Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Roots of Understanding: Thomas Wolfe and "Home"

My life has evolved into homesickness.

My homesickness started when my family moved just before I turned eleven. I have still never lived anywhere longer. Moving involves the loss of the known, the certainties we depend on as children. The world becomes foreign and alien. The children have different playground games. You don't understand the things they laugh about because you were not there when it happened.

In the new place, after some years, you carve out a niche for yourself. You are happy, have friends and make new memories. Then you visit your old neighborhood. There is talk about people you don't know and laughter over memories you can't share.

And then it comes to you that you never were at home in the first place, never will be in this world. That the ideal of home is a delusion.

After living in Philadelphia and its suburbs for many years we returned to Michigan. It was a sad good-bye. I struggled with the notion of 'going home' to Michigan,. We would be near family. But also were leaving the home of our young adulthood forged in the city life of the East Coast.

My Home.”

Heart's warmest flames fan at the breath

of spoken words

whose meaning

we are never quite sure of.

I wrote a series of poems considering the meaning of home, the rootlessness of itineracy, and the costs involved.

I first read Thomas Wolfe when I was sixteen years old. I would stop off at Barney's Drugs on the way home from school. Sometimes I would buy a pen, a notebook for my journal, some makeup or a magazine. Sometimes I bought a paperback book.
You Can't Go Home Again.” Oh, how that title intrigued me. And one day I bought it, and read it, and then I read everything else Wolfe wrote in his short life.

I loved Wolfe's lyrical and poetic language with its Biblical cadences: “All things belonging to earth will never change—the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again...Only the earth endures, but it endures for ever.” 
And his storytelling! I never forgot scenes from this novel. "The Promise of America” chapter where Wolfe describes men 'burning in the night' for their chance at fame and success. The story of a New York society party interrupted by a fire, exploring the class differences between the party goers and the elevator men who die, trapped in the elevators and on their way to rescue the partyers. The description of a suicide jumper's remains on a New York City sidewalk with gawkers gathered around. And the Fox, based on Wolfe's first editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins, whose philosophy was based on the Book of Ecclesiastes. (Which I then read.)

Wolfe wrote that men were wanderers throughout the earth, in search for a place to belong. He wrote about a world changing too fast. He wrote about people trying to get rich quick in the stock market, the real estate boom, and about the crash. He wrote about how fame was a disappointment, about people who lionized him, misquoted him, used him. He wrote about a Germany changed because of Hitler's Nazism and warned America.

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and fame, back home to exile...back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

Nazi Germany, Mussolini, and Stalin were to Wolfe the rise of an old barbarism that could also be seen in America.

Its racial nonsense and cruelty, its naked worship of brute force, its suppression of truth and resort to lies and myths, its ruthless contempt for the individual, its anti-intellectual and anti-moral dogma that to one man alone belongs the right of judgment and decision, and that for all others virtue lies in blind, unquestioning obedience—each of these fundamental elements of Hitlerism was a throwback to that fierce and ancient tribalism which had sent waves of hairy Teutons swopping down out of the north to destroy the vast edifice of Roman civilization. That primitive spirit of greed and lust and force that had always been the true enemy of mankind.”

Prophetic! Nearly a hundred years later we still face the same threats from other tribal entities. There is nothing new under the sun, Ecclesiastes warns.

Aswell ended the book with lines that are both beautiful and eerie.

Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying:

To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth--

--Whereupon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”

Several years ago I reread Look Homeward, Angel. When I was a teenager the theme of loneliness and isolation was so reflective of youth's struggling need to connect. I always remembered the theme of the book:

Thomas Wolfe 2a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh we have come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known our brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost land-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind most grieved, ghost, come back again.”

When I made a quilt based on photographs of doors, I bordered the blocks with some fabrics with a print of leaves. I scanned stones and printed the images on fabric, and appliqued them onto the quilt. I added artificial leaves. And printed some of the lines "a stone, a leaf a door" and "remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language." 

There are many reasons we do not feel at home. Relocation, change, death and birth. A world that seems to have gone spinning off into some alternate universe. Political strife, social turmoil. The loss of certainties, the loss of love. We are constantly reinventing and reevaluating what “home” means. Perhaps it is only in losing one's life that one will find a perfect home.

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