Sunday, February 26, 2012


Although I've loved each of the four cities and regions in which I've lived and every one felt (and still does feel) like home, it's only recently that I've started thinking about what it means to be rooted in a particular location in the way that most people seem to be rooted. I've never had that kind of relationship to place and I'm not sure I ever will.

My parents weren't natives of the state in which I grew up, and neither were most of my friends' parents; indeed, on the rare occasions when I met someone whose grandparents lived across town or whose parents had attended a neighboring high school, I was astonished. Although the families I knew were all well-anchored in our community--our parents bought houses, joined churches, ran for office, and stayed put for 20 or 40 years--it just seemed to be the natural order of things that each generation moved elsewhere. Every summer of my childhood featured a rolling temporary diaspora as my friends and their families traveled to one state or another, or even overseas, to visit their grandparents and cousins.

And sure enough, I moved across the country for college--and moved again, to Manhattan, then back to grad school, then back to Manhattan, and finally to Cha-Cha City when I got this job. That's more or less what all my friends have done, though some have moved farther and some less far, some more times and some fewer. We've moved basically by choice: for school, for a job, for a partner, or just for a change of scene; our choices weren't infinite and were usually circumscribed in various ways, but moving somewhere new always meant doing something new, and usually something better. Haven't Americans always been a people on the move?

But as it turns out, Cha-Cha City isn't a place that people move to. In my first year or two here I was continually getting asked--by shop clerks, tradespeople, my students--why I'd moved here. When I told them cheerfully that it was for a job, they'd repeat the question. At first I thought this was about the local residents' modesty, or maybe low civic self-esteem: they didn't realize what a cool place this was! And so I talked up all the awesome things about the city, and why I loved it, and why I was happier here than I'd been elsewhere.

But then I realized that that wasn't it. It's that, for most people--not just here, but across the country--it's odd to move around a lot and even odder to decide to settle down in a random location to which one has no personal connections. Most people I meet find it strange that Cosimo and I grew up on opposite coasts, strange that we each at different points attended schools 3,000 miles away from our families, and even stranger that, now that our schooling is done, we live close neither to school nor friends nor family.

I'm tempted to call this a class difference, but it isn't, or at least not in the usual sense of that word: there are plenty of prosperous, educated, well-traveled people in this city and cities like it, people who may have lived elsewhere at various points in their lives, but who are here, now, mostly because they're from here. (And, of course, there are just as many people in my own "class" who have fled their childhood homes but now can't imagine leaving their adopted homes of New York, Boston, or D.C.; L.A., Chicago, or San Francisco; Austin, Portland, or Denver.)

It's that kind of rootedness that feels foreign to me. I'm ready to settle here. I could live here for twenty years. But at any point I could probably still leave on six month's notice--because I'm not from here and because being with my spouse and having a satisfying career is more of a priority than living in a specific place, even one that I love.

The thing is, I love lots of places. Lots of places could be home. But that means there isn't one, in particular, that is home.


Andrew Stevens said...

How rootless or rooted one was as a child seems to make a big difference. It is odd to me that my daughter is a native Iowan. I grew up in Connecticut where both sides of my family had lived for many generations, so I still think of myself as a transplanted New Englander, although I have spent more of my life out of Connecticut than I did living there. My wife, however, considers Iowa her home since she was born in Colorado and grew up in Kentucky and Missouri and did not feel rooted to one place as a child.

feMOMhist said...

we live in RootedvIlle as in my kids go to school with children from extended families, grandparents are omnipresent,etc and everyone finds it odd that we aren't from here and are different. I never feel at home.

Flavia said...


I think that's really true. Many of my friends who live in the orbit of Boston or New York (&c.) nevertheless feel strongly tied to their childhood homes; some of them have fantasies of return and some don't, but they all seem to have more of a place-based sense of self than I do.

