PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — September 2018

Home Again

Home Again

On the stage of my childhood, walls were an essential part of the set design. My friends and I hid behind them, skulked along them, vaulted over them, pretended we could see through them, and drew rectangular pitching windows on them for stickball. Once, my brother playfully threw me face first into a bank wall, and I still have the chip in my front tooth to show for it. Unlike so many children in the world, I was blessed with the safety and cozy predictability of real walls to go home to after a hard day of having fun, and I took these walls for granted as all children should be able to do. There were the brownstone walls of our early home in Ozone Park; the rose brick of our bungalow in Laurelton; the concrete-aspiring-to-alabaster of Walden Terrace, our apartment building in Queens. In this apartment, our last home in New York, I remember a rough-plastered wall in the bedroom I shared with my brother, on which we shined the glaring light from a desk lamp and made shadow-animals with our hands as late into the night as we could get away with. Wherever we lived, there were these walls, wonderful walls sustained by my father’s hard work, to keep us safe and snug in our world as surely as did heater warmth in winter and family warmth in all seasons. Had I thought of it, I might have marked my boyhood years by these walls that came and went and changed along the way, recording my early life in a documentary of surfaces and textures.

Viewed this way, walls are more than walls. They are projection screens, mirrors, enemy fortresses, murals, shields behind which boys smoke cigarettes and set off firecrackers and say dirty words, dipping their toes into the pounding currents of manhood, and sometimes slipping through secret doorways into winding tunnels of time. Children know the power of walls instinctively, which is why a toddler will take his crayons to the nearest one as soon as possible. It is as though, even before we have words, the walls around us beg to be written on, to be claimed through some signature, however rudimentary. And no matter how old we get, does it not still come down to this—that our humanness compels us to scrawl in a language we don’t understand, and when we’re done, somehow to read, to make sense of, the handwriting on the wall?

We’ve come so far from those days of crayon innocence; our life’s walls no longer seem like canvases on which to scribble our enthusiasm, our vitality, the unpremeditated colors of ourselves. But what is native to us can never be far from us. Coming back to what is native for me includes the understanding that my life is a story—in fact, a play. As usual, the Old Bard was spot on; metaphorically, the world is a stage, complete with props, scenery, action, dialogue, other characters reading their lines with conviction—a stage on which we act out our inner promptings, see what follows, and move our story along through precipitating event, conflict, climax, denouement. All the elements of good writing, of drama, are present in every life, sometimes on a small scale, sometimes large, because each of us, consciously and unconsciously, is working within the tug and shove of the psyche’s incessant urge to get beyond the walls that hold it back, and by expanding, to become more itself. On this incredible stage of the world, we can confront our inner conflicts and contradictions and move on to what’s next, something easier said than done.

I remember helping two friends, Rich and Shaye, build a two-story pole house by a lake. It was 1972, and we were a motley group of hippies finishing our graduate degrees at the University of Florida. Jimi was there, our Socratic professor and friend. We didn’t suspect then that he would be denied tenure the following year in a political lynching led by ultraconservatives in the philosophy department, that he would pack his canvas horse-feeder bag with a few books, clothes, trail mix, and a bamboo flute, and hitchhike from Gainesville to San Francisco to make a new home on the West Coast. Annie was there at the house-raising, too—voluptuous, flaxen-haired Annie, skinny-dipping in the lake, and as the late afternoon light and water glistened against her skin, it was all I could do to keep my mind on my work.

We were talking the sort of lazy talk that builds houses, when Jimi suggested that I climb onto the roof and try my hand at nailing boards in place. This meant that I’d have to hoist myself through a small opening between the rafters and perch on what seemed to me an unlikely platform—the four-inch strip of roof that had been installed so far—four inches that ended abruptly in a twenty-five-foot fall that ended in a sudden stop and the breaking of things that should not be broken. The mere thought of this tight-wire act was enough to fill me with the nasty chemistry of anxiety. High anxiety. Stalling, I scanned the cage of wood, then looked topside again: Theoretically, I knew that the more roofing boards I hammered in place, the more I’d have to hold on to while I worked, but this wasn’t much comfort, and I began to feel as though I would not be able to muster the courage to move from the safe framework of joists and studs to the daredevil duty waiting for me overhead.

To distract myself, I watched the others laboring away. Annie, mostly—but not just Annie. One shirtless and taut-muscled young acrobat was ambling along the edge of the roof like a gymnast on a balance beam, and I began to feel the jabs of a fast-deflating ego. I can do this, I thought. So, with chugging resolve, buoyed by the need to look good in front of one’s fellows—especially when one’s fellows include Annie—I lifted myself through the opening and emerged, willy-nilly, on the roof of the house. There, I took a few stuttering breaths and smiled wanly, feeling as though I had just taken on Mount Everest and maybe the whole thing wasn’t really such a good idea.

After a few minutes of covert hysteria and roof-clutching, I ventured back to work and soon realized that I could use the claw of the hammer to keep myself in place while I grabbed a nail, and that I could then hook my little finger over the most recently fastened board, holding the nail in position with the same hand. This kept me from sliding even slightly toward the edge and the headlong plunge a breath beyond. In a while, the labor settled into a rhythm: hold on with claw, grab nail, position nail, hook little finger, hammer nail, hold on with claw, grab nail, and so on. Soon, I was shuffling along the sloping roofline, and what had seemed terrifying fifteen minutes earlier was exhilarating.

Annie came slinking out of the water as the sun started to set. A chill had made off with the last of the day’s warmth, and everything was rapidly fading into the tarnished light of evening. Then, from my perch two stories up, I saw something remarkable happen. At the same moment, as though someone had given a secret signal, everyone—about a dozen of us—spontaneously stopped working and turned to watch the sun go down. Long feathers of gray and mottled bands fell across the lake as the last remnants of day sank meditatively into dusk. And I thought, this is what it means to come home. The planet turns a few degrees, and work stops, because we recognize a presence that’s been with us since time began building the house of the world.

Under me, the structure was taking shape. Before long there would be pictures and candles and throw rugs and the smell of cooking when all our work had turned lumber and long hours and aching backs and blisters into a place to live. A home. I remembered gathering my courage and climbing out onto the roof, and there was something familiar about it. Hadn’t I struggled through an opening once before, in a passage far more momentous, to find a world and a home and a self less limited than the one I had known? In the last streaks of light, I scrambled down from the roof knowing that home is just this—the place we keep coming back to, the place we find each time we venture beyond our fears and take a chance—the place where we belong. Throughout our lives, as we move through one opening after another, finding our way, catching our breath, losing and winning, building and doing what we can to steady ourselves through countless sunsets, the only place we’re headed is home.

September 30, 2018   Comments Off on Home Again