Sunday, November 10, 2013

Heart & Hearth: On the Question of Home (10 November 2013)

[Explorations of a spiritual and existential theme] 

What is a home?  What does it mean to ‘have a home;’ to ‘lose a home?’  What does it mean to be ‘at home?’”

These questions have fascinated me for decades.  As a poet and thinker I find these questions have moved me deeply and are at the root of my praxis of thinking and creating.  I am reminded of them whenever I hear of someone moving into their first apartment or house on their own, or when I hear of homeless people or people losing their homes, not to mention their lives, en-masse—as they did this week in the Philippines.  My creative life has been tethered to these questions.  There seems to be something so central to this question for human nature that I cannot stop thinking about it.  It recurs and has come back to me in a number of forms.  Just when I think I get a handle on it, something happens to call me back to this vortex of questions.
I have some inkling as to where the question of ‘home’ came from for me; what its roots and tendrils were—how it came to be formulated out of the kaleidoscope of my own early experiences and ruminations.  Everyone has their own personal history with a home, lack of a home, moving from home to home or desiring a new home.  My questioning arose through an experienced comparison between my own natal home with my parents and sister and my grandmother’s home on a farm in central PA.  These were two positive instances of home, though different.  The question of home then emerged as a literary and philosophical question in the early 1980's, just as I was awakening from my dogmatic slumbers; coming into my own as a thinker and writer—exploring the diverse ways in which people live and dwell and make themselves 'at home' (or not) in the places where they live..
The questions surrounding the idea of ‘home;’ what home 'is' for us, why we value it, what happens when we lose it and what it might take to reclaim it – I consider to be deeply spiritual considerations; they help to form and impact how we live our lives and the play a role in whether we can live our lives to the fullest, or not.  The idea of a ‘home’ is one of those universals; we ‘recognize’ it, we ‘know’ what the word means, though it is extremely hard to define.  If we are or become wanderers and wayfarers in the world, it is often through contrast with being at home or ‘having’ a home that we find self-definition, though it is entirely possible to live a nomadic life from the beginning, to have ‘home’ mean something more abstract than it does for those of us who live in solid buildings.  Does the nomadic person have a more abstract concept of ‘home’ – or is their idea of home altogether a different notion of existence and how to dwell in the Earth & Cosmos?

