The first time I visited London, I was 17, and freshly graduated from high school, trying to keep up with my father as he played family tour guide around the city. I couldn’t have known then, but one day, I would live there for a short time, as a student. They would be some of the most formative months of my youth. Can you really say you lived in a place that was just a study abroad destination? I don’t know, but I’ve been back four more times since, and each time, it feels like I never left and the city is mine.
After school, Trevor and I moved to Colorado. In Denver, we found our first jobs, got engaged, came back as a married couple to build a life—buy a house, have a couple of babies, plant a garden, get a dog. We had all the makings of the American Dream, I suppose, and yet I felt displaced. I loved our little bungalow and we had nice neighbors. There’s no shortage of good food in Denver, things to do; but I never truly felt like I belonged. It was like I was living out a life, except maybe home was a notion dreamed up by children that, like other things, falls flat on this side of adulthood
My first memories of New York City (because apparently my dad packed three-year-old me all over that town), are right after I finished grad school, reeling from the emotional drain and emboldened for some big, new experience. My parents took me through all the sights, we walked the streets, we bought the clothes. I could see Future Me there, making my way through a day, nothing special; just connecting myself to whatever invisible energy grid hides in the sidewalks and feeds the inhabitants. I thought that every time I visited—once a year for every year after that first trip, just to see friends, just to be there. It was like I had to be there. And then one day, I was. We didn’t know it when we left Colorado, but our stint in New York turned out to be small. Still, in that short time, I came alive. The electricity was real and it jolted me awake to the real me—me the friend, me the writer, me the mother. When we left, just two years later, I cried from the Verazzano Bridge to Indiana. Like a plant uprooted from its natural habitat, I felt like I was wilting.
We struggled through a chaos for several months that’s been told in other stories, and all the paths born from that tumult led straight back into Denver. I found the city changed, but certainly no warmer than we’d left it. We rented a dilapidated little house so the girls could go to a nice school, and I was ever wondering about home. I decided to put the work in, and I scoured the dingy carpets and whitewashed walls and hung linen sheers that blew around in the breeze to convince myself that I was there. Many days, it felt hard to remember. But sometimes I would peek at our girls playing in the side yard or the afternoon light would bathe the living room in yellow. These little pockets in time felt reminiscent of a drizzly afternoon in London or like climbing the steps from the F train into Brooklyn to walk to our apartment. How?
Maybe, I thought, home is not a place, home is a feeling.
When our lease was up in that crumbly little house, my husband’s newly founded business was not yet a year old. According to tax laws, at the very least, it would be more than another year before we could buy our own house; and so, we had decisions to make about home. Hadn’t we felt the most at home those times we’d pushed ourselves into whatever distant dream was calling? Perhaps going home isn’t about discovering who you are in a certain place, but in going anywhere that brings you life—like London had, for me, like New York. There are different versions of me in many different places. We let the rental house go. We bought some pretty Away suitcases. We wrapped our couch in plastic and stashed it in my parents’ barn. Last year, the Noels spent July-November finding a hundred little homes in Oklahoma and Tennessee, Brooklyn and Kansas City; then Spain, France, Italy, and even back to beloved England.
I can’t downplay it—it was an enviable experience that our strange, nomadic circumstances made possible for a very brief window in time. And for all the lovely places we stayed that made me come alive, it is a strange feeling to travel the world, constantly moving because there is no place to go home to. It was with that in mind, upon returning from Europe, we moved heaven and earth to buy the perfect-for-us house in the forest of Colorado. This, we declared, would be home. The home our children knew. The perch for every Christmas tree from now until they are grown. The place where we would dig in and learn ourselves in that space instead of surrendering to the temptation to go and find something new.
There was no dirty carpet to clean, though we did have to paint the walls white. This spot is a place of our choosing, not selected out of necessity. Here we will rebuild home. I need to hang the linens on the windows still, like a need to find a place to make friends, a place to give back. Home is a feeling, but home is also an effort. Like any other thriving, successful relationship, it is a commitment—a promise to stay, to invest. And with the excitement of finally coming home wearing off, I have to remind myself that it was never about the search in the first place; it was about the staying still.
I think it is a very human trait to be ever-searching—for places of rest and places to come alive; for sources of inspiration and love and passions; for the yet undiscovered parts of ourselves that, when found, make us that much more whole. So it, really, is a discipline of the heart to find home and to stay home. It is like love, in that, it is chosen. When something is loved, it blossoms. So, whether you’re never in one spot for more than a week or you’ve never left the town where you were born, the trick is to choose it every day. And in being the choice, home will take shape and come alive for you, right where you are.