One time when I was doing some work with a school in Los Angeles, I left my boutique hotel, La Amarano, and found myself walking down the street. There is nothing odd about this for me, but I soon noticed that there was no one else walking down the street. In New York everyone walks; in L.A. no one, I mean no one, walks—except for homeless people. It brought back a scene for the Steve Martin film, L.A. Story, where he hops in his car to drive down the block to visit his friend.
So, this being L.A., it was just me and this one homeless guy, shopping cart filled with cans and clothes, walking down North Pass Ave. And we got to talking because we were the only two people not hermetically sealed up in motorized machines. He said that the difference between being homeless in L.A. was that there were different “vulnerabilities.” That phrase wouldn’t leave me alone, and I find myself realizing that both homelessness and feeling at home are both tied up in one's relationship to vulnerabilities. I remembered reading a book by Kenwyn Smith, Yearning for Home in Troubled Times, that talked about some of these concepts, but it was really this encounter with this man that made the ideas jump out of the recesses of my mind.
One of the hardest things about creating a feeling of home, especially in a new space, is that there seems to be an ironic prerequisite—a feeling of homelessness. I don’t mean that one defines the other (though that may be true) but that we must literally feel “homeless” in order to feel at home. Think of all the stories we tell ourselves to remember this—the Jews wandering in Egypt for scores of years. African-Americans trapped in slavery for hundreds of years trying to reach the promised land. Going home is truly the realization of “amazing grace”—I once was “lost but now I am found.”
The lesson may be that one can only come to be truly home from a state of exile. But is it exile, or a pilgrimage? It is the lesson of Lee Stringer’s life—“the gates of hell are locked from the inside.” Home can’t be achieved without that feeling of uncertainty, of feeling lost, of feeling not in control, of acknowledging vulnerability? We refuse to acknowledge this vulnerability; we run from it with all our might. And, ironically, it is this stubborn refusal that traps us in the feelings of alienation and despair and incompleteness that do not allow us to have the feeling of home. If you acknowledge your vulnerability, you actually gain leverage on the feeling of being at home. Home is not the denial of being vulnerable; it is not that kind of safety (which is an illusion after all). It is the incorporation of vulnerability into our lives that allows for the creation of a home.
Then I began to think about how this applied to experience-based learning. What I began to realize is that in the realm of creativity, there is always an artistic homelessness that precedes the creative act. One never becomes truly independent until one leaves one home to create another. The feeling of homelessness that CITYtermers have in the first few weeks is unsettling, unstable, precarious but is it necessary for them to be able to create a home in a new place? Ironically, growth often occurs from losing our sense of "home" and having to realize that home is a condition of the spirit.
We feel at home when we satisfy three things: we feel that our authentic self is allowed to express itself; we feel that the common good nourishes us and needs us and spiritually, that there is some mystery that we do not control but we believe means us well.
Notice what is missing—the physical space we think of as home. That is just a shell. If it were otherwise, there would be people who possessed that material thing would feel at home—but they don’t. To be sure, we need the sense of physical safety, but not in the way we obsessively think about producing our "edifice complexes."
This is the wisdom of the Wizard of Oz—there truly is no place like home. But home is not some physical place like Oz. Oz is, in this case, actually necessary to create the feeling of homelessness that allows Dorothy (and maybe ToTo) to achieve the feeling of home. There is no Wizard, there is no medal, no clock heart, and certainly no diploma that can actually make you feel at home. Yet we strive for all those things not realizing that catching fire, and rusting and being scared are the vulnerabilities that we have to embrace in the community of others to really feel at home.