About 18 months after I move anywhere new, I start getting itchy feet. I magically forget the painful process of packing everything we own, of readying a house for sale, rent, or return to landlord, of organising schools, animals, and our own travel. I put on my rose-tinted glasses and look around for the next place to be. I stare longingly at glossy photoshopped prints of far away places and imagine daily life there. I conveniently forget the drudgery of learning where everything is, learning how to buy things in a new place, learning the local currency (both financial and linguistic), learning how to get around. I forget the loneliness of leaving the familiar, the loved. I forget the tentative toe-dipping terror of entering new friendships, the complicated dance of figuring out who the other person is, and how they work. I have eyes only for the next adventure.
We’ve lived in the U.S. For two and a half years, and for the last year I’ve had itchy feet. I’m immersed in the wondering whether this place is where I’ll stay long into the future, portion of our stay (it is, there are factors other than just my whims that dictate that… but you know, I wonder regardless). I daydream of different places. My ears twitch for the sounds of different tongues, the noises that populate a new space. I itch for new flavours, new smells, new colours.
It’s also been about a year of wondering where exactly ‘home’ now is.
Home has always been a tenuous concept for me. By the time I was five, I had moved countries three times. By the time I was in Grade 2, I had been to four schools. In my life, I’ve lived in 15 different domiciles of varying permanence. Fifteen. I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m pathologically incapable of staying put.
When I was young, the concept of home and belonging were centred on where my parents were. My siblings flew the coup early when they were packed off to boarding school not too long after I was born. My mother and I followed them after a year of her suffering intensely in their absence, leaving my father behind to carry on with his work. But the reunion with my siblings only lasted a year, before my mother and I settled them back into boarding school, and went back to my father.
Through my teen years, home was wherever the noisy rabble of my family was. My much older siblings and their friends were the cool kids in my eyes, and I wanted to be where they were. My identity shifted with the sands; Indian at home and with my community, Australian at school and with my friends, I slipped between worlds and words like a cultural sprite.
By the time I hit my late teens, my sense of home and identity had shifted again. It had become mercurial, sliding according to the audience. Having never lived outside of a city, my sense of Australianness was coloured by urbanity. While my sense of Indianness hinged on the hermetically sealed cultural identity of my community, and the four week snippets of vacation-hued immersion on trips to the homeland.
In my thirties, I got up close and personal with remote Australia. I had a taste of what eking out a life, making it a rich experience, was like in the midst of nothing. The extreme contrast of isolation and welcome are found in remote Australian communities; at once holding you at arm’s length, and drawing you near the fire. My understanding of the enormity of Australia, the richness of its many cultural heritages, the connection of its indigenous people to land, really only became clear to me then. My quiet pride in my own identity, my acceptance of the co-existence of multiple influences, cemented in the midst of the red dirt, soaring summer temperatures, and long, shimmering bitumen roads. This may have been my clearest sense of home, even after we returned to a capitol city.
When we moved across the world, landing in entirely unfamiliar surrounds, it was this image of home that I clung to. That I still cling to. It isn’t the bustling city life, it isn’t the bucolic idyll of the suburbs in the hills outside of Perth. It’s the harsh, exacting, sun bleached world of remote living. It’s the finding nothing on shelves at the supermarket when a cyclone’s approaching, it’s the suffocating stillness of a carless night, it’s the weight of a million flies on your back, and the nauseating feel of the one that flew down your throat, it’s the breathtaking, tear-inducing dark blanket of night sky dotted with jewel stars from horizon to horizon. It’s the sitting with unlikely friends around a fire, walking on beaches made entirely of seashells, sitting in water surrounded by fish and dolphins. It’s driving, fingers embedded in the steering wheel, knuckles whitening, eyelids drooping, on ruler straight roads at dusk, keenly watchful for wandering kangaroos, emus, donkeys, goats, camels, and cows. It’s that sense of tension, the knowing you can die from a poor decision, a moment’s inattention. There’s nothing more life affirming than the imminent threat of death.
And now, two and a half years on, I’ve been away long enough that the Earth rotated, while my image stayed still. There’s a misalignment between my sense of home, and the reality. Buildings have been demolished and built anew, friends have moved on or away, children’s friends have grown up, family have grown old. The creeping knowledge that if we returned, we would be strangers, foreigners, sits uncomfortably in my chest.
We exist in a limbo; where we are now is not yet home, where we were, is no longer home.