a wheelchair sucking on an oxygen mask as if it were her only hope at survival, the plump woman vomiting right in front of me into a metal bucket held by her young daughter, the woman beside her moaning in agony, the man in the other corner coughing violently, and a few other folks that I could hear but not see–and held the intensity of their suffering, and then blew it out the open front door with the force of my carefully-measured exhales.
I felt myself settle into my body, this body that has during my 31 years in it been my friend, my enemy, my lover, my muse, my agony, my inspiration, my limitation, and my delight. I came home to myself in that moment, something I have spent the better part of at least two decades trying to do. This is my body. I am here now.
I still wanted out of that place. I still wanted my own bed and my own country and my own language and my own food and my own kitties to keep me company as I healed, and in the space of the next couple of days, these all reappeared in my life. But when I walked through my front door again, I was not the same person who had left, nor did I live in the same body.
For the past couple of years, I have chosen a word at the beginning of the year that I want to spend that year exploring. In 2014, I chose “delight,” and found it around every corner. This year, these past 365 days, I have been exploring the deepest meaning of the word “home,” and I could not have picked a better word to explore. Looking back now over the past year, my journey with this word did not take me where I expected it would. I had been planning to build a home and a life with a person, and that did not go as I had anticipated. But home took me to even deeper places. Home brought me to myself.
In the last fifteen minutes of this year, I am committing to my word for 2016. I had a hard time deciding on this one (there were several strong contenders!). I know what this word will ask of me, and I am not quite sure if I have the courage to show up for it. But I want to go to the places it will take me and stuff my pockets with anything worth bringing back.
That’s my word. That’s my goal. Now that I’ve journeyed back home to my body, I need to explore all of the stories I carry. I need to remember where I came from and who I am and what my life wants from me.
I need to rest my palms on my sturdy trunk and feel that I, too, have roots. I belong in this world, and this world belongs in me.
Thanks to the trees and this gorgeous sunset at the end of the year for providing me with the angst to realize that I am jealous of their rootedness, and thanks to my amazing massage therapist/friend/fellow magician Nekole Shapiro for finding that jealousy in my right ankle (her way with finding stories in my body is phenomenal).
Here’s to a year of storytelling!