I’m thinking about ‘home’: what home is, what it’s for, what comprises it. Whether it’s a place or a kind of being.
Do we go there?
Do we bring it with us?
In a loosened, untethered world, it strikes me that a sense of home is essential. But I have to define it to be able to build it.
The curtains are open. Beads of water slither down the window, a kind of slow-motion race: the one who gets to the bottom first wins!
There are lots of competing beads, but most are stuck, sullen, unmoving. Only a few keep sliding, keep searching for the sill.
The dog pants on the old brown lounge chair in the family room; the rainy, changing weather, maybe, has unsettled her. Or she is feeling the pain, or the confusion, of extreme old age. We know that she is at least 14 human years old; in dog years, the vet says, she is more like 98. And, because we are not sure how old she was when she came to us, she could easily be older—she could be, say, 104.
She wakes us almost every night now, panting and sighing and pacing. She comes to draw us downstairs, to confess: she has piddled on the carpet in the family room again. In all the many years the fastidious little dog’s been with us, this has happened, maybe, twice, and only when she’d been left alone for far too long a stretch. Now it occurs more than once a week.
About a month ago, I took her to the vet; he examined her kindly, probed gently, and found nothing specific. Just old age and its probable aches and pains and growing haziness. He changed a prescription, hoping something stronger for her arthritis might help her settle down.
“Take her home,” said the vet, “and see if this helps.”
But things are growing worse. She is home, but home doesn’t seem to be a place of refuge and healing and comfort any more.
Concoctions simmer on the stove. The sauce pot holds big chunks of beef and pork; they bob gently in a brew made of herbs and tomatoes, red wine and chicken broth. Onions and carrots and celery soften, weaving in their flavors. This will simmer for the whole afternoon, until the meat is almost fork tender, until it can be taken from the rich juices and sliced thin and returned to soak up even more of the robust tastes. This, for me, is a new recipe; this is called Italian pot roast.
The little pot has smaller, bite-sized bits of beef and pork simmering in a broth-based sauce. This is for Jim, who doesn’t do veggies.
In an hour or so, I will fill the battered old pasta pot with water, add a dash of olive oil and a good shake of salt, and I will put it on to heat. Mark and Jim will come back from a weekend trip to Westerville, where they browsed through the library and hit the Half Price Books store: a bookish adventure for a rainy April afternoon. They will bring a loaf of crusty bread home with them. We will cook up some noodles, lay them down, hot and buttered and glossy, as a base, and scoop up the rich meat sauces to cover them. We will eat a hearty meal on a bleak and rainy day.
Home is a place for succor and nourishment, a place to share the tales of the day, to offer up treasures found, and to join around a common table.
I wasn’t home for most of the week just past; I was training, in Columbus, to certify to teach a Mental Health First Aid class. Ha, I thought, when I was planning. I can get so much DONE in a hotel room, by myself, every quiet night for four nights. I packed my laptop, so I could grade essays. I copied off a thick grant application packet to review. And I put six books into a canvas bag, imagining a comfy bed; picturing me, snuggling under a white duvet so soft it floats, a lamp burning: the uninterrupted chance to read.
Of course, reality happened. The training was textured and intense and, some days, exhausting. We took, first, the course we were training to teach. And then we trained to teach it, each of us assigned a thirty-minute segment to address. We would present and receive feedback from our peers. We would meet, one-on-one, with a facilitator and talk about, as one of our teachers said, things that glowed and room to grow. We would listen to our classmates carefully, kindly, offering up the strengths we saw, and sharing some opportunities to enhance.
There was an open-book test to complete in the after-hours, a thinking-discovery trek that made us find material in every nook of the participant’s manual.
So the days were jammed with learning, with discussion, with new ideas to tumble around and consider; at 5:00 each day, we felt a little drained. My colleague Becky and I walked back to the hotel, debriefing. Most nights we met for salad and planning. On Wednesday, Mark and Jim drove in, and we went for a family dinner at a softly polished, wood-gleaming, Irish pub.
I never turned the TV on. I pushed myself to grade at least two essays a night, but my mind went slogging through a molasses swamp. The grading didn’t come easy. Afterward, I crawled into bed with a book and fell instantly asleep.
I opted for the green clean solution at the hotel—I didn’t have the cleaning staff in, and each morning, someone slid a $5.00 coupon toward my dinner salad under my door. I smoothed out my own bed, hung my towels neatly to dry, stopped at the desk each afternoon and picked up my daily two pods of Starbucks decaf for the little coffee maker. I arranged my lotions and potions on the bathroom countertop, and no one moved them to clean around. It was nice to know my room was private, unvisited while I was out and about; it was nice to come back—to come home?—to things left as I had put them.
