Fathom Mag

The Repentant Return Home

An unpublished “bonus track” from Keeping Place

Published on:
May 21, 2017
Read time:
4 min.
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At the age of eight, Gordon Sumner determined that he would leave his small shipbuilding town on the banks of the River Tyne in Northern England. He wouldn’t work at the shipyard, as his grandfather had. His life wouldn’t be dominated by the view of the steel hulls of ocean vessels. Having been given a guitar, which he later described as his “co-conspirator” in the dream to make it big on the world stage, Gordon Sumner left his family, left the shipyard, and left behind Wallsend for London to build a career in which he would sell more than 100 million records and receive sixteen Grammy Awards.

In his TED talk in early 2014, Sting describes that success and the creative famine that followed it—the days, months, and years when the songs stopped coming. It made him wonder what he’d done to offend the gods. The muse. So he made a kind of repentant return and went back to the village in which he’d been raised. It was a place he’d grown up despising, but now, in deciding to honor the community he came from and the stories written there, the words, the melodies, the songs returned like torrential rain. “Characters, verses, couplets, entire songs formed whole,” describes Sting, and that work credited to “home” has now become an album and Broadway musical entitled, The Last Ship.

I, too, made a repentant return home in the summer of 2014, when I left Toronto with my five children, met my mother in Kent, Ohio, and headed South, through the verdant, rolling hills, of Kentucky before finally reaching the mountainous landscape of my early childhood in East Tennessee. I expect that many will understand the sentimentality of the journey and the expectancy of return. As David Brooks writes in his essay, “Going Home Again,” “The events of childhood are like the Hebrew alphabet; the vowels are missing, and the older self has to make sense of them.”

Because my own home had been cleaved by loss, I wanted a “narrative order” to impose on its history.

Others write of going home. James Wood, Harvard Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism, wrote an essay in the London Review of Books entitled, “On Not Going Home.” Raised in Durham, England, Woods left for London when he entered university. At thirty, he left London and immigrated to the United States with his American-born wife, intending to stay five years. And though, at the time of writing this particular essay, he’d lived eighteen years in the States, he describes the ongoing “reality of a certain outsider-dom.” For all the familiarity and recognition, even in his Boston street, there is “no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there—just a tugging distance from it all.” It’s as if, in Wood’s words, “a light veil of alienation [has been] thrown over everything.” Nevertheless, even when Wood returns to Britain, the veil remains. “There’s a quality of masquerade when I return, as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits.” He understands better now, with a sense of “afterwardness,” that life had irrevocably altered the day he decided to move to the States. At the time, he didn’t know “how strangely departure would obliterate return.”

Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times, muses over Wood’s words. Cohen, too, was born and raised outside of the United States, but he’s unlike Wood in that he decided to become an American citizen. In one sense, he considers New York home because, in his words, “it’s the place that takes me in.” But in another sense, Cohen reveals his own essential disconnect to this home. If he had only weeks to live, where would he go? What place was most richly textured with a sense of belonging?

Maybe we return to childhood because it’s the time we lived most purely and freely.
Jen Pollock Michel

“I would go to Cape Town,” Cohen writes, “to my grandfather’s house, Duxbury, looking out over the railway line near Kalk Bay station to the ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. During my childhood, there was the scent of salt and pine and, in certain winds, a pungent waft from the fish processing plant in Fish Hoek. I would dangle a little net in rock pools and find myself hypnotized by the silky water and quivering life in it. The heat, not the dry high-veld heat of Johannesburg but something denser, pounded by the time we came back from the beach at lunchtime. It reverberated off the stone, angled into every recess. The lunch table was set and soon enough fried fish, usually firm-fleshed kingklip, would be served, so fresh it seemed to burst from its batter. At night the lights of Simon’s Town glittered, a lovely necklace strung along a promontory.

“This was a happiness whose other name was home.” 

Sting returned home, and the gift of song awaited him in the shipyard. Wood wrote fondly of the Durham Cathedral, where he’d been a chorister, describing it as a place which inspired “happy dreams.” Cohen’s sensory recollection of his grandfather’s Cape Town house is thick and fond, having been carefully preserved over the decades.

Maybe we return to childhood because it’s the time we lived most purely and freely. In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard claims that the reason writers so often return to their childhood memories for material is because it’s their last lived experience. “The life of the writer is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.” As children, we live gustily. We are reminded to walk, not run.  We are not obligated to interpret our lives. Our burden is living, not understanding.

But soon we grow up—and grow into greater curiosities. The acts of interpretation become more necessary to us. That’s why we go back.

It’s why we go home.

Wood refuses to attach spiritual import to the ailment of homesickness from which he himself admits to suffering. “[My own sense of homelessness] cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent,” he writes, suggesting instead substitutes like “secular homelessness” or better yet, “homelooseness.” The latter describes the condition “in which the ties that might bind one to home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily.” Wood wants to frame alienation as a purely physical condition, as separation from place.

I, on the other hand, see it as a deeply spiritual crisis. To be lost—to have home loosened from us—is existentially unsettling.

To make it home, then, is, in a very real sense, to be saved.

Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want, Keeping Place, Surprised by Paradox, and A Habit Called Faith. Her fifth book, In Good Time releases in December 2022. She is the lead editor for Imprint magazine, published by The Grace Centre for the Arts, and host of the Englewood Review of Books podcast. You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel and also subscribe to her substack, Post Script.

Cover image by Mahkeo.

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