By Catherine DiMercurio
My home is full of rocks, pinecones, driftwood. Whenever I visit a place that gives me that particular feeling, the one that makes my cells sing, I snag a memento. It’s not just bringing the outside in, it’s trying to maintain a particular hum within myself even when I’m away from the places that strike that chord.
For the past several years, I’ve thought a lot about home and belonging, in ways I’d never imagined I’d be contemplating. For a long time, it didn’t occur to me to wonder how we attach our psyche to a certain place, or why. But I’ve been experiencing, for the past decade, almost, what feels like a great untethering. The bonds I have with my children will never be undone, but so much else has unknotted, leaving me free to discover myself in new ways, but also creating a sense of perpetual drift.
I’ve made this home cozy, this place I’ve landed for now. But this was a place of convenience, a place I moved to during the pandemic because I needed to move, and it was affordable, close to my then-boyfriend, close to where my kids had gone away to school, and close enough to an office I’ve been back to about twice since the pandemic began. It will soon outlive its purpose, has already outlived at least a couple of them.
Here’s the thing: if/when I move again, it will be one of the few major life decisions I’ve made completely on my own. I’ve got proximity issues and financial boundaries that will guide my decision, but there aren’t any compromises to be made with regard to what anyone else wants or needs out of this potential move. It’s not nothing. It’s a big something, which is why I’ve been trying to tweeze apart all the strands of what matters. And what I want more than anything is to feel at home, to feel like I belong in the place where I land. But what does that mean? How do I find it?
As I look at what it means to feel at home in a particular place, to belong, I study the places that have felt like home in the past and try to deconstruct memories so I can put it all back together with the pieces I’m working with now. At the same time, the versions of myself that felt at home in those places no longer exist.
I had a childhood friend whose grandmother had a cottage on Lake Huron. Once, I was allowed to go up north with her and her family to visit. I was about ten years old. I don’t remember much, except that it was stormy out, and we were inside, staring through a bank of windows out at the lightning and the rain dancing across the waves. I was transfixed. Transformed. I don’t have many memories that seem etched so clearly into my consciousness, but I know that our brains encode emotionally powerful events differently, so I’m certain that the fact I can retrieve this memory as easily as pulling a Polaroid out of my back pocket underscores how much it mattered to me.
It was because of events such as this that I began to build the wish to someday live by the water. Over the years, the picture of what this might look like, and who might be with me, has changed, but the essentials have remained the same. I always imagined having a summer place up north the way so many Michigan families do, but without a cottage that has been in the family for generations, or without a second income, the idea that I could own a second home is not within the realm of possibility. But lately, as work has shifted to a hybrid, largely from-home situation, a new idea began to take shape. Maybe I could purchase a year-round home on the Great Lake closest to me, and still be near enough for a monthly or so in-person visit to the office, which is all that’s required of me. Maybe this could be a different version of my childhood dream, one that I could conceivably execute on my own. Certainly there are a lot of factors to consider and I’m a ways off from making a decision. But recently, my son and I took a reconnaissance mission to a lake town that seemed like a decent prospect.
We drove to a small town on the east side of Michigan’s thumb. The town is perched on the coast of Lake Huron. The tiny downtown is home to a beautiful old library with a stained glass window featuring a pair of bright green dragons. Most of the little shops were closed for the season or had reduced hours in the winter, but I could tell that the vibe was cozy. There was a marina, but we couldn’t get right down to the water, so after driving around some neighborhoods, we stopped at a nearby county park so we could spend a little time on the beach. It was the last day of February and was relatively mild though the wind had a chill to it. As we headed toward the water, we could hear the waves crashing on the beach. Instantly, tension I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying in my chest dissipated. I found myself sighing and smiling as we approached the water. The waves lapped at our boots. Most of the sandy beach was covered in snow. But at the water’s edge, the churning waves were busy polishing beautiful stones, rounding off all the rough edges and leaving a swath of smooth little worlds, a multicolored universe for your eyes to take in each time the waves recede.
