There’s No Place
Emma says home is where I am, and I say that my home is where she is. Sometimes, we joke that the spot she nuzzles into me, below my right armpit, is a magical place called Inglenook. We got that from the name of a wine we shared the first year we were together: My last name being Engels, which I pronounce as if it is “Ingles”, and nooks being what they are, it fit, as she seems to. Funny thing is we moved to North Carolina this year and the local supermarket here is called Ingles.
Eighteen months ago, we were hanging onto the last strands of hope that we were going to buy our dream property: 14-plus acres of jungle with waterfalls and swimming holes on its western border. That was in southern Belize. Eighteen or so months before that, we were certain that Guatemala would be home. Eighteen months before that, we were leaving Guatemala to figure out where we might want to settle. At no point in any of this did North Carolina factor in.
I was born in Baton Rouge and was always certain that I wanted to leave there. It’s not that Louisiana is a horrible place. Gumbo, jazz, the Cajun twang, Mardi Gras, drive-thru daiquiris, Tiger football—When we first visited the States together, I couldn’t wait to show these to Emma, whom my mother deemed an English rose. We drove to all the homes of my past: where I lived until I was eight, where I lived in high school, my first second and third apartments when I went to LSU, the places I’d worked, which in terms of time are as much home as the others.
We’d met in Korea a few months after I finished grad school, and after spending over a year there together, making a place of our own, we’d decided it was time to take each other to the separate homes we’d somewhat run away from. In England, I’d seen all of her old haunts, and in Louisiana, it was her turn to oblige me. In a weird way, it was the first time I’d realized the state as an inextricable part of my identity, how seeing Louisiana could give her a deeper understanding of me.
For many, home is summed up by a building. For others, it’s a country, a state, a state of mind. During roughly a dozen years as vagabonds, Emma and I have spent a lot of time redefining this concept for ourselves and definitely for friends and family who were dismayed that there was nowhere to send us birthday cards. Home has been all of these things for us and none of them at the same time. Other than armpits and the company of one another, we have commonly claimed home to be where we set our backpacks for a spell. That’s not wrong, either.
I left Baton Rouge Saturday, Hurricane Katrina hit on Monday. It was in the autumn of 2005 that I departed the United States to embark on a journey that would begin in Korea and later take me to countries I couldn’t have found on a map. Before going, I did a farewell road trip, stopping in Tulsa to see my oldest brother, on to St. Louis to visit a friend of over a decade, and swooping though Memphis, where I’d gone to graduate school. Then, I visited “home” (Louisiana) before a stop in Houston, where Dad had moved some years back.
Dad and I huddled around the television. I’d known hurricanes all my life, but that was the first one I can remember watching on the news. Usually, a hurricane meant the power would be out. Usually, Dad would have the cabinets stocked with enough canned food to last months. During Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which had destroyed Florida then come to do the same to Louisiana, my entire family came down to our living room to sleep in each other’s company. Except me. I didn’t stir until the next morning. And nobody had felt the need to wake me up because it was just another storm.
My father had since divorced his second wife, and now she and her two sons, who’d been my step-brothers from the age of four to eighteen, are all but strangers to me. The home that we’d shared—the pool we’d grown up playing games in, the hole in the carpet in my old bedroom where Snowball the hamster once dug herself to freedom, the sunken living room where they’d endured Andrew—was a fading memory in 2005. Nowadays, that house is further removed from me than every country in Central America.
During my first years abroad, people would rarely recognize Louisiana as a place in the US. I’d have to say New Orleans, and they’d identify my home state via hurricane. They’d offer condolences as I related that my aunt and cousin had suffered serious losses. As the years passed, the details of Katrina became fuzzy for most, and I was reduced to explaining that I was from the state next to Texas, which killed me a little inside because there was always something about Texas that bothered me. That’s still true.
When Emma came with me to the US after Korea, it was the first time I’d visited Louisiana since Katrina. We toured New Orleans and parts of it remained vacant even then, and I believe still to this day. When we visit Louisiana now, Emma already having seen New Orleans two or three times, I rarely drive the fifty miles from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Visiting “home” doesn’t entail anywhere other than Baton Rouge. New Orleans is by far the more famous destination, but the hour journey seems unnecessary.
But, if people of the world have trouble with Louisiana as a place to recollect, they certainly aren’t going to recognize Baton Rouge. Hell, most US citizens don’t realize that New Orleans isn’t even the capital. In other words, home is pretty relative to whom you are speaking.
