14 October 2009


Every year, the department in which I teach holds an "open house." In it, refreshments are served (the biggest draw of all--but don't tell anybody I said that!), faculty members plug the elective courses they're teaching and make some attempt to entice students to major in English instead of, say, accounting or physical therapy. It's an easy sell: After all, wouldn't you rather study something for which you need an advanced degree in order to have any hope of meaningful employment ( for which you might have to go to some third-rate technical college in Oklahoma or some such place) instead of something in which you can get a starting salary roughly equal to mine with just a bachelor's degree? Of course you would!

All right. I won't be sarcastic anymore. I actually like the open house, my aversion to the politics of the department and college notwithstanding, because I do get to chat with people I wish I could see more often. And, I get to read a poem or two aloud. Not my own, but that's all right: I take pleasure in relaying a piece of writing I love, however imperfectly I may do that.

In each year's open house, there's a theme for the readings. Last year, it was "social justice," for which I read two selections from The Spoon River Anthology. This year's theme is "home."

I've looked at a few poems and a selection of prose. Since each of us is limited to three or four minutes, I can't read them all. Each one of them feels as fresh as it did to me the first time I read it, which is always a good sign. However, I do find myself having a response I had never before anticipated.

I realize now that, oddly, the concept of "home" has always been rather abstract for me. Or, at least, I don't relate to it in the same way as other people might.

Now, I can say that I come from a relatively stable family. At times, I've wished that my father had been more present, at least emotionally, than he was. He has expressed that same wish in recent years. I tell him to forget about the past; now is the time to be the kind of grandfather, father and husband he wishes he had been. Mom and I agree that he's "gotten better." Even when my relationship with him was at its most strained, I respected him for one thing: He treated my maternal grandmother well. She always said as much; so does Mom.

At least Mom was always available in any way you define that word. For a few weeks before my surgery, and until I returned to work, I talked to her every day, sometimes more than once. When I was living in Paris--in the days before the Internet and cheap calling plans--we talked and wrote to each other every week. And through my life, I've talked with her about one situation or another I've faced. She may not know the particulars, but she knows my emotional makeup. Not very many other people could understand it.

So why am I talking about my parents, again? Well, really, when I think of "home," at least as I knew it early in my life, what else was there, really? I've forgotten most of the objects we did and didn't have in the places where we lived, none of which was as wonderful or terrible as I thought they were.

What I do remember are the some physical spaces and sensations: the almost warrenlike rooms of the apartment in which we lived in Brooklyn, the narrow stairs that led from the brick front porch to the door that opened into the wide dining room and kitchen of the house to which we moved, just a few blocks away from the apartment, and the strangely raspy grass that surrounded the house in which we lived next, in New Jersey. Those might be the memories of a home, but they are not home, or even pieces of it.

After leaving my parents, home became wherever I happened to lay my head that night. Although, looking back, I realize that I got a pretty good education at Rutgers, it is the time in my life I would least like to repeat. Even when I had stimulating classes or met interesting people, I felt as out of place as I did in a locker room or military barracks.

For a time, I felt as if I "belonged" in Paris, although I never could have claimed it as my home. That's still a stronger connection than I would feel to any neighborhood--and any dwelling--in which I'd live for the next two decades or so. It didn't matter how "good" the neighborhood or "nice" my apartment was: I simply never felt I could claim it as my home.

When you feel like an alien in your own body, what could possibly feel like home?

It's no surprise to me now that the block on which I now live has become a home. Millie, John and Tami adopted me, if you will. My place isn't the most elegant, and some parts of this neighborhood, which was largely industrial until recently, are rather ugly. But they've grown on me. At least the parks, the river and the Noguchi Museum are within a one-block radius of my apartment. And even more important are the people and the fact that I can now inhabit my self.

Yes, it's wonderful to come home. Now to choose which version of it to read at the open house. I have another week, I think, to do that.


EdMcGon said...

May I suggest "Where Thou art — that — is Home" by Emily Dickinson?

Jeanne Genet said...

I can relate to what you describe as having felt that you "belonged" in Paris, all the while not thinking of it as your home. I have lived in different countries for stretches of several years at a time and felt this same sensation. It is a strange sensation.