“What is Home”

Here is a paper I wrote for an Ecopsychology class I am taking. The topic was home. What is home? What does home feel like for you? Do you long for home? I got a B-. The professor said the essay was poetic but unstructured, confusing, and unclear, with vague contemplations and without a point. So be it. So it probably is.

Some people start with a point, with The Point, and then go about proving it, making it. But you cannot make what you already have. When you start with a point, you finish only where you began, you end only with what you knew at the beginning. You get nowhere. You arrive unchanged, no less and no more the person you were before you left. The trip is pointless.

I start without a point, I start lost and stop at points along the way. I fall, I climb, what do I find? What is the point? I find that I cannot find The Point, but I find a purpose in every sentence, in each word. Each place I ride through has a point, a purpose in and of itself, whether I stop there for a time or whether I keep riding. The point is not to find the point; the point is to find the way home. It is the way you get there, the points you pass through along the way, that gives meaning to life. 

 

“’Homeless’ is here coming to mean ‘being at home in the whole universe.”
—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 1990

Alas, though I often feel homeless, I do not often feel at home in the whole universe. When I do feel at home, often when I am “on the road” to nowhere, I feel like I could be at home anywhere. But when I don’t feel at home, often when I am in a structure that could be called a “home,” the same notion obviously does not apply.

But what is ‘home’, and what is not home? Where do I feel at home? Where do I not? I said I feel at home, somewhat paradoxically for some, when I am on the road. It is only when I am going home that I feel at home, and I never go anywhere but it is a way to get there, to get home, to end at the beginning. There, wherever there is, “here” when you are there, “there” when you are here, your home is not constant, is always moving, as you are, as you like to be, as you like your home to be. You are always where you are, here, but as Thoreau writes, “Thank Heaven, here is not all the world.” (Thoreau 1854). Soon you will be somewhere else, eternally in-between here and there while in the midst of both, living in the liminal moment between your past dreams and your future hopes which is the present, the reality of which dreams and hopes cannot touch.

How does it feel to be at home? Home should be a safe place. At home, I should feel safe to be as reckless and dauntless as I choose. Secure is maybe a better word. You have to feel secure before you can launch yourself into insecurity. You need to feel at home before you can take to the road. As Synder puts it, “You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild” (Snyder 1990). The path is home; the wild is the roadless road. To go home, I go where there are no roads.

Ken Wilber would probably say that we create boundaries between what is home and what is not home, that without those boundaries we would be able to feel at home everywhere, “in the whole universe.” But I do not feel at home when I feel myself inside a human-constructed world, a sterile, inanimate world antithetical to the concept of home, outside of the natural world that grows of its own accord. Home is where we feel alive. I feel most at home, most alive, where man and his destructions are least present, in the wild, “where man is a visitor who does not remain.” And here we have a presenting problem, as they say in psychiatry. I do not have the experience or knowledge or wisdom to live in the wild for life, so how can I call it home? It used to be home; how can I say it is still home?

Perhaps I feel like I can say this because I don’t see home as a place of constant residence. Gary Snyder might be more of that opinion than I am. “For most Americans,” he writes, “to reflect on ‘home place’ would be an unfamiliar exercise. Few today can announce themselves as someone from somewhere. Almost nobody spends a lifetime in the same valley, working alongside the people they knew as children” (Snyder 1990). Snyder sees this as a mostly negative thing. Because we do not feel ourselves as “from somewhere,” no place becomes “part of what we are” (Snyder 1990). That’s one way to look at it. But he contradicts himself when he talks about homeless coming to mean “at home in the whole universe.” When we are not from one place alone, from somewhere, all places come together, and we are from nowhere and everywhere.

Each place we pass through can become a part of what we are, who we are. Some places we pass through will affect us more than others, just as some people we pass by and cross paths with in our lives will affect us more than others. But though we may, because of intense emotion felt in a place or intense emotion felt with a person, desire to merge and “settle down” in that place or with that person, we must, in the words of Snyder, hold “sameness and difference delicately in mind” (Snyder 1990). Being from any one place, being with any one person, excludes being from any other place, being with any other person. This is not to argue for free love, an experiment that has been tried and has failed, or for non-stop travel, an experiment I may have to try for myself, but to argue against exclusion, against any separation of where I am from versus where I am not from, who I am with versus who I am against.

Those boundary lines truly do become “battle lines,” to use Wilber’s words. Ultimately, we cannot be from some “part” of the country and not from the other parts, cannot be from one country and not from the others. As Samuel Johnson originally pronounced and Bob Dylan sings, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Our individual identities are bigger than, encompass more than, the southern state or North Country we were born in and at the same time are smaller than but a part of the Rio Grande that brings southern U.S. and northern Mexico together.

Where we are from is where we are returning to and also where we are at each moment as we get there. Where we pass through is home as we get home. The more alien we feel, the greater the incorporation, the more profound the change must be in ourselves so we can feel at home.

The change here is not a surface adjustment to a collective reality where the adjusted man feels disconnected from his true self and thus discontented with himself. The change here is a connection with a deeper reality that is both distinctly individual and unmistakably universal. The contentment of being and feeling at home, turning on the pot of water to make tea, sitting in a favorite chair to read, floating like Abbey and Newcomb in “dual solitude” down the river (Abbey 1968), walking alone across the desert, can only come when there is that connection. The psychologist Abraham Maslow writes of self-actualization, the pressure we feel within “toward unity of personality, toward spontaneous expressiveness, toward full individuality and identity, towards seeing the truth rather than being blind, toward being creative, toward being good” (Maslow 1968).

