I like the vegetal aspect of the metaphor, because what I miss (what I think I miss) most about Where I’m From is vegetation. The plants depend on the climate, of course, so climate also matters to me, as do hills and water, preferably salt water. But my real focus is trees and flowers. When I get off the plane there, the shapes of the trees look right to me, as do the varieties of flowers that grow . . . and the size they’ll grow to. In the Midwest, geraniums are annuals, either little round balls edging gardens or leggy ones spilling from window boxes. On my high school campus, dark red geraniums grew into hedges five feet tall.
So what does it take to put down roots in a new place? And if you’re a tropical plant, can you ever really take root in a climate zone with snow? Do you have to live in a pot, put out on the deck in the summer, sheltered in a conservatory or sunny window in winter?
A lot of things contribute to rootedness: meaningful work, friends, a partner, children, being recognized in the places you normally go (bank, restaurant, movie theater, grocery store . . .); getting involved in the community in whatever way suits you (tutoring, religious institution, political activism); living in the sort of place that suits you, whether that’s city, small town, suburb, or whatever. I’m sure a lot of people would argue for connectedness: knowing your neighbors, going to church or synagogue, getting to know your children’s friends’ parents, the things that give you multiple ways of running into the same people.
I had most of those kinds of connections where I grew up, but I didn’t experience them as connection. I felt trapped. I wanted very badly to go somewhere else, almost anywhere else, where no one knew me and I could start over.
Again, the common wisdom is that you can’t escape yourself, and you’re supposed to stay and face whatever it is you’re trying to avoid. I don’t buy it. Anyone who reinvented her- or himself as a college freshman knows what I mean. The pushover speaks out on the first day, and no one knows to expect doormat behavior. The sharp-tongued one turns kind, and no one says suspiciously, “Are you being sarcastic?” Freed of longstanding expectations, a person can adopt new behaviors. Someone who was messy as an act of rebellion can keep things orderly; someone whose room was military-neat to avoid parental cleaning and snooping can relax. It’s the other people, the connections, who often hold us to old patterns. It’s not impossible to change in place, but I think it is harder than to move and start fresh.
I have meaningful work, friends, a partner; I have some degree of recognition in places I go often (the gym is the best for that). My community involvement is minimal, partly because I divide my life between two communities, campus and home, with a long commute between. But I don’t hanker after more human connection. What I want is to grow things in my garden that would not be happy here, like plumbago, jasmine, and bougainvillea. I could have them in pots, in the summer, but I don’t want to watch them die when frosts come, and we don’t have a suitable indoor space for them in winter. I enjoy the garden I have, and I make the most of plants that need a cold winter, like bulbs, to be at their best. They’re exotic to me, a welcome burst of brightness in a chilly spring (always late, by my standards, no matter how early to locals).
But before I left the land of plumbago and oleander, I had no idea how attached I was to the landscape. It didn’t really register on me; I didn’t garden, I didn’t take photographs, I didn’t keep a bird list or do anything else that required deliberate effort to connect to the outdoors. It was just there, as much a part of my life as the air I breathed. And even now, I wonder how I would feel if I could move back. Would I be haunted by the ghosts of my past, both my own younger selves and the people I wanted to get away from? I would surely have a lot more money worries; would they overpower my delight in the shapes of the trees? Would I miss the bulb flowers and the relative lack of spiders in my midwestern clime?
Parts of Australia have a similar climate and plant life to the place I grew up. I’ve never been there. If I went, would I get off the plane, smell eucalyptus, and feel instantly that my roots had found soil in which they could be happy? Or would I then find that despite my belief that “home” means the right vegetation, “home” truly inheres in something else, something I haven’t yet recognized?