Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Elusive Concept of "Home"

The Blue Marble, Earth as seen from Apollo 17.What exactly is a "home?" What does it mean for someplace to be "home?" What do these concepts mean to you? Growing up, these are questions everyone has to face at some point or another.

Ideally, home is somewhere you'd feel as though you belong. Somewhere you feel "in place," somewhere you can relate to. I've lived here in North Carolina for about 15 years now as of sometime in the next few days, and to me, it's never really been "home."

In many ways, as an American, I've always been fairly culturally displaced. I'm a born Baltimorean, but I'm not really a Baltimorean or Marylander in any meaningful sense, having left the city and state within months of my birth. I've only been back once briefly since then, after I graduated from high school, and as much as I enjoyed what little time I spent there then, I still have no real cultural attachment to the place. The part of my childhood that I enjoyed was spent in Cincinnati. But despite that, I can't really say that I'm really an Ohioan or Midwesterner, either, having left at age ten. I haven't been too far north, but I absolutely enjoyed what little time I've spent in New York City and I'm dying to see more of it as an adult, and I'm interested in Boston as well. But ultimately, I'm not an authentic northerner. And after spending 15 years in North Carolina, between Raleigh and going to college in Charlotte, I can honestly say that I don't connect at all with southern culture, and in general, I'm completely out of place down here.

This is something I have been acutely aware of since within my first year living here. It's always been too hot for me, the political climate is not to my taste - I only became more aware of that as I got more into politics as I grew older - and even in my first year living here, it was made painfully aware to me by my peers that I'm out of place here, that I don't belong, that I'm an other. I always had that sense, and in many regards, it's a part of who I am now, for better or worse. At least as I grew older, in realizing how much I dislike of southern culture, being an other here started to seem like much less of a bad thing, as I'd rather not be a part of all this in many ways.

I can remember realizing how different kids were here from those I knew in Cincinnati, how different people's attitudes were, how differently people raised their kids. I remember being scolded for not layering my manner of speech with "sir" and "ma'am" as so to constantly defer to the adults around me, having lived in a more casual environment in Ohio. And I remember being disgusted with how two-faced and rotten so many people were. Don't get me wrong, kids in Cincinnati were plenty crude too, but at least we were open and honest about it. So many more people were set on crafting this "sweet" image to endear themselves to adults as so to manipulate them, while they were largely absolutely unpleasant people to be around as soon as there wasn't a teacher or adult in earshot. They were disingenuous. And there was no lack of people talking dirt about one another behind each other's backs. Dealing with so much bullshit from people personally and witnessing how rotten and manipulative so many kids my age were to each other upon first moving here - on top of being irritated with how artificial the forced all the additional expected 'polite' speech was - came as an awakening to me in many regards. The rottenness of human beings was nothing unknown to me at that point, but said rottenness and open deceitfulness only hit new levels in North Carolina. And it's roughly there, at only ten years old, that the seeds of my misanthropy were ultimately planted.

Now it's late May, and just about everyone else I know is graduating now. My younger brother, younger friends on Facebook. And as a result, I'm definitely feeling old. I wanted to be out of this part of the country by now, but a million factors are getting in the way of that, and I haven't exactly accomplished remotely as much as I wanted to have by late spring 2009. Initial plans and intentions behind what I wanted to say with my first novel - and when I wanted to say it by - are effectively derailed on some level. I'm still going to go through with what I intend to say, delayed and regardless hopeless though it is. This is all part of the process, life never goes as planned.

It's hard to believe it's been over two years since I finished writing my senior thesis already. And since then, I've already completed a personal writing project in my first novel over 10 times my senior thesis' length. (Easier to do with fiction in not having to frequently stop to make citations.)

Grad school efforts went nowhere. I'm not sure if I'll try again, I'm not sure if I'd have any more of a shot if I kept trying, or if it's all essentially futile, objectively speaking. I don't have an English degree to begin with, after all - that seems to lead to others making a jump to the assumption that I can only be an incompetent writer. That in itself is frustrating.

