|House by the Railroad by Edward Hopper, 1925 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)|
"I miss the thrill of grammar school romances
I miss the junior prom and graduation dances
The gossip in assembly hall
I'm homesick, that's all."
— Gordon Jenkins, 1945
I'll bet you haven't been homesick in a while.
Although, if you'll allow me, I'd like to stretch that meaning beyond the traditional sense of ennui of missing where we're from.
Lately, we could take it to mean exasperation with our surroundings, or even the notion that something is horribly wrong in a domestic setting.
Being at home these last six weeks has given me a chance to be more reflective and observant than I've been in a while.
Whether it's the quiet solitude, the lack of visual and audio distraction while driving to various appointments, or the rushed feeling of air travel, it's all given me more time with myself. And with my immediate family.
We talk about what's happening and try to get our kids to process what's going on and how it's affecting them. The abrupt end of hockey seasons. An 8th grade graduation that will never happen. No playdates. It might be more depressing for my wife and me than it is for them.
With two teenagers (13 and 16 year-old boys) and a six year-old girl, trying to get them to express themselves cogently can be as disjointed as the president's daily briefing. But on occasion we do manage to engage in some helpful conversation and hopes for the future.
One recent morning, our older son settled himself down for breakfast, and as I was leaving the kitchen for my 50-foot commute to my office, he uttered something I found both hilarious and surprisingly self-aware:
"Dad, after the quarantine is over, the first thing I’m gonna do is take stuff for granted again."
At once, he's showing a remarkable sense of a personal flaw and expressing how he's grown during this moment of crisis.
How many of us can say the same?
"Hospitality consists in a little fire, a little food, and an immense quiet."
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1856
The always-on digital environment, coupled with business travel, meetings, daily commutes, family commitments, overscheduled children, and all the bells and whistles that accompanied our daily lives until weeks ago — all of this scarcely gave us time to be alone with ourselves.
For some, that's the preferred way of living: constantly staying one step ahead of their thoughts, never having to deal with what's troubling them more deeply. Are we truly living if we're allowing distractions to keep us from reflecting and improving?
The stay-at-home orders have given us a chance to do just that. We're able to live our lives in a way that's nearly devoid of external requirements.
G.K. Chesterton wrote about this in What's Wrong With the World in 1910:
"For the truth is that to the moderately poor the home is the only place of liberty. Nay, it is the only place of anarchy. It is the only spot on the earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. Everywhere else he goes he must accept the strict rules of the shop, inn, club, or museum that he happens to enter."And yet, as I noted in last week's essay, there are people who are protesting the steps the government is taking to protect public health. People who are tired of being cooped up. And now, in some states governors have realized this and are rushing the opening of restaurants, beaches and more.
The beaches reminded me of one of the iconic stories of isolation: Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, a novel that was published 301 years ago on April 25. Defoe based his story in part on the real-life experience of Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years and four months marooned on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, before he was rescued by Woodes Rogers.
Crusoe spent 28 years as a castaway, on a remote location he initially named the Island of Despair. Yet, he assessed his situation and began to take steps to create a new life for himself there. He began reading the Bible and through daily reflections, found himself becoming more religious.
"One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was."
— Woodes Rogers, 1712
If we're able to meet the essentials mentioned by Emerson above, our time at home can be cathartic.
But there are those who might not be quite so fortunate as we are. They might be your neighbors. Or your employees. Maybe even friends or relatives.
People who don't have provisions of comfort — perhaps their children relied on schools for their meals each day.
"The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are an not be questioned."
— Maya Angelou, 1986
The home is not a safe place for everyone. Some people escaped the confines of home each day in a bid for the safety of the workplace and of trusted outsiders in whom they could confide.
Now we're seeing one of the unfortunate side effects of requiring people to stay at home is a rise in domestic violence. Putting victims in proximity to their abusers for extended periods of time may be causing more frequent and dangerous interactions.
The idea that isolation leads to an increase in violent behavior is not a new one. In "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1892, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on a train heading through the countryside.
Watson observes the little farmhouses and finds them more idyllic than Holmes:
“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.
But Holmes shook his head gravely.
“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”
“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”
“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
“You horrify me!”
“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
Yes, proximity matters. This came up last week in a live streamed event I emceed, when the head of marketing for Nextdoor discussed how neighbors are reacting.
As a social network, Nextdoor is different because you don't get to choose who's in your network. There's no filter there. You're automatically thrown in with people around you.
"For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?"
— Jane Austen, 1813
In the past, such an arrangement tended to feed human nature, which as Jane Austen could have predicted, resulted in a parody account like @bestofnextdoor, which lampoons the ridiculousness occasionally found among neighborly types.
But lately, there hasn’t been quite as much to harp at. In the crisis, Nextdoor found that there are more gestures of kindness and generosity happening. People volunteering to pick up groceries for each other, or offering resources like toilet paper or paper towels.
In other words, the homebound scenario has allowed proximity to fuel community.
Homesickness. It relates to something we're missing.
When we're away, we miss the creature comforts that our home affords us.
Under lockdowns, we miss the external stimuli and are literally sick of being at home.
And for the less fortunate, the lifeline to the outside means they're languishing under a sickness that is inflicted on them.
We've all got different scenarios at home. Asking for more productivity while a parent is grappling with the challenges of remote schooling, or an adult child is trying to manage elder care from hundreds of miles away, might be a little much.
Talking with each other, asking questions, and just checking on general welfare and mental health can be helpful. We may need to reassess our expectations.
In sum, consider how those around you might be dealing with home life right now. And how you might help them cope during these challenging times.
If you can think of someone who might benefit from this newsletter, please send it to them.
This originally appeared in the April 29 issue of the Timeless & Timely newsletter. To see this issue in its entirety, including links, recommended books, and more, please click here. And more Timeless inspiration can be found here.
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