As one who moved around a lot in his earlier decades, the eventual finding, making and sustaining a place I call home has resulted in the most productive and content chapter of my life.
The yearning of my wandering years—a sea-wide yearning that some day I would find lasting harbor—was the homesickness of the never rooted, much like that of an orphan hoping to one day to reconnect with a lost mother or father. And now, having formed a deep sense of place over the years in this location I call home, homecomings are always dear, whether it’s from coming back from a trip (as I have just done, visiting an old father in Pennsylvania who prays to die in his house), or simply driving back home after another day working in an office at the far end of a commute.
I’m very aware how fortunate I am, and give thanks for it daily; it is a privilege I do not greatly deserve, and I understand how readily, randomly and viciously the Wheel can turn round the other way. But not today.
More than 65 million people world-wide are refugees, displaced from their home due to political instability. Very few—about a hundred thousand—return to their homes every year, while an equal fraction find new homes in new countries. The rest are in limbo, with no welcome behind or ahead of them. And as global warming floods populated coastlines and turns vaster tracts to desert, the number of these homeless refugees will tower. They may become the defining demographic of our present century.
What happens to the heart when one loses their home? Glenn Albrecht, an Australian philosopher and professor of sustainability, put it this way:
People have heart’s ease when they’re on their own country. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life.
Albrecht observed that many native inhabitants -- Australian aborigines and any number of indigenous peoples around the world—reported this sense of mournful disorientation after being displaced. But he also found that many people feel this same sense of “place pathology,” not because they had been removed from home soil, but as their home communities became ruined by development.
In a 2004 essay, Albrecht named this condition solastalgia, a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’” Albrecht even called solastalgia is a depressive mental condition.
Solastalgia may be the melancholia of the Anthropocene, to grow so homesick in our sickening home.
Mohammed Mohiedin Anis, 70, smokes his pipe as he sits in his destroyed bedroom
listening to music in Aleppo (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
Finally, this. I’ve just finished a second reading of Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise, published just after his death in 2014 at age 86. A difficult tale, the novel is set in Poland in the mid-1990s and follows a meditation retreat in the death-camp of Auschwitz. For three days, people of various national, religious and philosophical bent meditate and attempt to bear ecumenical “witness” to one of the most horrifying relics of Nazi Germany’s final solution to racial impurity.
Over the course of this night sea journey Matthiessen raises and dispenses many questions: Whether any but a survivor of the death camp experience can bear true witness to what happened there. If there can be any legitimate response to a place of annihilation. Whether any true voice or presence of holocaust can still be heard there. Can humanity ever be free of the guilt of such altars of genocide? If the sins of this place are forgotten (denied even), then what can keep the fourteen thousand throats of Muslim men and boys in Srveneika from being slashed fatally wide, as they will be at same time this story is set? (As we who have more recently watched the children of Aleppo bombed to dust their by their own government while we fretted about Donald Trump, the answer is Nothing.) And are the unburied dead still present, hungry ghosts for whom our lament is forever insufficient food?
Tough questions, and Matthiessen is sparing in his answers. Auschwitz is what it is, and no one living passes through that morgue of the spirit without catching its chill. A rabbi leads participants in the Kaddish or Prayer for the Dead at the Black Wall, where some 30 to 40 thousand prisoners were shot to death in the early years of the camp. “It is the voice of the living calling out prayer across the void to the nameless, numberless dead who do not answer,” he says. Most of Matthiessen’s answers are calibrated by that silence.
But Matthiessen observes this: After three days of meditation, prayer, encounter and hard debate among the participants in this Hadean harrow of death, many felt a homesickness as they were leaving—as if by making space for inhumanity and death inside themselves, their humanity was enlarged. The only whole heart is the broken heart, but it must be fully broken—another rabbi says that in the shadowy gloom of the Oven—and strangely, on the last night they are there, those utterly broken by the encounter find themselves suddenly dancing like children, as if they had come home at last. It’s an utterly unexpected gift, hilarious, profane, perfect.
Go figure. What do we know about the heart, that compass whose pole star ever points us toward home? Well, let’s find out. Write a new poem on the theme of home in one of these variations or as a tandem or contrast of several: home, longing for home, losing a home, homelessness, homesickness, finding one’s way home, homecoming, making a home, wrecking a home, offering sanctuary to strangers in one’s home, homesickness at home, leaving home, leaving one’s home in this life for the next.
Let’s find out what this home business is all about: Then bring your discoveries back home to the Garden.