Home as a Transitive Verb

Home is where the Navy sends us“Home is where the Navy sends us.” So it is said within my military world.

Yet, I prefer the better known cliché: “Home is where the heart is.”

Home and heart go together. As a military mom raising two beautiful children, that’s a comforting message.

Home is where the people we love most are. It is the place we most want to be. The place we long for most when we are away from it.

By the time my oldest child turned three, he had lived in three different states. Yet, I’d like to think that “home” will always be a robust notion for him and his baby brother—that they will always feel home instinctively, always find their way back to it, even if the list of consecutive new home addresses becomes a little dizzying…

But in this season of displacement, with millions of refugees surging out of the Middle East, I can’t help but recognize it is a privilege to believe in the existence of a heart-shaped GPS.

Pictures of destruction from Syria suggest that, even if it were safe to return, many refugees would find it impossible to locate the walls of the homes from which they have fled.

And what of those millions consigned to refugee camps, often in the wake of staggering personal loss? Should we assume that they have brought their hearts with them? Should we assume their sense of being home will catch up with them at these tough new addresses, sort of like forwarded mail?

Or will the very idea of home be, for them, trapped in a nostalgic past—home as a scent, an image, an elusive slip of memory that cannot be made flesh?

It is a privilege to believe heart and home share the same address.

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I have been thinking of home too, in connection with our military veterans, particularly those sent into conflict.

Thankfully, most combat veterans do come home, after surviving the depredations of war. Yet, once home, many find they cannot feel home anymore.

The recently departed Oliver Sacks told of patients who, due to stroke or brain injury, could no longer feel the authentic presence of loved ones. They could recognize people they cared about, but they did not believe they really were them. In some cases, they concluded that aliens had taken over the bodies of friends and relatives. For these rare sufferers, an essential ingredient of presence and recognition had gone missing.

At times, this feels to me like a metaphor for what so many combat veterans suffer with regard to the presence of home. They return to the places they most longed to return to. They return to people who shout, “Welcome home!” with hearts brimming over.

Yet many veterans find that “home” now lacks the flavor of comfort. It has been hollowed out. They cannot connect to their old lives or routines.

An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the US, often right in their own homes, or in places near them. They leave messages like, “I can’t go on like this,” and “There’s nothing here for me anymore.” My heart breaks.

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Home has been on my mind a great deal lately, not only because the Navy will be moving us to a new “home” again in a few months. But also because of the recent birth of my second child—and because of my father’s death earlier in the year.

“Remember your roots,” my father said to me in his sage, soft-spoken way, just before I went off to college, leaving home.

I think he really meant, “Remember us.”

Remember the people you have loved here. Remember where your heart has been.

Prom 1985

My senior prom. (Suburban Chicago, IL, June 1985)

And now, on top of everything, the mother of all homecomings is nearly upon me: the high school reunion. (30 years!?!)

I will be there. I need that reminder.

I haven’t stayed close to my high school crowd, even though it was a wonderful time, with wonderful camaraderie. People move on, they drift apart.

Yet, the older I grow—the more I move on and move around—the more I realize how much of my sense of home, how much of my heart, will always be rooted there, in that cornfield-turned-Chicago-suburb where I was born and raised.

This past January, an old friend attended my father’s memorial service. We were never particularly close, even though we went to school with one another from kindergarten through high school. We were on swim team together; we dated the same boy in junior high; our older brothers were close. Our roots are entwined, and that is a powerful bond.

That she came to my father’s memorial service meant so much to me. Her presence helped bring me home.

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All this makes me realize that, just as with the word “house,” we need to begin thinking of “home” as a transitive verb. We don’t just have homes or build or buy them. We home one another. We create for one another that essential spark of presence and recognition that allows our brains to know: this is where my heart is; this is where I belong; this is home.

Childhood home

My childhood house…and home. (Arlington Heights, IL)

I don’t know precisely how we begin to home one another actively, the way I believe scriptures and conscience call us to.

When it comes to combat veterans, I know in part it means we must do a better job at reaching out—long after their first homecomings. Letting them know we are here, that we will listen…or simply sit with them in silence. Go for a drive, shoot some pool…

We need to advocate for better care, so that when veterans take that first tough step of seeking help, they are greeted by caring professionals who really see them, who recognize their ghosts, but do not make them feel like ghosts.

We need to find ways to allow combat veterans to spend time with their former comrades in arms, because—in the crucible of war—they come to know one another in ways that friends and family back home can only struggle to understand. We need to help them help each other home.

When it comes to refugees, I find it far more difficult to know what homing our fellow humans might mean. Certainly, it means ensuring they are treated with dignity wherever they arrive, ensuring they are not jailed, ensuring they are made to feel safe. (Homing and making safe—these seem like concepts that implicitly belong together.)

The people of Iceland helped us to begin to recognize the contours of homing when, several weeks ago, they offered to open their own homes to people fleeing war in Syria. As a nation, Iceland offered to take in 50 Syrians. Then an Icelandic writer set up a Facebook page dedicated to the crisis. Almost overnight, 12,000 Icelandic citizens signed on and personally offered to take in refugees.

Twelve thousand people, mind you, out of a population of 323,000. That’s like 12 million US citizens spontaneously offering to share their homes.

Still, I think of refugees who may be taken in by well-meaning families, and I wonder—even for those relatively lucky few, how does the feeling of home settle in again? I imagine them tiptoeing around at night, not wanting to wake their sponsors. Finding alien foods in an alien fridge. Everything not right, not familiar. A deep sense of absence haunting them. The absence of those left behind. The absence of those lost along the way.

How very odd that, in the end, the combat veteran and the war refugee are un-homed in ways that mirror one another. Each unable, wherever they are, to return to where the heart is.

Each unable to make home and heart coincide.

It makes me think that ultimately, if we want to make home a transitive verb, if we want to home one other and ourselves—if we want to home the world—there is no other option but to build peace.

So that for each and every one of us, irrespective of our roots and histories, home and heart can truly stay together. Wherever it is life sends us.