My polyamorous relationship to places
Can you call more than one place home?
For a long time, I thought I would live in my hometown forever.
This was a tricky conviction because it was based on both love and fear — happiness bounded by dread. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, or rather just outside it. My parents' house was in farm country and my school was in a halfhearted suburb that still felt more like town surrounded by forest than the other way around. I cut classes and went into the woods, lay down on the moss, and read about places I already believed I would never live in. I loved Portland, loved everything about it, and the things I maybe didn't love — its sheer distance from other cities, its steeply rising cost of living, and its apparent need to distance itself from its weird, charming, scruffy past in a bid for cultural legitimacy — I had to find a way to love, because where else was I ever going to feel this comfortable, this safe? My reasoning was: You only get one hometown.
But lately, I've started to see things differently. I didn't move away from Portland until I was 27, and left only after every career track I'd tried had dead-ended, after my rent started to seem like a practical joke, after driving down nearly every street in town made me see past versions of myself — at 5, at 13, at 18 — walking by.
Sometimes it felt deeply comforting to be surrounded by so many layers of memory, so many echoes and glimpses of past selves, past loves, past fights, past realizations. And sometimes it didn't.
At my college library I put a dollar bill in an anthology of short stories I had loved, returned years later — I was a teacher by then, why leave the college if you didn't leave the town? — and found it was still there. Living in Portland felt like that, in the end. The traces of your past actions were always waiting for you; sometimes re-encountering them meant joy, and sometimes it meant trauma, and sometimes it meant both. But the point was, they weren't going anywhere.
It took a PhD program to pull me away from Portland, to give me an excuse to try living in another place just because I wanted to — and to hold onto some sort of structure as I let go of the space, the streets, the history, that had previously been the greatest structure in my life.
What surprised me most was what didn't happen. I didn't mourn. I didn't grieve. I didn't feel unmoored and lost. I knew how to exist in a new place. (Well, sort of: Nothing about growing up in Portland had taught me how to drive in the snow.) More to the point, I knew how to love a new town — and with every place I have since lived in or traveled through, I've seen again and again how loving a place comes down to letting yourself love it.
When I went to Miami earlier this year, I felt, as I still do at times, that familiar old resistance to a brand-new place: Who are you, and why can't you be more like the place I know? It's a resistance that returns so easily that it seems instinctual. I'm sure it is. But my instincts also seem to guide me when I let myself relax enough to think, This is a good place — and then to think not I could be happy here, but I am happy now. And this distinction, also, seems key.
Miami is a city that can't even pretend to be like most other cities: It belongs to the water, which glitters at every corner, both cradling the city and threatening to destroy it — and will soon enough. But for now, you can still go down to the café around the corner, order a café con leche from a cashier who greets you with "Hola, Hello," and go down to the water. Try not to get too down about the traffic, which is spectacularly bad, or about the other drivers, who are aggressive in the manner of people who learned how to parallel park and change lanes at a time when car chases and shootouts were an all but routine occurrence in their city. Try, in other words, not to ask the city to be anything but what it is, because doing that will keep you from seeing what makes it a unique place — because these are the things we always miss when we ask a place to be not what it is, but what we remember from the places we have called home.
What makes home so resonant a word, so ungraspable a memory? For me, it has to do with home being the place where you belong. But where does this sense of belonging come from? Does it come from seeing your younger self walking down the sidewalk, trusting that a city knows you as well and as deeply as you can claim to know it? Or can we belong to a place simply because, for a moment or a lifetime, we decide to love it? And can we love such a place as unreservedly as the place we seek to build a home in, without either of these loves diminishing the other?
One of my friends calls this my city polyamory, and I think she's right. In romantic polyamory, which I don't practice but do admire, the different relationships in our lives complement each other, illuminate different facets of our being, and take pressure off each other by letting us ask no single relationship to be our first, our last, our everything. City polyamory works the same way. You can love a place more deeply by not asking it to make possible the life you dream of. You can appreciate a place for what it is by not asking it to give you what only travel and exploration can.
Right now, I don't move from place to place so much as live in a constant state of travel, and I've started to wonder, lately, about what it would be like to set down roots again. The things I used to hate about Portland are now things I regard with more patience, humor, and perspective, because I don't feel like my attachment to one city makes me a hostage to its flaws. Sometimes I think I might come back to Portland for good someday. Sometimes I think I never will. And in the end, it gives me a new sense of comfort to acknowledge that this will likely come down to chance.
Right now I'm in Portland, Maine. Last month I was in Atlanta. And next month I'll be in Marfa, Texas. I've been in my last few cities because of various writing projects and work assignments, but I have no real reason to be in Marfa — except for the only reason that really matters.
"Why are you going to Marfa, again?" one of my friends asked me this morning. And the answer was a simple one: Because I like it there.