For the past eight years, I’ve lived in six different cities. I was 18 when I moved away for college, and it was easy for me to leave because I craved a fun, adventurous life that my suburban upbringing couldn’t provide.
Recently, I have seen family members grow up, pass away, etc., and it makes me feel like I need to be home. I feel guilty because I know it hurts my parents that I’m gone, and I do miss them. I moved to my current city because of my job. I applied to jobs back home but never heard back from anything I applied to. I thought moving was the right choice since I was very unemployed and had bills to pay.
I’m no longer guilt free like I was when I left at age 18. On top of that, I moved to my current city only knowing one person, and it has been quite lonely. I have an existing community back home, and I’ve been exhausted from meeting new people. So that’s also a factor.
However, I am currently applying to jobs in my current city because there is more opportunity here for me. Realistically, I do not see myself moving back for a few more years. So, Papi, I guess I’m asking: How can I cope with the guilt of staying in this city?
You know, a few weeks ago, before Quarantine™, I had a different response to this letter. But now I want to talk about hermit crabs. Did you know that hermit crabs don’t grow their own shells? Perhaps you did, because you either had them as shitty pets or because the word hermit tipped you off. In any case, they occupy the shells of dead critters. Pretty morbid, I guess, but not for the animal kingdom, which doesn’t really mind these sorts of things.
The hermit crab lives in pursuit of a bigger, better shell. It has to scrap with other crabs over them, and it has to move quickly because its soft, tender abdomen will cook under the harsh sun if it’s naked for too long. I don’t want to get too carried away with the analogy — humans are not crabs. Most of us aren’t, anyway.
And yet I do feel some degree of kinship with the hermit crab, Aventurera. I look at my life, and I see that I’ve moved around quite a bit, looking for bigger, better things. I went from Oklahoma to D.C. to New York City, and even then I continued to structure my life around mobility. I took remote jobs, built my own schedule, and banked on the idea that I would be able to go wherever, whenever. I never wanted to be “stuck” again. I wanted to see [Black Phillip voice] the woooooooorld.
But today I’ve spent over a week in my bedroom. I haven’t gone out much other than for supplies. I mostly wait for sleep to come and then I try to press on as best as I can while I’m awake. Meanwhile, here’s something I’ve learned about this apartment that I’ve become even more familiar with of late: It is not my home, really. It is four walls, an empty shell, and I just happen to be in it. I didn’t fully appreciate, until now, how “home” is a concept that has to exist in conversation with many, many other things, like friends and hobbies and such. It really is a state of mind.
It brings me no pleasure to report that this is one of those “home is where your heart is” type of deals, Aventurera. I wish it were any other way! But, indeed, our present crisis has made me think a lot about what home means. You see, if I were to define home as with my parents back in Oklahoma, well, I can’t go there. I’m not stepping foot in an airport right now, and my beloved padres are boomers whom I must protect. If I were to define it as my friends, well, we can’t really be near each other at the moment, aside from on FaceTime.
I have never felt more like a mere organism: eating, sleeping, drinking, and waking up. When everything else is frittered away, I have to ask myself, Is this really it? Am I really just an animal project of flesh and teeth and blood? Is survival really all there is?
Well, no. Like the hermit crab’s tender body, we are made of soft, fragile stuff, Aventurera. It is not enough for us to merely survive. We need warmth, we need protection, and oftentimes we need to go out and find those things for ourselves. It’s no surprise to me that it’s often LGBTQ people who leave the towns they grew up in and pursue new horizons. Home has to feel like home, or it’s no home at all.
Which brings me at last to your situation. I can’t tell you to stay or to go. That’s a big personal decision you’ve got to make for yourself. But what I can do, I hope, is get you to stop feeling so guilty about moving around. You aren’t betraying your family. You haven’t forsaken your values. You are merely looking for something that feels right. No one ought to fault you for that. I’m doing the same thing!
What I want you to do is take guilt completely out of the equation. If you didn’t feel ashamed or selfish, what would you choose to do? And in the meanwhile, remember that you haven’t lost your family! They are still just a phone call away, and not going home now doesn’t mean you can’t later!
Just like our lives, home is a shifting, changing thing because, well, we carry it with us. Even if we aren’t physically there. Home is anything that makes the daily chore of living possible. That can be family, friends, or even yourself. Just because you’re lonely in your city now, for example, doesn’t mean you’re not one relationship away from feeling differently tomorrow.
Well, probably not tomorrow, if I’m being honest. Unless you get really lucky on Chatroulette or something. We’re all staying inside, hopefully. So, I don’t know. Play Animal Crossing and get emotionally attached to your villagers in the meantime. For some, home is a virtual island, I suppose.
Take care of yourself! Don’t travel! Don’t buy hermit crabs as pets — they sometimes eat each other! It’s pretty horrific! And take it easy on yourself. We are all, in some way, keeping one eye on the horizon for better things. We might lose our minds if we didn’t.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on March 23, 2020.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Pre-order JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, out June 8, here.