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What Feeling “At Home” Means to Me

As the world is going stark raving mad, maybe what we don't need is more nostalgia, comfort, security, or chocolate.

October 30, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

Home, as in the place where I grew up and where my parents still live, is southern California. I’m from a wealthy, mostly white, ridiculously pleasant, master-planned community called Laguna Niguel.

Home, as in the place where I have put down my adult roots and to which I feel the strongest allegiance, is the Bay Area. As of this year, I’ve lived in San Francisco longer than I’ve lived anywhere else.

But I don’t live there anymore.

My son was born six months ago. The pandemic lockdown began two weeks later, at which point our clan immediately and permanently outgrew our pocket-sized condo in San Francisco. We moved in with my in-laws in the sort-of-hippie, kind-of-pastoral town of Sebastopol, about an hour north.

It’s nice. There’s a garden, chickens, a pond, and plenty of green grass for my three-year-old daughter to patrol. (My youngest child still depends on the legs of others for transportation.) I’ve commandeered a spare bedroom as my office. We cook at home every night. I alternate dinner duties with my mother-in-law, and we’ve built up a good kitchen rapport. We’ve moved beyond formalities like, “May I use some of the potatoes you bought?” Mise en place is now communal.

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“The idea of "home" is the place that you can seek refuge, that you can make a source of comfort and solace. It can never be overrated if you've ever experienced any disconnect with your home, any time where forces outside of your control played a part in whether you have a home, or can access it, or can keep it. When you have been without that anchor or security, it's hard to fathom how utterly important it is. It's not the feeling of "home" that is the problem, it's using it as a deflection or avoidance of reality in the name of comfort. And let's not forget that the call for finding comfort at home this year often comes as a response to those who have been frustrated to be restricted to it.”
— M
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I cook with less salt and chile to accommodate the tastes—and blood pressure—of various house members, but overall I feel comfortable cooking here. Everyone’s been game to eat whatever I put down. I’ve adapted to where my mother-in-law keeps things in the pantry and the drawers, and I know where to source ingredients in town. There’s a tiny Lao market about 20 minutes away, where I pick up tofu, fish sauce, shrimp paste, dumpling skins, garlic chives, long eggplants, peeled garlic, nori sheets, Kewpie mayo, and other essentials.

But for people like me—and I’ll assume for you, Food52 reader—whose lives revolve around the kitchen, there is an irreplaceable satisfaction baked in to the familiarity of one’s own cupboards. Once a week during the first few months of lockdown, my wife and kids and I would visit our home in San Francisco, just to give the in-laws some space and to let down our own hair for a day or two.

Then, four months after moving to Sebastopol, we sold our place in SF. Given that we were leaving our home of more than a decade—the place where my wife and I started our married life and brought our children home from the hospital—it was as gentle a transition as one could hope for. With the exception of the occasional visits, we weren’t really living there anymore. It was feeling less like our home, even before we sold it.

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The fact is, my editor emailed to ask me to write a piece about 'home' at the exact moment I began having trouble pointing to where that was, exactly.

That being said, immediately upon closing escrow, I was overcome with longing for San Francisco. The biggest selling point of our modest home was its ridiculous panoramic view of the city. I could see the Bay Bridge, downtown, Bernal Hill, the shores of Oakland, and the tip of the peninsula with one twist of the head. Not many people are afforded a daily visual reminder of the city they live in. SF was our home and our roommate.

Zuni roast chickens began to haunt my dreams, as did the meat sauce at Cordon Bleu, the birria from El Patron, and a thousand other tastes that now felt completely out of reach. Even a quick excursion to the city seemed harder than before. Where would we put the kids down for a nap? Where would we go to the bathroom and change diapers? Where could we sit down?

The fact is, my editor emailed to ask me to write a piece about “home” at the exact moment I began having trouble pointing to where that was, exactly. This week, we’re moving to Oakland—just the four of us. I feel some degree of confidence restored now that I’m putting a roof over my family and no longer mooching off my in-laws, but I don’t know shit about Oakland. Friends have been sending local recommendations, and I’m excited to be within walking distance of a promising Ethiopian spot, a great birria truck, a well-stocked Korean market, and three natural wine shops, but this doesn’t feel like home. Not yet, at least.

