“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place”. ― Miriam Adeney
Almost twenty years ago I chose the expat life – or maybe it chose me. I have spent the past three weeks with friends and family in Germany where I’m from originally. Three weeks full of highly anticipated welcome hugs and many heartbreaking “see you next times”, not knowing exactly when the next time would be. I’ve had many moments of “I can’t believe we don’t spend more time together” and “remind me again why I live in America?” Many exciting, heart-warming connections, and a few farewell tears. Moments where I desperately missed the California sunshine. Where I longed to be in my own space. And afternoons wandering the centers of beautiful old towns with centuries of history. When people ask me what I miss about Germany it’s an easy answer – family and friends, and the beauty of historic architecture.
If you’re an expat yourself, you can probably relate to the confusion and heartbreak that it can bring. Especially when visiting your place of origin. It’s like moving through an emotional rollercoaster. The highs of connection and the lows of separation on constant repeat. Wanting to stop time and holding on to being together with the ones who have known you for longer than you can remember. And at the same time, the pull of the current home, your place of choice, and the longing to get back to your own space and your new friends. People often ask me where home is. It’s not a question I can easily answer.
Home is where the heart is they say. What if your heart is in many places at the same time? What if your home is bigger than any one place?
Many of us try to make home a tangible, physical space. We choose our home. Maybe it’s a swanky city apartment or a house in the country. We do what we can to make it feel cosy, or stylish, or whatever it is that makes it feel like it’s ours. Maybe we put some nice landscaping around it, or a fence. We want to feel safe. We keep others out who may disturb the peace. We’ve worked hard for it – and we keep working on making it nicer, more homey, a place where we can rest and recharge, where our loved ones come and gather, where everything turns out alright.
I tried to build such a place once with my then husband. I became pretty good at laying wooden floors and bathroom tiles. We put everything we had into this house. Financially and emotionally. We connected more to the vision of the perfect house than to each other. We focused our energy on the next dinner party, or whether we should install a hot tub in the yard. When all the hard work was finished and the house seemed perfect, our marriage was finished, too. This was a very hard lesson about what’s really important in life, and what to pay attention to when making a home.
Some of us venture out far to look for a home elsewhere. Far from what we’ve always known. It may be an intentional move to break away from everything that’s familiar. Maybe a way of creating distance from what seems old and stuffy, and attempt to finally feel free. It could be the call of adventure and the longing for something totally new. Or a big new job in a far away place that might make uprooting our loved ones worthwhile. For the less fortunate, it may be our only chance of economic success, or even worse, our only way of escaping physical harm. It’s the promise of something better. A new start.
When I graduated from high school, I decided to go to university in a city where I knew nobody. I wanted to take this big step into adulthood on my own. It felt a bit like being the rebel that’s running away from home, becoming completely independent and proving to myself and the world that I was all grown up. Little did I know that this would prepare me for many more future moves. It was amazing. I made wonderful friends and I fell in love with exploring this new city that I now considered my home. I felt free, inspired, and fully alive. I also felt pangs of loneliness here and there. And sometimes it freaked me out to know that no family was within driving distance. Yet I didn’t let it get to me much as it didn’t fit in with my newly found independent woman identity. So I pushed the fear and loneliness away.
20+ years later, they are still flaring up occasionally. What’s different now is that I am learning to master the art of feeling into them. Knowing what I know about life now, it’s become clear to me that my emotions have important messages, and ignoring them is cutting off a large chunk of inner wisdom. Here is where this becomes more universal than expat or native.
The longing for home is touching something inside ourselves that’s looking for deeper connection. Whether we know it or not, I believe we all have a desire to get in touch with what connects us all. Where we feel we all belong, we all matter, and we all have something significant to contribute. The place where we feel truly home. I also believe we all have the capacity to get to this place, and many of us know what it feels like to be there, at least temporarily. It’s what’s on the other side of the longing, the sadness, and the fear. It’s always accessible yet it requires a few things from us. The willingness to slow down, let go of distractions, and get still. The capacity to be brave and cultivate a way of being with our emotions. The openness to get curious about them. The courage to befriend them so they can show us the way to the place where we can fully connect. To ourselves, others, and something bigger.
And then it doesn’t really matter where our home is, because we are home.