When I was a high school senior, we read My Antonia by the Nebraskan author Willa Cather. It’s sort of a rite of passage for all Nebraskan students to encounter either this or O Pioneers! at some point in their literary education. In the book, Antonia discusses the idea of her patria, her home, how she longs for it. Literally patria translates to one’s home country, though we discussed how our home is not necessarily our nationality. It’s where we feel safe, comforted, supported, loved, and worthy of belonging.
I vividly remember sitting in the backstage area of Duchesne Academy’s theatre with my two best friends Meg and Colleen as I grappled with what to write for my college application essay. They told me to write well, that I would get admitted to colleges regardless. I replied passionately that I wanted to be understood, I wanted to be seen. As I sat there, I thought about my patria. I thought about my home. In that moment of my life, that was home for me. That back corner of the stage behind the curtain, listening as my actor friends fought over food in another performance of The Diary of Anne Frank, sitting with my two closest friends, knowing my dad was in the audience for the third night in a row with a bouquet of roses for just a stagehand, was my patria. This was where I felt understood. This, and my grandparents’ farm in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
I have been thinking about the need to belong. When I worked with Inclusive Communities, an educational organization that aims to talk and teach high school students about diversity, privilege, and inclusion, I realized how many students and volunteers talked about home. So many felt they were not understood within their families, and they found this sense of belonging within IncluCity. I also thought about camp, the place I have called my patria for the past two years. And I haven’t been alone. Numerous campers and counselors identify Camp Foster as their true home, too. We all need safe places to call our own, to feel safe and supported and belonging.
I also think back to another literature class, my creative writing class from last semester. An Egyptian author visited us to discuss his latest book with our class. He talked about the beauty of Egypt, his home. He told us no matter how much time he spends in the U.S. it will never be home. Being in Morocco for only a little over a month, I have begun to understand this longing for patria. I think about how I miss the simplest of comforts, my piano, my bed, the knowledge that when I’m awake so are my friends and family. I think about immigrants and refugees forced from their patrias, their most sacred of spaces. I can’t imagine fleeing my home out of necessity or violence, with the knowledge that I might never return. I can’t imagine forever existing in a country that is hostile to my existence, simply because of the place I call home.
Having a home is essential to the human experience. But I’ve begun to wonder if patria can be more than a physical place, if it can be something else. This weekend, I was in Portugal with my oldest friend as we snuggled in bed, as she held me, and gently stroked my back. And I felt home. We make our homes in other people. We trust them to be there, to be safe havens in times of crisis and despair. We reach out when we feel alone. They become our patria, our home.
We also make our homes in religion. We look to God, or Allah, or our some Why somewhere, to shelter and protect us. I remember sitting in Mass as a young girl and crying a little as we read from Matthew, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Side note: patria can also refer to Heaven, our “one true home”, which is kind of cool.) I thought it beautiful that God could care and love me so unconditionally, despite my flaws, failings, and mistakes. And it brought me immense comfort. And I think in times of sorrow and disappointment, lots of people look to the sky for reassurance, relief, and answers. We can’t make sense of pain without it. We couldn’t fathom it without a perfectly intentioned reason.
But then I think of Brene Brown and her book. I think of her quote, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” It makes me wonder if we can find home within ourselves. If we must first find home and love and belonging inwardly. If maybe this is the only place where we are the most truly and deeply understood. And if it is only after we have cultivated this home within ourselves that we can explore the world, meet new people, and give the love and support and belonging which we all universally crave. And that’s what I want. I want to be a better home for myself, and a better home for others.
I’ve been listening to this song by Hozier a lot, which talks (sings?) about finding home. Sad, but very beautiful.