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Living with Homesickness
Some thoughts on the soul.
A picture from the road trip stop at the Grand Canyon with my friends Tyler Ford (left) and Samhita Mukhopadhyay.
I decided to drive across the entire country to get to Harvard University. Friends piled in and out of my gray Jeep Wrangler as we stopped to briefly absorb whatever American oddities awaited us: Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, New Orleans, and Atlanta. We nervously steered through a rainstorm in the mountains of New Mexico, said a quiet prayer as lightning danced over the horizon of the Canyon, and out-raced 16-wheelers on the backroads of Texas, laughing as they flashed their lights in defeat. It was in my last southern stop, Atlanta, that my friends finally bid me farewell. “You’ve got the rest of this on your own,” one of them said to me, sensing my anxiety. Later that day, I ended up peeing in a water bottle because of a two-hour traffic jam outside of Washington, DC. Damp floor mat aside, she was right. I made it to each destination safely.
It wasn’t until I came out of the Holland Tunnel and glimpsed the New York City skyline that I felt it. It’s what I imagine a child feels at the end of the school day when they run full speed into their mother’s arms—or what a dog feels like when they wag their tail dramatically because their owner’s just walked through the front door. It was like my soul was caught in an undertow, and my heart was preparing my body to finally be brought to shore. At long last, I was home.
Home is a complicated concept. It’s an especially fraught one right now. Refugees are being displaced by superpowers that hardly seem to care for the human havoc they wreak across the globe. If they’re lucky, they arrive at borders of neighboring nations—often after long, horrible, and violent journeys. Depending on the color of their skin or their creed, they may be invited in, offered a chance at survival—a new home. Otherwise, they are placed in cages and detained for who knows how long. Sometimes, they are flat out rejected—told to go back to where they came from, to go home. If only they could.
My grandmother was one of the lucky ones. Mussolini had sent his troops through the villages of Italy, demanding the peasants hand over their gold wedding bands and other jewelry. The melted gold would help fortify his war chest so he could continue the Nazi cause. My great grandmother saw these events unfolding and said her prayers to Saint Christopher. She demanded her husband, a migrant worker who had been traveling back and forth between Italy and the States, bring their family to America. It was the golden land, after all, and they were fresh out of gold. She was pregnant with her third daughter during the pilgrimage, but they made it to Ellis Island. My grandmother was ordered to learn English, to become American. She worked in a coat factory, sewing buttons. One of the Italian boys who worked in the donut factory next door told her that she was going to be his wife, and he ended up being right. He built her a home with his own bare hands, laying the floor plans and gathering the lumber himself. They had four children, and together, they fulfilled their parents’ dreams. They made America a home.
Decades later, when our family organized a trip to visit Italy and see our grandmother’s hometown, we were disappointed and confounded that she didn’t want to join us. All of the stories she told us about “the old country,” and she wouldn’t be there to experience it with us. We baptized one of my nephews in the church of her old village, and saw her maiden name inscribed on the ceiling. If only she were here, I thought. I bet she regrets not coming.
When I drove into Cambridge—the final stop of my 14-day road trip—I felt sick with anticipation. Everything I had planned was leading up to this moment: I’d left my fiancé of six years behind in Los Angeles, left my career and all our beautiful friends behind in New York City even before that, and I was now finally starting yet another new chapter of my life. But with the new came the old. My tires were gliding over backroads I was used to as a teenager, and it felt like retracing the steps somewhere deep inside of my soul. I rolled down the windows and played my favorite album from high school, Back to Black, on full blast. I tried to embrace my surreal circumstances. My fiery optimism was starting to dim. I wished I had a best friend in the front seat to tell me that this was right—that I was meant to be here.
I understand now why my grandmother didn’t want to go back to her hometown in Italy. Returning to our original home—even for a sojourn—forces us to look into the mirror at our former selves. In her case, she didn’t want to remember the poverty she used to live in, or recall the painful family memories of war and difficult pilgrimage. Her home was where she started her own family, charted her own path, found her own love. There was no such thing as a homecoming, because there was no home to return to except the one she’d made for herself.
