In 2005 and 2006, while touring for their first album Silent Alarm, London-based band Bloc Party conceived of and wrote their sophomore album, A Weekend in the City. It reflects their experience of touring the world and returning sporadically to London, only to be frustrated and disillusioned about the city they had called home. In a song titled, “Where Is Home?” they conclude,
I just sit, and I just sigh
And I pretend
That there’s nothing wrong
The teeth of this world
Tear me in half
And every day I must ask myself
Where is it?
Where is home?
We rarely ask ourselves this question. It is a troubling question to ask, capable of causing us to doubt and rethink our sense of belonging, our sense of self, and our very purpose.
In Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger use “home” as a frame through which to analyze contemporary culture and to propose a Christian response to a broken world and God’s plan of redemption. In a shorter article, they connected this idea of home to the leaving and returning that contemporary college and university students experience—in the process often losing the robust sense of belonging, self and purpose they had where they grew up. The college years, they argue, is a time of transformation away from the idea of home and toward a nomadic placeless future “somewhere over the rainbow.”
In his novel Remembering (Counterpoint LLC, 2008), Wendell Berry tells the story of Andy Catlett, a farmer and journalist from rural Kentucky, as he attends a conference in San Francisco. During the trip he reflects on home and his place and membership in the Port William community in which he has grown up and lived. Life in this small community has not been easy for him; he feels the threat of the dominant agri-industrial complex. He must constantly commit to his choice to be countercultural, to reject the vision of expansive industrial farming. Instead, he reflects on the value of his local place and his relationships. Despite the brokenness of Port Williams’ people and community, he realizes that it is a place with a longer-term vision for land and people, and tells the history from which he has come and from which his legacy will be told. Remembering, Berry argues, is not an abstraction that happens in your mind; it locates you in your place. It is the act of searching out and finding home.
As I read Remembering, I too was on a plane traveling to California—leaving home, for a small journey of remembering my own history. I visited the cemetery where my grandparents are buried and listened to my uncle recount episodes from the 50 years that had passed since my family made its way to dairy farms next to the Pacific Ocean. Yes, not so long ago, much of what has now been absorbed into the Los Angeles sprawl was farmland and a rural community.
I imagined Andy picking up the music of William Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of blind parents. He played music informally; he later studied counseling at Geneva College and worked as a mental health therapist. His music is filled with remnants of witnessing his parents’ divorce, and later, his own. His songs connect the struggle of human relationships with our longing for home. In “Find My Way Home” he writes,
I know I can’t be forgiven
Why would I try?
I know I can’t be forgiven
Why waste my time?
Because I can’t find my way home
And I don’t know where to go
In Berry’s work, Andy struggles with this same question, but ultimately is able to find his way back to his wife and his family with the hope of reconciliation. Andy might resonate with Hem‘s “Half Acre” from their 2007 EP Home Again, Home Again:
Think of every town you’ve lived in
Every room you lay your head
And what is it that you remember
Do you carry every sadness with you
Every hour your heart was broken
Every night the fear and darkness
Lay down with you
A man is walking on the highway
A woman stares out at the sea
And light is only now just breaking
So we carry every sadness with us
Every hour our hearts were broken
Every night the fear and darkness
Lay down with us
But I am holding half an acre
torn from the map of Michigan
I am carrying this scrap of paper
That can crack the darkest sky wide open
Every burden taken from me
Every night my heart unfolding
Fitzsimmons and Hem express Andy’s struggle—and ours—to find and know home, feeling how elusive it can be.
French director Olivier Assayas explores these questions in Summer Hours, one of my favourite films of 2009. Assayas goes even further, asking: What makes a place a home? And how do places become and hold meaning for us? The film plays like a series of vignettes. We first meet Hélène, the caretaker of an impressive countryside estate just outside of Paris with elaborate gardens, old furniture, antiques and valuable works of art, all of which once belonged to her close uncle and renowned artist Paul Berthier. When she passes, it becomes the task of her children to make the tough choices about donating, keeping and selling the various pieces of their childhood home.
Frédéric (Charles Berling), the eldest son, lives near by with his wife and children, and becomes the primary caretaker of the estate. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) lives in New York City as a designer, returning infrequently. And Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), the youngest, has moved to China to follow a lucrative career. The children have a series of meetings throughout the year and the viewer is invited to reflect on the meaning this place holds for each of them. Each scene is filled with remembering—the characters feel the past as they reflect on the meaning that the place holds, and a sense of sadness as they part with their mother’s treasured belongings.
But it is the final scene that defines the film for me. The weekend before the estate is finally sold off, Hélène’s teenage granddaughter, Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing), invites her friends over for a party. For them, the place is just a space to get together with friends. But for Sylvie it is not merely space, but a place embedded with meaning. She takes her boyfriend for a tour beyond the house into the adjoining meadow. Sylvie realizes that they are in a location that inspired one of Berthier’s paintings. Her boyfriend seems uninterested, and they wander off, but it is in this scene that the audience senses the sadness as this place, once home to a family, slowly fades into the past.
“Home” is tragically precarious and fragile, and is not easily sustained. It requires diligent relationships, and a commitment to storytelling.
Assayas’ viewers are left to reflect on their own abilities and failures in working toward building and sustaining home, for themselves and those before and after them.
Jason Reitman’s latest film, Up in the Air, also shows the challenges of choosing a life of commitment and the struggle of finding home. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has mastered living on the road. He works for an agency that (no matter how you say it) fires people. And Ryan has mastered saying it well. He sticks to scripts and keeps personal involvement to a minimum as he lays out the bad news. And so, life is going well for him: he speaks frequently at conferences, stays in fancy hotels, and is racking up card holder rewards points and frequent flier miles. It isn’t until Ryan meets two women—Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow road warrior, and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young and eager new colleague—that the hard questions of “home” begin to set upon him.
Alex is Ryan’s match in expert knowledge of reward point systems, as well as the best restaurants and hotels on the road. Through Alex, Ryan begins to wonder if the homeless life he has chosen is sustainable. Their connection leaves him wanting to see her more often than when they both happen to be in the same city.
Natalie is assigned to go on one last business trip with Ryan before she spins into the same work done via video conference, rather than face-to-face. On this trip, Natalie is surprised to find how displaced she feels. Her own roiling challenges Ryan to admit that real relationships require presence and intimacy. She models the questioning that Ryan has arrogantly disregarded.
When finally asked, “Where is home?” Ryan sadly confesses that it is “here”—on the plane, up in the air. Up in the Air doesn’t have a tidy ending. It asks important questions but it doesn’t offer simple answers. Good art does that.
When I am asked “Where is home?” I get flustered and uncomfortable. Is it where I live now? Where I was born? Where I have lived? Is it the community I am a part of? Is it my family? Is it where I have roots? Or is it simply where I rest my head at night? I’ve lived many places and been a part of many communities and families. I know the feeling of coming home and leaving home.
Every time I hear the question, I am challenged to define my place in the world. I realize my commitment to building a place, and the dedication and toil required to sustain a place called home.