Seventeen years in your house
makes it strange to have you
in mine, heels of your fine
polished shoes clattering
against my New England floors.
I want so badly to please you
that the countertops ache
from repeated scrubbing.
Fresh flowers on every table,
water in the carafe by the bed.
By tomorrow we’ll argue
politics again, each stunned
by the unconsidered policies
the other promotes, but
let me enjoy today to its fullest.
I marvel that you are with me.
Your aftershave and your cigar smoke,
they comfort me. Surely
your voice will be with me
all of the days of my life.
By Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi
New Year’s Day, 2006. I have tried sixteen times to write about “Finding Home.” This is the seventeenth draft. Why it’s so hard to write this? It should be easy. First, introduce myself. I’m a postulant at a nuns’ temple in South Korea. I’ve been here since May, living with the nuns and preparing for my novice examination in February. Next, give the classic Buddhist term for a monastic, sramanerika, “she who has entered homelessness.” Now contrast “home” and “homeless,” making it clear I’m talking about spiritual homelessness and not financial destitution. Write about the “openness” the spiritual journey requires. Insert an anecdote or two, preferably humorous yet profound, and wrap it up around seven hundred words with a pithy paragraph about the freedom and joy of renunciation.
Last night, I scrapped draft fifteen and started draft sixteen. It being New Year’s Eve, I also wrote a New Year’s “writer’s resolution” on the back of my notebook in black permanent marker: “It is better to be plain and honest than fancy and vague.” It’s more an observation of the truth than a resolution, but it’s exactly how I want to write. Drafts one through fifteen were fancy and vague, full of nice images and witty puns about my life as a Buddhist postulant. They danced around the central experience I’ve had since coming to this temple to train to become a nun—aching loss. Some dharma teachers are emphatic that you “speak well of the temple” and not disclose the difficulties of your training. I tried to follow this advice, and what I got was fifteen essays full of pretty deceptions. The sixteenth was better, but I was still trying too hard to be happy and positive about an essentially heart-rending experience.
Here it is: I decided last winter I wanted to seek ordination in order to attain enlightenment and save all beings. I found a good teacher, a nun whose face carried the qualities I wanted to develop: calm, joy, strength, centeredness. I prepared for “homelessness” literally. I pared a lifetime of books, clothes, pictures, school things, junk, and letters down to two boxes I left at my parents’ house in the States. I brought a small box of Korean language texts and Buddhist scriptures with me to Korea, along with one pair of pants, several shirts, a sweater and a winter nun’s robe. Then I showed up at my teacher’s temple.
First my teacher and grand-teacher took my old name and gave me a dharma name. Next, they took my history. This was mostly because of the language barrier. My Korean is about as good as a two-year-old’s, but the accent is worse. I couldn’t communicate beyond basics. Forget explaining emotions or thoughts, or anything about my life and the ways and why of who I am. I suddenly became a momentary entity, completely unable to build relationships based on what I could say. See how many of your conversations begin with a recollection of something in the past, or a projection into the future. See how many of these past and present stories build your identity and make you feel solid and continuous. Take it all away. See how stripped from time and life you feel—how alienated from the person you were when you could speak about yourself. When it happened to me, I felt completely gutted of everything.
The alchemy of temple life does something too and probably would have led to the same loss of self as the virtual silence of the language barrier. Living in a community with little personal time and no personal space would shake anyone. What really tore into me, however, was my own aspiration to change. I wanted to let go of old habits. I wanted to live better, more compassionately and wisely. Ninety-nine days out of one hundred, I do the same damn things I’ve always done. I react with the same anger and defensiveness I always have, the same jealousy, the same anxiety to please. It’s what a friend of mine, a postulant at a different temple, calls “the inner four-year-old,” the selfish voice that says to nearly everything, “I don’t WANT to!” Living with others this closely and this constantly—all day, every day, all year—means I have nowhere to hide from the bad effects of bad actions. The mere aspiration to change has done something. I can no longer justify myself. At the end of every day, I know when during the day I was right and when I was wrong. I don’t have the refuge of delusion, and this reduces me to hopelessness and tears most days.
I’m not a novice yet. I still have a month of exams to pass in February and March, and it’s not certain I’ll pass. Postulants have to navigate a series of written and practical exams on basic Buddhist thought and temple ceremony as well simply make it through the month-long boot-camp style training and test period. I could, technically, still walk away without breaking any vows. But even if I did walk away—and I won’t, because one other thing I know at the end of each day is that I’m right where I’m supposed to be—I wouldn’t be the same. One taste of homelessness, and it’s in your bones. From here, my old life looks like a disaster of selfishness, anger, fear, and pride. I could hide from it all because I had built myriad distractions into my daily life. Most of the time I couldn’t see the basic problem. Coming to the temple was like razing everything to the ground, only to find the ground was rotten.
