Good news can be so unkind
When it's everything you have to
I'm lookin' forward to lookin' back
On this day
In the taillights
So much hindsight
Telling me what I already know
--Over the Rhine, “Lookin’ Forward”*
At Trinity Hall on Saturday the good folks from Seneca played the Saw Doctors’ “N17” just for me.
For a brief moment at the beginning I couldn’t figure out why the entire crowd didn’t shout out “N17” at the top of their lungs during the bit of the song that goes, “I wish I was on the N17/Stone walls and the grass is green.” Then I remembered that few people in that bar have probably heard of the Saw Doctors and I may well have been the only one who’s ever seen them live. And I longed to be back at the Vic, right down in front, shouting the name of a road I’ve never driven through a country I’ve never visited. Because for the first time I understood exactly what the song was about.
I could have easily sung, “I wish I was on I-94.” Although I’m somewhat at a loss for what the next line would have been, as stone walls and green grass do not border the Dan Ryan.
But it’s not the words themselves that matter, it is that which is expressed by those words, that longing for home. I carry that longing with me, even if it’s somewhat reduced in intensity since the first month or so. I suspect I’ll carry it with me as long as I’m not in Chicago. Or, at least, I suppose I’ll carry it with me until this place or another officially becomes my home.
It’s interesting to me, though, to consider what my definition of home is. The best I can come up with is also the most abstract. Home is where you long to be.
I suppose that’s pretty close to the old, standard, “home is where the heart is,” but I like mine slightly more. It’s active. For some people there is a home, there is a place where they can go and say, “This is it.” For some there is only a vague place off in the distance. It may be a point of origin or a future destination, but it is not here, it is not now.
The thing is, though, that home seems to mostly be a present or past proposition. Think about how we fix home in time or space. If we live away from the place we grew up we refer to it as “back home.” If we say, “I’m going home,” it’s generally a reference to a journey to the place we are right now. If we’re discussing a future move it’s to a physical location. A few months ago I said, “I’m moving to Dallas,” not, “I’m moving home.” It wasn’t home. It was that place I’d only ever visited that one time. But even if I do get back to Chicago I’ll probably say, “I’m moving back home.”
And there’s really nothing wrong with this. Home has to be a place of comfort and the future is rarely, if ever, comfortable. We might look to the future with trepidation or confidence, but we rarely look to it with familiarity. And a proper home requires familiarity.
By that definition it doesn’t even need to be a physical place, though. I think one of my definitions of home includes Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers or the Saw Doctors. I occasionally refer to going to see Local H in Houston and Ft. Worth as, “Getting some home cookin’.” A concert from a beloved band is as much a comfort to me as a night in my own bed after a trip to an unfamiliar place. Seeing Mike Doughty a few weeks ago helped me adjust just a little bit. Hanging out with Seneca last week did much the same thing (even if they were talking about trying to set up gigs at Brixie’s and/or Irish Times when they’re in the Midwest in May, which just made me miss home a little bit).
It’s hard for me to really tell, since it was stuff I’d wanted anyway, but I’ve also noticed that I’ve gotten a lot of stuff since moving here. I’ve gotten quite a bit of clothing, a new 32” LCD TV for my bedroom, a PS3, and something else big…oh, yeah, a 2010 Mazda 6. I can’t really tell, since I can honestly say that these are all purchases I was considering in Chicago and I’d say there’s a reasonably good chance that there’s a timing issue, in that I’ve recently had a lot of money thrown at me as part of my move (and, really, my clothing purchase spree started about a year ago, so that’s just a continuation of an existing trend. Plus there’s the fact that I’ve lost quite a bit of weight over the last six months, which requires some wardrobe modification, especially when you consider that I’ve only recently realized the importance of not dressing like a slob). But I wonder how much of my purchasing decision was driven by a general discontent and a need to find something, anything, to either occupy my mind, my time, or my space.
Still, whether I’m coping well or not, whether I’m going to stay in Dallas for a year or a lifetime, one thing’s for sure. It’s pretty much impossible to know me for more than 30 seconds right now without hearing about how I just moved from Chicago. It’s also probably really difficult to get through more than an hour or two without hearing about RCPM, Local H, and/or the Saw Doctors.
It occurs to me that this is an extremely human trait I have uncovered in myself. I talk about the things that excite me, the places I want to be, and that for which I long. Given free reign, I talk about what’s on my mind. So with me you’ll get music, Chicago, history, and storytelling the vast majority of the time. Sometimes you’ll get video games and sports. If you ask I’ll tell you about what I do for a living (well, not on the internet…).
There’s something I realized in the past but I never figured out how to put in to words. I still don’t really know that I can put it in to words. But back when I was going to church, back when I was working in ministry, I rarely wanted to talk about church or Jesus. I rarely thought much about heaven, even though that was supposed to be my longed-for home. I suppose that could be because I had to leave to Chicago to know what it’s like to long for home.
But, when it gets right down to it, being in Dallas didn’t help me come to a new understanding about the Christianity I abandoned. It did, however, help me understand the Saw Doctors’ “N17.” And that, to me, is worth infinitely more these days.
Moreover, I’ve realized just how out of place longing for heaven really is. I knew people who spoke of heaven in the same way I currently speak of Chicago. I always thought they were a little nuts, even if I judiciously avoided saying such things. There was so much I wanted to do with my current life before I moved on to the next. As for that bucket list in my head, well, let’s just say that it focused far more heavily on places I wanted to go, things I wanted to do, and words I wanted to write than evangelistic exploits.
Yet I can tell you pretty much exactly how long it is before my lease is up, which doubles as my clock for the earliest I could realistically pack up and move back to Chicago. If that’s not the sign of someone longing for home, I don’t really know what is. So I guess the lesson here is that Chicago is better than heaven.
But even with that I’m not just sitting down crossing days off on my calendar. I’ve learned that life is the thing that happens while you’re waiting for your next big thing. So I’m doing what I can to appreciate the life I’m living here in Dallas. I’ve met some good people, already had a few experiences that will lead to good stories down the road, and been to some cool places. Next month I’m going to spend a long weekend with my toes in the sand down in Galveston, which is definitely something I wouldn’t have been able to do quite so easily from Chicago. Also, it’s March, I’ve been to one outdoor show and I went to the grocery store wearing shorts and sandals at about 7:30 this evening, which is definitely a weird, but kinda nice, experience. And that brand-new Mazda 6? Yeah, it’s going to have a much easier first year of life than the 2004 Chevy Cavalier it replaced.
So here’s my lesson. If you can’t be home, try to have the best life you can where you are. And, I suppose, I’ll have to be open to the possibility that in living my life I’ll find that home has moved to where I am, even if it tarries for a while.
In the end, though home is where you long to be.
I can’t honestly say I ever longed for heaven.
I’m not really sure why anyone would.
*There's a particular mood that I get in to that immediately results in a desire to listen to Over the Rhine. That then fuels a continued desire to listen to Over the Rhine until that particular mood dissipates, at which point I generally won't go out of my way to listen to Over the Rhine again until the mood again strikes me. It's quite odd. I strongly suspect that Scott Lucas & the Married Men's George Lassos the Moon will end up in the same category before all is said and done.
Even so, there are a few OtR songs that can always be just right. "Drunkard's Prayer," "The World Can Wait," and "Long Lost Brother" are quite satisfying at all times.