Things have changed a lot in recent years. The traditional roles of mother and father aren’t what they were when many of us were growing up – and certainly not what they were in the time of our grandparents and those before them. Today, both parents – regardless of gender – are much more involved in the raising of their kids. This is great. Yet the archetypes of Mother and Father remain. And the function of these archetypes is still important.
The special role of fathers is vastly different from that of mothers. Mom is responsible for providing home while Dad is responsible for us leaving home.
Archetypally, home is the realm of Mom. Mom is home. And it is Mom’s role to nurture us inside this safe place. Meanwhile, Dad, the archetypal Father, exists mostly outside of the home. Father goes to work, to a place unknown. Dad’s constant leaving of the home acts as a bridge for us to explore something beyond what we know.
Eventually we all need to leave home in order to find and create home for ourselves as adults. We need some break with Mother (literally our first home and archetypally always our home) in order to grow up. Father teaches us, inspires us, and – sometimes even – pushes us to go out into the world.
It’s important to remember that archetypes are without gender. Mother and Father can be any gender. The emphasis here is on the role each archetype plays.
I’m going to share a personal example of this and then a slew of fun examples. (This is a longer post than most. Note that the titles of most examples have hyper-links to more information.)
Recently I mentioned a single male friend who adopted a young girl. He was her sole parent for almost 19 years. He fed her, protected her, and nurtured her through her entire young life. Until he moved to another state when she was almost nine, he had a cadre of wonderful women friends who spent time with her. Still, on a day-to-day basis, it was just the two of them.
As she grew into her teenage years, single parenting became more difficult. Her physical development into a young woman was completely foreign to him. More than that, due to his own upbringing (lack of strong parental models, lack of structure), he struggled to provide boundaries and discipline. In short, there was no authority in the home.
The Father (as an archetype) is largely responsible for providing rules and structure that teach children how to successfully become responsible adults. The Father “lays down the law,” so to speak. Why? Because this is the archetype that exists mostly outside of the home, who understands the behaviors needed to survive in the world. Whereas, inside the home, Mother rules. Behavior at home is quite different. This is why we long to go home, where we are comfortable, where we can relax, where we are accepted just as we are. This is what the Mother archetype provides. But we cannot live at home forever or all the time. Growing up means leaving home. Father is that bridge.
Just before this daughter turned 15, she asked me if I would be her mom. Having known and loved her since she was 18 months old, and having always wanted to be a mom (but had miscarried twice), I was thrilled. Technically, this meant that I would be her legal guardian if something happened to her father before she turned eighteen. More immediately, however, it meant that I was free to indulge her with shopping sprees. We spent long hours searching for bras and other appropriate, yet chic, clothing to fit her shapely body. It also meant that her father could now send her to stay with me. We even planned for her to come live with me – if only for one semester – to give her father a break. After which, her father would relocate as well.
In my eagerness to be a mom, however, I failed to realize that I would always inherently fulfill the Father archetype. Her home was her dad. Her dad was the archetypal Mother. Wherever he was would always be her primary home. I was the one who lived outside of the home (in another state, in fact). Yes, I was a feminine presence, which is important, but more than anything, I was a Father. I showed her what life could be as an adult, I embodied another possibility. Living with me came with rules, which I enforced. Yet, at a crucial time when as parents we needed to insist on her going to school, her dad buckled. I was stripped of my authority. The two of them returned to the home they shared alone and, at age 15, she never returned to school again.
After that, I struggled to find and understand my role. I tried to be a mom, I tried to be a friend, I tried to be a co-parent. It took a tragedy for me to understand that I would always embody the Father. When her dad died suddenly, she reached out to me as the other parent. But she would not allow me to comfort her. She would not allow me to protect her, take care of her, or do anything that a Mother does. She was now 20 years old. I had no authority. There was nothing I could do.
Of course there is more to this story but, in a nutshell, while she may have called me Mama, I was always in the Father role. I provided instruction, discipline, and a bridge to beyond what she knew. Hopefully, I helped her on her journey to becoming an adult. I will always love her. I will always be here for her. Maybe someday she will leave home and come find me, and along the way discover her full potential.
This is, at least, how it happens in stories. We see the successful fulfillment of countless hero journeys in myth, movies, and literature.
In the Navajo tradition, the great sun god Jóhonaa’éí, fathers Monster Slayer but always remains in the sky. Eventually his son leaves home to find his father and, in doing so, discovers his calling (his purpose) as the one who rids the earth of monsters. In Christianity, God is the Father of Jesus who, like Monster Slayer, was born of a woman and who grows up to fulfill his destiny of crushing the head of the greatest monster of all – Satan.
In other words, Father is the spark, the one who sires creation but is not involved in daily life. The Father guides a child’s potential and inspires possibility.
Many popular movies illustrate this archetype. In the 2014 blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, the father of the protagonist, Peter Quill, is “an angel” from another galaxy. After Peter’s mother dies, he spends his life in space. Before he finally finds his father in film 2, he grows ups, creates his own family out of unlikely friends, and battles a monster dictator who wants to destroy the planet. Interstellar, also from 2014, features a father who leaves his children to save the world and spends the rest of their lifetimes in space. Yet his distance is what motivates his daughter to study science and ultimately save civilization. In the film The Terminator, John Connor—the boy who leads humans to victory over machines—was sired by a man from the future. He comes from another time to create a son who will be a modern monster slayer.
As regular Dads go, perhaps the best example is George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. While very much a loving father, George is not grounded in the home. Every time he touches the knob on the staircase it comes off in his hands. George belongs in the office. When he comes home, he is distracted. When he tries to take care of family issues that his wife already has under control, he makes matters worse. George Bailey is a father who lives in his work. His actual job is, in fact, to assist others in finding new homes! And yet, here, too, we see that George is a hero figure. His life outside of the home, as simple and as unimportant as George thinks it may be, is responsible for saving – at the very least, enriching – many lives and even an entire town.
We also see in this film how George’s father wants him to join him at the building and loan, but George wants an adventure. This predicament is common. Before joining the Father (in the world outside of home), the child needs an adventure. This adventure, which starts by leaving home, culminates in adulthood. This is not restricted to any gender. True, George does not go on the adventure he dreamed of having. But when he marries, he leaves his Mother’s home. And in the short span of a few hours while he fights against the evil Mr. Potter and managers to save the building and loan, he has all the adventure needed to become a hero and an adult.
The role of the Father is to encourage the child to leave home, to have an adventure, and become an adult.
When the actual father is deceased, or the Father archetype is absent in the home for any reason, a substitute may step into this role.
In the Harry Potter series, Harry’s father dies when he is a baby. The great wizard, Albus Dumbledore, is Harry’s Father figure. While Hogwarts is Harry’s home, Dumbledore (as headmaster) does not concern himself with many of the internal details of the school. Instead, he is active in the wizarding world and often away on business. He allows Harry some freedom for his adventures while still providing him structure and rules. He provides sage council. His influence eventually convinces Harry to leave Hogwarts and to, well, slay the greatest monster of all.
In some cases, when there is no Father to inspire the child to leave, the child will remain at home. This can be a huge problem as the child will then not grow up. The child may be intelligent and appear capable but never differentiates themselves from the original home (Mother) and never fulfills their own potential.
In the 2011 film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jeff is a thirty-year-old who continues to live at home with his mother in the house he grew up in; the house in which he was a child when his father suddenly died. Jeff has spent his life looking for a meaning to his father’s death, unable to find an answer to the haunting “Why?” that is exaggerated by a child’s perspective. Jeff has been unable to achieve anything in his life: he doesn’t finish school, he can’t hold a job, he spends his days in the basement smoking marijuana. Jeff and his older brother, Pat, have never been close, even as children, and his mother has had no romantic relationship since her husband. Jeff has no one in his life who might embody the Father archetype and call him out into the world. Consequently, he continues to look for “signs” to direct him: he is looking for a higher power—one that the Father normally represents—to guide him.
