October 9, 2005 Newsletter

The rash of natural disasters occurring around the globe has made me quite reflective about what really matters in life...as I was when I wrote the following.


Going Home

By: Rhonda Jones

"I would go home."  That's the answer I supply when folks ask, "Where are you going to go, if you don't work for a large corporation?"  Around twenty-one months ago, I made the choice not to follow a corporation all over the world, regardless of how lucrative it might appear on the surface.  I feel confident in this life choice and truly believe everything I have ever experienced has all been for the purpose of preparing me for the next phase of my life . . . whatever that is.  I'm uncertain at this point what door will be opened for me to step through, so for the time being, when anyone cares to know where I'm going, it's home.

Speaking of home, a few days ago I visited my sister's new home just outside Nashville.  She and her husband have had the good fortune to build a beautiful home in which to raise their two sons.  Yet for the past seventy-five days, she's found herself trying to maintain it alone, while my brother-in-law fulfills a government assignment in Iraq.  I couldn't help thinking how terrible this war is that takes him away from his home and family.  But, I know, in his heart he's convinced that by leaving his home he's actually doing his utmost to protect it.  It's a perplexing dilemma indeed.

These situations, along with recent experiences and national events, have gotten me thinking quite a bit about our concept of home.  Everyone seems to have their own interpretation.  When my parents finally visited my newly purchased house in west Knoxville, my dad's only comment was, "It's really nice, Rhonda, but I don't know why you bought it, if you're coming home."  A moment of stunned silence ensued as I struggled to process the meaning of his comment.  For the first time in these many months of transition, I realized he had assumed if I were no longer employed in Knoxville, like a rubber ball tethered by elastic to a paddle, I would just automatically return to Greeneville where I grew up and they still live.  It struck me how odd that sounded to me, yet how normal it seemed to him.  Eventually, I did manage to respond, "Well, Daddy, I guess this means I am home."  Clearly we had two vastly different ideas on the subject, and it made me wonder, what does home really mean to me?

The word home implies a place where we are safe, and happy, at peace, and fulfilled.  It's representative of the one place we would like to be in all the world.  Like the old adage, "home is the place you spend the first half of your life trying to get away from, and the second half trying to get back to", home to my dad obviously meant the place where you grew up.  Not surprisingly, then, he still lives next door to the house his parents moved to when he was fifteen.  Many families everywhere do this, I know, creating a virtual tribe or compound within which they care for and support one another.  But, for whatever reason, I and my three-years-younger sister have responded to the pull of a different magnet.  The adage that better suits me, when it comes to my dad's concept of home, is "you can't go home again."

That old saying, I suppose, means that everything and everyone continues to change over time.  Since no one stays the same, then it stands to reason that, likewise, no thing stays the same.  That moment in time when you did live in your parent's home is gone forever.  There is great truth in that, however, it brings another question to mind.  Both of those old sayings assume one had a pleasant childhood with a positive concept of home and would actually harbor an, at least, occasional desire to experience that again.  But what about those who didn't have a positive experience.  What about those who had a terrible, abusive experience as children in the home of their parents?

For the past two years I've been visiting a home for abused, abandoned, and orphaned children in the mountains of Guatemala.  The "homes" these children endured, before finding their way to the orphanage, are almost too terrible to comprehend.  Poverty so extreme, abuse so severe, living conditions so horrible, a future so bleak...it's a "home life" that none would envy and certainly would never pine for a nostalgic return.  The first time in their young lives that they ever experience anything close to what we typically refer to as home is when they are placed in the orphanage.  There, at least, they are fed three meals a day, given an education, and, most importantly, protected as much as the court allows from their past.  But even this, their first relatively peaceful existence, comes nowhere near what my dad means when he uses the word home.  The five hundred children there share everything.  They have enough, but there is no such thing as plenty.  There are no indulgences, no toys, no candy, no over-abundance of social and sporting activities to fill their time like we have grown accustomed to in this country.  They are surrounded by people, but the situation affords them little personal attention.  They never know the individualized love of a parent.  Their concept of home is vastly different from anything I or my family and friends might imagine.  If you told most of them, "you can't go home again", I'm sure their response would be "thank God".

That's the same response I'm sure we would get from the largely forgotten and homeless population in this country.  Those who don't have conventional homes at all...maybe never had them.  Instead they grew up on the street...in homeless shelters...in old cars...in abandoned hotels...bouncing from one flop house or hobo camp to another.  Hundreds upon thousands of individuals in this country alone have never experienced what mainstream society refers to as home.  Our concept of home wouldn't resonate with them at all.  Telling them you were going to take them home wouldn't conjure up the secure, peaceful, happy emotions you might expect.  They have no reference point by which they can measure how close or how far away they are to "home."  It's almost as if, for some, the word doesn't exist in their vocabulary.

