That little alien creature in the film, “E. T.,” brought millions to tears as he gazed up to the distant planets plaintively crying, “Home, home.” “Home” is one of those most evocative words in our language which, when we hear it, summons a surge of sounds, and sights, and smells, voices, places and feelings. Poets have mined the word as productively — with quantity if not always with quality — as they have other words such as “love” and “mother.”
The poet, Whittier, wrote in “Snowbound,”
What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth fire’s ruddy glow.”
And here, in this poem by Sidney Rosy Lysaght, are all those promises of protection, of holding and harboring, that “Home” conjures,
Amid the boundless and unknown,
Each calls some guarded spot his own;
A shelter from the vast we win
In homely hearths, and make therein
The glow of light, the sound of mirth,
That bind all children of the earth
In brotherhood; and when the rain
Beats loud upon the window-pane
And shadows of the firelight fall
Across the floor and on the wall,
And all without is wild and lone
On lands and seas and worlds unknown,
We know that countless hearthlights burn
In darkened places, and discern,
Inwoven with the troubled plan
Of worlds and ways unknown to man,
The shelter at the heart of life,
The refuge beyond doubt and strife,
The rest for every soul outcast,
The homely hidden in the vast;
And doubt not that whatever fate
May lie beyond us, soon or late,
However far afield we roam,
The unknown way will lead us home.
Dorothy, lost in the mad surreal world of Oz shuts her eyes tight and chants “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” The moral of Dorothy’s adventure is clear. Oz is no place for us — consorting with witches, munchkins, and wizards, tin men, scarecrows, and lions. We belong in some state of Kansas-ness, in a place called home. Yet our spirits are forever wandering off ahead of us, scouting out some place we might come to greener, glossier, bigger (or smaller) than where we are.
Home used to be where our parents lived. Then it was where our grandparents lived. And now — where is it, where was it, where has it gone? Brad Edmundson writes,
We are the people who are always talking about finding a place we can truly call home and at the same time dreaming of visiting Tibet or living in Paris. “We’re junkies for international news, yet we’ll happily spend more for something made by local business. We’re passionate about community issues, but forever thinking about moving away to get a better job, more money or some other abstraction. The state of being in one place and thinking about another is our natural habitat.
I?m often asked — as I?m sure you are asked — “Where is home for you?” It occurs to me that I no longer have a quick and easy answer. I?m no longer even sure what the question means. I know I’m not being asked where I live now. I’m being asked where I come from, where I belong, perhaps where my people are. “Where is home for you?” And I find I begin a list of where I have been; in this place and that, here for awhile, there for awhile. But that isn’t it. Those places were not home, not “HOME,” not that great good place there’s no place like.
And where then? And what? And — my current address not counting — if I were told to get my backpack, clean out my cubby and go home, where would I go? Occasionally, when talking about making a trip to Massachusetts, I will speak of going home. But I do so without emotion, without nostalgia (“nostalgia,” literally translated, means, “A sickness for the past”). My mother lives in Massachusetts and I suppose that, still to some extent, home might feel like where the parent lives. But, after the parent’s place, then what? Then there is no more reason for that place to be home than any other place where I have lived.
Where is home for you? They ask. Eventually, I might get around to saying that originally I came from England — because that must be it: the questioner must want to know or must at least be politely asking where I began — where I come from.
Some years ago, my wife and I spent a sabbatical in England. I wanted to see if I could rediscover myself there. I found the last house in which I lived with my parents. I was horrified to see that developers were in the process of taking out the insides of all the houses on “my” block to make condos suitable for the contemporary tasteless.
On the outside of that old Victorian row house, there had been a little balcony outside my parents bedroom. One day, shortly after the war had finally ended, my parents and I stood on that balcony to watch Good Queen Mary, Brave King George, and the young princesses drive by. They had come to thank our city for our war effort. I think he saw me. I think he waved at me.
But the little balcony was gone. They had stripped it off and had put in a “picture window.” It was gone. Home was gone. You can’t go home again, Wolfe wrote. “O Lost,” he wrote. “O Lost.”
What we have lost, some of us, to varying degrees, is our sense of where we belong, of who our people are. Of where and what “Home” is. We have become a nation of nomads and migrants, each generation stretching more thin the golden cord to home.
As someone has said, America’s “winners” are discovering that something is missing from their prize. What is missing is a sense of community, of belonging, of home. And so we are suckers for “Home Cookin’ Soup,” made in thousand gallon vats, pushovers for “home-baked pies” made in a five acre factory, chumps for anything hand-crafted, no matter how badly. We want to buy something — whatever it is — out of a time and a way of life that no longer has anything to do with us and perhaps never will. “Deep is the hunger,” Howard Thurman said. And deep is the yearning for home.
In ancient peoples, “home” was the place from which the world could be founded. It was assumed that the world was made of “real” and “unreal,” of form and chaos. “Home” was the real and formed place from which one could venture into the chaos to bring it into order, to make it like home. The old maps marked the safe and known places and, where they ended, were drawings of monsters and warnings like “Here there be dragons.” Explorers left the real and the familiar to venture near places of unworldly horrors, even to the edge where the world itself ended.
The great epics of journeys and adventures, like those of Ulysses, came from deep in the human psyche, came out of that ambivalence between desire to remain in the safety of the known home and to see what lies beyond the edge of the place we have cleared and ordered. “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Why then, O why, can’t I?”
