I had an unsettling dream last night. I dreamed that M and I had both gotten jobs back East, him in New York and me in Western Massachusetts, where I went to graduate school. The dream involved lots of logistics–where would we live, could we find a spot in the middle where we could both commute to our jobs, and hadn’t I always wanted to live in New York City? And hadn’t I always wanted to return to Western Mass? And then I woke up, in Berkeley, in our new flat across the street from the old flat. Actually I woke up because my brother, who lives back East, sent a text to my other brother and my mom, who also live back East, and to me, three hours behind, and so at the ungodly hour of 6:15 I rose to silence my phone and then lay there thinking about this dream of moving back East and why it had unsettled me so.
I knew why; it’s because, for the last couple of months, I’ve been feeling decidedly like I don’t know where home is. Last spring, when we were getting kicked out of our house and in a nasty fight with our landlady, M and I pondered–and got close to–buying a house in Berkeley. Unfortunately/fortunately, it didn’t happen. There was disappointment and relief, both, and then we moved into the apartment across the street, and very much landed on our feet. But over the summer, L and M and I went to Maine for three weeks. My brother has a new baby, who I got to hold every day; I hung out with my sister in law as much as I could. I bonded with my niece and nephew, and I recall thinking that it had been the best visit in a long time. Easy, fun, fortifying. And then, we left, and when we got back to California I felt confused, out of sorts, and untethered. And if I’m honest with myself, I still do feel that way.
This feeling–it has been with me on and off since I was 21 and moved to Portland, Oregon, from Boston. I have spent the majority of my adult life on the West coast, far from my tight-knit family. I love them; I love spending time with them; and I also felt and feel a pull to be in the West. Because I make friends easily and well, wherever I go I’m surrounded by community, love, and “chosen family”–I am not lonely, all these miles from where I grew up. The West is in many ways perfect for me. It has everything I need. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss New England; of course I do. Missing it is natural, at times sad, at times conflicting, and at times, just, my lot in life.
What’s hard, what’s truly hard, is my guilt. I am prone to guilt. It’s an emotion I know intimately. And it’s an emotion my parents like to use as a weapon. To wit: for the last week of our visit home, and the five weeks after we got back, I did not have one conversation with my mother that did not involve her pressuring me to come for Christmas this year, even though it is very much M’s mom’s turn to have us. Besides the Christmas pressure, there were the others: If only M could get a job in Vermont, I think you guys would love Vermont and Did you know Pete and Mary are selling their house in Maine, it would be so perfect for you guys…
I think she thinks, if she needles away at us enough, we’ll just do what she wants and move back East.
At first, all I could focus on was that guilt and my anger at my mother for laying that trip on me. At one point, she made a joke about how she wasn’t feeling well (she had a cold at the time) and that we should really try to spend time with her while we could. I didn’t speak to her for a week. Does she think I don’t worry, all the time, about what will happen when she and my dad become unable to take care of themselves anymore and I live 3,000 miles away?
But underneath my anger and guilt, a larger reality looms: California is not home. It can never be home, unless M and I decide, consciously, forcefully, soon, to make it home. To just admit that we will live here permanently. I see around me people whose lives look identical to mine in many ways–their kids are in the public schools here, they work locally, they garden and take trips and pay taxes–but they do so with the knowledge that they’ll be here for twenty, thirty years, that they have no intention of leaving. They settle, they trust, they buy houses and fix them up. And us? We go on, year after year, not knowing where we will be. And it is starting to really wear me down. Not only because I can’t paint my bedroom the color I want or rip out the flower gardens in the back yard–those small things do have a hold on me–but because I honestly don’t know when we will be in a place, a house or a community, that is truly home. And home is important to me. I thought, for a while, Berkeley could be it. This is a great place to live. I could make a home here. But I can’t, because I feel like my family won’t let me, or, more fairly, that I won’t let myself.
I realize that a lot of this comes down to co-dependence. My friend An Honest Mom reminded me that my piece of this is not the same as my parents’ piece. “You can feel sorry that they’re sad you live far away,” she said, “and that can actually not be about you at all.” It was a good reminder. And at the same time, I found myself marveling at her clarity that she lives here in Berkeley (maybe she isn’t so clear, maybe no one is–but from the outside, it seems like they are). I feel so much envy for people who are sure.
And so, the dream. Waking up, it occurred to me that moving back East would require a Herculean effort–finding jobs, finding a place to live, etc.–but that if we wanted to do it, we could. We could just give in to the guilt, decide to make that choice, and do it. Honestly, we would miss this place, but we would be happy there. We could even give ourselves a time frame, like, we’ll be here until second grade, then go. (In fact, L, who has been telling us that he “hates the drought” and is “worried about the drought” told me the other day that in two years, we should decide where we want to live and go there–odd.)
Or we could muddle on in our uncertainty, and see what happens.