In my almost thirty years of living, I have claimed the top, left hand corner of envelopes with many different return addresses. Some of them I fought for; some of them I happened upon; some of them I cried through; some of them felt like home. My most recent handwritten mail-marker has become the dearest of them all, and I’ve found it on the streets of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
I moved to this city in the middle of my twenties, right when society is telling you to “figure your sh*t out,” and it’s a hell of a feeling when you really haven’t. I was still in school, I was trying to make sure the bills got paid, I was dealing with some very serious family concerns, all while attempting to take in a new place, to make it my own; my home.
HOW I GOT HERE
I grew up in Pennsylvanian suburbs. I remember waking up to the sound of lawnmowers and the smell of lilacs. I had juniper trees in my backyard. I knew all my neighbors and held weekly ghost-in-the-graveyard games. I knew I would spend my summer afternoons at the park, with my friends, swinging and daydreaming. I knew I would spend the winter marveling at the stars with my dad through the telescope he built, set up in the snow. I knew that I would graduate high school in my tiny town, get a job, get married, have kids who would grow up there, too. I was twelve, and I had it all figured out.
Then, as soon as I was about to step right into the peak of my awkward years (read: high school), we moved. To South Carolina. The culture, the landscape, the weather–it all shifted from everything I knew and understood to everything I didn’t know and didn’t want to understand. I had to learn how to talk all over again, and when I did, I fell in love too young and made some choices. I made friends, came to love the low hanging Spanish moss and azaleas, but I forgot who I was in time to graduate, and then we moved again. To Kentucky. I got a job as a waitress at a restaurant on the river and figured out how to flirt with strangers. I turned twenty-one and loved too hard; I was a whisper of who I knew I could be. Then we moved. Eight years later and back to Pennsylvania. Back to the town I had grown up in which, somehow, didn’t feel like home anymore. In fact, I wasn’t sure that I could even come close to pinpointing what home felt like, and I couldn’t figure out where I fit. By the time I began my final years of college, I had scattered so many pieces of myself in so many different corners of different towns that I had come to terms with feeling adrift.
THE TERRIBLE TWOS
For most of my early twenties, I felt torn between two locations. I felt like I existed in between it all–never in one place long enough to hold onto it. I had best friends who lived in South Carolina, but my family was planted somewhere else. I had school in Millersville and new friends to make, but my boyfriend lived in Philly. I missed my parents on the weekends, but I had work to do that kept me where I was. And then life really decided to underline things for me, demanded I zero-in. After wading through the last two years of college and student teaching, navigating renting an apartment in Lancaster city with my (then) boyfriend (now fiance)–Aaron, working at a coffee shop, attempting to insert myself into the areas and activities of this town that I admired, and trying to maintain a certain level of grace throughout it all; my dad, the foundation on which I had built my almost-adult-understanding of the world, got sick. Really sick. I was convinced that after surviving graduation, my life would fall into some kind of stride, that I could claim things. Surely I had learned all the lessons life had to teach a twenty-something preparing for all of the next, exciting parts of the journey. Haaahhhh.
At the age of 27, after having been so many different places and finally feeling like I had found “my place” here in Lancaster, I moved back in with my parents. Aaron helped pay my rent for the house we lived in together with a group of our good friends, while my sisters, mother, and I put our lives on hold to take care of my dad. There were months during which time felt like it was moving backwards in lots of ways that I’m not sure I’m ready to write about yet. We hunkered down. We said goodbye to whole parts of ourselves and kept waking up every morning, and, for the first time in a long time, I fully existed in one place and one place alone.
There are many lessons I learned during the months leading up to saying goodbye to my father, but one of the most important of these was my sense of self and home. I felt like I finally understood that home can mean lots of things; that I am totally allowed to have pieces of myself in different places. That my past can make sense in my present because I have lived it. That much of me resides in those I love, and much of what I love resides here, in Lancaster.
One of my favorite parts of this city is how many people it has taken in. Everyone has a different way of walking through life, and we all have pieces of ourselves in different places, pieces that we bring to our community and to our understanding of what it means to walk together as friends, as family, as neighbors, as community members, as human beings. As someone who had hoped for a long time to feel a true sense of belonging, I am more than excited to share my experience of finding it and my continuing appreciation of this city, my love for its inhabitants, my hopes for how it evolves. I am eager to add a voice to this conversation, and I invite you to walk through this with me, to share your stories, fears, questions, and triumphs in this space, this place we call home.