Wherever We Go, We Take Home With Us
Reprinted from the November issue of PineStraw magazine
So, fellow traveler, where is your home?
It's a question I sometimes ask myself in November, the month in which I feel most at home in my own life for a lot of reasons that probably have more to do with family history, tradition, weather and my wife's good cooking than anything else. And yet, I'm asking something much deeper than where you live.
The answer, of course, is different for everyone. Home is where you long to be, or where you come from, the place you know best, the people you love most, none or all of the above. It's where you understand the local customs and the locals understand you. Home is in your heart, your head, your history, your very DNA. When you have to go there, according to poet Robert Frost, home is where they have to take you in. On the other hand, argues poet Maya Angelou, every human being longs to be at home wherever you find yourself.
Few things in life feel as enchanting and comforting as the idea of home - just being there, or going back there, or simply dreaming of making one of your own someday. Conversely, if the home where you grew up was living hell, few topics can evoke as complicated feelings as the notion of home - memories of unsettled disputes, unresolved issues, and love either withheld or unexpressed, all silent factors that leave their mark on a life like a lash.
The Words of Home
In Thomas Wolfe's final novel, "You Can't Go Home Again," published posthumously in 1940, the protagonist, George Webber, writes a successful novel based on elements of his childhood experiences in Libya Hill, earning him fame and fortune but also letters of scorn and even death threats from the folks back home. Over the years since the book's publication, not surprisingly in a country where upward mobility is viewed as a badge of success, the book's famous title became part of America's cultural expression, morphing into a popular figure of speech that equated the idea of returning or longing for home as a sign of failure.
In fact, Wolfe had no such idea in his head - he was merely commenting on the fragile impermanence of human experience and the quicksilver of our passing lives, the homing instinct buried in all of us. The title, in fact, comes from the denouement of the novel in which Webber simply realizes home is an unrecoverable treasure, a paradise lost yet forever propelling us: "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time - back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."
Few words possess the powerful simplicity and emotional freight - not to mention inevitable baggage - of home. "Home is an emotional state," writes psychologist and spiritual thinker Thomas Moore, "a place in the imagination where feelings of security, belonging, placement, family, protection, memory, and personal history abide. Our dreams and fantasies of home may give us direction and calm our anxieties as we continually look for ways for satisfying our longing for home."
The Notion of Home
Home, by its unseen bonds and implied connective tissue, is also a copywriter's dream word, a concept that powerfully resonates with American consumers in particular, a nation of would-be homebodies.
America is, after all, the "Home of the Brave," Pinehurst the "Home of Golf in America."
Fenway Park calls itself "Home of the Red Sox," Burger King merely the "Home of the Whopper."
Home speaks. We listen.
Check out the magazine racks at your local grocery store and you'll count no less than a dozen popular magazine titles devoted to the art and science of making the perfect home, an entire industry devoted to the how-to of making your home a showplace or an ideal getaway from the madding crowd.
Some of the first books published in Colonial America, in fact, were rustic primers on domestic homemaking, guides meant to instruct a young nation of homesick European immigrants on how to make a home in a new wild place.
Two centuries later, give or take a Hepplewhite sideboard, a savvy Martha Stewart artfully transformed herself into the "Goddess of Graciousness" and a commercial icon by simply updating and aggressively marketing traditional homemaking tips and skills gleaned from old copies of Ladies' Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens and other popular women's magazines that have been a staple of domestic American life since the founding of the Republic.
In a broader current context, the home-building and real estate industries - supposed plinths of the American economy - are considered firm bellwethers of our national economic health. If people are buying or building houses, the theory goes - i.e., finding home - they are probably feeling good about themselves and their financial prospects, their very futures. Fortunes have been made and squandered on just this notion, as have the lives of nations. Countries choose to go to war for lots of reasons, including disputed land and the assets of their neighbors. But across time, the overarching reason most use to justify their actions is the goal of simply protecting home, defending their national sovereignty, and defending one's way of life and values.
