Thursday, October 27, 2011

Home Sweet Homecoming

October 20. The window panes are cold. My fingers trace ridges and valleys across the dark glass, trying to remember the architecture of the mountains we saw yesterday. Tired and peaceful, I think that tonight could almost be a college night. After a long day on campus, we lingered over a late supper, and now I am working at the computer late at night, a marked-up manuscript on the desk beside me. Lauren and Charlie are just across the hall; Emily and Kevin could hear me if I called their names. Tomorrow we'll meet Eric at First Baptist for church, and Jeremy might join us for lunch afterward.

It could almost be home. The familiarity of this night, this place, is bewildering and consoling all at once because tonight is not, after all, a college night. We are all nearer twenty-eight than eighteen, and instead of a dorm, Kevin and Emily's house is our gathering place. Sharing a meal with these friends is no longer a common joy, but a rare event--it has been years since we were gathered around one table, and it may be years before it happens again. This is not home, but homecoming.

My dear friends Dave and Mandy live here in our college town, and on one wall of their living room, they have painted the words "Home is..." in large letters.  They and their friends have written other words and phrases to complete this sentence all around the wall, and Saturday was my turn. I contributed a curious line from George MacDonald's Lilith.  "Home," I wrote, "is ever so far away in the palm of your hand."

This is the paradox of homecoming. We return to a place and a time that was home, traveling across memory, miles, or both, but we know we have not come to stay.

 Walking in the shadows of familiar buildings on Saturday, I began to catalog all the friends I would need to see walking to the cafeteria, or perhaps headed towards the dorms, before I would feel that I had really come home. This was not mere nostalgia; I don't wish I were eighteen or twenty-two again, and I would not come home, even to my beloved college, to meet my friends unchanged. I want a more-than-Facebook vision of the people they have become, with real voices telling stories about work and ideas and families. I want hugs and handshakes and looking-in-the-eye. I imagined all these friends gathered around Kevin and Emily's dining room table, but even as I indulged in my fantasies of reunion, I could not ignore the distances that were keeping us apart.  For some of the friends who once made Carson-Newman home, finances, jobs, and miles prevented their pilgrimage to the east Tennessee foothills. And there are other kinds of distances that, I knew, would have followed even my dearest friends back to our alma mater.  We might gather, but there would be subjects tactfully avoided at dinner, questions left unasked as we recounted the recent news. Home, I often think, is ever so far away. 

I was prepared for these distances, braced against awkward conversations and tentative reunions. I had resigned myself to any number of tepid "remember whens?"  Instead, I spent all weekend overwhelmed to see the ways in which the virtues that first drew me to Carson-Newman had grown in the lives of my teachers and friends. As a high-school senior, I had my choice of full scholarships to several colleges and universities.  I chose Carson-Newman because everyone I met there invited me, in one way or another, to become the sort of person I longed to be. I was a shy, neurotic, self-absorbed teenager, and by the time I finished high school I was very nearly sick of myself. When I visited Carson-Newman, I met young men and women who were brilliant without pretension, kind without condescension, fun without stupidity. Their confidence, kindness, and service attracted me more than any number of brand-new residence halls or manicured flowerbeds. Returning as an alumna, I realized how remarkable and rare these virtues are. I came home, after all, to friends who plan October picnics of pumpkin stew and ginger tea; who wash up the supper dishes without being asked; who spend their days teaching high school students to love reading or math; who go out of their way to include others in a conversation; who stand up for their convictions about the environment; who train dancers; who raise children to love truth, beauty, and goodness. I came home to the faculty who inspired me to be a professor--wise, compassionate men and women who greet their students with eager questions and hugs after half a decade.

All weekend I found myself wanting to hold on to everyone I met, literally to wrap my fingers around their wrists and to touch their faces. I want to be among these people, I thought. I want to live my life with their courage, grace, and kindness. I felt the same rush of hope and longing that led me to this school. This, I realized, is the reason for homecomings: not to retire from daily strife, not to escape into nostalgia, but to witness and remember what it takes to establish a home. It takes Emily's curiosity. Shannon's enthusiasm. Kevin's steadiness. Jeremy's thoughtfulness. Eric's fidelity. Lauren and Charlie's merry kindness. Dave and Mandy's creativity and convictions. Mari's courage. Mark's lovingkindness. Keith's wit. Rachel's compassion.

 As a student, I always cried at the end of each semester, and my flight back to Texas could have been one of those bittersweet journeys from one home to another. My heart was heavy as a thousand miles unfolded between me and Carson-Newman, but some of that heaviness came from the weight of gratitude. The home I have made in Texas owes so much to what I learned in college. I have no idea where my next home will be, but I will be proud if it, like Carson-Newman, is a place where people become more than they knew they could be. When we find such places, we do not always have the privilege of staying for long, but somehow, our true homes have a way of following us. Through faith, hope, and love, through friendship and imagination and determination, you may be startled to discover that home is in the palm of your hand.

Eric, me, Lauren, Charlie, and Kevin. Home sweet homecoming, indeed.
With Emily, fall 2005
With Emily, fall 2011

1 comment:

  1. Each word describes the emotions running through me when I visit my hometown and are, as always, beautiful!