For our forebears, home was the center of existence. It was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal line. The vertical line stretched from the underworld to the sky. The horizontal lines were all the possible roads and paths across the earth to other places. And so home was the place, on the vertical line, where one was closest to the gods and to one’s ancestors in the underworld. And there, at home, one was also at the starting place and, hopefully, the returning place, of all journeys. But where shall we of the new nomads, without even clan or tribe, find such a place as home from where we can bring order and meaning to the world?
My friend Les McGukin has a house once part of his farmer parents property, still within sight of the house he was born in and still in sight of all the other family houses on a country road called “McGukin Road.” Since the place is still there, Les can probably still conjure up that Kansasness, that Aunt Em quality of home and crackling hearth. But by far most of us are now proficient migrants, packing up our tents and moving on from time to time, saving the cardboard boxes for next time, assuming impermanence, forgetting, eventually, how to respond to the question “Where’s home for you?”
Our congregation is undoubtedly a microcosm of the culture in which we live and those of you who have been members here for as few as five years can probably look around and not know most of the people you see and not see most of the people you have known. Again, as Edmundson said, “The state of being in one place and thinking about another is our natural habitat.”
Where, then, shall we find a home?
Remember that old cliché?, “Home is where the heart is?” Well, I’m almost embarrassed that I’m going to come very, very close to saying that. But I know you expect more from me than that, so let me complicate it a little. Recall that ancient understanding that home is where the vertical line — the line from the underworld to the sky — intersects with all the horizontal lines, all the possible paths and roads to all the possible places. Where the lines intersect is home, the place from which we go forth to confront chaos, to bring order and meaning. Where lines intersect is the center — the center of all meaning, of all being. And the center is home.
And where is the center? For the native American people the center is everywhere. In the book Little Big Man, the Chief, “Old Lodge Skins,” says that the trouble with white people is that they don’t know where the center is. The reason the soldiers could slaughter women and children, he said, is that they are white and white people don’t know where the center is. The center, Old Lodge Skins said, the center is where God is and the Center is everywhere. The Center is in this sacred Kiva, yet it is also in that sacred Kiva. The center is in you. It is also in me. The center of the self and the center of the universe is the same center. Home, then, cliché or not, is indeed where the heart is. Heart being the symbolic center of our humanness. Home is wherever the heart, the center, the place of ordering and meaning-making is.
We live in a time of amateur and professional lamentation. Poets and essayists, songmakers and sermonizers, lament that which has been lost. Nostalgia is big business. Nostalgia is sickness for the past. We recognize that “home” as a particular place has faded into the background for us. Even if we can still picture Mom fussing with the squash and Dad carving the Turkey, most of us can’t fix the room in our minds. The script’s the same, but the set has gone. And we can just lament that, say or sing or write what a shame that is, then buy “Home Cookin’ soup and get our country-lookin’ clothes from L. L. Bean, even if they are made in Taiwan. Or we can accept the reality that our ways of living change and that what is needed is not mere lamentation but the recovery of the deep values and ways of being which were once housed in the places we called “home.”
Home, the known place, the secure place, was the place from which the explorers went forth to bring order to chaos and fragmentation. Home was the known place, from which the prophets and thinkers went forth to bring sense and meaning to the world.
Home was the center of everyone’s personal universe. And the center, the people said, is everywhere. Then surely home must be within us. The center is within us. The place from which we go forth to bring order, to seek newer worlds, and to bring meaning must be a place within ourselves. The houses which were once homes are now yellowing prints in crumbling scrapbooks carried now from place to place to show to uncomprehending toddlers. We are emigrants and nomads and we have moved on.
But we are not without a home when we have made of the heart, of the center of our being, a home within ourselves. In fact, it seems to me that the home we make of a place is essentially — is in its essence — is spiritually a reflection of the home we make within ourselves. No place can be that center from which we go forth in strength to bring order and meaning to the world unless it is a place that has been made sacred, and safe, and power-full by our own inner at-homeness.
This building, our space here, is inseparable from our sense of ourselves as a congregation. Religious places, sacred spaces, are made religious and sacred by what the people who inhabit them bring to them. And so it is with our “homes,” our living places. They are made setting out places and havens for return by the inner spirit of home we endow them with. The place we call home can now, I think, change from time to time with no damage to our spirit. Because the place we call home now is made home by all that is there that reflects our inner at-homeness.
A hotel room cannot be a home for me — no matter how much it is touted as being “homey,” because there is nothing of me in it. A place that is home has about its walls the pictures that are windows from and into my soul. It has the colors that enliven or soothe me. It has the books that nurture me. And it has all those collected treasures that I have brought home to keep me in touch with other places and other times. All this has meaning and power because it is an extension of my spirit.
The quest for home then, is as Joseph Campbell said; it is an inner quest. We may travel far and wide, to the sea, or to the plains in search of fortune or the wizard. But if, in our time, we are seeking that great, good place to call home, from which we can order our world and give it meaning, the path lies inward.
We will know we have arrived home when we know that we are safe where we are at the center, when we know, also, that we can go anywhere, bring that center to any place and make it home. It is said “You cannot go home again.” But remember what Dorothy learned in Oz, that “the Wizard never did give the tin man nothin’ he didn’t already have” and what she learned from the good witch, Glenda — that she could have gone home whenever she wanted to.