Forrest Gump (in the film of the same name) also has no Father. His father is completely absent from his life and he has never known him. No teacher, doctor, or college football coach ever steps into this role. Forest leaves home but never really leaves his mother when he goes to college or enrolls in the Army. His promise to Bubba, his Army friend who dies in his arms, motivates him to go to Louisiana and try his hand at shrimping. This, too, is not really leaving home since he sees it as only keeping a promise, a value his mother taught him. Lieutenant Dan, his commanding officer, could have become a Father to him except that he is emotionally unavailable and falls apart after he loses his legs in combat.
Instead, Forrest only truly leaves home after there is no longer anyone at home. His mother has died. And Jenny, whom he has loved since childhood, leaves him. Everything that Forrest associates with family and home is gone. He is completely alone. So one day, with nothing left to hold him in place, he starts running. He runs and runs and runs. He has no direction, no plan, he just runs. He runs for three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours. Running is in fact how he finally puts his adolescence behind him by separating from his original home. When he returns, he returns home a man. Now he can marry and accept the responsibilities of being a father himself.
Another great example is in Ben Stiller’s 2013 film adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In this scenario, Walter’s father dies when he is sixteen, leaving him to take care of his mother and younger sister. Despite being incredibly responsible, Walter has never really grown up, he has not come into his own. Just before his father died, he gave Walter a backpack, encouraging him to travel the world, but of course Walter went to work instead.
Eventually, the mysterious photographer Sean O’Connell steps into the Father archetype. He sends Walter a leather wallet with a personal dedication and Life’s motto embossed inside:
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the Purpose of LIFE.“
This is a classic gift of the archetypal Father: one that is both useful and inspiring.
Walter leaves home in search of O’Connell, believing that O’Connell has the answers he needs. Instead, he experiences a transformative hero’s journey and discovers that what he was looking for was always in his possession.
“You’ve always had the power, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself,” said Glinda to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy arrives in Munchkin Land, she is heartily welcomed to stay. But Dorothy is already on an adventure and is now determined to go home. So Glinda gives her instructions and sends her on her way to find the great and powerful wizard. Only after the great wizard leaves Oz without her does Dorothy discover she always had the power within her. The Father has returned to the sky and she alone is responsible for finding her way home.
One of my favorite examples of the archetypal Father embodied in a surrogate is in the critically acclaimed film, Good Will Hunting. Here, Sean Maguire, a therapist, acts as the father needed to push the main character, Will, out into the world.
Will is a twenty years old orphan, who suffered severe abuse in foster care. He lives alone in a run-down apartment, works as a janitor, and hangs out with friends doing much of nothing. He is also a genius who refuses to embrace his extraordinary intellectual abilities. Instead, he intends to be a labor worker his entire life and never leave South Boston, the only home he has ever known. Eventually Will bonds with Sean, the therapist that the court orders Will to meet with regularly. Sean imposes rules on Will that assist in helping Will take responsibility for his life. At the end of their last court-appointed therapy session, Sean hugs Will and tells him “Good luck, son.” After this, Will is able to move past his fears and leaves on an adventure to become the man he was meant to be.
It is really important to note that the Father archetype can appear in anyone.
In the novel (and subsequent movie of 2015), Brooklyn, Eilis’s sister, Rose, embodies the Father archetype when their father dies. Rose continues to live with their mother, but she is also an independent woman who plays golf and works as a bookkeeper in an office. It is Rose who arranges for Eilis to go to America, buys her new clothes, and provides her with money to survive until she is earning her own way.
In the hit musical Mamma Mia!, daughter Sophie is getting married but intends to keep living with her mother, helping her run the bed and breakfast. But, not knowing who her father is, she has always felt like a part of her is missing. When she sends wedding invites to the three men who slept with her mother, they all attend, and each pledges to share her as their daughter. Now the archetypal Father is finally present in her life and Sophie decides not to marry. Instead she insists that she and her fiancé should explore the world. The presence of Father has released her bondage to home: she is now free to leave.
Mother is home. Our first home and our connection to home. She is the comfortable womb, the place where we are taken care of and where we can just be. Father disturbs that comfort. Father calls us out of this safe place and requires us to think, to become conscious, to become.
Even with same gender parents (or parents that identify as non-binary), these archetypes still occur. Archetypes are genderless. Mother and Father can be any gender. The emphasis here is on the role each archetype plays. Home will always be associated with the Mother archetype because Mom is indeed our first home. And the Father archetype – whether that is a parent within the household or someone outside – is the one who calls us out of the home, encourages us to leave home. And this is critically important.
We need this balance of archetypes in our lives.
We can’t stay in our original home forever and we can’t remain children forever. We must leave home to become an adult and then find and create home as an adult for ourselves. Only then can we potentially fulfill these archetypes for our own children and others.
Who embodied the Father archetype in your life? How did this person influence your leaving home? Were you inspired or encouraged, or were you essentially forced out?
Did you grow up with parents who were not fully adults themselves, people who could not fully embody either the Mother or Father archetypes?
Looking back, can you recognize your leaving home as embarking on a hero’s journey? How did leaving home impact your life? Along the way, did you discover gifts you didn’t realize you had?
A friend commented recently that I talk about childhood a lot. Specifically, childhood memories of home and how our childhood experience often leads to our adult preferences. The concern, he said, is that people sometimes pull from the past things that aren’t so good – things that are better left in the past. As an architect, he finds that preferences based on past experiences aren’t always the best options.
He’s right. When it comes to home – and life in general – we need to strive for the best. Yet, all too often we create our present and our future from our past, even when we know the past wasn’t optimal. Why do we do this? Because the past is familiar, and familiarity provides comfort. Even when something (a place, a job, or a relationship) is painful, the familiarity of it is comfortable.
But lasting comfort, true comfort, often requires us to move beyond the past.
It’s true that we can mine our childhood experiences to understand what makes us feel at home as adults. We can learn how to find and create home by looking at the people, locations, and landscapes of our childhood.
When we do this consciously and with intention, we are unpacking the good experiences, the happy experiences, the moments when we felt safe, protected, carefree, and loved. But let’s face it, we didn’t always feel that way. And sometimes, the means for feeling safe or protected or loved weren’t the healthiest, the most optimal, or the best.
Unfortunately, the bad or unhealthy experiences can stay with us just as long as the good ones do. We don’t want to repeat the bad imprints. But we can certainly learn from them.
Several years ago, a friend’s daughter stayed with me for a month. She was a teenager then, who had been placed in foster care at eighteen months old and adopted at age three. (My friend was both her foster dad and her adopted dad.) My friend was a good man, a very talented and creative man, who had an unstable childhood and, though he hid it well, struggled with anger and addiction. He was the best father he could be – which, compounded by being a single gay man, wasn’t easy.
This daughter was acting out a lot, as teenagers often do. Her father needed a break. I had been in her life since her first days in foster care, so he sent her to me.
About two weeks into her visit, I lost my temper. Instead of staying cool (as was my norm during her spin-outs), I yelled back at her and slammed a cabinet door. She went to her bedroom, slammed her door in response, and I retreated to mine to compose myself. After 10 minutes or so, I had calmed down enough to go to her room and apologize. “I shouldn’t have yelled like that,” I said. “I’m sorry.” She looked at me completely unfazed, shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s ok. That’s how I know you love me.”
I was dumbfounded. I stared at her. Then the lightbulb went on in her head. “I guess that isn’t healthy, huh?” she said.
The M.O. between her and her father was to yell. To scream and shout and slam things. Since she loved her father dearly, as he did her, she had come to believe that yelling showed you cared.
