The summer before I started sixth grade, I went on a trip out West, and my mom got me a pair of thick wool hiking socks. At the time, they were big on me, and I thought they were so ugly, but I took them along because I didn’t have any other socks to wear with my hiking boots. But after that trip, they sat in the back of my closet for the next eight years.
When I went back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, over Thanksgiving break during my freshman year, it was the first time I’d gone home since I left for college. I found myself looking through that same closet on a sort of archeological dig of my life precollege. Since I’d been away, it was like I was seeing my old stuff with new eyes, and everything I had left behind seemed strangely foreign.
Going back for even longer over winter break was even weirder. Four months in a new place changes a person. I had new ideas, new plans and new friends, and acting like I could just fit right back into my home and my family the same way I used to in high school felt like trying to put on socks that don’t fit. Now, when I go back to Pittsburgh, I don’t really unpack my suitcase. It feels more like a vacation than a homecoming.
But for the first few years, driving back to Ithaca didn’t feel like a homecoming either. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I couldn’t very well “settle into” a dorm when I knew that I’d be moving out in a few months. I felt alone and disoriented, caught in a limbo between homes and between identities without any place that felt “right.”
Going home only to realize the person you’ve become doesn’t really belong there anymore is a common college experience. Our identities are always changing and reforming, and places — their landscapes, climates, smells — are profoundly formative parts of that evolution. As humans, we resist discomfort, but embracing the many states of limbo that college puts you in gives you the room to grow into a new and more complex identity. It gives you permission to create a new home. Of course, having a rooted sense of home is a luxury only afforded to those who already have a permanent place to sleep, and it’d be irresponsible not to acknowledge the privilege inherent in this discussion.
But for the first part of college, I dealt with this placelessness by reminding myself I was leaving in a few years, anyway, so it was fine if I never really felt attached to the place. But when you let yourself exist in the in-between, rather than thinking of placelessness as a problem to solve, the process of creating a home becomes liberating instead of uncomfortable. You learn to trust your independence and ability to connect. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way, the community I had pieced together started feeling like home, and I finally grew into Ithaca.
And whenever I leave Ithaca, I’ll feel that restless, rootless sense again. But it won’t be forever. Little by little, the people I’ll get to know and the landscape I’ll see every day will get more comfortable. And one day, I’ll step back and realize I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, but it’ll only be because I gave myself space to be uncomfortable.
As for those grey wool socks? I found them a few years ago over winter break, and, when I tried them on, they weren’t too big anymore. Now I wear them all the time, although there is a little hole starting in one of the toes.
Right now, Ithaca feels like home, and those socks are perfect for the winter up here. But an impermanent sense of home and identity leaves me room to grow and evolve, like how wearing through a pair of socks is just an opportunity to get new ones.