UR Here: Is home where the heart is?

Illustration by Thomas Dean
Illustration by Thomas Dean

One of the failures of adults, and even schools, is quashing the creativity of children. Too often, we tell them they’re not good at something — singing, drawing, writing and so forth. That leads to abandonment of natural joys that should be part of all of our lives.
Something similar often happens with our relationship to home and place.

I had an interesting experience recently with my University of Iowa First-Year Seminar students. Our seminar’s topic is “Finding Home in a Fragmented World,” and our assigned reading for the week was an article from the Atlantic entitled “The Psychology of Home: Why Where You Live Means So Much” by Julie Beck. The article’s premise is that “the dominant Western viewpoint is that regardless of location, the individual remains unchanged,” or, as Beck quotes University of Heidelberg anthropologist William S. Sax, “Your [Westerner] psychology, and your consciousness and your subjectivity don’t really depend on the place where you live. They come from inside — from inside your brain, or inside your soul or inside your personality.”

In contrast, according to Beck and Sax, for South Asians, “[P]eople and the places where they reside are engaged in a continuing set of exchanges; they have determinate, mutual effects upon each other because they are part of a single, interactive system.” As Beck summarizes the idea, “For many South Asian communities, a home isn’t just where you are, it’s who you are.”

Granted, the distinction drawn here is pretty broad, but the ideas seemed to intrigue my college freshmen. Out of curiosity, I asked them, “How many of you agree more with what Beck calls the Western viewpoint of home?” No students raised their hand. “How many of you agree with what Beck calls the South Asian viewpoint of home?” All students raised their hand.

So we had a group of eighteen Western eighteen-(or so)-year-olds unanimously disagreeing with a cultural viewpoint of which they were supposedly a part. Of course, there is much to critique in the cultural assumptions at work in this essay. But I would agree that, at least in the United States, where you are bears little on who you are in the prevailing view — the individual is internal and, while possibly influenced by other people, is not defined by external dwelling or geography. This is one of the driving forces of the normalization of mobility in our culture as well as cultural imperatives such as “manifest destiny.”

My experience has been that first-year “traditional-age” college students have yet to be fully indoctrinated into (corrupted by?) the mainstream adult world. (Not a new idea — see the sixties.) And as I have explored the concept of place, home and community with these students over the years, I have discovered that, mostly, they have a passionate love for home and feel a deep connection with place, even those students who moved around a lot as children.

This is a normal human experience, an experience we often grow to deny as we get older. As Scott Russell Sanders says in his essay “House and Home,” “Merely change houses and you will be disoriented; change homes and you bleed.” Our relationship with our homes should be as deep and abiding as our closest human relationships. Again as Sanders says, “When the shell you live in has taken on the savor of your love, when your dwelling has become a taproot, then your house is a home.”

Most of my younger students respond enthusiastically to this idea. I find teaching first-year college students fascinating in part because they are at a point unlike any other in life. They are (usually) leaving their family home, yet they still maintain a deep relationship with it. They are building a new home here in their college community, the first time they have done so on their own. And they are preparing for and thinking much about their next home, wherever they will end up after graduation. At no other time in life do most of us juggle a trinity of significant home relationships like this.

Most of my students say they yearn for a future home where they will feel deeply connected and will reside for a long time (though they do often say they would like to try out a few different places before settling down). Most of my students also feel that their connection with the family home they are leaving is deeper than their parents’. At this stage in life, parents will often convert their children’s bedrooms to other uses (even when those children will still return home frequently), or they will move to another home entirely, wanting to “downsize” or just make a change. My students are often deeply hurt by these actions, feeling that their parents are too detached from the meaning of the family home and, in some cases, dismissive of their children’s feelings. These students feel a profound sense of identity in the homes they grew up in, and they experience Sanders’ bleeding while their parents are merely disoriented, if even that.

Such feelings are often dismissed as childish or immature, yet they arise from authentic human connection to place and home. Such a connection is often denigrated as interfering with “practical,” often economically-oriented, life priorities. In the same way, the adult American world discourages amateur (and often not-so-amateur) artistic or writerly pursuits in favor of more “practical” or lucrative activities. Yet creative expression is a fundamental human need, even a necessity to the realization of both our individual and collective identities. So is that deep connection to home and place.

Children know, feel and practice these connections, as do young adults. Sadly, a culture that defines individual worth in terms of economic success often wrong-headedly tosses aside the deepest core of who we are — our homes — along with our elementary school art projects and those wonderful school programs where everybody sings.

Thomas Dean is not a good artist. He’ll still draw a picture, though. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 207.

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