Temples or Dragons?
Home. That word. That idea carries so much weight with us. What is home? We commonly agree that ‘there is no place like home’ as we have uttered these words throughout our lives. However, where that is will vary greatly depending on each person.
For some, it is as specific as the house we grew up in, for others it may be a bit broader to include the city where we went to school and made all our friends, and that umbrella of perception can expand to include one’s entire state or country. What’s more, home may not even be limited to a geographical location.
Where the original expression comes from isn’t pin-pointed to one place or time in history. No doubt many think of Judy Garland clicking her ruby-red shoes from the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Readers will trace it back further to the books of Oz written by Frank L. Baum where the shoes were silver rather than red. According to dictionary.com, the phrase comes from an early 19th century song, ‘Home, Sweet Home.’
[Sweet Home Arkansas]
Still, with enough digging we can see it start to take relevance as far back as the 14th century when the idea of family started to take precedence. Family life was thought to be a place where one could truly feel at ease with oneself.
We generally think of home as synonymous with family and what that means for us could be a place of comfort and familiarity or it could be a place of promised redemption or damnation.
There is no shortage of stories and odes to home in the form of movies:
War of the Roses
Sweet Home Alabama
‘Home on the Range’
and pretty much every country singer will have at least one song about home
Song of Solomon
Sweet Promised Land
Despite the firm correlation we draw between home and family, the world is getting smaller, travel is getting cheaper, and communication is becoming easier. Therefore, one must ask: Is there still no place like home?
It was just over a year ago when I went home with mixed feelings about what awaited me. After living in France for seven years and living in various other places since I had left home at 17, home was a place of family and roots but not a place that I ever felt I truly belonged.
On my return, I was both disappointed and satisfied by what happened and didn’t happen. One evening, while spending time with my mother, one of her favorite movies came on TCM, ‘A River Runs Through It.’ I had never heard of the movie or novel, but she made me watch it with her by suggesting that the movie always reminded her of myself and my brother.
The connection she saw in the movie was not lost on me. Norman was the studious and disciplined of the two, such as my younger brother. Paul was the more rebellious one who relied much more on talent than discipline. Even how they approached love and women seemed similar. Of course, there were as many differences as similarities, but my mother had been right. I too could see that my brother and I were not the only pair who seemed to be so different coming from the same home. Which for us was a small town in Arkansas, the Bible-belt of America.
[Touching, isn’t it? Of course, I’m Brad Pitt in this scenario.]
We grew up happy and playful. There was plenty of pushing and pulling and fighting between us, but love nonetheless. We survived school together, our parents’ divorce, and of course, each other. We fought imaginary bad guys in the forest and hunted deer and caught fish and learned to farm.
But just like Paul and Norman, we could not be further apart in spirit. I was not one to believe that laws defined morality. My younger believed strongly in the system of the society we grew up in. I was chaos to my brother’s order. The yin and yang of our family and culture beautifully displayed in our very different ideas about life.
As my father so eloquently spoke of us growing up, ‘I have two sons, one’s going to Yale and one’s going to jail.’ He was not far from the truth.
When I finished high school and left the summer right after at 17. I had no savings or preparation from my parents or my own intuitiveness about the real world, I started my first year as an adult thousands of dollars in debt from one year of university. Unsure of what I even wanted to do in life, I joined the armed services where I found more of a calling than any classroom had offered me.
My younger brother finished high school with a much better idea and better support plan from our parents of what needed to be done so as not to fail quite as badly as I had. He got into a nice school and had it paid for. Rather than joining the military service enlisted as I had, he went in as an officer. A way of following in my footsteps, but on a higher level, the underlying brotherly competition helping him to strive to greater heights.
Despite the seemingly similar interest, our paths began to diverge greatly. The same seeds planted in the same soil started to grow towards two different suns. Whereas I saw death in home, my younger brother saw life. Whereas I saw freedom and adventure in the military, my younger brother saw security and organization.
My brother and I rarely saw each other or even spoke. As time went by, we grew further and further apart.
My younger brother found more and more structure in his work, family, and religion. He was the poster boy of the American family. He became a successful engineer in his military career. He went home as often as he could and spent more time maintaining contact with all the family rather than reaching out for other connections or looking to create a new family himself. His faith in his religion only grew stronger and stronger giving him stability and truth in all that he did. He did not venture out often, and when he did it was with great planning and caution, be it for leisure or love.
I, on the other hand, grew more and more bold and distant. At one point, none of my family was even aware if I was alive as I had left the US military as a disgruntled veteran looking for a second chance in the French Foreign Legion, of course, telling no one. The first time I finally did reach out to inform my family of where I was, I had already been gone for quite some time and was calling to say that I was hospitalized in a foreign country after being injured in service.
