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Zooming into Home

January 12, 2006

“Let’s go flying,” my husband says, and so we sit down side-by-side at the computer, type a destination, and stare in fascination at the lighted screen, where the earth zooms closer and closer until we are flying over Beijing, Bermuda, Bombay. We zoom into a housing development, fly over city parks, scan acres of rain forest and desert, explore villages along the Amazon, the Rhone, the St. Lawrence. Human beings have never been able to do this before: silently, benignly, we pass over the world’s houses like Yahweh over Egypt – but leave no trace.

The computer lets us approach in a startling demonstration of general-to-specific. The world becomes a continent becomes a region; a particular city surrounded by mountains; a set of streets; a house on a certain corner, with a brick walk and a tree in the backyard: someone’s home, someone’s place in the world.

The technology is new, but the feeling was known to me already. Whenever we’ve returned to Vermont after traveling, I’ve noticed the closing sense of familiarity and tried to pinpoint it: where does “home” start to feel like home? When does our own local “area” begin? What – besides the arbitrary municipal boundaries – marks out the village? Then we’re suddenly there, moving down the familiar streets past the mini-mart and the falling-down diner, and Lester’s car parked in his driveway – and there’s the neighbor’s cat in the window, and then our house, our flowering crab apple, our back door, my hand on the knob: home.

When it’s a place you love, that’s a good feeling. I’ve also shaken my head at some of the places I’ve lived, astounded that of all the spots on earth, this is where my zoom ends up; this is where the map tack goes. And yet, for most people on earth, I think there is in fact a virtual map tack that they’d identify as “home,” even if they are presently displaced.

It’s natural to zoom in on our own home, but not so natural to stand in someone else’s and look out. When I was in college, I drove across the country with a friend. We were in her little yellow sports car, and one noon we pulled into a family restaurant in Nebraska and ordered our lunch, which was served by a blond farm girl about our age. When she brought the check, she stood by our table, hesitating, and then asked, “Where are you from?”

“Ithaca, New York,” we told her, and then she asked where we were going. “San Diego, California,” we said. She was silent; in her eyes I saw the longing and felt hopelessly uncomfortable. We went out to our car and drove off; she stood in the plate-glass window, watching, holding our plates.

That was the first reversal I’d experienced in one of those look-alike franchises that hug highway exits in every major town. The concept is to make travelers feel “at home” with identical décor and identical food, before continuing on, away from there. But what if “there” is “home”? Who are those waitresses, those dishwashers, the people mopping the bathroom floor? The traveler’s trajectory is so privileged: a line between two points, this stop an insignificant, momentary deviation. But for the locals, this place is a zoom with a final thud, as the map tack goes in to stay. A mile away from the exit, life is lived not on a vector between distant places, but in circles that bring us back again and again to that specific spot we call “home”.

The other night in Montreal, the new place we call home, I was walking back to our apartment down a street lined with typically narrow, attached triplexes. So many residences! More in a few blocks than in my entire Vermont village! And each door distinguished by a number, a color, a lace curtain, a wreath or some Christmas lights, a child’s drawing taped to a window.

At a corner, a young woman carrying a baby turned and headed down the street in front of me. Where was she going, I wondered? The baby bounced and peered at me over her shoulder. The woman slowed slightly, yes, here was her building: now, what floor? She hoisted the child more securely onto her hip, and started up the wrought iron staircase, stopping at the second floor landing, and rummaged in her bag for her keys. She stepped inside, the light went on, the baby turned his head to face it.


Written by Beth Adams of The Cassandra Pages

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  1. January 13, 2006 at 5:42 am

    beth, you always create a vivid sense of “home” in whatever you write and I marvel at this gift. Here especially, it’s like being at your side, travelling with you, seeing through your eyes.

    Btw, what link or software were you using to do the online swooping over and into all those countries and streets? I’ve heard there’s a satellite-based programme which takes you right into any street you specify but what is it’s URL?

  2. January 13, 2006 at 5:52 am

    It’s Google Earth, Natalie – http://earth.google.com/

  3. January 13, 2006 at 6:46 am

    I love the the images of the waitress standing in the diner window holding plates and the infant turning his head toward home at the end. Those two images zoom right into “it,” this feeling of rootedness, in both its stifling and soothing senses.

    Thank you!

  4. January 13, 2006 at 7:14 am

    Very thought-provoking, Beth. You captured well the specifics of home and not-home, chosen home and stuck home, tacked with a thud. I’ve looked out airplane windows many times and thought of the lights of each village, each little house home to someone, the details of their lives significant to them as it is to us.

  5. January 13, 2006 at 7:15 am

    I should say, significant to them as the details of our lives are significant to us.

  6. Anna
    January 13, 2006 at 11:35 am

    I loved the part of the post about the traveller’s perspective and the locals’ perspective. The concept reminded me of my year in the States doing my PhD research when, being a poor student from England whose funding wouldn’t cover air travel, I used to regularly criss cross the USA by Greyhound bus. As I was based in Duke University, North Carolina and the subject of my PhD lived in Arizona, my main journey was Durham to Tucson which took two and a half days (the only time I got off the bus was to change to another bus). North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona: such a vast country. Coming from England, it was just impossible to comprehend entering, say, Texas at 0630 and still be travelling through it at midnight. The vastness and the strangeness and the aching wistfulness I felt, especially at dusk as we hit these little out-of-the-way places… Just one main street and a few ragged buildings. Those people who served us – they lived there. What did they do with their lives? What did they dream of? They’d hear my accent and always we’d exchange a few words. I loved the lonely feeling I got when we stopped in these tiny little towns at night, somewhere at the end of the earth it seemed. I was half asleep, half-starving, with maybe ten dollars in my pocket. But my fellow travellers were my companions and that big bus was my little safe haven.


  7. MB
    January 13, 2006 at 11:39 am

    It’s an interesting question: where does home begin? Your post brought up two memories: wondering apprehensively, the first time I experienced an apartment building, how would one find home?—and the sudden sense of home, while living in Paris, the moment a press on the apartment building buzzer brought a response in English.

  8. January 13, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    A beautiful meditation on home, Beth, from a traveler’s perspective… searching the planet via satellite photos to tiny diners visited on road trips. The ‘virtual map tack’ that we each identify as “home” is probably true for most of us, no matter where we happen to be living. xo

  9. January 14, 2006 at 7:27 pm

    Stunning–especially that final sentence.

  10. January 14, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    A beautifully well-rounded essay. Like the other commenters, I really liked the roadtrip vignette.

  11. January 17, 2006 at 6:38 am

    Thank you all for the lovely, kind, thoughtful comments!

  12. January 19, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    You’re a magician, Beth. All those layers of perception settling so gently into place, each one fixed with a vivid glimpsed moment. Wonderful.

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