‘I stood there a long while, staring at that tree. It looked so strong. So beautiful. Hurt right down the middle but alive and well. Cee touched my shoulder. Lightly.
Come on, brother. Let’s go home.’
Toni Morrison’s Home is, on the surface, a simple book. Two kids long to leave their small, hidden town. One goes to war, the other to the city through a marriage that dies young. One (Frank) returns broken by loss. The other (Cee) struggles with life in the city. Making his way home, Frank navigates society in a body marked by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He finds a romantic partner that serves as a temporary headrest, and experiences a culture thick with racism which, in a different city, is also suffered by Cee under the umbrella of eugenics. But Frank, when he learns about the horrors meted on his sister, is determined to rescue Cee. And he does, holding her closely as they return home, to that small town they’d left.
When we zoom into the story, though, we find other struggles coexisting with racism and broken hearts and PTSD. We find the claws of guilt, the limit of empathy, the conflict between good and evil, the fangs of capitalism, the power of language, the effect of symbolism, the promise of hope even though. We find lost bodies searching for a home, a place of rest, all a reminder of our biological need for belonging, which we witness as early as embryos lounging in our mother’s womb. But what does it mean to be at home? Why do we long for a dwelling place even when in other dwelling places? And, how do we find (or make?) a home?
On This Day I Choose Peace. Tega Akpokona. 2022.
We’re at first fetuses, creatures stretching from ¼ to 4 to 10 to 14 to 20 inches in a woman’s body, made whole by biological activities and materials — the amniotic sac that shields us from injuries, the placenta through which we give and receive, the lanugo that guards the vernix caseosa guards our feeble fetal skin against damage by the amniotic fluid. This is our earliest contact with home, an encounter that illuminates our innate need for belonging which, in part, explains our culture of tagging others (and being tagged) as belonging to a race, an ethnicity, a nationality, etc. — labels made to fit us into the world’s design of orderliness and provide us a sense of connection with other selves.
To be at home is to belong to feel safe to be loved, a truth I’ve picked from literature, my reflections on life, and conversations with other selves in Letters of Consolation. For Osaretin Atohengbe, ‘home is a place of safety, a place where I can be myself, relax, crack my bone without anyone watching me. Home is truly where the heart is. I’ll say it’s the most comfortable place. I can truly be myself at home.’ For Nelson Ukeye, ‘home is a place I feel safe with people who give a shit about me.’ For Julius Agbaje, ‘home is a place of safety and security, a place where I can be myself unabashedly, without any fear of condemnation. It is any space where I can be in touch with my mind and art. Wherever I can create or ideate, wherever I can be vulnerable and in touch with my emotions. It is in the arms of my loved ones; in their warmth, I feel the safety of home. Home is the admiration in my parent’s eyes when they talk about my naughtiness or achievements. Home is in the interlock of mine and my lover’s hands. Home is wherever I can set up my canvas and create, wherever I can access true and non-judgemental love.’
And so it’s unsurprising that, when our need for belonging is threatened, we unplug from spaces to which we once felt a connection.
Take, for instance, a mother and her two-month-old son at Harvard’s laboratory of human development. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in The Body Keeps The Score, observed that ‘They were cooing to each other and having a wonderful time—until the mother leaned in to nuzzle him and the baby, in his excitement, yanked on her hair. The mother was caught unawares and yelped with pain, pushing away his hand while her face contorted with anger. The baby let go immediately, and they pulled back physically from each other. For both of them the source of delight had become a source of distress. Obviously frightened, the baby brought his hands up to his face to block out the sight of his angry mother. The mother, in turn, realizing that her baby was upset, refocused on him, making soothing sounds in an attempt to smooth things over. The infant still had his eyes covered, but his craving for connection soon reemerged. He started peeking out to see if the coast was clear, while his mother reached toward him with a concerned expression. As she started to tickle his belly, he dropped his arms and broke into a happy giggle, and harmony was reestablished.’
When our source of safety becomes that of distress, we withdraw from its arms and follow the sweet hum of desire, an appetite for a space in which we’re seen and still accepted, still embraced, still loved. We stretch our cords of longing and plug into other channels of freedom and communion. After all, only when free can we feel the fullness of life, only by standing on solid ground can we hold ourselves and others.
