Briley Lewis: Home is Wherever I Am
April is a strange month for me. Not just this year, but every year. For astronomy graduate programs, prospective students must make their decision on which school to attend by April 15th. The former half of the month is filled with calls with friends, looking for support and guidance, grappling with the idea of uprooting their current lives and transplanting themselves somewhere else for five to seven years. The latter half is all joyous Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and other announcements, declaring future plans with confidence, formally thanking the people who helped through the process, and obscuring the indecision, anxiety, impostor syndrome (among other struggles) that plagued the days leading up to that decision.
For current graduate students, it’s a bittersweet and exciting time, where these new students are coming in, making us a year older. The first-years become the second-years, the second-years become third-years, and so on to the sixth-years that graduate with that prestigious Ph.D. For myself, this season has become a time of reflection. Each year that passes I inch closer to another round of transplantation — after the Ph.D., what happens? Staying in academia often means applying to dozens of postdoc positions, spread all across the country, or even the world. Staying in academia means that I will have to rip out the roots I have so painstakingly and carefully grown in my current city, and try to establish new ones somewhere else. One of the hardest truths for me to stomach about my current career path is just that: success in academia often requires mobility, leaving people and places (and any sense of “home” that derives from those things) many times. The darker reality is even if I don’t leave, the people around me most likely will, in pursuit of the next job, wherever they can get it.
Staying in academia means that I will have to rip out the roots I have so painstakingly and carefully grown in my current city, and try to establish new ones somewhere else.
Through the graduate recruitment process, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten from prospective students is, “Well, are you happy?” There’s nothing like that simple question to prompt a minor crisis. It’s not that it’s a crisis over how unhappy I am; on the contrary, it’s a crisis that I am happy and content, incredibly so, but I know that I am inevitably marching towards an ending of what I have grown to love and enjoy. Where I live, the community I rely on, the friends I spend my time with, the colleagues I work with, and more will all change once I finish this degree. And it will change again after my first postdoc, and again after that, and again and again until I settle down into a tenure-track position (if I am so lucky).
When I was making that consequential grad school decision, it really came down to wanting to go home. I went to college across the country from my family and thought I was ready to come home to Southern California. It was where I had been raised, where I had some existing roots I could hopefully reconnect to with ease. In college, at first it seemed clear where home was. It was where your parents were, where you grew up. Even on tax forms, it’s clear that students are not residents of wherever they study, they are residents of where they go back to when school is not in session. When so much of your current existence is transient, with a clear expiration date, it just makes sense to consider the permanent idea of “home” as where things stay the same. At least for me, my parents and extended family were in steady jobs in my hometown, with absolutely no intention of leaving. In fact, the small-ish town I grew up in seems to have an understanding that it’s normal to stay — of course you would stay in this town and community, and always come back to it if you do try venturing off.
But, of course, things aren’t so simple. When I was away for my undergrad degree in New York City, that place became a different kind of home. I had a new community, a new best friend, and new routines and favorite places to visit. I formed a connection to that physical location and the network of people there, in a way I had previously only thought possible in my traditional childhood home. The duality of having two “homes” created a visceral tension in my chest, with strings connecting me to each place, each group of people, pulled taut as I tried to walk the line between them. When I went home to see family, that was home, and I felt the comforting familiarity as soon as I stepped foot off the airplane into sunny Los Angeles, where a friend or grandparent awaited me to pick me up. When I went back to New York, that was a new home, and the view of the city as I crossed the Triborough Bridge, sitting in a cab on my own, made me feel a deep validation that this was where I was supposed to be. How could two places be home, with such strong emotional connections, especially when one was essentially ephemeral, the countdown clock ticking to graduation?
It became clear to me that home was not something permanent, no matter how desperately I wanted that to be true. I ached for a place to know I could always return to, a place where things wouldn’t change too much when I had to leave again. The idea of my childhood home as my safe, unchanging haven was shattered when my grandfather, my best friend, had a sudden and catastrophic stroke in my junior year of college. Every time when I left home to go back for the semester, I’d say bye to folks with a casual “see you soon” attitude — much easier to stomach than the dread that something will happen while I was thousands of miles and a whole continent away. That quite obviously was an illusion, and a naive one at that. Things always change, life goes on, so all the old adages say.
