The quest for belonging

By Caitlin Kelly

Is there one more existential?

Maybe not, for some people, who are born, live and die within the same four walls or zip code or area code, state, province or country.

Others, like me, feel both at home in many places yet not really rooted in any of them.

I was born in Vancouver, Canada; moved at two to London, England; back at five to Toronto; then on to Mexico, Montreal, Paris, New Hampshire and then New York.


I’m writing this on a park bench in a small town in Ontario, visiting my father for a few days to celebrate my birthday and his 85th next week. He bought a lovely 1860s home a few years ago here and has fixed it up nicely — the garden now has fruit trees and a pond with koi.

To me, it’s heaven, a place I’d be thrilled to own.

But he wants to sell it and move. To where? Anyone’s guess.

Happiest in motion...
Happiest in motion…

Itchy feet are normal in our family.

My mother has lived in New York, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Mexico, England, Toronto, Montreal, Peru, British Columbia; my father in Vancouver, Toronto, Ireland, London and for several years on his boat in Europe.

So I have nowhere to call “home” in the sense of some long-cherished family homestead, nor any expectation of inheriting one.

And longtime Broadside readers know that my husband and I are not close to our families physically or emotionally. Working freelance means those relationships are tenuous and often temporary.

I like living in suburban New York and am always glad to return there, but some of my deepest friendships  remain in Toronto, a place where real estate is breathtakingly and punitively expensive, as out of reach for me financially, even after decades of hard work and saving, as Santa Fe, New Mexico is for Jose, my husband, who grew up there and would love to return. My husband’s late father was the minister for a church there — long since torn down and replaced by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Only a small courtyard and an apricot tree now mark his childhood home.

I joined a local church in 1998 but have not been there much recently, too often feeling out of step with a wealthy and conservative congregation focused on child-raising.

Oddly (or not), these days I most often feel I belong at my local YMCA, as I am there so often for my dance classes and to use the gym. There, I always see people I know and like.

I spent a few minutes in the library here, asking if they have my latest book. They don’t, but the librarian said “I read you!” Which was pleasant.

Then I went to the local convenience store and was thrilled to find my first-ever story in the July 2014 issue of Cosmopolitan.


Sometimes I feel my work, friends and husband are my real home, the place(s) where I belong and always feel valued — not within family or a job or faith community or specific geographical setting.

Where do you belong?


39 thoughts on “The quest for belonging

  1. With my friends, or my synagogue, or with certain members of my family. Today I was at the wedding of a friend and I felt very comfortable. It was like coming home after a very long trip. I was kind of sad that it went by so fast.

      1. Well, a few of them will be around for most of the summer, so I might just be able to see them one more time before they go back to their own schools or study abroad trips or internships or whatever.

  2. themodernidiot

    Dude–seriously they tore his church down to put up her museum? A place I have longed to see since I was like 12?

    Man, that makes me feel like kind of a dick; like I’m one of those fat, loud, rude tourists for whom they built Burger King on the Champs Élysées. C’est dommage.

    Yeah, I know. That’s what I took away from this post lol. I probably should have shame, but I don’t.

    It wouldn’t fit in my suitcase 😉

  3. I love this and you put the sentiment so nicely. I’ve lived in a couple of different places and when I returned to my “home” area it didn’t quite feel like my home anymore. On the bright side, I’m so happy to have the experience of meeting new people and integrating myself in other cultures.

  4. I have to move around a lot so I don’t have many belongings and I’m always having to meet new people and create new relationships. Sometimes I see this as a curse but I need to remember that there are always places I will go back to and feel like I’m home. For now its a case of just moving with life at whatever pace it wants to flow and seeing where it takes me. A great and moving post!

    1. Thanks!

      I think moving around a lot teaches us how many “homes” are out there and how many friends we can find. I feel more at home in Paris than I ever did in Toronto or ever will in New York. Weird but true.