At this point, I'm still hoping to make my way to the northeast, largely because it's always appealed to me. But nothing really changes that I'm culturally displaced - I'm not really northern, southern, Midwestern, or any of that. I can't stand southern culture and don't connect with it at all, but both northern and Midwestern cultures are largely alien to me as well. I feel like jellyfish, drifting about and belonging nowhere, a part of no culture. An outsider no matter where I go and what I do. I don't see a day coming where I'll suddenly just transition over from "awkward guy banging out weird musings on the internet writing strange novels" to "successful, respected author." I think if I ever do manage to make it to the latter, I'll still feel like the former. (Probably for the best that I not allow any potential success to go to my head anyway. I was only just published for the first time last year as is, and I have an astronomical ways to go if I'm ever to achieve any real measure of my high aspirations.)

No guarantee that things will suddenly improve in the northeast either, being rather isolated and alone no matter where I am, in part because of the very nature of my personality. I've always been something of the lone wolf type who doesn't make friends easily and doesn't push himself to do so, not wanting said friendships to be forced and artificial. It's part of this idealistic search for authenticity in the human experience, in existence itself - personal sacrifices have to be made in this search.

And yet here I am now, halfway to thirty already and still living at home with my family with no idea when I'm finally going to get out of here, and no idea where I'm going to end up, let alone what all I may end up doing to support myself. (Ideally some kind of satisfying writing, since it's hard to say if my dream of being a full-time creative writer is even realistically achievable.) All while quietly juggling numerous writing projects, the majority of which may likely never see the light of day in any form, whether novels, short stories, game design concepts, comedy sketches, or small scale show ideas. (Mostly web TV oriented stuff, a field in which I also have no real connections, nor any idea whether any of that sort of thing is profitable to begin with.) Watching my younger brother and most of my younger friends on Facebook all graduating right around now, all of them off to accomplish far more than I have in the year and a half since I graduated in no time (Even with the economy a wreck and job opportunities extremely limited at best these days, which only makes it harder to start a life of one's own after graduation these days.), it's hard not to reflect on these things.

This is a strange age to be, and it's frustrating having accomplished so little at this point - all I can do is just keep at my projects, try to keep myself sane with hobbies, and hope I'll have a legitimate shot at finding an agent within this year or the next and perhaps finally getting my first novel published, at last going from aspiring novelist to actual, published novelist. If I can manage that much, it's a meaningful, authentic step forward, at least - something to give worth to these years of unaccomplishment and failure, though I know I'll likely be faced with even more failure in the future, in all sorts of manners. I don't know if I'll ever succeed in finding any sort of authentic "home" for myself anywhere in the world in my lifetime. All I can hope at this point is that I'll have begun that search by the time I begin to face all the inevitable failures - love included, of course, in part of the intention behind this first novel, though I'm not stranger to that sort of failure anyway, this'll just be a new variety of that - I'll be out there somewhere, beginning that search for somewhere to belong in this galaxy in some sense. In the least, I'd like to be out of the south by then.

(Hey, at least I didn't write about death this time. Another short entry or two are coming later this week, as well!)


Miss Mapp said...

Hi Benjamin, wow, lots of stuff here to talk about. Maybe first I would say that High 5, you are an authentic thoughtful human being who is not playing the game because he has to, no, you're deeper than that. Second I'd say you?= failure over the last years? - nope, wrong. You havn't. It all goes to contribute to you and to the writing that is latent within. To germinate a novel takes time and life experience, it may not be an easy ride, but it's a rich one all the same. Yeah, I go on! My blog is a novel, its a grind somedays and you think 'why'. But if you believe in yourself, then.....

CrazyCris said...

Oh boy, do you have any idea how this post resonates with me?! No, I guess not. Not wanting to upstage you or anything, but I could take most of that and amp it up a notch and it would apply perfectly to me...

Trust me you're not the only one out here who feels out of place, doesn't know where you belong or where home really is. For me home is where the heart is, clich├ęd as it may sound, but true. I've always considered home to be where my family was based. That's where I'd return to in holidays, that was home.