 
This is the movement, the ceaseless change; this is the journey home. It can consist of an actual journey, a physical journey, when we leave where we were born and raised, leave what was home so we can go back home, leave where we were so we can become who we are. Or it can be a psychological journey. Not everyone has to travel outwardly in order to make that homeward voyage. Needing to go home implies not feeling at home, feeling like something is lost and now must be regained. Some people may be born and grow up feeling at home, with themselves and the world. For these fortunate folks, none of whom I know, the searching journey will not be long and painful; it may not be a search or journey at all. For the rest, those who feel exiled from themselves and the world, the journey to what Maslow calls “authentic selfhood” will be long and, because it involves growth, painful and difficult (Maslow 1968).
 

Reading over what I’ve written thus far, it looks like I am contradicting myself just as I felt Snyder was doing. At home everywhere, no distinction between home and not-home, but yet not feeling at home in sterile, lifeless, human-created environments. But perhaps those environments are not as lifeless as they sometimes appear. There is life and wildness everywhere, “the wild is indestructible” (Snyder 1990). And everywhere, someone or something feels at home. The prickly pear cactus creates its home by pushing through the cracks of some trampled Tempe sidewalk, the lone juniper finds a home in harsh soil by the side of I-17, a woman finds herself at home as she dances alone, eyes closed, at closing time in a Prescott bar. I feel myself at home, not only when I myself feel at home, but also when I perceive another – man, woman, child, plant, rock, river – feeling at home, flowing with ease, expressing his truth, her nature, its’ reality.

To clarify, it is harder to feel at home in a place where wildness is harder to find, but it is still possible. All it takes is life revealing itself for a moment: the reflection of the rising sun on the Potomac River while walking over Key Bridge in D.C., the homeless vagabond carrying his pack across the Golden Gate bridge, the street guitarist playing the blues on Bourbon Street, bridging the gap between himself and his listeners, between inner experience and outside reality.

Do I long for home? I have studied the Enneagram some. It is a psychological system of nine personality types. I’ve typed myself (accurately) as type 4. Type 4 is known as the Romantic Individualist or The Tragic Romantic. No argument there. The 4 type longs for what is missing, what is absent, what is lost. “It is the stance of the separated lover, yearning for a way to reunite” (Palmer 1988). It is for the lover, in part, but the whole of it is home. Home is where I feel whole. The connection with the lover is a part of home, the connection with my essence is a part of home, and the connection with the land is a part of home.

Do I long for home? What else is there to long for? All yearnings, whomever for, whatever form they may take, are never for anything but home. Bob Dylan, undoubtedly an Enneagram 4, from his song “Girl From the North Country”:

“When you travel to the north country fair
When the wind hits heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true friend of mine”

This yearning for something, someone, once here, now gone away. Once a part of your life, still a part of your life, but you not a part of her life. Though out of reach, out of touch, she is still kept in mind. And maybe that yearning for the woman who left is a yearning for more than the woman. Maybe that woman is a symbol of all that is lost or almost lost, more than a lost love, but a lost opportunity, possibility, a lost home. Maybe the yearning for the woman from up in the north country is also the yearning for the wilderness, that vast wilderness up north in the Gates of the Arctic, the wilderness where we can find direction, not towards north or south or east or west, but in a way that transcends the human practical definition of direction. Here we walk not east towards Mecca or west towards California or north to the Last Frontier or south to some Eldorado.

Here we walk not towards some Utopia, where we can build the perfect form of civilization, but in a present reality that we will not allow to become a past glory, where we can stop for a second in the stillness and say: here, I feel something that I do not feel in any technological paradise, in any urban dream. Here is no dream, no unreal paradise. Here is the real, what has been here before us and what must remain after us. Here we can find a meaning to all our endless wanderings and yearnings. Though we may have searched for a long time in the wrong places and found only disillusionment, here is the right place, which validates the yearning and redeems it. And maybe that’s why the desire to preserve it is so strong. The wilderness, what used to be our home. Once here, now almost gone.

“It has always been part of basic human experience to live in a culture of wilderness,” Gary Snyder writes, but we no longer live in the wild, so we do not fully feel the pain of its loss. . “At present,” Jack Turner writes, “we do not experience the loss of the wild like we experience a toothache” (Turner 1996). Part of going to the wilderness, part of going home, is to feel, not solely loss and pain, not solely awe and joy, but the full range of human emotion. Feel the heavy, intense sadness when what used to be our home is lost, and the light, expansive joy of returning there. Feel deeply, authentically. To feel and be human again.

Only when we feel and experience our humanness can we understand what Snyder calls the “thusness” of the nonhuman. Feeling one we understand the other. Understanding the other, we feel ourselves come out of our selves, come out of what we know and into our own, into what cannot be owned or controlled. We disown all that limits us, all that holds us back from letting in what we feel, and then letting it out so we are not held back by it. Breathe in life, vitality, the wild gentleness and the wild austerity of home; breathe out lethargy and apathy, breathe out our brokenness, sing of our exile, and become whole. Come home becoming and leave becoming still, become still in movement, keeping within what lies behind and beyond.

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