How does one define home? Where is home?
For years after emigrating from Iran, I tried to find a place to call home. I thought that by finding home, I’d find myself, and rid myself of nostalgia, sadness, and the crushing loneliness that I felt every day. The truth was that I had a hard time being alone and accepting myself as a new immigrant, who barely spoke English at age 11. I was ashamed of my shortcomings, my broken, insufficient English, and struggled every day as I tried to live a new life in America. I thought that I had to find home in order to be free, in order to succeed. I was crippled with anxiety and feared failure. I worried that I would fail in school, that I wouldn’t make it to college, that I wouldn’t grasp the English language like the other kids did at my school. I envied their confidence. I cringed at myself; I couldn’t even tolerate the sound of my own voice.
And I missed home or the idea I had of it.
After 10 years in Northern Virginia, where I never felt a sense of belonging, I moved to New York at 21. I separated from my family, who remained in Virginia. In later years, I looked back at my move to NYC as my second immigration. I had fallen madly in love with the island every time my family and I drove up there for short stays. I marveled at the glimmering lights of the towers above the river, and I thought: I have to be here.
On sleepless streets, as I made my way to class at NYU, on the dirty subways, on the Brooklyn Bridge, I searched for home. After the excitement of my move had worn off, I was back to feeling worried and anxious. During lectures, I wandered off, looking out the window toward Washington Square Park, and suddenly tears would come flowing with nostalgia. I imagined Iran and how it would never be home again. I daydreamed in melancholy often.
I cried on the streets of Manhattan as I called my mother, who never said the right thing when I was sad. I would hang up feeling even worse, and yet I called her again the next day, sometimes just holding the phone to my ear without a word coming out of my mouth, as I fought back tears.
Where is home? I wondered.
Despite my struggles, both emotional and financial (NYU came with a huge price tag), I stayed. While many of my close friends left the city, I continued to stay. I was still unhappy, still in doubt, still worried about the future, but I knew I wasn’t done with New York. One autumn night, I sat alone on a bench in the park at Union Square. I called my high school English teacher, who once told me “You’re going to be a writer in New York.” I told him that I didn’t know what to do, that I was lost, that maybe I should leave. I don’t remember our conversation, but after hours of sitting on that bench, and talking to my former teacher, I knew for sure that I wasn’t going to leave.
At 24, I was back in therapy, and something good happened. My therapist encouraged me to seek out opportunities. She told me to join Meetup groups, to find myself a circle of friends I could rely on for support, for creativity. One night in the apartment I shared with an older, single woman, I reached out to the host of a writing Meetup group. I sent him a sample of my writing, and just a few weeks later, I was on a small stage at the Bodega Wine Bar in Bushwick (now Idlewild), reading a short piece of prose I’d written about nostalgia. After that, I was there every first Sunday of the month and kept going back, gaining more confidence as I shared my story with strangers. I began to form a bond with some of the writers in the group, and still remain friends with some of them. I also felt a special bond with Bushwick. I loved the murals on the walls, the warehouse-turned-art spaces. I finally felt like I was coming alive, and suddenly my words carried meaning, no longer just my nostalgia. Strangers came up to me after I read a piece, moved by my words. Inspired, I wrote new pieces before every reading. I had purpose again.
I felt at home, at last.
Sometimes home is right where you are, where you have friends and like-minded people who support your endeavors, and also catch you when you fall. Sometimes home is not a physical place, but a manifestation of what makes you feel whole and happy. Home doesn’t have to a single place or a single idea. Home can take many shapes and forms. And sometimes home is the place we left, the place of our roots, our parents’ home, our childhood bedroom. It’s where your heart beats, and your mind grows.