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Silhouette of a man looking over a dusk horizon

Lately I’ve found myself feeling profoundly homesick. It’s come and gone for the twelve years I’ve lived in the US full-time, but this week I’ve been feeling it pretty much as intensely as I ever have.

But perhaps homesickness isn’t quite the right word. If you pushed me, I’d have to admit that it’s not the place that I’m homesick for. There are trappings it that I certainly miss: specific old haunts and routines that used to mean something to me when they were more than just echoes in the back of my long-term memory. I’d go back and smell the hoppy Edinburgh air as I emerge from the train at Waverley, or take in the centuries-old stink of stalls in Oxford’s Covered Market, in a heartbeat. Still, what I really miss is a feeling: a place and time in my life when the way I felt about the world was radically different.

I was speaking to a friend this morning about trauma. He put it to me that seismic life events tend to split life into two parts: the BC and AD. This resonates with me; I’ve always thought of it as if the laws of physics have subtly shifted, as if I’ve fallen into a parallel universe. Everything looks more or less the same, but the underlying rules of the universe have changed just enough that the meaning of everything is different. The old routines and patterns of life feel like going through the motions, like you’re play-acting an echo of who you were before. You have to figure out who you are in this new universe; figure out what you need. All the while, the cognitive load of just existing has gone way up, and you’re flooded. Basic functions like empathy don’t come as easy as they did before. And you’re over the threshold: there’s no way to get back to the universe you came from, as much as you might want to claw yourself there.

I will never get my mother back. I will never be that person again. I will never have that life again.

I miss the feeling of existing in the pre-trauma universe; the one I lived in back before I’d moved continents because my mother was dying, and certainly back before her condition developed more fully. I have no regrets about moving or being on that journey with her, or about the wonderful people I have in my life today that I otherwise wouldn’t have met. (Our son!) But I miss the feeling of living in that other world where I felt like I had more agency over my decisions, and where the stakes of those decisions were far lower.

Some of those contextual reasons are obvious. We spent over ten years caring for Ma, and medical issues, surgeries, and new problems to solve often came out of the blue. I was very glad to be there, but by necessity, life had to be reactive and flexible. You never knew what was going to happen next. One moment things were fine; the next, I was getting kicked out of the ICU because I refused to leave her side.

My mother fought to live with gusto and energy and intelligence and heart. She told us, again and again, that she wasn’t ready to say goodbye. And yet, on a Sunday night in a hospital room with big, picture frame windows that looked over San Francisco, we had to.

Perhaps less obviously, the whole American context is also a weight. Whereas the National Health Service took care of me without so much as a co-pay at the point of use, the American healthcare system forces you into finding a salaried position if you want to have decent coverage that isn’t ruinously expensive. Whereas I was used to buses that came every 5 minutes and went wherever I wanted to go, now I had to own and maintain a car. Whereas I felt safe everywhere I went, now I was concerned about people carrying guns, animals carrying rabies, poisonous spiders, religious fanatics, free-market libertarians, and so on. Whereas I could exist on a relatively low budget, the cost of rent, owning a cellphone, and having a fast internet connection all quadrupled. Even buying decent, healthy food at the supermarket was more expensive than I was used to (but I could buy as much poor-quality bread with sugar in it as I wanted).

Then, one year, on my mother’s birthday, someone walked into Erin’s work with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and started shooting. I picked her up from the hotel down the street where she and a few other people had barricaded themselves in. This isn’t something that happens in most places. This isn’t something we should have to live with at all.

In the midst of all of this, it became easier to make bad decisions, to feel flooded, and to pass the trauma forward.

All of those things are pieces of a trap. It’s hard to maintain control of your life if you’re constantly trying to make ends meet; particularly if basic human rights like healthcare also come with a hefty price tag or a de facto requirement to work for someone else. Contrary to expectations, I’ve felt the least freedom of my life in America.

That’s what I’m homesick for: freedom. That’s not something that’s got anything to do with a specific place. The country I grew up in has declined so rapidly that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was run by Elon Musk. I don’t actually have a desire to go back and live in Britain again (although I’d love to visit often); I do have a desire to be in a headspace where I feel like I can go anywhere, have the space to be creative and live how I want to live, proactively plan my life based on my values, and be safe and supported in doing so. Post-Brexit Britain isn’t a place I can feel homesickness for. It’s not a feeling to me; it’s just a place. The feeling is what matters.