As for defining where one's from... lords how I hate that question!!! I've gotten it so many times over my life that I have ready answers such as "Do you want the short or long versions?" or even better "how do you define where a person is from? where they were born? where their family is from? where they grew up? based on education?" At least you can say you're American, I can't even pick a nationality to answer that! I've always been an outsider, always a foreigner even when supposedly in my "native" countries (in my mind I've always felt MORE like a foreigner in those cases). I'm culturally European, I have Latin American sensibilities, I have North American tastes and drive...

As for still being at home? try having left, having been financially independent for several years and then having to go back! I'm in Spain now, back in my parent's house, because I couldn't afford to be any place else while I try to write my PhD thesis. As it is I barely make enough with tutoring to cover my costs here. And I'm in full procrastination / writer's block mode so my thesis has barely advanced in the year I've been here. I don't know how to look my parents in the eye whenever they ask me about it.

But as Miss Mapp says, it's all character building! And for you as an author that's particularly important. Even though I don't have any roots per se, don't know where I belong etc. I still prefer my crazy life to those of some of my friends and family who've lived in the same city/town/state for their entire lives and as a result have a rather narrow-minded world view. Although I must say that applies more to some of my family than my friends as I'm rather picky when it comes to friends... :p

So just go with it and realise that everything happens for a reason, and it will all help you in your quest to be a better author!

And don't even think of failure... that's such an american frame of mind, to consider if someone hasn't been a success bys some arbitrary age (and how do we establish what a success is?) then they're automatically a failure. Wrong! Success should be measured differently for each person depending on their goals and their means to get there. The important thing is the path you travel, more so than the destination.

hope I didn't ramble too much...


Benjamin Fennell said...

@Miss Mapp:

Thanks for the comments! It definitely isn't easy, trying to lead a more authentic, meaningful existence, and trying to seek just that through creation. There's a lot of societal pressures here in America to have accomplished much more in my life by this point, but it's nice to get things in perspective. I've always been more about live on the periphery of this society than conforming to its norms, anyway. Thanks for the good words. I'll have to check your blog out. :)

Benjamin Fennell said...


Wow, thanks for the long, thoughtful comments as usual. I take it as a compliment when I can give someone reason to ramble - as a writer, it's always nice to know I've successfully provoked thought in someone, even if it's just in babbling in something as consistently unpolished as blogging. (That's part of the nature of blogging, after all - a very different beast from novel writing, but satisfying in its own way when you manage to draw an audience.)

Thanks for sharing your own thoughts and situation, there. Your situation really is very much like mine, but amplified in so many ways. Kinda nice to know I'm not the only person necessarily feeling so lost in ways like this. I nearly studied abroad in Japan a few years ago - lack of finances by which to go being the ultimate dealbreaker - and I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it. A friend I'd applied with who actually ended up going said that, knowing my heavily introverted personality, I probably would've been miserable there with the way living conditions were. In considering grad schools, international schools have come up as possibilities too, but I'm sort of ambivalent to the idea of going abroad. On one hand, I love the idea of getting out of America and seeing more of the world, getting more perspective, and experiencing more of the world. On the other, I live my life very much on the periphery as an observer more as one who interacts with others - I observe and write - and given that and the nature of my introverted personality, I'm already very alienated here in America, as much of this post discussed. In other nations and cultures, I'm sure I'd feel even more isolated. Especially in dealing with languages I don't speak - I'm only semi-bilingual at best as is, between my fluent English and decent enough Japanese proficiency, though my spoken Japanese has only gotten worse in the years since I finished college. (Conversely, at least, my listening comprehension is still pretty good. I'd just stumble all over my words if I tried to converse in the language, though granted, I stumble all over my words in English, too.) As out of place as I feel here, it's hard to imagine feeling anything but even more out of place elsewhere, since, as you said, at least I can self-identify as an American. (And after the most recent election, that's not something as shameful as it was in the past, at least, haha.)

Benjamin Fennell said...

