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Des Moines is Home

Finding Home in DSM

August 5, 2020

This post first appeared on Sara Stibitz’s personal Facebook page.

One afternoon, about two months into our time in New Zealand, it all came crashing down around me. New Zealand

I was lying on the bed in the middle of the afternoon like a limp rag doll, tears streaming down my face, and I said to Ryan “If I’m not a traveler, what am I? And where should I be? I don’t even have a home to go back to.” 

I can’t even tell you what it was that sparked this realization, but I finally had to admit to myself that I wasn’t feeling that old sense of freedom and endless possibility during my travels. It felt more like death, like everything was hard, and I wasn’t clear on the point of it all. I finally had to admit to myself that I wasn’t enjoying the travel life at the moment. It seemed to me that I wasn’t a traveler so much as someone who was restlessly searching for something.

It was like an identity crisis. I had always been a traveler, so who was I if I was over traveling?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt the urge to travel. I can’t think of a time where I wasn’t planning the next big trip in my head. I always thought I was just a traveler at heart. And I am; I was raised that way — my family and I spent the first five years of my life living in Brazil and then Spain. As I grew older, I indulged my desire to travel. Over the years, however, this urge got more intense and developed a different flavor. Rather than a desire to see the world and a curiosity to know a new place or a new culture, this felt like a craving, compulsion; but it’s only in retrospect that I can see. I wasn’t really attuned to the distinctions at the time.

When we settled in Colorado and had Lily, the craving left me for a short time — what a relief! — but it did not stay gone. The craving became so intense last year that it felt very dramatic … like we needed to go and leave the world that had become so comfortable or I would explode. Ryan and I shared the dream of traveling the world with our family, so the craving for travel was well justified on the surface.

So, we planned this adventure to uproot, store everything and roam. We planned, we were excited, we stressed, we packed, we left, we did the thing.

Two weeks into our adventure in Bali I was standing in the exotic outdoor shower, surrounded by jungle plants that I so enjoyed. We had spent the day exploring Ubud and I felt a sense of contentment. But as I thought about the day, I realized the craving to go was still there, simmering just beneath the surface. And it was even stronger than before. We had only just arrived and I was feeling the urge to go again.

It finally dawned on me that, quite possibly, there was nothing that was going to soothe this craving anymore. If this wasn’t wild enough; if lizards in our roof, snakes in our bedroom, and beautiful forms of spirituality weren’t enough to satisfy my desire for novelty, then what the hell was I really looking for?

Sara Stibitz FamilyIt unnerved me, but life rolled on. We adjusted to Bali, and when our initial visas were up, we decided to go to New Zealand on a whim. I had always wanted to go see the beauty of the place, so I was once again excited.

A couple of weeks into our trip in New Zealand, I had a conversation with a fellow traveler friend. She’s Australian but hasn’t lived there for over six years. She’s been traveling wherever her heart takes her. So, I was quite intrigued when I noticed that over the last year, her Facebook feed showed her returning to one place again and again. Just before our call, she proudly posted a picture of her residency card for Montenegro.

When we spoke, the first thing she said was that she’d found a place she was ready to call home.

“Wow,” I said. “How often does that happen?!”

“I know! It’s like the holy grail for travelers,” she said.

I had a twinge of envy. I wondered what it felt like to have the feeling of being home. And then I thought nothing more of it.

When we’d been in New Zealand for about a month and a half, I was, yet again, facing the restless desire to go onto the next place. This was coupled with the fact that we were plainly bored in Queenstown, a town of 25,000 people where there is little to do other than bungee jump and dive out of a plane. I mean it’s beautiful — breathtakingly so — but when you’re there for months, the beauty can only sustain you for so long. You start to crave more human connection, more culture, more things to do. But I digress.

Creating Home

On the afternoon that it all became too heavy to ignore any longer, Ryan asked me if I had a hard time being with myself; I reacted with a little bit of impatience. I’m self-reflective almost to a fault — some might even accuse me of being a navel-gazer. I didn’t think that was the problem. He said, “Well then, what feels like home to you? For me, home is where I can breathe.”

In my mind’s eye, I was instantly taken back to the living room of the home I last shared with my mother. We lived in a condo in Bloomington, a suburb of Minneapolis, from the time I was 10 until I was around 20. It was spacious, with loads of natural light. The kitchen was bright white and it’s where I learned to cook my spaghetti sauce. We played out countless conversations over the course of my teenage years. My bedroom was completely mine, painted in bright yellow with blue trim (sort of gauche, I know). That was the last place that truly felt like home.

In the summer of my freshman year of college, my mom decided to move in with her long-time boyfriend and told me over the phone when I called her one night. The condo had sold very fast and she was moving in the next few weeks. I was working in California for the summer so she was handling all of this while I was away. I was very happy for her, but I remember the feeling I had as I realized that I would never get to see the place where we lived together again.

As I stared up at the ceiling in New Zealand, it suddenly became clear to me that this driving force I felt was actually an unconscious desire for a home where I felt at peace, 100 percent comfortable, 100 percent myself. I hadn’t experienced that since I lived with my mother — not in the home I shared with a 9-year boyfriend, not in the home I created for myself when I ended that relationship, not even in the home I made with Ryan. Many of those had come close, but they were not it.

I had kept traveling to these places around the world expecting that the feeling of “home” would just hit me, and I would stay there, and that would be it. This had its benefits: I can pretty much adapt to any living situation and make myself comfortable. But while all of my travels have been important on a personal level, my desire to travel had become less about seeing the world and more about finding the place I belong.

They say home is where the heart is. I don’t think that’s entirely true. My heart has been many places in the world for varying lengths of time and I haven’t felt that bone-deep sense of home. It finally became clear that I never intentionally created a home in those places because I was always leaning toward the next move, the next trip, the next adventure. I always had a temporary mindset in every place I’ve lived or traveled because of that driving need to go, and so I had never created a home for myself. In contrast, my mother created our home intentionally; she invested time and energy into making it what she wanted it to be for us. I had to do the same. It mattered less where it was (although that still does matter) than the fact that she *created* it to be a home.

I traveled around the world with my family to learn many lessons, but chief among them is that home, at least for me, is where you consciously invest yourself, your energy and your effort into creating the kind of world within a world where you can be entirely you.

So, we’re trying something out. We’re settling down in Des Moines for a short time to see what it’s like to create home, to really invest in it, even if we know we might not be there forever. And I can’t wait to be home.

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Sara Stibitz

Sara Stibitz is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. Her work has appeared in Harvard Business Review and New York Magazine.