I still think – though there are exceptions – that ‘home’ is the ‘home’ state of being and becoming.  Drifting, wandering, wayfaring—these are all things that a person does ‘away’ from a home or in a state of homelostness.  You have to have once been ‘at home’ in order to genuinely wander.  Yet wandering can be a positive mode of existence.  To ‘wander’ is different from being ‘adrift;’ which implies being homeless.  In some languages, to be a stranger is synonymous with being “un-at-home.”
'Home' is a deeply rooted experience in our spiritual and literary repertoire; one about which a wide array of questions have been posed, and into which many explorations and considerations; literary, religious, poetic, and philosophical—have been undertaken.  ‘Leaving home’ and ‘homecoming’ seem to me to be two nearly universal themes of human existence.  Most people have an idea what it means “to leave home,” even if they have never had a ‘good’ home, much less a physical building, to leave.  Most people will understand what “homecoming” might be, and desire it or not—depending on their personal and familial histories.  Even if the place we are ‘returning’ to is one we never in fact left, homecoming is possible.
“Home is where the Heart is,” the old expression goes.  To which I always want to add, “Home is also where the Hearth is.”  Hearth” and “Heart” are, for me, two of the most powerful metaphors for ‘home;’ they encompass both the emotionality and the physicality of the experience of home.  The “Heart” is not just the seat of emotions but the ground of being; our center, our fulcrum, our crux and vortex—the ‘place’ out of which we live and breathe and dance in the process of becoming.  The “Hearth” is an icon of the fire that burns in the Heart; it is a touchstone of the centered domestic life—all human affairs used to center around the Hearth and the fire lit in it.  On the hearth, food was cooked and near the hearth people gathered to keep warm and fed off the darkness.  Today the kitchen holds the place of ‘hearth’ in our hearts and lives, our fires being generated electrically or by burning natural gas. 
The questions “What does it mean to be at home” and “What does it mean to have a home?” I first brought to expression in the early 1980’s in stories I began telling about a family called “the Whittiers.”   I imagined this family living in western PA, having settled here in at the end of the 18th century.  The Whittiers initially emerged as a set of characters as I tried to work out a way of celebrating the Winter Solstice Season via what I called "The Thirteen Dayes of Yule (13 – 25 December)."  While I had been inspired to keep the Yule and celebrate the Thirteen Dayes in my adolescent years, and while it had Pagan roots and sources, in the early 80's I translated it into a more or less aesthetic and literary domestic setting; one in which I could play out all of my own best experiences of 'Christmas' – which were inextricably connected to the question of home – and also get to the philosophical taproot of what made the Winter Solstice Season so compelling to me as a symbol of home; as a locus for the living out and refreshing of “Heart” and “Hearth.”
Over time, as I fleshed out the story of the Whittiers, I delved more deeply into questions about the actual nature of 'home,' using the Whittiers and their life-together as a template. The history of the family – as I had imagined it – was formulated in such a way as to be fecund of reflection and remembrance, as well as speculation about the origins, loss and recovery of a ‘home.’  The Whittiers had established a home (in 1895), lost a home (in a fire in 1949), and then re-established a new home (in 1980), forging via their experiences a life-philosophy that was both earthy and progressive.  As such, the history of their life together became a pattern for the exploration of Heart and Hearth and the runing-out of the meaning of a home.
Heart & Hearth: Poetic Explorations of Authentic Human Dwelling in Earth & Spirit (2009) [Amazon] was the culmination of just over 20 years of narrative explorations and poetic thinking about the themes of home, homelostness and the reclamation or renewal of home in the course of the human struggle for authenticity.  Hearth & Hearth (2009) reflects on this history of home first via stories told about visits by various people to the old burned out Whittier House as it stood, abandoned, on the eastern hoof of Deer Hill prior to 1979. The text then moves on to stories and poems dealing with iconic experiences that defined the spirit of the family before 1949; before the fire that destroyed the first Whittier House. These are brought forth as the memories of family members, recorded by Robert Werner; a poet who spent his boyhood on Deer Hill, and Geoffrey Whittier, an historian and writer. There is a turn from homelostness to the recovery of a home at the juncture marked by a story called “A Fourfold Remembrance.”  After this, the text presents various images of the Whittiers and their new life on Deer Hill since their reunion in 1980 until the end of the 1990's, "dwelling together in Earth & Spirit" as they would call it.
At the center of Hearth & Hearth (2009) is a story called "The Legend of Nicholas and the Elves," which is said to have been passed down through six generations of the family and is now told and retold annually near the ‘hearth’ of every house on Deer Hill at the threshold of the Winter Solstice Season (i.e. on the eve of the Feast of Nicholas, 6 December).  The placement of the story in Heart & Hearth (2009) is meant to suggest that Yule and the keeping of the Thirteen Dayes are central to what it means for the Whittiers and their friends to dwell together in a genuine way; i.e., "to have a home" and to be living life to the fullest, to the best of their ability.
I believe that good fiction should play out questions that we all need to ask and reflect on, spiritually and philosophically, socially and personally.  It is up to readers to then respond to and apply what they have gleaned from stories they have read and experienced, with the hope of living better as a result.  I brought Heart & Hearth (2009) forth in the hopes of stimulating this kind of questioning about the nature of home and about Heart and Hearth as symbols and metaphors for what it means to dwell authentically.  Four years down the road from its publication, I am not ever sure that the book is ‘finished,’ i.e., that it resolves much about the nature of ‘home,’ but I still see it as a stepping stone on the path to deeper thinking—and I’m sure I will continue to tread this path, as my poetics and aesthetics are so wrapped up in this line of questioning.
I often return to the stories and poems in Heart & Hearth (2009) during October and November, as they inspire me to move through the Autumn and on_ up to the thresholds of the Winter Solstice Season.  The opening texts of the book are reflections on the ruins of the old Whittier House and the lost life of the family, and as I’ve said in other blogs at this site, I have long connected ruins with the experience and expression of Autumn; with its phenomenology—as Fall brings about the end of the growing season, ruins speak to the end of human habitation and present us with questions about the loss of home.  If I reach the story, “the Fourfold Remembrance” – by the end of November, it seems I am ‘in tune’ with the turnstile of ‘Thanksgiving’, when we are transitioning from the en-of-Autumn ‘Gloom’ toward the eaves of Yule, with its colored lights, festivity and (hopefully) an increase in human compassion and generosity.
As I watch the death toll rising in the Philippines, I trust in that outpouring of human compassion and generosity to begin—the manifestation of the best of human nature that will aid in the restoration of ‘home’ for so many of the survivors of the typhoon.  Beyond this particular instance of homelostness, my questioning about the nature of ‘being at home’ always makes me acutely aware of how many people in our world are without homes, or homelost, or in danger of becoming bereft of a home.  Philosophy – the “Love of Wisdom” – demands that thinking be directed to the betterment of life on Earth_ and that improvement so often begins “at home,” with our own awakening to the importance of home—and is then extended to embrace the whole of the world.  How else could ‘Wisdom’ be called ‘wise?’
During the coming Winter Solstice Season, may you explore the nature of home for yourself, discover your truest home in yourself and with others, and thus better come to dwell genuinely in the Earth & Spirit.
So be it.

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