I recently returned to a place I’ve lived for almost thirty years, after spending a year away. You might think it would be simpler to say I came home, but my reluctance to use that particular term is what has prompted this piece. Because I thought about what ‘home’ meant a lot–as I navigated the move to a new province, established myself there, and then reversed the whole process a year later. The city I moved back to is not the place where I was born, either, which adds another dimension to this habitation equation. Is home the place where you began, or the place you have been the longest? Or maybe it’s just wherever you feel ‘at home’, which might not even be a place at all.
Robert Frost wrote a poem called The Death of the Hired Man that contains an oft-quoted line about home. It tells the story of Silas, an itinerant labourer past his prime, who shows up regularly at the farm of Mary and Warren, looking for work. This time he arrives he has big plans to “clear the upper pasture” (55) and he makes other ambitious claims about educating the younger hands in the best practices of farm work. Warren is unimpressed. He knows that Silas is too old to earn his keep, and, since he has a brother who is “rich,/a somebody–director in the bank” (132-3) wonders why Silas hasn’t gone to him for help in his twilight years. Just before this familial revelation, both Warren and Mary muse on the concept of home and what it means. Warren delivers the lines that have since become iconic (“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/they have to take you in” (122-3)) and Mary responds by calling home “something somehow you haven’t to deserve” (124). Two sides of the same coin, perhaps, as both ideas evoke the notion of unequivocal acceptance: home is where they take you in, even if you don’t deserve it. Silas is sure that he is welcome at Mary and Warren’s farm–that they will take him in and let him fall asleep in a hard-backed chair in the kitchen. And they do both of those things, knowing all the while that their old hired man will never rise out of his final uncomfortable nap. Silas has come to die in the place he feels most at home, and Mary and Warren accept that, despite not even being part of his immediate family.
Home, then, according to Frost, is wherever you feel it is, and I think I can get behind that idea. The concept of acceptance–of being among one’s social group–factors greatly in the definition of this word, taking it out of location-specific limitations and moving it to an emotional realm–where it may more naturally reside anyway. The term ‘tribe’ seems to have been co-opted to define this loose grouping of like minds, shifting it from its strict anthropological definition to incorporate “an unofficial community of people who share a common interest, and usually who are loosely affiliated with each other through social media or other internet mechanisms” (Wikipedia). This sounds like a clinical way to describe something that–I can attest–can evoke a lot of emotion. Let me give you an example.
I’m an unabashed fan of the CBC, and especially its internet radio station, colloquially known as Radio 3. Through its online forum, I’ve gotten to know many other listeners, and over the years we’ve moved from virtual communication to actual, overcoming geographical distances (intercontinental in some cases) to attend shows and festivals together. Invariably, these people have proven to be as interesting, intelligent and fun-loving in person as they have online, and I’m proud to consider some of them among my best friends. At a recent meetup in Toronto–a picnic in Trinity Bellwoods Park during the NXNE music festival–two of these people got married. There were a lot of happy tears, and also some ice cream. Russ and Cathy wanted to celebrate this milestone with their tribe, and I’m pretty sure everyone there felt completely at home. Because, regardless of our disparate dwelling places, our hearts were there in the park, and that’s really what counted.
Sometimes during my year’s hiatus in London, ON I would take the train to Toronto. A couple of hours’ travel would get me to Canada’s largest city, where I would spend the weekend with friends and good coffee and brunches and live music. I loved those trips for the energy they gave me, and for the self-empowering effect of feeling increasingly comfortable on busy urban streets. Sunday nights I would head back to London with all the other Western University students who had made this weekend pilgrimage with me. As the train pulled into the VIA station in London, I was surprised every time to feel a twinge of emotion. I felt happy to be back. But why? I had always claimed only temporary residency in London and I pretty much hated the tiny bachelor apartment I had crammed too much stuff into. My cat resented me for dragging her along on my selfish adventure, so a warm welcome was unlikely to be forthcoming. I guess it was just the familiarity of the surroundings that spoke to me, offering the comfort that comes with recognition. Because that’s part of home, too–knowing the landmarks, recognizing patterns. Whether they are literal or figurative, our minds recognize the shapes that resonate for us and our hearts align to them. And when we find the tribe who shares that alignment, we’ll be taken in without even deserving it.