“Goethe once wrote that all writers are homesick, that all writers are really searching for home. Being a writer is being on a constant search for where you belong.” It “comes out of a place of memory, not geography.” — Mary Morris, “Looking for Home”
I’ve been living in that ill-defined “neutral” zone of transition for several months now, triggered by entering the life of so-called “retirement” with my husband. Long before his official retirement date last fall, I often talked or wrote about my lack of connection with San Diego and Southern California, the place we’ve lived for the past ten years, and my desire to return to Canada. I admit that the politics that have dominated this country for the past several years has fueled my restlessness, not as intensely as the political upheaval of the sixties, when my first husband and I embarked on a self-imposed exile to Canada, in protest of the Vietnam war that mobilized so many in my generation. We were young and idealistic, never imagining how our sense of home would be altered and our lives changed, but twenty-three years later I returned like a homing pigeon flying west, back to California, my birthplace and where I’d lived throughout my childhood. What I discovered, like so many emigrants before me, was that “home” no longer existed in the ways I had imagined it. It—and I—had changed, and the very things that drew me back to this country and the West seemed elusive. Despite living in California again for three decades, I’ve never regained that sense of belonging and place, the essence of what we call “home.”
My imagination was shaped by the exotic nature of water in a dry southern California valley; by the sound of wind in the crowns of eucalyptus trees; by the tactile sensation of sheened earth, turned in furrows by a gang plow; by banks of saffron, mahogany and scarlet cloud piled above a field of alfalfa at dusk; by encountering the musk from orange blossoms at the edge of an orchard; by the aftermath of a Pacific storm crashing a hot, flat beach…
I became intimate with the elements of that particular universe. They fashioned me. I return to them regularly in essays and stories in order to clarify or explain abstractions or to strike contrasts. I find the myriad relationships in that universe comforting. They form a “coherence” of which I once was a part.–(Barry Lopez, “A Literature of Place,” Portland Magazine, Summer 1997)
For all the years I lived in Canada, I clung tenaciously to a golden dream of California, the one harbored in my imagination; I didn’t notice how Canada had quietly wrapped itself around my heart. The people, culture, and experiences of the twenty-three years I lived there had defined me in ways that made Canada a part of me just as California had been for the first twenty-three years of my life. I just hadn’t realized how much until I’d left it.
As we wrestle with a new set of life decisions foisted on us by retirement, I wonder if I can find the sense of belonging and place I long to reclaim. Thomas Wolfe’s words echo in my mind. “You can’t go home again.” I know too well the truth of his words, experienced in our return to California so many years ago. Even if you’ve never left a familiar place, the events of your life sometimes make you feel as if you no longer “at home” as you once were. Cancer can have that effect, so can job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, or other unexpected and difficult life events. It’s as if you cross an invisible boundary into some new territory where what you took for granted no longer exists. Not only have you changed, but so has the place; even people you once knew and loved may have changed too. You begin the necessary work of relearning how to navigate much of what was once familiar. Or, perhaps you, like me, cling to a dream of “home” but perhaps the dream prevents you from “being” at home the place you live.
The idea of “home,” of losing it and never finding it again, has dominated my thoughts and writing for decades. Now I wonder if “home” is forever relegated to my memory or if I can rediscover a sense of place and belonging somewhere else. But recently, I’ve been challenging myself with another, more sobering thought: is home about a place or the way I interact with it?
You want to get a good look at yourself. You stand before a mirror, you take off your jacket, unbutton your shirt, open your belt, unzip your fly. The outer clothing falls from you. You take off your shoes and socks, baring your feet. You remove your underwear. At a loss, you examine the mirror. There you are, you are not there.–(Mark Strand, “In the Privacy of the Home,” In: Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, 2003)
“There you are, you are not there.” That’s how I feel sometimes. I’m here. I go through the motions. Yet, I’m not here in the sense that being “at home” in a place demands. Our questions, the pros and cons of staying here or going somewhere else, seem to elude resolution. Despite Rilke’s advice to the young poet, I have not yet lived my questions to discover the answers, rather, they pummel my mind daily. Yet it has occurred to me that it’s possible that I haven’t found “home” here in Southern California because my eyes have been focused on the northern horizon since I first arrived. I definitely have one foot here in good friends and work I love, but my other foot constantly twitches, ready to jump ship at a moment’s notice. When my defenses are down, I sometimes wonder if I might be looking for home in the wrong places. I pause briefly from writing this post to glance again at the Lopez essay. That’s when I read these words:
The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place. If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy. Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.
Perhaps I have stumbled, quite unexpectedly, upon an answer to the question that has consumed me: “the key…is to become vulnerable to a place…” I have more to think about.
Write about home: what makes a place a home or having it or losing it. Use Thomas Wolfe’s “You can’t go home again,” as a prompt for an essay or poem. Think of how a place shaped you—and your imagination. Describe it. Or explore the idea of “home is where the heart is” and see where your thoughts take you. Have you ever lost a home but rediscovered it somewhere else? Write about the experience.