Where We Find Home
Many years ago, John Denver and Placido Domingo recorded a song together, called Perhaps Love. The song describes “love” as virtually synonymous with “home”: “…a resting place, a shelter from the storm; it exists to give you comfort, it is there to keep you warm.” As November wound down, my own family’s homecoming centered around the Thanksgiving table. In the time between the grocery shopping and the last of the leftovers, I read two very different books that each, in their own way, evoked a true sense of being home.
In the first book, Kathleen Dean Moore is actually outside her literal home more than she is within it. But the whole of Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature is an exercise, undertaken solemnly by the author, in identifying experiences in the natural world that bring her gladness, solace, and courage. She’d originally conceived of a book on happiness, but the idea no longer seemed timely when Moore lost several people close to her in a short span of time. It became important, rather, to find those durable things that comfort and sustain, those things worth remembering, those things that remain when the many superfluous distractions of day-to-day life are stripped away.
Moore takes the reader mostly around Oregon and other Western places on the American continent, including a second home in Alaska, and somehow many of the stories that involve the creatures from these locales are the ones that best illustrate fully actualized humanity. Her prose captures a delightful balance between grasping and discovering in the kind of voice that makes you feel you’re with a confiding friend. In her essay, “Morning in Romero Cavern,” Moore listens to the first sounds, “yellow-rumped warblers, the thrumming creek, and the cooing mourning dove,” that emerge just before dawn and comments on the “infinitely healing . . . repeated refrains of nature,” words she borrows from Rachel Carson and then takes a step further:
I have never felt this so strongly as I do now, waiting for the sun to warm my back. The bottom may drop out of my life, what I trusted may fall away completely, leaving me astonished and shaken. But still, sticky leaves emerge from bud scales that curl off the tree as the sun crosses the sky. Darkness pools and drains away, and the curve of the new moon points to the place the sun will rise again. There is wild comfort in these cycles and the intersecting circles, the rotations and revolutions, the growing and ebbing of this beautiful and strangely trustworthy world.
Moore’s adventures may have been primarily designed to seek comfort for herself in the fresh aftermath of despair, but I found comfort in the armchair travels I embarked on by way of her words. These words provide a powerful reminder of what it is about the world that feels right and good, perhaps as much as do the places she describes.
Flotsam: A Life in Debris is quite a different take on identifying those experiences that have the capacity to make us feel sheltered, connected, and human in the very best sense of the word. I recognized Denis Horgan as a kindred spirit at the very start of the book, when he revealed his messy desk. It doesn’t sound horrendous, a la the reality show Hoarders, but things are in clumps and piles of somewhat vague purpose and provenance. Horgan, however, is able to put his finger on objects from the desk that speak of moments “as unfailingly bright to me as sunshine and birdsong.” These objects, some seemingly quite pedestrian, lead to object lessons, although the lessons are packaged more as streams of colorful consciousness.
Horgan’s got a confident, newsroomy voice that tells a detailed story at rapid pace. Like Moore, his essays indulge in thinking out loud about what is, after all the fuss and clutter, real and meaningful. Often the sources of meaning in his pieces, although the titles refer to Coke bottles, pencil cups, and strawberry-flavored condoms, are people. Horgan’s words conjured up for me just the right touch of classic Jimmy Stewart flicks, in that Horgan’s always encountering people who gravitate toward doing the right and noble thing. Of course, he’s a newsman, so he’s equally aware of common thugs, ugly crimes, and high-ranking corrupters. Perhaps the overarching lesson here is that Horgan pays more attention to those qualities that make us all pretty proud to be human. In a piece about the death of his brother, who had been a drug user, from AIDS, he writes:
There were no glittering fundraising efforts for the drug people, no fancy galas or banquets. Few prayers from the lofty pulpits. Never mind. There was work to be done, that was the engine that drove the glorious effort. The staffers drove the sick to their appointments . . . They played zippy music at health fairs, spoke to school children, reasoned with prostitutes on the night streets. And they gave out flavored condoms . . . Exactly as is the case in a million such campaigns across the planet, they delivered from the heart something the world is incapable of truly rewarding—try as it should. They never begrudged, they seldom despaired or even paid any mind to the prejudice and intolerance that floated around them. They worked because there was work to be done.
Many of his pieces provide recognition of people who are quietly doing something inspiring, deeds that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Horgan uses the paradox of flotsam well. Little bits of this and that—but maybe not so meaningless: “We are surrounded by life’s flotsam and, if we can find the peace of spirit to absorb their lessons, we are uplifted to such wisdom and appreciation. It is everywhere around us.”
The stories behind the objects scattered around Horgan’s desk evoke a sense of home for me in that they are talismans of what matters, comforts in that they represent what makes us ourselves and what keeps us rooted. There are many ways to be at home, and neither of the books I read this week had much to do with houses. The wide-open eyes and words of both Moore and Horgan tell us that home is, as they say, where you find it, and we can find it all around us if we do the right kind of looking.