On Voluntary “Homelessness”

A random “update your profile” moment on Facebook triggered a contemplation of where I (don’t) live.

I have been without a fixed address now for something like 22 months – a deliberate and somewhat planned state of affairs which one might call voluntary homelessness. Certainly, it’s addresslessness, unless a mailbox in Portland, Oregon counts as my address. And it does, to much of the official world. But Portland hasn’t been my home since I drove away from my apartment on May 31, 2021, bound at the time for Wyoming.

I’ve been thinking about “home,” though: visiting other people’s homes, considering the site of some new home, and wondering what “home” means, anyway. I always figured home is the place you go to when you’re done traveling, or doing something, like “Right, that was cool, let’s go home.” But what if you don’t have a home in any practical sense: no fixed residential address, no furniture, no artwork on the walls, no neighbors, no local restaurant or coffee shop? What if you’re just always traveling?

People ask me all the time where I live, and usually I say something glib like “Here at the moment,” or I simply say “Nowhere,” which is true, and which often leads to them asking again with real emphasis, so it sounds like “Yeah, but where do you … live?” You can actually see my reality bouncing off their exterior mental walls, like I’m waving a contactless credit card at a cash register.

A lot of them will then say something like, “Wow, that sounds amazing,” to which I say with my best wry smile, “It does, doesn’t it?” That might read like bragging, but what it means is yes, it sounds amazing, and often it is. Sometimes I close my computer for the day, go walking for the afternoon and evening, and I’m in Milan or some other amazing place. Then, life seems amazing and I feel very lucky.

But how am I to describe the previous 48 hours in Milan, when I was in my hotel room because I had to work and it was cold and I was alone and I don’t really speak Italian, so the idea of going into some great restaurant where I would sit alone, be unable to read the menu, not be able to speak with the waiter, and be surrounded by people on dates and out with friends, while I’m the lone foreigner sitting in the corner, not talking to anybody … at some point, a falafel wrap to go from some streetside place, eaten back in the hotel room, makes a lot more sense. Is that amazing?

No, but it’s what I chose, or at least it’s part of the package. A moment like that is a decision people make all the time – let’s just eat at home – only it’s played out in a life of travel, so it’s “eat in the room,” and very likely a different room from last time.

I wanted to try life without a home for a while, and it turns out that – just like life with a home – sometimes it sucks, just in different ways. It is rarely boring but frequently exhausting. It is unpredictable but can still be tedious. And never, ever, is either “home life” or “travel life” a solution to any of life’s challenges: self-esteem, relationships, money, career, health, and existential questions like what we’re doing here.

Here’s what traveling full time has done: It has replaced the concept of home, a kind of binary “there or not,” with an ongoing management process, like a set of dials in front of me as I navigate confusing waters. I am never home, but I do often feel levels of at-home-ness. It’s about comfort, relaxation, connection, people, routine, and entertainment. A hotel in Lyon in the rain, when I’m only there for 48 hours on a thin business idea that no longer makes any sense, and I’m about to order dinner delivery, and tomorrow I’m back on a train to some other French place where I don’t know anybody and will probably work all day anyway … that’s not at home, even if I’ve gotten used to it. Walking the streets of London, where I understand the transit system, have people to call, can read the signs, know a good lunch place up ahead, and I’m spending three weeks in an AirBnB where I can make my own breakfast … that’s as close as it gets to home for me these days.

I can meet the needs of home while living on the road; I just have to be intentional about it.

When I get stressed out, I need to turn down the travel dial and turn up the settled dial by getting a longer-term AirBnB. When I get lonely, the connection dial needs a twist, maybe a phone call or a 12-step meeting. When I feel physically toxic, it’s time to kick sweets for a while and do some more hiking. When I’m spending too much money, I need to dial down the impulse planning and buying. When I get behind at work, it’s time to turn up the work dial, which better when I’m settled down. Most of all, when I get just plain exhausted and burned out, it’s time to pick a homey place, unpack for real (drawers are the best!), and just act like a local person for a while.

I left home, I’ve been traveling a ton, probably too much, and now I’m ready to head home – wherever that is.