I consider myself fundamentally a Westerner in ethos and outlook, but a) my family is scattered up and down the coast, and b) for me being a Westerner is about a kind of restlessness and independence and willingness to pack up and go. So though I have a stronger gut-level affinity for the west than the east, the Seattle area (where I grew up) doesn't really feel any more like home than coastal Oregon (where my aunt & uncle live), or inland California (where my dad grew up and where we spent my childhood summers), or even Utah (which I've only visited).


Yes, well, that's the downside! I love living in a city that has a strong local identity and sense of place--but luckily mine is big enough, with enough industries/schools that bring people in (and only a 6-hour drive from some major metropolises), that it doesn't feel as if no one ever moves in or would ever leave.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Andrew makes a good point, but my own experience doesn't bear it out. I'm pretty much exactly as "rootless" now as Flavia and Cosimo are, and also count four different places as "home" but I stayed close to my original home until my late 20s.

I went to a Very Famous College, but it was the local one. After that I lived in the local big city, and then went to a Graduate School not so far away. I was basically within 100 miles of my birthplace for something like 27 years and 8 months of my first 28 years. Then, BAM! Totally globalized, breaking my old mother's heart. And some of my biggest life events have happened in a place where I've *never* lived.

I think it does come down to class in some ways, if we break class down into "networks" and "opportunities." I've been everywhere in part because people I was close to (college friends, a sibling) had already gone to some of the places I was heading, and because those places offered me opportunities that seemed worth pursuing across state lines. I think, in many ways, that this *is* class, or one side of class.

Withywindle said...

I still find it odd sometimes that I'm a Brooklynite now, not a Manhattanite.

Anonymous said...

As one of the ones with return fantasies, I think about this a lot. It still sort of breaks my heart that my kids won't grow up with a "home" as I know it (i.e, related to half the town), and I still feel in a way like i've betrayed this very special thing I had, this feeling that I came from Someplace. And of course that I've betrayed many generations of family. By living 3.5 hours away. But my goal is that the boys know it and love it as I do, despite living elsewhere.

I've definitely thought in the past about you, and about what it took for you to move across the country at 18 years old. You were a way braver 18 year old than I was ! You know as much as anyone exactly how much I loved and cherished my Bright College Years, but I often think that if I had realized that I would never live at home again, not truly, I don't think I could have done it. So glad you are made of more adventurous stock... God bless your pioneer forefathers (and foremothers)!


i said...

Dude, try going through your third legal immigration (I completed it this past summer). At this point, I've lived in five countries (four as a resident/citizen, and the fifth for long visits), covering four different languages -- six if you count the French and Spanish on cereal boxes and subway posters. I'm about to give birth to the first American in either my family or my husband's, and my husband and I do not share a single citizenship. Crossing borders is about to become even more interesting.

The thing is, you live like this and you come to realise that you simply cannot predict where you will be in 10 or 20 years. My own grandmothers emigrated in their 60's. If you were to tell me that I will spend the end of my life in a country I have never even visited until now, speaking a language I don't now know a word of, I wouldn't be a whit surprised. (Brazil? Zaire? Taiwan?)

And frankly, although I have all sorts of strategies for dealing with it, it also gets a bit exhausting. I'm a social creature and I love meeting new people, but sometimes I long for the friends who saw me at my worst ten years ago and still talk to me now.

Belle said...

I've lost count of my moves (40+), but know that I've been here longer than anywhere else since I left home at 18. That's 40 years ago... and while it's home for now, that's only temporary. Home is where my animals are, where I keep my books. As they're all portable, we make a home wherever we end up. I'm the restless one in the family - all the rest (that I know of) are either in CA or OR. Have been all their lives - and most within 40 miles of where they grew up.

Which, quite frankly, freaks me out.

Concord Fowling Pieces said...

Andrew, you've basically described my parents (though they were both from new england before moving to Iowa)--my mother still can't really believe she's lived there for 40 years.

