Perpetual Pilgrimage

When someone asks where I’m from when my husband is around, he jokes, “She’s from the United States.” It’s easier than listing the many places I’ve lived.

All of my life, I’ve moved every few years, and all of my life, there has always been the expectation that, one day, I would stay in the same spot and that place would be home. Every stop along the way was just a place to be for a bit on the way to this home.

As I approached my mid-thirties and realized that I was still moving every few years, I started wondering when I would discover this “home,” this place where I just belonged.

During the year we’ve lived in Massachusetts—which still feels as alien as any place I’ve lived—I’ve come to a realization: I no longer believe that “home” is a fixed place.

This weekend in church, we sang Peter Mayer’s “Blue Boat Home“, in which the earth itself is the vessel in which Mayer sails. A portion of the lyrics:

Sun, my sail and moon, my rudder
As I ply the starry sea
Leaning over the edge in wonder
Casting questions into the deep
Drifting here with my ship’s companions
All we kindred pilgrim souls
Making our way by the lights of the heavens
In our beautiful blue boat home

I give thanks to the waves upholding me
Hail the great winds urging me on
Greet the infinite sea before me
Sing the sky my sailor’s song
I was born upon the fathoms
Never harbor or port have I known
The wide universe is the ocean I travel
And the earth is my blue boat home

For years I’ve thought that the “winds urging me on” were the U.S. Navy or my husband’s job or some pathological need in me to avoid intimacy. But I don’t think so anymore. Those were the excuses to move, but not what propelled me forward.

“I was born upon the fathoms/Never harbor or port have I known.” I thought this was something unique to me and other perpetual travelers, but it’s true for everyone, even those who never venture out of the town of their birth. We’re all searching, we’re just searching in different ways, “all we kindred pilgrim souls.”

We also sang a hymn by Shlomo Carlbach, Return Again:

Return to who you are.

Return to what you are.

Return to where you are

Born and reborn again.

My eyes welled up as I sang: this was just what I’ve been feeling lately.

I love moving—I crave moving—but I’ve always thought of myself as a wanderer or a nomad, traveling about aimlessly, following opportunities or whims. But I’ve come to see my travels as part of a larger pilgrimage, not towards a geographical location but towards myself. Changing locations, I get to see myself against a different backdrop. Each new location yields new insights about who I am and what I am. It even gives me insight into where I am: I’m here. No matter where I go, I am always here.

I am always home.

6 comments

  1. Victoria · September 21, 2012

    Before I left to travel (a year ago soon!) I thought about the idea of home so much. It was one of things that I was trying to figure out as well. In this part of the world people ask where we’re from. San Francisco gets blank looks, as does California from many people. America is understood, and it’s really as specific as we can get at this point. We fly a US flag on our stern and the flag of the country we’re in high up on the starboard (right side) of the boat. I guess they both are our symbols of home. Convivia, the boat that has sailed us through seven countries in the last year, is definitely home, and yet we also feel compelled to sail her home to Maine….more on this topic later!

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    • CJ · September 21, 2012

      There are many homes nested one within another, in your description. That’s an angle I hadn’t considered before. It’s definitely a subject with multiple layers.

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  2. compelledbymel · September 10, 2012

    Our most recent move (a year ago) with many hardships reminded me that my family is my home. Sometimes you don’t remember that important thing until you are forced into situations where it is right in front of you. I hope no matter how comfortable I get, wherever I live, that I remember that where I am is temporary. I’m so glad you came to this yourself because many people live where they always have lived since they were kids and they never have to come to the realization that a house isn’t a home.

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    • CJ · September 11, 2012

      Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing your experience, compelledbymel.

      This realization certainly feels like a gift to me, but the one piece I’ve not quite reconciled is the role that extra-familial relationships play in the feeling of “home.” One thing that people have who stay in the same place all of their lives is continuity. They have had years and years to build a comfortable (or perhaps uncomfortable) familiarity with the people who have also been there all of their lives. Even if they move away, there is still a place and a community of people called “home.” I can see it as something of a double-edged sword, but I’ve never had the experience first-hand. Claire Dederer’s book Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses brought me new awareness of this aspect of moving vs not moving. I think I wrote about it in my review of the book, which is around here somewhere, if you’re interested (via the “book reviews” link on the left or a search at the top of the page).

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  3. Ellery Davies · September 10, 2012

    Hello CJ,

    Your neighbor has roots in Chicago, California and Beijing. Yet, we have put roots here in New England. The roots have flourished for decades as they push deeper into the firmament. For us, a geographic base becomes a more durable home, because it builds long-term relationships at real tables (not just “virtual desks”). This leads to friendships that catch you when you fall and propel you higher when you jump…

    After one year, your family is becoming more than just an acquaintance. We like your company and especially the intellectual spark within each of you. And so we hope that your current geographic domicile becomes your permanent one as you continue doing what you enjoy so much. As best I can tell, you are on a perpetual existential journey to self-discovery. That’s fine. Enjoy it. But we would be happier if you do it here in your current corporal structure. 😉

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    • CJ · September 10, 2012

      I appreciate that, Ellery. One thing that’s unique about this location compared to our last ten years or so is how close we are to road-trip-able destinations. As long as my husband’s industry allows us to remain here, I imagine that the travel bug might be appeased somewhat by a good deal of wandering about while keeping a stable base here at home. Plus, I’d love to make more of this yard into vegetable garden. 🙂 I am a little nervous, though, when I hear people who’ve been here a decade still calling themselves “newcomers.” New England is definitely a different culture than I’ve experienced before.

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