October 25, 2014

Coming Home, Going Home

Let’s begin with the following extract:
I wanted everything to remain the same. Because this, too, is typical of people who have lost everything, including their roots or their ability to grow new ones. They may be mobile, scattered, nomadic, dislodged, but in their jittery state of transience they are thoroughly stationary. It is precisely because you have no roots that you don’t budge, that you fear change, that you’ll build on anything, rather than look for land. An exile is not just someone who has lost his home; he is someone who can’t find another. Some no longer even know what home means. They reinvent the concept with what they’ve got, the way we reinvent love with what’s left of it each time.
I have a habit of marking passages I deem important with little Post-its—a habit that has made more and more of my books look like paper shredders. André Aciman’s essay collection, False Papers, however, only has one such Post-it poking out from between its pages. Underlining sentences and accumulating marginalia are also part of my reading routine, which means I had more thoughts on Aciman’s book, but a Post-it symbolizes more than my agreement (or disagreement) with a particular idea of a particular writer; it indicates that I’m not quite done mulling over the marked passage. The Post-its are the breadcrumbs I leave behind so that I can find my way back. I have re-read the above passage from the essay “Shadow Cities” several times, but even though it has repeatedly welcomed my return, I feel like I’ve barely come close to home—which is ironic considering Aciman’s message.

I have not lost everything, nor am I an exile. But I’ve lost some things (though looking back it probably makes sense to say that I’ve never actually had them in the first place) during my frequent relocations. The rootlessness of my upbringing—though there were times when I felt like I had the soil my parents brought around with their travels dumped on me: artificial rooting—has made me very uncomfortable with the idea of “home.” Even though the sense of discomfort has diminished over the years, the idea of having one permanent connection to a place (and an obligation to that place) still ignites a sense of fear within me. Perhaps this fear is the result of years of artificial rooting. The unnatural process created an image of a dead end in my mind. And where there is a dead end, one has no choice but to turn back. But where to?

This is probably why Aciman’s reflection of his own experience doesn’t quite satisfy me. Despite my reservations towards having a home (or even the mere idea of it) I secretly long to find a place I can call home. I long to experience and understand it. I’d like to believe that it is not as permanent as I had imagined it to be. But at the same time I also hope that it isn’t so replaceable that it can be reinvented. “It is precisely because you have no roots that you don’t budge, that you fear change, that you’ll build on anything, rather than look for land,” Aciman wrote. Yes, I do fear change, but do I want to build on anything to establish my sense of belonging? No, not anymore. It can’t be anything. It has to be something very specific. If it’s not a place, then let it be a person. If it’s not a person, let it be a culture. If not’s that either, let it be a job. Whatever it may be, let there be a commitment.

My curiosity now urges me to retrace another trail of breadcrumbs. This time, it takes me back to a few lines in Joseph Brodsky’s “After a Journey, or Homage to Vertebrae.” Now, it’s important to note that Brodsky was, like Aciman, an exile. But the way they viewed their shared fate was different. Both Brodsky and Aciman have been in numerous parts of the world since they were forced to leave their respective homelands, but Brodsky’s experience of nomadism brought him (and me) to a closer understanding of “home.” Upon his return to his adopted home after a work-related trip to Rio, he wrote:
Of course, Rio is more chic than Sochi, the Côte d’Azur, Palm Beach, or Miami, regardless of the thick shroud of exhaust fumes, all the more unbearable in the local heat. But—and this may be the most important point—the essence of all my travels (their side effect, rather, turning into their essence) is in returning here, to Morton Street—in a more and more minute elaboration of the new meaning invested in my notion of “home.” The more often you return to it, the more real this doghouse becomes. And the more abstract are the lands and waters I sashay through.
“The more often you return to it, the more real this doghouse becomes. And the more abstract are the lands and waters I sashay through.” Though there is a hint of bitterness in the word he uses to call his own house (i.e. doghouse), there is no hint of denial. Brodsky’s idea of home was strengthened by other places. Following his train of thought, it seems that the more you fill yourself with the foreignness of unfamiliar places, people, and things, the more tools you have to make sense of whatever waits for your return. Home not only exists, but also expands due to that understanding.

It now occurs to me that the reason why Aciman’s passage seemed incomplete: he blatantly declared the impossibility of discovering/rediscovering home, or at least a homebase. Would it be right to say that home is not one point, but the sum of many points? Or to use another analogy, is home nothing more than a container that increases in value the more we fill it with what we bring back with us?    

But what if it’s none of those things? What if home is something we won’t come across until the very end of our journey? What if I (along with Aciman and Brodsky) have been looking at this problem from the wrong angle? What if home isn’t a place to return to, but to go to—that it is not the point where it all began, but the point where it all stops? As grim as this may sound, what if a person’s true home is Death? After all, death outlives life.