Monday, May 2, 2011

find your way home again

A traveler moves across an unknown wilderness. His day has been long and its endlessness still stretches before him like the unfolding day-and-night landscape. He carries the weight of essential possessions and threadbare isolation on his back. He is alone, unknown, sketching his trail silently in a remote land where he finds himself far from home, further from himself.

It is just when all natural light begins to vanish, when the fog of night cloaks him once again and all too comfortably so, that he sees a faint light. It is a light enclosed by shelter and walls, a light that filters through to the outside, a light that "watches in the secret heart of night." (Emmuré by Rimbaud) He feels a great release, a sense of the intimacy in the vast, a relief that this light "is the symbol of prolonged waiting... Through its light alone, the house becomes human. It sees like a man. It is an eye open to night." (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 34-35)

Where am I? Where do I belong? Home is not a particular place; it is a construction. We make home -- literally or in our minds -- and along with the space we recall as being so home-like, the shelter with the light always on, home includes "a significant affiliation of self with place, producing a sense of belonging -- of feeling at home in one place, out of place in another. Such self-interpretation and affiliation frequently incorporates multiple locales, ranging in scale from rooms and dwelling places to neighborhoods, communities, and even regions. (Lee Cuba & David Hummon, "Constructing a Sense of Home: Place Affiliation and Migration across the Life Cycle," Sociological Forum, vol. 8, no. 4 (Dec, 1993), pg. 549)

Phenomenologically, or subjectively, home becomes a sacred place. A place infused with 'insidedness' wherein the rest of the world feels 'outside' or physically, spatially, and temporally foreign. When immigrants move away from their homelands, they find a need to recreate the inside within the new outside -- to remake that sense of belonging. Sometimes, they create neighborhood spaces within cities, congregating together with other expatriates in Chinatown or Little Italy. Other times, they recreate home through words, through narratives and stories of 'back home' that become "the means by which we gradually impart meaning to the events of our lives." (Maxine Greene, "Multiculturalism, Community, and the Arts," in Anne Dyson & Celia Genishi (eds.), The Need for Story (Urbana: NCTE, 1994), pg. 14) By speaking enough, the words become strata, strong enough to hold us, to secure us comfortably, to protect us 'at home' regardless of where we may physically be.

Each and every time I have left home and been away for an extended time, I have found myself thinking more about home than I ever did when I was there. The connections feel more tenuous. The distance seems impossibly immeasurable, even though it has just been crossed physically. The phone calls are full of the weight of distance, expanding rather than reducing space. The voices of those from home come through disembodied and all feels ungrounded. This is the experience of exile, an experience that perhaps situates home most firmly. For someone like Doris Lessing, "the concept of 'home' is always bound up with its other, exile." (Susan Watkins, "Remembering Home: Nation and Identity in the Recent Writings of Doris Lessing," Feminist Review, no. 85, Political Hystories (2007), pg. 101) Often this concept of home, in its remembrance, situates itself around the kitchen table. Memories cloud, eyes weepy from chopping onions, the smell of pie baking or turkey roasting, the floral perfume of musty aunts wafting across the visions of what feels most home-like.

Home comforts, and homelessness aches "like a bruise on one's heart... a cursed country one has climbed out of and left behind for ever, but visible, not hidden..." (Doris Lessing, African Laughter (London: Flamingo, 1993), pg. 305) Do memories of home enhance the 'truth' of its insidedness, of our belonging? Or do they, rather, create new fictions in which we reside and find a place only through this new story, our bruises self-inflicted?

Our primary home is our body. Perhaps that is why we are bruised at the pain of exile. Home literally is where the heart is. For Goethe's Werther, it is just such heartbreak that destroys the possibility of him ever being home again. His unrequited love for Lotte, the impossibility of their relationship, and yet his forever devotion to his beloved -- all leave him only with emptiness at her absence. In a letter to his friend Wilhelm, he writes: "I have so much in me, and the feeling of her absorbs it all; I have so much, and without her it all comes to nothing." (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), pg. 113)

