Yesterday I spoke to someone who, after years in this country, returned to Ireland. “Did you return to take care of your aging mother?” I asked her.
“That, too,” she said. “But mostly, I came home.”
What was home for her? The brogue, the banter, the neighborhood, the people. The ways someone says good morning or gives you a cup of tea. The way she has a sister just down the block who comes over for a quick visit every day.
For a moment, my heart ached. I was envious. Home was so clear and palpable for her, she was happy to be there again. It had never been like that for me.
Yesterday, too, my mother celebrated her 92nd birthday in Jerusalem, Israel. My brother sent me a picture of her with four out of 5 grandchildren and two out of three children. If not for covid, there would have been lots of great-grandchildren. I’m not there.
He also sent me a video in which she describes the home she grew up in in Czechoslovakia and the meals her mother cooked for 11 hungry children: “There wasn’t always enough food for all of us, but what there was, was delicious,” she said. And she finished her brief talk the way she’s finished it for many years: “We had no money, we were very poor, but we were happy.”
Not all her brothers remember it like that, but most have died so there’s no one to contradict those memories anymore. I wonder if that’s how idealizations function. Once everybody dies, who’s there to bring up the contradictions, the contrasts, the nuances, the exceptions?
I don’t feel like my Irish friend. I can’t see Jerusalem as home, I can’t see Israel, where I spent the first 7 years of my life, as home. Brother, sister, and mother live there, and I would love to live a block down from them and have them come in for a quick visit, and I can’t see it as home.
I always envied people who knew what home was, who felt rooted in a place or a house, a local dialect, smells, stores and neighbors they remember from childhood. So what is home for me? Is this big house home?
I’ve asked myself that question many, many times. The only time I felt like I’d found my home was the first time I sat in meditation many years ago in an artist colony in the Midwest. I sat down and never got up again. Yes, In a way I never left that big armchair by the fireplace in my room, my feet on the thin rug, my arms on the armrests (I knew nothing then about where and how to position my hands). That day something flashed throughout this body-mind, and I knew I was home.
Some forty years ago, my friend Margery entered my small studio in New York City. We chitchatted, I may have said something deprecating about where I lived, and she sat me down and said: “Eve, wherever you are, make it home. It can be small and simple, I don’t care if it’s a monk’s cell, but make it home.”
She proceeded to tell me about her friend Eileen, who lived in a ritzier address than I did, with a dining room containing a portable bridge table. “And you know why she uses a portable bridge table as her dining room in that lovely apartment?” she said. “Because Eileen is expecting a divorce settlement of millions of dollars from her estranged husband, and till she gets it she holds on to that portable bridge table. She’s been holding on to it for years. Don’t do that, make every place you live in a home.”
And I did. Over the next years I lived in everything from small rooms in communal settings to garage apartments, and finally to this beautiful house in the woods, the only home I’ve ever owned. Bernie, too, made every place he lived his home. He’d be hanging up pictures and art work and organizing many books by subject even in places we weren’t going to stay in very long.
Friends and dogs are also pieces of home. I get on the phone with an old friend, sitting on the steps in the back in the immense heat we’re going through, bantering, and feel a piece of home. Or else I see Aussie lying on my office futon at 7 am before she turns into Saucy Aussie. She slaps her tail on the futon so I go over and run my fingers through her back hair. After sitting I’ll come back down and she, still lying on the futon, will turn onto her back, asking me to stroke her belly, but for now I just run my fingers through her hair and tell her how pretty she is. In those few minutes, I feel at home.
We pay a price for every decision we make, consciously or unconsciously, for the way we choose to live our life. If you’re as independent-minded as I am and was, following a crazy tune in her head instead of doing what she was told, you may indeed lose that sense of home. Or you may go inside, to where some deep truth lies, and find it there.
This morning, after two trips to Staples, I gave up and drove down to the Apple store in Holyoke with my MacAir and a computer console I inherited from Bernie because the two didn’t connect. I wish there was a store selling items that help me connect, too. It was my first time in a mall since well before covid.
While there, I remembered the first time I went to an Apple store with Bernie, stars in my eyes looking at all those gorgeous gadgets, including things I could barely identify. My iMac had died and I’d decided to get an iPad, which was fairly new then, but at some point strolled over to the other counter, looked at the MacAir, and fell in love.
The sales person didn’t make fun of my ignorance, of the fact that I was not from planet EarthTech but from some distant, primitive rock somewhere out in space. He was a tall, handsome African-American with a short beard (I love handsome men) and explained to me in words I could understand what were USB ports and wires, how they differed from regular electric wires (don’t laugh!), the concept of storage and search engines, etc. Bernie told me to get the MacAir right away, a year later got his own, and the two of us traveled with our indistinguishable platinum MacAirs all over.
But that first time I went to the Apple store Bernie had an issue with connecting cables, as I did today. The man who waited on me tried to solve his problem, couldn’t, and called for help. Next time I looked up there stood Bernie surrounded by 4 Apple tech staff, two young men, two young women, each looking like they came from a different continent, different skin tones, hair and no hair, tattoos and nose rings, as motley a group as ever you saw, all talking Nerdish.
The Zen master stood in the middle, asking questions, bantering, nodding, in seventh heaven. Bernie loved technology, and they loved him that day because they had to solve a complicated problem he’d presented them with, like students having to present a koan.
Bernie was at home everywhere except in the Land of Emotions. He didn’t look like a Zen master, he looked like his surroundings. At the Apple store, dressed in jeans, Hawaiian shirt and suspenders, itching for the cigar in his breast pocket, he talked Nerdish. On street retreats he looked like a hobo. In the zendo he was a meditator. For him, everywhere was home.