Home in a Heartbeat

Recently I drove to Pennsylvania for a weekend visit with family, and during the drive found myself communing with Zen master Tom Waits while meditating on the meaning of home. It’s an idiosyncratic concept, even a highly charged one. Having spent my whole career working with people who experience a high rate of homelessness, it’s hard to think about the concept of home for very long without being reminded of the extraordinary degree of privilege I’ve experienced. And of course, there are huge cultural variations in what “home” means: the United States is a highly mobile society, but there are many places on Earth where people live their entire lives in a single place.

Perhaps there are some commonalities. For developmental reasons, we all tend to develop some sense of “home” as children: it’s where we feel safe, tethered, and protected. For many, that is the dwelling in which we were raised, the family crucible in which we developed an understanding of who we are and how to enter into the wider world. For me, although I lived in the same house from the age of 3 until I left for college, I don’t think of the house itself as home. My sensory memories of the house have dimmed, but never my memories of the wondrous people who surrounded me, lifted me up, and taught me to face the world with love and never fear. That home doesn’t exist in a single physical place—some parts of it are in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Colorado, and New York. However, that home does exist as a very real place in my heart and mind, and to which I can retreat at will, in a heartbeat.

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Many of us, perhaps most, have some mental/emotional representation of home, forged in childhood, that travels with us for life. As we move into adulthood, though, the idea of establishing our own home can become thrilling. This can take many forms, and evolve across the years. I still remember the moment of awe I experienced when I realized I had saved enough money to rent my own apartment, fair and square, without help from anyone. I furnished it with thrift store finds and a few donations from my mom, and to this day I still have a clearer visual memory of it than of my childhood house. At that time I was making minimum wage and material things meant a lot to me—every possession I collected made me feel safer, somehow, and more real.

Eventually I had quite a lot of stuff (not hoarder-level, but far more than I needed), and there was a tipping point. I was no safer, and no more “real”. In fact, I realized all this stuff made me feel more like a representation of a successful person than a person truly successful in the ways I had come to value. And it certainly didn’t make my house feel any more like a home.

The stuff started to go, slowly but surely, and the effect, of course, was liberating. The material things I had collected had nothing whatsoever to do with home. Instead, home is really just the sanctuary I create for myself every day, with the people and experiences I love. Much like my childhood home, it’s not a place in the physical sense—it’s a process of developing the means to access and share love and acceptance everywhere I go. Once I began conceptualizing it this way home became a more portable concept, and theoretically that means I can be home anytime (in a heartbeat).

I still want a physical shelter, and hope I will always be lucky enough to have one that is comfortable, clean, and reasonably pleasant. However, it’s a much more utilitarian need now than it was once, and I invest a lot less time in my living space than I did. I particularly value the simplicity of a home that makes travel easy and more possible, and my psycho/social/spiritual needs are met primarily within my relationships to others, and to myself.

The adult years hold many different paths for all of us, and vastly different experiences. It took me years to realize my own current truth about home, and it may yet change again. At some point though, all of our concepts of home will converge in a more unified way. Without dipping more than a toe into the topic of religion, regardless of what any of us believes about what comes next after this life (heaven, oblivion, reincarnation/moksha, etc.), we all live with the truth that at any moment (perhaps this very moment, or some moment next month or next decade) we are all absolutely going home for good—in a breath, in a whisper, in a heartbeat.

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