After 7 years of being away from home and country, I was finally convinced to make an attempt to come back. I had decided to reconnect with the one person I considered that I was closest to, my little brother. I saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with him and to get to know each other as adults, as equals, however different, and to possibly find that hidden love that bonded siblings for life.
We were happy and excited to see each other. We caught up a little over time. It seemed as if nothing much had really changed.
I saw my brother as the same boy that I had left entering high school. Still the same timid boy that wouldn’t go into the ocean above his waist. Still, the smart young man that carried all his school books home every day. He seemed so innocent and so sure of himself. I saw the type of son I could have been if I had adhered to my parents’ wishes as he had.
I could sense, however, that my younger brother approached me with a bit of caution. He was perturbed at how I had changed, even the language I used seemed too foreign to him to see me as his elder brother that he grew up with. It was with a bit of shame and regret that he now looked at me as the brother he once imitated growing up.
In my absence, I could see that his emulation went from myself to our father. He cooked from our father’s recipe book without any diversion, and he found the greatest pleasure in sitting all evening in a warm, comfortable recliner.
The echo was stunning to me as I had only seen less and less of myself in where I came from, both literally and spiritually. Rather than the comforts of a recliner tucked safely inside a house, I would go for long walks on the beach listening to classical music and falling asleep in the sand under the sound of crashing waves and a view of the infinite stars.
As we spoke about the years that had passed, my brother seemed only interested in his new truck and his work and his investments. My points of boast came from my experiences such as mountain climbing and love affairs and funny, drunk stories with friends.
As we heard each other speak, I couldn’t help but listen to the quiet thoughts that weren’t voiced.
My younger brother must have thought, ‘Though I do not agree with how my brother has lived, I do envy the exploits and the scenes he must have witnessed. To have been as fortunate as he will all the opportunities he has had. I have worked hard for what I have and he has seemed to only play.’
While I thought, ’I am glad to see my brother doing so well. I never much spoke to him, but I thought of him often, especially on the many nights alone in foreign lands where I knew and understood nothing. It made me happy to know he was safe and warm and never suffered the cold and alone as I have.’
There were long days of silence as we each examined, admired, and judged each other’s lives. The days of fighting imaginary bad guys in the fields together became years of each fighting the imaginary demons in ourselves. Each of us hunting and fishing and farming for answers in our adopted and developed philosophies. Each of us pushing and pulling and fighting in deeper ways. Each of us looking for that unconditional love obligated to blood and memories and home. We had survived our worlds thus far, but now it seemed with an air of seriousness and melancholy as we stood beside each other yet again.
In the end, we looked at each other before parting ways in life one more time, unsure and a bit scared of what we may find in each other should we ever meet again. Ultimately allowing ourselves to find solace with whatever regrets or envy we may have held with our parting of ways and a firmer conviction into our own courses in life. We knew that we were home in different ways and always would be.
Shelter from the Storm
Though I learned that home did not mean the same for me as it did for my family, I grew up with their values and the same belief system of our society as they did. I could see and understand the appeal of creating a home in the classical spirit of the word.
A home can provide much for the soul that is strongly needed to make it in this volatile and turbulent world. A home in the traditional sense can make us feel at ease and provide us with a sense of security, because it is, in a certain taste, a temple we have constructed for ourselves to ourselves.
We take great care in giving our homes thoughtful consideration and devotion as we put them together. The furniture, the pictures, and even how we arrange the kitchen is a stellar constellation perfectly aligned to the image that is our essence.
We create our homes affectionately with matching colors, paintings, and symbols of our culture and past. We mull over which books to keep, which ones to display, and which ones to purposely leave open on the coffee table for a reminder that we need to read it again.
It isn’t really a surprise to see how we enjoy creating homes so much when dollhouses and legos are some of the most appealing toys as children. The fantasy of creating the perfect home life stays with us well into adulthood, be it in our real, everyday lives or in our virtual lives with best-selling games like The Sims.
Our home may not be as impressive as those of others or our virtual creations, but they are nonetheless ours and we earn and adore every piece of them. A long trip can easily remind us of our desire for something familiar, something safe, and something comfortable, no matter how many annoyances or issues that may bear with it. Because even the issues, the unresolved problems in our home and our lives, remind us of who we are.
When it feels right, a home speaks of our obvious and not-so-obvious characteristics, even if they don’t present themselves regularly in our day to day lives. A home provides strength where fragility may exist. It provides a theme of our current life. It gives us reminders in minute intelligible whispers of where we’ve come from to help us understand where we are today.
A home is a steady and organized physical representation of our deeply complex and invisible selves. To ‘know thyself’ is a goal we all aim to achieve in our lives and a home can provide a foundation on that journey to keep us grounded. Whether we call our home a box or a temple, it is a constant and subtle reminder of what we truly love and are devoted to in ourselves and in this world.