Financially, I'm just hoping to make it enough as a writer to eventually get out on my own - ideally to a major city up north - and stay there. My older brother's still at home in his early 30s, having been screwed by the dot com bubble bursting after majoring in computer science. I'm hoping to avoid the pattern of living at home at that age, my younger brother already having escaped years ago. But my older brother's been working on finding his own way anyway, and we're working on an iPhone game project - which I'm writing - so hopefully that'll help bring in some cash, since the goal is to make it stand out from the mountains of crap for sale on the iPhone by actually being good and funny.

I can definitely see preferring a life of displacement with all the additional perspectives that come with it to a life centered around a single location, too. I've always felt kind of sorry for friends who've never really been out of the state and things like that. I'm not too keen on southern culture in general, but at least I have an actual firsthand basis for that, having lived down here for a decade and a half now. And it's not as though I hate everything down here either - admittedly, I'm fond of the sweetened teas and some of the barbecue varietise down here - and even still, in living here I've met some good friends I'd never have known otherwise, though I lost all my childhood friends from Ohio, as was just part of the course in moving at that age. Hell, I wouldn't have met the particular young lady who ended up becoming my muse in some sense - who I'm writing this first novel for, hopeless as my situation with her is - if I hadn't come to live down here. And whatever comes of all that, painful as it's more likely to be, will be a character building experience, as you and Miss Mapp said. I'm no stranger to failures in love, but hey, I'll likely be setting a new lifetime record in failure there, and naturally, there's bragging rights that come with that. ;)

Benjamin Fennell said...

But yeah, I'm pretty picky when it comes to friends too, and people in general. I don't let people in easily to begin with as an introvert, and most people just aren't that interesting to me - it's hard to make friends, let alone find anyone who draws my interest romantically, being a complicated and difficult person by nature. But I'd say that's preferable over having lots of shallow, meaningless "friendships" and similarly shallow relationships.

Very true. Here in America, there's a tremendous amount of pressure to "succeed" in certain ways by a certain age - your own place to live, steady income from some generic office job, a heap of healthy relationship experience to start focusing on settling down by one's mid twenties to early thirties. Essentially, you're supposed to become some kind of robot. I'd like to eventually get my own place somewhere more interesting and find a healthy relationship - though I never want to be one of those people who "needs" a relationship - and achieve a steady income my own way without sacrificing my principles. But at this point all I can really do is keep writing and follow my own path. It's more difficult, in many ways, but nothing without challenge holds real meaning, anyway. A life on the path most taken just isn't interesting to me, even if it's technically happier and more stable.

At any rate, thanks again for the rambling! It was a very interesting read, fun to think about, and fun to reply to. This is the kind of feedback I love to get. :)Financially, I'm just hoping to make it enough as a writer to eventually get out on my own - ideally to a major city up north - and stay there. My older brother's still at home in his early 30s, having been screwed by the dot com bubble bursting after majoring in computer science. I'm hoping to avoid the pattern of living at home at that age, my younger brother already having escaped years ago. But my older brother's been working on finding his own way anyway, and we're working on an iPhone game project - which I'm writing - so hopefully that'll help bring in some cash, since the goal is to make it stand out from the mountains of crap for sale on the iPhone by actually being good and funny.

Benjamin Fennell said...

And because I had to recopy and paste some of that due to going way over length limits on here with my comments, some of that's a little jumbled and out of order. Whoops.

Miss Mapp said...

Wow, some conversation. My take on life would be that we all basically find the same problems, but on a sliding scale, some a, find them more of a pain to deal with and b, are less articulate about those feelings. We all have our walls and wells within, some people have better coping stratagies, some are more thick skinned and so do not engage/realise thier core. Certainly for a guy, I think intimate conversation - and by that I mean honest conversation - is not socially the norm - at least where I come from, and it is talking about these things that helps us achieve balance and I hope, acceptance.You sound a brilliant guy to me.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Many thanks for the kind words. :)

I'd have to say that intimate conversation in general seems to be something people avoid. And with guys, showing any kind of vulnerability is seen as a weakness, so it just seems to come naturally - by society's reckoning, anyway - to close ourselves off and shy away from any kind of self expression or dialogue that would mean allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, to appear flawed and human. We're supposed to be tougher than that, after all, and that's hardly a healthy approach to things.

