For the first time in twelve years, I am not in typical schooling. Despite the lack of a desk, learning has not stopped. On a program where my life consists of new experiences and new people constantly, my brain feels more stretched now than it did in Calculus III. As I’ve been trying to process the newness and the lessons I learn every day, I’ve realized that not only am I gaining new perspectives, but I’m changing old ones. As complex ideas like permaculture and design thinking become more clear, simple ones, like “home”, are becoming much more muddy.
When I moved out at sixteen to attend boarding school, I don’t think I understood then how much that word would become something I circled back to. “Home” was no longer a GPS destination, it existed somewhere between my house and dorm room, a place I couldn’t pinpoint. I listened to my friends assign it all sorts of different meanings, the backseats of their cars, their pets, their beds at home, and it became more and more difficult to make home a concrete structure. We talked about home, but we knew every time we went back that it wasn’t the same anymore.
This year, I have a less permanent home than I ever have. Almost every week is a new location, sometimes hostels, sometimes a hammock, sometimes even tents. During our NOLS course, a week long backpacking trek in the Gila, the homes we referred to started as the houses we left behind. Once we arrived in Panama, I started to see a shift. We were starting to become comfortable with the constant discomfort that comes with travel. My backpack wasn’t a piece of foreign equipment, it was everything I owned. All the things I forgot about or left in my drawers at home almost didn’t exist. And if I did need something, I could count on almost anyone else in my group to share or let me borrow it.
In our rural homestays in Piedras Gordas, my “home” was with a host family. Although it was clear that I didn’t know the customs, and I couldn’t speak the language, I fell into patterns of comfortability with them. Through sharing food, stumbling over Spanish, and even acting things out, we fell into understanding.
At present, I don’t live in a house. Yet home is not a word that I have banned from my vocabulary. In fact, I find myself saying it more and more as I am away. I’ve found that home is not a place, a person, or even a group of people, but places we build within ourselves. The home I used to talk about referred to places where I felt comfortable. Creating a home while you’re away from one is all about finding the peace within your own mind to create spaces where you’re comfortable, and you feel loved.
What this also means is developing the ability to be open to every new environment and every new person you meet. That is not an easy skill at all. Travel comes with exhaustion, fear of change, discomfort, and isolation from being in different places. It can take a lot of bravery to open yourself up even once, let alone having the courage and effort to try on a daily basis. Starting a conversation at a restaurant or with your host family can be daunting. Finding running routes or spots to exercise in a new city is scary. Asking for help in a language that is not your own, or from people you don’t know, can be difficult.
Being an open person is not easy for me. Every day I have to try to open doors, start conversations, and push down my fear of embarrassment. Yet almost every day, I am rewarded. With each new exchange, I’m building a foundation. I think of all of the times I try something I’m afraid of, be it a new hike, new food, new group of people, as putting down a brick for my house. Some bricks are harder to lay than others, and sometimes I can build a wall in a day. The way to truly test the strength of your home is to see if, by the time you leave, you’ve filled it with family.
I’ve bounced around pretty frequently for the last two years, and I felt that the places I left behind were barren and empty. I think of my room at my house in Raleigh sitting empty, my dorm room which is now occupied by someone else, and my cabin in Durango. When I decided to leave, looking back was never an option. I thought that in order to keep moving, you couldn’t put down roots. I see now that in every place you can build a home, and in every place you should try. Over the course of the next year, I will not count the memories I have by the pictures I’ve taken or plane tickets I’ve collected, but by the homes I built and the people I housed.