It became clear to me that home was not something permanent, no matter how desperately I wanted that to be true.
Most of my life I had unquestioningly accepted that home was where my family was, the place I had grown up, which was admittedly a privilege. I lived in the same house until I left for college, when (cliche as it is) everything changed. I lived in a different apartment or dorm each academic year and each summer, hopping around and changing places until I finally just stopped unpacking all of my boxes by the time I moved into my senior year suite. This is a pretty typical experience from what I can tell; college housing is temporary, just a place to crash while you’re there to be in school. That was a bearable thought, though, since even this transitory state was itself temporary; once graduation hit, things would be different.
By the time the graduation festivities rolled around, I felt a sudden dread at the thought of leaving my college campus and New York City behind. Was it the place I would miss — going to my favorite bakeries, reading books on the subway, and working in the classrooms and libraries that had become so familiar? Was it the routines I had created there, and the patterns I had grown to love, even weekly grocery shopping at the hellish Manhattan Trader Joe’s? Or was it my friends and colleagues, the people I had shared my daily life and the formative experiences of the last four years with? Why did I feel preemptive homesickness at the thought of leaving Columbia and NYC, especially when I was moving back “home” to Southern California and starting grad school at UCLA?
Maybe “home” was all of these things — the physical location, the familiarity, the people — and maybe I was lucky enough to have two places I could call home.
Maybe “home” was all of these things — the physical location, the familiarity, the people — and maybe I was lucky enough to have two places I could call home. As I said goodbye to all my friends on the East Coast, I knew I was leaving one home for another, and I hoped that the next home would bring me as much joy as that one did. On my last walk through JFK Airport before boarding my flight back to California, I walked around and admired all the little things that established a sense of place: the Baked by Melissa cupcakes stand, the view of Queens past the tarmac out the large terminal windows, and all the “I Love NY” merchandise cluttering the cheesy souvenir stores. Four years of arriving there had made this airport feel like a homecoming, and I appreciated it for showing me that I could belong there and call New York home, even if it was a temporary one.
The return home wasn’t quite as glorious as I had hoped. After four years away, things had changed. I had changed, too, shaped by the new home I had grown into. I didn’t fit in the spaces quite as I had before, and I didn’t have the same connections to the people there. Of course, I still loved my family and hometown friends, but four years of physical distance (and four years of a formative experience like a college education) will change relationships, for better or worse. Even more jarring, I realized that “home” would change again soon when I moved (although only a few cities away) for grad school. My innocent lie to myself — things would be different, more stable, when I graduated college — was irrevocably exposed. In the career I had chosen, this would happen over and over again. The impermanence of life in academia was unfathomable to my family, some of whom repeatedly asked me questions like, “So, you’ll get to stay in this apartment for a while now, right? No more moving for a few years?”
The question I got the most when talking about the career track of grad students and postdocs and beyond was, “But, you’ll always come home after, right?”
I know there are many other people for whom home isn’t a stable place, or for which their jobs require them to move periodically. But, for the most part, those are not the people I grew up around. Coming from a town where people have lived their whole lives in the same county, many not leaving the U.S. for even a vacation, this nearly nomadic lifestyle was unheard of. I was familiar with a philosophy that a person needs solid roots to grow strong, with resources from the place they are in to nourish them. If I was to be repeatedly transplanted, disturbing those roots every few years, it seemed I would wither like a plant in shock when it hits new soil. The question I got the most when talking about the career track of grad students and postdocs and beyond was, “But, you’ll always come home after, right?” This implication that I would always be waiting for my life to start in some nebulous “after”, waiting to return to one set of roots, just didn’t work for me. Academia’s path is a long and winding one — if I was putting my personal life on hold until I could return home when it was all done, I’d end up spending a whole decade waiting.
This April is an even stranger month than most. Settling into a new school, a new routine, a new home takes time, and at the beginning of 2020 (just in time for the pandemic to shake things up, of course!) I had finally hit my stride and established some roots in this new place. In my second year of grad school, I was finally understanding expectations in work and school, making solid progress on my research after a year of stumbling blocks and personal turmoil. My nuclear group of friends was reliable and supportive, and we had settled into weekly routines that we enjoyed and truly loved, like Taco Tuesdays and game nights. I knew enough people on campus and in my department to feel like I had a network, and I had established a good balance between work and other parts of life, like visiting family and FaceTiming with far away friends from college. I was growing, and I could feel myself evolving and changing for the better, especially in conversations with my wonderful therapist. I felt at home, truly and more than ever before. All the pieces fit together.
