“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some area of native land where it may get the love of tender kinship from the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge.
The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”
— George Eliot
About a month ago I found myself motoring along the 101, heading south, three-hundred miles from home, but a world away. It was my first journey to the Central Coast in nearly a decade – a period that wrought tremendous change in both physical and existential terms to home and self alike. But here, aside from the companion sharing this journey with me, everything was the same as I remembered it.
Here, the sky is the size of forever – argent masses of cloud standing in stark contrast against the brilliant blue canvas stretching across the horizon, only broken by twin ranges of tawny hills mantled in gnarled oak trees and a trackless green carpet lying on the valley floor between. Here, the breeze is bracing and delicious, infused with the unmistakable chill and invigoratingly briny sensation owing to the ocean lying just over the hill. Here, a crumpled adobe campanario, its whitewash long weathered away, clings desperately to its crowned, iron bells, defying the march of decades with a stubborn resolve that is startlingly human in its desperation. Here, the landscape changes but slowly, with a fateful sense of purpose and a poetry of expression.
I was three-hundred miles from home, and a world away, but in a very real way it felt more like home than home itself.
A week later I found myself motoring along the 101 once more, this time heading north, a mere thirty miles from home, but a world away. This time it was for a mere evening’s dinner in Newport with an older couple from the midwest and their charming daughter.
Here, the sky, the surf, and indeed the highway itself was obscured by a damp, grey shroud, the headlamps of vehicles trummeling toward me igniting the tiny beads of water collecting on my windscreen in sparkling array. Here, coastal towns strung like as many pearls upon a necklace – San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach – disappear into a foggy mantle, their lights growing dim and faint, as if disappearing into a distant horizon. Here, out of the darkness, the ponderous roar of surf breaking upon stone and sand chants incessantly, forever consuming the edge of the continent. Here, the landscape changes quickly, but retains a sense of dynamic permanence and communion with what came before.
I was thirty miles from home, and a world away, but in a very real way it felt more like home than home itself.
Two moments separated by seven days and nearly three-hundred miles, at once divergent and yet nevertheless unified in essence and purpose. Both are moments of communion with the landscape, the sea, and a place on the edge of that sea. Both are moments of anticipation providing a hopeful glimpse toward the ultimate fulfillment of life’s purpose – realizing the pursuit of happiness, meaningful companionship, and opening the door toward a bright, substantive and purposeful future. Both are windows into a state that transcends time – a unification of past, present and future bringing together that which is permanent with that which is fleeting, and that which is intangible with that which is material, and that which is individual with that which is relational, fashioning a single tableau of being.
At their basest essence, both are a piecemeal manifestation of what it truly means to go home.
A house is not a home. Any spiritually bankrupt wraith can succeed at building a house, given enough cash, patience, and perseverance. Nor is a community, whether of two or of two thousand, a home. Any motley assemblage of selfish individuals can fashion a consortium in which to exist and derive interpersonal contact, however unfulfilling it might be. Just look at the modern American left. Even a family is not sufficient. Indeed, even where affection was once present, so many of them fall apart, never to be reforged, and where the bond between father and mother is broken, their children are left only partially developed – adrift, merely surviving rather than thriving; selfish and petty, incapable of introspection and growth, though it is not their fault that they are this way. The human or the material is not enough to make a home.
What, then, is home? And where does one find it?
I wish I had a general answer. I am not a philosopher, and the true answer to that lies with someone much wiser than me. Indeed, over the past year I have felt as though I have lost home, found it, lost it again, and then found it even more intensely, even more fervently than before. If the past is any indicator (and it most certainly is, as the adage about learning from the past is complete and utter nonsense – if you take a long range view you find that the past is eerily reminiscent of the present in any and all times), it will probably be eroded, if not completely lost, yet again. Perhaps I’m doing something wrong. Or looking for home in the wrong places or people, or with the wrong expectations.
