A Brief Thought About Home
From Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful book, Home:
And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it. A hot white sky and a soft wind, a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas. There were acorns in the road, some of them broken by passing cars. Chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. Yellowing squash vines swamped the vegetable gardens and tomato plants hung from their stakes, depleted with bearing. Another summer in Gilead. Gilead, dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence. How could anyone want to live here? That was the question they asked one another, out of their father’s hearing, when they came back from college, or from the world. Why would anyone stay here?
In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.
She had to speak to neighbors in their gardens, to acquaintances she met on the sidewalk. Strangers in some vast, cold city might notice the grief in her eyes, even remember it for an hour or two as they would a painting or a photograph, but they would not violate her anonymity. But these good souls would worry about her, mention her, and speculate to one another about her. Dear God, she saw concern in their eyes, regret. Poor Glory, her life has not gone well. Such a nice girl, and bright. Very bright.
That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling and purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.
The idea of home has been on my mind lately. I’ve suddenly and acutely become aware of the fact that I have no blood relatives within an 800 mile radius, and that the various “homes” I’ve had over the years are so widely disparate in spirit and geography that my head spins whenever I take nostalgic stock of them.
The “home” that looms largest in my heart right now is Shawnee, Kansas, where my closest family members reside and where I lived for five years. It’s a place of hills and wheat fields and thunderstorms, where the same old willows sweep the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arises and blooms as negligence permits.
In the book Home, Glory Boughton returns home to care for her dying father. As the passage above indicates, she finds it to be a welcoming, comfortable place, full of memory and nostalgia but also regret for a life she didn’t have. She wallows in its beauty and sweetness but also its awkwardness and tension. Home is always a mix of the best and worst parts of ourselves: Our attraction to stability on one hand and our intractable penchant for dissatisfaction on the other. It’s a sublime site of unsettledness. Like most everything else in life, the portrait of home in our memories and desires frequently and curiously eclipses the reality.
But there’s still nothing better than going home.