CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice

Coming Home

Another portion of a program for the UUFC, entitled: "Always Coming Home," presented on December 6, 1992. This was part of a joint sermon; Toni's section is not reproduced here. See also "Home is..." which was part of the same program.

There are four points to the compass but only two directions to travel: leaving home and coming home. The road away always leads uphill and is long but the way returning is downhill, short and familiar.

All of my life, I have always been leaving home and coming home. Home is where I can let my breath out, relax my sinews, drop my guard. Not merely a place where, to paraphrase Robert Frost, "when I go they have to take me in," but that place where I simply am and can be. Too long at home, and I become restless and need to leave. But once away, I hunger for home. I travel widely and am often asked whether I enjoy it. My usual answer is, "Yes, but I hate to be away from home." Home has been many places and has changed in many ways through the years.

My father came to this country just before the second World War as a threadbare young academic and for years we moved every six months, living in faculty houses empty for sabbaticals. Home then was familiar furniture, favorite books, remembered rituals, my father reading aloud in the evening, my mother pushing me out of the door in the morning.

I left home for college and always came home, bringing dirty laundry and reverting easily, as all home coming students do, to the ways of youth: the brash, independent man of the world reduced to instant blissful dependence by the question, "What would you like for dinner?" But, like all things, this period of my life ended and I went on to work and to make a family.

In the early years when Toni was home with a young family and I was pursuing my career in distant places, I thought that home was the place we called home, for we have been lucky to spend most of our life together in a single location. More recently, as our family grew up and time and money more often allows Toni to travel with me, I am pleased to find that home, for me, is where she is. This is still usually at our long time physical home, or as the surveyor poetically noted on a recently drawn up map of our Pennsylvania house and lot, "the lands of Jonathan and Toni Black." Toni does not relish travel - she much prefers to be in her familiar surroundings, in those lands. Like good cheese and great wine which do not travel well, it is better that she be sought out there, rather than conjured to your presence.

Twenty years ago, however, early in my career, before I knew this, I made a long trip to Europe. The scheduling was such that there would be, near the middle of the trip, free time in Rome and Toni agreed to join me there. We were young, both in life and in our marriage. My responsibilities were both behind and ahead, and our children, young as they were, were being cared for by a sitter. It was a moment of homecoming but she was strange to me and, I suppose, I to her. We walked and rode the city, drinking cheap wine and eating wonderful food, experiencing for the first time the classic Italian triad: We became firmly convinced that all of Italy was either broken, closed, or on strike. It was a time out of time, a discontinuity, a home away from home.

More recently, I experienced another kind of homecoming. Our daughter Chris graduated from Cornell University and I rushed, by air and car, to Ithaca from an obligation in Minneapolis, arriving at the graduation site only just in time to see her march by and to hear her name called out. Later the same day, we visited the scholarship house1 in which Chris had lived for several years. It was the same place where I had lived for a time when I had been at Cornell, nearly three decades earlier. In those prehistoric days, no women were admitted as members or even permitted as visitors above the ground floor of that stern and austere house. But times and ways have changed, and in her first term there, Chris had occupied one of the very same rooms on the third floor in which I had lived. I had no real desire to revisit the place and, as she and Toni toured the building, I sat in one of the large, ground floor public reception rooms, which used to be called the Striped Room. It was late afternoon, and the bright June sun was fading into long shadows cast through high windows. Now, its walls no longer striped, its furniture changed, the room, as silent witness, called up events long past: parties, meetings, seminars and lectures, earnest, long, late night talks. For two years, this place had been the physical and emotional center of my life. The times had changed, people had come and gone, I might not come this way again, but, in that moment, I had come home again.

Four years ago when I removed to Clemson, I was leaving home. The great question in my mind was, would home follow? It was not at all clear that Toni would or could come south or that we would be able to make a home here together. We had been in one house, in one place, for more than 24 years and perhaps the nest building period of our life together had passed.

Nevertheless, she was able to come and we made a home here, in Clemson and particularly within these four walls. For this house of fellowship, of freedom and of friendship, of truth-seeking and of prophecy, came to be the center of our lives here. I will long remember the arguments and the silence, the sung and spoken words, the moments of rest, the connections made and sundered here. A part of me will always remain behind here as also at the Mountain.

As we leave here, we are leaving home. The way ahead is uphill and is shaded over by the unknown, but we take with us your open and undemanding fellowship. For truly, we will always be coming home.