Now I have a choice: stay the way I am or move forward. I’m choosing to move, one day at a time. Some days I hate it. It’s exhausting. I’m rarely at peace. But things are shifting, slowly. I have moments when I can feel how far I am from where I started. What’s more, this life is real, grounded in the truth of cause and effect and human relationships. Every time I refuse to give in to old habits, when I act differently, I can see the difference in the way I live with others. Life is clearer, relationships stronger, and the world rests for one moment. Then it’s on to the next moment.
It is, in the end, the only way I can live. Naked, unprotected—homeless. I can’t tell you about joy or happiness. I can tell you about the satisfaction of living this way, and that it’s terrifying and difficult but worth it. It’s the first day of the New Year. I’m finishing draft seventeen and submitting it as is: plain and honest. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Written by Soen Joon Sunim
I called the barracks home when I was in Basic Training. The other women hooted at me for using the word home so. But I figured, bed + warm + my stuff was there + good plumbing = home enough. My standards for the word home were minimal, physical. Taken down to bedrock, my home of the homeless. I had attachments, or told myself I did; I was supposedly happily married. I kept perfunctory contact with parents and brothers. Dimly, I was beginning to see that I had no emotional home.
I grew up in stable poverty. A small, old, house—mortgage paid for before I was born. Food on the table, it was cheap, but it was enough. Mom sewed clothes, ensuring there was always sufficiency, if nothing extra. We were poor, but without the recompense of love, or family feeling. I was the last, the unexpected child, the idea of daughter my mother wanted—but more in the tomboy variety that she did not understand. Certainly, I was not the Daddy’s Girl my father wanted. I was a much played with new toy, an experiment, to my much older brothers. I felt there had been a family, once, but I was not part of it. I was too late. I was not turning out to be the person they hoped for. I did not belong, but I had nowhere else to go. Home was physical, nothing else—a place to go at night to sleep. Roof over my head, clothes on my back, food on the table, this was the motto in this house.
The homes I made for myself for the next decade were much the same, spare, sufficient, lacking a safe for my heart. I had to guess at what home was, just as I had to take a stab in the dark at what love might be. I guessed wrong.
Perversely, I learned about what home could mean in the context of the Army. The foothills appeared in people who often shared emotional backgrounds that resonated with mine. In the military, the ‘Art of Conversation’ lives—if somewhat profanely—and, man, we talked all the time. I found myself never more alone than I wanted to be. At 0200, suppose I was feeling lonely, I could jaw with the CQ sergeant at the desk, at the very least. No taboo subjects, no need to hide my thoughts or ideas, no stringent standards or religious sensibilities to pander to, no word unsayable. For the first time in my life, I could be utterly myself, and be liked, accepted.
In this world not obvious for its warmth, waiting to be sent off to a war, on a high mountain military post, I found a completely genuine human being. Much to my dismay, he loved me. More, I grew to love him. And one cold bright day, with a nasty sinus infection—healing thanks to his intervention (getting some of our docs to write a prescription and getting my sergeant to take him to get it filled)—I laid my head on his knee, warming in the low winter sun on the parade ground bleachers, and fell asleep. I knew, at that moment, what home really was, and it wasn’t a house, or plumbing, or stuff. It was being safe, being treated lovingly, being myself utterly, and, well, yes, having a place to rest my head.
Home is where the heart rests.
Written by Zhoen of One Word
“Let’s go flying,” my husband says, and so we sit down side-by-side at the computer, type a destination, and stare in fascination at the lighted screen, where the earth zooms closer and closer until we are flying over Beijing, Bermuda, Bombay. We zoom into a housing development, fly over city parks, scan acres of rain forest and desert, explore villages along the Amazon, the Rhone, the St. Lawrence. Human beings have never been able to do this before: silently, benignly, we pass over the world’s houses like Yahweh over Egypt – but leave no trace.
The computer lets us approach in a startling demonstration of general-to-specific. The world becomes a continent becomes a region; a particular city surrounded by mountains; a set of streets; a house on a certain corner, with a brick walk and a tree in the backyard: someone’s home, someone’s place in the world.
The technology is new, but the feeling was known to me already. Whenever we’ve returned to Vermont after traveling, I’ve noticed the closing sense of familiarity and tried to pinpoint it: where does “home” start to feel like home? When does our own local “area” begin? What – besides the arbitrary municipal boundaries – marks out the village? Then we’re suddenly there, moving down the familiar streets past the mini-mart and the falling-down diner, and Lester’s car parked in his driveway – and there’s the neighbor’s cat in the window, and then our house, our flowering crab apple, our back door, my hand on the knob: home.
