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  • The Reflective Doc

Finding a Way Home

The concept of home is on my mind. I’m struck by the diversity of meaning this word holds, reflecting a geographic location, a cohesive community, or simply a feeling of welcome and belonging. The news reflects shifting populations, returning to their childhood towns, leaving cities for a more rural experience, working remotely from far off places. Many of us have been enclosed in our surroundings through requirement, finding them alternately constricting and comforting.

I knew, growing up, that I needed to move on. I recognized that though I had a loving family, providing safety and security many do not experience, I didn’t entirely feel “at home.” The plains are beautiful, and I didn’t realize the immense sky I was privileged to view until I moved east. However, I spent much of my childhood sitting on a small hill overlooking my hometown, plotting my escape to the adventure I found in books.

Lately, I’ve been viewing the past with an aching nostalgia, missing what I left behind in the choices I’ve made. For example, the physical and ideological separation from my parents, felt deeply with the recent travel restrictions and political polarization, or losing touch with childhood friends whose lives diverged from mine, but who held the memories our laughter and recklessness created. Even just encountering a familiar site with my children in tow, such as my elementary school, the dusty softball fields, or our long driveway with the curves and shifting ground I learned so well as a first-time, over-confident driver.

When I first meet with patients, I ask them to provide a narrative through their early childhood, listening for feelings of isolation or belonging, confidence or insecurity. Many reflect my own sense of needing something…different. Seeking a future that placed them in comfortable surroundings, comfort in this case referring to identity and belief systems, rather than geography. It’s fascinating to hear the choices they’ve made, which often reflect either a re-enactment of their earlier life, or, in others, just the opposite. In either situation, however, those who have found the most contentment were able to bridge the past and present with traditions, values, or meaning wherever they may have landed

My box full of childhood mementos gathers dust in my basement, suggesting a rainy afternoon of bittersweet rummaging on some future date. But rather than reminisce, I’ve found new ways to evoke a connection to the unconditional love I felt as a child. For example, on days when I feel particularly detached, the act of baking my mother’s bread grounds me in a tangible way, with its smell of yeast and tactile pleasure of kneading dough. I can be transported to early dance parties by playing my Dad’s favorite, Otis Redding, or lazy Sunday afternoons while Bruce Springsteen sings about small town America.

Sometimes, if I’m struggling to fall asleep and worries enter, I take an imagined tour through my childhood home, pausing to savor the way the wind blew into my bedroom window at night, or lingering in the kitchen, the central hub of our family’s activities. Sitting around the dining table, imagining each of us in our unassigned but always identical seats, I can lose myself in the memories of laughter and warm rhubarb pie.

Through repetition and by necessity, I can pick up and move my life with mostly eager anticipation, not fully appreciating what was left until many months or years removed. But I’ve learned to treasure moments when I’m carried back through sensory experiences or family traditions. These escapes help soften the edges of homesickness and remind me that I’ve come from somewhere solid and important.

As my children grow, I’m trying to create a secure and loving environment to ground them and encourage confident exploration. I want them to recognize the smell of freshly baked bread or a barn full of horses, and be able to explore the countryside without fear of traffic or strangers, though mindful of rattlesnakes. I wouldn’t describe myself as traditional, but I’ve grown more aware of the importance of expected events and rituals, especially those from older generations.

Cultivating your sense of home may look different from mine. Perhaps you can more regularly visit the sites of your childhood, feeling joy and creating new memories. Or maybe you needed to move far beyond the boundaries of youth to find belonging and understanding. It is key, I believe, to seek your own meaningful definition of home, one you can bring along as you step forward into your future. Something carried inside of you, I have found, is much harder to lose.

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