A student recently shared this piece with me called “Homing Instincts,” by Sarah Menkedick. In it, Menkedick recounts her personal hero’s journey and traces the curious transition from her youthful wanderlust to the homing magnetism that returned her to her origins, or rather, to a place where she knows she’ll be safe and comfortable and relatively happy as she lives out her days.
Looking back, Menkedick notes that “home was too easy,” and family was “an arbitrary and confining circle drawn in the sand within which one had to confine oneself for archaic reasons.” Home, of course, as an extended womb, is meant to be easy; it’s the shelter from a world we’re not ready to endure on our own. Menkedick’s use of “archaic” here is interesting. We likely evolved with this type of overprotective child-rearing for the sake of our species’ survival, and this habit, a long-sustained and tested adaptive mechanism, became fully encoded into our DNA. Now, however, in an age where we (speaking of privileged groups, that is) are not under the types of threats that our ancestors faced, these instinctual behaviors do indeed feel archaic. From what are we being shielded for so long in our modern world? The home isn’t what it once was, and the family no longer has to have the weight it once did. Why can’t we drop this evolutionary-made-social-then-institutional inheritance?
Menkedick doesn’t lament such “imprinting” for long; in fact, she’s fascinated by it. Like salmon and their magnetic imprint, “activated by the procreative nostalgic urge to return home after so many years adrift in the wide beyond,” we eventually settle back into our personal wombs. But isn’t this death? Or not death really, in hero’s journey terms, but finality/stasis? Why do we have the urge to get stuck at the top of the circle? As I heard Pete Holmes note on his podcast (referencing Joseph Campbell or someone in his ilk), “if we can learn anything from myth, it’s to never stop dying.” Our journeys are rebirths, but going home for good is choosing the womb as final resting place rather than a nourishing chamber preparing us for the next adventure.
Reading the piece, I felt the joy and pain of self-recognition. Recently, I had declared (mainly to myself) Putney as my home. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt confident enough to consider any place mine (without any sort of strange acquisitiveness). I’ve been used to 4 year cycles (miniature, or fun-sized, hero’s journeys, if I may): high school, college, teaching at Saint James, teaching at Putney. I’m in my 4th year at Putney, which should signal another call to adventure. And yet, as I returned from India this summer, I wanted Putney to go beyond the standard circle I had fallen into. I wanted it to be the mainstay in my story. Is there a risk that this decision would effectively end the story?
Describing the transition from explorer to settler, Menkedick writes: “There is not the same push for effervescent conversation or novelty or excitement as there is for someone to talk to for hours about fear and hope of babies or the problem of point of view. We couple up, go to graduate school, take jobs: our interests and lives taper from a delta of options into a directed watercourse…Settled now into ourselves, rooting like a river into its banks, we search for what stays, for familiar cartographies.” To this, I joyfully thought, “PREACH!” Because it matched exactly what I had just discovered months before. I wonder how I would’ve responded to the piece if I had read it before India.
India seemed to be my watershed travel experience. I was growing tired of seeing the world, especially in my primary function as a tourist. I was sick of the “look what I saw” mode that I unwittingly operated under. I longed for a sense of permanence and deep presence, and I couldn’t get that in at-most month long trips to other cultures. I did (and do) feel it at Putney.
But as I said above, there was also pain in this recognition. So that’s it then? Putney it is? I can shrug my shoulders and say, “well, sure,” and be quite pleased with this resolution. It’s not like I’m not growing or trying new things at Putney. The place is replete with creative possibility, but it’s also, being a job, the director of my creative energy. I can collaborate with the director, but in the end, I don’t have complete control over my energy allocation. It’s a fantasy to think that I ever would, I’m sure, yet there is a gnawing part of me that seeks it anyway.
So am I really ready to call it home? But wait, can’t home be in motion?
The way I’m choosing to see it is by taking this one bit from Menkedick’s thinking: “settled now into ourselves.” That’s the true home Putney has given me. I love the environment here, and I love the people, and they’re absolutely part of my home experience. But it’s the reality that I feel settled into myself, without having to define that in any concrete way, that has made me feel like I could stay here. What I didn’t realize was that here could mean me. So really, I can go anywhere and be home.