On Not Going Home
February 18, 2014 9:51 AM   Subscribe

On Not Going Home "Logically, a refusal to go home should validate, negatively, the very idea of home, rather in the way that Said’s idea of exile validates the idea of an original ‘true home’. But perhaps the refusal to go home is consequent on the loss, or lack, of home: as if those fortunate expatriates were really saying to me: ‘I couldn’t go back home because I wouldn’t know how to anymore.’ And there is ‘Home’ and ‘a home’. "
posted by dhruva (14 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This is good. I know it is specifically about international relocation, but there is a similar feeling even when moving between states in the US. I live in a major west coast city now, but I grew up in the small-town midwest. And I miss it constantly, every time I roll my eyes at the pretentious west coast twits and their locally-sourced-organic-bacon-wrapped-food-truck-whatever (with 600 Yelp reviews and an hour-long line), but frankly I can't stand it for more than two or three days when I do go back. To the extent I even recognize it - since nearly everyone I knew has moved away and at least half the businesses have turned over. That is one cognitive luxury of sticking around in one place; watching the gradual development every day gives you a sense of continuity that helps convince you it's the same place it's always been, when in fact everyone who's been away for a few years can tell you it's shockingly alien. Most of what I miss about my little corner of the midwest doesn't exist anymore, and hasn't for a decade.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Joey, I too come from the Midwest (Minn.) and now live on a coast (in New England), and visits back after twenty years all seem to include the same pang: someone will give me directions that are based around stuff that I just don't remember anymore.

It's equally bad whether they use landmarks and roads that are new since I moved away, or whether they use landmarks that they expect me to remember and which they simply can't imagine anyone ever forgetting.

How do I tell them that I have forgotten so much geography in so many places: the Twin Cities where I lived for 18 years, Boston where I lived for ten, England where I lived for 7 months, as well as other neighborhoods, towns, and campuses I no longer visit enough to recall? Heck, after a dozen more years in Rhode Island I am already forgetting stuff!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:32 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a beautiful article and I am in the same boat...a small decision that became an enormously large decision over time. And eradicates one's ability to return...as well as never really belonging to the place you end up. Pico Iyer is also the master of this topic.
posted by bquarters at 10:42 AM on February 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks for posting. I'm not sure that James Wood wouldn't have written something akin to this even if he was living in England. He's missing people and the spirit of place of places that don't exist anymore because he has grown old. His kids would baffle him with british teenager slang. He just happens to live somewhere else so it's easier to romanticise the past of a place which has moved on.

As I was reading the piece it reminded me of a few essays of Kundera's on the subject of exile and I went to find this from Encounters:

The second half of the past century has made everyone extremely sensitive to the fate of people forced out of their own homelands. This compassionate sensitivity has befogged the problem of exile with a tear-stained moralism, and obscured the actual nature of life for the exile, who according to Linhartova has often managed to transform his banishment into a liberating launch “toward another place, an elsewhere, by definition unknown and open to all sorts of possibilities.”

Even though I am living outside my country of birth voluntarily (not quite Harvard blues or a white boy but can't complain) that quote really resonates with me. Someone needs to write some compelling essay about *the need* to live "elsewhere" - James Wood seems to be a bit in a fog about how it happened to him.

Also, Wood got to keep his native language. That makes his life a lot easier but makes for a narrower opening in "all sorts of possibilities".
posted by Marauding Ennui at 10:44 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you, dhruva, from a global nomad.
posted by infini at 10:49 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you. I've never really felt at home anywhere; ever since birth I'm classed as a foreigner, forced to justify my right to be in the same space. I doubt US border control would ask me why I'm yet to be a citizen - most places want to get rid of me.

Can you be homesick when you've never had a home?
posted by divabat at 10:55 AM on February 18, 2014

Can you be homesick when you've never had a home?

Yes, but I think "Longing for belonging" is a more accurate way to describe it.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 11:04 AM on February 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Can you be homesick when you've never had a home?

Yes, there's a rootlessness, restlessness that's incomprehensible when younger but one learns to cope with it, wrestle it into submission and turn into a sort of creative fomentation.

You may enjoy reading this about Phoenix Rising: A Question of Cultural Identity and a snippet:

It has to do with fitting in and belonging, with my intent to be a part of society rather than apart from. It has to do with finding integrity and direction in my experience as a cultural marginal.

Cultural Marginality

Cultural marginality describes an experience; one typical of global nomads and others who have been molded by exposure to two or more cultural traditions. Such people don't tend to fit perfectly into any one of the cultures to which they have been exposed but may fit comfortably on the edge, in the margins, of each.

