The Shifting Definition of “Home”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “home.” When you teach creative writing, “home” is often the chosen topic for a beginning class, an easy, accessible topic for everyone to write about.

But is it, really?

The other day, I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Home is where Yinz Are.” (Yinz, for the non-Pittsburghers out there, is our version of “y’all”). It’s a twist on the familiar “Home is where the heart is,” the idea that home can be people, rather than a place.

For some reason, this really made me pause to think. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for nearly three years now, and some would say that makes it home. In many ways, it does. Yet, if someone asks me where I’m from, I always say “Cincinnati” or “Ohio.”

My suspicion is this: I don’t think I’m unique in finding “home” a complicated question. So many of my friends from college came to our University from another state. Few of us returned to our origin states for long. We are many of us spread across the country. I went back to Cincinnati for two years, but left again for Pittsburgh when I got accepted to grad school here. Other friends have gone out West, or East, or South, or many places other than our homes of origin.

A few generations ago, this was not so. My parents both grew up in suburbs of Cincinnati, got jobs there, got married there, had us kids there. The same for many of their friends. Yet, so many of my friends have dropped the label “home” all across the U.S. and even in other countries.

When I was in college, I’d say “I’m going home” when I drove both ways — to Evansville and to Cincinnati. Even now, I do the same when I return to Ohio to visit my family and when I come back to Pittsburgh. Home can be many places — the place you live now, the place where your heart sings that word from your very core (that’s Cincinnati, to me).

But what struck me most was this idea that home is comprised of the people we love. When you, and so many of the people you love, put down and pull up roots all across the country, even this alternative definition fails to suffice. Do I claim “home” as Michigan, Oregon, Kentucky, Virginia, Toledo, Cincinnati and so on, because that’s where my “yinz” are?

I don’t know why this whole idea of home gets under my skin, but it does. Whenever I teach a class with that theme or encounter a shirt like this one, I enter a mini existential crisis. There’s this idea that one should know where home is, that it should be a place of comfort, a place of return. But the truth is, I think the singular is outdated here. I think the word bothers me because I don’t have a home, I have many homes, plural.

Even seven years after studying abroad in England, I see photos of the manor where I lived during those four months and think “home.” The first time I visited the Blue Ridge Mountains, stepping into that space created a deep and sudden experience of “home,” though I’d never been there before. Cincinnati, city of my heart, will always be home, even if it isn’t my permanent address. And now, so will Pittsburgh.

When I talk to others my age with similar backgrounds, I hear similar stories — home is complicated, it has many meanings, many locations, many people attached. This isn’t true for everyone, but the internet has made it so much easier to find jobs and homes and humans all across the globe. It’s made many of us with the means much more mobile.

So I’m wondering, is it time to rethink the word “home” and what it means? To me, and so many people who’ve led similar lives with higher education, or work, or friends and loved ones taking them from place to place, it’s a word with many associations.

As human beings, we are prone to put down roots wherever we go. Sometimes the roots go deep, and the tugging up is a difficult process. Other times, our roots are shallow, and we leave readily, willingly (like ending the lease on an apartment you’ve outgrown). Still, I think it’s okay to leave bits and pieces of those roots behind where you need to. To say “home” and mean many places at once — to have not one place where the heart is, but many.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to read more, check out this piece about finally getting my PA license.

Pittsburgh-based writer & wearer of many metaphorical hats. Making words about self, health, books, travel, and more! She/her.

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