  5. Interesting question. I moved around a lot as a kid–others always thought we were navy-kids, but instead, my father just was relocated for work every 3 years. Never really thought about how this may be an issue, except when I lost my dad 3 years ago (today actually!), The question of where he would be buried came up. Where is home when you move around so much? Where the heck would I want to be buried (if I did??). Kind of weird. Where I grew up (Newport RI area), we have no family there anymore. Where I am now? VT? Maybe. Like you, I feel I’m home in my space. With my cute little family and all the things that are familiar to me. But sometimes it’s not a certain place or people, sometimes it’s a favorite song or band–if I’m feeling out of my element, I can listen to a favorite voice and that transports me home mentally at least.

    1. Thanks for weighing in…you raise an interesting question, for sure. Jose wants his ashes scattered in the Sangre de Cristo Mts. in NM near Santa Fe. Me? We joke my ashes should end up right here at the Quebec resort we’re at right now, because I’ve had so many happy moments here over the years. We have no kids to mourn us or bring flowers to a grave, so what would be the point? I feel lucky to have made friends around the world, so no specific spot requires me to be there.

      It’s true that music can do it, for sure.

  6. i understand this completely. i was born in chicago, and moved to the detroit suburbs when i was 2. it was only when i went to grad school, at 40, that i found my home, ann arbor. i remember going there as a child, with my father, to football games, and when i went back as an adult, i knew i would find a way to stay. i think you make your place, your home, and your family, and it is not pre-ordained and does not necessarily have anything to do with societal norms of what family or home should be. both of my parents are gone, as is my ex-husband/father of my children, and i had long ago lost a positive relationship with two of the three. i consider my daughters, my sons in law and grandchildren to be my family, along with my closest friends. one day, when i find my own love again, he will be my family as well, that is how i will know i have found my home in someone’s heart.

    1. Thanks for weighing in…it’s good to hear others’ stories about this. One can feel very out of step with those who’ve made more conventional choices or whose families are a Hallmark card of unity.

  7. Jane

    I am back where I started, and brought back with me a “mainlander” who’s more attached to this, his adopted home, than am I who was born and raised here. I have some idea of what it’s like to be transient, as I went to university in a different province and started my career in a third before moving back to the first. But he was raised in the Canadian Air Force, has lived on bases in Canada (3), France, Germany (2). For him, wherever he lives is home. It’s interesting to watch him evolve. We went to see the movie “The Grand Seduction” last weekend. Last night on the phone, he was encouraging his mother to see it. “The accents aren’t too thick for mainlanders to understand.” Um, honey…you are/were one?!?

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  9. BIG question. I’m in the process of moving away from (or at least drastically reformatting my relationship to) the faith community I was brought up in, so that’s been a big development in my ideas of belonging. My family, though very close in some ways, tends for the individual members to function highly independently of one another. Ideas about work and how I want to accomplish specific goals are also being organized differently now than they were a year ago.

    Ultimately, I belong in London right now. It’s far enough away from a lot of things to be able to strengthen a new identity, but close enough to the things I love to stay grounded and healthy. Growing up military/diplomatic, my family always used to say, “Home isn’t a place, it’s people.” I still feel that way and largely I think of home as being where my partner is, but I’ve also included myself onto the list. Home is also where I’m me.

  10. This is so good. After 8 years of living overseas, we are in LA. I definitely feel out of place, out of sync, a wanderer, etc. What to do? I am learning to redefine what I mean by home, where I place my feet, and more. I am not sure. We took a townhouse for one year, knowing we would move again. So I envision in my mind places to live in SoCal, picturing what it would be like on a daily basis…still not sure. Where is my home? I am not sure yet but I am okay with it.

    1. Re-entry into one’s home culture is often much more difficult than adjusting to a foreign place. When “home” feels foreign — and you speak the same language — that’s disorienting!

      I think it’s also challenging for someone who’s been away for such a long time when so many of the people you’ll meet in L.A. have not done that, so your history is difficult to share.