Cultural marginality is in and of itself neither bad nor good although the experience has the potential to be both. It is characterized by the potential for, on the one-hand, feeling at home nowhere and, on the other hand, feeling at home everywhere. Whether our cultural marginality hinders us or helps us depends on what we do with it. We can allow ourselves to become "encapsulated," trapped by it, or can learn to use it "constructively," as a strategic advantage.

posted by infini at 11:06 AM on February 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

Unsurprisingly, it made me think of Thomas Wolfe, who rocketed out of Asheville, North Carolina, and ended up in so many places, domestic (Cambridge/New York City) and exotic (Paris/Berlin), but never, but rarely returned home. Yet, there definitely was a longing to do so, even if he couldn't do it for a variety of reasons. I grew up in Charlottesville, but at age 17 my family moved to Surrey, England, and there I spent a year in protest, demanding that I be allowed to return home for my senior year of high school. To my parents' credit, they conceded, and only even after living away for approximately a year, when I did return home, the home I had left had already started to change. The place in my memory had already begun to drift away, if only by finding myself on the outside when my friends recalled a surprising amount of people and things that I had been absent from. A year later, I found myself in California, two years later, I was in Missouri, and three years from that, Arkansas, and on and on.

In all the meanwhile, Charlottesville slipped away from me, as well all my friends who had remained generally within driving distance. Tangent paths and what not, it's a slap of cold water when you drive to the mall, intent to visit that one store where you know you can find that one thing, only to find it gone. It can be staggering to the mental image you retain of "home' is ripped open by new knowledge that the old is useful no more. On AskMe, I hesitate more and more, when someone asks a question about Charlottesville, because I know that with every passing day, the lifetime I spent there is increasingly becoming non-relevant to the present.

The earth now remains my one solid grasp to the idea of Charlottesville being my home. The woods that remain, the hills, and the ever present Blue Ridge. Whenever I fly in or out from the airport, I'm ringed by the mountains, and receive that mental embrace of farewell or welcome home, from them, because I know that no matter what else changes, they will always be there. I have no desire to return to Charlottesville, it's too crowded and far more busy than the place I recall, just this side of a fun house mirror reflection, recognizable but different. Once you leave "home" you have already begun the path of losing it.
posted by Atreides at 11:59 AM on February 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm an expat. I have two homes: one where I live, and one where I'm from.

This is complicated. For example, the Olympics.

Significant things happen in the non-domicile home, and travel is difficult. Saying goodbye for the definitely last time is... hard to describe. (Fuck cancer.)

I wouldn't recommend going expat, but I also wouldn't trade it for anything. That is hard to describe, too.
posted by swr at 1:32 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I've never been a "homey" person. Home to me is where I'm sleeping tonight, not where I feel all snuggled and warm and safe and like I belong here. I've never felt like that about anywhere, though Hawaii at least feels somewhat like that because it has the "right" weather. (On the other hand, I'm a fucking haole and who wants another one of those to move there?) The place I live in now is probably about as close as I'll ever get to that, but I just don't feel all sentimental about being in That Place Where I Belong. Homes to me are where the fighting goes on behind closed doors, not a place of refuge.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:32 PM on February 19, 2014

Good piece. Thanks, dhruva.
posted by homunculus at 12:12 AM on February 20, 2014

Although no one will likely read this (they don't tend to after it drops off the first page of the blue...) this really resonated with me. Had this been released five years ago, I would have wrote a litany on this (wait, I did, writing my undergrad thesis on how a diaspora is similar to working-class kids who attend college in the USA)... Experiences that he discusses in the piece are also similar.

When I was first living in the States, I was eager to keep up with life ‘back at home’ – who was in the cabinet, the new music, what people were saying in the newspapers, how the schools were doing, the price of petrol, the shape of friends’ lives. It became harder to do so, because the meaning of these things grew less and less personal.

The difficulty to remain connected to your place of origin was also experienced by me in college. I went away for school (by choice), first generation college student. None of my high school friends were within a 100 mile radius of me. Attitudes change, life transition, your goals, and future no longer consist of the place that you grew up in..... but at the same time, in this new place of academia, I never felt completely at home.

But there is always the reality of a certain outsider-dom.

But I am trying to describe some kind of loss, some kind of falling away.
James recognizes that his experience is not as traumatic than others who are away from their place of origin, but it is a loss of home, even if was by choice when he first left.
posted by fizzix at 6:11 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would love to read that thesis if It's still available.
posted by divabat at 6:58 PM on March 12, 2014

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