After many years of traveling, Emma and I began to view the world as home more than we did our respective countries of origin. Returning to the United States filled me with discomfort. The United Kingdom did the same for Emma. For us, the planet felt cosy as long as we weren’t in one part of it for too extended a period of time, never long enough to deal with the warts that any and all places form, never long enough to acquire things we couldn’t leave behind or literally carry on our backs.
Along with Emma, I’ve become a master of both making a home quickly and leaving it unapologetically. Together we have called over ten countries “home”: Korea, Guatemala, Turkey, Palestine, Russia, Nicaragua, Panama, Belize, England, Spain, and the USA. Of those, we’ve never stayed in one location for more than a continuous year.
Behind us, we’ve left dishes, pots, pans, pillows, bedding, knickknacks, books, cell phones, and clothes. We’ve literally finished jobs, packed our bags in the evening, and moved across the planet within 36 hours. We each carry a backpack full of clothing and front pack full of gadgetry. Emma has a jar full of silly toys and rocks and morsels of places that she calls a treasure chest. I have an impressive collection bottle caps from different beers I’ve tried. If pushed, we can easily unpack and set up a new “home” in under two hours. We can pack it up just as quickly.
The comedian George Carlin used to do a bit about home being a place to put your stuff, somewhere to put your stuff while you go out and get more stuff until you’ve got to get a bigger house to put it in. We’ve frequently done the opposite, shedding all we can to get the zippers closed, moaning as we struggled to fit our worldly possessions into two bags each. When too much amasses, one of us inevitably feels the urge to split, and for those who know us, the one consistency we have is that we don’t go anywhere without the other.
In 2008, our friends and colleagues in Guatemala nicknamed us “Emmathon” behind our backs because we refused to get two separate phones, insisting that there would be no need. They didn’t tell us until our last month there, maybe the last night, and we’ve lovingly embraced the moniker since. Some would say that’s an unhealthy way to live, but I’m pretty sure George Carlin was saying something similar about stuff. If home is where the heart is and the heart is what we love, then I much rather invest that in my wife than a collection of suits or a sofa.
About three years ago, we started feeling the urge to find a place of our own, a residence at which we could pursue dreams larger than the ability to keep moving. We’d just finished over eighteen months of traveling via work-trades in which we swapped a few hours’ labour on farms each day for a place to stay and food. It had changed the way we saw the world, put us deeper into a rabbit hole of sustainability. For one, we learned to live with scarcely any income, and two, the experience carved us into stoic believers in our own abilities.
Emma was a real activist when I met her. She’d spent a childhood writing letters to parliament and corporations, pointing out the plight of whales and the destructive effects of CFCs. I’d been a successful high school jock who’d spent the better part of the following decade concerned about the changes in my body and drinking heavily enough to insure all things went downhill. It wasn’t that I never thought about important things, but I never thought about doing anything about them. In that way, she’d been a bolt of lightning.
Those who’ve gotten to know us have peeked into a world wrought with boycotts and self-imposed limitations on consumerism. The stakes have only grown as the years have passed. We moved from avoiding buying certain brands of toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, soap and so on to simply making them all ourselves. We’ve moved from vegetarians who avoided multi-national brands to vegans who live largely on a whole food diet. We went from loving moments when we could find diet root beer to making our own kombucha and ginger ale.
During these most recent years, the fuel of flying has begun to bother us. The difficulty of finding and affording the food we want to eat has pushed us towards gardens, and gardens have in turn equated to needing to settle. Despite recognizing that the First Agricultural Revolution and the subsequent civilizations perhaps spelled the doom of the humanity, we started looking for land, very specific land with all sorts of features to make into a home and garden. We focused mostly in Central America, occasionally flirting with Spain and Romania and Colombia.
At times, the place seemed to matter a great deal. Guatemala had been the home we’d yearn for when at loose ends. But, try as we might, we never could find ourselves willing to stay there for longer than a job contract, and we never could find the piece of land we wanted. In the end, it was the property, the project, the prospect, that had to satisfy us. We had little doubt about making a home wherever our rucksacks landed, but that landing space also needed to be something we could jointly pour our hearts into.
When my mother and stepfather reached the year of their retirement, they decided to move from southern California to North Carolina, and in their excitement, they began sending us real estate listings for the homes they were searching.
