Searching for Home

I’m about two months late on this recap, but things just picked up so quickly as soon as I returned to New York from my travels that I never got the chance to sit down and write anything longer than a social media post about it. Over the course of 3 weeks, my journeys took me through 8 airports, 2 National Parks, 4 costal cities, 2 mountains, a house under construction, and more bottles of wine than I’d care to count.

Even though I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the shortest amount of time of all the places I’ve resided in (I’m defining this by places I’ve gotten mail at), because it’s the city I was born in, there is always this sense of familiarity and belonging when I am there. As foreign as the SoCal vibe may feel to this New Yorker, LA will always hold the beginnings of my history.

This time around, I got to head up to Yosemite and Sequoia with some of the best people I know. I used to think I was made solely for the urban jungles, but that feeling has changed over the last few years. Navigating through cities and metro transit systems are still one of my favorite things to do, but now I dream about outdoor excursions and hikes on the weekends more than I do any activity in the city. Here’s a video my buddy Jeff put together of our National Parks trip.

yosemite 1 from Jeff Dirdack on Vimeo.

After 10 days of cruising around the freeways to see old and new friends, visiting museums and gardens, and downing tacos and margaritas on the shores of San Diego, I hopped on a plane (or two, technically, if we’re counting the layover) again for the reason I was leaving NYC to begin with: to build with Habitat para La Humanidad Chile.

I’ve worked with various Habitat affiliates since my college days, and though the resources and administration of each vary from place to place, I’ve always trusted and been appreciative of the work that Habitat does with the local communities. A few things drove my decision to fly down to a Latin American country for the first time:

  • My friend Karen – After a conversation we had maybe a full year ago, we decided to get the heck out of our worlds (she was in LA, I was in NY, both of us were working in film & TV) and do something worthwhile with our time and hands. Unfortunately the trip fell through for Karen, but at her encouragement, I went forth with it anyways, solo.
  • Para practicar la lengua – I’ve taken Spanish for a few years in school. A few of my closest friends are Spanish speakers, and because of my desire to pretend even more that I’m a member of their families, I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country to sharpen my proficiency.
  • Our Children Return Home Program – The Habitat in Santiago runs a special program called “Nuestros Hijos Vuelven A Casa”, where in partnership with Teletón, Habitat Chile builds and works on homes for kids with special needs and their families. A lot of homes are typically not built to be accommodating or accessible for children with disabilities, which makes it extremely difficult for the families and parents helping to take care of the child in need, especially as the child grows older.

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There is so much to say about my time in Chile working to build a house with a group of strangers. Our team worked to build a new home from the ground up for a family that reminded too much of my best friend’s family. The new accessible house was intended for 6-year old Agustina, her relentlessly-sacrificing mother Patricia, and her devoting grandmother, Adriana, and would sit right behind the tiny house they currently occupy with 4 other members of their extended family in a town on the outskirts of Santiago called Paine. Agustina is a warm and joyful girl with a degenerative muscular disease, commonly known as “glass children”, which affects her development and mobility. On every other interaction, I had to try not to remind myself of the heartbreaking reality that in a few years she would be restricted to a wheelchair.

As it was with most of the longer builds I’ve been on in the stateside, the work itself can feel mindless and laborious (it definitely always gives me pause and appreciation for those in manual labor jobs), but oh how I’ve missed building and working with my hands. I like to call this portion of my trip the “alternative stress-reliving vacation.” Hammering at bricks and rocks is a strenuous yet satisfying activity, but my favorite part of every day was getting a peek of the family watching our team work. You could see their gratitude and anticipation with just the looks on their faces.

What I wouldn’t realize until I was sitting at the gate of my return flight back to NY, was that I had inadvertently spent 3 weeks searching for home. Whenever I leave a place (even when it’s leaving NY), there is this sense of restlessness, like I still haven’t quite fully settled yet. As aware as I am of the fact that this earth is not my home, traveling will often satisfy that sense of searching. But as I labored away with the snow-capped Andes in the backdrop, for the first time I finally stopped and realized that what was more satisfying than the feeling of “being home” was gifting that to someone else. Even if I still feel restless everywhere I go, I find joy in knowing that someone who was so deserving of a place to call their own was finally able to have that.

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I think the truth is that we will always be searching for a home, a place of belonging. But for this small family, the challenges that came with Agustina’s conditions meant that they had to work twice as hard. Even in the States, sometimes accessibility is something a healthy human being like myself can take for granted. Seeing a child (children, for that matter, as we got to tour Teletón’s facilities one day and saw a number of the children/families being helped) bring love and joy to a team full of foreign strange adults despite the immense physical and social challenges she faces in her everyday life, was a stark reminder that there’s joy to be found even in the hardest of circumstances.

It will take more than our team of 12 and a week’s time to finish “La Casita Rosada”, but I am always happy to just play a very small part in the whole story. It will probably also take more than this 3-week vacation to figure out how to feel “at home”, but I left Santiago knowing that a small family with insurmountable challenges still ahead of them was one step closer to finally being able to feel at home for the first time.

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