Joan Didion is a blogger before her time who weaves the power of narrative details into her poignant narratives. Her style of writing marries well with the topic of military brats because they are a sub-culture off the radar. Their distinct ways of looking at the world and perceiving the idea of home make them unique but they also carry with them a lot of baggage from their past moves. In this project, I plan to write in the style of Didion’s “On Self-Respect” piece from Slouching Towards Bethlehem and instead look at the idea of “home.” Therefore the piece will be title “On Home.” The piece will take into account the ideas of permanence versus temporariness and volatility versus transitivity. These opposing poles will create a struggle of impending doom building suspense—elements that are key characteristics of Didion’s writing.
This piece will be written in the first person because this is the same narrative voice that Didion used in “On Self-Respect.” Although the first person is used, I conducted interviews to compile information and viewpoints from various sources so the voice is a combination of my own and many other people. Among the people I interviewed, the majority became comfortable with the idea of transience after a lifestyle of moving but a few people longed for stability and a place to call a permanent home. I will follow Didion’s style of considering people who have “self-respect” and those people who lack it to compare the two sides of the spectrum. Similar to Didion, I will also consider popular culture examples that demonstrate my topic and expand them. Didion’s voice is her strength in her writing and it shines through so although I will not be able to capture her voice exactly, I hope to develop a voice that is just as strong but more my own. Using Didion’s style and framework I will create a narrative that is similar to “On Self-Respect” and incorporates the overarching viewpoint of the phenomenon of “home.”
On Home: My Story
Once, in a moment of frustration, I wrote in the margin of my class notes that happiness is moving new places and not being content with any one place. Although the truth of this statement sticks, I am unsure whether moving causes the happiness or if the defense mechanism of movement makes it easier to be happy. It spurred the idea of a misplaced home.
I had not been able to fill out the form. The task could scarcely have been more infantile or clear-cut (they just wanted my address), but I was unsettled and angry upon reading the glaring, mocking word that stared smugly up at me occupying the space in front of address—permanent. I had somehow figured that if the form had simply said home, it would have been easier. I could write where I brewed the coffee in the morning and slept at night but the “permanent” unnerved my gut because there was no answer, no neat one-liner to write in the adequately proportioned box. Although even the naive eighteen-year-old I was must have known deep in my core that filling out an incomplete answer to the question would not bar me from entrance to college, the day I had to fill out that application marked the end of something, the end of a life with military brats, and the beginning of a life with people who did not understand my skewed concept of home. I lost the confidence that I belonged anywhere, that I could make anyone in college understand my lifestyle and that I could conjure up an answer to the hateful question designed to create awkward situations for military brats, “where are you from.” I was terrified that people would not accept that I came from nowhere and everywhere and anywhere and wherever was easiest for them to accept. To that simple question my future became intertwined and I was to be associated with homelessness despite a life of privilege. Unsettled as I was, I chose one of my many homes to scrawl in the space and resigned myself that day to sucking furiously on my pacifier instead of crying out and demanding special attention.
Although the absence of a home is a complicated situation, the one way to truly decide where you are from is to have homes continually given to you and taken away. To have a concrete home that has never been denied to you is to have a picket fence. Maybe not in the form of a literal barricade but rather a marking that denotes the permanence of this property, the ownership of this home to a person, not to the government. People with a permanent address have home field advantage. The crowd inside the home is on their side and the opposing team does not make the homemakers budge. The military home is a Mexican border that is semi-fluid. No one is safe on the inside; there is always the possibility to kick you out and tell you to try to build a new picket fence in two years before the hand of the military comes to tear it down again. This hand is stronger than you may think and it disregards the school year, the prom plans you have coming up and the friends that you finally feel comfortable enough with to share your life story. The fence is always the tortoise and the hare does not stop for a break; slow and steady never wins when the governmental hand is the ultimate referee.
The idea of home becomes much easier to grasp when it does not stick for more than a few years at a time. For most people, “Home is where the heart is” as the famous proverb suggests but what if the physical blood pumping ventricle is in one specified location while pieces of the emotional heart are scattered like ashes in the wind among the places immortalized in the photo albums of the past. There has been a heart in Nebraska, Virginia, Maryland, Turkey, Japan, and Guam. The hearts of the members of the family that compose the essence of the home are now split in pieces between Belgium, Korea, Virginia, and Australia. A friendship necklace can only split in two pieces, how are military brats supposed to piece together the puzzle of a home that stretches across continents? The dismal truth becomes that home is wherever you are told to go. The actual homeless find a way to make do with a smattering of coins, tattered newspapers and a weathered harmonica just as military brats make ends meet by cushioning their new home with a menagerie of eclectic souvenirs to remember previous artery locales, a filled-to-the-brim passport and an optimism they should have lost long ago.
