The art of feeling at home even when you don’t belong

Man in Shanghai.

There’s no place like home, as Dorothy famously says in the Wizard of Oz while wishing to return to Kansas. Yet for many people around the globe, there is no place to call home at all.

The tension between these two truths is the theme of Hearth, a new anthology edited by Susan O’Connor and Annick Smith and featuring contributions from writers worldwide about longing and belonging in postmodern society. The idea behind the collection is to allow each writer to explore their own definitions of home at a time when few people gather around the fireplace (our traditional hearth), instead opting to gaze into the electric glow of the internet.

The web may be our new hearth, but it’s still communal; a means of connecting and socializing, a place to tell stories. And the web extends so far and wide that it has expanded our sense of ourselves as global citizens, the invisible links we forge in the ether changing our understanding of the physical world. But the hearth of this millennium is also alienating. We often huddle at the screen alone, and many of the exchanges we have at this abstract fireplace are heated. It’s easier to insult avatars online than it is to curse out the guy beside you at an actual fire.

With this in mind, the writers in Hearth each consider the book’s theme through the lens of very diverse experiences and identities. The compilation includes poems, essays, photographs, and rumination in various forms on home, identity, travel, migration, and nature. The anthology is itself a literary adventure, a journey to hearths, literal and metaphorical, around the world, a visit with global citizens who are rooted and those who are on the road.

The homebodies

Along the way, readers meet the hula dancer Pualane Kanahele on Mauna Loa, a mountain in Hawaii. In “Kilauea Caldera, My Hearth,” she uses verse to mull existence as dictated by the whims of the live volcano that shapes her environment, an ever-rumbling, deep earth fire that formed the land and inspired local culture. “Our primary dances are about the erupting volcano,” Kanahele writes. “Composers of the chants describe the volatile earth and the procreation of islands.”

In Ireland, novelist Sarah Baume’s “Home Waters” deftly weaves a tale about danger and safety on the coast, a stranded sea turtle, drowning children, and immigration. Baume manages the rising waters in her own seaside house as she contemplates the many who take to the ocean to escape from homes at war, places where poverty or politics or both make survival impossible. And she notes what only those who live close to the sea can sense in their bones. “We know we are safer onshore than off, that everybody knows this, in their waters; we appreciate that people don’t choose sea over land unless they are already drowning,” Baume writes.

Similarly, ecologist Carl Safina’s essay “Soul on the Tide,” set in Long Island, New York, recognizes the comforts of stability. Birds and fish and people migrate through the small coastal town where he lives, and with so many visitors, Safina no longer feels a need to leave. “You don’t sense the answers during ceaseless travels; you see them by coming home, and letting a few decades coil up in the same spot, giving your mind the room to consider what the world beyond our human borders all means, having the courage to ask whether it means anything at all, and having the humility to realize that it means everything,” he writes.

The wanderers

Then there are the wandering writers of Hearth who identify with multiple homes, or who have traveled so widely they can no longer say where home might be. To varying degrees and in their own ways, they each make peace with a life of split identities, whether a sense of belonging somewhere has become just a memory or is something they never knew.

For example, the Russian writer Alisa Ganieva writes about life in her parents’ villages in the Caucus mountains. “A hearth used to be the centerpiece of an open-spaced house, divided into a men’s half and a women’s half. The hearth was sacred, as well as being the median pillar of the house, and it represented a ritual fecundity of the clan,” she notes. Ganieva is nostalgic for a home that no longer exists, a time and place she didn’t belong to and can never return to. “Only four people still live in the tiny mountain village of Gunukh, and I’ve lost the path to it,” she writes. Nonetheless, Ganieva recognizes that there are gains along with the losses, stating, “Still, I’m glad changes did happen so that I’m now able to ignore the mountain community rules, to travel, and to think for myself.” And she still hopes to find a hearth to call her own someday.

For poet Kim Cheng Boey, born in Singapore and now Australian, the notion of home became painful and confused before resolving itself. His essay “Home is Elsewhere; Reflections of a Returnee,” will sound familiar to anyone juggling multiple cultures. “In the first few years of my life as a migrant it was clear to me that home was something I had left behind, and even as I renounced my citizenship and surrendered my Singapore passport, the rediscovered love of my place of birth seized me and filled me with pangs of misgiving and regret,” he writes. But over the years, the poet says he started to “see bifocally” and now lives in “an in-between land.” The experience he describes, his new life ever-contextualized by the land he left, will no doubt sound familiar to anyone who has left home and changed as a result of it.

Finding a place

Hearth is a timely examination of a changing, connected world. It offers a snapshot into the inner lives of the global citizens who share our electronic, technological hearth, but whose paths we may not cross. And in reading the book, it becomes clear that in this brave new world we occupy, there are almost no limits to what we may call home.

The book’s underlying message is comforting, almost as if its existence has created a kind of universal hearth. Read it and you will see that a traveler may be weary and lonely, but wanderers are not, fundamentally, alone. As the writers of Hearth show, we can be at home anywhere—among friends or strangers, in a city or in nature—every time we find respite, someone out there with whom to share our stories. Whenever we can briefly rest together and forget the aching self, we belong.

After all, if home is where the heart is, and if our hearts are always in our bodies, then we can be at home anywhere. In her essay, “To Live,” poet Gretel Ehrlich—who has moved about 23 times and tried her hand at everything from driving dog sleds in Greenland to ranching in California—best explains the new home and hearth that emerge once changing locations has become standard practice. “Home is anywhere I’ve taken the time to notice,” she writes. “Hearth is time as much as place. The time it takes for three pine logs to burn.”





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