“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”
“I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” –Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man.”
It’s comforting just how distinct the various regions of this nation remain. Despite consumer and TV culture’s assault on local color and character, California ain’t Texas ain’t New York. Their differences in climate and geography, in racial and ethnic constitutions, and in respective histories have proven insuperable. Yes, we’re all Americans, but I find it hard to believe that an Okie and a Maineiac could trade states and still feel at home.
Yet Americans seem to be paying these differences little matter. We are a people hugely mobile – I should say, disturbingly rootless. It is not natural for a man to want to pack up his bags and move 1,500 or 3,000 miles from his family, his friends and his native heath – all that he has known and loved – to live forever as a stranger in a strange land, among people who eat curious foods and speak strange accents. But the love of a woman and the need for a good job impel many to do just that. There are good reasons to leave home, and many bad ones, but the risks associated with this wayward way of life are rarely discussed.
If the political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, is correct when he writes that over the last several decades America’s social capital has withered – that, as the book’s website puts it, “we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often” – indeed, that though more of us bowl, we now bowl more frequently alone than in leagues – if all this is so, then surely America’s mobility is one of the causes, along with the more traditional culprits of television, computers, and women working outside the home.
Love is essential to all the good in the world, yes? Well, how can you love what you don’t know? No one knows a town better than the man who was born and reared there, who has grown old there with his wife and kids, and who plans to die there. He probably loves his town more than the transplant from the next state; he cares more for it. No wonder he’s the one turning off the idiot box long enough to volunteer at the soup kitchen and run for local office. Love demands the subordination of self and the acceptance of inconvenience; so too does a thriving community life. People willing to make those sacrifices, all things being equal, are more likely to be the people who never left, or who left and came back. Some of these people will say that their town is “objectively” the greatest place on Earth (ignorant as they are of Venice and Rome). But to most people loyal to a place – and I speak not of a hometown only, but somewhat more broadly of a home area – it’s not about proving anything to anyone: it’s about love, and making sure your children will know their grandparents.
When I drive around my hometown I see my life: the public schools I attended, the ball-field (Owen Fish Park) where I had my greatest glory, the barbershop where Elio has cut my hair these 21 years, the houses my friends live in. Home isn’t an abstraction – it’s as real as a crisp autumn day in Connecticut, redolent of pumpkins on the front step and meatloaf baking in the oven. I could start a new life someplace else, but why? And at what cost to my soul?
Now, forgive me, but it’s the only way to end: “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, / Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”