At Home. For Now

The acclaimed novelist probes our yearning for a fixed address

Cheryl Carlin

I don't think about home very much. I mean, the concept of home—the direction finder we're all supposedly equipped with, that leads us onward (or back) to the place we belong, where we'll be...what? Happy? At peace? At rest? Permanent? I'm not really sure. Which is one underlying reason I don't think about home much. I don't know what it means.

Oh, I know some of what home means—to other people. That direction-finder idea is somebody else's. Home means, simply enough, where you come from, where you're born and where they always have to take you in (though we all know they don't). Home can also partake of "final matters"—where you want to be, in the last analysis of things. Or home can be where you choose to live, because that's where you like it best. In this last version, home would be a designation you make, not so different from your "weekend home," or from "my hunting cabin on Lake Winnipegosis." Nothing necessarily lasting. When my wife and I visit some faraway city and fetch up in a gloomy Ramada or Crowne Plaza, she will often, at the end of a long evening, gaze across the dinner table at me and smile and say, "Why don't we go home now?" By that she doesn't mean, why don't we go back to the place where you were born, or let's go visit our grave site. She just means let's go back to the room and get in bed. Home, in my wife's parlance, and in all of ours, is a variable concept.

Because I'm the kind of person who does this sort of thing, I looked "home" up in the Oxford English Dictionary. And I'm sorry to say that this venerable old word coffin doesn't have any firmer purchase on home than I do. In fact, it has a much less firm one than I do, by virtue of having many different purchases: from the predictable "abode, fixed residence, seat of one's interests, resting place"—all the way out to "the grave," or a future state, or one's country, or a place free from attack (no longer true of the United States), then onward to "state of unrestraint," prepared to receive visitors, full in from the sea, and extending all the way to "to move intimately," that is, to "home" in on something, which has nothing to do with where we live. I could go on, because the OED does—four and a half pages of "homes," in the big-print edition (which you have to keep at home). Anyone would close the big blue book with a confirmed sense that home is, indeed, a subject worthy of serious speculation, but for which a tidy definition (like the one, say, for "homarine," the generic name for the lobster) isn't going to be good enough.

Over the years I've lived in a lot of American places—California, Vermont, Chicago, New Jersey, New Orleans, Flint, Michigan. And plenty more. I can't really explain why I've done that, but I never thought any of these places were home when I lived there. Sometimes all this barging around will baffle someone, so I'll feel compelled to offer up one or another entirely made-up rationale for all this hectic moving: that my father was a traveling salesman, so I caught the moving bug early; that my grandparents ran a big hotel, so transience seemed normal to me; that when you're born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi (as I was), you either think you live at the center of the universe, or else you think you live on Pluto—which is what I thought. Or the quasi-intellectual rationale: that much drama in all things American draws upon the rub between an inherited European or African village past (where you have to stay home) and the magnetism of a vast new continent (where you hit the road). But they all come down to mean roughly the same thing: that moving's not unusual, but still home's a notion we routinely put in play, and that I myself am just an ordinary fish aswim in a confluence of swirling currents.

Though in the course of all these many moves, and in the many residences that have resulted, I've almost always had my feelers out for some certifiable sense of home-ness. You could say, in spite of all, that I've been "home-hungry" all my life—nosing around, sampling the genie spirit or the townscape of some new burg or county where I've somehow landed, determining where this or that road leads, musing about what family lives in this or that house, or used to live there, and for how long and how all that worked out for them. I've pictured my history or my future in whatever place it was—Missoula, Montana; Greenwood, Mississippi; Ann Arbor—always hoping, expecting to feel something enfolding, something protectively familiar, some sensation of belonging. (You can tell from this that I've settled on the idea of home as a place I choose, rather than a place where I was simply, will-lessly born.)

And, truthfully, once in a while that homey-enfolding feeling has actually welled up in me, its rich ethers filling my nose, my heart surging, my brain spangling with all the lavish yet humble possibilities of belonging: of being automatically served "the usual" at my favorite diner, of being fast-tracked into the dentist's chair when my molar's cracked; of being on a first-name basis with the service guy at the Chevy dealership so my truck gets out by 10; of having free entry to our one-screen movie theater when I've forgotten my billfold but everybody trusts me; of neighbors who've all read all of my books and understood and enjoyed them because they talk about them when I'm not around. I've savored all these symptoms of home. Though admittedly I've experienced them the way I used to dream of playing fullback for the Packers, or of kicking the bejesus out of some tough guy who'd stolen my girlfriend; or of being able to play "Sentimental Journey" to an astonished crowd of those same neighbors at the opera house when the scheduled act doesn't show up, even though I'd never played the saxophone before. Which is to say they were, these ethers and heart-swellings, as fleeting as a dream. But a good dream. (Generally they last only long enough for me to grow skittish about all the less appealing attributes of home—permanence setting in like an acrid fog, the flavorless absence of the new, the raw bestilled boredom of imprisoning familiarity—the same life worries that propel desperate men off to the Foreign Legion, or that once sent wide-eyed and fearful homesteaders out across the oceanic prairie to nowhere, yet to whatever's next.)

