What is home?
What comes to mind when you think of home? The city or town where you grew up? The address where you lived as a child? Maybe a specific person or members of your family. Perhaps home means something more nebulous to you—a home cooked meal that comforts you or the feeling you get piled in a warm bed under soft blankets that smell of laundry detergent and bleach.
If you had a good childhood with secure attachments, the concept of home may be simple, uncomplicated, nostalgic joy that you’re recreating as an adult. But for many of us, home is a layered concept with as many bad memories as good, if not more.
It is often said that you can’t go home again. This phrase gained popularity as the title of a novel from Thomas Wolfe*, who died before the novel was published. Depending on your point of view, death either ensures that you won’t go home again or is the ultimate homecoming. Our first quote comes from the novel’s main character, George Webber.
You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
His words are steeped in a sentimentality that belongs to the privileged. Only those who enjoy the advantage of feeling safe and empowered dream of returning to the past. You cannot feel homesick for a country that does not accept you. You rarely dream of glory and fame when you are desperately trying to survive. Given a time machine, most people would be greatly endangering their lives to choose the past. For those without the privilege of power, home is a shelter from a biased world, not an old form and system you hope to return to.
But Webber does give us something else to consider—the things that seem everlasting but which actually change all the time. When we’re children, everything seems permanent. During our youth, we rarely witness change outside of our own bodies, but as we grow, we learn the truth of existence.
As Octavia Butler tells us in the Earthseed books*:
Change is the one unavoidable, irresistible, ongoing reality of the universe.
Perhaps that is what makes home so hard to define. On the one hand, home is a physical place where we keep our belongings, where we eat and sleep and rest and work and play. On the other hand, home is a feeling, it’s where we feel safe and connected—home is where we belong.
Home has long been associated with love, especially romantic love. Two lyrics come to mind that show this connection well. The first is from Home by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros*.
Home, let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you
This couplet is repeated several times throughout the song. Besides being catchy, it also captures the idea that home is not a set of coordinates or walls, it’s a relationship.
The second lyric is from The Mountain Goats song, Riches and Wonders*.
I want to go home but I am home
This line carved itself into my soul. I know the truth of it. We can be surrounded by the things we own and the people we love and still miss out on the feeling of secure connection, of being seen for who we are. “I want to go home, but I am home.” You can hear the longing for belonging in those words.
Home may be the place where you live. But being home is being in the place where you are seen and understood. If you’re lucky, those two exist in the same place. If you’re lucky, your home will change and grow with you—your relationships will change and grow with you.
Most of us have many homes. Where we live now. Where we lived in the past. Who we love now, who we loved in the past. Our lives are shaped by our experiences and our experiences shape how we interpret the spaces we inhabit. That’s why your home looks different after you’ve gone to college or made a new friend or took an international vacation. Like the saying goes, you can’t step in the same river twice. The water is always flowing. Change is the ongoing reality. The river is not the same, and neither are you.
Nostalgia isn’t about simpler days. It’s about days when we knew less, so everything seemed simpler. When we say “you can’t go home again,” what we mean is that you cannot be the person you were before. With every lesson, every new experience or relationship, we are learning more about the world, and more about ourselves. You can go back to the place you called home, but you cannot go back as the person who lived there before.
On her blog, Indexed, Jessica Hagy creates comics* that illustrate the connections of life, usually through charts of some kind. As I was pondering the definition of home, I was delighted to find she had been doing the same. In a comic titled The keys to the place, she made a Venn diagram of the three components of home. According to Hagy, you know you are home when you are welcome, you are appreciated, and you are safe.
So—back to our question. What is home?
Ask yourself where you are welcomed, where you are seen and appreciated for who you are. Ask yourself where you feel safe and loved. Maybe it’s a physical place, but it is certain to be found in the deepest, truest relationships you have with others. Answer those questions and you will find home. I hope it is always there to welcome you.
Thank you for taking time to examine life with me.
Today’s closing quote comes from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.