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General Check-In: What (And Where) is Home?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about “home” a lot. When you teach creative writing, “home” is often the chosen topic for a beginning class, an easy, accessible topic for everyone to write about.

But is it, really?

The other day, I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Home is where Yinz Are.” (Yinz, for the non-Pittsburghers out there, is our version of “y’all”). It’s a twist on the familiar “Home is where the heart is,” the idea that the idea of home can be people, rather than a place.

For some reason, this really caught my attention and made me think. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for nearly three years now, and some would say that makes it home. In many ways, it does. Yet, if someone asks me where I’m from, I always say “Cincinnati” or “Ohio.”

I don’t think I’m unique in finding “home” a complicated question. So many of my friends from college came to our University from another state. Few of us returned to our origin states for long. We are many of us spread across the country. I went back to Cincinnati for two years, but left again for Pittsburgh when I got accepted to grad school here. Other friends have gone out West, or East, or South, or many places other than our homes of origin.

A few generations ago, this was not so. My parents both grew up in suburbs of Cincinnati, got jobs there, got married there, had us kids there. The same for many of their friends. Yet, so many of my friends have dropped the label “home” all across the U.S. (and abroad).

When I was in college, I’d say “I’m going home” when I drove both ways–to Evansville and to Cincinnati. Even now, I do the same when I return to Ohio to visit my family and when I come back to Pittsburgh. Home can be many places–the place you live now, the place where your heart sings that word from your very core (that’s Cincinnati, to me).

But what struck me most was this idea that home is comprised of the people we love. When you, and so many of the people you love, put down and pull up roots all across the country, even this alternative definition fails to suffice. Do I claim “home” as Michigan, Oregon, Kentucky, Virginia, Toledo, Cincinnati and so on, because that’s where my “yinz” are?

I don’t know why this whole idea of home gets under my skin, but it does. Whenever I teach a class with that theme or encounter a shirt like this one, I enter a mini existential crisis. There’s this idea that one should know where home is, that it should be a place of comfort, a place of return. But the truth is, I think the singular is outdated here. I think the word bothers me because I don’t have a home, I have many homes, plural.

Even seven (YIKES) years later, I see photos of Harlaxton Manor, where I lived when I studied abroad, and think “home.” The first time I visited the Blue Ridge Mountains, stepping into that space created a deep and sudden experience of “home,” though I’d never been there before. Cincinnati, city of my heart, will always be home, even if it isn’t my permanent address. And now, so will Pittsburgh.

So maybe my takeaway here is that it’s time to rethink the word “home” and what it means. To me, and so many people who’ve led similar lives with higher education, or work, or friends and loved ones taking them from place to place, it’s a word with many associations.

I think many of us are prone to put down roots wherever we go. Sometimes the roots go deep, and the tugging up is a difficult process (few things have broken my heart quite like leaving Cincinnati). Other times, our roots are shallow, and we leave readily, willingly (like ending the lease on an apartment you’ve outgrown). Still, I think it’s okay to leave bits and pieces of those roots behind where you need to. To say “home” and mean many places at once.

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