At Home


I turned 50 under a Dhaka sun and played hostage to a city din that hurled rickshaw bells, a cawing of Bangla jingles, and early morning drills in intervals at my 4th floor haven. These reminders of place reined me in to my retreat away from the bulging mass of life at my door. But it did nothing for my sense of place in time.

I could read The Daily Star online and expect a new twist in the suspense over the upcoming elections, as agreements between the two vying parties alternated between a glimmer of progress and elusiveness. At the moment, I knew the election date might be postponed and perhaps the fraudulent voter list was under review.

But relating the current events in my new ‘home’ was not the answer I needed either. How is it that I arrived here in a place like Bangladesh as a development worker at my half-century mark? What clue might I find in my 5-year, 15-year, or 25-year mind that could ever have predicted the course I traveled? And is it really so difficult to pick apart? I always had a sense of compassion for others that compelled my 4-year old mind to take seriously the plea of my equal, my buddy Johnnie, who had the misfortune of losing his Dad, to venture downtown with him, holding hands, to go shopping for a new one.

In attempting a retrospective, I am yet dogged by the deceptive nature of ‘memory.’ Isn’t it selective and why do I remember the things I remember about myself and my life? Haven’t my sisters reminded me whenever they have a chance, much to my own ignorance and indignation, of how deftly I snubbed them, turned my nose up at my own family, not on occasion, but for years? My escape was pre-meditated, as were all my escapes. I don’t have any illusion now of how naïve I was, wanting to leave home to study in France in my final year of high school; because of an administrative glitch and my falling ill, my flight from home didn’t happen until a year later to attend college. As desperately as I wanted to ditch my troubled household, it was the most painful break with familiarity and sense of belonging of all my years. But why is it worth mention and how is it different from any other 18-year old’s plunge into adulthood?

I won’t count the places where I have lived and I don’t just mean in the world; I mean what has been my home, wherever on the globe I have traveled to. I once owned a ‘home,’ which was a house with lush trees, roses, a camellia bush brought all the way from Japan by the owner who cared for plants, for people, and for me all equally. I lived there with my spouse amidst a revelry of life that sprouted from the ground and whose beauty roughened some by the coarseness of our own urban lifestyles. But I could come home, catch the half moon in the skylight over the bed, and not wonder when this would all end.

But it did. And when it did, it was like rediscovering a favorite sweater you wore when you were 19 and hid deep in your closet because you did not have the heart to give it away, so you try it on and find it still fits. I donned my open-ended question of where my next six months or one year would take me, as if constant moving meant moving forward. So what is it I have been seeking if I have not been able to drive a stake in the ground? Or is there even a quest behind the journey? From whence do I derive my ‘place in the world’ then? Where indeed is ‘home’?

An easier way for me to think about it is ‘home moments.’ Peddling downhill around a curve racing to get to my grandmother’s house and to be welcomed by a wide embrace, “ma belle fille!;” the fragrance of tourtières, and the sewing machine set up for my 14-year old sense of creativity. I was capable of anything in her eyes, even the most complicated pattern – a lined jacket, pajamas for my Dad, embroidered collars. I could bask in her attention and secretly build up my stash of French words that would be code to my siblings.

High school was brimming with ‘home moments.’ All it needed was huddling with close friends whose side you never wanted to leave. We did everything together or at least tried. Most of all, we shared secrets. Those bonds are deep and strong and identity-forming. But what I have found to be true through the years, probably because I was never present in one place with an intent to stay indefinitely (except for the six years in Virginia) is that intimacy rather than place would become the basis for my ‘home moments.’ For me, there is no such thing as ‘returning home;’ but there is a ‘returning home to people I know and love,’ wherever they are on the earth. . .  [2006]

Note: In the Bible, 50 years was a ‘jubiliee’ year when people’s debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and people could take back property lost or taken from them.