About fifteen years ago, I read the book Dakota by the poet Kathleen Norris and through her description, developed a love for places that are no place.
The image of a democracy of barrenness rings true when one turns on the TV and finds bland programs designed for the widest possible audiences, or when one drives a busy freeway, or walks through an airport parking garage (or a shopping mall), places that are no place, where you can’t tell by looking if you are in Tulsa or Tacoma, Minneapolis or Memphis.
—Kathleen Norris, “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography”
Anytime I can identify places that are no place, part of me gets excited—I found one, Kathleen!—and part of me is comforted by their mundane colorlessness. I commit the scene to memory: sterile hospital waiting rooms with their stacks of dingy, infected, outdated magazines. Laundromats that smell of chemicals designed to describe the feeling of cleanliness. Serpentine halls of airport terminals, never-ending, with swirly, stain-hiding carpets and overachieving stains that still show through.
There are also places intended to be temporary, at least for you, and I find them to be unsettling reminders of our own impermanence: hotel rooms with thin sheets and that one weird velvety blanket. The table/chair/bed contraption in the doctors office, covered by thin white paper just for you, just for your visit. College dormitories, noisy and largely there for your convenience, not comfort.
That is where I now find myself, a temporary place that is no place, and I’m trying to figure out whether or not this tiny little dorm room in Fairbanks, Alaska is home.
But what is home?
Is it the place where you live, or the place where you are from? When does a place start to become home, and when does it cease to be? Is home a place for you, your things, your present or your past?
Usually you can just tell what home feels like. It’s a warm fire and a cozy sweater, blanket on your lap and book in your hand. It’s the sound of your best friend’s laughter filling your dining room. It’s the safe, familiar place where you are unapologetically, uninhibitedly you.
I’ve yet to find that here, though I am trying. I like to take a book and my new wool blanket into the common room on Sunday mornings, cautiously enjoying the quiet and calm before the storm like a pilot that flies into a hurricane’s eye to gather data. That room is also where I sit at the large table to do my homework, where I sit on the couch and watch Habs games on my iPad, where my new friendships are born during study breaks and all-nighters alike. Being stuck alone in my austere room with the few items I brought feels like I’m a dog being crate trained, no matter how many tapestries I hang on the walls (currently: 6).
Most of my possessions are at my dad’s house in California, haphazardly packed into cardboard boxes I didn’t even bother to label. I don’t live there and I never have; if it didn’t have my dad’s cars in the garage and my dog running in the yard, it would be just another place that is no place, a suburban ranch-style house that could be any cul-de-sac in any town, anywhere on the West Coast.
Most of my recent memories are of San Francisco, which was home for so long that it’s hard not to think of anything before that as my personal ancient history. San Jose is, Lawrence is, Campbell is. They are all places of my past that I will carry with me wherever I go, neatly organized, labeled and boxed up, ready to unpack in my new home—wherever that is.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, since I made a home in a new place, and it’s also something I’ve never really done on my own. I’m going to be here for at least two more years (more if I stay and pursue a PhD and yes I will make people call me Doctor), but the temporary and transitional nature of my current surroundings makes me a little bit afraid to unload those boxes, unpack them, and make this place my home.