When I was seventeen years old, my father and I drove together from Maine to Southern California, where I was going to be attending college. Back then I was your typical rebellious teenager, and the two of us were definitely headed into some of the more rocky moments of our relationship – which certainly made for some tense moments on the road. One highlight of the trip for both of us, however, was when we cruised through Nashville (Tennessee) to check out the home where we lived during the first 3 years of my life. We rang the bell, and the at-the-time current owner graciously let us in to look around. It was amazing how familiar everything looked to me, how something as simple as the single step down into the sunken den could bring back a flood of memories from such an early time in my life.
In the spirit of such an adventure, the journey back to a place once called home, Tonya and I stopped in Augusta (Maine) on our way back from MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair last night. At a minimum I wanted her to see the house where I grew up, and I hoped that perhaps the current inhabitants would see this new, young family at the door (us), and invite us in to see what it all is like now, some fifteen years since the last time I had been inside the home. Their hearts would be warmed by the sight of us standing there with our 8-month-old baby in our arms, and they’d offer us tea while asking me all sorts of questions about what life in the “Mayfair” community of Augusta used to be like in it’s heyday.
Well…it didn’t exactly play out that way. Initially it appeared that no one was home, but it became clear as we approached that the current occupants like to live with as few lights on as possible. They’re great conservers of energy! Hell, even the doorbell was missing that little pink glow that lets you know it’s working, but we pushed it anyway. Once. No answer. Twice. Still no answer. Suddenly Tonya sees movement in one of the windows, and the door is opened.
Now I realize that it’s not every day that someone comes to your door and says that they used to live in your house. But if someone ever does that to you, please at least show them the courtesy of a LITTLE enthusiasm – or at least a smile – anything to acknowledge the common humanity between the two of you, the need for shelter, the fact that you both happened to be/have been sheltered by the same roof and four walls. The guy who answered the door at my old house was perplexed, and, strangely, nervous. Maybe it’s because he recognized that the house wasn’t looking so good – from the looks of it, he wasn’t really a “maintenance” inclined sort of guy. It becamse immediately clear to me that actually entering the home was going to be out of the question, so I just asked him if he wouldn’t mind my showing my wife around the yard. “I guess that’d be ok,” he said. “As long as it’s around the yard.” In other words, ain’t no friggin’ way you’re coming through this doorway. But ok, at that point, I didn’t really WANT to be in that house anyways.
So off to the yard. The trees that we planted 30 years ago were enormous – good and bad, as they seemed to be blocking some much-needed sun, and the back and side lawns had become mostly moss. There was a forest where our garden used to be, the field of blackberry bushes was gone – replaced by a nice new cookie-cutter cape. The apple tree was sharing its bounty with the ground – looking back on it we should have picked some of the ones still in the tree. We looked for the spot where I had buried “Leon”, my pet chameleon (actually he was an anole), and even though it had vanished I said a little prayer for his tiny green (or brown) self, hoping that his next life was treating him better than I was capable of back when I was in 3rd grade.
I realize that all of this sounds a bit…depressing. It was and it wasn’t. I loved being there with Tonya and Dash, showing them the spots where my sister and I spent so many of our younger days with our parents, who were together at the time. I loved describing it to her, how it was back when that house was new and full of the same promise that a new family, young and recently transplanted from Tennessee had brought along with them. I loved the real experience of it – how my perspective on that house has totally changed, how my perspective on the life that I lived there has totally changed.
And yet it was sad. I missed that house, and it just looked so vacant, so reluctantly housing the awkward-and-somewhat-down-and-out-looking dude who lived there with his wife and cat. Neither I nor the house could have predicted what our lives would hold in store for us – and I wondered if my house was wishing for another family like ours had once been – full of life, full of possibility. I do hope that my footsteps felt as familiar to the yard as the yard felt to my footsteps, that it felt a rekindling of old passion, old hope, old zeal for life.
Tonya and I walked down my old street, and we got inspired upon hearing the father of an old friend of mine out in his back yard. We climbed the rock wall, snuck through a hole in his hedge, and came upon him closing up the pool for the season. And who was there to help him but his son, Jared, the first real friend that I had here in the state of Maine! We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time – perhaps as many as ten years – so we all stood around the pool, swapping stories from the past decade and introducing each other to our new families (Jared is recently married with a son).
In those moments of conversation it was easier to see how I could personify my house all I wanted to, but that my true “home” is something that I carry around with me wherever I go. “Home” is night-after-night of playing Trivial Pursuit next to the pool with a group of friends, is the love a 3rd-grader feels for his deceased chameleon, is figuring out how to consume all the zucchinis in a bountiful garden, is having wondered whether or not you could bend the young birch tree and use it to slingshot yourself across the neighborhood. “Home” is riding your bike up the dark street as quickly as possible so as to evade the monsters lurking in the shadows, is watching your parents drive away en route to the hospital (again), is…basically is everything that happened, everything we all did “back then”, the memories of feeling that created the core fabric of our existence. Sure, there are things to mourn, things to be missed, things to regret, things to relish. In the present moment, any of those options are your choice.
The important thing is to recognize that here and now your home is what you choose to do with yourself and with the people around you. Home doesn’t exist in a building, no matter how well-designed it is. Home is being present, is making choices that keep you off autopilot and that add to your core experience. Your core has the capacity to grow and grow – such that each step of the way you are coming from your center – your center just keeps getting bigger. When we function on autopilot, though, our core becomes just a tiny portion of our overall experience, adding to the potential feeling of alienation. But it’s your participation in the present moment that will help you stay connected and feel like you’re at home.
For all I know, the dude who moved into my old house saw it there, nestled in its own private mysterious grove of overgrown pine trees, saw the empty dog kennel in the back yard, saw the moss growing where grass used to be, saw the siding peeling away from the garage, and thought “Ah. Perfect! Just like home.”