But I think I have learned a little, and as I have learned from years of experience it was by forcing myself to have the humility and self-awareness to open myself to lessons derived from those wiser than myself, and to open myself to something larger. Or, more accurately, to look beyond one’s own conscious awareness, and escape the confines of the ersatz that most readily defines the contemporary world and the parallel, self-reinforcing echo chambers of media, education, internet, and the culture that create it.
On a warm California December evening I found myself lost in what started off as a casual “getting to know you” conversation at a boardwalk restaurant in Dana Point. Soon, my companion and I entered a rabbit hole neither of us expected. She expressed that she gets upset when older people assume much about the younger generations, or that her membership in it means she necessarily adopts its predominantly hedonistic, milquetoastly spiritual, and generally selfish and liberal traits – in effect, expressing an impatience for compartmentalization as part of a group rather than being accepted as an individual. It is a sentiment that is both exceptionally attractive and one that I am familiar with as well. But I felt compelled to express a similar observation about ourselves – that it is similarly inappropriate when we, the present generations, betray our arrogance and impose judgment on the past or, worse, remove ourselves from our relationship with it, maintaining only those shallow, aesthetic, material elements we consider “cool.” That we assume learning from the past means dwelling on its failures – genocides, riots, race conflicts, fictional class or identity struggles that serve to blame one’s own failings on a “system” rather than on oneself – rather than reflecting upon and trying to reinforce or reintroduce its successes as well. When we detach ourselves from the labours of our forebears, and the kinship we share with those forebears, in this place we call home, we are not only being unfair to them, but we are depriving our own spirits and souls of the fruit of a great legacy.
What does this have to do with home? The twin experiences I described at the beginning of this essay might shed some light on the relationship. Home is effervescent, appearing and disappearing and reappearing, always changing on the one hand yet constantly the same on the other – where it matters. Home then necessarily includes a communion between the past (both my own conscious past and that which occurred before my conception, reaching even unto the centuries prior) and the present (whether interpersonal, intrapersonal, natural, built, communal or individual). Divorcing oneself from any of these leaves one as only partly a person – the communion with the entire human family one draws from history is cut off – personal, familial, municipal, national, or global histories alike. Humanity is not only that which is present here-and-now, or that which is. It also includes that which was. And that which was deserves respect as surely as that which is.
Father Dennis Clark, at the age of 72, expressed in a sermon that, at the end of the day, we are truly one big family. Past, present and future beings alike – we are all in this together, part of a singular communion. Truly accepting that has tremendous repercussions. We can choose to look after ourselves – to elevate ourselves above others and not own our mistakes, and in fact blame them on someone else; to feel “smart” and “enlightened,” “liberated” and “independent.” It might help us feel as if we are in control, strong and independent. But if we do that, we are lying to ourselves. We’re born, we live, we pass away. The generation that follows us will also look back and consider itself superior – such is the nature of the human spirit. The one after that will feel the same way. But all of us will be wrong. Age will beget wisdom that no teacher could impart.
Love of wisdom is the key to happiness. And wisdom is something our present generation refuses to accept or honor.
It is finding humility to look beyond oneself – both in the tangible, sensed present and the interior self – that one opens oneself to finding home.
Humility – the virtue most absent in an age of social networks and the lionization of celebrity – is the key that opens the door to finding home.
George Eliot – the pen name of English novelist Mary Ann Evans – appreciated the importance of permanence and wisdom in a way unique among her fellow female Victorian authors of English literature, capable of providing profound psychological insight to a degree her fellow female novelists failed to reach. Her life, like many of our own, was a continual search for home.
Whether she found it or not in the end, her words, which opened this reflection, point us in one direction, and it seems to be the right one. To look beyond ourselves, never lose sight of the place from whence we come – both of these are a challenge, as our perception invites us to confirm those fictions we most readily seek to transform into Truth. But Truth is Truth. Humility, curiosity, and a sense of selfless commitment – these are the ingredients that lead one home. Both in this world and the next.
Aegroto dum anima est, spes est.