When it’s a place you love, that’s a good feeling. I’ve also shaken my head at some of the places I’ve lived, astounded that of all the spots on earth, this is where my zoom ends up; this is where the map tack goes. And yet, for most people on earth, I think there is in fact a virtual map tack that they’d identify as “home,” even if they are presently displaced.
It’s natural to zoom in on our own home, but not so natural to stand in someone else’s and look out. When I was in college, I drove across the country with a friend. We were in her little yellow sports car, and one noon we pulled into a family restaurant in Nebraska and ordered our lunch, which was served by a blond farm girl about our age. When she brought the check, she stood by our table, hesitating, and then asked, “Where are you from?”
“Ithaca, New York,” we told her, and then she asked where we were going. “San Diego, California,” we said. She was silent; in her eyes I saw the longing and felt hopelessly uncomfortable. We went out to our car and drove off; she stood in the plate-glass window, watching, holding our plates.
That was the first reversal I’d experienced in one of those look-alike franchises that hug highway exits in every major town. The concept is to make travelers feel “at home” with identical décor and identical food, before continuing on, away from there. But what if “there” is “home”? Who are those waitresses, those dishwashers, the people mopping the bathroom floor? The traveler’s trajectory is so privileged: a line between two points, this stop an insignificant, momentary deviation. But for the locals, this place is a zoom with a final thud, as the map tack goes in to stay. A mile away from the exit, life is lived not on a vector between distant places, but in circles that bring us back again and again to that specific spot we call “home”.
The other night in Montreal, the new place we call home, I was walking back to our apartment down a street lined with typically narrow, attached triplexes. So many residences! More in a few blocks than in my entire Vermont village! And each door distinguished by a number, a color, a lace curtain, a wreath or some Christmas lights, a child’s drawing taped to a window.
At a corner, a young woman carrying a baby turned and headed down the street in front of me. Where was she going, I wondered? The baby bounced and peered at me over her shoulder. The woman slowed slightly, yes, here was her building: now, what floor? She hoisted the child more securely onto her hip, and started up the wrought iron staircase, stopping at the second floor landing, and rummaged in her bag for her keys. She stepped inside, the light went on, the baby turned his head to face it.
Written by Beth Adams of The Cassandra Pages
my white shoes looked like a baby’s,
high topped leather, scuffed
they provided a sturdy anchor
for metal braces
burning along my thighs
their steel stays
prevented my knees from
bending and so
the houses of early memory
are filled with stairs about to be climbed
and encounters with gravity,
with slippery steps up to the front door,
wet mittens sticking to the wrought iron railings,
front doors opening onto stairwells,
interior rooms joining hallways
which are – inevitably – joined by stairs,
stairwells with unevenly worn steps,
wood steps up, cement steps down,
stairs with no rails at all,
circular stairs of triangular wedges
each too small for secure footing,
long stairs without a landing to rest on,
stairs to tumble down
with loudest banging,
the noise as terrifying
as the spinning view, as the fall
and the sudden stop.
in my house green leaves grow
along the windows
and swirling in a teapot made by my hands
are tea leaves from around the world
that I earned by singing
and on the walls are flowers that always bloom
cast in brilliant paint
by my daughter
and photographs of my lover
dancing the wild white river waves
in my house music flows, and poetry, politics,
debate, silliness, laughter,
love of nature, waste
the lovely and the profane
in every room collecting
dust, the dust
of our boots
of trails brought home
of books, skin, dog hair,
the detritus of life
each room of this
hundred year old house
collects ephemera –
under the comforter,
dreams of spiders,
and stray eyelashes—
we shed our bodies and
dreams and memories
as we somersault
through our lives.
I am a stranger
even among those I know well
a part reserved, a part apart,
looking for secure footing –
or loosely tethered
subject to extreme gravity
centrifugal force –
looking for something lost
something once left behind
sometimes in a song
in a forest
in a poem
while making love,
something deep within moves –
flowing and vast,
a strange, unfamiliar
wholly recognizable as
Written by MB Whitaker of Find Me a Bluebird.
The earth appeared in my yard one day, and I went out to see what it was – a creamy blue-green ball hovering chest-high, unmoving. That’s not possible, I know.
So let’s say I appeared one day in space vastly enlarged so the earth again appeared to me a stock-still ball. Neither is this possible.
Nevertheless, a change was instantaneous upon my appearance nearly an arm’s length from the small orb: the attractive grab of my zillions-fold mass sucked it open in a lemony puff of liquid and gas.
I was pattered with a spray of glowing orange lavas. I received the largest shards of the earth’s metallic core into my flesh and melted somewhat myself in splashing detonations.
I was so big that the time of smaller things moved slowly, and it took minutes for the meteors of earth to arrive.
In bed last night I dusted my pillow with the grit I could not wash out of my hair and ears.
Written by Bill Knight