MY friend and I were standing on a hill near Boston scanning the downtown buildings, the Charles River winding past Harvard Stadium, and the athletic fields of an elementary school situated on what had been the last farm in Cambridge, its vestigial orchards and majestic willows still recognizable amid the succeeding suburban roads and residences.
"I wondered if I'd ever get back here," said my friend, who had moved his career from Boston to New York, to Chicago, and now, back to Boston. There was satisfaction in his voice, as if being here on this hill was the completion of a journey, the return to a starting point, to a place that was comfortable, that was home. It made his time spent elsewhere sound like a stint.
"It sounds as if this is where you think of yourself as from," I observed. It was. For him, this was the place from which he felt he had voyaged out. It was not the place of his childhood and upbringing. Not, that is to say, an origin, but the place he had the most feeling for, the place that reciprocated this feeling, the place that nourished.
I had been pondering this archetypal pattern of the sojourn - the journey out and the return to the starting point - as the theme for a reading unit in my high school literature course. In "journey" literature, neither home nor the journeyer are the same after the voyage: The journey changes the journeyer, and the journeyer changes home. When the great journeyers of literature return, be they Ulysses, Huck Finn, or the prodigal son, they feel no longer at ease. Huck turns right around and heads back to t he journey because, he says, "aunt Sally she's going to sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before."
Sometimes the journey is about getting away from home, and sometimes it is about simply getting to "where the wild things are to a frontier, an uninhabited territory where one can recreate oneself because no one knows you. These definitions of home and journey are as much external as internal, home as something you leave and the journey as out there. But what of the journey enjoined by those left behind? What of Penelope's internal journey of 20 years as she awaited Ulysses' return from the Trojan War?
My class mused at Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Ulysses, whose sense of the meaning of his journey and return home seemed heroic, but stereotypical and linear. Couldn't his wife, Penelope's faithfulness in the face of all those hopeful suitors, be considered "traveling at home?" The wild things came to her!
If she were to voice her story in a poem, how might Penelope define the "home, journey, home" archetype? We felt sure it would refer to the nourishment of the waiting hearth, which, neither voyaging nor tethered, was the beginning and the end of Ulysses' journey. The class wrote poems from Penelope's vantage point.
Ultimately, attempting to place home on either end of a journey seems like trying to contain a stream with a picket fence. The journey flows through home, and home flows through the journey. Walt Whitman's "open road" sense of it seems more practical: "We are wedded to the journey, and it is our home."
Robert Frost wrote one of the best known lines on home, and it's usually mistaken as his point of view. It's the stern equation in his poem "The Death of the Hired Man," when the farmer recalls, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, /They have to take you in." A friend of mine put it more gently: It is "the place where, when you arrive back from a trip, you feel there's someone to call from the airport and say m back!' And a place where someone will be waiting for the call."
Of course many a journey is a search for home, a search for a place to be from, sometimes due to estrangement from one's roots or purposeful disassociation from them. It's such a powerful yearning: to make a place just like the home you want to be from.
I've found that home pops up all over, being less a destination or starting point than a pattern of experience awaiting discovery abroad as much as in the familiar backyard. It's curious how transcendent of locale home can be. During my own sojourns, home came along in the form of the usual snapshots of kith and kin. But it also struck me how much of the essence of home turns up in our sensory impressions of new places. We experience what is new in terms of what is familiar - olfactory allusions for inst ance. "Home" appears as buttered toast, as the smell of steam heat, as clean sheets, or, the archetype of redolence for me, as burning leaves. It also turns up in peculiar sounds: the creaking stair, a favorite Beatles album, or the heavy "clank" with which the deadbolt of a front door slides into place.
I have found it easy to keep a journal while journeying and impossible to keep up the discipline while at home. It isn't because of the exotic nature of the journey, but because of a heightened awareness of home. My journeys, a long bicycle trip in England and an Outward Bound trip in Scotland at age 14, a year abroad during college, or countless wilderness hikes and canoe trips, have been experienced emotionally in relation to home. The journeys have felt like time away - originally from parents, then f rom high school and college friends, then from my future wife. That which I felt from told the story of growth and maturity.
It may be that for every prodigal son who voyages out there is the son who remains at home; perhaps they are two parts of the same journey. Both sons must learn that they have the father's blessing, and staying at home to learn that "all that I have is thine" may be a journey equivalent to the longest foreign sojourn.
Which is to say that the external journey is but a paradigm for the internal one. There's a lovely scene in Nicholas Nickleby - Dickens is a master of the literary sojourn - that always brings this point home. Toward the end of the saga Nicholas asks Smike, the devoted, crippled waif from Dotheboys Hall, whom Nickleby has rescued, if he would like to go home, wondering where the place is to which Smike would like to be restored. Nicholas wants to know where he feels from. "You are my home," replies Smike . He has attached himself to the goodness in Nicholas, the gentle love and generosity to which we all turn quite naturally for its intimations of home. This is what we most fundamentally feel from, and when found it feels as if it's where we've always been. And it feels, as the wife in Frost's poem adds, like "something you somehow haven't to deserve."