Home: A reflection on place and longing

A reflection on place and longing
by Marisa Handler

A memory of the sea, it’s what remains.
Homesickness in the rocks.
Homecoming in the trees.

            —from “In the Beginning,” Li-Young Lee

In dreams it is the mountain toward which I swim. Always the mountain: massy, flat-topped, granite-bricked, iconic. Through streets, past preoccupied faces, across valleys and oceans—always, in these dreams, I am swimming home. And it is the mountain, a single glimpse of its ineluctable bulk, which reassures me I am close.

When I am asked where I come from, I stumble. How long do I want to spend explaining? How much do I care? How honest should I be? America, I say, when abroad. San Francisco, I say, when within the United States. If I have the energy (or when I am later invariably asked from whence the strains of accent, the stretched vowels), I go further: America and South Africa. Born in South Africa—Cape Town—then immigrated to the San Fernando Valley, all five of us, when I was a couple of months shy of twelve. Later, Berkeley. But with lots of time abroad, traveling and writing. If I want to be completely truthful, if I care that I am known by this questioner, I elaborate. There are many places that feel like home. India, as a seeker, as an antidote to the acute human-as-consumer soul-stripping of the United States, as a powerful mnemonic for the poverty and suffering endured by the majority of the human race. Latin America, as an activist, a lover of music and dance, a Spanish speaker. Iowa City—yes, Iowa; no, not potatoes, that’s Idaho; corn, and a rather wonderful place, you know—where I got my MFA. MBA? No, an MFA in fiction. 

In the first year of this, the third millennium anno domini, the Earth Charter was formally launched. “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future,” begins the preamble. “To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.” The second paragraph, which stakes out our responsibility for this ecological community, is entitled “Earth, Our Home.” 

The final draft of the Earth Charter was presented at the Peace Palace in The Hague, and it came on the heels of numerous previous drafts, incorporating the input of peoples from all parts of the planet. It arrived hand-in-hand with the Information Age, arm-in-arm with global warming and the global justice movement (three years after the registration of the domain name google.com and the signing of the Kyoto Protocol; six years after the Zapatistas declared their autonomy amid the jungles of Chiapas; a year after the WTO protests in Seattle). Inexorable as a shooting star it came at us, of us, this incandescent moment fifteen years back, and it was the first time we officially bespoke ourselves as one human family. We directed our collective gaze simultaneously outward and inward; it was a self-conscious attempt at the sort of double-vision that any effort at transcendence requires. We glimpsed ourselves anew through the imagined eyes of the stranger ten thousand miles distant, in Dhaka or Reykjavik or Mogadishu or New Orleans, a stranger rendered (if nothing else) imaginable by the grace of decades of dubious media culture. 

For the first time, we conjured home as the planet. We called the planet our home.

When I am rounding a certain curve on the Cape Town coastline right around Clifton, my heart accelerates, and the blood sings in my veins. I recognize where I am. I am almost there. Usually I am in a car, although sometimes I am on foot, and the dreamscape around me may shift, may look nothing like the place in which I grew up, the sleepy suburban village that is now home to a host of trendy restaurants and cafes, flocked by ardent beachgoers from Johannesburg, Khayalitsha, Munich, and New York. On my left, there may be green rolling hills instead of the rocky mounts of the Twelve Apostles; there may be no homes, no businesses, no buildings at all; the people neither all white, as they were in my childhood, nor multicolored, as they are today; indeed, if there are others, they are largely irrelevant. What matters is that I am on Victoria Road, the Atlantic Ocean is on my right, and Camps Bay is directly ahead.

I know I am home because I sense it. I feel it as deeply as I have ever felt anything, in sleep or awake. As deep as gratitude, as kindness. As terror or love. There is nothing that need confirm it; no person, no idea, no image. It has been a long journey, not easy, often anxious. But now I am here, and I know what was lacking, what I was hunting after even when I forgot I was looking. It is a sense of profound relief, endless solace for a wound the depth and breadth of which I was mostly ignorant.

I belong. I know and am known. I see and am seen.

Must I wake up?

The odd thing about a bisected life—a life divided by a permanent move halfway across the world; divided between cultures, geographies, and histories—is that even a return to the erstwhile locus of home does not itself constitute a return home. Perhaps I mislead myself; perhaps this is not symptomatic only of the emigrant or the exile; perhaps with any separation at all, even of a few years, the home of our childhood is never the home to which we return as adults. 

I do not know. 

I know only that when I am physically back in Cape Town, in Camps Bay, there is a wonderful sense of comfort, the reassurance of the profoundly familiar—my accent slips easily into South African overtones, like a snug old shoe, but nevertheless, this place, the physical site of my birth and childhood, is not the home of recall and imagination. And it isn’t simply a matter of the social, political, cultural and architectural changes wrought in the interim. 

It is a matter severed from rationality, from facts and demographics and surfaces, this interior home of the dreaming psyche, of intimate myth, of the deep pull in the chest. It is a matter, perhaps, of archetype. For home—a word “stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to,” as Emily Dickinson wrote—is an archetype, if nothing else. 

Thence: is home actually the physical place we come from—the place to which we can, if we are lucky, return? Or is home eternally the place of longing—the place in which we aren’t?

Can we ever return home?

From James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Joseph Campbell adopted the word “monomyth,” applying it to the basic pattern he discovered in the mythology of cultures from all over the world. He describes this pattern in the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell also called this idea of the monomyth the “hero’s journey,” and he cited the Buddha, Christ, and Moses as three prime examples. While the journey involves multiple stages, which vary across cultures and mythologies, every monomyth comprises a tripartite cycle: departure, or the events leading up to the hero’s leavetaking; initiation, or the many adventures of the hero along her journey; and return, or the hero’s homecoming, equipped with new knowledge and power. Campbell stresses that while the hero may not want to return home, he has a responsibility to do so: 

“The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet or the ten thousand worlds.”

