The Spirituality of “Home”
The simple definition of the word “home” by the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary reads: “the place (such as a house or apartment) where a person lives.” So what if your soul feels at home somewhere other than where you currently live? This can create a painful paradox, one my wife and I have been forced to explore recently. Can you have physical and spiritual homes that are both in different places? What does it take to bind one’s spirit to a land? Is simply being born there enough? These questions among others have occupied my mind over the last several weeks, and they are deserving of a “spiritual” exploration. In the end, such and exploration produced, for me, more questions than answers.
To begin, these passages from Chief Seattle are worth contemplating:
“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.”
Now those are words from a man who is connected to his home. The idea of “owning” the land is a foreign concept to him. I wonder what his reactions to Woodie Guthrie’s song lyrics such as “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” might have been. It is the land, Chief Seattle emphasizes, that owns us. “We know the sap which courses through the trees like we know the blood that courses through our veins,” he says. Wow. What a symbiotic and advantageous relationship he and his people had (still have?) with the land that sustained them. Being a resident of modern industrial civilization, despite currently living in a rural area, makes such a profound symbiosis all but impossible for me—and that realization provokes in me a deep sense of regret at being born and raised in a manner so separated from the pulse of the land beneath my feet.
In January 2015, I wrote an article for the society entitled The Home of the Soul: Spiritual Naturalism and the Power of Place. In that article I spoke of the connection I had to the Palouse country in Eastern Washington. Such a connection is only natural when one spends the first 24 years of one’s life in a specific region. My formative years were spent in the Palouse country, and yes, I have many fond memories of my years there. If I had read that article to Chief Seattle, what might he have thought of my claim to be “connected” to the Palouse? I shudder to think of it. He would likely have wept. Is it even possible to achieve a bond with the land as deep as native people knew while living a life so inherently separate from it? Can a balance be found between modern convenience and deep connectedness with the land to which we belong? More questions to contemplate.
My family recently returned from a self-planned five-week historical and literary tour of Great Britain. This experience has had a profound effect on me, and has forced me to re-evaluate my conception of the word “home.” During our stay in Northumberland, I came across a book entitled The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District on a bookshelf in the self-catering cottage we had rented for the week. I spent the evenings after rigorous walks along Hadrian’s Wall immersed in this work in an effort to learn what I could about the Lake District, where we would be heading next. The author’s name is James Rebanks, who is a sheep farmer in the Lake District fells to this day. The book is a description of a year on his farm, divided into four parts reflecting the seasons of the year. Rebanks talks about how more and more “outsiders” have been moving to the Lake District, feeling it a part of their collective heritage because they are English, even though they themselves know little of the ways of life that have flourished there for hundreds of years. Rebanks and his family are inexorably tied to the land they farm. The Lake District fells are their “home,” and though James has had many “opportunities” to leave the farming life behind and pursue a life more “rewarding” or “meaningful,” he was drawn back to the fells. James and his family can feel the very pulse of the land around them and possess, to some degree, the knowledge Chief Seattle and his people had. Without that knowledge, passed down from generation to generation, survival there would be impossible without sacrificing the ancient connection fostered by their ancestors. The outsiders Rebanks resents simply move onto the land without working it or doing anything to earn their place as a true “local.” I found myself yearning deeply for such a close connection to…anywhere. I don’t wish to romanticize things; such a life would be hard, at times dangerous or even life-threatening—but the rewards, the fulfillment, would be worth it. My “connection” to the Palouse country once again pales in comparison.
Despite the seeming impossibility of forging a level of connection to the land that Chief Seattle, and to a lesser extent James Rebanks, knew, my wife and I felt that we were “home” during our time in England. Her experiences there are far more extensive than my own. Her father was an officer in the Coast Guard, stationed at the American Embassy in London for two years while my wife was in middle school. In her own words, she had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” through the airport when her father was ultimately transferred and they returned to the United States. She returned to England every summer during her college years to work and explore. We have traveled there three times during the course of our marriage, this last being the longest and most in-depth exploration of the country. What is it, then, that made us both feel we were home there—even a bit reluctant to return? What is different about England?
