In 1999 I returned to Notre Dame for the 50-year reunion of the class of 1949. I had missed all previous class reunions for various reasons but decided it was important to come to this one. I might add that my wife, whose ardor for Notre Dame is second to none, may have had something to do with that.
A month or so before the event my friend Joe O’Brien, who is also our class secretary, called and asked me if I would consider writing a poem to celebrate the occasion. I told Joe that poems “written for occasions” were rarely worth anything and that, although I appreciated his asking me, I thought it was not a good idea.
As the date neared, I was startled out of sleep one night by a dream too relevant to be ignored. In this dream the reunion had already happened, and I had indeed written a poem that I dreamt I quoted at the farewell dinner. In fact, the poem in the dream stayed with me as I woke — not totally but in parts — and I wrote as much as I could remember of it on a sheet of paper. All that day I worked on my memory of that poem until I finished it. I waited several days to see if it would still “hold up.” Finally, I called Joe and told him that the poem I had written regarded the reunion as already behind us, but that he was welcome to it if he thought it appropriate.
We’ve journeyed back to grass
and souvenirs and beige bricks.
The sky’s exactly the same.
Acre by acre the campus
widens like a stage designed
for a new play.
Why do we gawk like foreigners
at residence halls no longer
ours but somehow ours
We visit them
like their alumni — older
Half a century of students intervenes.
among us now, invisible
but present as the air before
they fade and disappear.
the day we swam St. Joseph’s
the surface into suds with every stroke
After we crossed, the water
stilled and settled to a sheen
as if we never swam at all.
One memory was all we kept
to prove we’d been together
in that very lake, and swimming.
Each time we tell this story,
someone says we’re living out
We say we’re only
reuniting within the lives
As long as we
can say they were, they were . . .
And what they were, we are.
Looking back on that reunion experience (as it actually was, as well as how I imagined it would be) has made me regard returns of this kind as more than mere nostalgia. I’ve come to the conclusion that they are related to one of the deepest compulsions in each of us, and that is the drama of leaving “home” and then coming back.
Subconsciously many of us at the 1999 reunion felt that we were in a sense “coming home.” For a number of our undergraduate years Notre Dame had been a home to us. Of course, it was never fully “home” because as students we invariably counted the days until we could return during Christmas or midterm breaks to Pittsburgh, Boston, Kalamazoo, Birmingham, Phoenix or wherever. A home away from home, however dear it may historically or actually be, is not quite the same as home. But at times it seems so, if only temporarily, as I tried to say in a poem called “Home Are the Sailors.”
Like those who sail away and then
come back, we keep returning
to a port we’ve never left.
A life we used to live
awaits us there as shores await
all sailors home from sea.
So much is differently the same.
And yet what is the present
but a future that the past
no older story.
are we but random pilgrims
stopped in progress to remember?
If now seems more like then,
As long as home
means where we most belong —
just that long — we’re there.
The experience of leaving home for college, war, work or diversion is now commonplace. The leaving may be difficult or perfunctory or routine. It’s painful if you know you’re leaving (or have to leave) permanently. If it’s anything less, you look forward to coming back. Coming back from war, for example, to be reunited with loved ones is a joy beyond words. Coming back from work makes us realize what we are actually working for. And returning from a vacation or a stint in college rewards us with a sense of familiarity as we survey rooms that seem to have been waiting for us. No matter why we leave, we look forward to returning for only one reason — to be in that space where we are at home. There is simply no substitute for it.
In literature we find the theme of departure and return in everything from Homer’s Odyssey to the parable of the prodigal son to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden” to the adventures of Robinson Crusoe to the saga of Huckleberry Finn. I even see this in the game of baseball. Having played it when younger and being a lifelong devotee, I know in my genes that a batter comes to home plate with the hope of returning to home plate again. Getting home, in the parlance of the game, is all that counts. Literally.
The importance of home to one man made a lasting impression on me when I recently read the late Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone. Shadid, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting, was the chief Middle East correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It was while leaving Syria in a horse convoy (because road travel was too perilous) that Shadid died of a severe asthmatic attack.
It was discovered after his death that Shadid was mortally allergic to horses. But prior to that he had decided to take a year off from his posts in Iraq and Libya and, rat er than return to his home in Washington or to his native Oklahoma, he thought it would be resuscitating to rebuild and restore the stone house of his grandparents in Marjayoun, Lebanon. With the help of a motley crew of stonemasons and other craftsmen, he did just that, although his death in Syria prevented him from seeing the job completed.
But, as he narrates in House of Stone, it was his connection with the Shadid family’s ancestral home that saved him from a depression to which he was prone after witnessing the horrific effects of war on the populations in Iraq, Libya and, finally, Syria. For Shadid the idea of home — or rather the restoration of a home — restored him as well. His family, realizing that, decided justly that he should be buried in Marjayoun.
The prize-winning memoirist N. Scott Momaday wrote that a man in his lifetime once “ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.” It lately has become apparent to me that for many years I have looked at the city of Pittsburgh in just this spirit. Born, bred and “buttered” here, I feel essentially alien when I am away from it for too long, no matter where I am. Even in the south of France, which has the climate, the pace, the cuisine and the Mediterranean blend of work and leisure that attract me as nothing else can, I reach a point while I am there when I simply want to come home in order to feel “at home.”
