On finding your way home.
I was born in Tizi Ouzou at midnight, a tiny fragile thing on the cusp of a beginning. Algeria was three years into a Civil War that would force my family to flee the country, but there was no way to know that then.
My parents left when I was three, entrusting me in the care of my grandparents. Two years later, I was finally able to join them.
I have no memories of Tizi Ouzou, just stories, but I find myself aching for it just the same. Even after 22 years, I have yet to return, but five years ago, I went to Algiers for the first time since immigrating.
On the drive to my grandparents’ house, I took inventory of my surroundings: clusters of palm trees; distant mountains blurring against the trees; blues so pervasive it marries the skyline to the sea. I was trying to create a clear picture, something concrete to remember.
I keep those memories near now, never certain of when I might get to return. Even if I never do, I cannot forget it this time — this home that is not home.
I search for it in everything.
There is a Warsan Shire poem that begins:
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.
After we left Algeria, leaving became the constant. Year after year, there was a new city, or a new town, punctuating my mother’s urgency. Her restlessness was the very compass defining the direction of our lives. I see it now for what it was — an act of correction.
Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion coined the term containment. It refers to a mother’s capacity to comfort her baby in times of distress. It is in this way that babies learn how to manage their emotional states on their own, a practice in self-soothing. But someone that didn’t learn containment often experiences incessant anxiety later on in life. Bion called this anxiety “nameless dread.”
There were moments of happiness, of pure joy even, but I grew up, for the most part, in what my therapist aptly refers to as a military upbringing. Early on, I became a prisoner to my own nameless dread.
I can pinpoint the precise moment when the presence of my parents no longer brought with it the promise of safety. Their rage became an active threat, their bodies weapons against me.
At 16, I left my father’s. Then, at 17, I left my mother’s too.
In “What Home Means To Me, After 20 Years Chasing the American Dream,” Andrea Devoto writes, “After all these years of fearing attachment, I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life.” She goes on to say that she is rootless, and that’s precisely what I was, what I — in so many ways — still am.
For many years, I have been trying to fill the absence left by my parents. I have been trying, I can now admit, to substitute their love with another person’s.
In “Since Living Alone”, Durga Chew-Bose writes:
“Being Someone’s Someone is cozy in theory — a snug image like two letter S’s fitting where the convex meets its concave. Unfortunately, I felt little of that snugness. I’d sculpted myself into what feels nearest to apparatus, a piece of equipment that was increasingly capable of delaying my desires. Of slow-drip longing. There was always tomorrow, I told myself.”
In my first post, “Accidentally Joining the Search Party”, I wrote that I felt lost, lacking direction. It has been, I think, a common outcome of the pandemic. The cruelty of time is that it passes without pause, without reprieve, without mercy. A day is a year, one instant seeping into the next — vignettes amounting to a life.
In a letter to Russel Vernon Hunter, Georgia O’Keeffe once wrote: “I have done nothing all summer but wait for myself to be myself again.” Throughout this pandemic, I can confess I’ve felt the same.
“The answer was, of course, what the answer always is for a single twenty-something prone to a touch of melodrama,” writes Dolly Alderton in Everything I Know About Love.
“Move to a different city.”
I’d been living in California for three years, but I knew before ever moving there that it was a mere stopping point — temporary, just as so many things are. Admittedly, it has left me craving permanence. I’ve been running my entire life, but it’s a practice in futility.
Eventually, you’ll just run right into yourself.
In August, I left California for New York. It is my 17th move, but in many ways, a first.
Living alone, as Durga writes in the same essay, is an act of finding interest in your own story. It is an act, too, of confrontation, of exposure. Like an actor without an audience, the performance begins to fall away. What it’s revealing to me is the closest I have ever felt to myself.
Sometimes, just before falling asleep, I find myself tiptoeing from my bedroom to the living room, the light from neighboring apartments pouring into my own. I sit in the quiet, waiting, as if it might just disappear before me — not this apartment, per-say, but what is in it — a rare sense of security, of safety.
I’ve been trying to catalog every minor moment, no matter how mundane it may seem: the way the morning light dances against my curtains, begging for an invitation; the consistent murmur of conversation from the street, rising to meet me; a pocket of quiet in the night, a respite from the business of the city.
For once, I am not focusing on what comes next, but of what is here. Coming home to no one but myself, I find that love is present within these rooms.
It is present because I alone am here.
Finally, I would like to end each newsletter with ten things that made me feel good that month, be it a book, a song, a moment, or a memory. Here they are:
A new beginning.
Cultivating a space that is my own.
My community of chosen family.
Fade Into You by Mazzy Star.
Frequent FaceTimes with faraway friends.
Taking time for intentional rest.
Nights on my fire escape.
Italian Americanos from Corto.
Personal growth, even (especially) when it’s uncomfortable.