This is a difficult question to address. I suppose it is a “perfect storm” of personal interests and soul connections that the country inspires in both of us. The greatest authors in the English language hail from England, and to visit their homes (William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Jane Austen’s home), the countrysides that inspired their greatest works, (the Lake District), the English country gardens (my wife’s personal favorites) and to see the works of our language’s greatest playwrights performed by some of the greatest actors of our time (Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the New Globe) furnished us with memories and experiences we will treasure forever. The literary insights I acquired through these experiences will prove to be of inestimable value to my own English teaching practices. We visited ancient Roman sights including Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda, Vircovicium, Wroxeter Roman City, and Fishbourne Roman Palace. Nothing can inspire contemplation of history’s events better than the visitation of the very places where those events occurred. Visits to even more ancient monuments such as Stonehenge and several other Neolithic stone circles and barrow mounds help to foster a sense of just how far back into history England’s complex heritage reaches. The mystery behind the construction of such monuments stimulates the imagination in and of itself, but to visit them personally brings an intensity to the sense of fascination the monuments evoke that no book about them or photograph of them could hope to convey. Bodiam Castle, The Tower of London, Stokesay Castle, Hampton Court Palace—the monumental architecture that graces the English landscape provides visitors with an enduring sense of the country’s history and constant reminder of all that it has been through; they give life to the great poetry of the Middle Ages and the intrigues of England’s monarchial dynasties. I return from such places with my imagination on fire, feverishly placing holds on library books to learn as much as I can about the new historical and cultural worlds to which I have been exposed.
In addition to the historical and literary wonders England claims, there are many aspects of the landscape itself and the culture that has grown up around it that my family found particularly appealing. Public right of way footpaths cover the nation, crossing over what would appear to be private property, but the public always has access to them to enjoy a walk through the countryside at any time. Travelers can acquire Ordnance Survey Maps of these walks and footpaths (a particular love of my wife’s), and even download an app to your phone that tracks you as you walk so you won’t get lost or take a wrong turn. The beautiful fields, bounded by short stone walls, come in every shade of green you can imagine. The layout of the communities is such that you never feel as though you are driving through suburban sprawl, no matter how close to a major city you may be. They have planned their cities well in order to preserve the more agrarian, rural feel that one has when driving through the countryside. An artful fusion of older architecture, natural beauty, and modern convenience has been achieved there that just feels welcoming and peaceful. When there, our souls feel at home.
The people of England are also some of the kindest you will meet anywhere, as the following scenario illustrates. If ever there was a country capable of provoking a driver to road rage, England would be it. Many of the roads, particularly in rural areas, are only one lane or one and a half lanes wide. At times, visibility of upcoming turns is completely obscured by tall hedges or other obstacles. One is merely expected to honk as you go around a corner to warn anyone that you are coming. When two vehicles meet on a road, and it is clear that both cannot pass without damage to one or both, someone has to back up or find a way to get pulled over far enough to allow the other to pass. The people we encountered in such situations waved at us, smiled, and flashed their lights to say “It’s your turn—go ahead and go first.” Never once did someone gesture at us rudely or shout at us, even though we, as the foreigners who were unaccustomed to driving there, probably gave them more than enough reason to do so. We were never treated with anything less than total respect and consideration, the events of 1776 notwithstanding. Again, we were welcomed and felt very comfortable among England’s diverse and proud population.
The Brexit vote took place two days after our arrival. We spoke with many English people as to how they felt about leaving the European Union. Some were ashamed of their country, some felt that they had made a statement to a government that was not serving their interests, and some didn’t seem to care one way or another. We met some people whose lives will be irrevocably changed by the vote, and others who just continued going about their daily business as if nothing had happened. The issues are complex, but for many, a deeply-rooted pride in what it means to be English was at stake, and they desperately wanted to preserve it. Many would claim that there was a great deal of misrepresentation and misinformation afoot during the campaign leading up to the vote. This could well be true. Nevertheless, you have to admire the people for wanting to defend their heritage and way of life. It perhaps may not have been at risk to the degree that those in favor of leaving perceived it, but one has to admire the pride they have in their land and way of life. Those who voted to remain in the union demonstrated no less pride in their land and way of life, valuing England’s contribution to the union and the diversity that membership in it offered. The bottom line is that the English people love their land and who they are. Their pride is steeped in a long and momentous history of which they are the product. That feeling is infectious, as my wife and I discovered.
This list of sights and experiences, only a brief sample of what we could share, cannot hope to convey to one who has never been to England the feelings they are capable of evoking in the soul. At the same time, none of this implies that the United States of America lacks any of the things previously described. This nation has its own fascinating story and emotion-inducing historical sites; it has spectacular natural scenery capable of moving one to tears; it has millions of kind and decent people. We know. Two years ago, my family drove 9,000 miles across the U.S.A. from one ocean to the other, taking in as many historical locations and National Parks as two months on the road would allow. We feel fortunate to live here.
Would we live in England, if our life-circumstances were such that it was possible for us right now? Possibly, even though we would never be considered “English” by the native people, citizenship or no. Since current life circumstances do not make it possible, no matter how much we might entertain the idea, it isn’t going to happen. Perhaps in retirement, when circumstances change, we might think differently, but the future is too hard to predict. My ancestry is English on my father’s side, Swedish on my mother’s. Being a Spiritual Naturalist, I cannot subscribe to some romanticized fantasy that perhaps there is some ‘ancestral magnet’ drawing me back to the Europe from which my true ancestors hailed, or that I was actually a European in some ‘past life.’ All the same, this land isn’t “my land,” despite what Woodie Guthrie’s song lyrics would have me believe. The “my” part is what I struggle with. I tend to agree with Chief Seattle with regard to land ownership—it owns us. I was born here, but that choice was not mine, and does not make the land mine. It is mine only in the sense that I have a responsibility to steward it and preserve it for future generations to what degree I can, and that I have a responsibility as a citizen to help the country to live up the potential its founders believed it to have, and that I also feel it has.
