To Be at Home:
Reflections on the Concept of Home in Personal and Collective Transformation.
A few weeks ago an old, dusty folder was found in our department's office. It contained about fifty carbon copies of the "Chapel Talks" from the 1950s. The "Chapel Talks" were a historic precedent for the Friday Common Hour. They were offered every Saturday morning, and students were required, or strongly encouraged, to attend. Reading these speeches, I was fascinated to see how different Bowdoin was in those years, how different the use of English and the tone of professors were. Many of the academic, political and ethical issues, however, were strikingly similar to those we deal with today. Of all the faculty, administration and staff talks, my favorite opening was by John Brush, Superintendent of Grounds and Buildings (I quote):
When accepting the kind invitation to appear on this rostrum I asked Mr. Wilder what a representative from the Department of Grounds and Buildings might talk about. He said: "Better talk about seven minutes."
Unfortunately, my talk will not be quite as brief. I understand that the topic I chose, to be at home, might not be particularly appealing to those of you who spent several years plotting strategies to get away from home and finally found the perfect alibi in college. After only a few days of savoring your freedom, the last thing you probably want is some guy with an accent talking about... home. But consider that, in five years or less, you will receive an invitation for homecoming, implying that the college became but one more home to confine your desire to fly (or to flee). We are trapped, my friends, seemingly homebound wherever we go. The shadows of homesickness are conspiring behind every pleasant place where we spend some time, to haunt us in any future moment of weakness. So, who knows, this talk may be a bit useful after all.
I have to confess that this topic is not exactly one of my research areas, so cheer up: you will not have to put up with the bizarre elaborations of some expert on "the concept of home." But it is certainly an issue in my life as an immigrant, as some sort of naughty monk too much into poetry, and in various other ways that would take too long to describe. Every now and then people ask me for how long I have been away from home, or when I am visiting home, meaning traveling back to my country. Curiously, I rarely refer to Colombia or Medellín, my city, as "home." Even worse, to some of my friends' puzzlement, I call Maine home. I have wondered if this might be the symptom of some psychological disorder for which I should seek help. Can a person like me really call "home" a place like Maine, where you do not look, sound or behave like most people? There is room for doubt when you call "home" a place where you often feel like "a movie in subtitles" (Carlson 14), as Newyorican poet Johanna Vega describes her experience of growing up latina in the United States. To preserve my illusion of sanity, however, I prefer to attribute this discrepancy to language, even though I know that semantics is one of the greatest tools for denial. In Spanish, the words "casa" and "hogar" mean much more than "house," but significantly less than "home." Nobody would find it strange if I said that Colombia is not my "casa" although I often feel at "casa" there. And this is how I became fascinated with the meanings and nuances of the word "home" and, from my experiences as an immigrant, with the concept itself.
"Home: The dictionary defines it both as a place of origin and as a goal or destination." These words open the movie Patch Adams, to begin the story of radical transformation that the main character experiences, from a state of suicidal depression to a creative life of healing through humor and kindness. It is indeed true that in times of hardship or depression most of us long for a sense of ease and security that is often described as "feeling at home." But there is also an expansive taste to the concept, since it implies the dynamism of going forward in the direction of an ultimate purpose, or of a vital core, as when a study is finally homing in on the mystery that it wanted to unveil. Furthermore, besides the desire for ease and the sense of achievement, the term suggests a movement toward a deeper understanding of one's origin or roots, an understanding most needed in the midst of rapid or profound change. What does it take to be "at home" in the middle of personal and collective transformation? Could there be a "home feeling," just like an Internet home page to which we can return by the click of a button? What are the implications of "being at home in all lands and all ages," as President Hyde envisioned the offer of the college about a century ago? How is "home" perceived and reinterpreted when it becomes an elusive concept, in times of exile, of migration, of global awareness, of transpersonal psychology?
What does it mean, "to be at home in all lands"? I do not mean to be disrespectful, for I know I am taking this phrase out of context, but, to be honest, I was not exactly thrilled about such an invitation. In my classes on Latin America, I have the unpleasant duty to review the oppressive ways in which some Europeans made themselves at home in the New World, and how some United States governments and businesses have either patronized or bullied the rest of the hemisphere as its own home's backyard. And similar circumstances can be found around the world. The desire to be at home in all lands, then, might convey a conquering attitude that I would not like to encourage if we want a more harmonious way of living on this planet. The phrase also conveys a sense of superiority, especially over those millions of people on Earth who cannot even be at home in their own land, let alone in all lands, because of their economic, ethnic, sexual or ideological "unhomeliness," to use Indian Homi Bhabha's postcolonial jargon. And this condition of homelessness is the result of conquering attitudes that need to be transformed in our own language and ways of thinking if we want to play a less oppressive game. In his ode "To Those Who Have Lost Everything," Chicano and Native American poet Francisco Alarcón offers a good description of this overpowering attitude (I quote): "a long fire started in a fantasy island some time ago, turning Natives into aliens: 'you're nothing, you're shit, you're home's nowhere'" (23). But the poem also opens up the possibility of transformation, an inner, ecological, spiritual if you wish, washout of oppression (quote): "mountains will speak for you, rain will flesh your bones green again among ashes" (22). There is a sense of connection, of "inter-beingness" as Vietnamese Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, through which all lands are home, not from conquest, but from understanding.
