It is often said that home is where the heart is. That usually means wherever your family is, or your lover, your spouse, your children – that is your warm cocoon of comfort. We have all heard it said in a romantic movie, “It doesn’t matter where I am as long as I am with you.” It is a beautiful idea, that the people you surround yourself with are what make a place your home. But what if you still feel like a fish out of water in the city that contains them? What if being home, the place that should be the most comfortable place of all, is actually outside of your comfort zone?
I grew up in Rochester, NY. It is green. It has four distinct seasons. There are plenty of rolling, glacial hills and babbling brooks. The Christmases of my youth consisted of cutting down our own Christmas tree in a snowy field, cheeks rosy from the cold, hot chocolate by a crackling fire, and waking up to a gleaming white landscape of snow on Christmas morning before sliding across the floor in footed pajamas to the stockings hung by the chimney with care. It was caroling through a snowy neighborhood, bundled up, watching the moonlight and the Christmas lights glint off the icicles hanging from neighbors’ gutters. It was the Hallmark version of Christmas we see in holiday themed movies, and quite frankly it was exactly how the holidays are supposed to be as far as this NY native is concerned.
As we rapidly approach the holidays, department stores already decorated in green and red and gold, commercials showing images of snowy streets lined with anxious shoppers rushing for last minute gifts, I cannot help but compare the Christmases of my youth with those of my sons’ youth, happening in our pink and tan desert home. Here, there is no snow. There are no pine trees wrapped in sweaters of snow, pointed snowcaps on their tops. It isn’t even cold. The days are sunny, warm, and dry. Christmas lights get strung on stately Saguaro cacti, some of which wear Santa caps courtesy of particularly festive residents. Lights spiral up the long, skinny trunks of palm trees, carrying their holiday glow high above the rooftops. For this upstate New York girl, the only way I can describe this holiday scene is, well… ridiculous. This is not the way Christmas is supposed to be! Where’s the cold? The snow? The crackling fires and cups of hot cocoa? Why am I sweating in my jeans and short-sleeved shirt in mid-November? Why am I still wearing flip-flops? It just ain’t right.
Even without the holiday hum-drum, I often reflect on how much I have had to adapt to living life in this southwestern desert, a place so unlike my original home. If I had been told twenty years ago that I would someday be living in a place where snakes slithered across my back patio, tarantulas climbed up my exterior walls, bobcats and coyotes roamed my yard, and scorpions found their way into my home I think I would have passed out cold. I would have said there is no way in hell I could survive in a place like that. I was not a lover of insects, arthropods, reptiles, or large, predatory mammals. I don’t think I ever saw a snake in the flesh until I was a senior in college, struggling through geology field camp in the wilds of Montana. The wildest animal I ever encountered in my Rochester childhood was a field mouse that found its way into our screened in back porch, and I screamed bloody murder and climbed up onto a chair like a cartoon character. But here, in the desert, I am surrounded by critters I never would have dreamed would be part of my daily life. Poisonous arachnids, arthropods, insects, and reptiles. Predatory felines. Howling canines. For some, this is all part of life, part of being a true desert dweller, someone who has the desert in their bones, in their heart, in their soul. For them I imagine that Christmastime outdoor picnics and wearing sandals year-round is absolutely the way it is supposed to be. For me, it is just nuts.
My soul is constantly being called back to the rolling green hummocky topography of that four-seasoned home that seeped into my bones and took hold forty years ago, especially in November, after more than six months of heat and no snowy white Christmas in sight. The desert still feels foreign to me, even though I have lived in Tucson, Arizona for thirteen years. I think that qualifies me as a Tucsonan (even New Yorkers will concede that you are a New Yorker if you have lived there for a decade). As a Tucsonan, I have grown accustomed to snakes on my patio, scorpions behind my toilet, javelinas in my driveway, and coyotes waking me at night with their howling and yelping. Instead of scared retreat at the site of a snake I take its picture and marvel at its beauty. I follow my curious desert-souled sons when they call me outside to show me a tarantula they have found, or a long line of huge red ants carrying dead flower petals to their underground holes. We crouch in the sand and examine these critters that I never pictured as part of my everyday life. I have found a way to adapt, survive, and thrive in this place, a place so unlike the one that was the backdrop of my formative years. And somehow I have found things to love about this peculiar place. The purple-pink sunsets, the bare-rocky mountains, and wildlife of all shapes and sizes, including a morning hello from a long, slithery snake.
It is amazing what we can do when home has to be where love, family, and life take us. Even when they take us far from where we began. Far from the home that lives in our memories and our souls. My soul might always long for the landscape of my youth, but I wouldn’t choose that over the home I have built with my family here in this most unusual of places.
So yeah, home is where the heart is. It might be strange. It might be beyond your comfort zone. And it might just be exactly where you are supposed to be, for now. Maybe even forever.