how to feel lost wherever you go

I got back home from Michigan exactly two weeks ago, and my head is still spinning around in dizzy little loopy circles. No, that’s not quite right. My head is a thick bank of clouds hunkered low and heavy. Eh, that’s not right either. My head is a helium balloon floating four feet above my shoulders, tethered to my body by a thin grubby string.

That’s a little more like it.

I hate coming back from a trip, and not just because I’m forced to face the narrow confines of my regular routine again. There’s something about the first few days, when your body is here but your brain is back in the place you just left. There’s a troublesome waking dream quality to these days. You don’t fully exist anywhere.

One foot in both worlds.

***

My family is from a tiny town at the very tip of the thumb of the mitten shape that is Michigan’s lower peninsula. It has a population of just over 700 people. There is a grocery store, a liquor store (a “party store,” in the local parlance), two churches, two bars, and one stoplight forever blinking red. Beyond the last strip of grass at the south edge of town there’s a ditch full of Queen Anne’s Lace, and beyond that corn and soybean fields stretch to the edge of the sky, bending and rippling in the wind.

In the summer the village swells with weekenders who come for the farmer’s market and the waters of Lake Huron. In the winter the village shrinks and folds in on itself. Snow covers over the artificial grass turf of the miniature golf course, and the windows of the gift shop stay dark.

Family ties run deep, but they’ll only get you so far. It doesn’t matter who you’re related to when you’re an unfamiliar face behind the wheel of a rental car. Most folks assume I’m a tourist, or a “citiot” — a combination of “city” and “idiot,” like those strangers up from Detroit tend to be.

I feel like a fraud when I come back here. I feel it when I spot the bag of organic fair trade coffee I brought on the counter next to my parents’ plastic tub of Folgers. When I pull into the gravel lot of the bar and park my imported subcompact at the end of a row of domestic trucks. When I put on a hand-printed geometric tank top from Etsy just to bike down to the Tastee Freeze. 

I know this area, and I love it, but I won’t ever really belong.

***

I live in a medium-sized city on the coast of California, north and west of Los Angeles. It has a population approaching 90,000 people, all jammed into an elbow of land between the where the mountains descend from the clouds and the ocean hurries to meet the horizon. Downtown is an maze of white adobe walls and red tile roofs snaked with flowering plants. Coach and True Religion stores stand between gift shops hawking cheap silkscreened sweatshirts.

Summer and winter, the streets are overrun with pale tourists who come for the palm trees and mediterranean flavor. They clog the sidewalks, plodding in slow motion as their heads swivel. I curse under my breath as I meander behind them, waiting for an opening. 

On my first day back in California there’s no food in the house. For lunch I decide to try a place a couple blocks from my office that bills itself as “healing” vegetarian. I order a kale salad, some vegetable spring rolls, and ginger tea, and the total comes to $29.41. I lapse into a momentary blind panic, but I’m already committed, so I just nod and sign the receipt like this is totally fucking normal day in my fucking normal life. But in my head I’m picturing the people I left behind in Michigan laughing at me: thirty dollars for lunch? Are you out of your mind? 

Yes, I am, I guess.

I head back to the office dangling my overpriced meal from one hand as the other protectively presses my bag to my chest. I’m wearing an old pilled maxi dress, tired eyes, frizzy hair. I set my jaw and push through a swarm of teenage girls with brown toothpick legs and baggy high-waisted shorts, looking like they just stepped out of an Urban Outfitters catalog.

I feel like a fraud when I come back here.

***

Here on the left coast, I usually hear the middle of the country referred to as the “flyover states.” I don’t usually hear what people say after that, because I am too busy imagining my fist making contact with their faces. I am fiercely protective of the Midwest, even though I don’t always understand or agree with it. But I suppose this is true of all things you love.

Like California. I can knock it all I want, but it’s part of me. It informs who I am. And part of who I am is someone willing to spend $30 on trendy health food. Yet the same time, I’m the only person I know who changes her own oil. Midwestern sensibility and work ethic, meet Western capriciousness and convenience.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. That’s me reaching for generalizations, like I tend to do when I’m trying to put something into words that maybe can’t ever be explained. We’re talking about regions with layers and layers of different social, economic, educational, and political belief structures, and each one is more subjective than the last. There’s no truth, and no certainty — just this continual sense of having been very messily divided between the two.

