This is the first of two columns on the idea of home.
Later this month, I will be traveling far from home. My wife and I will be exploring Nicaragua, a country we have been trying to visit for 25 years but year after year kept putting it on the deferred list. Now, however, we are pulled by opportunity and pushed by two realizations: now in our 60s and 70s, we are unlikely to get any younger; and Nicaragua itself is moving toward a point of crisis with totally unpredictable results.
But while I am preparing to be far from home, I find myself thinking almost obsessively of home—what it means to have and not have it, to find and lose it, to leave and return, or not. Like the visit to Nicaragua, this two-part column, too, has had a long gestation punctuated by repeated procrastination. So its time, too, has arrived.
During my first 14 years I had a home in a house that no longer exists. In the next 36 years, I lived in dozens of places, nearly one a year on average. Finally in 1990 I settled into the house in the Manzanita Mountains that ever since has been my home, the first home that was truly mine.
During that 36 years of near-constant motion I tried out a lot of homes and learned more than a little about what does and does not constitute a home.
For three months on the Hawaiian island of Kauai I was the guest of a woman who lived in the back of an old station wagon. We camped out in parks that were like pearls strung along the oceanside road that circled three-quarters of the island. She invited me formally to share “my home,” which she had decorated with curtains and doodads. Here in her adopted home she was in the midst of finding herself, which was something she had misplaced during a long and difficult life.
Lesson: It’s hard to make a home in half of a station wagon. In American Samoa, I lived in a cottage in a village right on the Pacific Ocean, a pleasant walk of several miles to my job as editor of the weekly Samoa News in the capital of Pago Pago. The serenity of my walking commute was regularly punctuated, however, by stones thrown at me.
Samoan children are taught from an early age to throw stones at those they don’t like, much as American parents take their young children to a firing range to teach them to shoot at people they don’t like. When I inquired as to why my Samoan neighbors had chosen me as a target, I was told, “It’s not just you. They throw stones at all the Koreans.
They think you’re Korean.” A bunch of Koreans had gone to work at the nearby tuna cannery. These despised workers were the only foreigners any one in my village had seen. To the villagers, all foreigners were Korean, even an American with a long beard and big glasses.
American Samoa, apparently, could only be home for American Samoans, although no one knew what American Samoans were—aside from being oxymorons who had ceased to be Samoan but failed to become American.
Lesson: Don’t try to make a home where you are mistaken for a Korean tunafish canner.
After he hired me, my Pago Pago boss immediately lost interest in the paper as well as his home in American Samoa and headed to Australia for an indefinite, perhaps permanent stay. Fed up with the warfare between my Korean and Samoan neighbors, I, too, fled, but not as far. I took a boat to the adjacent independent monarchy of Western Samoa (now the Republic of Samoa).
I stayed with a Samoan bar girl I happened to meet in the tiny island capital town of Apia, but after a while she took me with her to stay in a traditional village with her family. Their home was a round, one-room hut with a thatched roof but without walls, surrounded by other round one-room huts without walls. Privacy became a dream. When I went for a walk, my friend’s young brother was sent to keep me company because aloneness was a kind of curse.
It didn’t take me more than five minutes to realize that my friend was as lost in her village home as I was, even more lost than she was in the bar in Apia. She had left the village because she was a rebel who didn’t fit in, who couldn’t accept all the rules that bound a traditional Samoan woman to her family, her village, her land and, most of all, her past. My friend wanted to reinvent herself, but all that was on offer was a job as a bar girl in the dilapidated little town that James Michener had written about.
Lesson: A Samoan village is not an apt home for a rebel. Amid the seemingly conventional row of diplomatic buildings on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., I lived in the former embassy of Yemen, which had been sold to the top economist for the Securities and Exchange Commission, who converted his former embassy into a kind of hippie commune. We grew all our own produce, made 30 loaves of bread once a month, pooled our money for food and entertainment—and in the morning the seven men and women donned gray and blue business clothes and commuted to work. As a self-employed freelancer, I was the only one who didn’t wear a suit.
Lesson: Beware hippies leaving home in suits.
Earlier in Washington, I lived in the back of a townhouse facing an alley. My alleymates and I created a kind of private stomping grounds in our little alley. On summer weekends, we would close off the alley for casual block parties. All this took place one block from Dupont Circle and three blocks from the White House, where Richard Nixon was plotting the death of some of my journalistic colleagues.
Our apartments were so small and close together that everyone pretty much knew everything about everyone else, an incestuous intimacy that could not bear too much scrutiny. The more we became enmeshed in each other’s lives, the less bearable it all became.
Lesson: Too much community can ruin home building.
Most people have a place they call home although it may not much resemble our idea of one. Even the homeless encamped on a piece of dirt in downtown Albuquerque fight when evicted from the place they call home. For the “homeless,” a street, a park, an empty lot, a secluded site in the Bosque or a rocky hillside in the Sandia Mountains is home. On summer mornings near my house in the Manzanitas, I meet a couple of homeless gentlemen trudging between the shops of N.M. 337 and their homes, impromptu campsites in the national forest.
“My home is my castle,” the English say, and under English law, the source of our own common law, a tent under a tree has all the immunities of a lord’s palace. Sure, but just try telling a judge that.
Lesson: James Boyd found out about his castle on March 14, 2014.
In their generosity, the Hispanics of Northern New Mexico have told me, “Mi casa es su casa,” but the “casa” is their house that they open-handedly invite you into, not a home that you are given to live in as your own. Generosity cannot convert a house into a home.
Lesson: Su casa no es mi casa.
Although it sounds paradoxical, nomads have a home. Their home is not the back of a camel, although it may sometimes seem so—a traditional Tuareg is not a true adult until, from atop a camel, he can pour boiling water into a tea cup sitting on the ground, without spilling a precious drop. No, their home is the desert. The Tuareg call the Sahara, all of its 4,000-mile width by 1,000-mile depth, their home, and they are fighting, stubbornly and bloodily, in Mali and Niger to keep it.
Lesson: Home is less a place than an idea.
When my wife and I lived in Africa, we heard a radio broadcast announcing that the latest infestation of locusts in Niger had ended and the insects had returned “chez eux,” to their home.
Lesson: In Africa, even locusts have a home.
When we speak of home, we often talk in metaphors. We say we have roots, that we put down roots, retain deep roots. We describe the ties that bind. But these metaphors are two-faced, ambivalent, expressing more, perhaps, than we intend.
Take the idea of roots. One of the most significant differences between plants and animals is that flora cannot move and fauna can; flora are rooted to a single place while fauna are not. Even a one-celled animal like an amoeba has the power of movement. We are not plants. We can move. Like amoeba, our movements may not be willed. Refugees are likely to move because they are forced to do so. Expatriates may move because they are drifters at heart. Nomads may move because their culture dictates it. For a long time I moved, and moved, and moved again and again because I was searching. The ability to move is in our DNA; whether we do so is another matter.
Another metaphor linked to home is the “ties that bind,” the linkages that connect us to our past, our family and our culture. Ties, however, are not only connections to our past and to others but also ropes and chains that immobilize us, and binding is not far from bondage, imprisoning, enslaving. The 17th century English poet John Milton wrote of
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony
So which is home, connections or bondage, roots or immobility? Both, of course, and for me over my many decades—as for many others, even perhaps for you—it has been sometime one, sometime the other, and many times both.