Many of our non-profit organizations exist to try to enable this unfortunate segment of our population to become part of mainstream society.  Local organizations like Knox Area Rescue Ministries and Knoxville Habitat for Humanity stand on the foundation that every individual deserves a chance to assume their place in mainstream society and to live with dignity.  But one of the uphill battles they face is to be able to transform their client's paradigm about "home".  The idea must be so enticing as to compel them to self-select that transformation.  Potential Habitat homeowners must first learn what it means to have a home.  For most, when they build a house with Habitat, it's the first time in their lives that they can point to a structure and say, "That's my house."  And the Rescue Ministry has an even greater challenge.  Some of their clients have existed on the streets by whatever means necessary for so long, they don't know any other way...can't even comprehend it.  It's a pattern of behavior and, in some cases, addiction so deeply engrained that they literally can't even fathom anything else.  Saying to these people, "C'mon, let me help you get home," would hold little or no allure.

I imagine the same is true in the minds of the impoverished inhabitants of the rain forest I visited in Nicaragua this summer.  I've seen poverty in my lifetime.  I've seen third-world poverty.  But none of what I'd seen prepared me for what I saw in Nicaragua.  Were it not for the clothes they somehow managed to get their hands on, I could say their existence is almost as primitive as the images we associate with the original Native Americans.  The muddy earth is their floor and the sky, which alternates between broiling sun and treacherous storms, is their roof.  They shelter themselves with whatever they can find...sticks, reeds, bamboo, palm branches, scrap pieces of rusty tin, salvaged rotting boards.  They keep the cook fire burning continuously over which they prepare the meager corn, squash, and beans they might be able to grow in season, and the plantains and fruit they harvest from the jungle.  If they are good hunters with bow, knife, machete or hatchet, they might have meat to cook.  Although electricity and running water is available in the country, most do not have it.  So the inside of their abode is harsh, dark, and dank.  Unshuttered windows and a proliferation of holes and cracks in the structure make it little more than shade from the sun and umbrella from the rain.  Typically, it's not even that, for the steamy heat envelopes you wherever you go, and the winds blow the rain sideways, washing down the mountainsides, flooding the so-called roads.  The plight of these families is worsened by the exodus of the only segment of the population who can escape--the men--leaving huge families of old women, young girls, and children to fend for themselves.  Certainly this can't qualify as "home" in anyone's vocabulary.  It's an existence no one would desire, least of all those who are relegated to it.

Maybe it's this dilemma about "home" we experience in this earthly existence that makes so many yearn for the home they expect to have in the next life.  As in the immortal words of singer/songwriter Van Morrison, "Heaven is my home," is their mantra.  Almost every religion, especially Christian religions, advise that we will never be totally satisfied in this life--we will never be truly at "home"--because this earth is not our home.  Until we are reunited with our creator, we are only travelers making that long journey home.

I'm able to comprehend this concept of a heavenly home, and I believe in those Christian teachings.  But there's still a little in that argument with which I struggle.  That concept still implies that home is a particular "place" or "locale".  The biblical description of our heavenly home even describes the appearance of the "structure"...mansions and pearly gates and streets of gold.  We still want to make "home" synonymous with "house" or "abode" and ignore the fact that this idea doesn't resonate equally with all members of our human population.  I, for one, certainly think it must go beyond that.

I heard a pastor on the radio once make the comment, "People don't die.  Bodies die, but people don't."  I like the implications of this statement.  It reminds us that our spirit--our soul--that part of us which is immortal transcends this earthly existence.  Therefore I can say, it also transcends any situation or living conditions of the body in which it's housed.  With this thought, we can begin to move much closer to the true meaning of home, and we can begin to understand much more deeply what it really means to go home.

We have another common saying in our society, "Home is where the heart is."  Although still not quite perfect in it's illustration of home, I believe it moves us in the right direction.  We can learn a lot about what this phrase means by observing those who endure natural disasters.  Recently our entire country, as well as much of the world, has been shocked by the devastation left on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  For the lucky survivors, the houses and even whole cities they call home are gone or else stand in ruins.  Thousands have been displaced and scattered across the country.  Families have been rendered in two and left unable to locate one another.  My own family has been touched by this tragedy, with my aunt and two cousin's family homes damaged in Biloxi, Mississippi.  With one of my cousins six months pregnant with her first child, they exist among the devastation and ruins and wonder when and what will their insurance company do, when and how will their lives ever return to "normal"?

