It's been a year since I've been home to Virginia, and longer since I've seen grandparents and other relatives.
In that time, I've lost an uncle and a grandfather.
In that time, I've moved across the country, changed jobs, bought a house, raised chickens, survived a Montana winter, installed flooring, started growing my own food, kayaked, explored, made new friends and became interested in farming.
In that time, things at home have changed. There have been deaths, weddings, births, job changes, renovations, move, engagements, development and road construction.
During the first few days of this visit, I was thinking how different everything was and feeling a bit like the outsider.
Then I realized how much I had changed.
Returning to the place I call home, the place I went to school, learned to drive, had my first real jobs and internships, the place that formed the foundation of who I am today, has always been a reality check for me. It's like a baseline standard that I always look at to see how far I've come, how much I've grown, how many of my childhood dreams I've accomplished, goals I've reached.
What I've noticed is that crowded stores, beaches, roads and towns no longer seem normal to me, they feel oppressive. There's no room to think or to breathe.
For awhile, I loved that busy bee feeling in D.C., and I do still love the district, but on the summertime Jersey shore, in traffic on I-95 and on the busy gravel street during tourist season in Colonial Williamsburg, I found myself craving the wide open spaces and big sky of Montana.
At my grandmothers, I kept expecting to see grandpa walk in and sit in his chair. The same chair he sat in for all of my childhood memories. But he didn't.
Seeing photos of him and my uncle around the house had me struggling to keep my tears at bay.
I'd always known he liked cows and had some farm experience, but I never really took the time to take it in until this last week.
My other grandfather also had an agricultural background and likes to hear stories about our chickens.
I can't help but wonder if I was meant to live this life all along and spent those in between years trying all the things that led me here.
Coming home was different this time. Most of my hometown friends have moved away. Most are married and most have or are having kids. I'm off in the great white tundra, knocking down walls, chasing chickens and trying to figure out how to manage some acreage.
I worry about the bunnies taking up residence under our porch and eating my plants. I worry about owls and coyotes and badgers getting to the chickens. I worry about Grover finding a snake and having his curiosity get him into trouble. I worry about snow drifts on the way to work and garden flattening wind.
It's been a week of family, fun and largely ignoring work emails. Of unplugging and kicking my feet up. Of running on the boardwalk at the Jersey shore, going wild at the outlet mall, catching up with old friends.
But it's also been a week of emotions. Of feeling a bit like a stranger in my home land.
I will always love this place. It's a place that shaped and molded me. It's a place that holds so many memories and is full of people I love and learned from.
But it will never be as it was when I was here making those memories. That place has changed. And while I can always come home, it will likely feel a bit more foreign to me each time.
As I was worrying about feeling like the outsider, a beautiful thing happened.
I went to church Sunday morning. At the church I grew up in. The church where I was confirmed and sang in the choir every week from 8th grade until I moved away for jobs. Whenever I come home, I try to go to mass and jump in with my old choir.
This morning, I walked in and there is really no other place where people look so surprised and happy to see me. I love that look of surprise and so I rarely give them a head's up that I'll be back.
The year since I'd been back was probably the longest I've gone without setting foot in that church since I was 14.
It was a place where I knew everyone and everyone knew me, as the redheaded choir girl if they didn't know me personally. I did church retreats, taught Sunday school and was involved in all kinds of activities.
Growing up, it was just fun and something I liked to do.
It's a church on a military base, so the people change regularly, but some have stayed the same.
And this morning, when one by one those same people walked in and welcomed me home so warmly I realized that in all those years, I'd done more than have fun and practice faith.
I'd created, and become part of, community.
This place that I call home may have changed, and so have I, but pieces of my heart will always be firmly planted in these places, with these people. And I will forever be grateful to come home.
Do you carry home with you wherever you go? How do you create a sense of home if you've moved away?