The room was a solitary refuge, a place to rest and think and recharge for the time when the day would begin again.
It was, for five blurry, action-filled days, a sort of home—a home base, at least, a place where I had all the things (if not all the people) that I needed for my everyday life to work.
Yes: I have been thinking about home lately,–about how to define it and how to create it and how much of it is physical. Home seems to me a much-needed thing in our jangling, disjointed age. It occurs to me that everyone needs a sense of home, a place where we can safely become the persons that we know ourselves to be.
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Robert Frost wrote in “The Death of the Hired Man,” (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Death_of_the_Hired_Man) and I’ve heard that quoted time and again. But I don’t like that definition—that sense of grudging admission, of unwilling support. “You left,” it seems to say, that quote; “you left, and now you’re back and there’s nothing we can do but open the door and tell you to enter. But we’re not happy. Not happy at all.”
There’s a sense there that home is someplace created by others, tailored to others’ definitions and dreams. No wonder, if that’s true, that the wanderer had to leave.
I’m thinking that home is a destination, a long quest, a place that we practice making all our lives. “What do I need to be happy?” we ask ourselves, and the answer may well be something light and frivolous and fun when we are, say, 22.
And that is not a bad thing. So our homes may be built, in our twenties, around space to entertain, around expensive methods of piping music into every room, even when the chairs don’t match and there’s just a worn, too-small carpet to protect the aging wooden floors. Maybe there is romance, too—candles in the bedroom, wine in the cupboard, two special goblets, a set of satin sheets. Splurges in days when grocery shopping requires careful thought, when sometimes the rent and the utilities battle to see which will be the winner, which ones will be paid.
We don’t think, then, that the homes we create will be places where we absorb hard lessons—where we disappoint ourselves, where we reel from the betrayal of trusted others, where we huddle, terribly alone, where the tears that fall bring bitter revelations. Home, we realize, is not always a place we are happy, but it should always feel safe. We take our hard-earned wisdom; we weave it in and grow.
And often our homes have to open up, to house others besides ourselves, so our vision becomes a shared one. How does this partner see home? What do these children need? Where, in fact, should the dog dish reside, or the kitty litter pan hide? How can I share this space and still honor my need for home?
The quest, I think, stretches and defines us, teaches nurture of others, and demands, finally, nurture of self.
Because we need to know ourselves to make ourselves a home, to realize what we can and cannot live without, what makes us secure, what rituals are essential and which practices can go. We find that out, over and over, deeper and deeper, as we grow more firmly toward ourselves.
And a big, big house with lots of room may be the goal at one point, and then, we discover that, at this sudden point of awareness, a smaller space is perfect.
We no longer crave a sprawling sectional; two chairs, broken in and ripe for reading, are what our space needs now. Home may once have been a launch pad, a place from which we started adventures. It may now have become the constant spot, the thinking place, a place so essential that leaving is an unexciting anomaly.
Home could be both those places, all at once.
Home may become a place where sad things happen, where illness unfolds, where companions leave us, where we learn those secrets we hoped never to have to know.
And yet home needs to be a place where joy’s potential always simmers.
We carry our sense of self and home within us; our goal is to actuate and refine those visions. But we need real, physical space, too; we need warmth and cover and freedom from chaos; we need the knowledge that there is food and a sleeping spot and clean clothes enough for tomorrow. We need a place to staunch our actual, physical needs.
And then we need a place to keep our treasures—the books of photographs we page through on soft-snowing winter nights, remembering. The packet of letters tied with a ribbon; reading them always makes us cry. The framed photos of dearly missed loved ones. The care-worn teddy bear that once was a constant companion. The only chair that feels just right. The stack of books that needs to be there, always, for the thumbing.
We live in a land of empty, staring buildings; we live in a land where, SocialSolutions.com tells me, there were 564,708 people living without homes in 2016. Can one, I wonder, have a sense of self without a consistent sense of home? And is that what the tearing diseases do—certain kinds of mental illness, the diseases of addiction? Do they rip us away from a sense of a safe and permanent home?
Some people, I think, have safe and wonderful spaces and yet they are physically adrift; some people have minimal living quarters, and yet they are vibrantly at home.
What, exactly, IS home? I think I need to figure that out. I think I need to learn more, to understand it better. And I think, in a troubled and uncertain time, in a culture where violence roars through the most innocent of places, that feeling the sense and the structure of a home is something no one can be without for long.