Home, Hard To Say What It Is

I once again find myself thinking about the concept of home. Home is so much more than a house or a city or a family or a marriage or a collection of people with whom we feel an affinity. Home is at the deepest core of what it means to be human. Coyotes have dens where they raise their young, birds have nests from which they launch their chicks, ants have a communal nest which they will defend with their lives, but we humans are unique in that we have been commanded by our God to “leave our father and mother and be united”1 to that other person with whom we will form a new home. Yet, we still have difficulty expressing the concept of home. Barbara Kingsolver has said,

I’ve spent hundreds of pages, even whole novels, trying to explain what home means to me. Sometimes I think that is the only thing I ever write about. Home is place, geography, and psyche; it’s a matter of survival and safety, a condition of attachment and self-definition. It’s where you learn from your parents and repeat to your children all the stories of what it means to belong to the place and people of your ken.2

Her latest novel, The Lacuna, is about a man with no home at all. Separated from his biological father, Harrison Shepherd lives with his mother who is so busy smoking cigarettes and trying to find the next man who will “take care of her” that she has little time for her son. The men who come into his life are distant and transient. His country, the one to which he feels the greatest loyalty, is Mexico. Yet, he has only adopted Mexico by virtue of spending his youth there with his mother and with a man who was not his father nor his mother’s husband. Mexicans see him as a little gringo and on occasions when he lives in Washington, DC, he is seen as a foreigner. He truly is a man with no country and no home. Even his name, too awkward for Mexicans to pronounce, is lost and he is called by whatever nick-name others choose to give him. This lack of home results in a man who, like the words of a James Taylor song suggests, builds a home behind his eyes and carries it in his heart.3

Yet, his is a very broken home. For, with the concept of home, it is “hard to know what it is if you never had one.”4 As I continue to read the book I find myself hoping that Harrison Shepherd will indeed find home. I am hoping for a great ending like that depicted in another work of fiction, ‘Till We Have Faces, where the protagonist comes to the end of her life and can say, with joy,

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.5

1 Genesis 2:24.
2 Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
3 “Oh it’s enough to be on your way; It’s enough just to cover ground; It’s enough to be moving on; Home, build it behind your eyes; Carry it in your heart; Safe among your own.” “Enough to be On Your Way” words and music by James Taylor, Hourglass, 1997.
4 “Home…hard to know what it is if you never had one; Home…I can’t say where it is but I know I’m going home; That’s where the heart is.” “Walk On” from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000, words by Bono and music by U2.
5 C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1980.

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