At Christmas time, our thoughts turn to home.
Such a simple word: a noun of four letters, equal part consonant and vowel, easy to pronounce and yet almost impossible to define. Because to define anything brings in other words which must then also be defined, creating a spiral nest of definitions, each one seemingly moving further from the original meaning sought rather than closer. Those old enough to have carried home books from the Hawley Cooke store in a paper sack will understand this image all too well. And yet where did we bring these books to snuggle up and read them?
Is it a place? A country? A city? A geographical location like a street address or a confluence of longitude and latitude? A house, or a structure of some sort on a particular location? Well, sort of…but not exactly. It can be all of these things but need be none of them. While it is often a place, it can also move, and none of the above can move, not really.
Is it an idea? A notion? Some sort of intellectual or emotional construct that we take with us wherever we go, a form of personal nostalgia for something as yet undefined? In part, maybe, but this description is even more vague than before.
So rather than trying to define it in concrete terms, maybe it would be better instead to simply list some of the things that it is. Perhaps if enough of these things are listed, a meaning that makes sense will begin to emerge.
While it is not generally the place where we are born into the world or the final place we rest at the end of our time, in all other ways it is the place we depart from and return to for most of our lives. In the morning, we leave home to go do purposeful things like school, work, errands, or tasks of other sorts. At the end of the day, we return home. In between, we may be fully engaged in and happy with the things we are doing or not, but most people can hardly wait to get home at the end of the day, as if the purpose of the whole thing was the return to the place we want most to be.
Perhaps philosophy can help. The philosopher Alan Watts once summed up life in the biggest picture sense nicely:
There is a growing apprehension that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out. So to keep the farce going, the tubes find ways of making new tubes, which also put things in at one end and let them out at the other. At the input end they even develop ganglia of nerves called brains, with eyes and ears, so that they can more easily scrounge around for things to swallow. And when they get enough to eat, they use up their surplus energy by wiggling in complicated patterns, making all sorts of noises by blowing air in and out of the input hole, and gathering together in groups to fight with other groups.
In time, the tubes grow such an abundance of attached appliances and appendages that they are hardly recognizable as mere tubes, and they manage to do this in a staggering variety of forms. There is a vague rule not to eat tubes of your own form, but in general there is serious competition as to who is going to be the top type of tube. All this seems marvelously futile, and yet, when you begin to think about it, it begins to be more marvelous than futile.
By Watts’ definition, then, home would largely be the place where we tubes, having successfully scrounged for food, put things in at one end and (especially) let them out at the other, and also largely not be the place where we wiggle in complicated patterns vying to become the top type of tube, or, as Joni Mitchell more poetically put it, “chicken scratching for our immortality”; we tend to do our wiggling and chicken scratching outside the home before returning home to roost.
So is home a place we go to rest, to recharge the batteries to allow for more wiggling and chicken scratching in the days to come? Yes and no. It is generally the place where we sleep, but it is also the place we go to enjoy the rewards of our efforts. It is where we (if we are lucky) let our guard down, a place where we go to feel safe. And with this idea of safety, it feels like we may actually be getting somewhere closer to what home actually is. For it is said that a man’s home (“man” being used here in the universal sense) is his castle, his domain, which may or may not entail some sort of moat to keep the marauding bandits at bay. The business of wiggling and chicken scratching is competitive and dangerous, after all, and living in an environment of competition and danger with no reprieve would be exhausting. So in this sense, home would be a place for a person to safely enjoy the fruits of one’s labors.
But it’s still more than that, isn’t it? Because home also implies family, which means a culture of people who were raised with the same core values, the result of a historical lineage of family raisings and further proliferations of related tubes. At Christmas time and other holidays, it is extremely common for three and sometimes even four generations of chickens to pause their purposeful scratching for a short while and come home to roost together. And with this scene we are perhaps even closer to what home actually is than ever before; because despite the differences in the appendages of the tubes involved, despite the nature of their paths, accomplishments, and proximity to their particular esoteric immortalities, these tubes all think of their gathering place as home; it’s where they all want to go at such a time, and who they want to share their resting enjoyment with.
And as a culture, it’s even bigger than that, because almost all tubes eventually partner with other tubes, either purely for companionship or for the purpose of bringing new little tubes into the world. And as these individual tubes pair off, each gains not only a partner but also a new family of related tubes whose own culture of homehelp formed the nature of the tube in question, in effect making it a suitable partner. And if the tubes in question are lucky (as I am), they gain not only a life partner, but also a new family with a set of slightly different yet somehow still compatible life values, and with it, an expanded version of home.
So on this holy day, as we make our pilgrimages to our ancestral gathering places to rest from our wiggling and chicken scratching in a sanctuary of safety and acceptance and peace, and as we gather around the family table to put things in at one end, we should take a moment to reflect on the nature of that perfectly imperfect thing that we call home. Despite much wiggling and chicken scratching here, I doubt that we are much closer to having defined what it is. And yet here we all are, together, safe and sound and happy to take a small rest from our busy lives in this place for a brief moment. Does it matter that this thing, this place, this culture, can’t really be defined?
Whatever it is, it’s good to be home.