All Roads Lead to Home

I spend several days a month in Sewanee, Tennessee for work. Sewanee is only about an hour and a half away from Nashville, but it might as well be a million miles away. As you drive east from Nashville, you climb Monteagle Mountain which sits about 2,000 feet above sea level in the Cumberland Plateau. The city is home to about 2,500 people, maybe closer to 4,000 or so when school is in session at the university. There is one gas station, one post office, one elementary school, and technically no grocery store, just a mini market. I can recall only two stoplights in town, both of which I think just blink red. It’s a town cut into a mountain. And it gets very dark at night.
Recently, while in Sewanee, I was walking two women to my car at night. They were guests of the property where I stay when I’m in town, and I was taking them back to their guesthouse. To light the path to my car, I turned on my phone’s flashlight. As we approached my car, one of the women said, “Can you turn off your flashlight for a minute? I want to see how dark it gets here.” So I did and the three of us stood there in the pitch black with all the noises of night covering us as our eyes adjusted to the dark. The darkness was beautiful.
A couple of days later I was back in Nashville and missing the focus, contemplation, and solitude I find on the mountain. I tried so hard to hold on to that palpable sense of place, that inspiration and curiosity, that overall feeling of connection that I experience when I’m there. I could feel it slipping away. I became sad and scared—about nothing, about everything. I felt homesick. Not for Sewanee, but for that feeling. It is the deepest sense of home I know. I found myself in darkness again. Not the beautiful darkness of a starless night but the subterranean darkness of a mind in fear. I want to see how dark it gets here. I mourned the intensity of those now-gone feelings that had previously brought me such comfort. I wondered if they would ever return.
In Mylène Dressler’s essay “End Over End,” she writes about learning how to surf at age 49. She understands her experience will be more than learning how to surf; it will mean learning about her sense of place—on the board, in the ocean, on this planet. After a long day of mostly failed attempts but some profound successes, she and her fellow classmates sit around a campfire contemplating the day. Maia, a surfer and the group leader, offers up some questions about their experience, “ . . . how can we make this last? How can we integrate this experience into our lives? Our thinking? The way we touch and are aware of each other?” Or for me, how do I take that sense of home with me wherever I go?
Driving home a couple of nights ago in Nashville, I saw a friend of mine from high school sitting on his bicycle talking to a friend outside a store. I pulled up next to him, we chatted for a few minutes, his friend left, and we decided to go around the corner to a nearby restaurant. I’ve known him for half my life. He is one of my oldest and most zen friends. I explained my problem to him. I am homesick for a place that isn't on any map. He asked me if I’d ever been surfing. I said no. He said he hadn’t either but that he liked to watch surfing videos on YouTube, that when he watched them he considered how many times the surfer had missed the other waves, how many times the surfer had fallen off his board, or how many days he had gone out to surf when there just weren’t any waves to catch. They don’t show those videos, he said. But that feeling surfers get when they connect with the wave, the feeling Mylène Dressler describes in her essay, and the effort it takes to get there—that is the attempt to get back home, that is the pain and the joy of a search for a place that exists within ourselves.
Again and again, I ask myself, How do I get back there? How do I get home? The answers sometimes seem as elusive as the destination. But home is always there. It isn’t always in the same place we left it, and it doesn’t always look the same as the last time we saw it—but it is always there. So we feel through the darkness and we show up to the wave. And when we do that, we can trust that all roads lead to home.