The Mystery of Being Home & Yet Not Being There

“Though I’m in Kyoto,
when the cuckoo sings
I long for Kyoto.”
— Basho

home.jpgThe other day, while browsing through books of poetry at my local Barnes and Noble, I stumbled upon that strange haiku by Basho. It puzzled me how Basho could be in Kyoto, and yet, when the cuckoo sings, long to be there. Apparently, the plaintive sound of the cuckoo moved the poet to conclude that although he was physically in Kyoto, he was not there in some other sense. But, what is that other sense?

As a way of deciphering this mystery, I substituted Binghamton, NY, my home town, for Kyoto. And then, a doorway into the poem appeared before me, which I entered. I think that Basho’s haiku is about the longing for home. For one can be home in the physical sense, but not fully home in a deeper sense. It can take a moment of intense beauty — the song of a bird, a shaft of sunlight, falling leaves, a haunting melody played on a violin, or some other such moment of splendor — to awaken in us a certain metaphysical nostalgia.

To be home, in this deeper sense, is to achieve that fullness, wholeness, and oneness with the universe that we intuit is our birthright, but which we know we have lost, when we became conscious beings, and fallen beings. To regain that lost sense of unity is what it would really mean to return home.

In lieu of that metaphysical return, there is the usual nostalgia. It explains, for example, the popularity of retro-style clothing, antiques, the migration of urbanites to small towns, the popularity of “The Prairie Home Companion,” and old movies. In difficult times — and times are always difficult — we idealize what seems to be a more innocent age. Other people more desperately seek to return home by more desperate means, such as drinking and drugs. But, of course, the gates of Eden are now closed, and guarded by two angels with flaming swords.

There is, though, a real way to return home. Paradoxically, we cannot journey home until we have fully left home. It’s what Homer’s Odyssey is all about; indeed, it took Odysseus twenty years to return. Symbolically, that it what baseball is all about — leaving home, completing the journey through life, and then returning home. More universally, it’s the fundamental theme of all such heroic journeys.

If it is true that we cannot return home till we have fully left home, then the practical question, then, is: how to leave home? If you ask deep questions about life, with all the force and power of your being, you will soon find that you are not in Kansas anymore. You may, in an obvious sense, still reside in Kansas or Kyoto in Binghamton or Brooklyn or in Los Angeles, but you will have entered into the unknown, the unfamiliar. You will find yourself alone. And, then, you must rely on your inner light to guide you homeward.

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