I drove past the third places that I’d grown up in and, through the eyes of an adult, saw a person shaped by spaces that are in-between.
But what I could do was drive. I drove past the third places that I’d grown up in and, through the eyes of an adult, saw a person shaped by spaces that are in-between. These places felt like markers of identity less easily defined than my childhood bedroom—loaded with ballet posters and middle-grade books in the closet and a T.J. Maxx quilt that’s been worn in the perfect amount. But there were pieces of me in them, parts I’d forgotten, parts I wondered whether I’d outgrown.
There was the parking garage where people sat on hoods of cars into the wee hours of the morning, overlooking the bridge, where plans were hatched and communities were built confession by confession. The ballet studio where I sewed pointe shoes over conversations with friends, all of us wearing trash-bag sweatpants, where we found ourselves lingering long after rehearsals ended, like the waiting room was a living room and no one was quite ready to be the first to exit the party. The walking trail where kid bike races turned into the place I walked the first dog I ever adopted myself, which turned into the place I’d pace, wind flushing my cheeks and punctuated with pauses for small talk with the neighbors and their babies, while I pondered book edits and their conversation brought me back down to earth.
There’s also the mentality that spins moving as both a market and a milestone but that rarely considers that home can be complicated, and ever-changing, and maybe isn’t a single place at all. That pieces of us exist in different places, that leaving them all behind isn’t the only way to grow into who we’re supposed to be.
In reporting for my book,An Ordinary Age, which explores the pressures of young adulthood, I was fascinated to hear how people articulated home and what it means to them—including the spaces in which they didn’t live but felt “at home” nonetheless. We situate young adulthood in transience, usually the glorified version that looks like adventures and moving and, inevitably, it seems, moving meaning “moving up” in the world. There’s so little about returning, I felt, so little about how roots don’t always mean a single place and how versions of us can exist in the in-betweens of all the places we’ve been, not just in the gallery walls meticulously measured for or the apartment weekend-cleaning routine we know by heart.
People described homesickness for familial homes long after they’d technically moved out, or moving back home for personal reasons only to be met with peers who considered them a failure for doing so. Some articulated instability in a single home, but the places that brought them the sense of comfort or community we commonly align with home: a friend’s backyard where hours were spent trading drinks and making future plans, the certain spot at a coffee shop where they worked and imagined new dreams and new futures, a park where every day after school was spent. It makes sense, then, that third places provide “the kind of psychological comfort and emotional support that you might expect at home.” That’s how it felt for me: When I was in my hometown, I came home to a half dozen other little senses of home too.
While third places are rooted in community, ranging from coffee shops and bars to churches and parks to malls and libraries, they’re also impacted by the economic and sociodemographic factors that shape how we make our way in the world. Some research on this points out that “inequitable investment in public spaces have led to a lack of public outdoor spaces in communities of color compared to white, affluent communities,” and while third places are considered essential for social connections and democracy, some argue not enough is being done to preserve them, prioritize them, or make them accessible. And of course, who gets to linger in a third place—a central part of an experience that’s fundamentally about community, gathering, and a relaxed environment—can’t be divorced from systemic racism, socioeconomics, and commodification. Who has the privilege of feeling “at home” in a space that is technically public?
I never heard about the value these spaces hold when people spoke about the many factors of home, or the viral lists full of cities to aspire to live in. Perhaps because young adulthood, the twenties, is still considered the time to be untethered and unattached (a myth that persists despite how many peoples’ lived experiences it fundamentally ignores), third places feel like the transition, the in-between space in which some of us can also be in-between.
At work, we have to be on, and engaged, and minding a certain kind of manners—just because a place is familiar doesn’t mean we feel we belong, or want to. At home, for a lot of people, there’s a sense of stability, of comfort—knowing that, even if we have to do the laundry and the maintenance cleaning and fall into the steady pattern of conversation with our roommates or relatives, this space is ours. At least, that’s the fantasy version of what home is supposed to be.