And it is toward understanding that President Hyde's offer of the college
be constructively read: to educate ourselves and each other in the spirit
respect, dialogue, familiarity and active good will, so that human beings
closer to feeling at home with each other. College education could become,
an abetment to ignite within each of us the eagerness to help create a social
order in which more and more people can live with dignity, enjoy beauty and
be creative, an order in which differences beget opportunity, not confrontation.
And this is where personal and collective transformation become central elements
of my talk today, for it would be very nice, in fact a matter of life or
for many, if more of us tried to prepare ourselves, not only to witness and
adapt to change, but to influence the direction of change toward justice,
beauty, cooperation, contemplation. Hopefully we all know that this goal
not as easy as naming it. For this reason it is important not to loose perspective
of home in times of transformation. Being at home is having a sense of where
we come from and where we are heading, a sense of expanding the concept of
a sense of being rooted in the present.
Obviously, everybody experiences the feeling of being lost (some of us experience it indeed too often!). When identity or sense of direction are shaken by significant changes, one feels, as the song goes "like a motherless child, a long way from home." This is the origin of the myth of a past golden age, recurrent in different cultures. Adolescence, a state of transition that keeps getting longer in Western cultures, is a typical period in which one does not feel at home anywhere (maybe that is the bait in Hyde's offer of the college, because prospective students -still adolescents- are badly hungry to feel at home in some land!). But this feeling, which in a generic adolescence still holds the promise of maturity and independence, becomes more acute, even permanent, for those who are socially displaced or marginalized. This is why immigrants, exiles, oppressed people in all lands, often develop a sort of obsession with an idealized homeland, with an idyllic past. Home has then the scent of security and the taste of bread or tortillas; it looks like mother, but sounds like the cry of birth and feels like a distant dream. Here's an example by E.J. Vega, an American poet of Cuban heritage:
According to my sketch
Rows of lemon & mango trees
Frame the courtyard of Grandfather's home;
The shadow of a palomino gallops on the lip of the horizon.
The teacher says
The house is from some Zorro movie I've seen.
"Ask my mom," I protest.
"She was born there-right there on the second floor!"
Crossing her arms she moves on.
Memories once certain as rivets
Become confused as awakenings in strange places
And I question the house, the horse, the wrens perched on the slate roof-
The roof Oscar Jartín tumbled from
one hot Tuesday, installing a new weather vane
(He broke a shin and two fingers).
In this poem, as in many lives, pain becomes the tangible proof of a lost home.
Pain is also turned into poetry, into art, into creation; it grows to be a form
of resistance, an eagerness for transformation. In The Location of Culture,
postcolonialist Homi Bhabha explores this alchemy of pain into resistance under
the label of "negating activity," and explains it in the following
The negating activity captures something of the estranging sense of the relocation of the home and the world -the unhomeliness- that is the condition of extra-territorial and cross-cultural initiations. . . . In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting (9-10).
In other words, creating art or literature (public forms) from that supposedly private sense of "unhomeliness" communicates the feeling of disorientation to the readers or the audience, who become in turn, momentarily, almost as disoriented as a marginalized person (and perhaps as disoriented as my lenient audience is becoming right now, when my talk gets a bit too theoretical, but what would be the fun if life were too easy?). So, what is the point of disorienting your reader just because you happen to be disoriented, because you happen to be an alien? Is this some sort of close-revenge-of-the-third-kind or something?
Well, why not. But there are other, perhaps more constructive ways of assuming this contagious "unhomeliness." Other immigrants, other aliens, other marginal people may find solace in seeing that somehow their own experience is being voiced, and that would make a difference. But what interests me more for this talk is the value of generating disorientation per se; the value of not feeling at home, and of sharing that lack of homeliness. Something very precious can be learned from such a feeling: to repeat Bhabha's words, "the borders between home and world become confused in that displacement," and, as a result, the concept of home may expand. The unsettling of adolescence, for example, is a symptom of that moment of growth when your parents' home, your childhood sense of identity, are not enough anymore. You feel compelled to make home for yourself, not just dwell in what has been established for you. And, as mystics from many different cultures attest, this process of home-expansion, hopefully not to be confused with conquest, can keep happening throughout life, if it is not stopped by fear or by repression, until the whole universe is experienced as home and everything in it is part of your family. But this expansion requires periods of disorientation, times when nothing feels like home, because one's sense of boundaries is broadening. And the beauty of it is that, if the process is embraced, the former home is not lost or discarded, but honored and included in the new one. Experiencing your country as your home does not have to and should not exclude your hometown, your neighborhood, your parents' home. Cuban writer José Martí expressed it this way more that one hundred years ago: "I have two homelands, Cuba and the night."