  11. Interesting. just this weekend, a stranger asked me “where are you from?” and it took me a while to answer. Born in Israel, moved to the State at 5, lived in Philly until 24, and in Los Angeles for the past 19 YEARS! But still don’t feel like I “belong” anywhere. I used to think I belonged on the East Coast, closer to my family, and I’ll soon be testing that theory. But sometimes I think I’ve been in L.A. so long, it really is more me than I care to admit. We’ll see. My dog’s answer to this question would be much simpler. She belongs with me, and home is wherever I am.

    Continue to enjoy your vacation, and congrats on the Cosmo piece!!

  12. I think I belong here. I was gone from Indianapolis for seven long years in southeast Georgia. I’ve been “home” now for just over a year, and I still wake up every day so grateful for the landscape. Also, my home, and my yard…just in love with it all in a way I never was before I left.
    Even over the incredible Winter, which was brutal, I was just so glad to be burning from -40 windchills and not from 105 degrees, 87% humidity and 9UV.
    I am well-traveled, but I really only like the Pacific-Northwest, the Eastern Seaboard, and the rolling hills of the Midwest.
    I might would prefer a more liberal population, but I love it here. It suits me.

    1. Thanks…it’s interesting what makes us feel wholly at home. I felt at home in Paris (however unlikely) because they also value so many of the things I love, from great design and architecture to long lunches eaten slowly with friends.

      I can only live happily in a place with some racial and ethnic and economic diversity, no religious dogma or religion-driven public policies — and low humidity!

  13. I definitely feel the same way in this regard. I was born and raised in Oregon, but I live in California now. I’m trying to set up a job in the next year to take me overseas once I graduate. I think “home” for some people may be traveling. Or just getting out of your comfort zone. I have to say, having a partner to do it all with isn’t so bad either.

    1. Going overseas will be such an adventure! I spent a year in Paris in my mid-20s and loved it. It changed my worldview (literally), as I’m sure that will do for you.

      I love the idea of the world being or becoming home, which it does. Thanks for commenting!

  14. I had a similar nomadic upbringing through my father’s antics. No, not the diplomatic services. Happy fact being that I am at home anywhere. Wherever I am I am ‘at home’. Even in this bloody god forsaken soaking country. Send me to the moon. Preferably with some plant to remind me of planet Earth.

    I have befriended snails (do not ever believe that they are slow. They aren’t. You can’t so much as turn your back for five minutes and they will have fled). Worms are more loyal. As long as you feed them they’ll stay. Great comfort for someone who wants to be buried not scattered.

    As I get to “know” you via your blog I notice your sweet bitterness when you relate anything personal. I am not an eldest sister for nothing: Sometimes I’d like to take you into my arms. Or at least go for a walk with you through a meadow. The forest. Have you noticed how often we speak most freely when walking side by side?


  15. I’m another diplomat nomad, and have repeated the pattern by living in 8 cities and towns in the US, Canada and Mexico as an adult. I’ve come to realize that in both towns and in groups, I choose to inhabit the outsider role. The question of belonging is my ‘koan,’ a Buddhist term meaning a life question that never completely gets answered and never goes away. Wherever I am, I notice what differentiates me more than what connects me. In Palo Alto, I felt ‘other’ because I was surrounded by ambitious entrepreneurs who didn’t realize how wealthy they already were and never allowed themselves a day off. Now, in Eureka, I feel ‘other’ because I’m the wealthy one; I travel, work as and when I want and am privileged. This doesn’t mean I don’t make friends or enjoy my surroundings, I do. Rarely do I feel tragic or upset by this ‘outsider’ issue, because I realize it’s a choice I’m making.

    1. Interesting. Lucky you to not have to work!

      I live in a part of NY where I have never felt connected to others — many are SAHMs in huge houses or ambitious and highly-paid corporate warriors. I don’t have kids or a huge house or make $$$$$$$$ so we don’t have much in common, and so it’s a little lonely. Many of my friends are 10 to 20 years younger, and that’s fine with me as long as they enjoy my company.

      It’s not clear to me where I would fully “fit in.” I was deemed too ambitious and aggressive in my native Canada; too passive in New York (!?) and I still don’t think that work is the most useful thing we can do with our life, which is THE primary American value.

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