The Alienation We Feel When We Return Home

“To revisit one's roots calls from an upside-down posture which too often proves that the plant is broken.”
Laurie Lee

The gravitational force of our childhood home hooks us persistently with taught lines. Perhaps it is the promise this home will receive us. (Even if it didn’t in the past.)

Or perhaps it is because home is the place we exist in what physicist Alan Lightman calls ‘a mind of play.” (Home is where someone else does the laundry.)

Whatever it promises, home—may it be a house, a street, a city, even a country—is coiled around our existence. Maya Angelou felt this binding relationship and expresses it beautifully:

I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

British novelist Graham Greene went even further, suggesting all he ever was and would be was fired and hammered by his home:

If I had known it, the whole future must be lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets. […] Everything one was to become must have been there, for better or worse. One’s future might have been prophesied from the shape of the houses as from the lines of the hand; one’s evasions and deceits took their form from those other sly faces and from the hiding places in the garden, on the Common, in the hedgerows.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Photograph courtesy of American-Australian photographer Andrew Wurster.

What Angelou and Greene suggest, home is where we were forged, was more fully-developed by French academic Gaston Bachelard’s beautiful book The Poetics of SpaceSpace, published in 1957, was a systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives. Home, Bachelard argues, is where that intimacy is formed and thus, remembered.

The house we were born in is more than the embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting place for daydreaming. And often the resting place particularized the daydream.

If the house/home is where we were formed, then it also must be where we are known. The streets and buildings have a memory of us; we’ve left footprints and echoes. We shake the equanimity of place, and they ripple against us in return.

Of this mutual imprinting, Angelou writes:1

What sets one Southern town apart from another, or from a Northern town or hamlet, or city high-rise? The answer must be the experience shared between the unknowing majority (it) and the knowing minority (you). All of childhood’s unanswered questions must finally be passed back to the town and answered there. Heroes and bogey men, values and dislikes, are first encountered and labeled in that early environment.

Angelou’s words reinforce a notion I’ve long believed: our primary guidance to life comes from home. How do people act towards one another? What should we expect from authority? What does pain feel like? What does our future hold? Even What does a home look like?

We answer—often unconsciously—based on our earliest memories, our earliest knowledge. To acknowledge and question those answers takes a lifetime of skill, self-awareness, and, as Maya Angelou finds, resounding forgiveness.

It’s no wonder we carry a deep longing for home and feel adrift without it. We return home in search of something. Maybe in search of everything.

When John Steinbeck set out with his dog Charley to drive across America in 1962, a few years before he died, he sought familiarity. He wrote of his westward adventure like a man lost, even homesick.

“I just want to look and listen. I have not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage.” And later in the journal he writes: “What I’ll get I need badly—a reknowledge of my own country […]. It’s long overdue—very long.

However, when Steinbeck arrives to Monterrey—the heart of his past, the place he wrote and philosophized on notions of brotherhood that informed his entire body of work—he finds they’ve renamed the downtown theater “John Steinbeck Theater.” He is devastated.

One can imagine the visceral ache of a man who often wanted nothing more than to be left undiscovered and uninterrupted.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Wurster’s work features unpeopled landscapes of his home town, Melbourne. Common motifs include walls, closed doors, shut windows, barred gates and striking capture of suggested – but not seen – lives. His images evoke questions of home, community, childhood and the psychic nature of place. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wurster.

Although we long to, we cannot go home again. When we do, home feels alienating.

Why? Do we desire so much from this place it buckles under expectations? Or is it merely the inevitable clean sweep of time? We simply fail to recognize this old friend, and he us?

British poet, novelist, and essayist Laurie Lee was a profoundly elegant writer of our notions of home, its trappings, influences, and, most achingly, its disintegration into our past. After twenty years of never leaving his Cotswold Valley, Lee departed (on foot to London and abroad) and did not return for two decades.

Although he didn’t realize it immediately, his departure left an unmendable fracture:

They remember me best as I went away, more than a quarter of a century ago. I left as a turnip-faced grinning oaf, and returned last year, a bag-eyed poet […]. Of course one should never have gone in the first place. It is never really forgiven you. And to revisit one’s roots calls from an upside-down posture which too often proves that the plant is broken.

After twenty-five years I find the main changes in me and in the villagers’ view of me, but the village itself has come through the revolutions of that time with fewer abrasions than I would have expected. […] The village and its lore are still the world’s centre, the beginning and the end of truth, and everything that comes from outside is rung on the local stones before its genuineness can even be considered.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Wurster left Australia as a teenager to live in America but returned “home” in his 20s. Spending one’s formative years in a different country creates competing images of “home” and often means neither feels exactly right. This alienation is evident throughout his work. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wurster.

We are drawn to home because we are drawn to the parts of home we carry. Memory, images, and precious things we keep nearby and have endowed with meaning.

Except, the home we carry doesn’t change. We keep precious reminders of who we once were and what we did. We remember fondly. When we physically “go home,” these memories pale against brilliant realness (as happens when we “house” our memories in space and objects). Lee remembered home’s warm acceptance, but he returned to find himself an outsider. Steinbeck, too, found America like he wished; he just didn’t like it.

When a fracture grows between what is remembered and what is, maybe alienation is the palliative. Like water to a wound, painful but without which injury would be mortal. A warning: Don’t come this way again.

Maybe that’s why some stay away. Home is in memory alone.

Lee, ultimately, stayed away. Although, he remained a perfect nostalgic and wrote of his childhood memories throughout his life. “Today is the winter as it always was, and when it wasn’t, it was not remembered.”

Memory isn’t everything, but sometimes it’s all we have.