In exile, the heart longs for home. You can hear the longing in the voice of the man from the other side of the world, who has been stuck in the hospital for a decade through a combination of mental illness and legal problems.
He recalls his childhood in a rural village and the spring where he filled a wooden bucket every day with fresh water for his family. That was long ago, and the world has changed.
The spring is still there, and it still draws people from throughout the region, but that is about the only thing that has remained the same. Now, instead of using oaken buckets and carrying them on poles draped across their shoulders, people collect the water in plastic bottles that they haul up the hill to their waiting cars.
The man leans forward in his chair and shows you the photo on his cell phone. It’s all there through a digital miracle that is yet another sign of change: the cars lining the road, people laden with water picking their way up the ravine, and more bottles lying in the dirt awaiting their turn to be filled and hauled.
This is the man’s home, and he longs to return, even if only for a visit, but his future is uncertain. For now, he has to be content with his FaceTime chats with his parents and siblings who keep him up to date on changes in the family.
These conversations are bittersweet for while they connect him with his loved ones for a brief time, they also remind him of the life he is missing. It’s especially hard during the holidays when the empty chair at the table is his own.
Stories like this one abound in a psychiatric hospital like ours, situated in a city that is itself part of an even larger population center. When people leave their homeland for the bright, shiny promise of a better life elsewhere, many of them still come to the United States in spite of our increasingly unwelcoming stance toward immigrants.
And when their dream stalls and mental illness complicates their lives, they come or, more likely, are brought to us for help. When the nightly news reports stories of people anywhere in the world being displaced by war, famine, or natural disasters, it is not unusual for some of them to wind up on our doorstep.
We have experienced this situation with the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the Lost Boys of Sudan, military and political functionaries from deposed regimes, and at least one member of a royal family in exile – all of them far from homes to which they cannot return, homes that no longer exist.
But you don’t have to come from a foreign country to which you cannot return or to be hospitalized for the treatment of mental illness to be separated from the place or the people that you call home.
Just try to book an airline ticket to your hometown on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and the inflated fares and crowded airports will remind you of the truth of the old crooners’ standby, “For the holidays, you can’t beat home sweet home.”
So, who are these people filling the airways and clogging the roads to get home, and what exactly do we mean by home anyway?
If you consider home the state of your birth or the town where you grew up, then 57 percent of us have never left according to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey based on the latest available statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Thirty-seven percent of us still live in our hometowns and 20 percent of us remain in the states where we were born. Most of us who have left, 44 percent, moved for better job or business opportunities, while most stayers remained because of family ties or because they thought their hometowns were good places to raise children.
The meaning of home is more complicated with respondents to the Pew survey defining home as the place they live now (26%), the place where they were born (22%), the place where their family comes from (18%), or the place where they went to high school (4%).
While the survey authors do not speculate on the reasoning behind these definitions of home, it doesn’t take much introspection to recall the way a visit to your hometown or perhaps a high school or college reunion can unlock a trove of memories and sense impressions that bring you back to the person you used to be and, in many respects, are still.
Even topography, what Annie Dillard calls “the dreaming memory of land as it lays this way and that,” shapes who we are and where we feel at home. And let’s not forget the “spirit of place” that can make a first-time visitor feel so much at home that he never leaves.
So we head home for the holidays or stay put if we are already there, responding to the tug of tradition or bonds of affection with family and friends. If circumstances prevent us from traveling or receiving our loved ones into our homes, we can connect as never before with the aid of digital technology.
It will never be enough, but perhaps there is yet another way home. I stumbled upon it in John Kaag’s new book, “Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are,” in this quote by Hermann Hesse: “One never reaches home, but wherever friendly paths intersect the whole world looks like home for a time.”
Wherever we are for the holidays, may we never stray from those friendly paths for our own good and the good of all we meet along the way.