The Road Home

“The Road Home”

Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto

August 28, 2016


People leave home for all kinds of reasons. The novelist Jeanette Winterson left home as a teenager because, giddy in love with a girl, she confessed to her evangelical Christian mother, and the response made her know she could not spend another night under that roof and keep her soul intact. As she walked out the door, she wrote, her mother asked her, “Jeanette, why be happy when you can be normal?”


Winterson spent a few years sleeping in cars, on friends’ couches, in a teacher’s storage room. During those times, she had many occasions to ponder her mother’s question. From the relative stability of the teacher’s storage closet, she saved up and bought herself a tiny rug. “From then on, wherever I found myself, even in a doorway, I put down my little rug, and I began to feel calm,” she wrote. “Better than calm, I imagined myself free.”


And isn’t this what “home” is to all of us? – whether it’s in a doorframe or a castle, when we can look about us and see something that reminds us of who we are, a bulwark, however fragile, against the forces of fear and fraudulence that lurk everywhere? As human beings, we are always asking ourselves, “Can I be myself here? Can I be free?”


Can you be yourself at your house? How about at this church? Is it home to you? – is it a place where you can be “authentic, evocative, and true to the moment?” Those are words I copied down from the side of a styrofoam cup they served coffee in at a Best Western motel that was once my shelter for a few nights on vacation in Oregon. How can anyone be true to themself in a culture where authenticity is marketed on the side of a Styrofoam cup of motel coffee?


“Advertising is schooling in false longing,” wrote the Irish poet John O’Donohue, working to “seduce human longing along the pathways of false satisfaction.” If consumerism is the answer to false longing, what, I wonder, is the answer to longing that is authentic, longing that is not false? The longing for be-longing?


As O’Donohue says in his book on the subject of belonging, we all come into awareness on the Earth in a particular place. Lately I’ve been musing on the histories a place carries. Harrison told us how his sense of home is connected to many stories – like the way his dog loves to chew his dirty socks. But often there are other stories, too – histories that are unseen and unspoken, largely unknown to the conscious mind. Sometimes they reinforce belonging, sometimes they disrupt it. Sometimes both at once.


I am a fan of the novelist Marilynne Robinson, whose trilogy about a small town in Iowa in the 1950s I have read and re-read. Each of the three novels about Gilead, Iowa, is imbued with a sense of the town where they are set, but none more than the middle one, Home. In this story, ghosts are everywhere – whispering of the unspoken conflicts that can brew deep inside the happiest of families, and also murmuring the lost histories of the town. Robinson’s Gilead had been a hotbed of the abolition movement. Then, years later, hooligans started a fire in the town’s single African-American church, and drove all the people of color to move away. Nobody talks about any of it.


People inhabit their homes and towns, unaware of these histories but affected by them anyway. What would the ghosts of Palo Alto be whispering about? How about the ghosts of this church?


When I do a street retreat in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, I spend hours walking on concrete, which I can tell you is exhausting to the body and to the spirit.  Crossing UN Plaza, I sometimes imagine back to a time when it was all forest, when the spring that feeds the fountain fed a river and redwoods grew where concrete blocks now sit; when the feet that walked there were Native feet. I imagine their spirits calling to me from under the concrete. At the same time, crossing the Plaza with me are other ghosts – homeless men and women who have no piece of ground to call their own, who seem, in that way, unattached to the earth.


What does it mean to lose your home? These are the words of political science professor Padraig O’Malley:  “… you are without the reference point to which you instinctively turn to define who you are in relation to the larger order of things … you are deprived of your sense of place and privacy, your sense of belonging, of rootedness and community, of being part of a social configuration that gives context to your aspirations and purpose to living  …. To lose your home is to lose part of yourself, of the meaning in your life; it induces a profound sense of loss …. and grieving ….”


This is not about housing alone, of course.


Sometimes I think we as a culture focus on “the problem of the homeless” so we don’t see the homelessness in our own hearts. Those of us who live in homes, like the townspeople in Marilynne Robinson’s Iowa town, can fail to notice the ghosts that populate our histories, and that have something to do with who we are and why we are the way we are today. Just as we make homeless people invisible, we can move through life without confronting our own missing pieces, our own longing. For some of us, this is true.


“Even in Kyoto,” wrote the 17th Century Japanese poet, Bashō, “when I hear the cuckoo cry, I long for Kyoto.” That sense of longing for something missing – even when it’s right in front of you — was something Bashō explored with his life.  “The journey itself is home,” he wrote, as he set out on a dangerous, five-month trek to the interior of Japan, and to the interior of himself.


We struggle with this, we humans. Where do we belong? To whom do we belong?


Belonging is a basic human need. Sometimes we are willing to die for it, and that is a precious thing – that being willing to die for something — says the journalist Sebastian Junger in his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Think about it: in the modern world, we hardly ever have to ask ourselves the question: What would you be willing to die for?