I think that if I were incapable of intimate, honest conversation, I'd simply be stifling myself, both as a writer and a human being. And that's largely the core of my first novel that I'm presently revising - intimate conversation between relative strangers walking a fine line between disclosing too much and too little about themselves. I'm hoping it's interesting and engaging enough to draw people's interest, as I certainly got into writing it.

Thank you again for your words.

Miss Mapp said...

Good chatting to you Benjamin - shouldn't you be asleap?!!
Sounds an intresting concept , your novel - go nail it,make today a good day.

CrazyCris said...

Wow, major conversation indeed!

Benjamin, don't let worrying about feeling like an outsider in a foreign country stop you from taking up an opportunity to head out. Although I have felt that way each time I've moved -and moreso right at the beginning- after a while you get your bearings, meet people and start to fit in to some degree. In a sense you're always the outsider 'cause you're the foreigner, but frequently you hang out with a mix of locals who've been abroad and other foreigners (birds of a feather) and it can make for very interesting friendships and discussions. Even if the friendships don't last beyond that stay, it is very enriching. Plus it often means places to stay if you travel later on! ;o)

Also, most people when they leave the country know that it will be for a limited time. So if the chance comes up don't think about lonelyness, or about being an outsider or anything else along those lines. Just think of it as an opportunity to get to know another place and other people in such a way that you never could as a tourist!

All this is much easier when you do it within an educational setting or within a job. I sometimes wonder how my Mom managed so well with each move since as the spouse she had no framework upon arriving in a new country other than the family. Each time she set up new hobbies, met new people, found ways to have a very interesting life. It should have been much harder for her than the rest of us (my dad via work, my sisters and I in school) but she made it seem easy. So yes, it can be done!

As for the Japanese... well take it from someone who once got scared 'cause she thought she'd forgotten much of her French: you never truly forget! It's all there right where you left it, in your memory. In Spain we have a saying: "a la fuerza ahorcan" which basically is the equivalent of if you're thrown in the water you'll end up swimming... or else. If you were to go to Japan it would all come back. Maybe a bit scary the first couple of days but then it would get easier. Oh, and I'd avoid Tokyo, go to the smaller cities to avoid the crazyness. The 2nd or 3rd largest city in the world is sure to be a harder place to fit into than a town.

Man, I wish I could speak Japanese!

Oh, more advice on maintaining a language: watch as many movies etc you can in Japanese and see if you can't find some kind of language club where people get together to talk. It helps maintain the language and is also a good way to meet people with similar interests!

Benjamin Fennell said...

@ Miss Mapp:
I should have been, but I tend to be up through a good bit of the morning, anyway. Writing work and such tends to keep me up through the night, so I usually don't get to sleep until sometime in the morning.

Doing my best. Kind of an exhausting day today, but not bad. Been a little under the weather lately, so I'm hoping to sleep better tonight.

This is true. I just tend to be so introverted that meeting people is difficult anywhere. I made the majority of my friends these days through Japanese classes in college and work for the anime site I write for.

Refreshing personal anecdotes again. Thanks for those. :)

Back when I was still in college, I used to occasionally attend the on-campus Japanese language discussion group, but I ended up sleeping through it most of the time. I still watch Japanese movies now and then though, and we get the Japanese NHK network on our satellite setup, so I can enjoy some good Japanese language exposure anytime that way, at least. Last I had to actively use it was back in '07, ended up spending over half the year working as a TA for classes at a local Japanese language school from May through December as part of a graduation project. Gave me some opportunity to apply my knowledge - most of my students were older than I was, and the experience itself was a little stressful, but it was fun, too.

livenomad said...

Hi all, thanks Benjamin for such a thought provoking post. As others have mentioned, you are not the only one searching for a home. I have also felt lost, especially when I hit 25, not knowing where I was, not knowing where I am heading. The uncertainty was difficult. I am still unsure but am now more comfortable with the fact that in my life, I am searching and exploring. And I am content with the fact that wherever I am heading (which I am still unsure) I can make that my home. Home is not one place, it is wherever you are and wherever you want it to be. :)

Benjamin Fennell said...