In order to consummate the cycle, to complete the story, to apply a wisdom hard-won to the benefit of the entire community, the hero must return home. 

Elsewhere, Campbell stresses that for Westerners—any of us Occidentals seeking our own path in a shrinking world of monocultures and monocrops—this hero’s journey is a highly individualized matter. Relying on the narrative of the Holy Grail, he cites from legend how King Arthur’s knights “thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest, and there was no way or path.”

To truly leave home in accord with this vision is not only to depart from the physical site of home, it is also to leave behind all that is familiar, to enter directly into the heart of the mystery located precisely where it is “darkest,” without “way or path.” This is a quest of the spirit inasmuch as it is inseparable from the embodied and the terrestrial—the forest of wildness without, as Thoreau continually reminds us, being paramount to the fathoming of wildness within. “What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk?” writes Thoreau in Walking. He continues:

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolic of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does not yet exist distinctly in our idea.”

The Nature of which Thoreau writes is deeper than the simple existence of trees and rocks and soil: it holds a spirit of its own, one in direct correspondence with ours, kindling, expanding, and ultimately elevating it. There is, claims Thoreau, a right way, and our indirection stems from ignorance of our own inner nature, estrangement from our intuition, which would direct us. Finding the right way means knowing oneself.

Love is grounded in details, in the peculiar specifics of the place we know well, of the people with whom we must learn to live.
— Marisa Handler

And this inner knowing, as he describes, is intimately bound up with place. We live in an era where we have begun—of necessity as well as insight—to consider the earth our home, all humanity our extended family. But there is an obvious difference between love in the abstract and love in the particular, between attention to seven billion people across thirty-six billion acres and attention to twenty people across twenty city blocks. Love is grounded in details, in the peculiar specifics of the place we know well and of the people with whom we must learn to live. These particulars provide the inevitable and necessary grounds for the double-vision of transcendence, the ability to expand our gaze to the collective. Love in the particular, aside from all else it gives us, is practice, endlessly and exactingly, for love in the abstract.

And so, going away depends on home as much as home depends on going away. In learning the landscape of our home and in sensing and deciphering its “subtle magnetism,” we learn what calls to us, what fires us; in short, we learn ourselves. And in learning ourselves, we begin to intuit whither we will walk. Without the existence of its opposite pole (the strange, the unfamiliar, the place of longing), home would hold less meaning and far less power. Perhaps cognizant of this, perhaps in part compelled by it, but mostly compelled by something we scarcely understand, something often not much more coherent or refined than instinct, we go away, we walk. Maybe we think we choose the path. Maybe we think the path chooses us. Either way, it is one step, then another, and another until turning back is no longer a possibility.     

Each enters the forest at the point he himself regards as darkest. Locating this place implies familiarity with an inner world, the archipelagos of stars, the black holes. Each must also enter alone. While my darkness is not your darkness, night ever amplifies the other senses. It is in darkness perhaps that we know each other best, that we hear each other clearest. In darkness we may even confuse another’s cry, another’s vivid and dizzying dream, with our own.    

The last time I returned to South Africa was four years ago. Even hearing the accents on the airplane was comforting. Feasting my eyes on Table Mountain as we circled above it, I experienced the same crystalline note of consolation as in my dreams. 


At one point during my visit my brother and I took a trip to Beaverlak, a lovely series of swimming ponds a few hours outside of Cape Town. En route, we picked up a hitchhiker, a down-and-out Afrikaner whose breath reeked of spirits. Hoe gaan dit, I asked. How are you? He began chattering blithely, albeit disjointedly, and I realized I could follow very little of it—my Afrikaans had withered away to a few token phrases. My brother was six when we left, so he knows less than me. Nearly every South African over twenty speaks at least some Afrikaans because it was mandatory in public schools during apartheid—its enforcement in black schools sparked the 1976 Soweto Uprising. We buzzed down the road in my brother’s little Volkswagen, and I wondered, certainly not for the first time, how well I knew the place my dreams believed was home—and indeed, given I’d lived elsewhere for twenty-five years, given the vast changes South Africa had been through, I wondered how well I could know it. 

One of the stages within the departure phase of the monomyth is “refusal of the call,” where the hero, out of fear or a sense of duty or obligation or inadequacy, refuses to heed the summons. Was I guilty of this? Had I been ignoring the deeper call, the keening of my dreaming psyche? 

And if I did not know my own home, how well could I know myself? Did all my travels and lofty ideals of global citizenship come down to this, a black hole I had been skirting for decades?

On every journey, there is the point where initiation gives way to return. This gentle swivel in the direction of one’s roots is not always obvious. It’s not necessarily the marker where the bus departs, the moment the suitcase snaps closed. It’s deeper than that. It’s a brewing readiness, a subtle nod to the soul. While walking on the mountain during my last visit to Cape Town, I decided that the next time I returned it would be to stay. For a year, at least. It was the land that did it: walking on the mountain and realizing my illiteracy when it came to the subtle magnetism of this Nature. Here, I had no idea whither to walk. There was a disconnect between my psyche and my reality that required some attention, some healing. 

Said Thoreau: “Our voyageing is only great circle-sailing.” 

I haven’t gone back yet. §



Marisa Handler is the author of the award-winning memoir Loyal to the Sky, and her essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications. She earned her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has received multiple fellowships in creative writing, including a Fulbright and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant. She teaches creative writing at Mills College and Stanford University and is also a performing and recording singer-songwriter. More at www.marisahandler.com.