Junger was drawn into writing this book after studying veterans coming home from the Mideast wars. When we as a nation began sending soldiers to die in Afghanistan and then Iraq, it seemed, as a society, we thought all we needed to do was say, “Thank you for your service;” those of us who were alive during the Vietnam War, those of us who maybe protested that war – we were not going to repeat the mistake of blaming the soldiers for doing what we, the collective “we” that is, had sent them over there to do.


Yet many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as much or more than the soldiers who returned from Vietnam. In his study of these soldiers, Junger has concluded that it is not how horrific were the experiences they endured that predicts whether soldiers suffer from PTSD. In fact, he cites many examples of soldiers who experienced no combat at all, who come back emotionally harmed. What Junger suggests is that it’s the community they are coming back to that scars them, more than the experiences of wartime.


Many commentators, Junger included, have noted the sense of equality, solidarity and community that arise spontaneously in disaster – New Orleans after Katrina, New York after 9-11, or any war zone, where people under bombardment, as in Syria, risk their lives, again and again, to extract one another from the rubble. This, the author says, is reminiscent of “tribal thinking,” which defines, clearly and strongly, to whom we belong. In a war zone, it’s your buddies in arms, or if you’re noncombatants, it’s your fellow sufferers. “Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war,” he said, “but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit.”


And their country? – the communities they return to, even their families? – have literally no clue what it was like for them over there. Life here has gone on, just like before, and the people here, nearly all of us, have not been directly involved in the sacrifices demanded by war.


Not only do we have no clue, Junger points out; we lack the characteristics of “being a tribe together,” a state that was so fulfilling for the soldiers. What are the characteristics of a tribe? Here’s one: in a tribal society people are, mostly, equal. And while there are leaders, the leaders are there, often, to enforce equal sharing – so the essential characteristic of equality is maintained.


So, the soldiers we are sending to fight on our behalf return to a society where there is no sense that the suffering they have endured is shared. And, they return to a society that – I think we probably would agree – has lost that essential sense that we are all in the same boat.


Catastrophes like 9-11 and Katrina re-establish that glue of belonging – we’re all in this together – temporarily. So, Junger notes, did a 1915 earthquake that killed 30,000 people in Avezzano, Italy. “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain,” one of the survivors wrote – “The equality of all [people].”


When those of us who are domiciled walk right by a homeless person and don’t see him, our blindness spares us from confronting the reality that we – as a society — have given up on belonging to one another. How did that begin?


I was living in San Francisco in the summer of 1977, which is a time I remember very well – and not because Elvis died. I was working for the Associated Press, and the big story of that summer was not Elvis but a drama happening on Kearny and Jackson Streets, where Chinatown met the Financial District. That was the location of the International Hotel, a $50-a-month Single-Room-Occupancy structure where 110 people lived, mostly single men, mostly elderly, mostly Filipino and Chinese.


By the mid 1970s San Francisco had begun to see itself as an international city, not because of the people who lived there as much as for the international finance that was beginning to flow toward it from the emerging global economy. The International Hotel wound up in the hands of a multinational corporation, after a local financier decreed the property “too valuable to let poor people park on it.” It was decided it would be torn down and on that property would be erected – I kid you not – a parking garage. For cars.


But the tenants of the International Hotel were the beneficiaries of community organizing, and they were not going to go without a fight. It’s a long story, a story of hope and despair, and it ended one August night when the sheriff and his deputies broke down the doors and led those old men into the street, blinking in the lights of the television cameras that were there to record this moment in history.


Nearly four decades later, the faces of those old men still haunt my dreams.


People leave home for all kinds of reasons, but that was a moment that should never have happened. Soon after, homeless people began to be visible on the streets of San Francisco, and though it is impossible to make a direct connection, it seems to me that the I-Hotel tragedy occurred at a moment in history when we, as a nation, began to look the other way.


“We live in lonely with the rent due,” wrote street poet Julia Vinograd.


We live in lonely with the rent due.

You don’t know me. I don’t know you.

Lost chance blues. Hurt by a glance,

Pretend not to see. You don’t know me.


Vinograd titled this poem, “Blues for All of Us.”


The first step toward healing may be this: knowing that these are, indeed, blues for all of us; knowing that we are all connected. That we belong to one another; that we are homeless when others are homeless.


Next week at this church, we begin  hosting the Hotel de Zink, a month when we practice belonging to one another by opening our doors and our kitchens to people who have nowhere else to sleep. Stop at the Action Council table on the patio, to sign up to bring a meal or to contribute funds for supplies like milk and cereal. And to take one deeper step toward belonging to these men and women who are our guests, you can join the team that is on site getting to know them for an hour each evening.


Until we build an economy that can shelter us all – until we see that our safety and our wholeness depend on this — we are all unearthed, rootless, homeless. I dream of “home” as a shelter of belonging, one that creates a space for reconciliation, a space for imagining that it can be another way. A place where all of us can come home.

May it be so. May we make it so.