Her father was everything to her, he was her home – her only remembered experience of home. She had no other family. My friend’s mother and his brother, both of whom the daughter was close to, had died by the time she was ten. These deaths had profoundly affected them both and their relationship became even more complicated as they individually struggled to deal with their emotions and loss.
Yelling, screaming, slamming and throwing things was how they let off steam. She had come to associate their fighting with love – as proof of their love. She rationalized that if they didn’t love each other so much, they wouldn’t get so angry with each other.
This pattern – if not identified and examined – would likely lead to future volatile relationships where yelling, drama, and even abuse are the norm. This is not good. These are the patterns we don’t want to keep. But before we can move past them, we need to acknowledge they are there.
When it comes to home – to creating home and feeling at home – we don’t want to pull from the past just because the past is familiar – we want to strive for the best.
If our child self only knew love through yelling, that doesn’t mean we need to settle for that behavior as adults. Inherently we know that love – real love – is shown through acceptance, kindness, and respect.
Acceptance, love, and self-worth are components of home. They are aspects of the ideal home – the archetypal home – and are reflected in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maybe these needs weren’t met for you as a child, or not met consistently. Maybe your home life was volatile. Maybe your parents didn’t pay much attention to you. Maybe you felt judged or even rejected. Inherently you know that your needs were not met and while this may have been the only home you knew, you also know this wasn’t the best home experience. As an adult, you can choose your family. You can surround yourself with people who love and accept you. And when you find those people who enjoy and celebrate you, those with whom you feel comfortable, you realize you are home.
Feeling safe and protected is another aspect of home. But if you grew up in a home where the feeling of being safe was achieved by bars on your windows, is this really the way you want to live as an adult? With windows closed and doors never opened for sunlight, fresh air, or cool breezes? This may feel familiar, but is it optimal?
As adults, we can make better choices. Sometimes finances restrict these choices, but awareness prepares us for moving away from what is familiar into what is best. Best for our physical body as well as our emotional body, and really, the two cannot be separated. As the saying goes, “You are basically a houseplant with more complicated emotions. Remember to drink water and get some sun.”
We need sunshine and water and fresh air. We need nature. Even if we grew up in a city and still love the sounds of traffic and the proximity of so many people, we need to see growing things like flowers and trees.
Whether you are looking for a new apartment, buying or building a new house, or searching for friends and a partner in life, remember the ingredients of the optimal home – the archetypal home: shelter, protection, safety, acceptance, love, and celebration. To find this, strive for the best. Don’t settle for less out of convenience or familiarity.
Use your past to help guide you into the future. But don’t let your past define you -or your choices.
Some questions to ponder:
What home experiences from your childhood did you have to learn to let go of because they hurt more than helped you as an adult? How is the way you live now different from, and better, than your experience as a child? Were you lucky to stumble on something better or did you consciously have to change an old pattern from your past?
What would you tell your young self about home, now that you’re older?
Sometimes going home is wonderful. Other times, not so much.
When we move away from homes, particularly the places where our family still lives, “going home” is billed as a vacation. A holiday of sorts. We take time off from work; time off from our new normal lives.
Going home means staying with family, visiting favorite haunts, seeing old friends.
The expectation of going home is that all will be as it once was when we were young and sheltered in that place. We will be safe, we will be fed, we will be comfortable, we will feel loved. Even if that wasn’t our experience as kids, it is still always our hope. Every trip home is filled with expectation and hope.
We hope for a special kind of time when we go home, a time different from the ordinary. Going home is a break from our adult lives, a return to something simpler, when the world wasn’t so complicated. This is why so many of our trips home happen around holidays – we are forever trying to replicate the magic of our childhood or create a homecoming worthy of our longing.
Regardless of when or why we return home, if our visit is good, home burrows deeper into our hearts and psyches.
If, instead, our visit is difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable – if going home doesn’t meet our expectations or hopes – the home we’ve returned to loosens its grip. Disappointment leads to disconnection.
I’m allergic to cats. Really allergic. “I can’t breathe” allergic. And, for many years, going home meant encountering cats. Not being able to breathe went hand in hand with seeing my family. (Actually, I’ve never thought of it quite like that before and it’s quite a metaphor.) Not surprisingly, this deeply impacted my feelings about going home. Yes, I wanted to see my family but, without a comfortable place to stay, it just wasn’t that fun. At times it was downright miserable. I have unshakable memories of dramatic tears and frustration. While I loved my family, I returned home mostly out of obligation.
And then I began staying with friends. Friends whom I have known for decades, friends with whom I have a long history. These are friends that are also friends with my siblings, whose parents had known my parents, whose children I watched grow up. These friends are family. My extended family. My family of the heart.
Staying with them changed everything. Now, going home means I can sleep and breathe comfortably, allowing me to better enjoy my siblings. Here we gather for dinner and games, conversations and laughter, with all of us together. As a bonus, it even includes freshly-baked brownies and crepes on Saturday mornings. At the Heinzke house, we share a common thread, we share stories, we share history. This house shelters us all. When I go home to Chicago, this is where I go.
I loved living in Idaho for fourteen years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere as an adult. I owned a home there, which I adored. I recuperated there, after many arduous years of living in big cities and working in HIV. I healed some deep old sorrows, soaking in the sunshine, mountains, and rivers unique yet reminiscent of earlier favorite places. I recreated myself in significant ways. And, finally, after so many years of longing, I adopted fur-babies: dogs that meant the world to me.
But I never fit into the community. Now that’s an odd thing to say but the Wood River Valley can be a small and cliquey place. I didn’t act or dress like other transplants, those who had moved there decades ago to enjoy outdoor recreation or those who had money. I was always an anomaly, an outsider.
Yet I have friends there that I love deeply. These are friends whom I’m sure would do anything for me. But our friendship is not rooted to this place. We would be friends anywhere. In other words, returning to this area of Idaho would be “visiting” to spend time with them. I “fit” with them, but our friendships alone cannot over-ride the experience of not fitting into this valley. With one exception: one friend, one family, makes Idaho home for me, even years after moving away.
The Walker-Bergins have been here for generations. This family is part of the community’s history. While I didn’t wed into this family, I came close. The bond is unbreakable. Years of love, of cohabitating, co-custody of dogs, shared holidays, and more. The matriarch now gone, once a friend and as dear as my god-mother, the family home remains. The home where six children were raised. It is here that I stay. Here where I find small tokens of my contributions. I have woven myself into their history and they have woven themselves into mine.
I returned home – to this place, to this family – on Memorial Day, in time to help create lilac arrangements for twenty family graves. After sixteen years, the last few visits seem to have cemented my inclusion as I keep coming back despite having moved across the country. Here I belong, here I am accepted, here I fit in. This is home.
“Home is where the heart is,” – so the saying goes. But this sentiment doesn’t ring entirely true for me. My heart is with all the people I love. While it’s true that I feel at home with each of them, that’s not the same thing as being home, going home, returning home. Yes, home is inside of us. And, home is also a place.
Home is the places where we have history, where we made – and continue to make – good memories; where we laugh and play, where we fit in.
Home is the people that reside in these places. Home is family, regardless of whether they’re kin.
Last month, I went home to Chicago. Last week, I came home to Idaho. Tomorrow, I go home to Tulsa.
Each going home is filled with expectation and hope. If our visit is good, home burrows further into our hearts and psyches. And if it is not, home loosens its grip.
I’m lucky. These homes are not my original homes but they are my homes nonetheless. These homes are a part of me. Going home, for me, is a good thing.
What about you? Where do you go home to?
Why does one place feel like home and another place, while beautiful or lovely in many ways, does not?
How is it that I don’t care much for Tuscany, when it is so well-renowned for its beauty?
To put it simply (very simply), places become embedded in our psyche and woven into our heart when our experiences there are significant and good. This is an imprint.
