I had a little time this morning before I left for church and I began reading the new issue of Harpers that arrived over the weekend. What caught my eye was a full page ad of new books from Harvard University Press, and, in particular, one title: Loneliness as a Way of Life by Thomas Dumm. The resonance of the title sent me looking for more about both the book and author, and I found this:
“What does it mean to be lonely?” Thomas Dumm asks. His inquiry, documented in this book, takes us beyond social circumstances and into the deeper forces that shape our very existence as modern individuals. The modern individual, Dumm suggests, is fundamentally a lonely self. Through reflections on philosophy, political theory, literature, and tragic drama, he proceeds to illuminate a hidden dimension of the human condition. His book shows how loneliness shapes the contemporary division between public and private, our inability to live with each other honestly and in comity, the estranged forms that our intimate relationships assume, and the weakness of our common bonds.
A reading of the relationship between Cordelia and her father in Shakespeare’s King Lear points to the most basic dynamic of modern loneliness—how it is a response to the problem of the “missing mother.” Dumm goes on to explore the most important dimensions of lonely experience—Being, Having, Loving, and Grieving. As the book unfolds, he juxtaposes new interpretations of iconic cultural texts—Moby-Dick, Death of a Salesman, the film Paris, Texas, Emerson’s “Experience,” to name a few—with his own experiences of loneliness, as a son, as a father, and as a grieving husband and widower.
Written with deceptive simplicity, Loneliness as a Way of Life is something rare—an intellectual study that is passionately personal. It challenges us, not to overcome our loneliness, but to learn how to re-inhabit it in a better way. To fail to do so, this book reveals, will only intensify the power that it holds over us.
But I need to back up for a minute. The journey my thoughts took today began yesterday when Choralgirl mentioned the movie Home for the Holidays in her post, which is one of our must-see-again movies during the holidays. Which is to say, I’ve been thinking about home. Seeing the book title this morning just pushed me farther down the road.
I got to church a little early, so I went into our newly renovated church library and, after a little browsing, picked up Frederick Buechner’s The Longing for Home (big surprise), a book I read many years ago but didn’t retain. Something about the days growing colder pulls me to Buechner. The mention of King Lear in the description of Dumm’s book was also a connector. The first Buechner book I ever read was Telling the Truth: The Gospel, as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, in which he referenced one particular line from Lear:
The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
Those words have never let go of me. At the risk of being overly quoteful, I want to pass along the words that grabbed me before I went into worship this morning.
In a novel called Treasure Hunt, which I wrote some years ago, there is a scene of homecoming. The narrator, a young man named Antonio Parr, has been away for some weeks and on his return finds that his small son and some other children have made a sign for him that reads WELCOME HONE with the last little leg of the m in home missing so that it turns it into a n. “It seemed oddly fitting,” Antonio Parr says when he first sees it. “It was good to get home, but it was home with something missing or out of whack about it. It wasn’t much, to be sure, just some minor stroke or serif, but even a minor stroke can make a major difference.” And then a little while later he remembers it a second time and goes on to add, “WELCOME HONE, the sign said, and I can’t help thinking again of Gideon and Barak, of Samson and David and all the rest of the crowd . . . who, because some small but crucial thing was missing, kept looking for it come hell or high water wherever they went till their eyes were dim and their arches fallen . . .In the long run I suppose it would be to think of everybody if you knew enough about them to think straight.” (17)
Buechner goes on to say Parr was referencing Hebrews 11:13, 14:
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth, for people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
Strangers and exiles: those acquainted with loneliness; those who are always headed for, looking for, longing for home.
November, for me, is the clubhouse turn towards home. Thanksgiving means I go on a pie-baking binge and hand them out to the neighbors, wherever our neighborhood has been, and that we do our best to fill our table with those who need to be at home for the holidays. We don’t have our final count for this year, but the table is filling up. Thanksgiving is also the precursor for Advent, the season of longing that takes us home for the holidays in a more permanent sense. Though I’ve still got a couple of weeks, something about the words that found me let me know I’m heading home a little earlier than usual.
Bewteen Buechner and the boys holding up the misspelled sign, I found myself humming a homecoming song I haven’t thought about in awhile, but gives soundtrack to my feelings today.
please celebrate me home
give me a number
please celebrate me home
play me one more song
I can always remember
and I can recall whenever
I find myself too all alone
I can sing me home
From Dumm to Buechner to Loggins and all of us in between, home is the place we long for and look for and occasionally stumble into. The address is often elusive, but we know it by the smells or the tastes or the melodies or the faces looking back at us when we walk in. And, if the song were playing, everyone from Samson and David to King Lear and Cordelia to Antoine Parr might sing:
well, I’m finally here
but I’m bound to roam
come on, celebrate me home
Yes. Please. Celebrate me hone.