Last week, while I was writing about the word that is the same in every language, (huh?), Marc was traveling back to Switzerland to confer with his PhD students and check in on our first-born. When he landed, he sent me an e-mail: “In Geneva waiting for the train for Morges…..all the usual emotions of coming back somehow…”
I asked him on skype later if he felt homesick. A little, he admitted. Well, we had lived in Switzerland for almost ten years, three years longer than any other place we’d lived before. I think I made a sympathetic noise. But I can’t really relate, because I’m not really homesick for Switzerland. I’m still enjoying shopping on Sunday and all these yoga classes.
That got me thinking. What makes a place feel like home? And because it’s the way my brain operates, I translated the word into French as I rolled it around in my head.
But unlike huh?, home doesn’t translate well. There is no one-word French equivalent. The closest I came up with is chez moi or chez soi, but even that doesn’t capture the full conceptual breadth of what “home” means to us Anglophones.
Its roots are from Old English, and both German and Dutch have similar words. I discovered that “home” is an example of a gestalt – that is, a concept whose holistic meaning is more than just the sum of its individual definitions. “Home” is a physical dwelling place; it is also the name we give a place where we put vulnerable people for safekeeping. But it is also so much more than just a place. It is a feeling state as well, one that has nothing to do with physical location. You can feel at home, or homesick. Home can be used as both a noun and a verb. It’s also uncannily similar to Om, the fundamental, original vibrational frequency of the universe. Coincidence, you say? I think not. If that’s not home, what is?
In an article in Smithsonian magazine, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes:
But whatever else home is—and however it entered our consciousness—it’s a way of organizing space in our minds. Home is home, and everything else is not-home. That’s the way the world is constructed. […] Some people, as they move through their lives, rediscover home again and again. Some people never find another after once leaving home. And, of course, some people never leave the one home they’ve always known.”
This certainly rings true, from my experience. When I announced to my Swiss yoga friends that we were leaving for Canada, one of them said that she thought it was important for your children that you stay put and set down roots so they had a sense of where they belonged in the world. Oh, well. Maybe our lousy parenting will at least keep a couple future therapists in business.
Another friend, when I mentioned I was writing about the idea of “home,” understood immediately. Oh, yes. When we went on sabbatical to C–, I felt more at home in three days than I had felt all the years we had lived in D–.
I have a German friend who feels she truly belongs in southern France. She’s miserable in Switzerland, despite valiant efforts to make it work. It just doesn’t feel right.
So far I have never found a physical place that evokes home for me as much as Northern New Mexico, but that’s probably because the smell of the landscape is hard-wired into my hippocampus. But I can honestly say I have felt comfortable in every house we’ve inhabited. Some more than others, I suppose. This one in Vancouver has a particularly good feel to it, but perhaps that’s partly the lack of a garden. I am no longer squandering any mental energy on weeds. I have never felt acutely homesick for any of our past dwelling places.
Maybe that’s because I’m such an advanced life form. I came across this Facebook post by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (yes, Buddhist monks use Facebook):
Breathing in, I arrive in my body. Breathing out, I am home.”
That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? As long as you’re breathing, you have a place to call home on this Earth, and you’re sitting in it right now. As I mentioned a while back, being truly embodied, being at home in your skin, is the ultimate challenge, the ultimate place from which to experience one another and the world.
Not to mention you get to share it with about 100 trillion free-loading microbes. Hey guys, make yourselves at home, why don’t you? Maybe instead of Home is where the heart is, we should really say Home is where the bugs are.