Some thoughts on home as I bid farewell to the West Coast and return to the Midwest.
I’m not thinking of this as going to school in Oregon, I would say. I’m thinking of this like I’m moving to Oregon.
I’m going back h-…to Wisconsin for winter break, I would say. I’ll be spending most of the summer back at my parents’ house.
It had been my dream for years to move to the Pacific Northwest, preferably as close to Portland as possible. Going to grad school down the road at Oregon State University would be my excuse to transplant my life into a new environment. I was elated when everything came together perfectly as I was accepted to OSU and was offered a Graduate Teaching Assistantship.
Many Wisconsinites were skeptical of Oregon and weren’t sure why I would want to move there. I thought it couldn’t be more obvious – forests, rivers, mountains, and the ocean, a beautiful land occupied by people who actually care about preserving, using, and enjoying that land. Clean air. Liberal politics (whether you vote red or blue). Coffee, craft beer, fine wine. Friendly people. Flannels, beards, and tattoos. Music and writing and the freedom to express yourself and your creativity. The Trailblazers and the Timbers.
I wanted it all. I wanted that to be my home. I wanted to build my life there. I was ready to trade the snow for the rain and the heartland for the coast.
Less than two years after crossing the Oregon St. bridge in Sturgeon Bay and arriving at Oregon St. University in Corvallis, it’s over. I’m in Wisconsin again, and this time I brought back a Master’s diploma and everything else that would fit in a rented Suburban. Soon I will be moving to a suburb of Minneapolis.
My stay in Oregon was, in some ways, the worst time of my life. It was also a fun time of tremendous growth. I matured and accomplished much. And it almost broke me.
Let me stop you right there, smug Wisconsinite: the fact that I’ve returned to the Midwest has nothing to do with some sort of shortcoming on the part of Oregon. Oregon didn’t fail me; I failed it.
Oregon. Fucking. Rocks.
Even in my limited experience of the state, I found it to be a special place. The land itself has a mystical quality which I can only begin to describe. Flying into Oregon feels like entering into some sort of enchanted realm, and it stirs a sense of peace and freedom within me. It’s that freedom which I may end up missing most. The land and its people are imbued with this liberty and possibility which allows you to stay the way you are or become something different, to rest at home or venture out, to seek civilization and culture or the wild solitude of nature. It is for good reasons that Oregonians are notorious for rarely travelling outside their state.
Oregon is great, but I failed to fully enjoy it, let alone make it my home. Why exactly I failed is a long and complex story filled with social anxiety, regular anxiety, chronic illness, depression, and panic attacks. I lost 15 pounds, and I don’t think I was supposed to. As much as Oregon was and is and will be a place where I could see myself happily making my home and living my life, it didn’t happen. It never became home, and I didn’t become an Oregonian.
Confessing my great failure and hinting at my brokenness is cathartic as well as embarrassing. It also underscores the challenging nature of my personal quest to find my temporary home in this world.
There are many platitudes and truisms that define home – it’s where the heart is, it’s wherever I’m with you, it’ll always be where you come from. I’ve found that, while these all hold some truth, they fail to describe my experience. Like so much in life, home is mutable, sometimes transient, and a site of labor and love which runs across time and space in unexpected ways. Like so many lessons learned in life, my long journey home has been a revelation in mystery and misconception.
Some people make their home in more or less the same place they were born and grew up. It’s quite common in Wisconsin, and makes for a provincialism which is in some ways a real bummer despite its charms. This is not the case for me; I don’t intend to ever live full-time in Wisconsin. But after being away, I love the place I grew up more than I have in many years. I have a renewed interest in the land and the culture, and I more readily embrace aspects of both whereas not long ago I was quick to distance myself. I intend to get back into hunting and some other outdoor activities, and every year I come closer to being a Packer fan. Reconsidering my relationship to where I grew up has also engendered an ongoing personal project of exploring, recovering, and developing my Scandinavian heritage. Living on my own thousands of miles away redefined home for me as it relates to roots. And yet this will not be my home. I still feel myself searching for that elsewhere.
Being away also changed the way I view the relationship between home and family. I do not find the two to be synonymous, but they are symbiotic. Before moving, I was ready to be away from my family; college had given me that confidence. I carried on very well for long periods of time on my own, but eventually it became obvious to me that my family was an intense source of love, support, fun, and self-definition. They have never been more important to me, and my renewed investment in these relationships has given my extended family an increased importance in my life as well. Being closer to my family is restorative, and it will make Thanksgiving not a total bummer this year.
And yet, my sense of home is not tethered to the location of my family. Striking out on my own brought me back into the fold, but the same rebellious independence which drove me thousands of miles away remains. As I have found in almost every facet of life, some sense of balance is the most beautiful order of things. As much as I like spending extended time in the house I grew up in, I don’t feel I can become myself living there. Truth be told, I think living in the same city could be similarly restrictive.
