How we can come home again
"Home," Robert Frost noted famously in "The Death of the Hired Man," "Is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in." An unreliable vagrant worker, who still cuts a sympathetic figure, returns to a place where he had been shown grace and compassion to die. With nowhere else to turn, he goes to the house where he knows he will not be turned away, and thus comes home. In this poignant poem, Frost illustrates that a home does not need to exist as one’s primary residence, a particular set of coordinates indicating longitude and latitude, or even as the matrix of direct biological kin. Home is the place that allows one to discover a deeper humanity in the interpenetration of one’s life with the lives of others.
Even the word "place" in this case is not limited to the idea of a point on a map. Speaking about place, Robert Farrar Capon says, "Location is accidental to its deepest meaning. What really matters is not where we are, but who—what real beings—are with us."
A "home" can be made anywhere.
Still, although a geo-specific location is not a necessary pre-condition for "home," it still matters. Consider the Hebrew Tabernacle and Temple. The Tabernacle was not a permanent structure and occupied no long-term territory. Still, it met all the necessary requirements for the presence of God (Shekinah) to dwell there (Exodus 40:34-35).
But the Tabernacle was not the ideal. The Most High was supposed to dwell in the Temple in the land God had promised the Israelites. The Tabernacle was a temporary provision until that was possible. Rootedness was the end goal. While accommodations were made for this nomadic period, it was not an excuse to forever put off creating a place, with a geographic location, for God to dwell.
While the coming of Christ allowed for a transcendence of Temple worship and its ties to a specific geographic location, it did not nullify the significance of particularity in worship. The Word took on flesh at a particular time in history, in a particular place in the world, coming to a particular people. Jesus came not as an illusory projection of ethereal truth but as a particular manifestation of the Word through which we can experience truth.
While God does not need a particular place to be worshipped, it is only in a particular place that we ever worship God.
While a "home" does not need any particular place to be experienced, it is only through a particular place that we experience home.
Home and Mobility
What is tragic about our culture’s understanding of "home" is that what was intended to be provisional has become normative, and is even held up as an ideal. While it is possible to pack up our home and move it to a new location, as the Israelites moved the Tabernacle, that doesn’t mean we always should.
We often refer to those who have achieved success in our culture as the "upwardly mobile" and, in some cases, even the "downwardly mobile." In either case the operative word is "mobile." The level of success has become equivalent to the amount of freedom one has achieved from restraint.
The path of the "mobile" person today might start with growing up in one to three rural or suburban areas. College would be in a new city or college town. Career opportunities would likely center around major urban areas throughout the twenties and into the mid-thirties. If making a family was in the cards, the next step would be moving out of the urban area and into a suburb for a good school district. Unless a different career opportunity called, roots might settle for a few decades. Years after child-rearing, responsibilities would include the flexibility to spend seasonal times in kinder climates, with a possible retirement in the gentlest climates of all.
I begrudge no one their enthusiasm to embrace a certain level of mobility in their lives. There can be many good reasons to move. I was raised in New Hampshire, attended college in Chicago, and spent my early years in the work force in Washington D.C., and I recognize the blessings and opportunities that have come to me in these places.
My experience moving from place to place has caused me to question the value of this gift of mobility, however, and to wonder if its value to my life may be less than I initially thought.
Home and Identity
Our identity is constructed not only by our past and our present, but also by our future possibilities. When we live knowing that we might be moving again any year and leaving our houses and apartments, neighborhoods and neighbors, places of worship and communities, local businesses and professional relationships, we are different.
By committing to a place, we are different in that place. To call a place "home" is not just a statement about something outside of ourselves but who we are. We are defining a discrete set of relationships as maintaining a certain level of privileged influence in our lives.
But physical location matters. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abrams details tribes in the Southwest of the United States and Australia whose traditions have tied moral teaching to place. Morality tales in these cultures always begin by referencing a particular geographic feature of the landscape of their home. The children learn those tales by repeating them when they pass that place, and they transmit them to the next generations in the same way. Other tribes in South America, he notes, have language directly influenced by unique bird songs particular to their area. This uniquely developed language creates a connection between the community and their surroundings that is not universally exportable.
Those who have left a home, only to return again years later, are well aware of the strength of memories that a particular place can evoke. It is able to tie one to the positive traditions and lessons learned in the past.
This past November, I was back at my family’s farm in New Hampshire for Thanksgiving and was building a "sugar shack" with my brother to house our evaporator to make maple syrup. It had been nearly twelve years since this farm had been my private residence, but over the past five years I had become increasingly aware that it had never really stopped being my home.
It was during a particularly frustrating moment of trying to cut solid steel rebar without the right saw blade and make 150-year-old salvaged beams fit together (a nearly impossible task), that I thought about what I was doing. I was standing on property that had been in the family for over 250 years. I was using wood from a building that had stood for over a century and been torn down, and was now being repurposed to house our small maple syrup operation. In a few short months, we would be collecting sap from a stand of maples that my uncle had spent decades clearing of competitors to ensure that they could produce the maximum amount of sap.
Through this lens, the twenty extra minutes it took to cut the rebar, and that project of putting up the sugar shack that took three times longer than we anticipated, were experiences transformed. I am a part of an inherited legacy of place stretching back to the end of the French and Indian War, with all the blessings and responsibilities that legacy incurs. Now my brother and I are putting up a structure that will be used for years (DEFINITELY not a century) to come. Our choices of which trees to keep and which to cut will have impacts for generations to come.
Two weeks later, I put in my notice at my job in Washington, D.C. Two months later, I came back home, and they had to take me in.
Developing native knowledge of a hill, tree, or stream over decades requires a special kind of patience, watchfulness and commitment. Our relationships with these things join with our memories and change us over time. No Wikipedia entry will ever rival the sort of knowledge gained by generations of farmers who observe a plot of land resting between their stone walls.
In the equations we all must figure as we make our lives and tell our stories, there very well might be good reasons to change our locations. But our movement changes us, and we shouldn’t keep on making those changes without asking how and why we are being changed.
It just might be that the most world-changing decision we could make is to return home, stay home, or spend our lives transforming into homes the places where we find ourselves.
Image above from Flickr user dbnunley via Flickr Creative Commons license.
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