Half a millennium ago, my Modoc paternal ancestors lived near the lava flats of northern California. They went about their lives — hunting, fishing, falling in love, mourning their dead — completely unaware of an Atlantic Ocean, much less of the human beings on the other side of it.
Meanwhile, Irish peasants — my mother’s people — toiled in the rocky fields of the western county of Roscommon, spoke Gaelic and worried when the next attack from the sea might come. Unschooled in geography, they possessed little notion of the southern nation of Spain, much less the possibility of a New World.
Somewhere in the tree of my particular lineage were also French farmers, Swiss shepherds, German professors, Coeur d’Alene salmon fisherman — all naive to the complications of contact, oblivious to each others’ priorities and concerns, insular, ethnocentric, proud — and unfathomable to a contemporary person.
These were men and women whose world was infinitely smaller, arguably easier, but ultimately less interesting than our own. When the lines of their consciousnesses inadvertently collided — well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — they were at least as confused as they were enlightened, as terrified by the newness of their experience as they were fascinated by it.
No doubt they mistrusted the unfamiliar, yearned for the security of the “old days” and often wished each other gone. But among them there were also people who dared to look beyond the boundaries of their own birthplaces, who not only accepted but embraced the possibilities of difference, who joined together to forge something new.
To be sure, this was not, in most cases, a matter of choice but rather a practical, creative and available necessity. Lack of food and seasonal change forced these men and women to look elsewhere, hoping that they might find a place that could be called home. But we too, as Yalies, have ventured forth in the hope of creating a new home for ourselves.
HOME: the word itself is a source of comfort. It could be a mantra, a secular chant to release the mind from its frenetic strivings. No coincidence, perhaps, that HOME sounds like OM. And what a mantra it might be: homeland, home team, home-brew, homecoming, home plate, homing pigeon, home fries, home-grown, homemade, home front, home truth. To be at home is simply to feel the sweet breath of sanity. The word homeless, in contrast, tails off in a sentimental hiss — lost puppies come to mind — and soft-focus photos of lonely codgers on autumnal park benches.
Like everything else, the idea of home has a history, and, like everyone else, I am forever shaped by my own. At present, my home is in Morse College at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. This ascension of order, like a set of matrushka dolls, could be continued all the way to our exact home in the Milky Way. But that would be missing the point. The point?
The point is that while we, as seniors in college, have only just begun to understand that our notions of home may be evolving, they will do so only gradually, leaving ineradicable traces behind. In a real sense home is less a place or an idea than a deep-seated feeling. It remains, in short, a myth, not dependent upon logic or evidence for its explanatory strength, which must be why the word itself carries such a talismanic power.
And there is truth beyond mere history: a deeper and older sense of home, the feeling built into our genes and reflected in our oldest myths, legends and literature. This home goes by many names, one of the oldest being Paradise, but we find it as easily in popular songs, in family photo albums, in yearbooks, in flag-waving and in regional prejudices.
One of my favorite definitions appears on car bumpers in West Virginia, a tag line so simple it’s hard to fault: Almost Heaven. Perhaps Yale is an almost-heaven, a slippery homeland, a place that is inexplicably imperfect, and yet only in the necessary forward movement that comes after four years do we realize that no house is secure against breaking and entering, no soul can wholly be at home in this world.
Or maybe our lives, seen from the proper angle, aren’t so homeless after all. I am just beginning to hope so, as I catch whiffs of an odd scent on the air that I am tempted to call happiness. Home sweet home, then, is where the heart is, welcoming us in. Home cooking, homebodies and buffaloes roaming at peace — in my dreams I knock homer after homer over the farthest wall.
If you are to call a place home, it is clearly best if you can manage to feel as though you’ve chosen it, rather than the reverse. Good luck in the choosing.
Goodbye, Yale. Hello–?
Jamie Ponsoldt is a graduating senior in Morse College. He was president of the Yale College Council in 1999-2000.