In Iowa City, there was more of a mix of rooted and rootless people than Flavia experienced (that is, I had several friends who chose to attend Luther rather than coastal schools to which they'd been accepted, simply because they were too far away), and so I had gotten used to that conflict before rolling up on INRU. And it's expressed in me, too. I consider myself to have two homes, New England and Iowa. But those are, explicitly, homes of the imagination to me. I've always understood that I would live where my feet took me.

So after 15 years in transient-rich New England college cities, I was simply not prepared for what I've found in my new mountain home any longer. Here at Directional Appalachian U, most students can't bear to go more than a few weeks without visiting home. And that's where I think DC is right. There's a certain truth to there being some sort of global traveling class. Related to wealth, certainly, but without a perfect match. Because isn't the corollary to "why would you move here," "why should I stay?" And I wonder how often the answer boils down to "I don't know how I would leave."

Shane in Utah said...

This post struck a chord with me. I was going to post something along the lines of what Dr. Cleveland said above: I spent my first 20 years pretty firmly "rooted" in Tennessee, where my parents both came from. But as a teenager I always hated it there, and couldn't wait to leave, and when I did leave for college I never moved back and have never missed it once.

Since then I've lived in four different states. I've been in Utah for seven years now, and I like it more than I ever thought I would. But it doesn't really feel like "home"--I'm not sure what that even means, really. Nor do I feel like I'm missing something by not being rooted in the place.

This might be in part because my little college town is oddly segregated: the townies mostly descend from pioneers who carried their handcarts through Emigration Canyon right behind Brigham Young, while the faculty (at least in the humanities and SS) come from all over the country and the world. It contributes to the town/gown divide (not to mention the Mormon/Non-Mormon divide) in interesting ways, and it means that I spend most of my social time with people who also don't have family nearby...

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a small town in Tennessee where lots of people return to live after going a shortish distance away for college. I went to college about an hour away from my childhood home, but in the not quite 20 years since I graduated with my BA, I've lived in 6 states in this country and three European countries! My kids have lived in most of these places as well. I did for a time feel I was cheating them out of a "real home," since also, up until now, we have never bought a house (since we were never anywhere we intended to stay really long term, though we are probably going to buy a place where we are now). But now I think I've given them something else valuable--a sense that "home" can be anywhere we find ourselves as a family, as well as a sense of adaptability, adventure, and versatility. By the way, I too have loved everywhere I have lived, and could have happily stayed in most of them. They have all had their own charms and pleasures, although they have all been quite different from each other, and from the place where I grew up.

Flavia said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks. I have more to say about place and class, but I think I'll save it for a second post.

CFP gets best at what I feel about rootedness vs. rootlessness. I was very willing to leave my childhood home and it never occurred to me, then or throughout my 20s/early 30s, that there was anywhere I couldn't move to or couldn't live (which isn't to say that all locations were always on the table: I've always wanted to live abroad, for example, but there was never a point at which that made practical sense--and I never wanted to do it enough that I made it happen). This is something that I wish for my students, too, and the other young people I meet: that they always feel capable of leaving, if they wish to, and not pressured or expected to stay.

Living in a small town, surrounded by extended family, and where no one ever leaves, sounds like hell to me. But I do wish that I were a little more grounded in some particular place--and grounded, as I'm suggesting, in a way that goes beyond paying taxes, doing business with local merchants, holding season tickets to the local cultural organizations, and getting involved in civic matters. I can do all those things here, but my family and my (pre-existing) friends aren't here, and there's no saying whether I'll be here for the long term myself. And if I left, I'd never have a reason to return.

It's weird to feel that way about a place that you love: that your love is true--but not really based in anything other than chance and temporary affinity.

Andrew Stevens said...

Living in a small town, surrounded by extended family, and where no one ever leaves, sounds like hell to me.

It would be interesting to see some research on this because I would guess that people in those circumstances are happier on average than the rootless, based on my own experience with both groups. There is a reason why CFP's students can't bear to go more than a few weeks without visiting home, after all.