Every time I left my hometown, I sought out whatever I could to make a new space mine: stacks of books that moved from one rickety nightstand to the floor by the door and back again, mail in the mailbox, a signal I was reachable there, framed photos and throw pillows stolen from my childhood bedroom—from the home that will always be “home” to me no matter where I live. I was always in a state of coming back, ever returning, rather than plunging forward the way I was supposed to.
“How else will you grow?” people asked, meaning, “How else do you know you’re growing up if you aren’t leaving things behind? Don’t you want to see everything out there?”
Well, I thought, what about seeing everything right here too?
Unbuckling my seatbelt in the parking lot of the Olive Garden where, to the right, an empty road where people used to race cars that shouldn’t be raced and bikes that couldn’t keep up stretched for miles, I paused: Everywhere I’d been was winding me back here. When I ventured away from my hometown, my third places came along, giving me bits and pieces of myself back. I thought of the coffee shop, one of the only locally owned coffee spots in my hometown, with the eclectic collection of local art on the walls and back room made for lingering, the first place I drove with my new license. How a person and I kept meeting eyes, on opposite sides of the room, with our books and black coffee and angst, until we eventually struck up a conversation. She’d felt like she didn’t belong, too, I learned, and conversations gave way to confessions, and friendship bloomed from the cracked familiarity of a place both of us had just happened to be.
It mirrored, almost exactly, a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in New York, one that felt more comfortable than my ever-temporary apartment did when I lived there. Someone kind recommended it, and we’d met for coffee and a pastry. Once, and then again, and over and over, until I had a dear friend, tethered together by a place that felt like ours.
I was always in a state of coming back, ever returning, rather than plunging forward the way I was supposed to.
Now, in retrospect, I could see my beloved and random collection of third places at home were mile-markers in my life, absent of the stress of building a new home outside my hometown, sheltered from the pressure to bring the best version of me to a space. What made them distinct, and precious, is that these spaces felt like a permission slip to be in-progress: You could make friends with a stranger, or exchange niceties, and that was enough. You could find peers, or community, or accept that, for that moment, just being in the presence of others was enough to lead you away from loneliness. You could have no answers; you could have questions: What does this place mean to me? Why? Where do I belong, and what belonging have I already created, in spaces exactly like this?
In conversation with people about what third places they missed and aligned with home, coffee shops where the barista knew someone’s order, churches and gyms where people made friends or cherished acquaintances, dog parks where dog owners bonded over pets, and libraries where anxious students talked about familial homes, and lack of them, future fears, and traded tips for classes all popped up as places that are home, but not quite.
“It’s the place that’s safe,” one person shared with me, echoing how others articulated it: a place you don’t have to call ahead to or plan for, a space that’s part of you but not defined by you. You’re just part of the whole.
The older I get, that’s more of how I see home, anyway. I imagined coming-of-age moments—the times you realize you’re growing up, you’re becoming who you are, that, in a movie, would be matched with a close-up and soaring score—happening in distinct places: When I got the keys to the first apartment I rented by myself. When I moved out on my own. It was startling to realize how much of growing up was existing in an in-between physical space and, by extension, how many of the moments that shaped me did too.
Maybe it’s nostalgia; maybe I want someone to tell me that just because I move doesn’t mean I have to keep moving—in terms of location, in terms of life. Maybe my hometown third-place tour is nothing more than wanting to exist in the liminal space between who I was then and who I am now. But parked in the lot of a chain restaurant, staring at the mostly empty spaces with faded-white painted lines, where strangers became first loves, and where I learned how to say no, and where I listened to conversations on families and growing up and dreams that still shape what I play back in my head sometimes, that’s what a third space feels it holds: A defining in-between.
Rainesford Stauffer is a freelance writer and Kentuckian. She is the author ofAn Ordinary Age (Harper Perennial, 2021) and All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive (forthcoming from Hachette Books, May 2023).