Changing homes can be both a painful tearing away of what’s comfortable and an exciting breach into the future. Guatemala, though it carried a bounty of friendships and beauty, had become somewhat of a bad relationship. We’d continually left for new adventures and returned with romanticized memories and exaggerated expectations. At some point, we had to accept things, be it people or place, as they were.
It had become apparent that our needs would never be met, and no matter how great life might have been, we had to come to terms with what was really happening. With Guatemala, we were settling for what came most easily rather than what was best. The process of parting was anything but a Band-Aid being ripped off. We left and came back to spend weekends. We even moved “home” for a while. We dawdled, spent an extra six months working odd jobs as we continued looking for the dream property.
But, we just couldn’t make it work. We found ourselves scrolling through the classifieds, checking out real estate in other areas, daydreaming of creeks that were cleaner and land titles that made sense. The veneer had buckled like cracks in the sidewalks of Antigua. On the surface, it should have worked, but somewhere inside, tremors were rattling our resolve, so much so that we didn’t even try to hide the fact that we’d begun to look elsewhere. We talked about it openly.
During those last months, our life was remarkably stable and happy. Emma was the Green Projects Coordinator at a bilingual Montessori school, where she’d gotten me work putting in gardens. I ran a farmers’ market for a local organic farm, where I’d gotten her a gig painting signs. We worked for an NGO, Garden of Hope, centred around introducing abused and impoverished kids to healthy food and environments. We had a beautiful apartment with an interior made from old barn wood and a small garden outside to piddle in. Had it been that way a year earlier, we might have stayed forever.
But, it wasn’t a year earlier. We’d poured our hearts into Guatemala, and when that happens, some pieces forever remain, however things end. Emma and I had started an NGO program there that still runs today. We’d helped a guesthouse grow from quiet to the toast of tourism. We’d built friendships and gardens and memories. We’d shared some of our most vulnerable and exhilarating moments together, Guatemala and us: robberies and elections, volcanic eruptions and Christmas fireworks, birthdays and independence days.
Somewhere within Emmathon, there will always be a part of it that is alive, that begs to be remembered fondly, because Guatemala is home: We carry its language on our tongues, wear its textiles, use its recipes, know its streets, have photo albums, remember when it wasn’t like it is now, and even still use the name we were given there. And, like our home countries, we’ve now left it behind, knowing there would be no choice but to return to visit. There is simply too much of us in it to pack it all.
Moving back to the United States has been something of a farce. I’ve come to North Carolina, a state that I’d never visited. How can that be considered moving home? I’ve returned to political turmoil worse than the George W. Bush years that contributed to a younger, less political me wanting to leave in the first place. I no longer own a car, haven’t had a residence here in over a decade, and couldn’t name even one of the last ten American Idols. I have no real desire to be part of the America I once knew, only to say that I want to be part of a new one.
In August of 2016, via clips on YouTube, I’d seen Central, the suburb of Baton Rouge where I’d spent most of my childhood, get drowned as rivers and bayous broke their banks and flooded vast expanses. My elementary and high school were underwater. Streets that I’d driven on as I practiced to get my license were impassable rivers. Cousins and friends lost their homes. Other cousins and friends got into boats to rescue strangers. My uncle took hours to puzzle together a route from one side of town to the other in order to save my grandmother who was sitting on the back of her sofa with her handbag as floodwaters steadily filled her home some three feet high.
Baton Rouge, and Central in particular, had long ago given way to feeling unfamiliar to me. Katrina had exploded the population, and development had expanded highways, built up farmlands, and slowed traffic. All of that concrete, the new parking lots and driving lanes and housing developments, had increasingly made runoff more difficult to deal with. Whatever did remain familiar washed away. We passed through Baton Rouge in April of 2017, and half the homes in my town had been disembowelled from the ground to about five feet up due to water damage. Yards were still littered with FEMA trailers, discarded carpet, and warped furniture.
It’s an odd feeling seeing your people, if that’s what we can call those who are from the same community, in such a state. There was pride for those who’d formed the “Cajun Navy”, a group of rescuers who’d taken out their fishing boats and started moving people to safety. There was a palpable resilience in the driveways of those who’d moved back into homes that’d been flooded and gutted. There was a sense that it would be years before this place returned to being near what it used to be, which of course it could never really be again. Though these people were my past, they certainly weren’t my people anymore. I had no right to any of their feelings about the floods. I have no faith that the same won’t happen to them next August.
