I often feel rootless in comparison to other people.
My housemate grew up south of Boston not far from the ocean, and while she lives here with me in western Massachusetts, her family still lives near there. She goes to be with them on holidays and there’s a sense that somehow, she’s going back to be close to home.
When I was in Grand Manan, I stayed with a friens who was conceived in that very house 75 years ago. Other fisherman families had been born, fished, and raised their families there for several generations. Even some of those who didn’t live year-long on the island had some roots there or nearby, and therefore made a point of building a home on the island and going there for annual summer stays.
One of our conversations was about how to save Seal Cove, with its wooden buildings (many of them are on stilts to accommodate the high tide) that were once used to produce humongous amounts of smoked herring but are now dilapidated and in disrepair: start a non-profit, renovate, maybe create artist spaces there, etc. Be it Seal Cove or another place, the conversation often reverted to a building, an island, a lighthouse that was abandoned or not maintained, and how to keep it going. They weren’t fighting change, just expressing a deep appreciation for the past, the ways of parents and grandparents, and the wish to keep some of that alive and going.
The difference between us was very striking. I came from an Eastern European Jewish family whose homes and much of their lives were disrupted by the Holocaust. My mother’s father died in the 1940s and I barely knew my mother’s mother. My father’s parents survived but they were from an orthodox shtetl way of life that seemed unbridgeable. I wanted to talk to them about college and plans to leave home and write, but I doubt they knew what I was talking about. Their entire sense of safety was in huddling down with one’s family and honoring past traditions. My personal family did not feel safe and I had no interest in honoring the past, too consumed by forging new life paths for myself.
“Make a home wherever you live,” my old friend, Margery Meyer, once told me. At that time, she was referring to my studio apartment in Manhattan, with its faded used couch and toppling bookshelves. And indeed, I changed the furniture and throughout my travels learned to create a sense of home wherever I was. Bernie did that, too. If we only lived somewhere a short while, up would go the many pictures, the altars, the Buddha images unpacked, a million books, etc., and when we moved a short time later everything would be packed up once again. In between, we always felt at home.
Now Margery’s words resonate in a different way for me. “Make a home wherever you live.” What makes a home? Where do you find your roots if you’ve moved around a lot? I feel some distress at having so little connection with that old East European orthodox Jewish tradition, the generations of families that lived according to fixed rules and ways of life. My mother couldn’t understand how anyone would voluntarily step out of that world, even in a somewhat more modernized version. If I had found some way to maintain those connections, would I feel more rooted?
I was born in Israel, and whenever I go to see my family there, as soon as the plane lands and I hear announcements in Hebrew and Israelis’ phones lighting up and ringing, family members waving and holding up flowers in the airport’s big Arrivals area (before covid), something old that lay dormant for most of the year stirs in my blood, as if saying: I know you; I know this.
But it’s gone when I fly back to Massachusetts, and I can’t say I miss it when I’m here.
I have to look for roots elsewhere. I feel most deeply rooted in meditation. There’s something about starting the day that way that gives me confidence and purpose. Studying the sutras or other writings makes visible the long arc of this exploration, how a yearning that I thought began when I was 14 actually began much longer ago, that my roots and family include those men and women who have searched for peace and clarity thousands of years ago, people who also wondered what this life was about in the face of disappointment, suffering, and death.
Also included in this family are people who respond to life with creativity and laughter, who don’t just create works on canvas, in print, or in performance, but see each moment as an invitation to meet life creatively, as a new opportunity to let go, plunge in, and come up with a response you may not have imagined before:
You can’t find a carpenter to fix he back steps behind your office? Make something pretty there, paint them different colors.
You were going to make salmon for lunch but you don’t have salmon? What can you do with hardboiled eggs, avocado, challah bread, peanut butter, and pineapple?
You were going somewhere and the car broke down? Sure, you can call AAA, but you can also call folks and invite them to give you a lift, creating companionship and helping yourself remember that life is interdependent, you can’t live without them.
Those are the folks who laugh even in the middle of tears, reply to a gloomy email with a funny cartoon, who look at recent photos of the universe coming through the James Webb Telescope and remember the true proportion of things.
This is where I most feel at home. Some of us know our home, it’s in our blood, our parents, our century-old house, our children. Others of us have to find it again and again; that’s my group. Right now, home for me is a place of clarity and rest, but also a space where life continues to quicken in me, new ideas, a fertile imagination.
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