Typically, these imprints happen when we are young. When we are discovering our environment in the context of discovering ourselves.
The streets, alleys, parks, and special places we played as kids, away from our mother’s watchful eyes are some of the landscapes that hold fond memories. Or where we went to camp or to college – completely away from home, from family, all alone, for the first time. The places where we experienced a new independence, a new way of being. These experiences are inherently significant. But for the landscape to burrow into our heart and psyche, the experience must also be good.
Let me tell you how these imprints show up in my life. If you think about yours, maybe you can relate and see some similarities.
I grew up in Chicago but spent my summers on my godmother’s farm in Michigan. Michigan was where I played with other kids. Outside. In the fields. In the barn. Picking berries, picking corn, and even picking snakes (up by their tails). It’s where we chased chickens, watched cows, and petted my cousins’ horse. Where we ate meals around a big kitchen table with a loving, wrinkled, strong, steady, and firm matriarch, who was watching over us, always interested, always ready to respond with a jolly jiggling full-body laugh.
This was radically different from my experience in Chicago. Until the age of 10, I lived on the south side. Bridgeport. What was then called “the little white ghetto.” A parking lot was our playground. To venture outside of a few blocks was dangerous. My siblings were older and had their own friends. My limited attempts to socialize were, well, not very successful.
When I was 10, my parents divorced and I moved to the northwest side of the city with my mother and brother. Here were cleaner streets lined with single-family bungalows, grass lawns, and garages accessed from alleys. This area was quiet and safe.
For my birthday, my parents gave me a red three-speed Schwinn customized with drop handlebars, (which were THE thing in the 80’s). I loved that bike. That bike meant freedom. For three years, I rode that bike everywhere. Now I had friends, from school and in the neighborhood. But those years were also tough and challenging, for various reasons, not the least of which were things going on with my parents.
Returning to Michigan in the summers was an escape. It felt like going home. I longed to be at Grama’s. To hear the crickets. To smell the hay. To sleep in a creaky bed with a lumpy mattress. To feel the morning dew in the air and inhale the sweetness of the grass. To hear Grama’s laugh and the crunch of gravel under the tires of an unexpected guest. To see my extended family and enjoy the endless fields of crops and barns and trees that covered the flat landscape. To go shopping in town and have people know me, or know Grama, who was right beside me.
I left Chicago and moved to San Francisco when I was 18, only two months after graduating from high school.
In San Francisco, I owned my first car. A hand-me-down Toyota Tercel manual shift. Yes, a 5-speed stick on those famous steep hills! I have to admit, I was always proud of that. That car, like my red Schwinn, was freedom. I would drive up to Twin Peaks and look down on the city during the day and out into the bay. At night, I’d cruise along the coast, windows down and music up loud. I knew the winding streets of the city better than my own hands. And better than the realtors I met many years later.
During my six years in California (the first time I lived there, that is, between the ages of 18 and 24), I lived in San Francisco (in eight different apartments in eight different neighborhoods), in Petaluma (over the Golden Gate Bridge), and in San Diego. I camped along the coast, in the Yosemite mountains, in the forests, and at the Russian River. This varied landscape of mountains, water, and trees became imprinted on me. My time there was hugely significant and very, very, good. I was discovering who I was. I was creating a new way of being.
Years later, I moved to Hailey – the Wood River Valley in Blaine County, Idaho. Hailey was great because it is a small town with a weekly newspaper (reminding me of my hometown in Michigan) but it took me a long time to love the landscape. There are mountains and trees and the Big Wood River, but essentially, it’s an elevated desert, largely covered in sagebrush. Not exactly the lush green of the other places I had called home. Yet when my sister came to visit, she remarked, “It looks just like Michigan, but with mountains.”
Within three years, I bought a house in Picabo, a town of 65 residents and 6 streets, surrounded by fields of hay and barley. The beautiful Silver Creek, a world-famous trout fishing stream, is just steps away. This is a landscape dotted with cows and sheep, barns, hay bales, and hills, and an endless mountain range in two directions. It combined all the elements that had been imprinted on me from earlier times in Michigan and California. This was home. I loved this place. I still do. Yet after 14 years of living there, it was time to leave.
For two months, I travelled through the southern states visiting towns and looking for the one that “fit.” I visited some beautiful places. I fell in love with Kentucky – all except for Lexington, that is, which was the only place where I might have had a full-time teaching gig. In the end, I landed in Northeast Oklahoma. First Muskogee and then Tulsa. This area feels very much like the places of my youth, the places that made a mark on me. The landscape in Tulsa is lush, green, and humid. There are rivers, plenty of parks, music and art, diversity and good food. As cities go, it has a small-town feel. I’ve lived here for 3 years now and am extremely content.
And then, in March of 2020, I traveled to Italy. This was planned as a 6-week holiday, but… due to Covid-19, I stayed for four months. For eleven weeks, I was lucky to be quarantined in Balestrate, Sicily. My apartment looked out at the sea. As in, the sea was directly in front of me – there was nothing blocking my view. I felt so fortunate for this lodging, this view, and the safety it afforded me. Yet, after several weeks, I desperately wanted to see trees. To see green spaces and living things. The sea was gorgeous, yes, but the sea is not my imprint.
So, when restrictions lifted and I could move about more freely, I drove into the heart of the island – into the country. On small winding roads through the fields and the mountains, into the small towns sitting on hilltops. Here my spirit was soothed and comforted. I relaxed.
It’s not surprising that Sicily feels like home to me. It has everything I love, everything I came to love, from earlier times. Imprints. Significant and good. Sicily offered me shelter in the midst of danger. It welcomed me. People were kind. And I made friends. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, my time there was really good. Even with so much uncertainty, I was happy.
Before returning to the States, I visited Tuscany. Ah, Tuscany! Famous for its beauty. Alas, the area didn’t speak to me. Tuscany has too many people, too many cars, and too much chaos. I prefer to be around less people, less traffic, less buildings.Certainly I can appreciate what it offers, its treasures and its history, but the beauty … meh. It feels somehow generic. I know that seems funny! And you may disagree. But this only emphasizes that what feels like home to one may not feel like home to another. It all comes back to imprints.
As I said earlier, places become imprinted on us when our experiences there are significant and good.
Everything I just told you about Tuscany is genuinely my reaction to this famed part of Italy. And, it’s also worth noting that my time there was filled with anxiety. All those extra people made me nervous – I felt at greater risk for catching Covid-19. My rental car was not working properly. I had problems finding my Airbnbs. Problems finding parking. And finally, it was there that I made the excruciating decision to return to the States. So, while I did have some truly enjoyable moments, the situation wasn’t optimal. It didn’t capture my heart and create an imprint.
Whereas, Sicily, now, is imprinted on me. Sicily has a little bit of all the places that have been dear to me. The farmland, hills, and cows. The small towns and familiar faces. The simple delights. Even the sea feels good to me. While I don’t want to look out at it daily, I like knowing it’s there near me. I’ve always loved living near water, I just don’t need to live right next to it. Imprints from happy times in the places of my youth are reflected in the Sicilian landscape and people. And then, to further reinforce this, I spent fifteen amazing weeks there during a monumental moment in history. In Sicily, I am home.
Now I live in Tulsa. And, at the moment, I’m visiting Idaho. And then there is Chicago where my family lives and Michigan, where I spent my summers as a kid. I have many homes. Perhaps you do too. Through our memories and experiences, our homes stay with us, even when we leave. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are always looking for similarities in the new places we visit, the new places we live. Familiar details, small or big, are what make us feel at home.
Not all places feel like a fit. But those that do, I guarantee, reflect an imprint from earlier times, most likely from your youth, when you were happy.
Imagine your home burned to the ground. More than your home, your neighbor’s homes, your business, your school, every place where you shopped, every place where you ate, where you banked, where you played. Imagine your entire neighborhood burned to the ground.
