A cross stitch my granny made says: Bloom where you are planted. There is wisdom in that statement. Unlike plants, we usually make a decision about where we plant ourselves. As a woman who lived and worked on a farm, Granny would have understood that even when you decide one thing, sometimes things go in a different, disappointing way. However, it also acknowledges that as humans, not plants, we have the ability to change our perspective and gain understanding.
This vital difference allows us to bloom even in poor conditions. Something obvious to my Granny would have been the necessity of a plant—or human—having roots. As the mother of my sons, I recognize there are plants that don’t use traditional root systems. I respond that they still have to absorb nutrition and receive support from outside themselves—which is my point. Without grounding, nurturing and love, we all topple over, shrivel up, and die. It’s rare to bloom if you don’t have roots.
As parents, we gently guide our children to root their identity in various ways their name, as a son or daughter, the brother or sister, and a child of God. Reasonably, they find their identity in relationship to others. Our community, primarily our family, is one component of our home. When my oldest was almost three, I was visiting my sister. I helped my oldest take a nap. After a series of questions to determine how it was possible my son took a nap so peacefully and for so long when he was so far from home, she determined, “Ah, home is where you are.”
In Abuela, the main character Rosalba and the grandmother live in New York City, one of the largest, busiest cities in the world. In fact, we never actually see their actual abode, but Rosalba is so secure in her home life, she comfortably takes an imaginary flight around many different neighborhoods in New York City. She visits her daddy, an uncle and aunt in their tienda, a cousin, and the Statue of Liberty. She repeats to us her grandmother’s stories that explain and flesh out the girl’s own history. She feels comfortable dropping in, everywhere. They even rest in a cloud for a while. Rosalba says, her abuela would hold her in her lap and even the sky becomes part of “nuestra casa”-- our home.
Another important part in the recipe to make a home is the place you live and identify with. In the story Abuela, Rosalba fondly points out beloved famous and personal local landmarks as well as talking about the people she loves. These places add to her confidence and security. Young children can exhibit astonishing peace in the places they love, particularly in arms of those who love them and in their home.
Home is often a place where we have a history, roots. If living in a place with family history isn’t possible, the memories we carry with us help us to be encouraged and brave in the face of hard times. If we do live in a place with a long family history, it’s wonderful because we can see the people who have worked, failed, succeeded, mourned, celebrated—just like we do. We can return to the places they lived and be encouraged by these private monuments.
The Chinese government practices an understanding that we are careless about: home and its memory are forces that shape, challenge, and nurture us in powerful ways. In the book We Have Been Harmonized by German reporter Kai Strittmatter documents how the Chinese Communist government strategically bulldozes whole cities in order to rebuild them entirely new—not just new buildings, but entirely new street plans so that there is no reference point to what was there. The Chinese government desires to remove people’s connection to their home and their history so they are entirely dependent on the government for defining who they are and where they are from. They want to plant their citizens and tell them when to bloom, instead!
The book All the Places to Love makes me cry with joy and homesickness. It is a story about a daughter who has just been born and how she is loved by her mother, father, brother, and grandparents. It is a story about how the place in which she is born is full of beauty. Some people would wonder at how mundane it seems, but love changes it. Each person and place is a gift that nurtures the baby girl as she grows. Her brother assures her this is so, even if she leaves someday. She will take them with her in her heart.
I grew up in a rural setting, moving only once and just a few miles, but I didn’t really know my cousins or grandparents. All the Places to Love really speaks to both my own abundance (beauty of a permanent home) and poverty (lack of extended family). I live in a big city now with my husband and children. Living in the city is something which I struggle with and we are geographically distant from my side of the family. Every day, I have to work to make something beautiful of my imperfect circumstances. Often it begins with an attitude adjustment. Unfortunately, I sometimes nurture the unhappiness and dwell on that instead of cultivating peace and gratitude for the beauty of a good but imperfect me, husband and children, plus incredible friends, and a secure place to call home. All the Places to Love helps to seek places to love in the place I have been planted, for this season of life. I do this not only for myself but for my family.
The earthy and humorous book, Pop Corn and Ma Goodness, tells the love story of Pop Corn and Ma Goodness and what happens when they literally crash into each other coming down a hill and fall in love. I quote part of the story that happens after they wed. It reinforces with repetition some of the ingredients that go into building a stable home,
They get them a hound dog, goes yippity yippity
They get them a hound dog, goes yippity yippity
All doon the hill.
They get them some kids for to whuppitty whoppetty,
They get them some kids for to whuppitty whoppetty
All doon the hill.
The illustrations accompanying these words show a family snuggled in together reading, wrestling a dog, and smoking a pipe around a fire burning in a fireplace in their home. Their lives are shaped by going up and “doon” the hill—the hill where their parents met. The rest of the book chronicles a run in with a bear that Pop takes care of, and skiing on their hill, and swimming in their pond at the bottom of the hill. It looks as close to easy domestic tranquility as you could hope for, as a child. The repetitive life the family in Pop Corn and Ma Goodness embrace help them to grow and thrive, and even enjoy themselves, as life goes up and down.
