We were marching down the street, recanting through memories and noting how delightfully odd it was to feel as though we were exactly where we should be, while also experiencing feelings of simply not being entirely at home. Our conversation drifted into discussing how absurd and perhaps misleading it was to believe that one could ever feel entirely at home in a space. Our pace quickened in time with the intensity of our conversation, and seemingly at the crescendo, he asked me if I had ever felt settled. My steps stalled, and as he repeated his question, the gravity of the subject sank into me and pulled my heart into my stomach.
Catching up to speed once again, I responded with something relatively chipper, rounded the corner on the sidewalk, and changed the subject.
But the question barreled through me, and for the last few weeks, it has been lodged in my thoughts, creating static whenever I try to think clearly.
Had I ever felt settled?
I flashed to my most fondly cherished moments: from childhood, to the halls of my high school, that I still know so well. My thoughts traced to sitting on couches with my women friends, cradling souls and teacups, to afternoons spent in Philadelphia with popsicles and sangria. I thought of highlights, of delivering shaky speeches in chapel, to times I safely spoke my truth in women's groups. I thought of holidays with grandparents, whose wrinkles and jokes I know by heart. I thought of crawling in bed with my parents. I thought of families and individuals I loved in Quito. I thought of my host mamo who cared for me so deeply during my cross-cultural study. I thought of the mountains of Oregon and how they enveloped me in their largeness.
Rationally, because those moments are so deeply entrenched in my soul, I reasoned that they must have been times I felt settled.
But at my core, had I felt settled? Those were also moments of deep impermanence: childhood was gone in an instant and high school and college seemed to flash by in the blink of an eye. Beyond childhood, the times that I've felt most connected to places and people occurred when I felt keenly aware that my time was limited. Most moments were coupled with the looming unknown of the end of summer, the next semester, the next unfolding chapter.
In my adult life, I have never decorated a bedroom with the anticipation of staying for longer than a year.
As I've bounced from context to context, I've often joked with loved ones that I would be happiest if I could pack them up in suitcases and bring them with me throughout each adventure. This is doubtlessly because the moments that I have felt most deeply settled, most deeply known, most deeply at home, is through relationship. The spaces that ground me, the soil that I have sunk my roots deeply into, is my community. The space that I feel settled in is in relationship to people.
When asked where I feel settled, I cannot point to a place on a map, and I find this alarming sometimes. But I can tell you the exact geography of the bodies of the people who ground me. My home, my sense of being settled, is in the crook of an arm, secured through handholds fastened together through interlocked fingers.
But relationships would be boring if they were as stagnant and stable as the foundation of a house. Relationships move and are molded, and I wonder if it is safe that my sense of belonging is held exclusively by other people. Further, knowing that so many others hold pieces of my home and that those people are placed all over the globe, I'm terrified. Will I ever feel settled? Will I ever have all the people, all the pieces of my heart in one place?
The spoken word-poet, Sarah Kay, captured some of my sentiments in a speech delivered at Scripp's College commencement. She states:
When I am inside writing,
all I can think about is how I should be outside living.
When I am outside living,
all I can do is notice all there is to write about.
When I read about love, I think I should be out loving.
When I love, I think I need to read more.
I am stumbling in pursuit of grace,
I hunt patience with a vengeance.
On the mornings when my brother’s tired muscles
held to the pillow, my father used to tell him,
For every moment you aren’t playing basketball,
someone else is on the court practicing.
I spend most of my time wondering if I should be somewhere else.
I find that I am nearly constantly wondering if I should be somewhere else. I feel plagued by echoes of doubt. I feel drawn to be near familiarity, and then drained of energy when I don't feel challenged enough. I wonder, continuously, if I would feel more settled, more at home, in a different community. And these feelings push me to wonder if a sense of being settled is an indicator of being in line with the Divine.
Perhaps my continuous uncertainty is why I find myself feeling so comfortable in cities. Cities are transitive -- a fact that I face blatantly with each morning commute on the Metro Red Line: when the arteries of traffic are congested with people flowing in from disparate places. Though I leave my house at the same time every day, and would likely have the same schedule as many, I find that I am almost more surprised when I see a familiar face than when I am surrounded by complete strangers.
