Home For A Nomad
By: Tara Ruttenberg

home is where the heart is...

...or so they say

And I tend to agree. But what if your heart is in a zillion different places simultaneously, intertwined with the hearts of hundreds of souls scattered in cities and suburbs and jungle lands and beach towns everywhere? In that case, creating a tangible sense of home becomes a daunting undertaking despite deep desires to nest, to grow roots somewhere, anywhere. The inescapable plight of the modern-day nomad, whose physical home may change with the tides, leaving in her sea-foam wake a trail of existential angst, twinges of nostalgia for what might have been (if only…); but whose heart, it turns out, is most at home in wandering.

***

“Está bien. I’ll check your second bag for free.” I looked up from my disheveled mess in disbelief, shoes and toiletries strewn about the shiny marble tile. It wasn’t a common phrase in any language, let alone airline-speak. Especially when the contents of your makeshift 32-pound second bag once inhabited the magical space above the top layer of your already-stuffed first bag, zippers bursting at the seams after twenty minutes of sweating the thing closed, chafed knuckles from the spots where strain met coarse fabric head-on. It’s a two-person job, really.

Grateful, I accepted and smiled sweetly, repaying him for his unprecedented kindness in innocently seductive eye contact. Stoked that I had narrowly evaded the $200 he originally threatened, I was also embarrassed in a way that irked my soul: what kind of self-proclaimed nomad stuffs 82 pounds of worldly possessions into a giant roller bag for a three-month adventure? Even if this adventure was technically work-related and I’d packed everything I own resembling ‘business casual,’ plus the usual warm-weather suspects since it’s summertime, and an array of atypical cold-weather cover-ups for chilly-breezy San Diego eves, and an old pair of CFM heels just in case; still, there was no excuse. I was weighing myself down both physically and spiritually with stuff, but now that I scored a freebee at the check-in counter and watched my bag disappear on that filthy luggage belt, there was no turning back. He should have charged me that $200—teach a faux-nomad a lesson in letting go. To add even further insult to auto-criticism of nomad self, the Chilean hitchhiker chick I picked up in Hermosa en route to the airport had been travelling for two years with only a small backpack in tow. Now that’s what I call freedom. Gracias, Chilena citizen of the wind, rub it in a little deeper. (Nomad self itching to crawl into giant suitcase in backseat and die.)

Fortunately for my soul, if not for my tired limbs, lugging all that shit onto public buses, in taxis, and through the unforgiving New York City subway system might have been the karmic lesson I had been looking for. So I’ve started getting over it after making a pact with myself that whatever I don’t use on the trip I have to give away to someone who needs it. Since then, I’ve been spending time honoring rather than criticizing nomad self by celebrating some of the other joys of being the wanderer I have come to be. Embracing the chosen privilege to get lost to get found, to find joy in the freedom of not knowing what tomorrow will bring, nearly a year of heart-and-soul-felt experiences bouncing between loaned beds and borrowed cars in cities and surf spots from New York to Medellin.

***

I’ve done my fair bit of wanderlust traveling in the past, but this year has felt different. Aside from a few surf trips, I haven’t wanted strangers in strange lands, solo adventures lacking roots, or purpose. Much to my surprise (oh god, this must mean I’m getting old), my wanderings have taken a turn for the familiar, letting my lonely heart, rather than my insatiable curiosity, guide me on my path. Wanting to be near and with the people I love who I don’t get to see very often, I’ve spent the year being present in the lives of friends and family, many times coincidentally arriving just in time for exciting events as if by divine serendipity. Births, deaths, graduations, moon celebrations, birthdays, engagements, weddings, spiritual workshops, winter wonderlands, anniversaries, concerts, motorcycle trips through the Andes, boats, trains, planes, bath-time with my babies, comings and goings, falling in love, getting dumped, camping in the rain, blogging, publishing, sweat-lodging, surf-tripping, joyful welcomes, tearful goodbyes. It’s been a mixed bag of emotions to say the least, but I can say with a clear conscience that it’s been life lived from the heart.

While content in my nomad travels and joyful that I’ve been able to spend time in familiar places with those I love, this rootlessness weighs on me in an indescribable way. I find myself praying for stability, for a sense of home, for building myself into and becoming part of a community that grows with and alongside me, even for something as simple as staying in one place for longer than a week or a month, instead of living out of a suitcase and changing direction like a lost honeybee in the springtime. The word HOME took center stage on my vision board last month. 'Create a sense of home' is my long-standing New Year's resolution for like half a decade. My yoga intention has been HOME for months now, ironic when my morning practice might find me flowing and OM-ing on different continents from one week to the next. 