This puts me at odds with one Czech writer who claimed that a man is not fully human until he achieves a state of being resident nowhere, thus truly becoming a citizen of the world. And it leaves me diametrically opposed to the great Argentinian writer and dissident Jacobo Timerman, who was persecuted and exiled. In exile Timerman stated: “I am more at home in subjects now, not countries.” These comments were made by men who actually were refugees, however, and such statements could readily be seen as the fallback of men forced into permanent exile. I even have the feeling that the statements smack of rationalization, and understandably so.
A person’s addresses and orientations may change, but no one is truly from everywhere. Each of us is from somewhere, and if that somewhere remains accessible to us and we live there by choice, then to call it anything else but home is plain wrong. Being from a particular somewhere we draw a certain strength from and feel the pride of loyalty to our residence there.
We are part of the whole.
When asked why I have stayed and continue to stay in Pittsburgh, I never can give a specific reason. It’s like being asked why my wife and I chose one another or why I do what I do. The answer gets bogged down in the mystery of life itself. Eventually I wonder if I actually did the choosing or, vocationally speaking, was chosen. When pressed, I give the usual reasons — it’s where I earn my living, where my family has been and still is, where my friends (and enemies) of long- standing still are, where I like the change of seasons and so on. But I know in my heart that these are not the reasons as much as they are simply facts.
I suspect that I live in Pittsburgh because I have never discovered or felt the need of another home anywhere else. True, history and upbringing and happenstance all had something to do with my staying. But there was and always is something more. I sense this each time I visit the plot of graves in Calvary Cemetery in the city where the deceased members of my family are buried. While I am there, I understand what continuity means. It’s what the living always feel when they are in the presence of the graves of those once loved . . . and still loved.
Beyond religious belief, beyond the ineluctable ties of blood, beyond all power but the power of love itself, I know that the remains of those who raised me are there beneath my feet, and in the grip of feelings generated by that remembrance I have shamelessly knelt and prayed on that grave- cluttered slope for these dead and definite few. In a larger sense it’s as if America exists in miniature in the 10 or 15 square yards of Pennsylvania that holds them. It confers on the city that was their home and that has been and still is mine more than a geographical importance. It makes it mine; it literally becomes me, a part of me forever.
This might even explain a phenomenon for which Pittsburgh has become widely known. The city’s population has dwindled from more than around 675,000 in the 1950s and ’60s to just over 310,000 now; not an unusual drop for a city where many jobs once centered on the steel industry. The young began looking elsewhere for their lives, while the old grew older and died. This was true even though the city was and still is known internationally for its medical facilities, its universities and its diversified light and heavy industries. But what emerges as a matter of amazement is that many of those who left in their 20s and 30s came back when they were in their 60s and 70s. Many even moved into some of the very houses and neighborhoods where they were raised to live out their retirements.
If this return “exodus” is not a testimony to the magnetic pull of “home,” I have no other way of explaining it.
During my visits to Notre Dame in the past few decades, I realized that what was a home away from home for me and many other alumni was truly a home for the priests, brothers and some of the resident lay teachers who gave their very lives to their work at the university. They are buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery. On one return visit I decided quite spontaneously to take a walk through the cemetery, stopping here and there when I recognized a name. A poem actually came of it.
So many gone to graves
and all in regimental order . . .
Headstoned by squat crosses
and ranked in death’s exact
chronology, they answer
to the names we had for them:
“Black Mac” McCarragher,
Leo “Rational” Ward,
“Big” and “Little” McAvoy,
Boarman the orator, and Eugene
Burke of the pinched pince-nez.
To see their lives reduced
to digits on a cross seems almost
Sameness they hated
to a man, but now they’re stuck
And yet there’s something
just in this most orderly
Each man is buried
minutes from the work that was
Together they resemble
soldiers buried by battalions
near their battlefields.
Here’s Kehoe the Prefect.
Here’s tall and scholarly Soleta.
Here’s Frank the fiery centaur of the lot.
of fresh, white tulips decorates
the plot that claimed him forty
Who put them there?
Thoughts that prompt a poem like this invariably raise important, existential questions. Paul Gauguin grouped them succinctly as the title of one of his most memorable paintings: “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” All spiritual quests and all religions address themselves ultimately to these questions. The answers depend on the faith of the questioner, who hopes that his faith will be rewarded. It could be reunion with Christ, with God, with holiness itself, with family and loved ones, with the spirit of the universe. The answer is never a matter of absolute knowledge but a matter of faith. And the answer is unknow- able this side of death as much as we would like it to be. We simply live in hope, which for Christians is the crucial virtue that unites faith and charity. It’s the one virtue that im- pels us to live, regardless.
I think that the homing instinct in each of us carries over into the sense that life itself could be something similar to a journey home. Many writers have described an afterlife in these terms. They all reflect the view that the homing instinct seems too deep and universal to be confined to our “ground time” in the here and now. They imply that it could be a foretelling. We shall see.
Samuel Hazo is the McAnulty distinguished professor emeritus at Duquesne University and founder and director of the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh. He was awarded an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 2008. The poem, “Home Are the Sailors,” was given a musical setting by Samuel Robert Hazo, the author’s son and a symphonic composer. Entitled “Siorai September,” it was premiered as a special University commission in New York’s Carnegie Hall by the Notre Dame Concert Band on May 11, 2012.