Let me further illustrate what I mean by experiencing an expansion of home with a poem written in 1924 by Chilean Gabriela Mistral, who explored maternity and mutuality in many of her writings with superb depth and grace. Not surprisingly, the poem is called "Home," "La casa", and before reading it I must inform you that, in some parts of Chile, bread used to be called "the face of God." Observe how the warm and nurturing experience of home is broken and expanded in an effort to include those who are homeless. Here it goes:
The table, son, is laid
with the quiet whiteness of cream,
and on four walls ceramics
gleam blue, glint light.
Here is the salt, here the oil,
in the center, bread that almost speaks.
Gold more lovely than gold of bread
is not in broom plant or fruit,
and its scent of wheat and oven
gives unfailing joy.
We break bread, little son, together
with our hard fingers, our soft palms.
Lower your hand that reaches for food
as your mother also lowers hers.
Wheat, my son, is of air,
of sunlight and hoe;
but this bread, called "The face of God,"
is not set on every table.
And if other children do not have it,
better, my son, that you not touch it,
better that you do not take it
with ashamed hands.
My son, Bread and hunchbacked Hunger
seek each other but never meet.
Let's leave the bread here until tomorrow,
so that Hunger find it if he should come by,
let the blazing fire keep our door open,
just like Quechuan Indians never closed theirs.
Perhaps we will watch Hunger find bread
so that our souls, like our bodies, can rest. (49)
Here we see a subtle but powerful "negating activity," to put it in Bhabha's terms, as the mother's voice first honors her son's (and our) comfortable, secure homeliness, and then shakes it, almost cancels it by remembering the hungry ones, by leaving the door open, by honoring native traditions excluded in a conquered land. And then an expansion occurs: since home is about nurturing and sharing, these attitudes must be present in all lands, hunger must meet bread before mother and son, you and I, can really rest, can really be at home in all lands.
"And yet," as Sheila Ortiz Taylor puts it, "the way back is a land more innocent than this." For there is an important paradox that I would like to address before I let you go. Paradox, after all, is simply the way non-duality looks from conventional, binary thought. So here is the apparent paradox: I am convinced that being at home is a state of mind that can and should be available regardless of external circumstances. Furthermore, I am convinced that social unrest and oppression will continue to exist as long as the majority of people consider that home is something to be attained out there, at the expense of others, or in some hypothetical future. There is a "home feeling," just like an Internet home page to which we can return by the click of a button. Perhaps it is not as automatic, but it is clicked by being present, by paying attention, by finding time for mindfulness or contemplation. There are many techniques to "click" it, from simple breathing to the contemplation of art or nature, from deep meditation to strenuous exercise, but the result is always inner silence or, at least, a silent witness to our busy minds. Then, the wanting machine stops, and one experiences home. Then, social action, intellectual endeavors and even sports or other body joys become much more effective. Then, hardship, pain and even hunger become much more bearable. But I cannot really lecture on this topic, only mention it and invite you to explore further in this direction. I like the simplicity with which Thich Nhat Hanh describes it (quote): "Look deeply: the birth and death of every living creature mark the rhythm of your heart." (108). To me, that way of looking deeply is what being at home in all lands and all ages means.
And this is how our friend
John Brush, Bowdoin's Superintendent of Grounds and
Buildings in the 1950s, ended his refreshingly brief speech on different building
projects around campus:
"When looking through a hymnal while selecting a hymn for this morning, I found this report on note paper: 92 light bulbs on right side, 5 burned out. 1,082 stars on ceiling. 9 flies in Goliath's hair. 1 dull speaker on platform." Yeah, that's me.
And now we have some time for conversation. Questions are welcome, of course, but I would also like to encourage you to share your comments and personal impressions or experiences about "being at home" (or not being at home) at Bowdoin, or in any other area of your life.
Alarcón, Francisco. Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Carlson, Lori M., ed. Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States. New York: Fawcett Juniper, 1995
Mistral, Gabriela. Poemas a las madres. Santiago: Losada, 1981.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change. Berkeley: Parallas Press, 1993.