Saturday, January 31, 2009


Today I have been grumpy, and I have also been thinking about my grumpiness. (Why, for example, do I want to take every loud child in every Silicon Valley coffeehouse and throw them all, one by one, methodically out the window? I don't want them to hit the ground, obviously; I want an angel ex machina to catch them first; but I would very much enjoy the sense of hurling them, possibly by the ankle, into the air.) My boyfriend observed, an hour or so ago, that I'm quick to say that I hate particular places or people; and that these statements occur as frequently on one coast as on the other. (I attempted to defend myself, poorly, by adding that I am also quick to express my love of particular places or people: this German bakery, for example, whose apple cake is currently stretching the boundaries of my stomach into, I'd say, my ribcage.) But what is it that prompts the quick dismissal, the sudden flare of anger at one's surroundings?

Here is my tentative answer. I, like so many of us, have multiple homes: not in the sense of owning property, thank God, but in the sense of having many emotional and geographic centers in my life. And many homes frequently threaten to feel like no home at all: no place that feels, once and for all, like the definitive place, the place of places. This is generally not a problem, or one, at best, that lingers under the surface of larger problems. But, after five weeks of living away from the place I'd usually call home, in another place I have also occasionally called home, this homelessness (or, wait, shouldn't it be homefulness?) cuts a couple of ways: the California suburbs have attracted my passionate attachment and disaffection again, even as my sense of never ultimately being at home anywhere has increased with the weeks spent wandering these long, wide, sun-saturated streets.

There are a couple of things worth remembering, I try to tell myself, in the midst of the low-level anxiety that accompanies the extended experience of living somewhere you feel at once drawn to and repulsed by. First: it is a quintessentially Christian predicament to be at once continually displaced and essentially at home everywhere. (Whether this is consoling depends, I guess, on how you feel about Christianity.) Second: as exhausting as it can be to have your rhythms challenged by someone or someplace else's, it is also refreshing to be reminded that those rhythms can change. It's like discovering that you've been carrying around muscle groups whose flexibility has remained untapped; and then, all of a sudden, you stretch for some reason, or maybe you duck to escape something--a bird, a baseball--and they're right there, holding you up or out or down, sustaining you and taking you by surprise.

This is what homefulness would name: the abundance of places that call out to us, challenging our sense of ourselves not with the threat (or the promise) of the exotic but, instead, with the familiar, asking us to come to terms with the people we once were, or the people we continue to be for our loved ones as well as our frequently unloved neighbors. Homefulness would articulate some of the excitement (but also the weariness) that attends most of our experiences of the holidays: not, however, as an occasional event but as a daily fact of life. It's a blessing to have so many homes; to imagine San Antonio Road, flanked with olive trees, descending into the wintry landscape of upstate New York, or winding through the Hoosier National Forest; but this continuity also means never quite escaping the multiple, not always congruent demands that these places make on us, the demands of families and friends, saying, here, stay a while, make yourself at home. It is impossible to be entirely at home, under these circumstances, but there is no denying that there are far worse invitations; and making oneself at home is always also to adjust oneself to someone else's surroundings, to acknowledge, implicitly at least, that my home is also yours, or at least unthinkable without you.