There be Dragons
Though I am aware and appreciate the values of having a home in the form of one place, I have come to learn that I may never find one place that can claim all my heart. I began to believe that I had been and always would be torn to every edge of the world when forced to define home.
I could not see any one place as better than another when asked and my only seeming solution was to see the road less traveled and to venture into the waters where the dragons were painted. To quote the fictional character Captain Flint from the Starz original series ‘Black Sails’:
‘This is how they survive. You must know this. You're too smart not to know this. They paint the world full of shadows... and then tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light. Their reasons, their judgments. Because in the darkness, there be dragons. But it isn't true. We can prove that it isn't true. In the dark, there is discovery, there is possibility, there is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it. And who has been so close to doing it as we are right now?’
— Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), Black Sails, Season 3: XXVIII
Being a former naval captain of the most powerful empire and military of that time, England, he became irritated and seemingly betrayed by what he believed in his once-beloved country. I can relate. Home was no longer one place or one set of ideals. And what can still be considered taboo today, he chose to pledge allegiance to no country, to no home, created by other men who wished to define him or limit him or tell him what he should or shouldn’t be.
It is most common to accept the world and play by the rules set by others, but there are still and always will be those who cannot readily accept the status quo of the home they were born into. Some of these men and women go on to live quiet lives doing the best they can to stay out of the way, some go on to write great works such as ‘Civil Disobedience’ and well, some become pirates and revolutionaries, violently fighting against the world.
I have found my spirit to be among those, but rather than outwardly trying to dismantle the world around me, I have come to find a new meaning for home. I may openly be disobedient civilly, but I do not wish to change the world beyond my own. For me, home is where the heart is, but said heart is not to be placed in a shrine or temple to come back to. It is within me and carried with me wherever I may go.
Traveling is something we often think of as something we must earn. It is the pleasurable part of life. A vacation from our normal lives and to perhaps better appreciate our life at home. There may be people not interested at all in what goes on beyond the comforts of their carefully planned, designed, and built home, but the majority of people will most likely enjoy a vacation once a year with the belief in the back of their mind that indeed ‘there is no place like home.’
But traveling has been discovered by many as a way to evolve ourselves. One can find an abundance of quotes from great minds from all ages and backgrounds from Mark Twain to St. Augustine to Lao Tzu. These free souls searching for themselves and the answers to life can be labeled as admirable or demeaning: pioneer v. pirate, immigrant v. alien, or pilgrim v. vagabond.
Studies have shown those who live abroad have a better understanding of themselves. Living abroad does not necessarily mean someone will become more self-aware than spending an entire life in one place. But it does provide an opportunity, if taken, to grow into better versions of ourselves.
Placing oneself in a foreign environment, especially alone, can reveal more clearly our skewed perceptions in life. It can illuminate the flaws of our learned nature.
If our home is the edifice that helps us remember who we are by displaying our personalities on our walls, then traveling strips away these walls to show us what rests behind them. It allows us to step away from the routine to reexamine and get a better perspective on who we are and our roles in life.
This opportunity is usually lost on the average tourist, as a tourist brings home with them. They will bring their work and troubles in their thoughts. They will bring a guidebook to follow the road most traveled. They will, fundamentally, come and go with nothing more than another check off a list.
To be a true traveler is to go with eyes open, no drawn-out maps or planned agendas to abide by. A sincere journeyer goes to absorb the world and its many faces like a sponge in the hopes that what they absorb will make them more complete as a person.
This could mean very dark times, struggles that cannot easily be escaped in the warm embrace of familiar territory and faces. Seeing through the dark, however, will illuminate what was once terrifying, unearthing growth and knowledge. It can teach us about the outside world, but more importantly, it can teach us about ourselves.
What we learn about ourselves will depend on each person, where we go, and what it is we have kept hidden in the design of our idiosyncratic worlds. A shy person may learn to speak out. A confident person may learn humility. By changing the background scene, we, in turn, change the shade of our own true color. With each lesson, we become one step closer to who we truly are. With each new place, we unlearn and learn anew.
If we have replaced our gods’ temples with our own homes, we should also keep the spiritual significance of the pilgrimage without the religious attachment. A pilgrimage was never meant to please a god by effort. It was meant to be a chance to go alone with no intention but to battle with whatever issues we were having internally.
It is a chance to complete a hero’s journey of oneself. It is to realize that the quickest way to ourselves, to our own heart, is to remove ourselves from the walls that have protected us for so long. To remove the wrapping paper that is our families, our country, or our god to discover the true gift, the home within ourselves.
Once that gift is unwrapped, we must be wise enough to leave the paper that attracted us to the side and cherish the gift. Rather than continually escaping into the ideas that give us comfort from ourselves, we must go it alone to accept the seemingly never-ending journey into the interior world to build ourselves as one would build an external home. To truly find a home in oneself means to delve into the uncharted parts of ourselves where there may be dragons.