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No. 46 – Exile & Muddy Boots

by | Feb 28, 2021 | Letters

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”

~George Moore

“It is always sad when someone leaves home, unless they are simply going around the corner and will return in a few minutes with ice-cream sandwiches.”

~Lemony Snicket

Dear Friend,

Earlier this week I led a discussion with a squadron of the US Army’s 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade. I shared lessons learned from years in business and growing up overseas, and they talked through aspects of their recent Afghanistan deployment. It was a creative discussion that mixed seemingly incommensurate experiences. For me, the discussion was overshadowed by a single, simpler truth: I hadn’t been on base since the 2000s.

Put simply, I had returned home.

[As a Marine, I wasn’t stationed on Army bases. I’m speaking of “home” here like one might reference their hometown- it isn’t the exact building in which one grew up but enough associations create an equivalency.]

There is a parable in the Bible about a wayward son who, having spent his entire inheritance, returns home to his father. Imagine his apprehension as he rolled into town. This week I was in a similar boat. Though I hadn’t squandered an inheritance, I was nervous coming back to base for other reasons I won’t disclose. Did I belong there anymore?

Part of the definition of “home” is that there is an exclusivity to it. It belongs to someone, and in belonging to that person or group of people, it necessarily doesn’t not belong to others. For as long as homes exist, there will always be outsiders… those that belong, and those that don’t. Even the best-intentioned visitor is, as John O’Donohue says, “an intruder from another area of belonging.”

We tend to dislike such categories today, mainly because exclusion grates against our modern sensibilities. But exclusivity is not all bad. Recognition of rightful belonging creates an opportunity to show kindness to those who do not belong. It creates a space for the oft-forgotten, ancient virtue of hospitality. An example of this is found in The Odyssey by Homer. In Book 1, the goddess Athena disguises herself as the Taphian king Mentes and pays visit to Telemachus. Telemachus immediately shows hospitality or xenia (meaning “guest-friendship”) to the stranger: “straight to the porch he went, mortified that a guest might still be standing at the doors…he clasped her right hand and relieving her at once of her long bronze spear, met her with winged words: ‘Greetings, stranger! Here in our house you’ll find a royal welcome. Have supper first, then tell us what you need.’” Telemachus illustrates that when we have a home in which we belong, we can welcome those who don’t.

As a third culture kid (all grown up now), I have spent much of life giving “priority to the duties of longing over belonging.” (John O’Donohue) I’ve bounced around alot, much of it of my own volition. It is, therefore, hard to admit, but home is place, too. It’s a specific geographic location with all the accompanying distinctions- terrain, climate, constraints, etc. It is laden with specificity- demarcations of that which is part of it. A favorite example of this is the introduction to Cry, The Beloved Country:

“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.” That same introduction concludes, referencing the valley beyond the hills: “The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth.” Home is laden with specificity, possibly rolling, grass-covered hills overlooking fair valleys or with soil laden streams carrying away the eroded nutrients of life. Nonetheless, home is always a place.

And yet, home is often a place one leaves. Sometimes we leave because, as Joseph Campbell says, “all children need to be born twice, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind.” We depart in order to grow up. Or sometimes we leave because we struggle to see beauty in the normalcy of everyday life at home. The obvious wonder and mystery of the unknown out yonder offers an enticing solution. Either way, the results are the same: When we leave, we see more. We hear more. We smell more. We feel more. We experience more. We move with the dynamism of life entirely at the mercy of our surroundings. We often leave home in search of adventure. We usually get it.

A woman or man suffers a cruel blow if they never come back, though, because home is a place to which one returns. Did you know that exile was an alternative equivalent to the death penalty in ancient Greece and Rome? Similarly, under English law, banishment was an alternative to capital punishment and from 1787 to 1868 banished criminals were transported over 15,000 miles to Australia. The point here is that returning home is important. Society typically only removes that primal delight from its very worst members.

Yet when we return, what do we find? Personally, I have little sense of place or belonging. But this week, when I drove onto base, I realized I had come home. I found that it hadn’t changed. The building I walked into was eerily similar to many others in California, Hawaii and the Middle East. Office trashcans were full of spit bottles and empty Monster cans. Boots had tracked mud into the hallways. It was just as I remembered it. Home hadn’t changed.

But I had.

And that’s the rub. We often depart from home because we wish it were different. Those that reside in the desert wish for the mountains; the mountain dwellers flee to the coast; denizens of cities make trips to the wilderness’s rugged expanse. But when we reach those destinations, we find that the destinations just are. They’re just present. They’re just there. Deserts, mountains, rivers, and waves don’t care whether we’re around or not. Realizing this, us humanoids enter into a pact with our destination: we agree to carry a fragment of its permanence in our memory. In return, it allows us to leave some of our longing behind. The pact is lopsided, though, because our longings make no impression on this world. They have no substance. They vanish in the wind as formless as they previously came to us. However, we leave with a memory weighed down with the gifted permanence… a gift we carry with us into perpetuity. That’s how we depart searching for difference, yet return markedly different ourselves.

The parable mentioned earlier has a surprising conclusion. Instead of being greeted with insults, anger, and humiliation, the wayward son is met by a loving father. He publicly honors his son and bestows upon him all his previous privileges, if not more. In so doing, he gives us a final lesson that I also experienced this week: home is the place we are welcomed and honored. After all, it’s the place we belong.

Sincerely,

Martyn

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