Andrew Stevens said...

CFP, here in Iowa I have a friend who grew up on a farm near UNI. He's a brilliant young man who did very well in his rural high school. I was initially very puzzled why he went to UNI only to find that he never even applied anywhere else. He makes a salary in the mid six figures here in Des Moines and still goes home to help on his parents' farm every weekend.

Flavia said...


I said to me.

And what I really meant was: it would have felt like hell when I was 18 or 25. I've always had a good relationship with my family, but when I was an adolescent I desperately wanted to go somewhere else and somewhere new. I would have hated being at the local flagship, just 20 minutes away, with half my high school graduating class.

But at this point in my life, if it were possible, I would love to live somewhere that was, let's say, 2-3 hours from both my and Cosimo's families. Since that isn't possible, at least as long as they persist in living on opposite coasts, being closer to one would be better than being close to none.

That is what this post is about: I haven't ever been concerned about feeling rootless before; indeed, I've always thought myself good at putting down roots wherever I am, for however long I'm there. But as I get older, I do feel the lack of a more fundamental connection to place.

i said...

Re "small town":

I would guess that happiness with living in the original "home" depends more on an individual's personality than on anything else. There are people who can't wait to leave their small town or small city and will do anything to do so, and there are people for whom the comforts of family and familiarity are more important. By the age of 18 I had lived on three continents; by the same age my husband had lived in the same suburb of the same small city. We've both had quite mobile lives since then (I perhaps a little less, because I was tired of moving so much), and we are likely to remain mobile, at least for sabbaticals and such.

But here's the thing: I think the idea of the stereotypical "small town" is a bit of a red herring here. I did most of my growing up in a metropolis, and I know lots of people who were born there and never left, not even for a single year. It's less noticeable because a huge city offers a more diverse experience than a small town would, but they are still as bound to their families and to the comfort of knowing exactly where everything is.

And to Andrew Stevens: Yes, it would be interesting, but I also suspect there are many people who also regret the opportunities they missed by not leaving. Again, I'm not thinking of small towns specifically. But I have friends who did not apply to grad schools outside our city but then expressed some frustration with the fact that I went away and had different experiences. Or friends who for other reasons weren't able to leave, and are a little sick of the same old. Do I envy them their support systems? God yes. Do they envy me my adventures? Probably. But I suspect we also made the choices we did because of our priorities at the time, and we'd probably all be more miserable if we hadn't done so.

Withywindle said...

Oh, yes:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

i said...

Flavia, I feel that too. I'm weeks, maybe days, from popping out a kid, and a few months ago I had a real crisis realising that I live in a place where despite the fact that I know many warm, wonderful people, I have nobody (other than partner) close enough to comfortably ask them for help with the kinds of things I'll need during and after the birth. You know, people I wouldn't feel I needed to clean the apartment for first... this was an incredibly hard realization.

Flavia said...

I: yes to your entire comment at 6:18, but especially the part about "small towns" being a red herring.

It really blew my mind, when I got to college, the number of my fellow freshmen who hailed from cities that I thought of as very cosmopolitan who told me that they could never have gone "away" to school--that INRU, at 2-3 hours from their friends and family, was the outer limit of where they could have gone.

As you say, the willingness to move/not move really boils down to personality more than anything else, although a) it's also true that (as CFP says) the unwillingness to move is often partly the result of a lack of resources or connections that would make moving thinkable, and b) this can change over time. I've got students who were emphatic about staying local for college--but who are quite willing to move a state over for grad school, or for a partner's job, when the time comes.

Andrew Stevens said...

Flavia, I didn't think you were generalizing. I know you were just talking about your own perspective. I was just saying that this may only be because you didn't grow up with it. I don't know though, which is why I'd like to see some research done on it. It is certainly the case that there are some people who grow up that way who can't wait to escape it (usually, though not always, because they are unhappy with their families).