To do without a permanent home is also, on the other hand, to remember the good times and the bad of movement and wandering. Living without roots makes some people more apt and willing to adapt to the situation while others cling to the ground and refuse to be pulled when adjusting to a new place as the footage of past moving experiences is spliced and filtered. There’s the apartment you lived in for a month, there’s the friend who you will not keep in touch with, there’s the tears on the pillow as your try to pack, next scene, the hotel you lived in for three months waiting to get visas, there’s the butterflies in your stomach as you get on the flight, see how you survive moving in your senior year of high school. But the eternal optimism creeps in stealthily as you try to mask the fear and prepare for the new home with open eyes. There’s the fort of boxes that you and your brother live in for the first week every time you move, there’s the pink hair dye you used to reinvent yourself for your new friends, next scene, the day you were invited to a sleepover in the new home, see how you make it work with just your family as your life-long friends. However much these people many dread the formation of a new home, the butterflies jolt haphazardly around their stomachs in anticipated, eager glee rather than impending fear.
To suggest that home is necessary because permanence is important is to miss the point completely. While permanence is the key that opens the doors to friends who know your entire history and a house without boxes poised in the basement, soldier-like, ready for action, it is not the problem with lacking a home. It has little to do with forming bonds that will last a lifetime and more to do with Dorothy clicking her sparkly red heels and saying to the whole of Oz, “There is no place like home.” It is not that Dorothy wanted to return to the stability of Kansas. She liked the munchkins and the yellow brick road and the green city but she missed her home. She didn’t miss her home because she hated traveling. She missed home because she wanted to be in the safety of a place where she felt most comfortable. Safety, not permanence, becomes the pull for a home and we lack the magical blood red heels glinting in the sun that laugh at our homelessness with each satisfied click.
Like Dorothy, people with permanent homes, think the worst thing that could happen is them losing their homes. They know one place and they feel comfortably there. If they choose to leave, the pull of the familiar usually grabs them back with a desperate hand longing for safety and they yield to the arm of reason knowing that they do not want to plunge into the sea of the unfamiliar and try to stay afloat amid the rapidly changing tides. As the author of Our Town Thornton Wilder says,“It’s when you are safe at home that you’re having an adventure. When you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.” If it is indeed safety that most people crave in their desire for a home then brats have found a home for themselves, a home in the military. When military brats leave their parents freely to go onto college or the designated family member retires from the forces, the individual, who has grown up only knowing this transient lifestyle, has a choice. Should they settle in a new place and attach more permanent roots there or should they stay with what is safe, what is comfortable, what is the military? Much the same as a small town person who wants to leave and try something new leaving the military means plunging into the unfamiliar and unsafe and unlike the person from the small town the military says you can’t come back. You are barred from the safety of the only home you have ever known because you are no longer a legal part of the family. The choice is between the unfamiliar and the comfortable, between the new place and the home. Although the home is fleeting and not designated to one specific place, it is the only life that allows them to feel at home. If the person decides to try the new life and depart from the military, they have to learn a whole new way of life without commissaries, or rations or tours of duty or billeting. Moving is safe because the discontented individuals can pack up and leave whenever times get hard. They do not have to work to keep friendships, they do not have to fear commitment, they do not have to become attached to people, but when removed from the military world they have to learn to cope with these issues. In brief, people feel at home at the place where they feel secure, a certain level of comfort; they display a desire for safety, an elusive state of being that dissolves upon contact with the unfamiliar. The measure of this loss of home makes one think not only of military brats but also of children of divorcees and foster children whose similar transience makes their insecurity mount as they long for the safety of one non-broken home. Therefore, safety—the state of comfort in one’s own life—is the source from which a concept of home arises.
Home is something that our immigrant ancestors knew a lot about. They had forced upon them that they should aim to have two homes: the home where opportunity was in America and the home of their birthplace which dictated their identity. They learned how to develop a safe feeling in both locations despite the difficulties of each place. Military brats have no reason to complain when faced with the stories of these brave immigrants who struggled through disease, poverty, and intense culture shock upon arrival to the U.S. As an ancestor of Peter and Margaret Meyer, German immigrants to Ellis Island in 1892, writes, moving on despite a death in the family and an excessive lack of food, “That to me is an American story of what it took to leave the only home you’ve ever known and make a success story of it even with all the troubles…”Immigrants share the resilient quality with the brats that they found a way to make it work. They formed networks with the people that understood them and the Irish neighborhoods distanced themselves from the Italian ends of town because that is where they were comfortable and most at home. They were willing to sacrifice everything to adapt to this new home and establish a level of comfort in the new location and they knew the risks.
