We all have a striving for home. It’s a powerful motivator that can keep us going through hard times when we’re undergoing a difficult trial. Where would many of our heroes be if they had no home to return to? We have copious letters from soldiers fighting in the two World Wars alone, wanting to hold on for a chance to see their beloved hometowns one last time.
This is such a universal phenomenon that it has bled into our fiction since the dawn of adventure stories. Think about Odysseus, doing whatever it took to reach his island home of Ithaca. In more recent stories, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin wanted nothing more than to return to the Shire.
The quiet, the familiar, the domestic, and the mundane provide a paradisiacal vision to those on a harsh quest. To return home is a blessing. To have a home to return to is an even greater one.
Beyond fiction, this yearning for a home has a spiritual dimension. After all, what is death but a return to the embrace of our Creator in a place that is free from sin, pain, and suffering, our true home as human beings?
Our lives are a miniature version of this phenomenon. Our adventures, our struggles . . . they are trials to harden us and then bring us back to our beginning. This is a test. This is only a test. In modern terms, this life is only Level 1 of a game far grander and more profound than we can begin to imagine. And at the end, the castle beyond the flagpole, is home.
It just helps to have an earthly home to return to.
* * *
I feel no connection to the town I grew up in, or the house I lived in while there. From the ages of two to twenty-four, I lived in a town in central New Hampshire in a house my parents had built.
The town itself was graced with abundant natural beauty. Nestled just south of the White Mountains and just north of Lake Winnipesauke, it was an outdoorsman’s paradise. Our downtown was the bottom of a valley near where two of the region’s largest rivers met, and my house itself was on a mountain surrounded by forest on the backside of an old ski resort. The town had a small college, and our high school, though small by city standards, our high school was filled with students from some nine or ten surrounding towns (some of them had, I kid you not, populations in the forties). So there were things to do and people to do them with.
Given that I came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, I was fortunate to come up in an era when big box retailers and chain restaurants hadn’t spread across the nation like a blight. Our town had an independently owned movie theater I worked at for many, as well as a locally-owned music store, comic store, and a few video rental shops. It also had local pizza places and restaurants, a skate shop, a bike shop, a shoe store—all family run.
And forget about the Internet. We didn’t have that until I was close to eighteen.
The town was idyllic in many ways. We had our troubles like any town, but crime was ridiculously low kids in their early teens now probably wouldn’t believe such places ever existed in America. Still, I couldn’t wait to get out of there as soon as I was able.
It was wanderlust, yes. Perhaps a delusion of grandeur, that I was somehow destined for more. I wasn’t alone. There are more than a few people from the town who have become legitimately famous, and some infamous. That was not my lot in life, and my dalliance with oikophobia has turned to something else entirely.
My house was nice as well, warm and homey. Recently, and I don’t quite know what got into us, my wife and I looked up the address online and found pictures of it on some local New Hampshire real estate site. The pictures looked several years old, but were definitely taken after my family had left in the mid-2000s. Going through them, I felt nothing more than a tiny pang of nostalgia that burned out as soon as it had sparked up.
I loved that house while I lived in it. And yet, after moving to the New Hampshire seacoast for college, and then later to Boston, I felt no longing for it. Or the town. I missed my parents, sure, but as far as the house and the town, they meant nothing to me. I had already moved out when my parents sold the house and moved, news I greeted with a shoulder shrug.
I had no bad experiences in town or house. It just wasn’t my town. I had no roots there.
My family came from Greece to the New Hampshire seacoast. That is where some 95 percent of my family lived and, now that my parents are back living in their hometown, the number is probably higher. Growing up, we spent every weekend down there growing up, going to the church my grandfather was the priest at and visiting the family, despite it being a two-plus hour drive to get there.
We did this until my father’s work got too busy, and it turned into every other weekend, and then at least once a month.
That town on the seacoast felt like my hometown, and it still does. Where I am now is nice, and I’m near my wife’s family which is great, but it’s not my area. The most content I felt geography wise, the only time I felt like I had a hometown, was in college where I was one town over from my family’s ancestral American homeland, if being in a place for maybe one hundred years can be considered “ancestral.”
The town I grew up in? Just a dot on a map. The house I grew up in? A building that belongs to somebody else now. I’ve been to town three times since my parents sold the house and moved almost twenty years ago: Once for a funeral for a local war hero, once for a friend’s wedding, and once to help establish my first short-lived business. That last visit was in 2010. I don’t foresee myself going back to that town, or driving up to my old house, any time between now and the day I die.
Roots matter. We’re house-hunting now, and there is no area I have a burning desire to live in save for that town by the seacoast. Due to work concerns, that’s not possible, but maybe someday we’ll retire there. Who knows? All I know is that, right now, I’m picking between other towns in our area where I will be a guest—a well-behaved one, but a guest, nonetheless. A visitor.
I don’t know how rootless cosmopolitan urbanites do it. I loved living in the city . . . when I was young and single and had no real responsibilities. Yes, I frittered away most of my twenties on meaningless things, and in retrospect I would have done nearly everything differently, but I did enjoy myself. Still, having no roots, no place where you’re actually from, makes me feel like a permanent tourist.
Can you imagine going to a town meeting after living somewhere for a year and agitating for sweeping changes, disagreeing with and criticizing people whose families have been there for generations? The long-timers, the lifers, absolutely have the right for their opinions and wants and needs and desires to carry extra weight over those of newcomers. Extrapolate that as you will to entire nations; that’s not the point I’m trying to make.
Maybe that’s a problem with America. Maybe the shedding of old ties of land and kin, of blood and soil, to strike out and establish oneself somewhere entirely new has downsides we’re never told about. Oikophobia as a way of life leads to a very shaky, unstable society where everything feels transactional and transitory. This is how I felt living in Boston, but especially D.C. In the former city, nearly a quarter of the population are students. In the latter city, I met maybe three people in the years I was there who were actually from the area. There was no real culture, no identity. It was an unsettling hodgepodge with nothing identifiable to grab on to except for the fact that nearly everyone had the same opinions and tastes. Perhaps in the absence of family and cultural ties, of tribe, uniformity of thought becomes the substitute identity. How depressing.
It’s enough to make the cynic in me wonder if ripping up roots and making sure that we are all planted in shallow, rocky soil is deliberate. After all, a people with no strong connections to family and location are easier to manipulate, with corporate-sponsored substitutes for home and tribe being offered next to the synthetic replacements for religion. I envy kin in Greece whose families have never left and can trace their lineage back to their area of the old country for millennia, forget centuries. Those are the kind of roots I long for, and that I’ll never be able to feel myself. But maybe my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will. Maybe things will be different someday.
* * *
I think about Odysseus sometimes. The man felt a connection to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus, but he was also bound to the land of Ithaca itself. Yes, he was king and those were his people, but reading the Odyssey gives the sense that Odysseus sees Ithaca as more than just a place he is duty-bound to care for. It’s a physical part of him. Ithaca is in his veins.
I find myself adrift on a sea bigger than the Mediterranean, longing for a home that I never had. It’s out there in the world somewhere, waiting for me to find it. As with most everything in this inverted world we live in, the sequence is backwards. We are supposed to have a home to return to, not an unknown place we hope can be our home someday.