For the home to be that kind of a place of comfort, beauty, and challenging growth, stability of place is usually necessary. For example, the Rule of St Benedict was created to give monks—men living in a Christian community—the rules to assist them in spiritual growth. To assist in this development, one of the promises a new monk made was the vow of stability. Instead of being a gyrovague, running from one monastery to the next in search of the best community, Benedict required the new monk to promise, in front of all the other monks, that he was there at that monastery, with them, forever.
The people we live with and the place we live form such a powerful combination we call it home. I think that is why it used to be common for people to name their homes. Nowadays it’s mostly subdivisions that receive names, and outlandish, out-sized ones at that. Despite my ridicule of the subdivisions, I think naming your home is something worth considering.
As children, home is something that is given to us. We are planted and we unquestioningly accept it. We learn to be a part of this garden, so to speak. As teenagers and adults, home is more complicated. The cultural emphasis for us as adults is to be travelers traveling lightly. Attachments and putting down roots is looked at with suspicion or fear. My husband (who is 14 years out of college) had a high-powered, east-coast friend visit a few years ago. During the visit, she shook her head saying, “You two are just like my parents.” The inevitability, the repetition, the stability to which we had committed boggled her brain.
Regardless of income level, this un-rooted and unsconstrained homlessness is part of an oft-lauded Americanism. It's in our stories. Huck Finn can’t bear to be hemmed in by his small-town aunt and promises the reader he’s going to escape at the end of Twain’s novel.
Even the character of Pa in Little House on the Prairie is constantly roving, looking for peace and prosperity. He finds proximity to other people to be one of the principle causes of his unrest. He can only tolerate the presence of others and resulting commitments to them if they are family. Americans tend to move on when they encounter trouble instead of committing to staying to see a resolution. Many people came or come to the United States to escape literal threats to their lives or livelihood. Most of us are not so endangered, but, still, we are anxious to get outta Dodge when there is any whiff of inconvenience.We are saturated in the values of being self-sufficient and unencumbered by other people or circumstances.
For these and other unmentioned reasons, increasingly, the idea of home is only a romantic ideal, not an actual place. In an interview in the New Yorker, farmer and author Wendell Berry says:
Part of manners used to be to say to somebody you just met, “Where you from?” And I quit asking it, because so many people say they’re from everywhere or nowhere. I’ll tell you a little bit of my history that may be pertinent. My mother was born and grew up in Port Royal, my father about four miles south. Both of their families had lived here since about the beginning of the nineteenth century. When I came to teach at the University of Kentucky, Tanya and I thought we would live in Lexington, and we would have “a country place.” And we hardly had laid our hands to this house, which needed some preservation work, when we realized, we’re not going to have a country place; we’re going to live here. And so, we have. We bought this home and twelve acres in the fall of 1964, and moved in, in the midst of renovations, in the summer of 1965. That put our children here, and now we’ve got grandchildren who are at home here. That comes from a decision that we made to be here, and to be here permanently.
Despite pressures otherwise, the Berry family rejected the American ideal of always being on the move and unrestrained. The Berrys purposefully chose to live in fly-over country in a town where they were already known, or at least the Port Royalites knew their family which is about the same thing, right? I’m sure it wasn’t easy.
The Berrys chose to live in a home that wasn’t brand new. That meant somebody used their toilet seats before them! Seriously though, despite all the inconveniences that an old house entails, they committed to preserving and cultivating it. Initially, their commitment was to use the house on a temporary basis to satisfy an itch for a little quaint country living. Ultimately, they committed to making it their home.
They embraced the seasons of life that naturally come with such a long-term commitment. Things break. The family grows. The crops and animals need cultivating and husbandry. The relationship with the neighbors needs patching. I’m sure they crashed into normal hard feelings that we all experience throughout life as a result of having chosen some thing or place in particular. You marry this person, not that one. You live in suburbia instead of the city. The children are running amok, all day, every day. What do you mean, this cell phone plan isn’t unlimited?!
At some point we might worry we don’t have a “home.” Nowhere feels just right. Then, we realize that we don’t have a perfect home. And eventually we realize, hopefully with some compassion, this is just the way things are for everybody. Nobody has a perfect home, but we all want a perfect home. We want a perfect place to be with our perfect people. I think we don’t get a perfect home outside of heaven. So, in fact, what we should do is rethink what home means. Perhaps a perfect home is a place where we and our family are comfortable enough to keep trying at all of the things that go into daily life.
The Berry family had the audacity to restrict themselves to living in the small town of Port Royal. It would have been easier and less humbling to stay in New York City. In returning Wendell Barry’s family “home,” they artificially imposed limits on themselves, and accepted the very real imposed limits that come with living in a small town.
They worked to create lives into poetry by living within the rules of their family and home place. Just as formal kinds of poetry, like the sonnet, have rules you must follow if you wish to compose that particular kind of poetry, there seems to be something essential to family life that insists on the loving boundaries that having a home demands. It does not have to be a big home, or a country home, or a perfect home. It simply needs to be your home where you experience all the particulars of life surrounded by love.
We would love it if you offered suggestions in the comment box on ways you make home for yourself and family. How have books informed your sense of home? Make yourself an account and leave a note! And you can listen to Episode 6 here.
Katherine Leaño is a graduate of the University of Dallas and taught history in Maryland. She makes her place and her history in Houston together with her shrewd husband and their three sons. Katherine gives her boys roots with homeschooling, adventures in gardening, keeping urban chickens, and rappelling off the garage roof.