I’m fascinated by the concept of being from somewhere, mostly because I’ve never felt like I particularly belonged anywhere. Much like Goldilocks, I’m beleaguered by a series of prejudiced variables that mark each place as being “too” wrong for it to ever be “just right.”

Is anything ever “just right,” though?

***

The places we’ve lived define us, so much so that it’s the first question we usually ask a stranger. So I’m going to go ahead and ask you: Where are you from? And have you ever felt truly at home there?

31 Responses to “how to feel lost wherever you go”

  1. You are a lovely writer.

    I’m from North Carolina, and I only never realized how very much it was my home until after I moved away and would come back for visits. I lived in Texas for five years, but it will always be exotic to me. When I go back home I’m always struck by the thought ‘this is exactly what I thought the rest of the world was like for so long – but it’s not, I had no idea how different things could be’ even though I’d seen pictures and everything. It’s different being in it. I’m not sure that I will ever feel at home in Scotland -my accent makes it impossible for anyone to mistake me for a native & so Taxi drivers will forever try to take advantage of me, but I noticed that when I went to Germany, I really missed Scotland and I compared everything to Scotland (rather than America) and found Germany to be lacking (sorry Germany), and as soon as I got off the plane I made a b line for the first purveyor of bacon rolls that I could find & gratefully inhaled two straight away. So perhaps I have gone a little native.

  2. Oh yes, this feeling. I’ve lived in Houston almost my whole life but the suburbs where I grew up are very different from the city where I went to college and grew up in a different way. I struggle a lot with the fact that we will have to move somewhere out of the state eventually for Stephen’s job, even though at the same time I know Texas isn’t a great fit for us in general (we’re too liberal, too artsy, too not-interested in guns and Republicans). I think part of what I love about Houston is that it’s the underdog city of Texas – Dallas is richer/more conservative and Austin is cooler/more liberal – but we have so many amazing, world-class things here and I just want to win people over to loving it the way I do, even if I don’t always know why I love it.

    We went to Paris this summer and I instantly felt a million times more at home there than I do here. That’s a really strange thing – to feel more at home in a brand new place than you do where you’re from.

  3. I wanted this post never to end. So lovely.

  4. I was really bothered by this feeling throughout my twenties. I grew up in a midwestern town not too dissimilar from your own, spent my teen years in a moderate-sized midwestern city, and have ended up in NYC via several years in a largeish New England city. Never having a sense of belonging to any of these places, I felt like there was a big gaping hole in my internal narrative of who-am-I. Or like everyone I met could easily dismiss me as being From Somewhere Else.

    At some point, and I can’t really remember when, that sense of unease fell away, and I suppose I just accepted that I’m never going to be “from” anywhere, but maybe no one else is, either? And instead of wishing that I felt wholly integrated into some singular place, I started wishing that I could know what it means to kinda-belong to EVERYPLACE. There are so many different possible lives in this world, and who you feel you are is so different in whatever physical place you inhabit. I thought people were supposed to settle down in their 30s, but I seem to have acquired some nomadic acceptance that anywhere could be an equally valid home for who I am.

    Which is a good thing, because I’ll be moving again, and this time I’m excited to see who I become in the new place.

    • I like this take a lot. Making it not about HAVING to fit a place at all. I’ve wondered too if I’ll ever feel settled, and maybe being unsettled is actually its own benefit?

  5. Yes. You summed up my feelings about Alabama quite nicely, minus the forming me part. I think the only thing it has formed is a deeper love for anywhere that’s not Alabama.

  6. This feeling.

    This is what I feel everywhere. I’ve lived too many places. I’m always missing somewhere, there’s always a piece of me that fits better in another place, times infinity.