Within a week, the skyline of the city can change: buildings regularly rise up and fall down. Art installments are posted, new food trucks populate the street lining our park each day, patrolmen are rotated into different positions and locations. There are few things that I count on with certainty. It's invigorating to feel as though I'm waking and greeting a new city each day.
Simultaneously, it's exhausting.
Sometimes, I close my eyes, and simply meditate on all of the skylines I've woken up to over the last few years. Skylines I've fallen in love with. In each city that I've planted my feet in, I can remember my routes to work. I can picture each dip and dive of the pavement. I remember the faces I past with fleeting regularity.
Sometimes, I'll walk down the street in a nondescript American town, and the clouds will remind me of the volcano of Cotopaxi, and in an instant, I'll be transported to a home that held me for a mere four months.
I can't quite articulate the unique form of heartbreak it is to realize that often the places I've loved and left have experienced tremendous pain. Ecuador experienced a volcanic eruption, an earthquake, and resultant tremors after I left. Communities I loved in Georgia have experienced tremendous loss. Turkey and Greece have experienced political turmoil. Bulgaria continues to be the poorest country in the European Union. Colombia chose to continue into the unknown with their peace treaties with the FARC.
It feels like the entire world is aching, and I feel like I have simply passed through spaces, voraciously moving through experience to experience. In the expansive and all encompassing face of pain, I feel inconsequential. I feel so insignificant when I realize that I lived and loved and left.
Am I where I'm supposed to be?
Sarah Kay concludes her poem with these words:
I have learned to shape the words thank youI am trying to live this: to exercise simple thankfulness for the variety of experiences, people, and places who have shaped me.
with my first breath each morning, my last breath every night.
When the last breath comes, at least I will know I was grateful
for all the places I was so sure I was not supposed to be.
All those places I made it to,
all the loves I held, all the words I wrote.
And even if it is just for one moment,
I know I will be exactly where I am supposed to be.
But I have also felt a profound call to be more than transitive in a space. I want to build and shape the skylines that surround us. I want to grow with people and to accompany communities.
Though I have never felt particularly settled in a place, I have felt a call to contribute more deeply, to act as though each space is my home. I have felt a call to give more profoundly. And perhaps that is what drew me to working for Habitat for Humanity. Before I started working, I read what would be my job description, and was moved when I saw that the title for my responsibilities was: "What you will build."
I looked at my hands and I thought of how uncomfortable I felt leaving places with only my stories and my love and my poems. And I thought of how gratifying it would be to feel as though I could be a part of something enormous. I thought of how gratifying it would be to build cities and houses and create homes.
And it has been so invigorating. My organization believes in permanence that is secured through processes of change. We believe in firm foundations, insulated walls, and secure, strong roofs. My organization finds purpose in creating something durable, visibly changing landscapes and definitively changing the course of individual lives and community spirits. Even the language at Habitat promotes building, with certainty, creating with vision. I cannot write or speak haphazardly in my workplace. We refer to our work with phrases like, "heavy lifts." We do not send out brochures, we send out "tool kits." When we look at our job plans, the central, motivating question is, "what will you build?"
Working at Habitat, I am not allowed the luxury to pass through a place without giving of myself. I am not allowed the luxury of feeling insignificant.
I am charged to do and be more. I am charged to change skylines. I am asked to build.
Thinking this way is so entirely unnatural for me. It challenges me. It intimidates me. It invigorates me.
I know that my contract is for a year, and I know that I still do not feel settled into DC yet, and I know that I have so much more exploring yet to do. Sometimes I feel insecure that I don't yet have clear vision of what being "settled" means to me. Sometimes it feels like an inadequacy that I do not have a defined vision of what I want my future to look like. Sometimes, I downplay the ways that I have given of myself significantly to places.
But, I have come to recognize that I am continuously building.
I am establishing permanence, growing roots, creating relationship constantly. I am becoming more settled each day in my body and in my soul. I am building my own home.
I am building when I write.
I am building every time I hold someone through their process of healing.
I am building every time I act with care.
I am building each time I smile at a familiar face in the subway.
I am building when I send letters.
I am building when I cast my absentee ballot.
I am building when I spend evenings with watercolors, painting flourish.
I am building when I offer my arms and my heart.
I am building as I offer myself to the world.