The more I drove in and outside of Boston, the more it all started to click. Certain highway exits recalled wistful memories—reckless driving as teenagers, strip mall hangouts, visits with strangers I’d met on the internet. The friends who died far too young taking hairpin turns, or getting behind the wheel after a party. The friends’ houses I escaped to when I just couldn’t take my father anymore. All of it felt like taking a walk through a shadowy version of myself, the parts I’d tried so hard to lock away and keep inside. Old feelings of family rejection and resentment that were quietly simmering came to a sudden boil. The New England winter—with its bitter cold and bare glimpses of sunset—encouraged my retreat into the darkness, while the religious texts from school spilled salt onto old wounds.
I didn’t know if I would make it to Winter Break. I missed a full week of classes because it was becoming too hard to get off of the couch. I never expected it, but I was so grateful to be leaving Boston for six weeks—to finally return to Los Angeles. My least favorite city, the home I’d lamented and regretted moving into and couldn’t wait to break free of, I now sought as a refuge. It was a cold December in Los Angeles, but it could never compare to Boston’s cold. I walked on the beach in the mornings, trailing a whole flock of seagulls who fled in annoyance whenever I gained on them. I ran in the sun, and laughed in total gratitude for the reservoir whenever it rained. A cat sought refuge between my legs until the downpour stopped, then followed me nearly all of the way home. When the first day of spring semester loomed, I was filled with dread. I didn’t want to go back to Boston, back to the dark. I was just getting used to the sunshine.
I have a friend here at school named Ellie who is always talking about the sun. It’s a little on the nose, honestly, because she has bright blonde hair and loves to surf. She says that when she’s in the water, she feels like the ocean is holding her. Last night, during the presentation for her final project, she said that homesickness is your soul telling you that you’re not where you belong. Part of the spiritual practices she’d assembled—art making, time in nature, quiet contemplation—helped her identify what home was. She was listening to her soul.
I felt the tug of the undertow as she spoke. This place, Boston, would always be my first-ever home—but even here, I felt homesick. I think that was the point. In visiting the shadowy halls of my former self, I hope I made some peace with the bonds that once felt broken and the shame that once felt unbearable. With this new knowledge and so much time to read and think, I cultivated a new perspective. The guilt I was carrying could finally be let go. The resentment I felt could finally transform into a boundaried kind of love. And the immense pride I felt in leaving here to “make something of myself” could—at long last—settle into humility.
I always thought I ran away from this place and from God, but you can’t run away from what’s already shaped you. In making peace with this past, I realized I am not better for leaving—but that I was able to grow so spectacularly because I cultivated my soul in this cold, rocky terrain. I was nurtured and nurtured myself to reach for the sunshine. I took all of the feelings of shame and regret and turned them into my rocket fuel. And it says so much that when my tank was empty, my journey brought me all the way across the country, back here, to where I was born.
Today, I passed my final exam from Harvard Divinity School “with distinction.” This journey is nearly over. To write 45 of the 63 pages of my final paper, I stayed in a tiny little hotel room in New York City, with the love of my life by my side. I had to be at my home—my soul’s home—to access my heart and write my truth. It was such a blessing to be able to feel like myself again.
The other 18 pages were written in Los Angeles. In 10 days, when I return to L.A., I know I won’t quite be at home. But I also know I’ll be at peace. This bizarre, surreal journey has taught me that our time here is so precious—too precious to go unexamined or disenchanted. It’s better to go easier on ourselves, to not take ourselves so seriously, so that we can more easily hear our truth. My friend Ellie inspired me to embrace the gifts of the West Coast: to step into the sun and feel what it’s like to be held, like a child, by the ocean. So until I am finally called home, that’s exactly what my soul is going to do.