Consider three pictures, at first seemingly unconnected.
It is late winter, and you are a freshman at some college in the Midwest, though home is in
California or Nova Scotia. Thanks to the distance, you haven’t been back for the entire school year, except for Christmas. Spring break is too short for you to make the trip, and you are eager for the coming summer. Truth to tell—though you might not tell the truth in broad daylight — you sometimes ache for home. Then finally summer comes and you do get home — only to find that two days into your homecoming all the warm atmosphere of your welcome has dissipated as your father blows up at you for the first time and your mother closes in with her first list of demands.
The more you reflect on your disillusionment, the more you realize that, in one way or another, this is what has always happened when you’ve gone away and returned — from summer camp, from weeklong vacations with teenage friends. Not only, as Thomas Wolfe said, can you not go home again; you never really could. Not to the home of your sweet imaginings.
Another sketch. You are a businessman traveling through a snowstorm from Grand Rapids to Chicago, alone and by train and thus not preoccupied with conversation or staying on the road. (If I make this trip, as I frequently do — Amtrak No. 371, “The Pere Marquette” — I happen to traverse the precise geography of my life, though not precisely in the right sequence.) As you glide over the countryside, you gaze vacantly out of the window. Suddenly, across a distant field, you spot an ancient, rusted hay mower, the kind you knew as a boy on the farm but haven’t seen or even thought of for forty years — and the recognition floods you with a vague, melancholy yearning.
For what, you ask yourself. For all those years, surely, that are so swiftly receding into the past like the telephone poles outside your window. But the pang goes deeper, and you realize that what saddens you is not just that the past is gone, but that what is gone, that world of forty years ago, seems somehow a world more innocent and idyllic than the hectic world you inhabit now, racing along to attend yet another meeting.
And then you reflect still further, and you are able in your mind’s eye to see yourself as an eight-year-old boy trudging resolutely across this same snow-blown field, three muskrat traps slung manfully across your shoulder, imagining that each one-foot drift you encounter is four feet deep and that the barking of dogs in the distant barnyard is nothing less than the howl of a pack of wolves. Forty years ago, in other words, our intrepid dreamer, instead of enjoying his idyllic landscape, was in search of something else. The worlds we seek seem always to lie further on and deeper in.
A final scene — briefly. You are listening to music, and there comes passage of such fresh and radiant loveliness — the second movement of Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto will do — that it breaks your heart. Why such sadness at such joy?
The most eloquent and convincing description of all this that I know occurs in a famous sermon by C.S. Lewis:
In speaking this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret that hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence. . .Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
The point, then, that links our three vignettes together is this: we seem to be creatures of deep and ineffable yearnings which attach to one thing or another — whether home or art or the life of our dreams — which never fully satisfy but point us ever on. What we ultimately long for, says Lewis, is Glory, when the music we hear is no echo but the tune itself, when our hopeful trek across long fields is ended, and when we have arrived at last at our own true home.
This essay first appeared in the March, 1988, issue of The Reformed Journal.
Copyright 1988, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.