As always, whenever I’m near one of the Great Lakes, I hunt for Petoskey stones. I’ve never been able to find one before, though both of my kids have. No matter how diligently I have searched in the past, I’ve never been lucky enough to spot one. But that day on the beach, I did. I found one. I didn’t believe it at first. I whooped with joy and showed it to my son, then later sent a picture of it to my older kiddo, both of whom confirmed it was indeed a Petoskey.
As we walked back to the car, my thoughts churned. How was I going to do it, I wondered. And when? How could I actual bring the dream of living someplace like this to fruition? Should I? Could I? Wasn’t the finding of the Petoskey a sign? As we sat in the car, sipping our coffee and warming back up, I tried to unpack my thoughts and feelings with my son. “I have to figure this out,” I told him. “It’s a good dream.” He agreed, but I repeated it anyway, and suddenly I began to cry, though I hadn’t expect it and wasn’t exactly sure why it was happening at that moment. The tears didn’t last long, but the impact of that moment is still with me. Moments like these are evidence. They are our intuition, our gut, our true selves, insisting on what it is they want and need. Aren’t they?
It is so easy to rationalize things. To say, yeah, it’s a nice dream but the logistics don’t make sense. Or the timing isn’t right, and probably won’t be for some time, if ever, because, because, because. But I have this reaction whenever I’m by one of the Great Lakes. I had it over the summer when I camped in the Upper Peninsula. I had it when my sister and I escaped to Lake Michigan a couple of summers ago. And I had it when I was a child, staring out at Lake Huron as young child.
It’s easy to just keep making the way things are now work. To tell myself the dream is just a fantasy. To tell myself I can have it in pieces, in periodic visits to any one of this state’s beautiful lakes. Maybe it’s more special that way anyway.
There hasn’t been a time where, being near one of the big lakes, I haven’t been deeply and powerfully moved, to my core, and filled with great peace and magnificent energy at the same time. I’m certain the lakes have a similar effect on most people. But I can know only the interior of my own heart, and when I feel this tug of the water, it feels like it matters. Deeply, to every version of myself I’ve been and will be.
I have spoken before of all the erasure that happened at the time of my divorce, where I saw my future evaporating in front of me. It was as if memories of things that hadn’t happened yet were being siphoned from my consciousness. Each time I began a new relationship, each day that it progressed and still seemed full of hope, I tentatively began to imagine a new future. Is this it?, I would wonder. Is this the size and shape of it? And with each ending, the erasure began again.
To not be able to see any of what the future might hold, to not be able to imagine it the way I used to, feels the way heights or deep water feels to me—vast, threatening, frightening. (Ironic, no? The way I long to be near an enormous lake and yet the thought of being in deep water is so scary? I can’t explain it.)
My past has taught me that there is so much you can’t count on, so much that changes regardless of what you planned for, so it’s usually best to not be too wedded to those ideas. Maybe that’s why I’m resisting myself, pulling away from the dream as soon as I’m away from the water. As much as it comforts me to have a hazy outline, a plan that’s adaptable, a goal to work toward, I am afraid to claim it, when so many other things haven’t worked out.
Maybe, at the heart of it, I’m scared that I can’t trust myself to carry it out. Maybe I’m afraid that I’ll betray myself by failing to get there.
In the essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.” The line keeps coming back to me. At times, we feel out of sync with the world around us, and then we find ourselves in a place where everything feels in tune, where we are a plucked string whose vibrations are in harmony with everything around us. When we are seeking answers, or trying to determine what path is the best one for us, how can we ignore that cosmic hum? How can I? Is it so hard to believe that I can get us there, me and all the other versions of myself who have longed for it?
Do you ever feel like you already know the answer you’ve been looking for? Or, you assume there must be something wrong about the dream because the path is so unclear, or there are things about the journey that frighten you? I don’t know if I have my answer or not. Have I been carrying it with me this whole time, like a little lake stone in my pocket? I’ve been trying to write this post for days. I keep clumsily getting in my own way. I don’t know that I’ve gotten it right. I’m still trying to peer through the clouds, listening beneath the wind for that hum.