Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Home Is

            I’ve been meditating on the subject of home, what it is, what allows a place to grow into that designation. I’ve lived in quite a few places, for varying lengths of time. The places I’ve lived for five years or more number 5, and together count for all but about 10 of my 57 years. There are another 2 places I lived for two years or more. Another 3 where I lived six months to a year or so, and a few others where I spent a month or more. That’s quite a few addresses; lots of different places that served the purposes of home in one way or another. But really, when I think about it, only 4 of those places became home for me.
            I started out in Detroit and lived there my first five years or so. But I don’t think I would’ve considered it home if that was the end of it. Those were my formative years, sure, but in the early memories I call up, there’s hardly any sense of ‘place’ beyond the house I was born into, and those domiciles of relatives that were interchangeable with my own. But Detroit was home in my consciousness for a long, long time, and there was pride in that before I knew any other place. Because I was born there, and my mother was born there, because it’s the place my father adopted as home when he ran away from his birth place on the night of his high school graduation. And it’s the place I returned to for long stays, summer after summer during my teens, when my growth was marked in large part by the changes I saw in my cousins, and that uncles and aunts saw in me. And whatever other places have taken Detroit’s place as home, it is forever the place I’m from; it remains a part of me, and I part of it. And it’s the place my family roots begin.

           New York City was my next home, both in the sense that I spent the next chunk of my life there, and that it claimed me and I came to identify myself as a New Yorker. My individuality developed in those years. New York was the place I began to know myself, to make independent and life-changing choices, where I began to see myself in the broader contexts of community, calling, and the world. New York was the first place I made the conscious choice to leave, and from then on, my destinations were largely my own choice.

            But then came a span of a dozen years, during which I lived in lots of places – some that I loved. But the bar had been raised, so far as what it took to make a place my home. And the next place to meet the standard was Seattle.

            This matter of home has much to do with the simple passage of time. But when choice is figured in, time spent in a place is no longer a simple thing; it can be a measure of commitment, or of hope. I lived in Seattle long enough for it to grow into home. It was there that I began to recognize that part of what home represents to me is the richness and personal resonance a place develops, from the layering of experience that comes with time. Like the difference between a short story and a novel, that between a place merely lived in, and a place that was home, is time and the blossoming of growth and change, including growth in attachment to and relationship with a place.
             A particular nugget about how and why Seattle was home is that I watched others grow there. The person in my life who came closest to being a child of mine was ten years old when I came to Seattle. And by the time I’d left, she was an adult who’d travelled the world and was attending an out-of-state university. Similarly, I did social work there long enough that I began to encounter young adults who were settled into jobs and relationships, or graduating university, or serving long-term sentences in prison, whom I’d first met as traumatized pre-teens in a group home. Some of my most substantial romantic partnerships took place there, and my first writings to see print were composed there. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to say that the “I” that moved to Seattle wasn’t the same “I” that left there twelve years later. I didn’t even go by the same name.

            But finally, home became Toronto. I said earlier that I chose my cities of residence after New York. But, in fact, on more than one occasion that place was determined in partnership with a woman in my life, and that’s the case with Toronto. In fact, if not for the woman I married and came here to live with, it would have been inconceivable to me that I move to Toronto. It’s not that I had anything against the city. In fact, I’d never been here before the week I was married, and knew little about it. But I was – and still am, really – in love with Montreal, a place I spent large chunks of two magical summers in my university days. Yes, I love Montreal, like I Love San Francisco, and love Paris. But my time in these cities was transient, and my love had more to do with a time in my life, a freedom and sense of possibility, and with a romance of circumstance and mood and chemistry, than it had to do with growing in and knowing a place.
            Toronto is my home in ways that transcend my love for such other places. I was first attracted to Toronto because it holds in its streets the rhythms and accents of so much of the world. But what I came to love is a city of neighbourhoods, where each feels open to all others. It’s not just a busy city, but also an alive city, in which movement and art, invention and expression serve the broadly shared purpose of good living.
There are also the ways in which my personal life has intersected with the life of this city. I’ve been blessed to experience Toronto through so many of its cultural and social facets. And in the course of that, I’ve transitioned through entire phases of life. I even contemplate the possibility of my last life phase ending here.
But all of this has me reconsidering my initial premise: that places become home by meeting particular, time related standards. Yes, it’s part. But maybe this makes for only a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind. I remember another place I felt a sense of home, but in an oddly concentrated way, and for a very short while. It was my grandmother’s house, in rural Indiana. I went there to stay with her, in the ninety-fourth year of her life, after my grandfather had died. I went there to be company to her, to take care of errands and some house-keeping (not much, mind you; grandma was incredibly able and active at ninety-three, and didn’t relish turning over her routine so that she could sit and waste).
I didn’t much like the tiny town of Shelburn and environs. The landscape was ragged and stingy, and the weather oppressive. I found the inhabitants mostly as alien as they undoubtedly found me, and there was little culturally or socially that interested me. So why do I include this reminiscence, then? Why does this memory well up so unaccountably? I guess to reveal something to me, to form a lesson, broaden a meaning, to break down an artificial delineation
            Because there was home there in Shelburn. It resided in tiny doses, in the artifacts of family: in sepia photos folded in albums, in the biscuit dough that grandma worked by hand in the huge mixing bowl on the kitchen table, in the odors that lingered in the crumbling barn and the long-unused chicken coop, and in my grandpa’s Illinois railroad watch that she dug out of a drawer and presented to me one afternoon. And mostly, it resided in the single personage of that old woman, her tongue loosened for the first time in my memory, giving her over to sharing memories of my Dad and my aunt as kids, her marriage to grandpa, and their struggle with the local white folks when they became the first blacks to move into the community, even of her first time seeing an airplane, circling overhead at a county fair when she was twenty-one. Home resided in all that, and in watching her unwind her cascade of white hair every night, to comb it, then roll it up again, while she shared her wisdom, much of it to do with the faults and blessings of being a male member of my line.
             It’s a feeling and memory of home that brings things almost full circle, like a psychic return to Detroit, but through a different portal. Home embodied in small, personal details, and almost disconnected from the broader environment. Suggesting to me that home is something carried inside, and released in those places that call it forth, that allow it to open and breathe, places where my inner reality somehow finds resonance.
Which takes me one step further now. Wasn’t that a little bit of home in Atlanta that summer, taking evening walks in Piedmont Park, and in the music building at Exeter, where I’d go at lonely times to pick at the keys of a piano? Don’t those love affairs with San Francisco and Paris and Montreal all contain a little bit of home, of the self expanded, of kinship spread thin but amplified, of love circulating out, then back again?

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