Finding a Place Called Home

Blackwell's Philosophy in the Bookshop

While recently finishing the intriguing book Galileo’s Error by Philip Goff, I was reminded of an interview with the author and Philip Pullman as part of the Philosophy in the Bookshop series hosted by Nigel Warburton. This monthly event takes place in the Norrington Room at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, England. 

While watching the YouTube video, my wife peeked over my shoulder to see what the hubbub was all about. Though not solicited, I immediately launched into a warm description of the expansive room located below Blackwell’s where the interview was taking place. Upon doing so, I suddenly had a strong, emotional ache to be there, as if just walking in through the doors of Blackwell’s would suddenly solve all problems, offering a comforting inclusion and acceptance that for me can only be associated with the idea of ‘home’. 

What Is a Home? 

It is an important question because it has to do with identity and belonging, an issue I have wrestled with off and on for some time. Last year I turned an important corner in my life. I had spent exactly 23 years in Oklahoma and 23 years in Texas. If you know Texas, it has a strong identity, yet I have never been able to let go of Oklahoma. Part of this is due to the fact that the majority of my family, including my parents and only sibling, still live there and I visit multiple times a year. We drive around town and I see all the sights that link to memories I have of growing up engendering within me a profound sense of self. 

But clearly I have a home in Texas. It is the house I wake up in every day with my dogs and cats and the person with whom I can not possibly imagine living my life without, and the garden we tend together, both literally and metaphorically. This is home. 

At the end of the work day when I am about to leave, I tell people that I am heading home. When I am out of town and returning to my current address, I say I am going home. When I use the phrase in this context, obviously I am not talking about Tulsa, Oklahoma, yet I consider both my current address and Tulsa ‘home’. How can this be possible if a person at any one time can only have one home?

In my life, I have lived in two other cities besides the ones in which I currently live and where I grew up. Though at one point I did consider those cities ‘home’, I do not consider them home anymore, despite the fact that I do have some family still living in one. Why is that? At a quick glance, these places seem to have the same qualities as Tulsa, i.e. family members and significant memories. What is the difference?

The answer depends on how we might define the word home. If the US Census form asks me where I live, I will give them the address of where I currently sleep every night. This is an objective approach to answering the question of sleeping location. But if the US Census were to ask me where my home is, I might have to reply “do you mean the place in which I live or the place I grew up?” This takes into consideration a much more subjective approach because it involves not a city address or GPS location, but where my heart is, and the beauty of metaphor is that your heart can be in more places than one. 

I think back to the Neil Diamond song I Am, I Said. In the first verse, while contemplating his move from his home town of New York to Los Angeles, he sings:

L.A. is fine, but it ain’t home. 

New York is home, but it ain’t mine no more. 

These two short lines acknowledge the objective and subjective nature of ‘home’ and the painful nature of identity loss that accompanies moving, even if that place you have moved to is pretty nice. L.A. is his address, but New York, from which it is separated, is home. 

Situations Outside of Where You Grew Up or Currently Live

Outside of our own personal experiences, the idea of home is a very important one. In our world and especially in the past ten years it seems, there have been a great many refugees. What does it mean for them to abandon their home and begin somewhere else, often in a foreign land? How, in this situation, does one cultivate home? Or in the United States, many elderly people spend the last months or years in places called nursing homes, which probably feels anything but like a home. The question for directors of such facilities is how to create in that environment something that one might call home. Or internationally mobile families due to employment such as military, business, or government. Perhaps the well known phrase, “wherever I lay my head is home” applies.

There are other less dramatic though no less important examples outside of the ones mentioned above. For a student who goes off to college, does the dorm room become home? Or after spending four or five years in the town in which the college is set, does that town in a way become home for the student, completing a long and slow separation from the place in which they grew up? Or when a person moves from one city to another. There is a type of abrupt unmooring that occurs. The context is suddenly different: new streets, new places to eat and different people. In other words, many of the things a person relies on to help create identity are suddenly changed. 

There are two other places that I consider home outside of my current address and Tulsa. One is the mountains of Colorado, which will come as no surprise to regular readers. The space carries for me such significance. Like a poorly dressed mannequin, to say anything less than that I have a spiritual connection to these spaces feels fraudulent; an inadequate substitute for the reality that lies beyond the words. It is meta-belonging, as if I am almost the mountains, trees, rivers and wildlife, that I feel so much a part and rooted. Each time I leave, it is as if I am divorced from something essential. Maybe that will change one day. Am I justified in calling the mountains of Colorado my home? It seems so to me.

And finally back to Oxford, England, the flimsiest candidate on my list. I spent three weeks there in 2008, living on the campus of St. Hugh’s College, walking the streets and getting to know the place as only one can do on foot.  I was lucky enough to return for a few short days in 2018. Without question, returning to Oxford felt like a homecoming. Though only there for a short while during my first visit, profound events occurred and I left a different person than who I was when I arrived. If I call Oxford home, am I playing too fast and loose with the word? If a bookshop in Oxford can feel like home, at what point does the meaning of the word begin to lose its meaning all together? 

Maybe ‘home’ is an earned distinction. Though the required amount of time spent there to earn it might vary, a place likely does not become a ‘home’ immediately. Or as with relationships that grow richer with time and shared experiences, a place worthy of being called home must go through a similar criteria. It is the combination of the two, time and experience, that produce comforting inclusion and acceptance. 

Perhaps concepts like ‘home’ should be left to the realm of mystery and simply welcomed when we experience it, a type of private truth carrying immense significance to the individual. This might bother those who desire clear terms for their meaning, but by what criteria one calls a place home seems almost exclusively personal. 

The ways in which we define home is as varied as the idioms we have. Whether home is on the range, where the heart is, or embodied in the person sitting beside you, the concept carries great significance. Though clear, definitional terms might be hard to come by, you likely know it when you have it, and when you do not, you will seek and eventually find it.

Compliment this essay with many others from the Being and Existence category or with my experience in Oxford Finding Myself in Oxford

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