‘To feel as if you belong,’ David Whyte offered in On Belonging And Coming Home, ‘is one of the great triumphs of human existence — and especially to sustain a life of belonging and to invite others into that… But it’s interesting to think that … our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies; that though the crow is just itself and the stone is just itself and the mountain is just itself, and the cloud, and the sky is just itself — we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile, and that the ability to turn your face towards home is one of the great human endeavors and the great human stories.’
When home is no longer synonymous with safety, it’s only natural to go in search of a new safe space or make it anyway.
The Bliss of Centeredness. Tega Akpokona. 2022.
‘Home for me is materially intangible, but mentally and emotionally tangible. I reckon that it is why I never carry the burden of attachment to any specific living space where I’ve lived for a long time or season when I have to leave for a new place. Home, for me, is a state of mind.’ Julius Agbaje.
There are different forms of home and many ways to make them. For one rooted in faith, grow up within the religion of a specific culture or spend enough time with a certain group or experience something beyond your body self. For one found in families, enter the world through loving parents or choose a partner with whom there’s calm or connect with a group (or one or two bodies) outside your traditional family. For one found in work, enter a workplace in which you’re valued or hold money as a driving force or take stock of your impact and ride with that. And to make the world your home? Simple. Fall in love with an art form, take a bus (or a plane, a ship? You can even trek) to communities you’ve never experienced, enter conversations with strangers, surf the World Wide Web, stay curious.
But sit in conversation with Maya Angelou and she’ll tell you that ‘we may act sophisticated and worldly but I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.’
Dine with Edith Wharton and she’ll remind you, as she did her friend Mary Berenson, that ‘I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity — to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.’
There’s no stronger home than that within ourselves — that home which, if sculpted with truth and grace and faith and silence and patience and courage can allow us the freedom to touch the world from within. That home constructed when we suddenly realize how tired we are of running from our body. See what David Whyte says in On Belonging and Coming Home: It’s interesting to think that no matter how far you are from yourself, no matter how exiled you feel from your contribution to the rest of the world or to society — that, as a human being, all you have to do is enumerate exactly the way you don’t feel at home in the world — to say exactly how you don’t belong — and the moment you’ve uttered the exact dimensionality of your exile, you’re already taking the path back to the way, back to the place you should be. You’re already on your way home.
And, oftentimes, we don’t get to this point until something shakes us to it, until we alert a desire for home and, rather than take us elsewhere, it presents us with an experience that punches our gut — that sweetsour region that holds fear, faith, and fatigue in equal parts — and presses our heart to say: enough. Enough of defining myself through the lens of others. Enough of taking the same actions and suffering the same consequences. Enough of being a worn-out wheel or a wheel at all. Enough of dissociating from my body. Enough of slicing my skin and leaning toward nothingness. Enough of letting my spirit get ruined by the deep-down suffering that envelops life. Enough of being run by fear, by desire, by blindness. Enough of giving myself to bodies that only know to take and destroy. Enough of not living to my fullest, not breathing healthy air, not connecting with my body as a temple. Enough of not seeing myself.
And when that happens, when we choose ourselves as our dwelling place, we can rest because we have therapy as a guide for our journey. We have meditation to tighten our loose ends and connect us deeper with ourselves. We have pencils to serve as mouthpieces and blank sheets to listen. We have music touching our muscles and pumping our hearts and strengthening our neural networks. We have nature. We have stories — living in books, films, blogs, podcasts, TikToks, etc — reminding us that we’re not alone here. We have hope playing in the background.
To be at home within is to belong and feel safe in ourselves. And to feel safe from the inside is to be unrushed by the world. To walk into rooms with our stories at heart. (Because who can take that from you? Who can use your faults against you when you’re unashamed of the pits you’ve crawled and the muds you’ve walked through — when you know what it means to have bright days too?). It is to be a better friend, leader, teacher, sibling, employee, lover, child, parent, etc. To be faced with dark days and still find light there. It is to make our own music, construct our own rhythm, operate with a new fact sheet because we have the truth within us. To know that grace is abundant, even though we’re imperfect.
The Big Question
Came from reading Toni Morrison’s Home. What does it mean to be at home? I’d never given this much thought and wasn’t sure where this question would lead me. But it was wonderful learning that, though different in form, home essentially means the same thing to us all.
*Bahaar is synonymous with the English word, eight. It is of the Saho language, a Cushitic language spoken by over 200,000 people across Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. The Cushitic language is a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, and I use bahaar to represent the month of August.