Geez, where exactly does time run off to when it flies as quickly as that. Must be a pretty interesting place. As I was writing last Sunday’s Sunday Currently I was imagining that there would be at least one post in between that one and the next Sunday… then again, it’s me we’re talking about here. I’m not exactly the most prolific writer. Anyway. Won’t be bothering you lovely people with two Sunday Currentlies in a row, don’t worry.
Today I thought I would share an excerpt from an essay written by someone who is not only prolific in her writing, but is also just damn good at her craft: Ursula Le Guin. I have a book of her talks and essays sitting by my bed because her words (no matter what she is talking about, I’ve found) comfort me. The book — which I cannot recommend strongly enough — is titled “The Wave In The Mind” and the particular piece this excerpt is coming from is called “The Operating Instructions” (as in: for life).
I have been thinking about conceptions of home and belonging for the last year, not only because I find myself far away from the place I consider home, but also because the subject matter I deal with in my studies has a lot to do with precisely that. I mean, I suppose in the humanities it almost always comes down to identity, wouldn’t you say? Hmm. In any case, I had never really come across a way of talking/thinking about home that is quite like this; Le Guin links it irrevocably with that intangible thing we call our imagination, which, in itself, might not be a novel link to make, but she takes that ungraspable conception of home-as-imagined, ties it in with community, and makes it feel as real as the ground beneath our feet (and again, to reiterate: without necessarily tying it down to physicality).
Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.
Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it — whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.
All of us have to learn to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.
Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.
Small communities with strong traditions are usually clear about the way they want to go, and good at teaching it. But tradition may crystallise imagination to the point of fossilizing it as dogma and forbidding new ideas. Larger communities, such as cities, open up room for people to imagine alternatives, learn from people of different traditions, and invent their own ways to live.
As alternatives proliferate, however, those who take the responsibility of teaching find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching — what we need, what life ought to be. In out time of huge populations exposed continuously to reproduced voices, images, and words used for commercial and political profit, there are too many people who want to and can invent us, own us, shape and control us through seductive and powerful media. It’s a lot to as of a child to find a way through all that, alone.
Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.
What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along the lines that make sense and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.
Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.
Community obviously plays an important role in this home-as-imagined conception, but it cannot be just any passively accepted community. This is important. Home is imagined both by the individual when they actively imagine/create/invent their lives, but it is nourished and more fully discovered in communion with other like-minded individuals. Not defined by them, please note, but created together with them. When the right people come together (and when I say “right people” I mean: right for you, which does not in any way make the people who aren’t right for you, wrong) home becomes Home in the fullest sense.
I think I’ve heard people talk about exactly this more recently referring to that ideal community as a “tribe” — more accurately: your tribe. I find the particular word a little cringe-worthy, but I can’t deny that it is fitting. Tribes are small in number and tend to be made up of both related and non-related members who all treat one another with the love and familiarity of family.
Whatever one decides to call it, Le Guin’s point about searching for and coming together with other like-minded persons was especially jarring to an introverted, hermitish loner such as myself. I don’t make friends easily and I have in the past been hurt in the painful process of trying to fit in and/or find acceptance and then being shamed essentially for being who I am. It’s probably largely my own fault for looking in the wrong place, but then again I didn’t have much of a choice. Manila is small and uhm, quite frankly, largely homogenous in the kind of thinking it propagates. I guess that’s why some people leave. Maybe one day I’ll have to, too.
Or: maybe my community has been “dead for a thousand years” or “nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds” as Le Guin suggests. I guess I wouldn’t mind that. Literature has seen me through 26 years of life just fine. Then again, connecting with real people sounds refreshing too.
Now to practice my listening skills, I suppose.
Alternative thought/realisation: I may have taken “community” too literally. Because despite my melodramatic ending just there, I do know where Home is to me. He and I may only be a pair, which doesn’t traditionally satisfy the requisites for making up a community, but there’s a world between us and an understanding of “what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn” that gives me a comfort that only really, truly being Home can.