I want to go home. I do. I’m homesick. I am tired of the heartless giants and wicked witches, fee-fi-fumming around and cackling about in my head. I want to silence all of their pounding and stomping and spewing invective about my lousiness. I wish I could banish them forever, but I know I can’t. If only I felt strong enough to ignore them, despite my unslakable thirst for assurance, then maybe I could find my place. I could get home parched but still intact.
Don’t worry, I haven’t been fantasizing about working on a farm on a dusty, gray prairie in Kansas, and I have no illusions about finding a bright and shiny place somewhere over the rainbow, either. I am also not hoping to stumble upon a quaint, fairytale land next to a castle. And I definitely have not been searching for a way to travel back in time to some non-existent, nostalgic place from my youth.
I’m just looking for a home that occasionally rests on steady ground. Somewhere that won’t be easily blown down by huffing and puffing, secretly inhabited by wolves, or carried away in one fell swoop by a twister. I want to feel safe and sound, and I dream about belonging.
I realize this is no small request, but I’m not asking for a golden goose or enchanted ruby slippers. I am also willing to climb down the beanstalk or click my heels together for as long as it takes to find my way home. All I want is for someone to promise me that it’s still out there somewhere. I need someone to assure me that if I hold on more tightly or stay upright for longer, I might get a glimpse of this place again, even vaguely on the distant horizon.
As naive and foolish as I may sound, my notion of home is not some place in never-never land. I am well aware of the fact that, in a traditional sense, there is no difference between “Once upon a time…,” “happily ever after,” or “There’s no place like home.” Still, I’m pretty sure that this home of mine is real.
Over the last five weeks, I haven’t posted my writing because I haven’t been able to block out the sound of those giants and witches long enough to accomplish anything worthwhile. When I get more depressed, those voices get louder and start to sound more and more rational. So, I feel less and less worthy of belonging anywhere, and soon the pull to isolate myself becomes irresistible. With all of that comes a deep desire to go “home” as soon as possible, but the more I long for it, the more homeless and insecure I feel.
Of course, the only constancy in anyone’s life is change. Everything that we are and that we may become is contingent. And with inevitable change comes unavoidable vulnerability and uncertainty. As Helen Keller describes it, “Security is mostly a superstition.” So why should I ever expect to find solace?
Yet, in all my speculating about ways to get home, given my current state of mind, I keep remembering these two separate radio stories that I heard last winter on two different shows. Both of these stories were titled “No Place Like Home,” and both were about distinctive women. Something about how these women improvised and invented opposite ways to survive and build their own “homes” seemed both remarkable and potentially even hopeful to me.
The first story focused on a woman who chose to remain “at home” in the very institution where she had been forcibly quarantined, jailed, and dehumanized. Ella (a pseudonym) had the great misfortune of contracting Hansens’ disease (formerly known as leprosy) before there was a cure. The US government kidnapped and “institutionalized” her when she was just a child, and she never saw her family again. As a result, the only “home” Ella ever really knew was the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, and the only family who had never abandoned her were the other patients who had suffered along with her. Decades later, once Ella’s freedom was finally restored, she along with many of the other patients decided to stay at the Carville facility. “The Secret People,” as they called themselves, preferred to live together in their home away from the world that ostracized, imprisoned, and then disregarded them.
The other radio story was about Giulietta Carrelli, a woman with schizoaffective disorder who opened her own deliberately unusual, but now quite popular, coffee shop called Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club—Trouble for short. Although Carrelli is credited with starting the artisanal toast craze, her shop was not the result of her desire to serve others or to discover the latest foodie trend. After years of frequent disorienting and debilitating psychotic episodes, Carrelli needed to figure out how to create some order, security, and reliability in her life. And so, Carrelli established her own business. This, in turn, allowed her to develop the combination of routine, flexibility, and community that she desperately needed. Trouble has only four main items on its menu: coffee, whole Thai coconuts, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, and cinnamon toast. Each of these foods relates to or represents particular ideas and important experiences from Carrelli’s life. According to her, these foods not only comfort and nourish people; they encourage friendly social interactions.
Unlike Ella, who wanted or felt she needed to limit her social circle to the people with whom she shared the same extremely painful and relatively unique experiences, Carrelli tries to surround herself with as many different people as possible. By creating a web of loose ties to people who can recognize her without having to know her intimately or depend on her entirely, Carrelli has built her own system for keeping herself safe and grounded. For Carrelli, Trouble is “home.”
While I have been considering Ella and Carrelli, I have also been contemplating a quote of Maya Angelou’s that resurfaced for me shortly after her death. Angelou proposes that “you only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.” In a way, Angelou is affirming the limitlessness of possibilities. If you look at her words through a depressed person’s eyes, though, she is also suggesting that the search for a sense of belonging is pointless.
Hence, having resigned myself to the veracity, melancholy, and disquieting nature of Angelou’s words, I started reading The Wisdom of Insecurity. I figured if I needed to get used to not-belonging and uncertainty, Alan Watts’s book was as good a place to start as any. Watts asserts that, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” When I read that, I thought, “Yes, yes, I know,” and I genuinely wanted to accept Watts’s interpretation of reality. I still couldn’t help cringing, though, as I imagined myself awkwardly dancing alone. But then, for some reason, I randomly decided to turn back to something I had underlined in a previous chapter: “The legitimate use of images is to express the truth, not to possess it.”
It didn’t happen magically or instantly, but somehow this line of thinking shifted something for me. I started to reconsider the possibility that a trail home might still be out there. Maybe, just maybe, some of those breadcrumbs hadn’t been gobbled up, washed away, or disintegrated—yet. Ella and Carrelli had clearly demonstrated that your home can not only be anywhere you want, it can also be with whomever and whatever you like. Even though I know I can’t “dance with change” (or anything else for that matter), I can kind of remember what it felt like “to plunge in,” get lost, and feel at ease in the process of drawing or writing something.
When I get lost in my work, something settles. This idea of getting lost or settling reminded me of something that Philip Guston says in a documentary that I saw more than 15 years ago. Guston talks about the “studio ghosts” that linger in your mind as you begin working on your art. He says, “there are a lot of people in there with you—your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics… And one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.”
I picture the voices in my head as giants and witches, not ghosts, but I too have had moments when I have been working on photographs, collages, drawings, journal entries, and now blog posts when my expectations and my regrets become quieter. They don’t quite leave in the way that Guston describes it. They sort of retreat to the sidelines instead. If I am lucky, though, when those demanding voices are in their proper places, such that the past is faintly in the background and the future, in the foreground, is blurry and out of focus, I sometimes steal a piece of now. In those moments, I get to express my truth without trying to control it, pin it down, or possess it. And just like that, I feel unthreatened, lucid, open, included, and at home.