Post-covid, I think most of us are reconsidering the shape and meaning of our lives. In Ling Ma’s excellent book Severance, presciently written before the pandemic, a fungal plague finds people mindlessly repeating old habits, unable to break the spell of nostalgia. It’s the severed universe again: trauma has split all of our lives into pre and post. We can call for people to go back to the office or shed their masks all we want, but it’ll never be anything more than the mindless rote repetition of prior routine. There is no “back to normal”; the laws underlying the universe have changed. We’ve moved over the threshold and can’t get back. Nostalgia is a vice, not an answer.

So how can I create the conditions to reproduce the feelings I’m homesick for? The honest truth is, I don’t know that it’s possible, or even healthy. Even those feelings may be a nostalgic crutch. I think it’s important to think about how the context I’m in could be better, both proximally (here in the house, in the direct patterns of my life) and more widely (in American societies, in the industries I work in). I don’t think there’s much good to be gained from just trying to accept life as it is; there’s a lot of learning and growth inherent in even the act of trying.

Four friends, hugging on the beach

As part of my managerial work, I think a lot about how people burn out as part of a team. Usually it comes down to a lack of ability to influence the conditions that affect the work you do: the culture of your company, the processes that dictate how you do your work, the goals of the team or the company as a whole. If you feel like your concerns or priorities aren’t being heard, or if they’re not being taken seriously, the friction can create an emotional overhead that makes it hard to get any work done. I wonder if that’s true in life too: if part of the way we burn out in our lives is if we feel like our values and ideas aren’t being heard or understood.

I think shared understanding is most likely to be found in communities of like-minded people. (Maybe that’s a tautology: people with shared values have shared values.) Part of the stress of American life is knowing that there are so many people who don’t share your concerns about what constitutes a problem. Not just in small, little ways — those don’t really matter, and are probably good — but in radically divergent ways that can make you wonder if you’re out of alignment with the rest of the world. There are people out there who think it’s fine that everyone drives everywhere, or that it’s okay for poor people to not have healthcare, or that unions are bad, or that a six-week abortion ban is great even if it kills women, or that it’s a completely fine and reasonable thing for people to just carry guns around.

Differences of opinion are part of the foundation of democracy. At the same time, every society has basic, fundamental agreements: murder is bad, and so on. Some societies agree that a feeling of security through social support is important. I wish this one did too.

Failing that, sometimes you also need to feel heard and understood, and feel enough kinship to not have to litigate the basics. I think it’s healthy for people to argue about the role of unionization in society, for example; I just don’t always want to be arguing about it whenever it comes up. I think it’s reasonable to discuss the role of guns in a country where they’re mentioned in the national Constitution; I also don’t want to always have to worry about being in proximity to them. I think we can talk about how to pay for high-speed rail; I also just want to spend time with people who think it’s as awesome as I do.

The most important version of this, for me, is identity. I’m a third culture kid with no well-defined national identity. Some of my ancestors were Ukrainian Jews. Some were Indonesians. I’m descended from concentration camp survivors and people who fought in the resistance. I don’t ever want to be in a place where people question my right to exist, or the right of my relatives to exist. I don’t want to have to explain that there are many valid ways to live a life. I don’t want to be exposed to xenophobia, nationalism, parochialism, or the petty racism of small-minded people who don’t like to hear people with foreign accents at the other end of a phone. I have no need to expose myself to peoples’ distrust of people who are different. Those things make me feel less safe; less accepted.

I think the feeling I’m homesick for is community and a sense of belonging. I want to spend more time around people who share my values, and I want to share more of myself with them. That felt easier in the country I grew up in because I’d had these close friendships for all of my life; we were comfortable around each other. Because my time in America has mostly been tethered to traumatic events in my life, I haven’t had the chance to properly nurture and develop the friendships with the truly amazing people that I’ve met since I’ve been here.

So maybe there’s a way to cross the threshold after all. Maybe the main thing to find is real connection: to prioritize nurturing friendships and reaching out to people who make me feel like I belong. To advocate for change, yes, but also to find the other people who advocate for those same values.

When all is said and done, perhaps the real problem to solve is how to feel less alone. And to that end, perhaps part of the solution is to reach out and embrace the people and relationships of all sorts that I already have in my life, wherever they are in the world.

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