But then, as we all know, the coronavirus pandemic came in and shattered all that we considered normal. In March, almost all the prospective grad student visits were cancelled, leaving many students with the near-impossible choice of deciding not only their next career move, but where they’d call home for six years, without even seeing the places or meeting anyone in person. Now, in May, all of us in California are two months into our safer-at-home order, and I’ve been working (and taking classes) from home since then, only seeing my grad student friends, my research group mates, and my advisors and professors over Zoom.
When this shift to virtual learning began, students were no longer tied to a location for classes or going into the office. Many people abruptly moved from their “school” homes, including many undergraduates who were forced out, everyone returning to their own versions of home. A few of my friends left to go be with family, reuniting with all the kids under one roof for the first time in years. Others went to live with their significant others, knowing they couldn’t bear the physical separation from them if this went on too long. Some chose to stay near school for pragmatic reasons, such as time zones for classes. Some chose to stay near school because going back to their family wasn’t an option, whether it was for the safety of an immunocompromised parent or to avoid a toxic home environment. As everyone spread out to their chosen homes, it made me wonder where I fit in all this. In a time of crisis, where do I choose as my home?
The thought of going back to my parents’ house was admittedly uncomfortable for me. I love visiting, and I do miss the people there — but the idea of spending 24/7 in a place that is not mine, a place that reminds me of who I was as a kid more than who I am now, a place where I simply do not fit into the daily routine anymore, doesn’t work. My hometown and my parents’ house within it are places of great significance, somewhere that I still feel I have a loving community and many connections and memories, but they’re not my daily reality now. It might have been my home, but it’s not mine anymore. If I were to return to it, it’d be a temporary stay, putting my present life on pause to ride out this pandemic there. Turns out everything is temporary after all, and home is a more flexible thing than I had always thought. We have many homes — a place can be a home, and so can people — and each of them fills a different role as the needs and phases of our lives evolve.
At least for me, home is simply wherever I am, wherever I can feel comfortable with myself and connect to people in my community.
So, I choose to ride out this pandemic in my own home here in grad school, near campus. In a way, my past self had the right idea — things are different after undergrad. No longer at the whims of a university and its dorm housing, I can live in the same apartment all year round, and I have a chance to settle in a bit more, even if it’s not forever. Many of the people I thought made this place home have left, and almost all of my old routines are gone, but I still feel at home. Home is more than just a place, especially now that I can always access some part of that network thanks to the internet. I have some roots everywhere, and it’s incredible to feel those tendrils span continents, the love I have for the people and places that I care about not impeded by distance. At least for me, home is simply wherever I am, wherever I can feel comfortable with myself and connect to people in my community.
In a way, the academics I know are uniquely prepared for all this social distancing. After all the uprooting and moving that is requisite for a career like this, we already have friends that we haven’t physically seen in weeks, months, or even years. Earlier this year, my best friend from college came to visit me in California; much to my shock, when I thought about it, it had been over a year and a half (almost two!) since I had actually been in the same city as her. Yet, we still had that closeness, and sitting on my couch watching a trashy episode of Riverdale with her felt content and comforting, like the ideal warm fuzzy feeling of a good homecoming. Another one of my favorite homecomings each year is our annual big meeting of astronomers, the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting. Lovingly dubbed “the Friendship Conference” by one of my colleagues, it’s a time where everyone you’ve worked with, and inevitably been separated from, can reunite. It’s a week of joyous reunions, and folks eagerly shouting across the rooms when they make eye contact with someone they haven’t seen in a while. The physical location of the meeting changes every year, but it always still feels like coming home to these people I love and respect so much.
I truly look forward to these reunion moments with all the people that are part of my home, all the people that bring that glowing happiness to my heart, whenever it’s safe to reunite after the pandemic is under control. I still wish that academia didn’t require so much relocation, but maybe my roots are still more flexible and resilient than I had previously thought. For now, though, in this moment, my home is where I am — in my cozy little Los Angeles apartment, near some of my grad school friends, with the rest of my extended community just a phone call or FaceTime away.
And, with that, I am content.