Illustration by Jiwon Shin/The Gazelle
Home has always had a magnetic pull for me. It calls me away from any adventure, grand or small, and promises unparalleled comfort and familiarity. Being away from home is enough to make my heart physically ache, realign my priorities and sometimes consume my thoughts.
Home is the bittersweet other. Its essence hides in shadows and in the soft glow of candlelight. It will whisper in your ear, at the moment it senses weakness, that there’s somewhere else where you belong. It is elusive in the sense that you crave it when you are far, but may not want to stay snuggled in its warmth upon return. Like an overbearing parent, it can be both vital and suffocating. Even knowing this, and taking into account my tendency for homesickness, I found myself craving home like never before during my fall semester of freshman year.
I was having the time of my life. New friends, trips and engaging classes filled my days and often spilled over into late nights. Though I was happy with the new life I’d chosen, a longing for home snuck into my few quiet moments alone and took a seat at the back of my mind. I dreamed of cool and crisp air, a dinner with my mom and being surrounded by those who had known me for years and with whom I could be completely myself.
Now, I should mention that boarding the 13-hour flight from Boston to Abu Dhabi was my first departure of that sort. Unlike many NYU Abu Dhabi students, I had never lived away from home in any boarding school or exchange program before coming to university. In a way, I am envious of those who have.
Many peers who studied away before college shared with me their own journeys. They mentioned the initial high of being far from home, the slow creeping of homesickness and a feeling of being disjointed upon returning for the first time. I listened, but like many experiences that living away has to offer, this was an evolution I needed to experience for myself to truly understand.
While in Abu Dhabi, I talked over Skype with my mother and my closest friends often, always counting the days and making plans for our reunion. These relationships underwent a series of unexpected shifts while I was away. I found myself closer to my parents than ever; living apart from them made the time we spoke more precious, and the annoyances fewer and farther between.
There were many other relationships, however — ones that had been of paramount importance before my time at NYUAD — that I could feel slipping away. I was surprised by which friends and family members made the effort to arrange times to talk on Skype, message or send letters. I found myself cherishing more and more those who had, previously, been a minor part of my life. Even more surprising were those who made virtually no effort to remain close. I hardly ever spoke to my best friend, and the times we were able to connect felt distant and different, as if we weren’t relating in the way we always had naturally. I wasn’t sure what the future would hold for these relationships, but I convinced myself that winter break would heal all.
Not so surprisingly, the two weeks I spent at home after fall semester weren’t a panacea, but it did feel truly wonderful to be in the presence of my friends and family again. I caught up with my best friend and we spent a lot of time together, though in comparison to my other relationships, it was noticeable that our friendship hadn’t really come along for the ride. With those I’d maintained communication with, it felt as if I’d never left.
The physical space of my home had shifted during my absence as well. Many of my classmates had a similar story; their family had moved, a marriage had brought someone new into the home or a sibling had moved out. My mom had taken a roommate who now slept in my old room, so when I went home, I was without my own space. I had no problem with sharing a room during my short stay, but it struck me how much my world could change in my absence. I visited my old school and previous workplace and found the same trend; nothing had waited for me to return, despite my consistent efforts to remain a part of life back home.
After just four days at home, the restlessness that had previously made me want to flee back to Massachusetts settled in once more. This time, however, it was a bit scarier because it felt misplaced. Instead of wanting to go home, I felt ready to get back to school, my new friends, a place and a schedule that I felt more in control of. The place I’d considered home had begun to feel like a liminal space, and the UAE my new home. I started to fear that I’d never feel comfortable and stable in a place again.
Spring semester, while definitely more calm, was still plagued by a semi-consistent urge to leave Abu Dhabi. I was always planning ahead, be it for spring break or the summer. Once I actually returned home for the summer, however, with a daunting stretch of three months ahead of me, I realized that I needed to change my attitude.
Learning to be present this summer was a challenge. During my first two weeks home, I found myself keeping in close contact with friends from NYUAD and Abu Dhabi — to the point where it became time-consuming. I didn’t feel motivated enough to go on day trips and appreciate my surroundings. Part of me just wanted to pass time before I went to Washington D.C. to intern, which I considered my next chapter. It took active effort to realize how lucky I was to be traveling the country and spending time with family and friends. I spent entire days with my cousin and her young children, sitting on the floor and chatting about baby formula and crayons. I went to the beach, the drive-in theater and did many things that made my beautiful, beach-laden Cape Cod feel like a destination.
I tried to remember how lucky I was to be breathing salty air and eating homemade ice cream. I savored movie nights with my best friend, the sound of my grandfather’s laugh and every hug and hand held. Even though I wasn’t able to rebuild a relationship with my best friend in the way that I’d hoped, I found peace in the change. I realized that many relationships can thrive only under the protection of convenience and proximity, and I began to see our friendship as a treasured relic of the past. When I was in D.C., I tried harder than ever to connect with my surroundings, attending every open event, walking through every park and frequenting — perhaps too frequently — every cafe.
Cultivating the habit of being present freed me from the pressure of planning and longing. I didn’t rush through my time in D.C. wanting to be home, but kept in mind how fleeting my time was while trying to savor every experience and interaction. I knew that I’d return home soon enough and make the best of it, and that the same went for Abu Dhabi.
There was nothing I could do to control my different homes while so physically distant from them. All that I could do was be grateful for my surroundings and accept whatever would come upon returning. The more I tried to control my relationships from afar, the more I lost my current surroundings. As long as I was doing the best to make myself happy in whatever I did, I could avoid the feeling of restlessness and unease that came from always wanting to bridge two worlds.
Now, I’m not someone who’s always been into mindfulness. I find yoga boring and doze off whenever I try to meditate. But taking in my sensory surroundings regularly and actively has truly changed my experience of the world. University of Oxford professor Mark Williams
claims that mindfulness is the way to find peace in a frantic world, and beyond that, it can help you grow to always appreciate the moment you are in.
If life is short, a semester is extremely short and a summer is even shorter. Don’t think of anything outside of your immediate surroundings; I promise you, they are enough. Everything close and far changes constantly, but we will always return to homes old and new. This first summer at home taught me to never look back or too far forward, but to always look around.