Have we always had a sense of home, I wonder? Did it come to us straight from the cave men and cave women? Or, possibly, from the resourceful Dutch—ever focused and grounded—who're said to have perfected the home concept along the way to inventing bourgeois existence? But more important, is it so bad if we don't have a rock-solid sense of home? Or only have a weak one? Or maybe just don't have one yet? Home-less-ness is always imagined, in our security-obsessed era, as a bottomed-out and desperate state, akin to being a man without a country or to a life like a character in a Beckett play or that figure in the Munch painting—gaping, yawing, moaning, at-risk pointlessness. Only I wonder if all the residents of that state think it's so bad? I bet not.

Where I live, here on the coast of Maine, I frankly don't have much of a daily, practicing sense of home. I've been here nearly eight years, and so far the people seem friendly. (There are a few "originals," old and young farts who sneer at the likes of me for being from "away"; though many of these originals turn out to be from New Hampshire.) There's a small but detectable racial "mix." And there's a good feeling of authenticity to things, which I'm sure I benefit from. (Authenticity is the corroborating sensation that all Americans crave but are also perfectly happy to fabricate wherever it's lacking.) Here in East Boothbay (estimated permanent population 491), authenticity rests principally on the presence of history in everyday affairs—on the way citizens find a living (fishing and boat building); on the old-timey layout of our relatively few streets (School Street, Church Street), which persists unviolated by developers' schemes; on the placement of long-established residences; on the resilience of our few business concerns; and on the fact that many families have stayed in one place a long, long time. In other words memory—that great certifier—is still relatively seamless and reliable in East Boothbay. And, of course, much confidence is owed to our town's face being turned everlastingly to the sea.

How I traffic around here is, I would say, respectfully, though not reverentially, toward all these solid evidences of the unspurious. The waitresses at the Ebb Tide can't remember what I usually order (I don't come in enough), but they seem silently to concede that I'm me. The men at Grover's Hardware (all jolly amateur comedians) are happy to share their yuks with me, though they don't seem to know my name or care what I do for a living. I've discovered places to hunt only minutes from my house—a good reason to stay on. I know my neighbors and the postmistress and her two sons. I have a pal who takes me striper fishing. And I like it here in the winter, Maine's signature season, the true test for the outsider.

Yet, here's the ocean, but I'm not a seafarer (the Atlantic, frankly, scares me). I don't have much taste for lobster. I don't assemble mornings at the general store, and I don't wear the high-school sweat shirt (I did buy a cap at the fire department open house but have never had it on). When I first arrived, and in the privacy of my house, I liked imitating the Mainers' thick-tongued, Down East accent. But over time I've quit doing that since it finally dawned on me I wasn't very good at it.

But taken all together, isn't that good enough? I'll never be a native here—which seems OK. I'm already a native someplace else, but I like it here better. Plus, we're all Americans. (It's not as if I was French.) Isn't that a persuasive profession of faith? Can authenticity only be a matter of accidents—of fate and temperament? I've always imagined my authenticity (which may be as close as I get to a real sense of home) depended on something else—something less, well, official. "To find my home in one sentence," the poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, "concise, as if hammered in metal." Something along those lines seems right and makes anything else just a matter of real estate.

Home doesn't get any clearer than this for me. Most of the ageless essences I've sought and ultimately failed to inhabit in the pure and purifying way I thought I should and was sure everyone else did (I'm talking about home, love, victory, vocation, spirituality, loss, grief—all the big-ticket items), I finally had to conclude weren't perfectly inhabitable anyway. One size doesn't fit all, if it ever fits any of us. All the ageless essences demand not to be squeezed into like an ill-fitting suit, but rather to be incantations to flights of fruitful imagination, like a jollier version of the emperor's new clothes, which put on display—favorably, in my version—merely who the wearer is. Home, then, is whatever I say it is, even if it's just for today and I change my mind tomorrow. It's enough for me that, after all these years, I still can even think about home, still imagine it as a sweet notion—ever offshore, ever out of my reach, a place locked in a dream.

Richard Ford's latest novel, The Lay of the Land, was recently issued in paperback.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.