No Place Like Home - But Where Is It?

No Place Like Home - But Where Is It?

I have been thinking about transitions these days and the concept of home. Having traded in about a dozen homes in multiple cities and countries, it is fascinating for me to visit places and people who never leave the home they were born in. It is not just places but the people that make a place feel like home. 

Place attachment is a real phenomenon – there is a palpable bond between us and the important places in our life. They form an integral part of our memories and help create an identity that grows from our roots so critical in an increasingly complex world. 

We can be rooted in different places – in our parents' or grandparents' home, a specific classroom or school, places and homes that we have lived in or spent time in, and in time our own homes. Recently, I visited a friend’s farm in the mid-western US where one branch of the family had lived contiguously since 1860. They felt the same about the land and houses much as we do about Lahore – a comfortable sense of belonging, of reassurance, of being reminded of who we are and have been for generations. I feel that way when visiting the old city of Lahore – and following a comforting routine of visiting the family graves in the old city – going back generations.

Our ancestors belonged to the land and to them, that was home. Modern life is increasingly different that way, particularly in rural settings in the US. Rural jobs have fallen away – traditional farming has given way to modern machinery. Younger generations tend to migrate to jobs in urban settings the world over. I remember speaking to an Indian artisan sculptor who had a similar experience – though his family had been carving temple stone carvings since the 12th century, the modern generation did not want to go into this profession - preferring to opt for engineering or IT instead in cities instead. As jobs and professions are changing, so is the concept of careers and home.

These days, I am without a home – transitioning from one country to another; and leaving one lifestyle for another. At the least, it is a change of clothes and a toothbrush, and at the other end, it is a way of life. Home is the place which you want to come you come back to – to connect and properly orient yourself. Instinctively as humans, we know when we are home but the concept itself is fairly recent.

Herders used to be nomadic, birds by comparison tend to nest. Generally, certain places in our life do matter. It could be where we have the happiest memories – for many high schools or colleges make that cut – and for others, it could be home or not. The place we are born in makes a significant impact on our sense of identity and psyche. In Ubud Bali, home is considered so sacred that your umbilical cord is buried in the front yard so that one never wanders far. In modern life, growth automatically implies a change in location and moving forward or outward. In Western culture, it is brought about by the college experience or moving out of one’s house, and increasingly the rise of the nuclear family is also creating the sense of home – that our notions of home can be different from those of our parents and grandparents. 

Various experiences from the events of 1947 in the Subcontinent changed the concept of home for millions of displaced. – with the trauma of physical dislocation to an unfamiliar and some cases hostile hearth in a new country. Today, it is more complicated – one can have nationalities and geographies as well as affiliations – to tribes and groups of people not just places.

At its center, the home has to do with where one builds a life, where one feels safe and a sense of belonging. Many centuries ago, it could have been our nomadic ancestors camped around a nightly campfire, telling oral stories or tilling the land around a familiar village of faces.

Can one be rooted in multiple places or do roots need a single spot? Rootedness itself can mean different things for various people – whether to a religious or social community or to networks acquired over life. There seem to be two components to this – the physical space that we create and the things we surround ourselves with, which can be very different from those we grew up with. We can create a sense of home wherever we go or return to the place which seems most like home. The space that concept of home is embedded in our minds. I have spent much of the last two decades moving and traveling extensively and realized that I can feel equally at home or not anywhere. Yet our psychological space of home is embedded in a sense of the familiar – of things belonging to us, or memories in each corner. When one person leaves home, one feels their absence and presence as the things they leave behind are objects, not their spirit. Transitions such as death make this even more acute for those left behind – for even within the space, our concept of home can change overnight.

We can feel homesick not for a place or time but for the people, places, and memories that occupied home. There are over 70 million refugees worldwide, and when speaking to them, the concept of home is displaced due to the loss of home and countries that existed, particularly during war. As a result, one’s mind and body can co-exist in different places. Immigrants often suffer that – hankering after life as they remember it – one’s roots in the motherland.

Pico Iyer, the Indian English travel writer who found his spiritual home in a Japanese village, said it best: home is not where you sit but where you stand. By that virtue, if the home is a place where one feels safe and calm and has a sense of grounding, then the home can be embedded in who you are. The sense of belonging and absence of belonging can happen anywhere and nowhere. Home is where the heart should be.