The Presence of Home
During my 59 years of life, I've lived in some interesting places - on a screened porch during the last days of college, in a one-room cabin heated by a wood stove on a winding river in Vermont - and just about every kind of house or apartment you can think of in big cities and a couple of foreign countries. Wherever I happened to be, Miss Angelou might be pleased to hear me state, I always tried to make myself feel at home to some small degree, even if that was easier said than done.
My home right now is a rambling old house in Weymouth, a handsome place with worn floors and a fine back terrace, loaded with the kind of antique character and charm that puts me in mind of Madeleine's old house in Paris all covered with vines, a book I read to my children when they were growing up in the house I built for them in Maine.
We rent this house from a nice Pennsylvania couple that love it dearly, I suspect, and it's been a most comfortable home - both shelter and spiritual refuge - for almost five years. The upstairs bedroom where I make my home office (and am writing this essay) is quite possibly the best writing space I've ever had, the perfect writer's burrow. It has lovely eastern light and overlooks the back garden where I spend so much of my free time, a ceiling fan overhead, a set of simple whitewashed walls, a calming air, a radiator that clanks softly like Marley's ghost in winter.
And yet, perfect as it is for the moment at least, this isn't the home I dream about. Two other homes crowd all others out. One lives in my recent past, the other lies in the mist of an undetermined future.
One is the beautiful post-and-beam house I built on a forested hill near the coast of Maine, the first and only house I've ever owned, a home I helped create with my own hands, imagination and sweat of my brow. It's where I felt certain I would live out my days until my allotted time was up. But I was wrong. Life changed and we left this home, sold the house and handed over the keys to a couple who owned a large motor home and a pair of Doberman pinschers. I still see this house in my nighttime dreams from time to time; I wander its rooms looking at things that were once so familiar but now feel profoundly changed and almost unwelcoming, slowly receding - perhaps simply proving that a house is just a house, after all, and in the end it's purely the human element of living there that renders it a home.
My memories of 15 great years in this house are strong and cherished, and though I dream of having a garden and house like that one again - note to self: plus a workshop and new John Deere lawn tractor - I sincerely doubt I'll ever go back and take a look at that place again.
Six years ago, on the other hand, influenced by the same kind of gravitational pull that perhaps both sustained and tortured brother Thomas Wolfe, we moved home to North Carolina, the place where I grew up and my kinfolk populate the red clay of the Piedmont, both above and under it.
The Heart of Home
This old house in Southern Pines - and this town itself, with its famous sheltering pines and quaint New England-named streets and well-bred manners - has been nothing short of a blessing to my family, the perfect re-entry hatch to a place I always secretly hoped I might someday, somehow, return to.
By following my heart home, as it were, allowing the sure hand of Providence to direct our steps, I now find myself up in Greensboro two or three days every week doing the very work that wound up bringing me back to my old stomping ground, the place that holds my fondest memories. Sometimes I drive by an old house I used to admire in the neighborhood where I grew up and note its need for a little TLC, and think: I always loved that place. We should buy that house and make it home. The nice single lady who bought my childhood house just around the corner has invited me to come by some Saturday and dig up some of my mom's beloved peonies for my own garden - the one I hope to have someday wherever, if ever, we buy a house again and settle down for good.
Will this be the one? Impossible to say. I've given up worrying about where home will be next year or the year after that.
In the meantime, with apologies to Thomas Wolfe, what I've learned about home is that you can and must take its spiritual beauty with you wherever you go and wherever you are, plant it in the soil and water it faithfully, offering a prayer of simple gratitude for being alive and with those you love, however long you have them. It's a tale as old as the Pilgrims and relevant as the waves of modern immigrants who still arrive on our shores blinking uncertainly in the morning sunlight, looking for a new definition of home.
For us - and probably you, too, neighbor - that definition is forever changing, growing, shifting. Our four children have grown up and flown the coop to college and busy work lives. At this writing one is making a film in Istanbul, another commuting to work in Manhattan. Two others are in school in upstate New York. We see less and less of them but share a broadening home. They come to visit more irregularly and at the holidays, and the house is once again filled - far too briefly - with their laughter, arguments and suddenly grown-up voices.
What a glorious sound it makes. It fades and I go upstairs to my favorite writing room above the garden.
For now, this November at least, that is all I need for home.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at jim@the pilot.com.
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