We’ve had a lot of disasters in the United States in recent memory. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, Hurricane Irma and more. Wildfires in California and throughout the West; mudslides and earthquakes. Many of us have lost our homes and our neighborhoods, even our entire towns.
Now imagine that scale of destruction not caused by an act of nature. Imagine your home looted, buildings burning, and block upon block destroyed while you flee for your life. The people you love are killed in front of your eyes. Home, as you know it, destroyed in just eighteen hours. This is what happened in Tulsa.
Yes, this happens all around the world. The number of wars and refugees at this very moment are staggering.
The United States was torn apart by a Civil War fought over 150 years ago. In many ways, we are still fighting this war.
The same fight that continues around the world today: in Myanmar since the 1940s, between Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis in the 1990s, between Irish Catholics and Protestants from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, and countless conflicts in African countries. It is the same fight between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank for the last fifty-three years.
Here, in the U.S., we are not suffering currently from missile strikes or outright genocide, there are no organized and continuous bombings, but terror, destruction, rebel groups, and killings still continue. They are part of our history. These fights are fueled by prejudice and misunderstandings and by politics and power. And, ultimately, they have everything to do with home.
Most folks do not know about Black Wall Street and the Greenwood massacre. Even in the United States, most people do not know about one of the worse incidents of racial violence in the history of our country. Heck, even many folks in Tulsa don’t know about this.
In 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma was home to over ten thousand black residents – more than one-tenth of Tulsa’s population at that time. The city was segregated, just as towns were all across the country.
Ah, but in Greenwood, just fifty-some years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, people were doing well! In an area of thirty-five blocks, there were several banks and hotels, numerous churches, stores, saloons, and restaurants; a movie theatre, a library, and even a hospital – all owned and operated by African Americans. In this self-sustaining neighborhood, residents included doctors, lawyers, bankers, and barbers. The community was strong and the culture was rich. And the thriving business district came to be known as Black Wall Street.
That all changed on May 31, 1921, when a white mob descended on Greenwood, looting houses and businesses and then setting them on fire. An estimated 1,250 homes were burned. Thousands of black residents became homeless and hundreds were killed. By the morning of June 1st, the entire thirty-five blocks had been gutted, resulting in what would be today over $33 million dollars in property losses (adjusted for inflation).
How did this happen? Well, our nation was still relatively young and “Americans” were still struggling with home: creating a place where they felt at home, where they could flourish, where they could be more than they had previously been. This is still our problem, actually.
The first Europeans arrived on our shores in 1565 and declared the land to be discovered! The land was claimed for the Spanish and British kings. Quite ludicrous and out of touch with reality since we now know that almost 100 million people, comprising over 1,000 Indigenous nations, were occupying the land now known as the United States. That is twenty percent more than the population in all of Europe at that time.
Oklahoma, like all of North America, was entirely Indian Territory. Tulsa was built by white Europeans on land stolen from the Muskogee Creek, Osage, and Cherokee nations. Which means that Greenwood, too, was built on stolen land.
But on this day at the end of May one hundred years ago, the destruction of Greenwood started with Sarah Page, a young white female elevator operator who screamed after Dick Rowland, a black male teenager, had entered her lift. Did he stumble or trip and accidentally bump into her, brush against her? Did he startle her somehow? Whatever he did wasn’t serious and it wasn’t deliberate. All charges against him were dropped two days later. But by then it was too late.
Young Dick Rowland was arrested and an angry white mob gathered outside the courthouse. Very much like the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. Except in Tulsa, some black men also showed up to protect Mr. Rowland from being lynched. They showed up armed, yes. And they were outnumbered 15 to 1 by the whites that were already there and armed as well. The black men fled back to Greenwood and the mob of 1500 grew as it followed. Through the evening and all through the night, a battle was waged. Eighteen hours of total destruction. Not a riot. A massacre.
Just last week, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, who survived the massacre, testified before the House of Representatives. She told how she is still haunted by that night; the scenes still vivid in her mind. She said, “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams.”
This history is not taught in our schools. This history has been ignored, even covered up. The same way the history of stealing land from American Indians has not been taught. Stealing homes, decimating tribes and destroying an ancient and honorable way of life. America has been built on the mythology of European entitlement and white supremacy. The mythology of Manifest Destiny.
This is our history. This is our home. This is where we come from.
The destruction of Greenwood is an all-too-familiar and horrifying story (replayed countless times in history). Homes destroyed and lands stolen. People displaced. And the resulting trauma that stays with us across the centuries; embedded in children, families, communities, and ultimately, our nation.
We can never get back what we lost. The question is, can we find it again? Can we create a new kind of Greenwood not only in Tulsa but around the country? Can Blacks and Native peoples be allowed to prosper and flourish? Can their autonomy and sovereignty be respected and honored?
We all just want to be home. To have a home: a safe and comfortable shelter. To feel at home: with family and community who accept, embrace, and celebrate us.
We need to know our history. We need to remember the pain and embrace our collective grief.
If we are to live together in harmony, we must repair the wrongs of our past. We must stop being so afraid of those who don’t look like us, those with different customs and beliefs. We must break through the mythologies that divide us. We must look more closely at what we all share: the need for home, to be accepted and safe.
This country is our shared home.
Imagine your home burned to the ground. More than your home, your neighbor’s homes, your business, your school, every place where you shop, every place where you eat, where you bank, where you play. Imagine your entire neighborhood and everything you cherish burned to the ground.
This is not a natural disaster, not an “act of God.” This is us, our shared history. Our present and our future. Our country is burning. Divided, we all lose. Each and every one of us, black and white, rich and poor, Christian, Muslim, Jews and more, when we are divided, we lose. We lose our country, we lose our families, we lose our lives. We lose our home.
We must remember. We must repair. We must begin again.
Bathrooms. Restrooms. Toilets. We really don’t have a proper, adequate, or appropriate name for the innermost sanctum of our home. Why is that? Why does language fail us when we talk about intimate things?
At least half of the bathrooms in our country, heck, probably more than that, do not actually have baths in them. And unless you’re in a bath, we certainly don’t rest in these rooms. Toilets are only one of the furnishings and it addresses only one function. So these names that we use are odd, don’t you think?
This room is probably the most intimate of all rooms. The one place where we are always, undeniably, our most authentically human selves. Our most vulnerable selves. The place where we drop our pants, lift our skirts, and shed our clothes. Where we are exposed. Where we are naked. Where we purge ourselves of what we no longer need, expelling from us the very things that will make us sick if we don’t: dirt, grime, toxins, poop.
Home is where we poop. Everyone poops. (which is a great book, by the way.)
This room is where we enter dirty and emerge clean and hopefully, ideally, refreshed. Whether at the sink, on the toilet, or in the shower, we wash away the stuff that attaches to us, the stuff in our pores, on our skin, in our bladder, and colon. That’s the intimate stuff. The stuff we don’t really talk about. But it’s the same stuff we all share.
The truth is, I don’t have a well-polished post for you today. I’m wrestling with my insecurities and fears about writing, about making a living, about paying my bills, about others’ expectations of me. This tussle seems to be an endless activity, occupying a lot of my time. Which seems crazy. Like I should have this licked by now. But I haven’t. I only mostly keep it at bay. Insecurities and fears are formidable foes.
A good friend told me that the struggle is something I should share with you. But it has nothing to do with home, I said. And she replied, it has everything to do with home. It’s about everyone’s struggle to be at home with themselves.
She’s right. And this, like bathrooms and toilets and poop, is something we don’t talk about. We all go through it. We all wrestle with our anxieties, fears, and insecurities but we don’t share those things. Not really. Only casually, hidden behind cartoons, jokes, and an occasional Facebook post. These things are too personal, too intimate, too revealing. And are about as appealing as poop.
