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Our Homeland, Ourselves

January 28, 2014


For all my adult life, I have pondered the meaning of home. Reared in Cotulla, Laredo was throughout my childhood the big city we yearned to get to. And then I went to the Northeast for college. I know, I know. As a Texan I am obliged to tell you that I was miserable, aching all the time to get back to Texas. Nothing could be further from the truth. College there opened for me the possibility of a new home, and I quickly began to build it and move in. I liked everything about eastern culture and study, chose a major I had never imagined pursuing, and resolved to return to Laredo infrequently to visit family. Then, on one of those visits, I met the love of my life, proposed on the second date, and when we were expecting our first daughter, moved with her back to Laredo. Here we found the most challenging, exciting, and fulfilling professional lives possible. Home for me began here and then for a couple of decades established itself 1500 miles away.

Does any word warm and comfort us as thoroughly as home? All its derivations and compound usages carry a similar positive feeling. Homeland. Home base. Homeward. Head home. Go home. Come home. At home. Homecoming. Home run. Home cooked. Reach home. Call home. Home fires. Homemaker. Homebound and homesick signal unpleasant circumstances without any degrading of home. Only homely conveys negative emotion, though it originally suggested domestic, unadorned, simple, something found at home. Home is the only emotionally charged word I can think of that does not support, in English, an obscene or blasphemous expression.

Western literature begins with two poems of the journey from home to wage war. In the Iliad, Achilles is camped before the walls of Troy, part of a Greek force to avenge the abduction or flight of Helen. In the Odyssey, Odysseus, the Trojan war ended, begins his long journey home to Ithaca. For Achilles, the journey to Troy becomes his life. Each hero, leaving a safe haven, creates an identity which carries him into danger, far away. One returns.

To make a home. The phrase brims with optimism, stimulating our most intimate hopes for warmth, protection, stability, love. And, I think, we have two encounters with these hopes, two distinct experiences of home. Happiness comes, at its fullest, when we are able to conjoin into one life, one self, our two homes.

Our first home comes to us as a fortuitous circumstance. We are born at a certain place, at a certain time, into a certain family, the child of certain parents. We cannot compile or alter these facts. As our understanding of human development improves, we learn, again and again, how powerfully determining of our future life is this first home.

Impressions---habits---encounters of those first years on this earth imprint themselves upon our psyche irrespective of intent. Does someone speak to us often and in language rich with nuance and broad vocabulary, or is the language we hear broken and non-standard? Are we read to? Are we well fed? Are we kept warm? Is the environment free of anxiety and danger? Most important: Are we loved? The particular shape of our mind and spirit may devolve from these first months of life.

Our first home encloses our young bodies. It also opens galleries within our spirit: memories, preferences, expectations that return and visit us unbidden, throughout our life. Are we surrounded by a warm light? Welcoming landscapes? Smells of food? Sounds of water or fire? Sounds of music? Sounds of strife?

Blessed and secure, harsh or hostile, in that first home we relive the drama of lost Eden. Our emerging adult selves become the angel with the flaming sword, forcing us out and blocking our return. Sir James Barrie’s Peter Pan famously explores this unfortunate truth: to become an adult is to lose Eden anew. The memory of where we began accompanies us throughout life. Even those who begin in a home sadly flawed come to imagine a loss. “You can’t go home again” is surely one of the most chilling of life’s ineluctable truths.

On our march into adulthood we begin to build our second home. This second abode houses not an infant or a child, is not presided over by an older presence. Our second home is, like the first, a made thing, this time to house not a young, defenseless body but rather the person we wish to become. The process is simultaneously exhilarating and painful. Our place of origin recedes, replaced gradually by the self we create. Parents observe this process in horror. In the second part of Cervantes’ novel, Don Quijote encounters Lorenzo, a young man who has left his family and set out to become a poet. His father, a practical man of moderate means and uninspired thinking, is most unhappy with the choice. Don Quijote admonishes the father in words every parent must learn to accept: “… que vuestra merced deje caminar a su hijo por donde su estrella le llama.” You must allow your son to journey toward his own star.

We all feel the rush of excitement when in adult life we take possession of our first physical space. But that space can only provide the staging for a larger experience, for the state of mind which is our adult self. It is our inner life, our sense of self, which directs construction of our second home. And that second home may finally have no physical locus. George Steiner, in an often-quoted essay, “Our Homeland the Text,” interrogates the question of the Diaspora. How could the Jews survive two millennia without a physical homeland? Because, Steiner responds, to be Jewish is to live in the Torah, in the book: “The text is home, each commentary a return.” An entire people endures destruction of its first home because the second, within them, no army can reach.

So what lesson or wisdom might reflection upon two homes offer? Do we risk loss of our first home if we sally forth in search of a new self? Is building a second home somehow a betrayal of the first? If the second requires abandonment of the first, is that separation an eternal one? Our two homes form part of a larger saga, the journey forth and the return.

To be aware of our two homes is to engage our divided selves. We are both the person born to our parents, and we are the person we decide to become. In Cervantes’ story, Don Quijote renounces the person he set out to be, returning to his first home to die. He cannot reconcile two homes, his two selves. Can we, unlike Don Quijote, finally bring the two together? Does our dream demand a renunciation? For Achilles, it does.

“…if I abide here and play my part in the siege of Troy, then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable; but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me.” (Iliad, 9.410)

Achilles surrenders any possibility of recovering his first home, or a return, for fidelity to his warrior-self, for the promise of eternal fame. Fame for the self he chooses becomes his “dear native land.” Odysseus, by contrast, returns to Ithaca, to his family and his home. Odysseus unites his divided selves, his “dear native land” and the person he elected to become. Can we? Happiness urges us to try.

I now ask you to direct your attention to the screen. In 1618, Cardinal Borghese commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to create in marble this famous scene from the Aeneid. Aeneas is fleeing captured Troy. These are the first steps of a forced exile, the permanent dissolution of his home. On his shoulders he carries his aged father, Anchises, who holds in his hands a vessel containing the ashes of their ancestors. Atop the vessel are perched the Penantes, household gods. Behind Aeneas we see his son, Ascanius. Were they Laredoans fleeing their doomed city, they would be carrying not the Penantes but their favorite Guadalupana.

Aeneas begins his flight bearing his past and his future with him, the present forever shattered. Unseen in Bernini’s group, Aeneas’ wife, Creusa, perishes as the family makes its escape. This statute has been negatively described as “top-heavy,” looking at though it might at any moment tip over. But this is precisely the point of the story. Aeneas, fleeing for his life, cannot go without his father, who brings the remains of their ancestors and gods, and his son. The ungainly sight of a powerful young man carrying his father, together with his past (ashes, gods) and his future (son) captures visually the top-heavy, difficult-to-wield inner life of us all.

Even as we fashion our second home, our made identity, we carry our beginnings with us. To reconcile these two homes, multiple identities, offers the final and greatest challenge of adult life. Aeneas’ second home became the city of Rome, his made self the founder of the Roman people. Our goal is more modest: a happy convivium in which our two homes, our two selves, together, lie down to pleasant dreams.