Two weeks after the summer solstice, two days after Alton Sterling was shot to death in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, one day after Philando Castile was shot to death in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and just hours after twelve police officers were shot and five killed in Dallas, Texas, my children and I took a walk in the woods.
It was overcast and quiet except for the birds and the insects and my children adding to the ongoing story they share about worlds they’ve co-created. The gypsy moths have entered the next stage of their life cycle and so even the incessant rain-drop noise of the caterpillars chewing the leaves overhead had ceased. Usually the sound of rushing water warns us that we’re approaching the creek, but this week the creek was so low that I was surprised when we came upon it.
In this quiet, we swatted mosquitoes and followed the path, and I asked my children what it means to them to be home. My six-year-old said he didn’t know, which makes sense; we moved from Utah when he was so young, he remembers only our house in Massachusetts. With nothing to compare it to, he doesn’t recognize a distinct feeling of “home.”
My eleven-year-old had more to say. For her, our house here feels like home, but she wasn’t sure what makes it so. She talked it through with me. First she said that it feels like home because of the people.
“But Daddy and brother and I were together with you in the cottage in Prince Edward Island we stayed in last week, but that didn’t feel like home, did it?” I asked.
“No,” she said, thinking. “Maybe the feeling of home is things that are familiar, like waking up in my bed in my room and knowing the things around me.”
“So, if we stayed in the cottage in Prince Edward Island for so long that it felt familiar, would it feel like home, or would Massachusetts still feel like home?” I asked.
“I think it would only feel like home if there was no chance of going back,” she said. “And it’s not really that Massachusetts feels like home. It’s more that our house feels like home.”
“Okay, so what if we took our exact house and moved it to Prince Edward Island, would it feel like home?” I asked.
We walked in silence for a little while, and then she said, “When we moved away from Utah, we had time to get used to the idea that we were leaving and that it wouldn’t be our home anymore before we moved into our house here in Massachusetts. It’s different if you know you can go back.”
Staying in the same house in the same place for so much of their lives, my children are experiencing “home” in a different way than I did. Every three years or so, my family would move away and I knew that I was leaving one home and going to another home. The feeling of home wasn’t linked to a particular building or even a particular location, and as I got older and our family structure changed, it wasn’t even linked to a particular group of people. I feel elements of home to one degree or another everywhere I live and in some places I only visit (and even sometimes in places I don’t even like), but there’s no one place that I could point at and call home. “Where’s home?” people ask my spouse and me, and my spouse says, “I’m from Ohio and Michigan, but she’s from the United States.” He’s being funny, but it’s true.
Being outside of the United States for a little while made me realize even more how much the United States is my home in the sense that it’s the culture from which I originate, the lens through which I see the world, and the norm against which I compare every other idea and place and culture I encounter.
For the very short time we were out of the country, I found myself wondering what it would be like to not be from the United States. What would it be like to see the things that happen in the United States from the outside rather than as a product of my culture? Would it be a comfort?
Maybe, like my daughter suggests, it wouldn’t even be possible. I could leave and live somewhere else, but the United States would still be here and would still be the perspective from which I see the rest of the world. It would still be home.
While we were in Canada, I had conversations with Canadians about the mass shooting in Orlando and about the presidential race and the wave of racism and xenophobia that seems to be rising in so many countries and then I came home to a shooting and a shooting and a shooting, and that’s got me thinking a lot about what it means that this place where these things happen is my home.
Because it’s not just that I live here and that these things happen. It’s that I’m part of this culture that kills Black people and police officers and gay people just as I’m part of the culture of Black people, police officers, and gay people who are killed. I’m part of this culture that kills and this culture that is killed, this culture that blames and this culture that reflects, this culture that weeps and this culture that rages. I’m part of this culture that elevates celebrity and wealth above compassion and empathy. I’m a part of this culture, and it’s a part of me.
Michelle Alexander writes in a Facebook post that I’ll share on the Imperfect Happiness Facebook Page:
“In recent years, I have come to believe that truly transformative change depends more on thoughtful creation of new ways of being than reflexive reactions to the old. What is happening now is very, very old. We have some habits of responding to this familiar pain and trauma that are not serving us well.”
Cut-and-run is how I usually respond to discomfort. When I turn on the radio or look at social media, I want to escape. I want to run away and leave and not look back. My reflexive reaction is to disassociate myself from the violence and the us-versus-them thinking. But this doesn’t work. As I wrote a few years ago, these are my people. And that goes for the people on both ends of the gun.
Whether I like it or not, whether I intend it or not, I am a product of this culture, and I participate in producing the culture. Even if I turn away, I am participating in crafting this culture. Even if I leave, this is my home.
I have no answers and no suggestions for myself or for anyone else. Maybe I’ll still find some way to leave, but I suspect that I’ll stick around and keep hiking the same paths each week. I just hope that whatever I do, I can do it with intention, with courage, and with open eyes.