When I was a sophomore in high school, I spent most afternoons on CollegeBoard.org, reading articles, comparing universities, and completing SAT practice tests. I printed out every useful material and fastened it into a big, black binder. This was a guidebook for the way out of my hometown.
My mother’s family hails from Boston, the birthplace of many fellow Irish Americans and the hub of our Red Sox Nation, if not the universe. There was a natural pull, and I decided, almost subconsciously, to move there for college. Each day of senior year, it became increasingly harder to sit in my bedroom in suburban Northern Virginia, knowing I wasn’t where I should be, not living the life I was supposed to lead or being the person I was meant to be.
In September 2008, I finally drove the nine hours home.
For the next three and a half years, I was at ease. College was emotionally turbulent, and not much made sense, but somehow being in Boston made the context of chaos logical enough.
The summer before my senior year, I took a family trip to Ireland. There, I roamed the streets of Cork at midnight, became an “official whiskey taster,” and climbed to the top of the crumbling Blarney Castle to lean back and press my lips on what could have been the Blarney Stone, but could have just as easily been some other dirty old rock. No matter where I traveled on the isle, from mountain tops to Grafton Street, I kept running into myself. Unexpectedly, I realized I could picture living there. And if that was true, then how many other places in the world—places I’d never been to or maybe never even heard of—could I potentially say the same about?
The closer I came to completing my undergrad program, the less comfortably Boston fit around my shoulders. Perhaps over the years, what I had treasured became tarnished. Perhaps I had overstayed my welcome. Perhaps not all the answers could be found in one place.
So that Christmas I chose to commit the ultimate betrayal toward my family: I moved to New York City, Yankees country.
On the plane out of Reagan National Airport, I opened my worn copy of The Devil Wears Prada to find a note from my mom. She wrote to tell me her harbored thoughts about my transition, repeating the oft-quoted family saying: “Have fun, but not too much.” After 22 years, she finally explained what it meant to her: that she never wanted me to have so much fun that I forgot who I was. As tears rolled down my cheeks, the flight attendant came by asking if I could please store my belongings under the seat in front of me and maybe get my shit together. If I had responded to my mom’s letter, I would have told her that was great advice and all, but the trouble is I’m not so sure I know enough to know when I’m being me and when I’m being someone else.
The first ten months in NYC were spent being homesick. It took leaving Boston to realize that maybe I’d been a fool; maybe I couldn’t live just anywhere. It wasn’t until a random afternoon is September that the sidewalks of New York finally felt satisfactory. All at once staying didn’t mean settling. Then, after Hurricane Sandy hit the following month, though I didn’t label myself a New Yorker, I did start to use the word “us” more often.
A friend from Boston once told me that, although he’d known me for quite a while, it still surprised him whenever he remembered that I was from Virginia. I told him that I didn’t really feel like I was from anywhere. In the spring of 2013, I traveled back to my home state to visit my younger sister at the University of Virginia for the annual Foxfield Races festivities. While visiting the archaeology major, I excavated myself from the past. Rather than making my skin crawl, as suspected, being down south felt all too familiar—the preppy outfits, the girls dancing to country music, the boys standing shirtless on trucks waving American flags like they’d just won a battle. This was part of my history; it was the prologue to whatever story my life had been working on.But while the south was familiar, it wasn’t right. As I boarded the northbound train that gray Sunday, my stomach seized. Had I been searching for something, running from something, or trying to build something from pieces?
The more places I go, the more people I become. It’s hard to balance; it’s impossible to compartmentalize.
Somewhere there is a girl stretching out in a sunny dorm room on a lime green southern campus to read poetry about a dog on a farm. Somewhere there is a girl sitting outside a cafe on Newbury Street watching the clearest shade of blue envelop nearby skyscrapers. Somewhere there is a girl exiting a bright red pub onto a shiny, dark Dublin street corner. Somewhere there is a girl dressed in black letting the golden night radiate around her like a halo atop a Manhattan roof. Somewhere there’s a girl boarding another plane, looking at another map, writing down a new return address.
Everywhere I’ve been has emotional scar tissue, sure. But clean slates can be hostile environments. Starting over is almost as hard as trying to force something to fit properly. For all the miles logged, all the homes collected, what’s really changed? (And what’s supposed to change?)
I still don’t know enough to know what I’m looking for, but for every trip “home”—and for every definition of that word—I think I’m getting closer. So I continue to go backward and forward, picking up the bits of me scattered up and down the East Coast.
You can—and should—go wherever you must in order to find what you’re looking for. But know this: You won’t be completely whole until you also retrieve what’s been left behind.