The year I moved to Memphis to go to graduate school, a kind of tornado-turned-horizontal steamrolled through my neighbourhood. It passed through a street parallel to the one I lived on, and every house on that street, one block over, was damaged. I walked in my pyjamas and slippers the morning after to survey the collection of trees that had been knocked onto houses, I had to take detours to avoid felled power lines. Homeowners were standing outside, wondering what came next as they picked up debris and piled it at the end of the driveway. I’d only been in Memphis for months, but at that time, that was home.
I’ve had to grow in my appreciation and acceptance of what and who this country is. Not only has the move put me back into this national community, but also I’ve had to watch Emma, who has never lived here, digest the culture: the mass shootings, the political debates, the pharmaceutical advertisements, the flag-flying nationalism of “the greatest country on earth”. I’ve had to wonder how well she will come to call this place home or if she’ll spend the next decade hiding away in Inglenook, unable to settle her nerves. We came to have meaningful voices in a chorus for change, but the songbook just feels so foreign, to her and also to me.
The countries in which we are born, in a way, are like family. We can’t control what we get, and it’s nearly impossible to separate ourselves from them. Our past, both the people and places around us, makes us who we are, no matter how we change over time. I’m no less from Baton Rouge as I was during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and Emma is no less from England now. Even so, those homes are no longer really our homes. This one is.
This August, one year to the month after Baton Rouge had flooded and twelve years to the month after Katrina sent the Pontchartrain cascading through the streets of New Orleans, Hurricane Harvey engulfed much of Houston. Like Baton Rouge, like New Orleans, while the weather was extreme, the government already knew that the infrastructure was the real culprit and that nothing had been done to prevent a dire situation we had created. Many had knowingly helped to create it in order to turn a buck. This time I’d recently passed through Texas and was watching from a TV elsewhere.
All those years ago, as I sat in my father’s home in Houston, I was about to set off on an adventure to discover myself, discover the world outside of the US, find some truths that evaded me here. I’d watched Katrina devastate a city I’d grown up knowing as one of the greatest places in this country, likely on earth. At that time, it never registered to me that anything but Katrina had made that happen. However, in discovering myself, I discovered as much or more about this place—home—that’d escaped me back then.
I’d returned feeling secure with who I was, knowing well the world beyond these borders and carrying truths ever more inescapable. Global warming, the rapid melting of the future, had felt fledgling to me in 2005, but that soon changed. These places so relevant to my past, to who I was then and who I am now, were stuck in the middle, built around the very industries causing their destruction. Not only was I no longer part of these communities in a physical sense, but also I’d lost connection with their ideas. I’d come to believe that this way of living, the way I’d grown up, had to change.
I carried with me more than just Baton Rouge, more than the US. When a South Korean ferry sank in April of 2014, with dozens of high school students aboard, I had to worry that some of the kids had been in my classes. When riots broke out in Istanbul, I had to think of friends living there. When eruptions and mudslides and political corruption continued to colour Guatemala, I couldn’t help but feel it, too, on some level. These places, all of these people, were once home, and though you can’t carry them all with you in a literal way, neither can you leave them behind. They, too, become part of you.
In Palestine, home became more and more difficult. My friends were denied the same water rights, the same freedom of movement, the same protection from injustice, as their neighbours received. Yet, they couldn’t abandon their home—this land—for which their entire existence had, in some sense, been forcibly linked . Staying meant a life imprisoned, and leaving meant a life with no home to claim as their own. Emma and I felt true guilt that we had the option to leave when our time was up. Home is not always so comfortable, and it’s not so sedentary nor fluid for all. We can’t all define it so cleanly.
Home, for me, has become a place in which dreams can be realized. Those dreams may boil down to run-of-the-mill careers and dinner on the table, or they may be so grandiose as independence from oppression. Some of us will inevitably outgrow the places into which we were once condensed: we graduate school, we develop new interests, we make new goals. Emma and I often defined home as the places we’d unpack, and we relished the power we had to pack them away just as quickly. But, that dream has changed.
Home, we think, is somewhere in North Carolina, somewhere on the horizon, mixed up in the creeks that careen down into the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It involves a house we make from our own ideas and our own hands. It involves the families who watched as we found ourselves afar and the friends we’ve made at so many stops along the way. There will be homemade meals from home-grown food and a cradling of the earth beneath us as if it were ours alone to love. There will be backpacks in some form of semi-retirement. And, there will be an armpit for Emma to nestle into when the cold outside world is pushing in on the cabin and a warm, familiar place is all you need.
Jonathon Engels is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.