Thursday, December 24, 2020

Thoughts on home, ctd

This time last year, I wrote about my and wife's decision to stay put for the holidays after decades of traveling east to visit family and friends. "This is not to say that I don't feel the pang of absence," I wrote. "Christmas is a strange time of the year, a culturally-authorized period in which you're meant to be cheery, generous, and grateful for family, when in fact those good intentions often cruelly bounce off of those who don't fit the mold."

What I'm really thinking about here, I guess, is what home is and what home means, and about how many people define it in ways which is in opposition to the mainstream. The pro-family small-town Midwest, where we've lived for many years, casts a long (if polite) shadow over those couples, straight or queer, who've decided not to have kids, whose home may not feature on the front of Hallmark cards or in pop-up ads. And if you're alone, by choice or by unhappy circumstance, whether you're straight or queer, or cis-gender or non-binary, married or shackin' up or single, your choice of a home—or, let's face it, where you've anyway ended up despite those choices—is entirely yours, and, I hope, is as warm and comfortable and safe and contended as those golden-hued homes of your imagination, and in movies and television ads, that you've extolled as ideal. Home is where you make it, bah humbug, what you call and define it.

I didn't know, of course, that I was writing that on the cusp of the deadliest year in United States' history. My musings last year now feel quaint, if not archaic. In 2020 the very definition of home has been radically challenged and reimagined, those with homes—to hunker down in, or to mournfully avoid—and those without forced to reckon with a new understanding of what behind closed doors means. Because we'd made the decision to eschew Christmas/New Years traveling, staying put is relatively easy for us, but I feel for those for whom flying or driving from home to home is a profound and crucial emotional component of their lives; for many, the occasion is the only time to see family and friends. And I feel for the malcontents, too, and, more seriously, the members of dysfunctional families for whom "the holidays" are torture—even those folk, forced now to stay home, may face a startling renewal of the desire for familial intimacies, even the faking of them. Home's pull is surprisingly strong; it reaches across miles and through bolted doors.

I and millions of teachers lost the classroom this year, a second home of sorts for our students. What began as a novel, if enforced, twist to pedagogy—the delight of seeing my students' faces pop up one by during those first few weeks of Zooming; the genuine and serious attempt the vast majority of them made in a difficult situation—soon became a chore. I won't be teaching in the classroom until Fall 2021, yet that's hardly guaranteed, and face another semester at home reimagining this second home. The parallels are unhappy: as students can't enjoy communal experiences of the classroom, many can't enjoy the familiarities and comforts of holiday homes. We're all in the same situation, yet that kind of "community" really doesn't deliver. We want to hug, probably even those of us allergic to them; we want to hang out in bars and restaurants; some of us might even be pining for odoriferous rest stops on long drives. Picturing being at a rock and roll show, elbow-to-elbow with other sweaty folk packed into a small, loud room, feels like science fiction, if only because I can't envision a point when it will be reality again. 

And so: we're home, mandated to travel as infrequently as possible, an awful situation for many, yet perhaps an occasion during which we can take stock of what a home is, or can be, or might be, or should be—for those of us fortunate enough to have one, and for those who, for whatever reason, again find themselves on the outside looking in. As I write this, it's frigid in northern Illinois, and I think of those for whom home is a far less sturdy proposition than it is for most. If you can, donate to a local food bank, or to front-line medical workers. I have no idea what I'll be writing a year from now. Let's hope that whatever it is I write from a place, and you read in a place, that we again call home in all of its warmth, safety, and doors to a welcoming, and welcomed, outside.

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