So, I am going to talk about it. I am going to share. Just as soon as I can find the language. And as soon as I can work up the courage.
Meanwhile, today, I’m talking about bathrooms and I hope you will consider the similarities without me being too direct or too obtuse.
Our bathrooms are probably the most important rooms of our homes. I wish that wasn’t true. I’m partial to bedrooms, but the truth is we can sleep anywhere if we needed to. And kitchens? I love kitchens, I love to cook, I love the idea of the kitchen as the hearth of the home. But again, not all of us use our kitchens as they are intended. These days, there is a lot of eating take-out in our living rooms and living on our couches.
But everyone needs a bathroom. Everyone needs a private place to poop. To wash your face, to shower or bathe.
The only time we talk about bathrooms is when they are beautiful and clean. Remodels or new. Sparkling. Elegant showers and luxurious tubs. Windows with a view.
But the reality is that our bathrooms are most often dirty, cluttered, and a mess. They require constant maintenance. Maintenance that most of us fall short of. Admit it. Maybe you scrub your toilet weekly with a cleaner rinse and the swish of a brush. Maybe you wipe down your sink. But when is the last time you scrubbed the tub and the tiles? The last time you mopped the floor? The last time you replaced the shower curtain or washed it in a machine? The last time you polished the fixtures or snaked out the drains? We buy antibacterial soap and now, thanks to Covid, wash our hands constantly, but are our bathrooms really clean? Is there old toothpaste in your sink? Or mold on your ceilings? Is there dust on top of your shelves? Dirt in the drawers of your vanity? Random hairs behind the toilet seat?
Yeah, it can be gross. Bodily functions, just like our fears of inadequacy, can be disgusting. These are things we don’t want to talk about. We spritz with some fragrance and walk away.
But everybody poops. And when we’re home – or we feel at home – we poop more easily. Same goes for the emotions that plague us. They pass through us quickly and don’t torture us when we are at home with ourselves. Our authentic selves. But even the most confident can struggle. If we’re prone to thinking, we’re bound to wrestle with some bloating and indigestion at times.
Constipation doesn’t just occur in the colon.
Irritable bowel syndrome is an energetic phenomenon as well as physical.
Digest, accept, let go.
I’m still working on this. But I’ll get back to you. Cuz this thing that no one talks about, I think we need to talk about.
I’ve gotten rid of a lot of things over the last five years. Things that took me decades to accumulate. Things I loved. Things I inherited.
The big dump – or shall I say, clearing – happened when I left my home in Picabo, Idaho. I really loved that house. Had kinda hoped I’d always be able to keep it. But three bedrooms and a large yard is a lot of maintenance.
Having spent a decade grounding myself to that place, I was ready to be lighter. To see if I could find and create home somewhere new, (somewhere warmer), somewhere devoid of so much stuff.
So, three years ago, I sold my house and most of my belongings. After that clearing, everything I owned was able to fit into a 10’x10’ storage locker. With room for me to sit on a chair and read if I wished. Not that I would, (read in a storage locker), I just liked the idea.
Occasionally I think of items I let go and I miss them. Not enough to wish I had them. But enough to think of them fondly.
Sometimes I’m surprised by the things that I kept. Mostly because I didn’t know what to do with them. Too precious to simply toss and too obscure for most folks to want. Like my father’s three-volume replica of the Gutenberg Bible. Not the colored version that sold for $2,295 in the 1980s, this one is black and white, worth maybe two or three hundred on eBay. You can’t read it, as it’s written in old script Latin. I can’t read Latin, can you?
Recently, during spring cleaning, I came across the Hummel figurine my mother bought me when my folks visited Germany in 1971. It’s authentic, with the official bumble bee stamp of W. Goebel, which, at that time, also included “W. Germany” in the logo.
This is not something that has decorated my home over the years. Instead, for decades, it has been carefully wrapped and moved from one storage box to another.
As a child, I never gave it much thought. I kept it because it was a gift from my mom and because she had brought it all the way back from Germany, but I never felt any connection to it. The little girl didn’t look like me. And while, at that age, I may have been chasing chickens on my godmother’s farm, I had absolutely no association with ducks.
When I was leaving Idaho, I considered selling it. But the market is flooded with Hummels. Probably a lot of people my age letting these treasures go. Holdovers from their parents, now deceased. They don’t exactly fit our modern taste.
So, I kept it. I wrapped it back up and put it in a box.
And here I am, once again, staring at this girl feeding ducks.
I think of how much my mom enjoyed watching ducks when she lived in Minnesota. And I remember how my mother would watch the geese at her retirement village and laugh.
I’ve decided it’s time this figurine stays where I can see it. Where I can enjoy it. It’s actually pretty sweet. And I don’t want to live with anything in boxes except a few Christmas ornaments and out-of-season clothes. If I’m going to keep this Hummel, it needs to be displayed.
Then I search online and discover this is not “Girl Feeding Ducks.” That name belongs to a different figurine. The one I have is called … well… suddenly, everything makes sense.
Why my mother chose this for me when I was just five years old.
Why I kept it all these years.
And why it speaks to me now.
I wasn’t meant to relate to the little girl.
Rather, the duck. I am a duck. I have always been a duck.
Be patient and you will be fed.
Good things are always coming.
On this day, set aside to celebrate mothers, I wanted to write something special about Mother and Home. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t do it. I can write and talk about Mom at length on any other day, but on this day, I don’t know what to say. I have had too many losses and, in this, I know I am not alone. Many are grieving the absence of mothering. And, at the same time, are deeply aware of it in unusual ways.
So, today I give you the words of Terry Tempest Williams from two of her books that have deeply touched me: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and When Women Were Birds. In both, she explores her relationship to her mother and to the long lineage of women who have shaped who she is.
May we celebrate mothering in every form and shape, in everyone who has mothered us – and continues to – in spirit and in love. Giving birth is not the only way to be a Mom. Mothering is not confined to gender or biology. And yet, we were each born out of a woman.
Today may we celebrate our births. May we, like birds, sing through everything.
“What is it about the relationship of a mother that can heal or hurt us? Her womb is the first landscape we inhabit. In here we learn to respond—to move, to listen, to be nourished and grow. In her body we grow to be human as our tails disappear and our gills turn to lungs. Our maternal environment is perfectly safe—dark, warm, and wet. It is a residency inside the Feminine.
When we outgrow our mother’s body, our cramps become her own. We move. She labors. Our body turns upside down in hers as we journey through the birth canal. She pushes in pain. We emerge, a head. She pushes one more time, and we side out like a fish. Slapped on the back by the doctor, we breathe. The umbilical cord is cut—not at our request. Separation is immediate. A mother reclaims her body, for her own life. Not ours. Minutes old, our first death is our own birth.”
“I will say it is so: The first voice I heard belonged to my mother. It was her voice I listened to from the womb; from the moment my head emerged into this world; from the moment I was pushed out, then placed on her belly before the umbilicus was cut; from the moment when she cradled me in her arms. My mother spoke to me: “Hello, little one. You are here, I am here.
“I will say it is so: My mother’s voice is a lullaby in my cells. When I am still, my body feels her breathing.”
“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
 Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams, 2001, p50
 When Women Were Birds, p17
 Refuge, p178
 When Women Were Birds, p235
In the year 2000, I began a project titled “Common Women in an Uncommon Century,” which documented personal stories of American women whose lives spanned the 20th Century.
These were the stories of grandmothers, mothers, aunts, neighbors, and friends. The women who were part of our daily lives or women we visited occasionally while growing up. Women whose faces were lined with deep wrinkles, who seemed to forget things, and who often walked slowly in stooped and fragile bodies. These women we only knew as old.
But they were not always old. They were children once, teenage girls, sisters, girlfriends, new mothers and wives. They felt the same things we feel and experienced the same desires and challenges that we face today.
