Home Sweet Home: Notes on Pilgrimage

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Home Sweet Home: Notes on Pilgrimage


I always thought I would be the kind of person who would plant an apple tree at the birth of my firstborn, and that I would tend it patiently through the passing of the years and age with its aging, my wrinkles imitating the folds and scars of its trunk and branches. In other words, I thought I would stay put, find my place on the planet, as poet Gary Snyder advised, and “dig in”. But it didn’t work out that way.

Now when people ask, “Where are you from?” I hesitate, and in that gap very different possible answers appear in my mind. Actually, people are not really asking where I’m from but to where will I return? – what’s my constant place, my home? And I wonder, what is constant for me? I could say, “earth” or “here”, but those are smart answers that brush people off rather than invite them in. Not having a constant place where I put my toothbrush or a drawer where I put my socks has been, for me, profoundly disturbing to my sense of identity. In the past I have often taken psychological refuge in the niche of my place. I am sure there is nothing wrong with that – in fact it is upon the love of place and identity with place that the continuity of our world is assured. But now as I enter the fourth year of being itinerant I begin to recognize some of itinerancy’s subtler blessings amidst its discomforts and disorientations.

First of all, being itinerant seems to be a good preparation for dying. In contrast, staying in one place and following one’s daily habits can nourish an illusion of immortality. We receive messages from the comforting regularity of our routines that say, “This is how life is,” “This is who I am,” “This is the way it will always be.” While this comfort may give sweetness to home and security to mind, when death comes we are seldom ready for its utter change. Living with continual change may help me to accept more easily the interruption and the invasion of privacy that death brings since itinerancy guarantees these experiences too!

Another blessing of itinerancy for me has been the weakening of my geographical and cultural predilections. For example, I was born and raised in the northeast region of the United States and I had a firm sense of my home landscape and climate – four seasons, crisp fall days, undulating hills, leafy forests. This homeland fixation was so strong that when I first traveled to a desert I was felt immediately lonely by its lack of coziness. But gradually, returning to desert landscapes – the Great Basin, the Sonoran, the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, the western edge of the Sahara in Morocco, the Rajasthan desert in India – I came to love the instruction deserts gave me, how light and shadow play, how the bones of the land speak of time’s passage, how dawn slowly comes like a vast mother-of-pearl shell miraculously appearing from the night.

Releasing my place-and-culture attachments has recurred in Southeast Asian jungles, European cities, and Middle Eastern souqs. Now I am apt to call “home” wherever I happen to be. But I don’t mean to imply that my pilgrim home is all wonder and mother-of-pearl light. It is a mansion in fact with a rather staggering succession of beds, bathrooms, meals, and company. There are a great many saggy beds in my pilgrim home, along with an equal number of hard ones. Most of the hundreds of bathrooms would benefit from being redesigned. And the food varies from the dull to the exquisite. Actually, the company does too.

So what further gift is hidden in all this change and uncertainty?  It is, I believe, slowly and painstakingly teaching me patience. If the bed is saggy, just wait awhile. If the bed is perfect, just wait awhile. Whatever comes is what comes, and whatever comes, goes. Sometimes comfortable, sometimes not, I begin to learn only the subtle steadiness of patience will save me from self-pity.

One more lesson, or gift, of itinerancy I would like to mention: the gift of expanding my notion of family. I remember telling stories late into the nights to wide-eyed tribal kids – and adults – in bamboo huts in remote villages in northern Thailand. I remember the powerful, mystic, brotherly love felt with a group of young Muslim men in Morocco as we said goodnight after a long session of singing dhikr together. I remember taking jukai, Zen Buddhist initiation, with a group of ten women in New Mexico, sewing together like sisters in silence for hours and hours the intricate apron that signifies the robe of the Buddha. In each case, and hundreds of others, I have come to open the doors of knowing who my family is and who my people are. The “other” is my family. The other is my people.

As I travel now, when I feel estranged from people or feel them to be other, I experience a motivation that moves me toward, not away from, intimacy. It is something like recognizing that if I were stranded on the moon and met that person, would we not fall into each other’s arms like long lost friends? The human family is indeed a family. The picture we see in the morning paper of a sorrowing mother in Kandahar holding her lifeless baby – that is our baby too. Like it or not, we are all brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, to each other.

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