My ancestors came here from Europe with their own dreams and aspirations. Had conditions in their own countries been different at the time, would they have left them? I know very little of my Swedish heritage, as my grandmother insisted to my mother that she was an “American” now, and that any reminders or cultural practices of Sweden were to be disposed of and forgotten. I regret that, as I would like to have explored and honored the traditions of a land from which ancestors of mine hailed. Would I feel “home” in Sweden too? Perhaps one day I will know the answer to that.
Do I “love” the country where I currently live? I love its potential for greatness. I love many of the people in it. I love much of what it has achieved and accomplished. I want to be “proud” of it, though its actions sometimes make it difficult. The treatment of the native peoples by European colonists, my own ancestors, horrifies me. The actions of some of my modern countrymen horrify me, where at other times they fill me with hope. Mark Twain’s words come to mind as I contemplate my feelings for the current state of the nation: “Patriotism is supporting your country all of the time, and your government when it deserves it” (www.brainyquote.com). Since the government is responsible for virtually all of our actions regarding treatment of and relationships with those in other countries (save for the impacts of corporations with foreign presence) I tend to agree with him. I cannot conceive of a situation where I would not support this country when it needs me, though my support for the government depends on its actions. Fortunately, I can participate in the process to change it. We can always do better, and must recognize when we falter, compensate others for damage we do, and challenge ourselves to improve. As Socrates was a “gadfly” for Athens, so must we work to keep our own country on track.
I am proud to work to make this country an even better place to live, through the education of its youth. I am proud to participate in its political process to do my part in improving conditions for all who live here with me. I am proud to steward the stunningly beautiful environment that surrounds me here in the Pacific Northwest corner of the country by respecting the land. I only wish that every ancestor of mine that it was possible to trace had also had a hand in crafting this nation’s history, and that I was as bound to the land as Chief Seattle was, or as James Rebanks is to his. I’m just not. I can’t be, not to that degree. Such a bond must be formed from the time of one’s birth and nurtured via ongoing, immersive experiences that become second nature. It’s too late for that–but not to late to do what I can still do.
I say the Pledge of Allegiance every day at my school (omitting the words “under god” as I speak for personal reasons), and I would defend my friends and family from anyone who would try and harm us. Would I have served in the military to do so (were I still young enough to)? I feel yes, if my way of life and that of fellow citizens was directly threatened. Actions of the military that go beyond defense of the “home”land would give me pause. This is another paradox. I have enormous respect for members of the armed forces and the selfless life they have chosen, though I am often unable to endorse some of the things they are sent around the world to do. I would never act in a way that is harmful or disrespectful to the country or region in which I reside. I find myself wishing that the human constructs of borders and separate nation states could be eliminated, that we could all consider ourselves common citizens of the same world, with duties to each other and the planet that were our collective responsibilities. Imagine a world with one Passport, or better yet, one that didn’t need one. Would war still exist in such a world? I know this to be a fantasy, but the artificial divisions we have created give rise to biases and bigotries we cannot afford to see perpetuated if we are to continue to live together on this Earth. Citizens of other countries are not “others” who are somehow less than us due to accident of birth. They are human beings who deserve to live happy, fulfilling lives every bit as much as we do, and when we use our influence in the world to ensure that that happens, then we are fulfilling our potential, and I love that.
In the end, I am an American. I will remain one for the foreseeable future, and I will work to ensure that I do all in my power to make this country a place where every human being who lives here with me is treated with dignity and justice. I honor the vision and philosophy of the nation’s founders (though I do think we need to update some language in our founding documents), and respect the sacrifices they made to bring this nation into existence. I honor the landscape and ecosystems surrounding me, and work to sustain and protect them. Though I will never have the depth of connection to the land that Chief Seattle verbalized, that will not prevent me from doing all I can to protect and preserve the land around me, for I owe it to the future. This is no false, unthinking nationalism, but an ever-evolving belief in the potential a life here offers me, my family, and fellow citizens. I embrace the United States and the small corner of it in which I currently live as my home, and I hold in my heart the mental and spiritual connections I have with Great Britain, trying to blend the best of both worlds into my life. It comes down to the people we love and whose lives we touch—our homes are with them, whatever their addresses might be. How about you? I encourage you to ask yourself some of the questions I worked to explore here, contemplate what connects you to the place (or places) you know as “home,” and work to make those connections as meaningful, deep, and lasting as you can.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.