One of the maids is leaving tomorrow night. She's going to catch a night train to her hometown in Shaanxi so she can spend the New Year with her husband and young son. I don't know how long it has been since she last saw them. Months, anyway. Maybe a year.
To celebrate her visit home, we gathered around the kitchen counter -- my host, her two children, the other maids and I -- and opened a big crate of lucky tangerines. They were round and tiny, bright as carp. Most of them still had their stems and leaves. My host urged us to eat as many as we could. "I bought three boxes," she said. She also told the maid to take some on the train with her. "Even if you don't eat them, take them for the sweet smell."
Then my host asked the maid what her son's baby name was. Baby names are nicknames that Chinese families use -- nothing to do with a child's real name. I think the tradition stems from a belief that evil spirits who might wish to harm the child will be confused by the multiplicity of names and end up leaving the baby alone. "Kaikai," the maid said. I thought I heard her voice catch, but when I looked over she was smiling.
This kind of scenario isn't at all unusual in China. The other maids both have families at home too. They are part of the huge population of migrant workers who flood the cities in search of jobs. Conditions in the countryside must be very hard, for these long stretches away from their families to seem worth the cost.
The maids' uncomplaining acceptance of their situation makes me ashamed of my own intense homesickness. Or partly ashamed, because of course we can't help what we feel, and after all I suppose the maids feel it too. Even their stoicism, praiseworthy as it is, may be as much a matter of necessity as it is elegance of character.
It also makes me wonder about the nature of home, and homesickness, in these nomadic days. I suppose people's minds configure the idea of home in all sorts of different ways, really, so perhaps there is no single, critical difference between the way we thought of home in our more parochial past, and the way we think of it now that seas and deserts are no longer any real barrier.
A couple of days ago a middle school student who is applying for admission to my old boarding school asked me about my experience there. I found myself telling her that, while I was there, Andover always seemed the best, most important place in the world for me to be. I never had any real wish to be anywhere else. Sure, sometimes I wanted my cat and a fireplace and my mother's cooking, but I never felt that sense of dislocation and desolate rootlessness that marks a real, desperate longing for home.
Later that day, my thoughts kept alighting on my answer to this young student's question. This was partly because it seemed to me to encapsulate what had been most important about Andover to me. I was glad to have been able to articulate my views, and glad to share them with someone who might find a use for them. But I think it was also because it suggested a possible answer to my own questions about home and homesickness: when the place you are in feels like the proper center of the universe, you feel no pressing hunger for the far away. You may admire distant mountains, or firelit windows, or ancient cities, but only as possible "adventures and contentments," not as a cure for the sense of being cramped in a narrow and unworthy place, or forsaken where "her nis non hoome, her nis but wildernesse."
Because that's the other thing. Even far-flung travels are essentially earth-bound. I suppose some people still feel that there's a certain romance to air travel, but, even if you are one of those lucky ones -- one of the ones who actually taste the pleasure of being aloft in the clouds -- quite soon you always have to land again. Then you are back on the ground. Unless you feel that the place you have landed is now the center of the universe, how are you to escape the sense that you have merely exchanged one wilderness for another?
But then this conflict between the desire for far travels and the yearning for home, for a focus of understanding and in-placeness, is nothing new. If old poems are any gauge, warring centripetal and centrifugal forces have always ruled our interior compasses. Even assuming all Odysseus really ever wanted was to get back to Ithaca as quickly as possible with no adventures on the way, he was not, after all, the primary character in his story. It is the rocks and spray, the circuit of islands in the wine-dark sea, that chart the blueprint of his days.
One of my favorite poems, sometimes called "China's epic," though it is only 92 verses long and is in every sense a true lyric -- modal, reflective, interior, musical -- touches on a number of these ideas. In this poem, the idea of home is characterized in two ways: it is at once the ideal seat of trust, of understanding and being understood, and the scene of a terrible sense of deceit and betrayal. Between them they produce an intense bitterness. Still more importantly, the poem speaks to the imagined power of unfettered journeying, featuring a magical itinerary through the sky. And most importantly of all, that journey is halted, in the end, by an overpowering longing for home:
But, in the aurorean glory ascending,
I glimpsed, on a sudden, my home far below.
My coachman was saddened, my horses were longing
And back their necks buckled; they would not go on.
I wonder if perhaps the key -- the key for our times, anyway -- is not to have a center of the universe, but to rather regard everywhere as a part of everywhere else. Of course, this is hardly a new thought, but it is comforting. And, the more we understand the material nature of our cosmos, the more true it seems.
At any rate, Caleb Milne seemed to think so. In his last letter to his mother before he was killed administering first aid to a wounded soldier during the Tunisian campaign in World War II, he described his surroundings abroad as "a vivid, wonderful world so full of winter and spring, warm rain and cold snow, adventures and contentments, good things and bad." But the strangeness of it all -- such a remarkable time, such an outlandish place -- apparently had no power over his capacity to think himself elsewhere, at other times, beyond longing:
How often you will have me with you when the wood smoke drifts across the wind, or the first tulips arrive, or the sky darkens in a summer storm. Think of me today, and in the days to come, as I am thinking of you this minute -- not gone or alone or dead, but part of the earth beneath you, part of the air around you, part of the heart that must not be lonely.