What is different is the time in which they lived. A century unlike any other. If you’re at all like me (and likely of middle-age), technology advances in the 21st Century can seem overwhelming and a bit like the science fiction we read as a kid. But almost all technological innovations and scientific advances ever made up to the year 2000, were made in the last century. Automobiles, electricity, airplanes, washing machines, telephones, frozen foods, antibiotics, color photos, talking movies, computers, and more – so many of the things we take for granted and can’t imagine living without – came into existence during the 20th Century.
Along with these technological and scientific advances came immense social changes. White women won the right to vote and the freedom of financial independence. They cut their hair and shortened their skirts. In the 1970’s they were finally able to apply for credit cards under their own names. They bought property, became employed outside of the home, owned businesses, and discovered new ways in which they could create their own destiny – no longer restricted by the mores and customs of the past.
Of course this wasn’t true for all women. Social injustices and Jim Crow laws kept women of color from experiencing many of these things. Yet the changes they experienced were significant as well. Their determination, their sacrifices as women and mothers, and their refusal to accept the status quo has brought us to where we are today.
Our lives are the product of the women who came before us. The women who men tried to cut from the history books and who tried to claim their achievements as their own. The women who held together families during the Great Depression and too many wars. The so-called “common” women who were, just by virtue of living, quite extraordinary.
My godmother was one of these women. Bertha Schwant Baird – whom everyone called Grama – was 66 years old when I was born. By then her face was an amazing web of wrinkles, earned equally from laughter as it was from working the farm under the beating sun. She was a little person, standing no more than 4 feet 10 inches and when she laughed, her whole body would jiggle in laughter with her.
She found reasons to laugh even in hardship. Her Christian faith was the rock of her existence. She had 8 children while living on a farm and the youngest was only ten years old when her husband died unexpectedly. Somehow, she carried on and she became a matriarch not only to her own family but to the entire town as well. Even into her 80’s, she continued to babysit children.
The following is a story Grama Baird told me many times when I was young. It was an experience that shaped her entire life. Here it is:
Whaaat a friend we have in Jeesus.
The voices appeared suddenly in the stillness of the night. But they were so sweet and so gentle that Bertha was not startled, only curiously surprised. She was standing in the living room, cradling the baby in her arms. It was her sister’s child, only a few months old, and racked with fever. Betha knew something was terribly wrong. The child was not well. Still, she had sent her sister off to sleep and vowed to watch closely over the little one.
All our sins and griefs to bear!
The voices were just outside the house now. She could hear them on the porch. Where did they come from this late at night? And who were they, she wondered.
Whaat a privilege to caarry, Eev’ything to God in prayer!
Bertha rocked the baby close to her breast and looked down on its tender young face. The baby was not breathing.
Ooh, what peace we often forfeit, Ooh, what needless pain we bear. All because we do not caarry, Eev’ything to God in prayer!
She heard the chorus begin to fade and footsteps walk away from the porch and evaporate into the silence of the early morning. The child was dead. And at that very moment, holding the small still child in her arms, she knew the voices she heard had been those of angels.
Grama would always remember the time the angels visited her and carried away her sweet young niece. Her face would become very somber and her voice serious as she recounted the memory in years to come. And the feeling of peace that had filled her then would sweep over her again, reminding her that God was near.
Bertha was only 19 years old when her sister’s child died in her arms. She still had another year of horse and buggy rides to Saturday night dances ahead of her. Another year before she would marry Harrison Baird after he returned from war. She would eventually have eight children of her own, all of whom lived long and healthy lives.
I wonder, what are the stories of your mothers and grandmothers? The stories you know and the stories you haven’t been told?
Today is a good day to ask. Reach out and call the women who have been present in your life, the ones who mean so much to you. You might be surprised by what you learn.
We spend our lives knowing them as mothers and grandmothers, as aunts, great aunts, and caregivers. But they are so much more than that. They, too, were once young. And they have stories to tell.
I always forget how beautiful Muskogee is. Great old homes. Sidewalks. Lush landscape. I may not be “an Okie from Muskogee” but I do like to visit!
This was my first time trying the new “story” feature on WordPress and I don’t think it works that well, so below are more photos.
Be sure to eat at Momma C’s Soul Food when you’re there! Gorgeous space and great food! Tell Angie I sent you 😉
Earlier this week I posted an installment of my American in Italy During Covid-19 story on FindingHome.Substack.com and it was titled Fierce Compassion.
Today I thought I would talk more specifically about what I think Fierce Compassion is and how it relates to home.
In my substack posting, I refer to two stories.
One is from Tsultrim Allione and found in her book Wisdom Rising: A Journey into the Mandala of the Empowered Feminine. Here is the story in her words:
“I was at a lunch with the Dalai Lama and five Buddhist teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. We were sitting in a charming room with white carpets and many windows. The food was a delightful, fragrant, vegetarian Indian meal. There were lovely flower arrangements on the table.
“We were discussing sexual misconduct among Western Buddhist teachers. A woman Buddhist from California brought up someone who was using his students for his own sexual needs. One woman said, ‘We are working with him with compassion, trying to get him to understand his motives for exploiting female students and to help him change his actions.’
“The Dalai Lama slammed his fist on the table, saying loudly, ‘Compassion is fine, but it has to stop! And those doing it should be exposed!’ All the serving plates on the table jumped, the water glasses tipped precariously, and I almost choked on the bite of saffron rice in my mouth.
“Suddenly I saw him as a fierce manifestation of compassion and realized that this clarity did not mean that the Dalai Lama had moved away from compassion. Rather, he was bringing compassion and manifesting it as decisive fierceness. His magnetism was glowing like a fire.
“I will always remember that day, because it was such a good teaching on compassion and precision. Compassion is not a wishy-washy ‘anything goes’ approach. Compassion can say a fierce no!“
Here I must give credit to Tsultrim Allione for the term “Fierce Compassion”.
When I hear this story of the Dalai Lama being so clear and immediate in his response, I am reminded of the importance of boundaries. Boundaries are absolutely critical. We need boundaries.
Now, I say this as someone who embraces the Buddhist idea that there is no “other” and there is no “self” – we are all one. I see myself and everyone else as divine manifestations of God, yet trapped in human bodies and human minds.
That being said, for years, my spirituality was deeply rooted in a Christian understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness that recognized we are all flawed, we each make mistakes. We all do bad things. Goodness knows, I mess up all the time. I thought compassion meant that if I accept that I, myself, am faulty, then I needed, by extension, to accept the faults of others. Consequently, I allowed incredibly inappropriate behavior because I could see the “log in my own eye while seeing the speck in a friend’s.” I would turn the other cheek. (Both ideas, as you may know, come from the book of Matthew in the Bible.)
But compassion and forgiveness are more than acceptance.
It has taken me a long time to understand on a deeper level that if we ignore bad behavior, if we too easily “forgive” without holding people accountable, without imposing consequences, then we do harm to ourselves and to everyone else as well.
Compassion is loving ourselves AND loving others. There is no separateness. Therefore, that same love and compassion demands we call each other out on bad behavior, because what is done to another is done to ourselves.
And this is the importance of boundaries. Clear lines that say NO, this is not acceptable. When this line is crossed, there are consequences, you will be held responsible.
The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements are examples of Fierce Compassion in action. People must be held accountable for bad behavior.
My other story in my FindingHome.substack.com post titled Fierce Compassion was from last spring when Covid-19 had become a pandemic and Americans were dying almost exponentially. Yet, our President at that time was saying Covid would go away by the summer, and it wasn’t any worse than the flu. He had even begun pushing Hydroxychloroquine as a cure. Every single day the President of the United States was saying something that was irresponsible, dismissive, and dangerous.