In my search for home, I’ve come into full contact with one of the most ardent desires of the human soul. The briefest consideration of my favorite films, music, and books is saturated with the theme of seeking, protecting, and treasuring a sense of being at home. And I believe that this is part of our longing for a better country – that is, a heavenly one – and our glimpses of Eden within a sense of exile.
It feels, as I write this, that I have very little to add to this defining aspect of the human condition [airhorns for cliche], especially if “all” I’m saying [airhorns for scare quotes] is that the concept of home is a beautifully balanced mess of contradictions and relationships with yourself and others and I’m at a point where I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Do I need to say more than that to make this worthwhile? It depends on who you ask – maybe the personal aspects of this blog post don’t mean as much to the readers as they do to the writer.
But perhaps this insight into the hiddenness of home is revelatory for some. After all, it was not so long ago that my sense of home was dominated by wanderlust, an independent spirit, and the determination to build a home from scratch. I was certain about these things. Perhaps some of you, especially those who are in similarly transitional stages of life, are also just now finding out how elusive and variable a sense of home can be.
Fortunately, my failure in Oregon is not the end of my journey in seeking a home – it neither consigns me to containing my notions of home to the place from which I came nor does it prohibit me from trying a similar venture again. The experience fundamentally altered my perception of the world and my place in it. It caused me to rethink the importance of investing in a familiar place and familiar people while also reinforcing how vital it is for people who are able to go experience a new place for an extended period of time. I find provincialism more distasteful than ever, and yet I am now sure that there is something to be said for developing and expressing the features of your roots.
In passing I mentioned a move to Minnesota. I decided I wanted to move there and live with my brother when I realized that the next transition after graduate school would be easier for me if I could do it closer to home and to family. There have been moments after making this decision when it felt like an admission of defeat and an easy way out, but as I have prepared for this transition which is fast-approaching, I am learning how exciting – and unknown – this new opportunity is. It is also, I am realizing, in some ways the natural evolution of my personal journey of building a home. It’s a voyage into uncharted waters on a familiar vessel.
Minnesota is a Midwestern state with much in common with its eastern neighbor, but those who have spent time in both will tell you there are significant differences in the land, people, and culture. I will be living in what was Grandma’s House before she re-married and moved, but living somewhere as an adult is very different than visiting there as a child. I can make a half-day’s-journey home for a holiday or whatever, but this is still well beyond the reach of
mother’s apron strings. It will be easier to see most of my friends, but if I’m relying exclusively on weekend get-togethers I’ll have reached new depths of social ineptnessbut moving to a new city gives me the opportunity to meet new people, and some of these meetings might blossom into lifelong friendships. I have visited big cities (including Minneapolis-St.Paul) many times, but I’ve never been able to develop a knowledge of and relationship with one through regular experience. If I am able to get a teaching job, it might be very similar to the teaching positions I have held before, but it will be in a new school with new curriculum, potentially with more responsibility. I will be able to go to church with my brother (going on your own is the worst), but it will be a new church and with that comes the chance to be grafted into a new community. And, of course, in addition to this theme and variation motif, much of what I will see and do will be altogether new.
I will journey into this new land with hard lessons and new dreams, carrying them less like a heavy pack and more like the small box of seeds Samwise receives from Galadriel. I continue on with the hopes of finding some of the things I hoped to find in Oregon, but supported by the base I have reestablished in the land and people from which I came.
Perhaps in ten years I will be living in Grandma’s House, or maybe I will have made the down payment on a cabin on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Perhaps I will wend my way back to Packerland, or give Oregon another go. Maybe I will take a trip to Norway and never come back, or go to school in England and decide it suits me. It’s possible I’ll have found a physical place in this world which feels – really and truly – like home. But for now it is something I carry with me, searching out my unique voice in this world of oneness.
It’s uncertain. But that uncertainty is where I exist, and I’m beginning to make myself at home.
Shoes off, please.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
1I suppose catharsis and embarrassment are meat and mead for writers, no?
2Not that these are distinctly Wisconsin things. My time in Oregon contributed to this as well.
3This may be just because I am in love with Aaron Rodgers. Also I lowkey wish we could abolish the sport of football but that’s for another time.
4Hebrews 11:16; J.R.R. Tolkien.
5Yes I just gender-neturalized that and you can deal with it.
6People who love me are telling me to not be so hard on myself so I decided to rewrite this but I thought I’d use a strikethrough because 1. I was on a roll using them 2. I’m playing with genre or getting meta or breaking the fourth wall or whatever it is that MFAs do (not that I’m jealous or anything) and 3. I still want you to be able to see what my original thoughts were.