Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist

Embodying Home

Embodying home

Marie-Elena Schembri, Calaveras Enterprise, June 22, 2023

What is home? Is it a spot on the map, a neighborhood, or a community? A house? Family?

Over the last 12 years, my idea of home changed a handful of times but always included one person — my partner, Brad. When the place I lived for most of my life didn’t feel like home, Brad — always a supporter of me and my dreams — abandoned his hometown, Omaha, to move with me back to California.

Even though I was raised in Nebraska, California always felt more like home to me — the place where I was born, where my parents were born, where I made some of my most formative memories, where my mother and my grandparents are buried.

I always knew I would come home someday.

Then in 2019, I did. Brad and I left a thriving art and music scene, low cost of living, good neighborhood, decent jobs, family, and friends behind in Omaha, imagining a bright future for both of us in a place where opportunities seemed endless.

Instead of finding jobs in Sacramento and relocating there like we thought we might, however, we ended up spending nearly four years here in Calaveras County. The pandemic that started months after our arrival thwarted any plans to move to the city, but we felt safer in the relaxed rural environment, away from all of the people, traffic, and germs of the urban environment. Or at least, one of us did.

For me, just as it was in my trauma-filled youth, Calaveras County was a respite and a place of safety, comfort, and beauty. It was a balm that soothed my constant anxiety and smoothed out the edges made rough by city dwelling.

But, for Brad, it wasn’t home.

As someone who thrives in a creative community and feels most comfortable in places with public transportation, climate control, several corner bars to choose from, and a couple good diners within walking distance, living in a rural setting proved to be tough but was even harder when open mics, live shows, community events and just about everything else shut down during Covid. We hunkered down and both managed to keep good jobs and Brad booked a few shows here and there, but only recently did we begin to hope things were “getting back to normal.”

Instead, our lives got weirder.

About a month ago, opportunity knocked with an out-of-the-blue job offer in the one place Brad had always dreamed of living, Nashville, Tennessee. The mecca for professional musicians, singers, and songwriters known as Music City called, and he already had the receiver in hand.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Brad was already scheduled to be in the city just a few days later. He had planned to perform, co-write with other songwriters, attend a conference, and meet with industry professionals while visiting, but now he had one more thing to add to the agenda: scope out his potential new job.

Living arrangements were already lining up before he had even accepted the offer — it was just too easy. A growing network of friends, colleagues, and mentors were already rooting for him to succeed there. Everything seemed to be telling him to jump — that Nashville would catch him.

While a horizon filled with possibility bloomed in front of Brad, my heart sank with the realization that the life I’d been painstakingly building here was about to be demolished.

I bravely told him, “It’s your call,” knowing that there was no way he could turn it down and also knowing that I wasn’t ready to pack up my life — the nonprofit I launched last year, my job at the newspaper, my hard-earned identity as a Californian — and move to Nashville.

In about a month, he’ll be in his new home, doing what he does best in a place that is built for it.

While I am so happy for him, I’m not ready to give up on my California dream just yet. So, for the first time in over 10 years, we will have separate homes, separate lives, and will be pursuing our dreams in separate states.

I can’t help but ask myself, what is that dream, without the foundation of stability and love that allowed me to chase it?

Questions follow me from room to room in the changing landscape of our apartment. Bookshelves are suddenly empty. A stack of boxes takes up a whole corner of the living room. There is more space in the cupboard, normally overflowing with a ridiculously large collection of mugs for just two people. From the cavernously empty spaces, or perhaps the growing chasm of grief in my chest, I hear the echo of questions I don’t know how to answer — What is home, really?

Could home be there — in Tennessee — a place completely foreign to me? In beautiful California, my first home, or Nebraska, with my sisters and some of my best friends? Is home with Brad, a constant through some of my life’s biggest losses and joys, who has been my family and my companion all these years?

I’m starting to feel like maybe home is more than just one thing, one person, one place. Maybe it’s not just where you live, or who you live with, but how.

Before I left Omaha, my sister told me, “Home is wherever you make it,” but she said it with a tinge of annoyance that made me think it was intended to be more of a guilt trip about leaving, than a nugget of big-sister wisdom.

Still, she had a point.

Maybe it’s not just where you live. Maybe home is in the moments that feel good, that stick with us — the feeling when you think about your grandmother’s house or the joyful memory of a first pet.

It could be a feeling of connection, of purpose, held deep within. The power of knowing yourself even in the midst of fear and heartache, even when life feels off-kilter, scary, and strange.

Maybe home is a feeling of strength, a foundation that isn’t fixed in one place, rigid. It’s the wisdom it takes to know when it’s time to go and the courage it takes to dig your heels into the dirt and bear the storm that’s coming to tear your carefully built life apart. Maybe it’s how you pick up the pieces and still rebuild.

While I may not exactly know where my place is in the world, I know I have a place.

Brad packs up more of his belongings every day. During normal things like eating dinner, taking walks, or laying side by side in bed, we discuss things like canceling Netflix, which hauling company he’ll use, and when I might be able to make it out there for a visit. I talk about my fears, grief, and how I might just go live in a cottage by the beach or visit the rainforest or even attend grad school.

For now, I plan to stay here, but I could choose to relocate to Tennessee later on if it feels right. I may be called to live somewhere else entirely. I’m trying to stay open to all possibilities as I go through the process of untethering myself from this iteration of home.

As I let go of the home Brad and I have shared together, I open myself up to redefine and fully embody home — by myself, within myself, and for myself.

As for Brad, I trust that he’ll find himself at home in Nashville, and can only hope that it is as kind, inspiring, and supportive to him as he has been to me.