I travelled to another country, just before the pandemic began, and revelled in the experience. Though primarily an inspiring work trip, there was also a dawn excursion to a red rock formation, a visit to the opera, nature trails, and dinners with close friends.
As rich as the experience was, the road home was sweet. After landing in my home city, there was a sense of unwinding, of vigilance unravelling. "There's no place like home," is what Dorothy must chant to return home in the Wizard of Oz . But Dorothy has just been adventuring abroad, and the nuance in the line may be that there is no place like home especially when one returns after some time.
The pleasure of returning home can be experienced in everyday life too. Nevertheless, it was only during the intense home living of the pandemic years that I have realised how much, even for someone like me, home was about departing and returning.
On a typical day, I rise and set off for my workplace by a local train and return by dusk. Apart from routine errands, I meet friends or family, attend a play or concert, or intensively read in a café. Much of my day is, therefore, contrary to my expectations, lived outside my home rather than in it.
But there is always a sense of security in the journey outward, knowing that home would envelop me on my return. There is a sense of heart's ease about the journey homeward. The meaning of home accrued from its variance with other spaces. Home is a place where I am most relaxed, where the thinnest social skin remains, where I perform less than in other spaces. Of course, I recognise that a degree of privilege and good fortune undergirds this response. I inhabit a material structure that provides physical and emotional safety and permits me mental refuge. In contrast, there are those without homes, those for whom the home is a stewing pot of simmering tensions or the exigent demands of housework, or indeed a place of threat and danger.
These are reasons to savour departing home. At the very least, in a country like India, where shared spaces are so common, leaving home for a while takes the edge of and allows our home relationships to breathe. But beyond this, there is a distinct pleasure in returning home, which may or may not always correspond to an individual's reality but may certainly refer to an idealised notion of what home can and perhaps should be.
In some sense, the pleasure of returning home is like the converse of attachment theory. In Mary Ainsworth's famous study of attachment in infants, infants with a secure attachment to their mothers used the relationship with their mother as a safe base from which to explore their environment. Similarly, the security of a homestead, one hypothesises, might also positively correlate to the joyous exploration of the environment outside. Conversely, the ability to conduct excursions outside the home cements our ties to it.
Some of this contrast, this push and pull in our relation to home has been reflected on by the writer Jon Day in Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return (2019), his book on homing pigeons. Day, a pigeon fancier, notes that the word home also resonates with us in its meaning as a verb, "to move homeward: to retreat from the world at large into the domestic sphere." Once a pigeon's home has been imprinted on it, about six months in, pigeons will "home" for the rest of their lives. But Day also observes that pigeons need to fly home (archaically, to depart) and then fly home again (return) a few times to be able to identify homes from the air and successfully re-enter them. This leads him to reflect on homes as "thresholds: places we must depart from before we can fully understand what they mean."
Indeed, we only realise how deeply home is imprinted on us, when we return. I don't think mine was a unique astonishment at the way my body seamlessly, unconsciously, slipped into the choreography of old movements, on returning home after several years away. I would not have been able to tell you which of the switches on the wall could turn on the light. But when I lifted my hand to the switchboard, my finger was instinctively drawn, as if by an inner magnetism, to the right one.
Gaston Bachelard, that exquisite philosopher of the home, writes of this psychic mooring as a "passionate liaison" of our bodies with our homes. After years away, the reflexes of our homes, particularly our first homes, stay with us — "we would not stumble on that high step … The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands."
It was important for a time that we sheltered at home as much as possible. But now that it is safe to venture out again, it is good, should circumstances permit, to rediscover home as that place whose pleasure also distinctly consists in departing to return.
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