    • Dude, Jo. This is exactly what I spent that entire post trying to explain, and you summed it up in one sentence. The next time I write something, I am going to send it to you so you can pithily rephrase it. All of my posts will be one sentence from now on, thanks to you.

  7. This is beautiful.

    I’m from West Texas. And it informs everything about me, too. As confusing as that can be at times, I’m thankful for it.

    I’ve found that, once home (which is odd since no one in my family lives there anymore), that first intake of breath, inhaling draught after draught of dust, heat, and sweet crude ignites my memory bank like nothing else.

  8. This was a great, evocative essay.

    I’ve always felt a very strong sense of being from Colorado. It seems to encapsulate a lot of who I am, or who I’d like to be on my best days. There are things about other places that charm me but Colorado is always “home” in my head. S is also from Colorado and sometimes we wistfully talk about chucking our careers and taking anything that would get us back to the Denver area. I don’t know if we’ll ever do it, but it’s a nice dream.

    In the meantime I am trying to make Boston my home, but your sense of feeling like a fraud is exactly what I experience here. I love the ambition of the city but at the same time I feel like I’m not tough enough, not hard-driving enough, most of all not ANGRY enough to be a “real” Bostonian. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I will never get used to being cussed out for stopping at a red traffic light.

  9. I almost never say, “I’m from Michigan,” full stop. I normally add, “But I came by way of Illinois, and I’ve also lived in Massachusetts and Phoenix.”

    I’ve never really analyzed why I do it, but perhaps it is a desire for people to know that I have a bigger “world view” than just being from Michigan. And I don’t think people from Michigan have a bad rap, so it’s odd that I feel I must qualify that I’ve lived elsewhere. Of course, living in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Arizona have all shaped me into who I am now. So maybe that’s it.

    I am proud of being from Michigan, but for some reason I don’t feel like that’s the sum of me. I’m “more” than just Michigan and I want people to know that. Weird to think about.

  10. I really loved this post.

    I’ve always felt at home in Philly. I think a piece of it is that there’s a convergence of so many different ways of life. Maybe today I don’t feel $30 health food lunch, but I can just swing by Tony Luke’s for a $5 sandwich. There’s overlap in a way where I always feel at home.

    Lately, because of J’s inability to find work, we’ve had to talk about moving and I really worry about what you describe. I worry about making another place “home” and feeling divided between the two.

  11. I felt this. I’m “from” Florida, Alabama, Los Angeles and Nashville in more or less equal measure. I currently live in Washington, DC.

    All of these facts inform who I am and how I see the world. I have never felt 100% like I belong in any of those places. I’m an eternal transplant. My husband is legitimately “from San Francisco”, full stop, even though he hasn’t lived there for more than 10 years. I totally envy his certainty.

  12. I loved this. The funny thing for me is that I never felt like I belonged in the Midwest, in Illinois where I was born & grew up. When I was little I plotted out my life and the constant factor was that I’d live on the East Coast, somewhere close to the ocean. Now I live in a resort-y town like where you grew up, only on Long Island, regularly flooded with citiots and escapees who are gently despised by the real locals (and you’re only a real local if your family’s been here for four generations). But I feel more at home here than anywhere else in the world. I’m not really sure why. But I don’t ever want to leave.

    • I always want to leave! That feeling of being settled is fascinating.

      And dude, your town sounds a lot like where my folks are from.

  13. Looovvee this.

    I still haven’t found anywhere I feel like I really belong. I probably felt most like I belonged in my secure little liberal arts college surrounded by people more or less like me.

    Growing up, I felt like a Washingtonian and was really happy to have that status but now? I go back to Tacoma and Seattle and feel a bit like a country bumpkin. In Missoula, I wasn’t near liberal enough. And in Mullan? Don’t even get me started about the million levels on which I don’t belong.

    We’re trying to figure out what our next jump will be…possibly Flagstaff?Somewhere similar?

  14. I’m from Calgary. A big city in the middle of the endless prairie, and it’s HOME. Actually, it’s more than home. It’s almost it’s own person in the narrative of my life, and while I know it sounds silly, it’s true. If I tell stories about growing up, the city and the province play a steady roll. The culture here is strong and unique, and I can’t tell stories about me without telling stories about where I come from.

