The way home
My time as a resident of this East Coast city is coming to an end. Already my apartment floor is scattered with packed and half- packed boxes. On this last evening I have come down to the river for a short rest, to sit among the reeds along the bank. From the town across the river, lights bob and float and keep their place, moored in the calm water. I am alone, absorbed in the quiet and the dark view.
After three months of working on a newspaper in this city, I am going "home," across nearly 3,000 miles of America. Yet I have come to know this city well, to grow comfortable in its surroundings, to give myself to its demands of weather and temperament. This time I have not been a stranger.
There have been other times. I stare out at the lights of the town across the river, envisioning myself on that far bank -- two years younger than I am now. I think if there were a bit more light I am now. I think If there were a bit more light I could see myself walking along the bank, or sitting on a bench watching the lights of airplanes as they lifted into the freedom of the sky.
Two years ago I first left my home on the West Coast to come East, with no job and little enough money. I sought to escape what I though was a confining environment, to know myself more vividly alive. For two weeks I lived in a tall , narrow rooming house in the town across the river. The house was a little sadder because all the cliches were so scrubbed and clean -- the peeling wallpaper, the threadbare armchairs. At times I seemed to move almost in a dream, unable quite to grasp the reality of the people and events surrounding me.
One of my few pleasures -- and one of my sharpest memories -- was preparing breakfast in the tiny communal kitchen with a window facing the east. I would sit at the small table by the window, watching the brilliant morning sun forming patterns across my moving fingers. Never had the sun felt so cold before. Yet it was keen and bright, making the things it touched somehow more solid to me.
One morning after breakfast I headed for the library, and happened to run across some of the writings of N. Scott Momaday, an American Indian living in California. Skimming through a book I had read sometime earlier, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," I found this passage:
"Once in his life a man [or woman] ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk."
I suddenly realized that I had force myself to abandon a crucial vision of home, without having known how dear the vision was to me. I spent much time, that day remembering the familiar western landscape. In an hour I watched the seasons turn -- the great green hills in rainy winter, the green trees and brown hills of spring, the crackling grass underfoot in summer, the deep fog and shoreside harvests in autumn. I remember imagining autumn with particular care, making mental notes for a future poem on the Halloween harvest in the coastal farmlands of the west: Dark the dryness of these hills, and then A surge is caught mid-shimmer on the land. Glint of sun on polished surfaces Is forth for it, and color is the sun Dush-hued; suns swell this hour upon the coast. Tied to soil no longer, vines as dry As summer earth, yet they contain the seeds Patience brings to further fruit; and time Is told in succelence. They wait to spill, Farm sheds dark jetties for their glis tening waves.
The more I thought about the Momaday passage, however, the more I knew that, on this occasion, the memory of home was not enough. I had made what was, for me, a great discovery -- I could return to love the place that I had tried to escape. Three days later, I was on my way.
Now, over the course of two years, I have given much love to the west, to its sounds and seasons and even "the faintest motions of the wind." And my home has responded by releasing me to seek the idea of home in different places. For home is not a deepening awareness of the place where you are, and memories that share that depth.
Here in the quiet of the eastern river bank, I think of the hot city nights when I sat by my window watching a baseball game in the street or waiting while the last dusk-red faded from the sky. I think of the mid-afternoon crowds splashing in the fountains on one of the squares, the dancing bodies and water shimmering in the mirrored glass of a nearby skyscraper. I think of the pale sunlight and sharp winds of morning, cutting across the dark facades of buildings.Or the calm contours of the city's arboretum, a short walk from the black steel trusses of the subway line. I think of lying on the grass of the outdoor theater with a friend, listening to a concert.
And I think of the rooming house, in the town across the river, where I first struggled for a reassuring sense of place, of reality.