Where is Home?
Walking down the Drag in Austin one day, I came upon the house I used to live in, passing by on a flatbed truck, cut neatly in two pieces. I was surprised to see the interior doors I had painted in my nascent expressionist style.
It was a good house for me in my art school days. My guess is that it was built for servants, or maybe slaves, sometime in the 1800’s. There was no kitchen but there was a bathroom with a clawfoot tub. I rented it from a bank trust department for $25 a month. It had a large front room, a bedroom, bathroom and a room I worked to convert into a real kitchen. I parked my motorcycle out front. There was no yard, just a few feet between the front steps and the street. Across the street — this was 22nd and Pearl — there was a fraternity house.
The walls had no insulation, so it was dang cold in winter and sweltering in the summer. AC was a luxury in those days and this house had never dreamed so high. All my hippy friends kept trying to entice me to move; it was a coveted domicile. They wanted it.
So, I parked my motorcycle out front, a bumpy few feet between the house and the street. The UT art department was five minutes away to the other side of the campus. One day my brother called just as I was getting ready to leave for class, telling me to stay put. There was a guy on the tower shooting anything that moved. Several people had already been killed. I realized then that I had been hearing small planes and helicopters and strange popping sounds.
That was a turning point in American culture, but my life continued on its timeline as I looked for a home, wondering where my roots were. I have found them since in my marriage, my obsession with language and art.
Seeing the old homestead trucking down the street brought no sense of nostalgia, just a kind of amazement at the coincidence that I was walking down the street on a visit from France at that moment. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps it planned this moment as a goodbye; I said a silent goodbye to it, hoping someone had bought it to take to the country to live in. It was a good house.
My family had moved eight times by my count before I was ten years old, at least during my short lifetime; I knew they moved often before I was born. The family never moved again once they made that eighth move to a country house, but I was sent to a private school at age 12 and have carried on that restless peripatetic family tradition ever since.
I did stay in one place for 22 years, but once the 200 year old house in France had gotten its deserved makeover, I was on the road again. I have two opposite desires. I want to settle down and I want to see foreign places. My wife is the same, but she’s a bit more anchored to where the offspring are than I am.
But, home, what is it? Never mind where it is. At this point, having lived so many different places, it’s an eccentric list of qualities. Language figures into this for me. I like that every language carries its own vision of life. I could almost make my home in a language, learning a different optic on life, from its linguistic music and how another language puts the world together.
I have a photographer friend who can only work by traveling the world because he needs the shock of foreign scenes to wake up his aesthetic sense. I’m kind of like that with language. Every new language carries surprising ideas to consider. If an idea or behaviour seem intriguing or better than what I know, I try it on for size. Sometimes I find a more comfortable way of being human.
And yet, every culture is limited. It is conditioned by history, local conditions and environment. Every culture has something unique, specific, and yet leaves things out, too. Every language will always carry the spirit of a particular vision, which was formed over a millennia. I’m fascinated by what a different culture knows that I don’t, simply because I was raised in twentieth century Texan America.
Don’t think I approach this rationally only, however. I’m talking about feeling values, the way relationships, family connections, love, relation to nature — both extrinsic and intrinsic — are understood. I’m talking about how the body is allowed to move, how the vocal chords sound the language, how meet-and-greet functions, how respect is expressed or not expressed, how people touch each other.
All this and more is where and what home is to me. It’s the light shining in the human heart and soul, expressed through language in its many forms. I like a physical domicile too, of course, and I’m demanding about aesthetics and functionality, but once in place, language and ideas are where my roots are.