A few days ago, I returned back to Brooklyn after visiting family in Montana. Though I’m not actually from the state, it’s geographically much closer to the one I was born in than the one I live in now. It has the same feel, nestled in the mountains, where perfectly still lakes act as mirrors for each snowcapped top, and where there are enough conifers that even in the depths of snowy winter things don’t ever feel quite dead.
While there, we took a family walk in Glacier National Park. Signs declaring tree species along the route told of the abundant western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). “This is one of my favorites,” I excitedly told everyone within my vicinity, “but ours is Tsuga canadensis, the eastern species.” Her sweet little outstretched needles were like an old friend, only slightly different. Strangely similar, but not identical, like some sort of tree version of an Olson twin.
A few days later, I got a pedicure in a strip mall and also let my niece bleach a strip of my hair, and then dye it hot pink. Two things dramatically out of character for anyone who has known me for the past twelve, or even sixteen years, but with what was clearly some sort of unconscious regression in play (I was surrounded by family, after all), it all felt strangely normal.
A few years ago my mother asked me if thought I belonged more on the east side or the west side of these United States. While I grappled with the question, painfully mulling over my childhood self and my adult self as certainly different pieces but hopefully the same self, my mom grinned and then told me she was pretty sure I never really belonged in the west at all. And my heart broke at her decisiveness.
I wonder sometimes about the eastern me vs. the western me. If somewhere in Montana or Idaho or Oregon an alternative version of me exists. Someone who was able to find themselves without moving so far away. I wonder if there is a home that I really did leave, or even a home to which I’m returning. If home can be both uncomfortable and familiar at the same time. If my leaves are supposed to become brilliant orange and then drop to the ground, or instead hold on tight, little evergreen-scented shelves to hold the falling snow.