Hey livenomad, thanks for stopping by. Glad to've provoked thought and discussion. Discussing this lost feeling here has really only made me think about the issue more, and on some level, I can't help but wonder if there isn't something a little artificial about the concept of home, too.

You start out with something more clearly defined - usually wherever you were born, or wherever you grew up, since most people (At least, here in America, I can't speak for the rest of the world, there's so much I don't know about the world beyond, obviously) don't spend their youth moving from one place to the next, and usually end up leading a pretty stable, stationary life in those years. But then once you move on from that and go somewhere else, there's all those cliches about how "you can never go back."

Searching alone won't lead to a "home," but you'd want to find someplace where you're at least somewhat comfortable to try to create something for yourself. But yeah, like you said there. It's all easier said than done, and it's all a personal journey that can take shorter and longer amounts of time depending on the individual(s) involved, but it's a self-generated concept of sorts, rather than just some far off place you can simply stumble upon. (At least, in a literal sense.)

livenomad said...

Hey Benjamin, somehow have been thinking about this. Its interesting how in life we think we have a clear place and a path to follow but easier said than done. You mentioned the importance of finding a place to make something of yourself? I agree wholeheartedly, but in the confusing reality, I do things differently. I am moving to a different town again, 6 months after settling in. Have moved town each year, and have always made friends and felt comfortable before moving on. Moving gets planned in advance for me, in the hope of finding something better. And where is home for me? Home is where I am and home is where I belong.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Greetings again, livenomad. Indeed, while I still have a general area in mind of where I want to end up, as they say, life's what happens while you're making other plans. There's no telling where I could end up in the future, perhaps even somewhere on the west coast, where at least one of my friends is now headed. But I can't say with 100% certainty one way or another what opportunities will come my way yet, let alone what kind of work I'll end up doing as a day job - all I know is that I want to do some kind of satisfying writing, and I know comedy's definitely appealing, though I haven't cut my teeth as a comedy writer in any big way. (Even if, technically speaking, my one published short story is very much a short comedy piece.)

I have no idea where I'll end up moving, or when, in the future. Let alone what kind of work opportunities will come up, seeing as I have literally zero paid work experience and my International Studies degree, as glad as I am that I went for that program for what I learned and experienced in the process, isn't exactly career-oriented. It's just helped to greatly increase my understanding of issues spanning the globe and the importance of international culture, globalization, and exchange between all nations and peoples, helping to really form my personal philosophies in regards to my vision of an ideal world and how people should really regard one another. But yeah, no experience, and I'm a writer - I'd have to pretty much find a show or publication or something looking for a qualified writer, ideally for something I'd be interested in writing about. I'm a huge introvert though, so I'm sure it'd take a while to make friends anywhere new I go - and it'd be especially hard outside of a work environment. (As much as I loathe the idea of a 9-5 job in any kind of office, dreaming more of a life where I could live off my writing from home, wherever that ends up being, and have the freedom to keep my own hours and do my own thing. Ideally, I'm hoping that getting my first novel published and continuing to blog and work on comedy things might open some doors to paying writing work yet, seeing as I'm still very much a new face in the writing world anyway, and of course even now, this blog's only still developing a small base of regular readers - a face that makes me happy in itself, since as a writer, I want all the readers I can draw.)

But yeah, it's great that you're able to live by such a flexible concept of home, to adapt to new places and conditions as you move through life like a chameleon. I don't think very many people can do that, and if most tried, it probably wouldn't go very well. That's definitely an impressive thing to manage.

livenomad said...

Hi Benjamin, thanks for your reply and thoughts. Hope you dont mind I placed a link to your post. Am moving to my next destination and officially have no postal address as of today. Exciting. :)http://updateweekly.blogspot.com/2009/06/packing-moving-house-and-noodle-recipe.html

Benjamin Fennell said...

Sure thing, always nice to be linked. :) Good luck!