For 20 years now, I’ve called the same house home. It sits on a quiet street in a fairly quiet town in central Illinois, surrounded by cornfields. This sameness is in contrast to my childhood—our family moved quite a bit, as my dad served in the Navy and then worked at nuclear power plants after that. Each city, each state, had its own identity, which always took some adjusting to. When we moved to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, for example, I had never heard the phrase “yunsguyz” before. Although I grasped the meaning by the context, I never incorporated it into my lexicon. Hearing the ease with which others used it (and similar regional words) was a constant reminder that I was different, that my friends and neighbors had a shared vocabulary unknown to the new girl.
Being the outsider became a filter for how I view myself, one that is often still operational even today, after living in this city for more than 30 years and this home for 25.
Despite this fringe mentality, the communities I grew up in felt welcoming and homey. In my memory, they blend together into sameness—towns with grocery stores and libraries and schools. In this collective Childhood Town, I never had the sense these places were hostile toward me in particular (only certain mean girls did that). My history with these towns and states had definite start and stop dates; I felt (and still feel) a sense of agency about myself and my identity. I could choose which elements to embrace, which to leave behind. This detachment has allowed me to distance myself from the less-than desirable pieces of the places I’ve called home.
In this week’s episode of Persuasion, Hannah and I invite Jen Pollock Michel to a conversation about home. She’s the author of Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, so she knows a thing or two about how our concepts of home have come together, for good or for ill. Our discussion cracked open an idea that needs attention: that many people do not have the luxury of simply detaching from the less-than desirable elements of this place we call home. And equally important: I cannot simply discard the parts of this home as if they do not exist.
Home is more than the house we live in. It’s more than the family we grew-up with. It’s more than the community we know like the back of our hand or the state whose motto is scrawled on our license plates. Home includes the history of every people who once walked this sod. It includes plenty of less-than desirable pieces that are directly opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To our shame, this place we call home did not uphold these ideals for all people, but only for those with a certain skin tone and of a certain gender. This imbalance in our home resulted in widespread unchecked greed, misuse of power and authority, and horrific atrocities.
I’d like to discard these things, just as I refused to embrace the Pennsylvania slang that hurt my ears. But to do so is to create a false narrative of home, one that is dishonest.
After 20 years in our current home, we’ve had to take on various kinds of repair work. Some of this has been simple maintenance, some has been more elaborate updating. But in each case, we’ve had to embrace the reality of what our home needs. Pretending the leak around our dining room window doesn’t exist only works when the sun is shining. But once it rains—and it will—the leaks show themselves. Acknowledging the problem is the needful first step.
So it is with the problems in this country we all call home. Unless we acknowledge the damage, we can’t take steps toward fixing it.