Homesickness and heartbreak exist inside of him as "the source of all my misery is hidden in myself, as was formerly the source of all my happiness. Am I not the same who not long ago was intoxicated by the abundance of his emotions, and who stepped into a paradise wherever he went, with a heart ready longingly to embrace the whole world? And now this heart is dead, and thrills of delight radiate from it no longer; my eyes are dry, and my feelings, no longer refreshed by the relief of tears, contract my brow into anxious furrows. I suffer terribly because I have lost what was the one delight of my life -- the holy, animating power that helped me to create worlds around me..." (114) Without his true love, deprived of his soulmate, he cries out in pain until he can produce no more tears... until he can feel no more. The locus of his most heartfelt feelings being gone, Werther cannot find his home... and ultimately, heartsick and homeless, cannot find a reason to live. In final desperation, he calls out to her... but only through another letter to Wilhelm in which his voice and love for Lotte will remain unheard by the necessary recipient: "Lotte! Lotte! -- And this is the end! My mind is in a daze; for a week I have not been able to concentrate, my eyes are full of tears. I feel nowhere at home... I have no wish; I make no demand. It would be better for me to leave." (Goethe, 135)

Home requires a coming or a going. It is fitting that in his inability to express the ineffable, that in the impossibility of ever finding the right words to say how much he loves Lotte, Werther speaks through others -- Wilhelm, the silent echoes of the woods, and Ossian's poetry. In his "Songs of Selma," the night star is called forth, like a light, like a lover, like a home:
Star of descending night! fair is they light in the west! thou that liftest thy unshorn head from they cloud: thy steps are stately on they hill. What dost thou behold in the plain?
Home descends upon us with its light. It provides the steps at the end of the journey. It can see beyond where we are, outwards towards the plain. In the same poem, another forlorn lover, Colma screams out into the night:
It is night, I am alone, forlorn on the hill of storms. The wind is heard on the mountain. The torrent pours down the rock. No hut receives me from the rain; forlorn on the hill of winds!
Love-lost, there is no lighted window. There is no shelter from the storm. There is no place of belonging. Perhaps home is love. Perhaps exile is separation from the ones whom we love most dearly.

When we yearn, do we yearn backwards? When we think of home, we look over our shoulder... behind us... for something missing, for something that seems to have once existed in our past. Home is as temporal as it is physical. In his lyric novel, Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner's Lyman Ward explains this sense of home scientifically, as his engineer son might. This phrase, angle of repose is not just technical to him, and he recognizes how his grandmother was "alert to the figurative possibilities of words [and could thereby]... see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest. As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don't mean the rigid angle at which I rest in this chair... Was the quiet I always found in you really repose?" (Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (New York: Penguin, 1971), pg. 24)

And Lyman finds another apt analogy with the physical laws of the universe as they apply to human affairs in the Doppler Effect:
The sound of anything coming at you -- a train, say, or the future -- has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. It you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates... You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished. (Stegner, 25)
In his own search for home, in his attempts to understand himself and his own life in a broader context, Lyman must understand the difference in the disturbances produced by a single drop in the pond... the differences between what he sees and any other observer sees... the upward shift in frequency as the disturbance approaches... and the apparent downward shift (or descending pitch) as it recedes... as home approaches and recedes... and amidst all of this movement, where can one find that angle of repose?
"Another day in this carnival of souls
Another night's sands end as quickly as it goes
The memories are shadows, ink on the page
And I can't seem to find my way home" ("Far From Home," Five Finger Death Punch)
So how can we find our way home? When home has receded into the depths of shadowy memory, when it resides in the misunderstood distance between those we love and never really knew, when it is lost somewhere in the heart of a lover whom we can never reach again? And the road home never seems straight:
But ere the circle homeward lies
Far, far must it remove (A. E. Housman)
...and further away we are led as we journey in an endless circularity. We so yearn to be back home again. It is an ancient and forever longing. Odysseus suffered war and loss and temptation for twenty years in his attempt to return home. And so may the rest of us search and journey. May we be so brave. May we seek and seek and maybe understand. May we create and recreate the meaning, the protectiveness, the warmth and soulful settling that home provides. The road may be 'meandering' and 'manifestly inconclusive' as the poet Scott Cairns suggests... but let us wander that road... until we find our way home. And let us not wind up there alone.

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