For those who move more often than once a decade—military brats, pro athletes, corporate consultants, Berbers, and most people in their twenties—none of this will be especially illuminating. But it’s an unfamiliar sensation to me. I also get the sense that uprooting and abandoning your comfort zone runs counterintuitive to what the current climate—and I mean that in every sense of the word—dictates.

“Now more than ever…” is a phrase I hear being employed to sell everything from cable internet and car insurance to public policy. Now more than ever, your home means everything. Now more than ever, people are looking for peace of mind. The prevailing message is one of retreat: As the world is going stark raving mad, what you need is nostalgia, comfort, security, chocolate.

While I agree that this is a monumentally unsettling moment in our history, I’m suggesting that if you’re feeling nervous or angry or completely unhinged about it all, do not withdraw inward. Keep pushing to know more than what’s around you. And I mean that regardless of where you fall on the ideological spectrum. While it’d be an overstatement to say that my family’s recent residential itinerancy is directly inspired by a desire to stay open and engaged, we have made a conscious effort not to let politics or pandemics drive us deeper into what we already know. I’m getting tired of eating at home, and I’m growing more and more suspicious of feeling at home.

How has the meaning of "home" changed for you this year? Tell us in the comments.
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  • labingha
    labingha
  • Liz Summers
    Liz Summers
  • M
    M
Editor in chief and cofounder of Lucky Peach. Also the author of The Wurst of Lucky Peach and coauthor of Ivan Ramen and The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook.

3 Comments

labingha November 3, 2020
Since the death of my father-in-law in August, my family and I have been living in Sebastopol as well, relocating from our home in Berkeley. I find what I'm struggling with most is where my community is rather than where my home is. I definitely have a sense that I've abandoned my neighborhood community and my children's school community in a way that may be beneficial in the short term, but not in the long term.
 
Liz S. October 30, 2020
I align with all that @M wrote and I'm unclear how the article aligns with the title.

"While I agree that this is a monumentally unsettling moment in our history, I’m suggesting that if you’re feeling nervous or angry or completely unhinged about it all, do not withdraw inward. Keep pushing to know more than what’s around you. And I mean that regardless of where you fall on the ideological spectrum." Hmmm ... I understand it is a suggestion. Not one I have or will take, though.

I am 65. I have worked from a home office as a self employed computer programmer (software developer) for 35 years. I have lived in semi-rural NW Montana for almost 27 years and prior had a 14 year Bay Area/Los Angeles residence. I grew up in NW Ohio.

I have ALWAYS felt that my physical abode was home. I never refer to nor think of Ohio (birthplace) as home.

In addition to my little (1 BR 1BA on 8 acres) stick house, I have had a motorhome for 15 years and because of my "work from home" status ... home is sometimes where the motorhome is parked.

Whether it is my stick house or my motorhome, I am very "at Home" in either and have made both "homey" to my standard of homey. And that has always been important to me. I do not consider feeling "at Home" overrated at all.

To each their own :) ... we all have an idea of what makes us comfortable.

@M also made an extremely valid point: "a response to those who have been frustrated to be restricted to it. [home]" and I think that you (author) must be included in that group. I am NOT frustrated to be restricted to my house and mostly I've made that choice regardless of COVID-19.

The meaning of "home" has not changed for me in any way. I make my "home" where I am and am happier at "home" than anywhere else.
 
M October 30, 2020
The idea of "home" is the place that you can seek refuge, that you can make a source of comfort and solace. It can never be overrated if you've ever experienced any disconnect with your home, any time where forces outside of your control played a part in whether you have a home, or can access it, or can keep it. When you have been without that anchor or security, it's hard to fathom how utterly important it is.

It's not the feeling of "home" that is the problem, it's using it as a deflection or avoidance of reality in the name of comfort. And let's not forget that the call for finding comfort at home this year often comes as a response to those who have been frustrated to be restricted to it.