Did I ever tell you about the night I was on my way to New York to be interviewed on national TV and managed to get myself locked inside a museum in Cleveland?
This was back in the nineties, when I was living in Ohio and serving on the board of a minor downtown museum. As usual, I was running behind schedule, and squeezing in a late board meeting left me with barely enough time to race to my car, drive to the airport, and catch the last plane to New York. I spent most of the meeting fretting. Had I remembered to pack my hair dryer? Chosen the right dress? Brought the plane tickets? When the board finally adjourned, I dashed upstairs on some errand I can’t recall, probably leaving a note or file on the front desk. I do remember with hideous clarity being halfway across the dimly lit lobby and hearing the stairwell door swing shut behind me. And lock.
That’s when I realized I was trapped.
Every exit was bolted, and the building was deserted; the modest museum had no security guards at night, and in the five minutes since the meeting had ended, all the other board members had leapt in their cars to head home. The landline was shut down for the night, and in those long-ago days before the Internet and cell phones, this meant there was no way to contact the outside world. Scenes from various action movies tumbled through my head. Pick up a chair and smash a lock or a window? Use a lighter (not that I had one) to set off a fire alarm? No, what I needed to do was think.
And then the opening lines from my favorite poem, Lost, drifted into my head. “Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.” I stood still. I thought about what was here. And my eyes fell upon the front desk. Aha! I walked behind it, found a key labeled “Stairs,” and made my escape. I caught the plane to New York with minutes to spare.
I often think about that night and the lesson it taught me about standing still long enough to see a place not from my own viewpoint but from that of those who normally inhabit it.
Over the years, that memory has helped me feel at ease in a wide range of unfamiliar places, such as the underground military bunker in Lviv, Ukraine, the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in California, and the Bhutanese guesthouse outhouse that I could only reach by scaling a high wall. (Luckily it was a moonlit night and there were ladders on either side of the wall, but still!) Those lines of poetry and those moments in the museum remind me that no matter how lost I may feel, the place I’m standing is familiar to somebody, and in fact may be their most cherished definition of “home.”
A friend recently told Rich, “I don’t know how you two handle road trips lasting months. After three weeks I need my own bed. I need to be home.”
But for many of us, especially expats, the definition of home has become pretty elusive. Is it one of the seven houses I lived in before I went to college? The old stone house outside of Cleveland where Rich and I spent the first two decades of our marriage? The apartment we’ve rented in Seville for 14 years? The cottage north of San Francisco where we spend our summers?
In Real Simple, a reader suggests, “Home is a place you can feel comfortable cooking breakfast in your pajamas.” I love this definition, because it embraces every Airbnb apartment I’ve ever rented. And that’s my point. Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling of belonging. And with luck and a bit of practice, you can take that feeling with you pretty much anywhere. Just because you’re not sleeping in your own bed doesn’t mean you have to feel alienated and adrift in the world. As the 17th century poet Matsuo Bashō put it, “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
When Rich and I are about to embark on a long journey, I often have a few days of the pre-launch jitters, rushing about feeling as fretful and distracted as I was that evening in Cleveland preparing to fly to New York. But once we actually hit the road, all that tends to fall away, and I find myself comfortably settling into a state of bemused wonder, waiting with a pleasurable sense of anticipation to see what’s around the next corner. And that feeling, as much as anything else, is what I call home.
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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