That kind of search for a home takes extreme determination and self-discipline so when the moving and lack of a home is not by choice, it is more difficult to reconcile. Even birds know to fly to their home in the south in the winter and back to the north in the summer. They have a constant pattern while military brats have a path that zigs out of the lines at successive locations and hangs in limbo, hovering over the awaiting paper before deciding where to zag next. It was once suggested to me that people who are accustomed to moving tend to settle, they tend to accept the bad things that come their way because they do not take into account that they have the capacity to change them. They seem to think that all of their problems will be solved by leaving but in reality the past follows you and all of the places are written in invisible ink behind the one you chose to write in the designated “permanent address” parking spot. It is difficult in the extreme to imagine sprouting off your list of previous homes every time someone pops the dreaded “where are you from?” question but they are always there, hiding until you know the person better to explain. To answer the question honestly might be to scare someone away with too many details to imbibe without feeling a little woozy because the sentence, “I was born in Nebraska but I went to high school in Belgium but I went to college in Virginia but my mom lives in Korea,” does not slide down the trap so easily.
To have that sense when you come to a new place that you need to fit in and make friends and you need to discount the nagging in the back of your mind that is telling you not to become attached because it won’t last, is overwhelming. When the nagging stops and you can make your own decisions, this freedom leads to one of two scenarios. On the one hand, the person can decide they want a foundation and that they want to move when they want to move, not when the government says to move. To choose this path does not mean that the individual will stay completely still and not travel at all and regard their moving experiences in the military as horrible memories. To decide to opt for permanence is a sign that a physical home is important to that individual because, although it may not seem safe at first to have a constant location, the newness of the place will fade like the smell of a just-bought car and, in time, it will become just another car, just another home. On the other hand, the lack of a home in childhood can make a person decide that one place is still too stressful and they may become restless and try to find opportunities that call them to return to the comfortable home of the military. Many children of military brats join the military themselves and launch themselves back into the home they are comfortable within. Other children of military brats, instead of dating are on a hunt for an unsuspecting military man to marry them because they are envisioning returning to their jet-setting life in a home of transience. Ironically they say they want to “settle down” with a military man but settling down actually means picking up every two to three years. Still others could not stay still for the four years of college and were not phased by transferring schools because no amount of moving could turn their world upside down so it is hard to say how often they can last in one home.
To lack a home for many people is to submit to unending wander lust, to an insatiable desire to see everything and experience everywhere. It becomes a sickness that invades the nervous system and takes over the body all stemming from a travel bug that entered into the system and is not treatable. After three years everything gets boring, a change is needed. To these people they cannot complain about their life without a home because it is all they have ever known and all they are interested in knowing. It is just like the small town girl who wants to be born in the small town and die there, but instead these people want to live in the home of the military and die there and live 20 places in between. Change becomes the constant. Moving becomes the solution to problems, the defense mechanism to pick up and leave when the petty fights break out and the friendships tense. To this group, keeping in touch used to be an issue that resulted in a lack of life-long friends but with the invasive and incredible invention of the Internet, immense intercontinental relationships can flourish.
Military brats, regardless of the category they slot into, flatter themselves by thinking that their lives were exotic and unique: a source of disguised bragging and country name dropping, evidence of their worldliness but ultimately the skewed idea of home will still follow them throughout their lives taunting them and forcing them to decide if they want a physical home or a military home and how they want to view themselves. It is the phenomenon called, “absence of identity.” In its advanced stages, we no longer know what nationality we are because the countries blend together and we were not necessarily born in the United States. Every small talk conversation has a three step plan: name, age, location. Without the third piece of the pie to answer specifically, we are two-thirds of a person; our incomplete identity is indicative of our situation. Every place that people go, they pick up a little something new to add to their diverse personality and soon it becomes difficult to peel back the layers of personas they have created and chew down to the core. Despite this incomplete notion of self, most people would not trade their experience for the entire sundae with a cherry on top. To recover that missing piece of our identities we have to realize that all of our previous homes have shaped who we are because and as Maya Angelou says, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” Home is where you grow into who you are and who you become. To establish stability to chaotic lives, to help us identify our identities, to give us a place where we feel safe and comfortable—that is the power of a home. Without it, one eventually wakes up one day and realizes that the omniscient hand is not going to pick you up and plop you on the other side of the world; one is finally within reach of a physical home but feels ill at ease and realizes that a picket fence alone cannot make a house into a home.