It was at this time that a cousin attacked me on Facebook and accused me of being “blinded by hate.” She later admitted that she “lashed out.” But she never apologized. She never recanted.
I really struggled with this. I understood that she was frustrated and on edge – all of us were. The whole world was spinning in confusion and despair. But lashing out at me was not acceptable.
Now, it is worth noting that her comment had been in response to a posted prayer that the President would do better, that his administration would respond better, and that the deaths and suffering would stop.
It is for this post – this prayer – that my cousin called me “blinded by hate.”
I reached out to her on Facebook and through email. I knew she and I had opposing views on the President and still, I tried to find a common ground. I had not insulted the president – I am always careful not to call people names. I don’t wish anyone ill.
And in this case in particular, IT WAS A PRAYER!! Seriously.
So what I kept coming back to was pretty simple: we were family and she knew me. She knew I wasn’t a hateful person, right? I mean, she knew I was loving. We had a loving relationship, didn’t we? We were friends. We respected each other. We spent time together, we ate together, we laughed together. How could she call me hateful?
I felt determined to heal the misunderstanding. If I couldn’t maintain peace within my own family – if we couldn’t respect and love each other and honor our differing points of view – then what hope was there for our country? Really, this thought was devastating to me.
Unfortunately, my cousin refused to meet me halfway. She continued to spin like a top, bringing politics into her defense and never recanting her words. This went on for quite awhile until I finally realized I had to say no more – enough is enough. She had crossed the line of acceptable behavior.
My response had been similar to the woman in the first story: I was doing my best to work with her with compassion, trying to get her to understand her motives for lashing out and to help her change her actions. But in the end, I needed to respond as the Dalai Lama did. With decisive action and fierce compassion. I ended all communication with her.
How was this response was compassionate?
My cousin was hurting me. If I allowed the communication to continue as it was, she would continue to hurt me. And if I did this, I would not be practicing compassion for myself.
When we speak of compassion, we often think of it in terms of something we have for others. But compassion is more than understanding and acceptance. It is the opposite of sacrifice.
We forget that compassion is necessary for ourselves as well.
If there is no “self” and no “other” then bad behavior hurts ALL OF US. As John Donne wrote, no man is an island unto himself. What hurts another hurts me.
Compassion demands care for all sentient beings. Compassion also demands justice. Compassion holds boundaries to keep the world in balance.
When we manifest decisive fierceness in the face of wrongdoing, we bring compassion to the world.
Not only is our home part of this world, home is in us.
When we have compassion for ourselves by saying NO to bad behavior, we recognize God within us.
And that, my friends, is the true coming home.
One year ago, I was in Balestrate, Sicily, staring out at the sea. For eleven weeks, blue water and endless sky were the view from my balcony. Day after day I watched the waves roll in. Even if the breeze was chilly, or when it rained, I could see endless blue from my windows.
I was lucky to have this place and especially this view during Italy’s Covid-19 lockdown. My gratitude was immense. Yet, as lovely as it was, I began to tire of looking at the sea.
I ached for green spaces and trees. I longed for a landscape that was familiar to me.
The landscape of our childhood—the place where we played—is imprinted on our psyches. Our idea of home is wrapped up in the landscape of where home was when we were young and life was carefree.
I grew up in Chicago with busy streets and alleys. Neighborhoods lined with majestic oaks and brick buildings. Automobiles and buses were a daily part of life. Downtown, with the Sears Tower and Hancock buildings, was a backdrop for all activities. I could see these skyscrapers in the distance and occasionally a drive along Lake Shore Drive would thrill me.
But for a few weeks each summer, I would visit my godmother’s farm in Michigan and this is where I was truly a kid. This is the landscape that is imprinted in me.
This is where I played, surrounded by fields of corn and hay. A landscape dotted with red barns and cows and the occasional horse. This is where I discovered snakes and dandy-long-legs. Where we played wiffle ball with hardened cow patties as bases. Where we chased chickens and later, when the chickens were gone, cleaned out the coop and held make-believe weddings and other such games. Where I climbed the silo, much to Grandma’s chagrin. Where straw got stuck up my nose after jumping from the barn loft into loose hay below. Where, when I tired of others and needed to be alone, I would hide beneath the low hanging branches of her willow tree.
In the country, I played outside from morning til night and came inside only for noon dinner and a brief light supper. The sun didn’t set until 9:00pm and Grandma and the older girls would sit on the back porch in rocking chairs watching us younger ones try to catch fireflies, while the crickets chirped incessantly. There was a stillness in the evenings when even the humidity got drowsy and allowed us to sleep.
Wherever you played outside without any worries—even if this wasn’t something you did until you were older—that landscape is inside you. That landscape feels like home.
That landscape is a part of you. It is stored within the cells of your body and remembered in your senses.
Think of the smells and sounds and tastes of your childhood. These are all part of the landscape you carry. These things stay with us and we are surprised when we happen upon them in places far away from our original home.
This landscape imprint is like a holdfast: a root-like structure on algae that allows it to attach to something deeper, and keeps it from being swept away in the tides and winds. The landscape of our childhood—the physical landmarks, scents and sensations—acts as a holdfast in our adult lives, keeping us grounded to place.
“Humans don’t have holdfasts or suction-cup stomachs, but we do have hearts and minds. We have strong memories of smells that have held meaning for us since we were small, smells that fill us with joy or bring us to our knees with sorrow and regret. Certain sounds go straight to our hearts—seagulls, wind over water, a child’s voice, a hymn. We recognize landscapes the way we recognize faces we haven’t seen for many years, and greet them with the same embrace and grieve for them when they are gone.”
When we move as adults to a new place—a new city or state with a different landscape than our childhood—we can often feel unmoored. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. The excitement and newness of the place wears off. We become restless or unhappy. We sense something is missing. Our spirits ache to be back in the familiar landscape of our youth.
John Hill, in his book At Home in the World: Sounds and Symmetries of Belonging, tells of a client who was forced to leave her home as a child when the family moved away from the country and into the city. She eventually learned to adapt to city life yet she never felt safe in her new home on a busy street. She became homesick. She wasn’t able to heal the loss of her childhood landscape and remained melancholy as an adult. Her homesickness was a sadness and discontent that couldn’t be explained until, in therapy, she remembered the home she was forced to leave, her first home. Spiritual writer and psychotherapist Thomas Moore explains this experience. He writes, “Human beings are part of the natural world. We are only reminded, if we are reminded at all, by a sadness we can’t explain and a longing for place that feels like home.”
I can relate to Hill’s client. I spent enough time in the city as a child that it is familiar to me, but it isn’t soothing. The constant noise and energy, the lights that penetrate the night and a city that never sleeps, these things are thrilling for a time but eventually unsettling.
Our sensory memories of childhood are so rich that they can take a lifetime to unpack. Yet over and over again we are transported back to childhood and reminded of something we thought was forgotten or which has never left our memory. Recalling those special places of our youth—the smells, sounds, and tastes, how it looked or how it felt—is more than nostalgia. These memories are the key to understanding the special elements that make a place feel like home.
So, for me, while staring at the sea for eleven weeks was lovely, I eventually longed for a landscape that was familiar. A landscape that fed my soul, filled with growing things and shades of brown and green. When travel restrictions lifted, I found that in the countryside of Sicily.
As we celebrate Earth Day, may you remember the natural landscapes of your youth – be they city, country, mountains, or beach. Honor these memories and their beauty.
Keep these landscapes alive by doing what you can to preserve them. (Starting with: reduce, recycle, and re-use everything. Stop purchasing plastic as much as you can.)
As you nurture your memories, you nurture your soul.
Don’t forget to nurture the earth too. This place is your home.
Photos on top are my godmother’s farm in Michigan. Photos below were taken during my 2020 trip to Sicily.
If this post makes you think about home and you have similar memories, I hope you will like it and comment. I’d love to hear from you!
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