    I have always lived in Calgary, which makes me a rarity in this city of immigrants. And I think that’s part of the reason why Place is so strong in my personal narrative.

  15. Love this post. My Dad was Canadian and my mother was Irish. Only one in my family born in the States, Florida of all places. I spent every summer in Ireland and Canada and my life was very much influenced by them. I always felt like a foreigner in Florida growing up. I have lived in Sonoma County in Northern California now for the last 20 years. It felt like home when I arrived. But I could also live many places. My partner and I travel a lot and frequently say, let’s live here for a year! Home for us is wherever we settle ourselves (and the dog), especially if we can plant a garden.

  16. Oh gosh, this post resonates so much. I have never felt like I belong in Los Angeles, which is where I’m from and where I’ve lived my entire life. I’ve grown to appreciate things about this place but I always feel like there is somewhere else more suited to me. I just haven’t found where that is.

    It’s strange to be spoiled in a big city where you can indulge in many things other parts of the country don’t have. There is always something going on here, some event, some obscure movie playing, some new vegan restaurant. Yet I long to live somewhere quieter and more simple. Mostly I just want out of this desert. I crave trees and woods and rain.

    I am convinced that I’m trapped here, even if I try to leave my plans will be thwarted. It seems like it would take a whole lot of magic to get me somewhere else, and ultimately the farthest I might make it is only the outskirts.

  17. Reading this post and all the comments is so interesting because it shows just how hard it is feel at home in a place, how subtle the differences can be, even within a country. As an immigrant, I have struggled a lot with complicated feelings of lack of belonging that swell up at the most unexpected moments. I moved to Canada from Finland when I was 11 – just old enough for a huge part of my identity to be formed in Finland but just young enough for the same to be true of Canada. Both are my home but neither is fully. I have been in Vancouver for so long now that it does feel like home 90% of the time. But there are parts of me that will always be different and there will always be moments when I realize that I am not truly Canadian. And it hurts my heart in ways I can’t put into words when I go to Finland and realize I am not Finnish either. The language difference adds a whole other layer of complication.

    My complicated feelings about home and where I belong aren’t ever going to go away – it is the reality of my life and the way things have happened. And I think that defines me more than any place ever could.

  18. This has been in my head for years. I recently accepted that I have become a ‘Londoner.’ With our families spread across the globe, we have sentenced ourselves to constantly questioning where ‘home’ is. When speaking of Cleveland, I always say ‘back home,’ but I no longer feel right there. In fact, I am regularly at the receiving end of blatant stares and apparently I have an accent. I am no longer considered part of their experience because I have ‘moved on.’ I find myself almost apologizing for my move abroad in an attempt to say, ‘I’m like you, I’m from here.’ But maybe I’m not.
    The skyline of the city pulls a bit at my chest every time I see it, the memory of summer and fireflies and baseball are strong, but when I am in Cleveland, I want to be back in London. When in Cleveland, I refer to London as home. But I still maintain my ‘upbringing’ is midwestern, blue-collar and that keeps me grounded. At least in the London context.
    Maybe the word ‘home’ means something else now.
    I no longer know how to function as an adult in Cleveland (or the US for that matter). I have ‘grown up’ here in London and have made the decision to make this my home, despite the fact I fight with my frustration over tourists every time I leave my house.

  19. I’m not quite sure what to say to this post, as I haven’t travelled much at all.

    But I do know what it is like to feel displaced regularly and as someone with an appalling sense of direction in a reasonably easy city to find one’s way around, I know the isolation of being lost so well.

    I do know what a sense of belonging feels like to an urban space though. There are parts of Sydney where I walk around or travel through and I know that I am home. There are also parts of regional NSW where I feel this.

    I especially feel this at my university. As difficult as this year is, it is also amazing and at least a few times a week I sit there, drinking coffee or just outside my library and think ‘yeah, this is it.’ It really is so beautiful.

    Even though I hate living with my family I am very attached to the part of Sydney where I have grown up, I doubt I will ever lose that. I will miss it when I leave.