When I watch these stories on the news and read about the inhabitants of the many evacuee shelters, I wonder if many of those poor folks will be "homeless" forever.  Will they ever be able to "go home" again?  Many have said they will never leave the stricken area they call home, while many more have said they will never return, and instead will build a new life--a new home--in the towns that have welcomed them in.

I hear something in their stories.  It's a common theme repeated by all who survive such events.  It's the same message I heard from my friend, Jeri Beth, who lost all her worldly possessions in a house fire.  "It's just stuff," Jeri says, holding tight to her husband and two sons, "and that stuff is not what matters," she concludes confidently.  Jeri and all the hurricane survivors have learned the hard way, it's not those things with which we surround ourselves and traditionally associate with "home" that matter.  It's what we carry inside that matters most.  "We are alive, and we have each other," is what the hurricane homeless repeat, echoing the sentiments of all those who come the closest in our society to defining what home really is.

As I watched hour after hour of news reports from the battered Gulf Coast, the other half of that definition of home was revealed to me in the stories that surfaced during the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  One such story involved an old African-American man in a little wooden motor boat.  Forced by his economic situation to stay behind when New Orleans was voluntarily evacuated, he survived the storm surge only to see his city flooded and destroyed.  But while most of the stranded inhabitants began a desperate fight for their own survival, this unlikely hero began a different quest...a fight to help and save others.  Several days after the levies broke around New Orleans, TV news reporters found him motoring from house to flooded house, rescuing strangers from their porches, attics, and rooftops by pulling them into the boat and delivering them to higher ground.

"Where did you get the boat?" the reporter asked him.

"I saw it, and I took it." the man replied through watery eyes.  "People are in trouble and need help.  If I didn't do it, who was going to help them?  I'll put it back where I found it, and I'll pay for the gas when this is over; but right now I'm doing what has to be done."

For a moment the reporter sat in silence as the cameraman maintained the close-up of the man's weathered and lined dark skin, shadowed by several day's growth of black whiskers peppered with gray.  And in that moment the otherwise frail old man, whom few would ever even notice if they had passed him on the street before the storm, stood out in that little boat like a giant...a hero for all to emulate.

Patanjali, the 2nd century B.C. philosopher wrote, "When you are inspired by some great purpose, all your thoughts break their bounds: your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world.  Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be."

This quote, and the stories of those who survived the tragedy with an enlightened perspective, and those who have unexpectedly risen to heroic heights even in these terrible situations, inform my definition of home more than anything else.  We may not all share the same childhood experiences of home.  We didn't have the same kind of houses, neighborhoods, towns, family structures, or religious beliefs.  Nor do we share the same cultural, economic, social, and educational opportunities...unfortunately.  But there is one common denominator we all do share.  It transcends the shelter in which we live, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have, the cars we drive, etc., etc. 

I see it in the eyes and hear it in the words of every person I meet in my work and in my travels.  It's that desire we all feel inside.  It's that yearning we all possess, no matter how many layers and layers of scar tissue under which it may be buried, which continually drives all of us to do that which we are capable of doing...to become that which we are born to become...to be inspired by our life purpose of which Patanjali writes and to awaken our dormant capabilities to create that wonderful world--that home-- in which we, at last, find ourselves in total peace, fulfillment, relationship, purpose, and happiness...inside... regardless of the storms that rage on the outside.

As a result, there isn't one standard definition of this "home."  Home is as unique from individual to individual as each person's unique blend of talents, personality, attitude, behavior, knowledge, skills, and experiences.  That is my understanding of home.  No one else can define home for me.  Only I can discover it for myself.  And I've learned I can find it whether I return to Greeneville, stay in a house in Knoxville, lose it all in a catastrophe, or move to the poverty of Central America.  Home is separate from place.  Home is where I live the life and fulfill the purpose for which I was born.

You may ask, if home isn't found in a specific locale, then how will you know when you've found it?  You will know when you've found it because you'll feel it.  I have felt it in Knoxville, in Guatemala, in Nicaragua, and in many locales.  The contentment washes over me like warm water, and I no longer feel any stress, worry, fear, or pain.  It is the feeling of being totally at peace.

Can we ever go home, especially in a world filled with poverty, tragedy, terrorism, and greed?  Absolutely.  But understand this.  Going home doesn't just happen.  You have to work for it. 

So if you ask me where I'm going tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, the answer will be the same.  I may not know right now what town I want to be in, what structure I will live in, or what employment changes I might undergo, but I still know where I'm going.  I'm going home.  If you want to know the truth...I'm already there.