It’s like this grasping for something that keeps getting further and further away. As much as I’m craving home, my nomad reality doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. Upcoming commitments with the inspiring Women PeaceMakers Program in San Diego, teaching opportunities at grad schools in Latin America, 14 months of pending doctoral research in indigenous communities in Ecuador and Bolivia, a leadership role on surf tourism and sustainable development courses in Costa Rica; these are the new purpose-driven nomad adventures igniting my soul today as I envision them all coming to fruition, becoming the person I am through my soul-driven journey to all corners of the globe. I embrace these challenges rather than shy away, yet I visit friends’ and strangers’ homes and I envy them, all of their beautiful art on the walls, their own dishes, closets, framed pictures of loved ones on the coffee table, something cooking on the stove, cushy pillows, magnets holding to-do lists on the fridge. Their own unique slice of safe haven, a place to rest and be. I want that. I pray for home and I get at least two more years of inspired nomad in my foreseeable future.

For nearly a year now, I’ve been gainfully unemployed, celebrating this stint of life writing, reading, surfing, loving, living. Holding tight to the lessons and blessings of months of wind-blown freedom, I feel ready to embrace three months of steady paid work as my professional journey takes me back to Southern California. I reach deep to come to terms with the forever feared nine-to-five I'll be living for the next short while, NPR soon to be my solace in helpless resignation to rush-hour, emotionally preparing myself for inconsistent waves in chillier Pacific waters. Writing, reading, surfing, loving, and living follow me to my new destination, cushioning the anticipated whirl of the coming winds of change.

***

I was tired from the cross-country flight to my new temporary reality. But as the plane landed at LAX last week, something crazy donned on me like a little Taser jolt to the brain: I was going home.   

...in a way. 

I had spent ten of the most formative years of my life in Los Angeles, longer than I’d lived anywhere in my quarter-century or so of earthliness, despite feeling like I was fresh off the boat, culture shocked in my own native land. But I guess if we’re going by the numbers, this new journey was actually a sort of homecoming to a place that now felt foreign and familiar at the same time. Driving through the Valley, recognizing exit signs, street corners, preschool, Penguin ice cream shop here, thai restaurant there, overpass where the homeless lady we gave red grapes to would sit with her shopping cart and cardboard sign, the spot where the old bowling alley used to be where I’d spent countless days with my dad when I was mini, trying to bowl a strike to earn my giant slice of chocolate cake from the deli that used to be down the street. A de-ja-vu slew of memories you never knew you had; a sense that what was is not what is now. And it certainly isn’t who you’ve become today. Another lifetime with your memory flashes as glimpses into a past that doesn’t even feel like yours. A movie playing on your retina where you can eerily predict what happens next. A puppet master directing somebody else’s show.  

But in all of its estranged familiarity, parts of it do feel like home. Especially the new-old parts. Reminiscing and welcoming newfound kinship with family I usually only see on very special occasions; deepening friendships with faces and bodies I’ve known for years but whose authentic humanness I am now experiencing anew.

“Do you think you’ll ever settle down somewhere? Have a real home someday?” my brother-in-law Jon and fake cousin Leah asked the same question on separate days from opposite coasts.

“I have absolutely no idea,” I'd responded, twice.

And I really don’t. And that should totally freak me out, right?

Reflecting on a year of heart-filled wandering, and celebrating my temporary SoCal homecoming of sorts, I discover that I’m surprisingly at ease, unknowingly testing out a new life hypothesis: home for a nomad. Because for the nomad (including self-critical faux nomads like me), maybe when your heart is full, home is everywhere you happen to find yourself in any given moment.

You are home.

And thanks to the generosity and compassion of friends and family, today I’m not worried about when or if I’ll finally ‘settle down’ and stretch my roots into the Earth. 

Right now, in this second, with a full heart and renewed zest for living, all I am is gratitude.

Gratitude for those who have helped me and loved me on my journey home.

 

Tara Ruttenberg is a PhD student, surfer, and writer currently transplanted in Costa Rica. Read more of her stories at Tarantula Surf.