[A work in progress, a freewrite of sorts]
To work on my PhD, I’ve come back “home” to my birthplace in Syracuse. I’ve even come “home” to my parent’s house, where I grew up. I suppose I’ve always been hyper-sensitive to ideas of home. What it is. What it means. And now I’m experiencing a certain renaissance of that sensitivity.
I suppose I awoke one day from a more unquestioning view of home when I traveled abroad alone for the first time. Something about traveling alone–the hotel rooms, the airports, the isolation–brings on such thoughts. Particularly because I had to spend the night sleeping in Newark Airport, shivering from the air-conditioned cold and woken up every view minutes by an automated message.
Before that, though, it began by looking at the workers as the airport drifted into evening hours. With fewer people there, the isolated workers stood behind empty lines. In the gray and metal guts of this whale, we stood, all of us just there by chance, all strangers.
New walls are like strangers. They are alien and unfamiliar. Unwelcoming. Distant. People try to make a place homey by painting it certain colors. By getting comfortable chairs. By getting paintings by Mary Cassatt or Monet, maybe.
But what is it about that chair we sit in at our favorite cafe, that parking place we always park in, that bench we always sit at in the park? Why are we so attached to bits of wood or blacktop? So pissed off when someone robs us from our place? And feel so alienated by new walls, even if they have nice, warm paint?
Places have memories, like people, and like people’s, they fade. Trees with hearts carved by pocket knives get blown over by summer storms. New growth fills once-empty hiding spots. Buildings get weather-stained and worn. The “regulars” we knew in a place shift. Drawn to different places without goodbyes.
I once wrote in a journal that home is a geography. It is a concrete place. At the time, I was traveling a lot. And it is, I think. It is a place. Like a parking space or a bench. But like Heraclitus’ river, it’s always changing. It’s always becoming something that isn’t home. Like entropy. Shifting away from us, as we grapple and try to impose home on the world, onto the raw, living geography of a place.
My dad is a child psychologist, and one of the tests he gives is having a child draw a house and a family. The kids scrawl doors with heavy padlocks, families missing fathers, a grave for a dead dog, terrifyingly tall mothers, fences “for keeping bad guys out,” monstrous siblings, smiling stick-figures holding hands. He interprets the image using certain criteria.
It reminds me of a short story by Varlam Shalamov called “A Child’s Drawings.” The narrator finds a child’s drawing book. At first, he thumbs through the pictures of the countryside. Bright, crayoned-on sunsets. Then barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and planes start to cover the pages.
In the end, another guard comes and throws out the notebook because they can’t burn it, where it gathers frost on trash heap.
The iconography of a child’s drawing. It’s hues and stick-figure people. It’s trapezoid houses. It’s fences and locked doors. It’s smiles. Permeated by “home,” whether that home is a mansion on a hill or an apartment in a war zone. Whether it is filled with trauma or love.