Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical: Where The Heart Is?

When friends and family from Vermont ask how we’re doing during our five-month sabbatical in Berkeley, California, I usually answer, “It’s been a good experience. But it’s not home.”

The funny thing is, it was home.

I’ve been contemplating this concept of home: What is it that makes one place clearly home, and another place – a perfectly nice and familiar place filled with beloved friends and family – so clearly not home?

Obviously, home is where your house is, in the physical sense. But I am talking about the more spiritual sense of “being at home.”

The old platitude claims, “Home is where the heart is.” One of my daughters drew a picture and captioned it with this saying. When my husband asked, “Where’s your heart?” she didn’t miss a beat: “Vermont.”

My daughter’s response was revealing. Her parents and her sisters – arguably the people closest to her heart at this life stage – are with her here in California, suggesting that our rental house should feel like home to her. Yet for some reason that she couldn’t quite define, she knows that home is in Vermont.

Perhaps “home” is wherever we expect to stay for the forseeable future.

Until I moved to Vermont, I’d never lived anyplace I expected to stay. For Americans born after 1970, “home” is often a short-term commitment, wherever the winds of employment or higher education have landed us at the moment.

I’m sure my parents would’ve loved me to remain near the Washington, D.C. suburb where I grew up, but the expectation seemed to be that I would travel at least a few hours away to college. In the end, I traveled eight hours north.

My residence in my small college town had a fixed start and end date. My post-college career took me to New York City; I lived happily in Manhattan for seven years, but when we moved to Berkeley, California, for my husband to attend graduate school, I was neither particularly surprised nor sorrowful to bid New York goodbye. New York often feels like a revolving door, with people coming and going constantly; it’s a short-term city.

Like college, graduate school in Berkeley had a clear start and end date. The end date was our move to Vermont. And it’s in Vermont -- for a variety of reasons including real estate, the lifestyle weight of four children, the presence of grandparents, and that fuzzy concept of “home” – that I expect to stay.

It’s been disorienting to find myself back in Berkeley, five years after we left for Vermont -- and back not just for a passing visit, but for a five-month stay that affords ample opportunities to revisit people, places, and memories on which I’d shut the book five years ago.

I have no prior experience with this sort of thing, no guidebook for how to process it. The sensation, as best I can describe it, feels a little like ripping a Band-Aid off of my memory: necessary, but not completely comfortable.

I’m writing this in the Sweet Adeline Bake Shop, on the corner of Adeline Street in Berkeley. I have numerous happy associations with this café. From 2009 until 2011, we lived a short distance away. Sweet Adeline is where I met friends for coffee, brought my young daughters for afternoon treats, and escaped those daughters in order to focus on work for the nonprofit where I was employed.

It was in Sweet Adeline that I heard Ray Charles singing “Georgia on my Mind” through the speakers and thought, “What a beautiful song. If this next baby’s a girl, we’ll call her Georgia.” Five months later, we did.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Sweet Adeline still here, virtually unchanged in the five years since I last set my laptop on this small faux-marble table. That’s been true of most of the places we used to frequent.

It is still possible to show my eldest daughter the bench in the Berkeley Rose Garden where I told her father that we were expecting our first child, and the café where I dined with friends the day before she was born. I drive my daughters past the three houses where we lived, the offices where I used to work, and the hospital where they were born. We dine at the same restaurants, and we play on the same playgrounds – often with the same friends. We are attending the church where our three oldest daughters were baptized.

It’s like being Rip Van Winkle in reverse: I feel as if I’ve been away for a hundred years, but only a day has passed and nothing much has changed.

Except me.

My previous life in Berkeley, during which I gave birth to three children in four years, was a time dominated by the mix of euphoria, nausea, exhaustion, and anxiety particular to pregnancy and early parenthood. It was a time when I cherished the community of young families with whom we surrounded ourselves. It was a time when I realized -- partly due to choice and partly to circumstance – that my own career would be ceded to motherhood for the coming decade.

The places and people I’ve revisited during this sabbatical elicit memories of my former self: the nervously earnest nonprofit employee, the unwieldy pregnant woman, the frazzled new mother with a screaming infant, the more confident mother pushing a double stroller. 

But none of these places and people can tell me who I am now.

I am no longer exactly any of those women. This realization has given me another insight into that fuzzy concept of home: Berkeley no longer feels like home because I don’t know who I am here.

That sounds ridiculous: How could a 40-year-old wife and mother lose her sense of identity simply by changing towns?

It took this move to make me acknowledge just how much of our information about ourselves -- where we fit in, what we do well and poorly, who we are -- comes from our community. And, as my daughter intuited when she located her heart back in Vermont, it takes more than our immediate family to give us this information; it takes our friends, co-workers, pastors, librarians, bank tellers, checkout clerks, the people behind the bakery counter. All of these people are part of a vast web that gives us our sense of place. Yank us out of that web, and we’re a little lost.

I have dear friends in Berkeley, but for the most part they know who I was.

In other words: Home is where your people are.

Were I to stay in Berkeley, wouldn’t I re-weave that web? Form a network of new connections and find myself again? Would Berkeley then begin to feel like home again?

Quite possibly. Or maybe I’d always yearn for Vermont. I’m not sticking around to find out, though; I’m going home.


Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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