In June 2010, I got on a plane and flew to Copenhagen, setting out on a two-month quest to redefine “home” by leaving my home in Portland. My dear friend, Natasha, had married a Danish man, moved back to her homeland, and was finally living the life she had always seen for herself and had only now made real. Natasha in so many ways is a person who embodies home for me; she is a warm, adoring friend who makes domesticity an art. She is the poster-child for a cozy winter night. She will make you dinner, start a fire, roll you a joint and feed you ice cream. She, and by proxy, Copenhagen, was the perfect place to start this grand redefinition.
Redefinition was absolutely necessary and even more so that I scrutinized the basic tenets of my life. My experience has shown me that people often deal with personal issues by putting on band-aids rather than getting at the real root of the problem. Instead of pulling things apart and examining the pieces, people create habits and patterns to circumvent the tedious disassembly. I am guilty of this. As an adult, I am keenly aware I have more power to create and control situations I am comfortable with than I did as a child. If things get uncomfortable, well, I have also planned an escape route. When I got on that plane, I was ready to get at these deep issues and I sensed this was the correct way to do so. In the past, travel has not just been about leisure. I have used it to subconsciously manifest all kinds of learning experiences.
On this trip I had set myself up for a high, but very particular, level of personal discomfort – a more obvious type, maybe. I had an unstable financial situation and had planned very little solo time. I was only prepared to answer a few questions about current life patterns and where they began – incidentally, on a previous trip to Copenhagen in 2004. More than anything, I was seeking inspiration in others’ home life, to see which parts resonated with me and which parts I did not value as much. It was a symbolic gesture to myself – a do-over – to come back to this place and experience it as a more evolved, introspective human.
Searching for answers to difficult questions is rarely as uncomfortable as setting an expectation about the answers you hope to get – and then realizing you are radically off the mark. This is an illusion I sell myself all the time. It is unrealistic to expect to learn the deepest, most rewarding lessons about myself by executing a plan where I think I already know the outcome. Thankfully, it cannot work like that. It usually comes from a good, universal kick in the teeth that one can hopefully laugh about later – one great, big toothless laugh.
A smiling Natasha greeted me at the airport. She hand-led me to her apartment, marking the first time in my travel history I did not have to navigate public transportation in a foreign city, in a foreign language, after a 10-hour flight full of Valium and little bottles of Baileys. I spent the next 10 days being treated to countless dinners at their restaurant, a weekend at Natasha’s family’s summerhouse on the Baltic, walking tours of Copenhagen, and a night out at Tivoli for our joint birthday celebration. I did not have to lift a finger and, while for many that might be a real-life dream, I am ashamed to admit I felt a mounting frustration I could not put my finger on. And it came to a head one afternoon when my attempt to make my own cup of tea was thwarted by Natasha’s hospitality.
Apparently, I have a hard time letting people take care of me. My mother and the adults I looked up to were not conventionally maternal. Physical affection and motherly encouragement were replaced by a heroic survival instinct and the strength one learns by example. My sense of self, as well as my expression of gratitude, comes from action and self-sufficiency. I continue to thank my mother for everything she has done by never letting her worry about me. Should I get sick and someone does need to take care of me, it is marked in my ledger as a debt in need of repayment and I reciprocate as soon as possible. The emotional burden of debt is difficult for me to carry.
I wanted to make my own tea, not because I needed to show someone that I knew how to make tea, but more to say:
“Thank you for letting me sleep on your couch, eat at your restaurant, drink your wine, be a part of your family, and talk incessantly about all these weird things that are happening in my life. Thank you for putting up with my moodiness, lack of focus, and periodic withdrawal. Thank you for your patience and positivity. I cannot actually repay you right now because I have no money, no emotional stores, no resources to make you anything, and it is literally going to take me years to be able to express how grateful I am in kind.”
It was probably the most symbolic cup of Earl Grey I have ever steeped into existence.
I remember struggling to explain this to Natasha, in her small airy kitchen, fingers interlaced around a Heath mug, fretting that I was going to offend this person I care for so deeply. She smiled at me and very clearly explained that the joy she finds in making me a cup of tea comes from finally being able to express her gratitude for the people that have taken care of her in the past, myself included. I had momentarily forgotten that not much less than a year before, I had taken Natasha in during a similarly difficult time in her life, made her tea, and encouraged her to buy what ended up being a one-way ticket to Copenhagen. I finally understood the weight of what she was saying. By not accepting help or hospitality, we are denying the people we care about the opportunity to do their personal work, to repay the kindness they have received and were never sure how or when they could reciprocate. And the solace comes from knowing that you will have a chance to reciprocate, when the timing is right and you are able.
I am reminded of a conversation I had had with Natasha when she was living in my house, before leaving for Copenhagen. We were talking about debt, first financial and then emotional. We ruminated about feeling indebted to someone you are in a relationship with, for all the love and kindness – and how it feels when it isn’t enough to make you happy. We had both experienced this kind of debt in a relationship, where we had been given everything and, on paper, should have been happy with that but it was not the kind of everything that we needed. And there was the guilt. It ruins everything. But this changes when you meet the right person, not just in love but in friendship, too. It is a relationship that empowers and enables you to match and want to exceed what the other gives, not necessarily in kind but in volume and intent. It is the kind of relationship where you are not forced to give what you do not have. She called it a state of being “beautifully indebted”, where the gratitude is so abundant there is no room for guilt; where asking for help is not out of weakness but out of a desire to connect; where you can be confident that what you have to give or reciprocate with will also be enough; and the timing will be perfect if it can’t be right now. When I really think about it, this has much more to do with the good grace we give ourselves to allow others to give to us.
Simply being in that light kitchen with Natasha and being able to openly talk about this personal struggle, I felt very much at home. I suppose home is not just about which couch you sleep on, it is also about a place you can be vulnerable, where someone else makes you tea and helps you confront your own strange view of the world. Home is also the joy of opening up your kitchen and taking care of a friend because, after all these years, you finally can. My home is a place where Natasha can make me a cup of tea whenever she wants and I will pay her back with a very public thank you because that is what she does and that is what I do.