While the rest of the passengers pause as they come out of the jetway at Atlanta International Airport to get their bearings straight, I only pause to take a big sigh of relief and continue on to the right, like I’ve done so many times before. I take the escalator downstairs and hop on the train toward baggage claim, where I then meet my family at our usual pick-up location. Everything feels so familiar, from Turner Field to The Varsity to the Georgia Dome to Spaghetti Junction. I’m back in the south, the place I spent 27 years of my life. Just my second visit since moving to San Francisco three months ago, this familiarity is short-lived. While I grew up in North Carolina and have spent so much time in Atlanta, what I once called home, doesn’t feel quite so homey anymore.
What does “home” really mean? Is it like the movies when they travel back home to see this old shack with busted out windows, a leaning mailbox, and a wooden porch with their name carved in it that says: “Brad wuz here”. Or maybe it’s the town where you went to elementary, junior high, and high school and formed so many of your early memories in life. Or, in the words of Elvis, home is where the heart is; whatever the hell that means.
For years, home was a hodgepodge of elements, all relating to the place I grew up: Graham, North Carolina. Even after I graduated college, going back to Graham felt like going back home. I would often drive around the town (Which took all of 10 minutes), making stops on Main Street to walk by the old courthouse and cinema, my high school, and Cook-Out for a mint chocolate chip milkshake. There was such a familiarity to it, almost like I still lived there. However, when I set out for a stint of long-term travel last year, something happened. Actually a lot of things happened, but relevant to the ideas discussed here, when I returned to Graham a few months ago, home no longer felt like home. It was disconcerting. I no longer walked into the convenience store expecting for someone to call out my name and people no longer honked and waved when I walked down the driveway to pick up the mail. I was at a loss, uncertain of what or where home was anymore.
“Wait, let me guess.” The barista paused briefly as I stepped up to the counter at one of my favorite coffee shops in San Francisco. “Passion fruit tea!” I smirked and nodded my head as he began making my passion fruit tea, which I’m still musing the meaning of, as it has yet to make me feel passionate about the things that I assume a passion fruity drink is supposed to make you passionate about. I grabbed my drink and started adding sugar, when over my shoulder I heard someone say: “Are you Spencer?” I peaked out of the corner of my eye and didn’t notice a blue uniform, so I turned and confidently exclaimed: “Yes, as a matter of a fact I am.” As I turned, I immediately recognized them as someone I had seen at a recent meetup, but who I didn’t actually meet. We chatted for a couple minutes and exchanged social media profiles before he left. I went back to stirring my tea, at which point I chuckled and said under my breath: “I believe I’ve found my home.”
San Francisco is now home. That’s right, just four months in and I already consider San Francisco home. It’s not even my apartment that I consider home, since I’m just moving into a permanent apartment next weekend after living in a couple short-term places. However, it’s not just the city itself that makes it home. It’s so much more than that. It’s the experiences and people that go with it. It’s the bartenders that know my name, the newsstand I visit every Friday afternoon, the travel meetup I go to every month, the people I frequent food trucks with, and the texts, emails, and tweets I receive when I’m out of town asking when I’m getting back.
I’m of the opinion that one’s love for something can often be measured not by the time spent with that thing, but rather, measured by the time separated by it. This is now my third time leaving San Francisco and each time I’m away, I miss it a little more. That’s a feeling I don’t think I’ve ever had about a place, except maybe Chuck E. Cheese when I was a kid. Next week when I return to San Francisco, my schedule will be unnecessarily packed. It’ll undoubtedly include food trucks, coffee (passion fruit tea for me) with colleagues, visits to Fog City News, a hike at Lands End Trail, and lunches and meetups with friends, some of whom may regret the texts, emails, and tweets when I step off the plane and start bugging them to hang out.
I’ve listened to a lot of songs this week about home, including songs by Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe, and Zach Deputy, all simply called Home. They all seemed to do such a good job of putting the idea of home into a few words. I tried doing this, but couldn’t quite do it. That’s because the idea of home isn’t something I can put into words. To borrow off the words of Søren Kierkegaard, it’s not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. Next weekend when I land at San Francisco International Airport, it may not seem quite so familiar as Atlanta International Airport, but from then on it will feel familiar and I’m sure I’ll take a deep breath as soon as I ascend the BART Station and say: “It feels good to be home.”
What is home to you and how has it changed over the years?