During the holiday season, there’s a lot of talk of coming home. Today, as I boarded a plane from New York City to Denver, I found myself in a time warp, thinking not just about what it felt like to come home this year, but how it felt last year, two years ago, my first year of college… how this feeling had changed for me in so many grand and minute ways over the years.
I also thought about the fact that at this same time last year, coming home meant coming out.
For many queer folks, coming home for the holidays is far from easy. Sometimes, it can feel like walking onto the set of a TV show – you know which role you have to play, and you also know that the walls guarding your cozy living room are made of cardboard. Nothing feels real, but everyone is playing the part so well…
For others, coming home may be a joyous occasion. A time for laughter and companionship, for rest and gratitude. My hope is that everyone finds at least one space where they can feel this way in the next few weeks, even if it is not a space that others would consider “home.”
Today, as I looked down from the airplane onto the frozen cornfields, snaking rivers, and disparate cities of the American West, I felt the word home as I have never felt it before. I felt it not as a concept, but as the knowledge, bone-deep, of a remembered belonging.
I thought about Giovanni’s Room, a book I read for the first time this month, and of the phrase:
Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
For the main character in Baldwin’s novel, home is more than just a house, or a town, or even a family. Home is a state of innocence. A not-knowing. An unquestioned acceptance. A fierce, but unspoken and unspeakable blindness. Home is an illusion that, once shattered, can never be re-membered.
In French – Baldwin’s adopted language – the word “home” does not even exist. Maison can be roughly translated to house, foyer to household, and chez to a place that one inhabits. But home – that bone-deep knowledge of a remembered belonging – is not a concept that the French language seems to understand. I find it interesting, then, that Baldwin chooses not only to emphasize this word in his novel, but also to expand it – to dive to the depths of its hundred meanings and find the one meaning that speaks to him.
Let me be more precise:
When Baldwin says that home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition, he is speaking to more than just a physical – or should I say, geographical journey from one place to another. When I read this line for the first time, I cried. Not because I began to imagine the house where I grew up, or the streets that I played in as a child, or the smell of chicken soup in my mother’s kitchen – but because I realized that to me, being queer has often felt like leaving home. To me, queerness is this irrevocable condition Baldwin speaks of.
Which, ironically, also means that it is my home.
For me – as, I’m sure, for many queer folks – coming out was not a linear process. In the beginning, it felt like walking that extra block further than I’d ever walked before, and then sprinting back home before my mom realized I was gone. It felt like the scene in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend where Elena and Lila leave the confines of their small Italian village for the first time, aching to see the sea, only to run back home when the black sky opens up with rain.
The first months that I spent really exploring my sexuality were a challenge to what I had always known, yes – but not yet an escape. A longing – but a longing that I could not yet translate into desire.
I made a map of everything I knew – all the streets and houses and buildings that made up the world I had so long inhabited – and then I began to imagine roads forking off from the edges of that map… lakes and rivers and mountains and whole oceans that I finally allowed myself to envision. And like a child hiding her rucksack in the floor boards, I only shared my plans in whispered half-confessions, and only with the people I believed shared the same dream.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much love it took for me to come out – to myself, and to the world. The love of others, yes. All of the voices who affirmed me, who guided me, who shared their stories of triumph and heartbreak. But also the love that I was willing to offer myself. The love it took to build the kind of confidence required to set out where there was no map, and to simply be.
Adrienne Rich says that this leaving, this apparent cutting off of everything we have ever known, is not simply circumstantial, but is, in fact, necessary. If we never leave home, then it is never anything more than a place. The place. The only place.
But there come times—perhaps this is one of them
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
we when have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires. We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free-fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift
in the Great Nebula.
No one who survives to speak
new language, has avoided this:
the cutting-away of an old force that held her
rooted to an old ground
the pitch of utter loneliness
where she herself and all creation
seem equally dispersed, weightless, her being a cry
to which no echo comes or can ever come.
So what does it mean, to speak a new language? What does it mean to bestow ourselves to silence, to a severer listening?
For Baldwin, speaking a new language didn’t mean inventing new words. It meant finding new meanings to the words he had always known.
Words like home.
Words so common, so expansive, that they are both the seer and the seen, both the writer and the written, both the teller and the story.
This holiday season, as I find myself at home – more myself than I have ever been – I find new meanings to the words I have always known. Words like daughter, friend and woman. Words like care, truth and family.
Perhaps this irrevocable condition I find myself in is not simply a measure of what I left behind.
Perhaps it is also a measure of what I chose to come back to.
Perhaps coming out was always coming home.