    I don’t know what it’s like to want to go home. I am still hoping to find that.

  20. This is so wonderful!

    I’m currently about to leave on a trip straddling my two worlds. I certainly don’t feel like I’m from Milwaukee after only two years here (and no plans to stay indefinitely) but when I make it back to home, to Montana, it feels clear to me that I’m not just from there anymore. When we talk about where we want to make our life eventually I always wonder if we will ever find somewhere that feels like us, like home, or if we will just live somewhere. I suppose we’ll see.

  21. I don’t really know where I am from. I’ve lived the most time in Michigan, but the most life in Utah. I think I am from here now.

  22. All of this, one million times. Vermont is very similar, and going back and forth I’m either out of place in SF (yes, oil changes) or SO FANCY in VT. Now that I’ve moved back “home” I can say it really isn’t. Do I need a home? I don’t think so. I love NYC (where my family is from), I love Vermont, I love California. I’ll just rotate & be at home where ever I am. I have too many sides to fit in anywhere!

  23. Yes! I’m from Michigan (*locates point on hand*) but some Toledo has rubbed off on me as well, I’m afraid. I definitely don’t feel like I completely belong here, though. Michigan summers and winters summarize my childhood, but not where I find myself today. I’ve always been a bit of an anglophile and I feel like I would “belong” in the UK so much better. I understand what Rachelle means by feeling at home in a new place, as I feel homesick for a place I’ve never set foot in.

  24. See, told you I’d comment eventually. Too late to join the conversation, though, and too tired to think of something intelligent to say, other than you are an excellent writer. I loved this post so much.

  25. Okay, I’m late to the party, because I’m no longer allowed to access blogs at work :(

    I was born in BOFO Iowa, where my parents didn’t fit in because they hadn’t been there forever like everyone else. Like, northern Iowa, they’re from northern Illinois, but nope that’s too different. We moved when I was two.

    I went to three different elementary schools, so I always identify with the military brats on the whole making-friends thing. They were all in the same town, though. I added it up once and we moved seven times between when I was born and when I entered fourth grade. Wowza.

    I went to college half an hour from my house, which was friggin awesome. I NEVER paid for laundry, and I used to take friends home to raid the fridge. I never felt like my town was HOME, though – we moved too many times. I felt like my parents’ hometown was HOME, where you opened Christmas presents and the guy at the men’s clothing store knows you on sight even though he’s never seen you before. But I was informed by one of my college “friends” that I was an asshole for trying to claim that place as home – apparently northern Illinois belonged exclusively to her.

    After college I moved to Denver/Boulder. SO beautiful, but sooooo expensive. When we moved to Ohio, we were overjoyed to be leaving, but I get super homesick for it, especially since it’s the place I fell in love with my honey.

    I had never been to Ohio before, so I was taking it completely on faith that this place was cool. I was cautiously optimistic at first, but kept referring to Iowa as “home”. I noticed, though, a few years later when I was visiting Iowa: I had started saying, “Oh, we have [this store or restaurant] at home” and waiting to buy things till I got back to Ohio. What? Shopping is how I relate to the world.

    SO the upshot of this loooooong post is that I STILL don’t feel like I have a home, even though I have places I refer to as “home”. I get mega-homesick for Iowa, Chicago, northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, Denver, Boulder, Estes Park, Idaho Springs (Colorado), Portland-area Maine, Dublin and Belfast, etc etc etc. I kind of feel like the whole world is my home, at the same time that I feel none of it is.

  26. Okay, so I am late to the post because I was travelling. But I am going to comment anyways because first of all, this was just beautifully written. But then the comments were just fascinating too. I’ve spent the last several years thinking about/researching/writing about concepts of home , belonging and identity, so I loved hearing everyone’s thoughts. And I have these same feelings myself. I grew up in the south, then moved around in the US and Europe. Now I am married to someone from Québec, and live here. But this brings with it further levels of belonging (or not) because of the language issues.

    Anyhow, this conversation is fascinating. And so beautiful, Lyn. Thanks!

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