Searching For a Sense of Home

Do Americans buy a sense of home from the store? How can we create meaningful, authentic connections to the places we live?

| July/August 2012


Like most Americans, I yo-yo back and forth between the restless desire for the imagined better place that must be somewhere other than here and the yearning for a burrowed-in sense of belonging.


Recently, driving home from a soccer game in the pouring rain, I looked into the rearview mirror and asked my two young and very wet daughters, “If someone from another country asked you where you were from, what would you say?”

Without a heartbeat’s hesitation, they responded in unison, “Portland, Oregon.” I drew a sharp breath. For them, it’s not even a question to ponder. When I am asked, I always say, “I live in Portland, but I’m from Springfield, Oregon—from East Lane County.” When my husband is asked, he always answers, “Harris County, Texas,” though he was born in Tulsa, has lived in a dozen states, and has bounced around the same two zip codes in Southeast Portland for more than fifteen years.

“What about Springfield?” I asked.

“That’s where you’re from. We’re from here.”

For me, it is profoundly unsettling to have my daughters—who I am closer to than any other human beings—be from a place that I don’t fully claim as my own. And yes, that 109-mile distance between unincorporated Lane County and inner Southeast Portland makes a difference—topographically, economically, culturally. So, they are from Portland, I am from East Lane County, and David is from Texas. What does it mean when each member of a family living under one roof answers that question—“Where are you from?”—so differently?

This is the story of America, and, in particular, it is the story of the West. Here we are—a mishmash of descendants of the first residents and transplants pulled west by the first Homestead Act and the Dust Bowl, then another desperate Homestead Act, and most recently, restaurant raves and a stratospheric bike-friendly reputation. Now what? On darker days, I wonder if the very basis of the Republic—Thomas Jefferson’s notion that self-governance depends on small communities intimately connected by place—has been worn out by contemporary life, by tremendous cultural forces spinning us away from, rather than toward, a mature and orienting sense of place.

8/19/2015 12:13:06 PM

Hmmm. Does place belong to me; or do I belong to place. Is it "sense of place" or "sense of self in place"? My "home", the place of my childhood, is very different now. There is no possibility for me to "go back home," and I miss it terribly. On the other hand, I have lived most of my life in villages in the Northeast, and I love it. It is definitely a place that has claimed me and I am engaged in this place. But it is still not home. Sad. I think maybe Jefferson wanted communities to work together to solve their collective problems, but I do not think his vision was for an individual to stay in one place. Many people moved significant distances in colonial times. In any case, his Louisiana Purchase certainly undermined any possibility that we would be a nation of citizens rooted to a single place.

8/11/2014 9:40:13 AM

A thoughtful and thought provoking article. I have moved a lot in my 64 years and often struggled with answering, "where are you from?" I found myself always identifying with the place I grew up. All the other places I felt like an outsider and "not from there." Oddly this left me without a sense of community or a sense of belonging while I was living where ever it was. There is something about this sense of belonging that is about how it has shaped us and how we shape the community we live in. It is a relationship and I fear so many people shop for a community based on climate or job relocation that they miss building a relationship as an essential part of that feeling of belonging. I have learned that what I bring to any community is as important as what the community has ro offer me.

Dar Hosta
7/30/2012 2:49:17 PM

I loved this article, Wendy, and it touched on something that I have long thought about as someone who is often asked where I am from. I wrote about it in my blog today.

Lindner Bison
7/27/2012 9:50:06 PM

This is what Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson write about in "The Unsettling of America" and "Native to this Place." It's about reclaiming communities; when we go to college, coming back and claiming and/or improving our own community rather than enriching the coffers of disconnected corporations. I would love to move back to Livingston Montana, but at 64 it may be a little late to expect to rejoin or expect to strengthen a sense of belonging.This is an excellent article and worthy of widespread narrative in this country among young people. The sooner the better!

7/25/2012 11:14:33 PM

This article really spoke to me. Thank you! I agree with Nancy's observation that being able to feel a "sense of place" can be facilitated by being outdoors and connecting with the space you're in and land you walk on. I've struggled with feeling a sense of belonging and a sense of belonging to a place for years. When people ask me "where are you from?," I usually begin by saying "it's a long story..." If I have to choose a place, I claim the city where I was born, grew up in until I was 14, and where 98% of my family still live. However, at this point in my life, I've lived more years outside of that city than it in it. I've considered moving back to my city of birth and if I ever do, I know I will still provide a more complex answer to that question, if asked it while living there again. I too have wondered about an elusive perfect/better place for me than the place I currently live. Because of the transient nature of many of our lives, a lot of us live with this "tension." I love the fact that I've lived in multiple areas around this country. Yet, my adventures have come at a cost of not feeling a clear sense of connection to one place. Parts of my history belong and feel connected with different places. I’m “multi-placeted” . I loved that you highlighted the ephemeral natural of things and pointed to a larger view of how we can belong and feel a sense of connection. In my experience, taking a larger view about belonging has been essential for my sense of well-being. I've recently come to the conclusion that I may never find a place that I truly feel a sense of belonging and that's "ok." We can experience "moments of belonging" every day. For example, belong to our family and friends (wherever they might be), belonging to the groups that help support and sustain us, or belonging to the ideas that inspire and move us, etc.

Nancy Bruning
7/25/2012 4:22:01 PM

This was such a poetic, thoughtful, delicate piece of writing. Thank you. I don't have the answers to the questions, but I do know this: the people I work with "incidentally" begin to feel more comfortable and more a part of our physical community the more time they spend OUTside IN it. Three times a week we walk in our local park, using as many senses as possible to take it in--hear the birds, see the sky, smell the air, taste the wild berries, touch the stone walls and wooden benches when we stretch and exercise. I think it must be difficult to feel you are of a place if you spend all your time indoors or in a car.