Thursday, March 30, 2017

Where is your home?

Child's sidewalk drawing, Northbrook, 2017

     "Home," wrote Robert Frost, in his heartbreaking poem "Death of a Hired Man," "is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." 
      It's a fraught sentence, with more going on under the surface than might immediately appear. It has the perspective of youth built in. Implied is the prodigal, all possibilities squandered, arriving unwelcome on his familiar doorstep. The door is half opened, by a powerful arm. A surprised, almost angry glare. Then a sigh. A step back, the door now open all the way. Welcome home.
  Frost was 40—his birthday was this past Sunday—when the poem was published, in his collection "North of Boston" in 1914, for which he collected one of his four Pulitzer Prizes. Forty hovers between the man who shows up at the door and the man who opens it—Frost had already had his six children by then, and seen two of them die. If you haven't read the poem, you should do so now by clicking on the link above, as nothing here will reward your time like that will. 
    It's told mostly in dialogue, the cadences of New England: Ezra Pound thought it Frost's best poem. Though it isn't about the return of a son, but a broken down farm employee with no where else to go.
     I've always taken that line out and repurposed it, which you are allowed to do. It's my favorite line from Frost, who gets a bad rap, for "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" with its village and little horse and the woods, "lovely, dark and deep," not to mention those two roads diverging into a yellow wood. Based on that, he's thought of as sort of the poetic Norman Rockwell. Though, like Rockwell, he is judged harshly by what the crowd embraced.  And just as Rockwell came out slugging for civil rights, so there is "Out, Out" about a boy who cuts his hand off in a buzz saw. Frost saw poetry as starting in something real.
     A poem, he said, is “never a put-up job.... It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.”  

    "A sense of wrong ... a tantalizing vagueness." Lot of that going around lately.  Living in Northbrook for the past 16 years, it of course is my home, at least officially, technically. And while I am fond of the 1905 Queen Anne farmhouse where we live and raised our boys, when I walk to the park downtown, and sit on a bench, regarding the stillness, I can't say I feel that this is my home. Which raises the question: if not here, then where? Where might home be? My parents are both alive, in Boulder, and though I've been visiting there since 1973, Boulder certainly isn't home. Nor is Berea, Ohio, where I grew up, though I do love to go back, and can't help but notice we could buy four similar houses there for what our house costs here. 
    Digging deeper, I suppose home is where my wife is. That makes sense. Even on a Metra car, riding the train to work in the morning, has a warm, comfortable, sleepover feel with us shoulder to shouler, reading the papers in companionable silence. If not that, then home has to be something I'm still looking for, the impulse that caused me to set my sails at 18 and drift away in the first place. I'm assuming I'll know it when I see it. But maybe not. 


  1. As silly as the old saying sounds, it does have a ring of truth to it. Home is where the heart is.
    I think you pointed towards the comfort of home as when you are near your wife. As long as you are with her, you are home.
    I feel that way when I visit my children and grandchildren. Even though I know it isn't my home, I feel the comfort and peace that defines home when I am there.
    Poetic and romantic imagining? I don't know. But it sure feels like home.

  2. Read it. Just now. Omigod.So good. So true. ( especially I think the explanation as to why he is there and not at his rich brother's). So sad. And at the end- one word. Only I would have retitled it so as not to telegraph the ending. Thanks, Neil for the referal.

  3. Thanks for that last picture. I never realized that the shape of home plate is... a home! We always view it upside down.

  4. I have thought for years that I must be the only person I know who doesn't know where "home" is for me. Thank you.

  5. Silas also wasnt sure where home was. He hoped it was with Walter. He entered with talk of work. Offering proof of his value at the door. We only do that when we aren't sure of acceptance. Silas hoped he was home.

  6. In the places where I've lived and visited at length, I spend time walking to internalize the streets and paths and buildings and geography, and eventually to make them my own. It kind of gives me a "network of home," if you will, and makes it easier to leave a place if necessary and feel confident that a new place can be home. It has helped me make peace with places i knew I didn't want to stay forever. I remember Roger Ebert writing about his London routine, and how he would frequent the same streets and places each visit, and he put what I'm fumbling to say much more eloquently.

    William Herrman -- I never realized that about home plate, either.

    The children's chalk art photos are wonderful. Thanks for them, for the Frost poem, and for your post today.

  7. I spent a few years in London, when the place was still recovering from the ravages of war, and when I go back like to retrace Roger Ebert's favorite London Walk: over Hampstead Heath, up Parliament Hill, stopping at The Spaniard for a pint or three, wandering among the gravestones of the English great, good and notorious in Highwood Cemetery. It makes me feel more at home than does a visit to the town I grew up in.

    A lot to chew on in Neil's piece. The second paragraph is a lovely bit of exegesis. And it was a most welcome nudge to revisit "Death of a Hired Man," indeed a heartbreaking poem.

    What Frost said about how a poem begins, as something as ill-defined as a lump in the throat brings to mind a comment by Aubrey Beardsley about drawing: "I make a blot on the paper and shove it around until something comes of it."


    1. If anybody is still reading, the cemetery is, of course, in Highgate, not Highwood. Worth a visit.


    2. I knew where you meant, I bet you visit Karl Marx's grave at every opportunity. I won't give you a hard time for that. My second or third home is Forest Park. Every May 1st I try to visit Forest Home Cemetery, and the burial location of George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Albert Parsons, and August Spies.

  8. Excellent post. "Home" must surely mean different things to different people. Usually it's about family, sometimes about a location, or where friends are found. A feeling of love, or a state of mind. I can't define it, but I know my sense of being "home" is rarely felt -- perhaps the troubling world we now live in contributes to that.

    I also love Frost's definition of a poem. To me, is all about spontaneity; a feeling or thought unfiltered and put in writing. If that makes sense.


  9. It's probably easier to describe what isn't home than what is. Because home isn't really a place. It's a sense of safety, balance, where you physically and mentally feel comfortable. Home can be more than a single location.

    In regards to Frost's poem, many view the death of a loved one as being "called home". That's my impression here.

  10. I really enjoyed this post today. Home to me is my childhood home on North Drake Avenue in Avondale and the parks I frequented as a child with my mother. Then later the parks I frequented as a teen with my friends. I had an idyllic childhood there with my extended family and then very trying teen years when most of my family was gone....but it shaped who I am today. I live in a suburb far from the area now, but when my life on earth ends I want some of my ashes scattered there, then I'll be home with my family again.

    Linda B.


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