“Home is where you wear your hat.”

– Lord John Whorfin, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension


During a recent drive home after work, I was listening to an NPR story on people’s feelings about our new president. As you might have noticed, some are happy about the whole situation, while others are a little concerned.

Don’t worry, my purpose here isn’t to discuss presidents. I’ll leave that to others who enjoy arguing about politics. Here’s what I want to talk about: One of the recurring issues in the NPR piece was how folks are worried about having to leave their homes in order to find work. One interviewee even said, “If the local economy doesn’t improve, our children are going to have to go away to get jobs. That should never happen to a parent.”

Two things struck me about that statement, the first being how interesting and revealing it was that the woman commented about how it affected her, not her child. She probably did care about the kid, but what she said was “That should never happen to a parent.” The second question that occurred to me was to wonder why we have the expectation of being able to stay where we were born. It’s a reasonable desire, certainly. After all, if I want to live on an iceberg or on top of a mountain, and I’m not harming anyone, I should be able to do so. Still, if circumstances dictate that I or my children need to leave, does that have to be the end of the world?

This is a concern that probably goes back as far as the first time someone thought, “Hey, I like this spot of land, and I don’t feel like walking anymore,” only to have their children grow up and decide that, hey, they do feel like walking a bit farther, maybe even over the horizon. More often than not, this doesn’t go over well with the parents. It isn’t only the parents who balk at the chicks leaving the nest, either. Sometimes, the chicks are the ones with separation anxiety. I found myself wondering about the child of the woman in the interview. How does he or she feel about the situation? Sad? Anxious? Jubilant? Liberated? All of the above?

When I was eighteen, I decided to join the navy and see a bit of the world. Of course, I had no idea how much of the world I’d eventually end up seeing, but at the time, anything outside of Alabama was bound to be a new experience. If you’re imagining that I never questioned my decision to leave home, you’re wrong. Not only did I panic, I did so on at least an hourly basis on every day leading up to my day of departure. One minute, I was excited. The next, my life was over. Soon after that, I was excited and terrified. This lasted a long, long time.

My dad was on board with the idea of me joining up, but he’d done something similar when he was the same age. My mom, on the other hand, was nowhere near board with me leaving home. She wasn’t even on the pier. To be fair, she’d grown up in a close-knit family where kids didn’t generally leave home. If they did move, they stayed close. Add to that the fact that she only had one child, and you can better understand her position.

Despite all this, I stuck with my decision, joined the navy, and went away. My mom worried about me, and I worried about her worrying about me. Somehow, with all the traveling, I even found time to worry about me, though I now realize I didn’t worry nearly enough. While I was away, almost every person I knew, including myself, was homesick and counting the days, hours, and milliseconds until they got to return home. We talked about home and all the routine things we’d never again take for granted.

When I returned home, I realized a strange thing had occurred. It was good to be back with the people I loved, but the home ground didn’t feel the same, and it never would. Whereas I’d always believed occupying a geographical location could make me happy, the truth was it was the people around me that made the difference.

As big truths usually do, this one has come back to me at crucial points in my life. Fast forward an unspecified number of years, when my wife and I moved to Colorado. It was unnerving at first, and oxygen was difficult to come by, but within a few months we realized it had become home, just like all the other places we’d lived in our thirteen years of marriage. This time, the truth hit me near the end of an arduous post-Christmas flight in 2012: Home doesn’t have to be a place on a map. Now, in four months, my dad will be moving out to live with us in Colorado.

Some people feel deep connections to their places of origin, while others are able to find home wherever they are. These two groups of people rarely understand each other. The first person wonders how the second could ever leave, while the second can’t understand how the first could stay put. I’ve been a member of both groups, at various times during my life, but for the record, I’m glad I’m comfortable wherever I happen to be.

When I remember the me that left home that first time all those years ago, eager and terrified at the prospect of traveling the world on a ship, I have a hard time drawing a through line from him to the current me. It seems impossible, but it also feels like it was always inevitable. Yes, I feel like the same person in lots of ways, but understanding how he became me boggles the mind.

That’s what life can do.