Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 53 seconds.
For as long as I can remember I longed to find a better life outside of my tiny rural growing up place—to free myself from the bonds of my family and from the restrictions of a poor education. That visceral and intellectual ache for freedom permeated my body and soul and ultimately led to my rejection of religion, and soon thereafter, of society. It took almost five decades to gain this freedom.
Breaking the chains of family, religion, education, and society comes at a high price. The journey to freedom often means a lifetime of misunderstanding, suffering, disillusionment, and estrangement. The desire to pursue freedom is not for the faint of heart. And that is why most of my family, friends, and neighbors still languish in their inability to break free.
Somehow I managed to be the first Elrod to graduate high school, the first to get a college degree, and the first to leave home. And then after living most of my life in the diverse and affluent regions of Palm Beach and Clearwater Beach, Florida; downtown Franklin, Tennessee; and downtown Austin, Texas while gradually breaking those institutional chains—ironically, four years ago, I decided to go back “home” to the rural climes of the Appalachians.
Those in pursuit of meaning have routinely retreated to the mountains or to cabins in the woods. I wanted to leave society on my terms and free myself completely from the herd. I honestly thought I was returning home to remember where I came from. To live of the land, not just on it. To discover my sense of place.
Now, at the age of sixty and after four years of solitude and rumination in the wilderness, I have come to understand that, in the words of Amor Towles, “life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions.”
Our lives are formed by these transitions, many of which are disruptive and daunting; but if we persist and remain open of heart, we may be granted moments of clarity—moments in which our journey suddenly comes into focus as a necessary mosaic, even as we find ourselves on the cusp of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.
A few moments of clarity unearthed these questions: Why do so many prodigals abandon home so shortly upon their return? Why did Thomas Wolfe write, “You can’t go back home again?” That one can never fully “go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…away from all the strife and conflict of the world…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.”
Why is it that for many returning home after long absences, the combination of heartfelt sentiments and the ruthless influence of time only spawn disappointments? Could it be that one of the costs of breaking the chains of family, religion, education, and society is the inability to ever feel fully at home again in your growing up place?
So if one can no longer feel a sense of place at home anymore—where is home? And what exactly does the term “sense of place” mean? Why do I feel more at home in Florida than in my home state of Tennessee?
Here are a few of my thoughts as I struggle to find home—to feel a sense of place.
Our society is now highly mobile and after a lifetime experiencing the manifestation of a thousand transitions we struggle to find a singular sense of place. To further add to the confusion, the term sense of place has become a catchword used to justify everything from a warm fuzzy appreciation of a natural landscape to the selling of homesites in urban sprawl.
We bring to the places we live a whole set of cultural phenomenon that shapes the way we respond to a place, and in some measure, we attempt to find a place to fit those conceptions.
Here are four of those cultural phenomena:
1) Geographical—The physical features of a place. I love the smell of Tennessee soil but I prefer the feel of Florida sand. I love the verdant greens of Tennessee forests but I prefer the iridescent hues of Florida beaches. I love the change of Tennessee seasons but I prefer the assurance of Florida’s eternal summer. I love the wind in Tennessee leaves but I prefer the rustle of Florida palm fronds. I love the warmth of a Tennessee fire but I prefer the heat of the Florida sun.
2) Psychographical—The personality traits of a place. I love the isolation and independence of Tennessee but I prefer the community and camaraderie in Florida. I love the stability of Tennesseans but I prefer the adaptability of Floridians. I love Tennessee sympathy (“bless your heart”) but I prefer Florida empathy (“I feel your pain”). I love the slow drawl of Tennessee but I prefer the clipped speech of Floridians.
3) Sociological—The social behavior of a place. I love the southern gentility of Tennessee but I prefer the informal attitude of Florida. I love the layers of clothes in Tennessee but I prefer wearing no clothes in Florida. I love the “you’uns” of Tennesseans but I prefer the “you guys” of Floridians. I love Tennessee rednecks but I prefer Florida crackers.
4) Ideological—A set of shared doctrines or beliefs of a place. I love the family values of Tennessee but I prefer the progressive values of Florida. I love the Republicans of Tennessee but I prefer the Democrats of Florida. I love the old-time religion of Tennessee, but I prefer the new age religion of Florida.
So where is home? Where is my heart? Is it possible to have two homes?
I might say that I’m going home when I return to my mountain lodge in Tennessee and visit my family, but then I go home as well when I return to my beach cottage in Florida and visit my friends. As someone once said, friends are the family we get to choose. Friends are people who share our sense of place and who have similar personalities, behaviors, and beliefs.
Artist Sarah Mclachlan poignantly says it this way:
“Child walks down to the river’s edge
And looks out as far as she can see
And draws each breath as if it were the last
And wipes away the tears across her sleeve
She can see where the river crawls to the sea
Like a baby into mothers care
Somehow the longing is so far away
The innocence so wasted and aware
And look at the child with the dream in her eyes
Holding it deep inside her
Thinking about home, home
So much anger so deeply ingrained
Seemed a burden that was hers alone
She didn’t think that there was anything wrong
With wanting a life that she could call her own
How could I explain? You would not want to hear
You wouldn’t listen if I talked anyway
For you were too weighed down by your own fears
Look at the child with the dream in her eyes
Holding it deep inside her
Home, home, home, home.”
“Home” lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group