truth

Home Base

(Part One)

Way back in my childhood, when the world was still mostly photographed in black and white, I played tag with the other kids on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights. The tree in front of my house was home base. There wasn’t much traffic in those days, and we ran in the gutter, on the sidewalk, and around the parked cars, chasing and being chased like yipping and nipping young wolves. If the one who was “it” was gaining on me, I tried to get to home base. After an exhilarating and sometimes narrow escape, I’d cling to the tree to rest. As long as I was touching home, I was safe.

Joralemon Street
Where I lived on Joralemon Street. “Home base” was the tree on the left.

Home base is a feeling. There was nothing that distinguished the tree physically, structurally, from the other home-base-eligible landmarks on Joralemon or any other street. If the game of tag started in front of someone else’s house, we used whatever tree or post was available there, and had the same pure experience of home base. In comparison, the physical shelter that we call home—in my case, then, a low-rent apartment (that now would sell for half a million dollars)—is an environment in which many complex feelings arise, not all of them necessarily comforting, ranging from assuredly nurturing to lonely, sometimes mixing both, and with an infinite palette of emotional colors both in between and more extreme. Often, too, the physical environment changes wholesale, as we move from one home to another. How much we associate our floor-and-ceiling home with the felt experience of home base varies. We can discern each physical home’s degree of homeyness precisely because the feeling of being home, that feeling of safe harbor, is recognizably the same (i.e. self-consistent) regardless of where we are. We know the feeling of home base; different places evoke more or less of that feeling.

Mythologically—that is, in the roots of our human experiencing—home was the Center of the World, the World Tree, around which all creation revolved.1 This is the essence of the home base experience. Home feels like life’s Foundation Stone, immovable, stabilizing, the most trusted, secure place we can be. At home we are removed and protected from the whirlwind, perilous, dog-chase-dog street life outside.

For some people their childhood home feels like a refuge from the cares and turbulence of their daily lives. Worldly time seems to slow and recede into the periphery with each sip of hot chocolate. The first silverware they ever used is back in their hands; each bite of an old recipe reminds their bodies that this experience is reassuringly the same as it ever was. Remembering becomes an act in and of itself.

When a parent or grandparent serves me my favorite food, the special part is usually not the food itself; after all, excepting the odd secret family recipe, I probably can and probably do manage to eat my favorite food on my own from time to time. The special part is that my favorite food is known, and made specially for me without having to be ordered or made by me; it is freely given to me. A loved one knows what I like, cares, and goes to the trouble to make me feel good. I feel important to them.

Would that visiting one’s home of origin always conjured pictures like these. Going “home for the holidays” is for some people like locking themselves in a fun-house with a hall of mirrors (Egad! A fright around every corner! Multiple distorted images of myself no matter where I turn! ) Let us take a moment here to acknowledge, quietly, compassionately, those among us (even if this includes ourselves) for whom the old homestead is less a place of refuge than it is reminiscent of a refugee camp, in which enemy memories must vigilantly be held at bay.

Our original logistical home, therefore, can be a place of painful confusion. It is entirely possible to return to one’s childhood home and feel anything but welcome and safe. What makes this especially difficult is that the experience of home-as-safe-haven touches the child in us—whether we want it to or not. As the default location of shelter and nurture in our earliest development, we are conditioned to experience home as the most like a mother that any place can be. Our first home was the font of our existence, our umbilical origin point, primally innocent. Our mammalian instincts seek embrace and nourishment in the flesh of a warm, greater being (typically the mother): put a newborn on its mother’s belly, and, eyes still unopened, it will crawl toward her breast. That unconscious experience at the beginning of our life establishes the gestalt of home in our most primitive core. That gestalt is: the place where everything takes care of us; where we are sustained unconditionally and shielded in our barest vulnerability, even in deep sleep. This is our nervous system’s expectation. We desire an ideal home, where we can once again experience profound, rejuvenating rest, where there is nothing to guard against, nothing that doesn’t belong. Whether we think our desire or the possibility of fulfilling it is reasonable is entirely beside the point. Everything at home is supposed to be for us. The sense of home is thus a childlike feeling that doesn’t go away even when contradicted by hard experience in the cold light of day. When we’re children, we need everything to be for us. The great child philosopher Linus van Pelt had it right when he observed: “Every day is children’s day!”2 If our need is insufficiently met, it doesn’t wither. More likely it intensifies, even if it must retreat to our darkest recesses to do so.

As we approach a place or situation that our instincts respond to as home—that smells like home, if you will—we tend to become unguarded and ingenuous, often despite our better judgment. Even if we resolve to avoid certain subjects or behavior patterns, something in our inner being finds itself exposed. We are betrayed! This is supposed to feel like home, but it doesn’t. We set ourselves up to feel safe, but our security has been breached. Again.

And then we wonder: What’s wrong with me?

It’s not our fault; which is to say, finding ourselves emotionally prone regardless of careful self-fortification happens not because we do something wrong, but because it is inevitable. As we’ll see in a later chapter of this post, the home base aspect of home is most closely identified with the core self’s origins. Psychologically, the image of a house is most often associated with a person’s identity; it is also associated with the archetype of mother-as-container. When our youngest, most vulnerable inner being comes to the fore and reaches out for the feeling of home—like a child reaching for mother—it does so neither out of stubbornness nor weakness, but according to natural law.

For our own wellbeing it is crucial, then, to develop the faculty of distinguishing the inner experience of home base from any places or situations or persons that may proclaim themselves home but fail to inspire that inner experience. To do that we must draw the feeling of home up from its unconscious roots into conscious experiencing. The good news is that deep down we do know—can’t help knowing—what home feels like. And deep down we can’t be fooled; our very disappointments prove that. The feeling of home base is a truth that, once consciously apprehended, can ignite a warming hearth in the center of our being.

To be continued…


  1. Eliade, Mircea. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Torchbooks (1959). 12–18, 76–77. 

  2. Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts

The Best Revision Tool Ever

I’ve come across and taught many revision procedures in my time, but this one towers above all the rest. It was first articulated by Peter Elbow, and I received it from Jamie Hutchinson. I give the lineage of this technique because it possesses that timeless quality of a teaching that operates on multiple levels simultaneously and regardless of specific context—similar to the practice of using “I” statements—and because, when employed properly, it opens up writing like only truth can. I have used this process successfully in several areas outside academic writing: creative writing, understanding and evaluating art, directing plays, and coaching clients.

This tool originated as a “Peer Response” procedure (generally in groups of 3–4 students) which I will summarize forthwith. If you practice it regularly and get it into your blood, you can become able to use it all on your own, as I often do.

Peer Response Process

Rules: “The writer is always right. The reader is always right.” Nevertheless, the writer is in charge of the proceedings. Thus, the following is all addressed to you, the author.

Read your piece aloud. Always aloud. Never distribute your writing for silent reading.

There is almost always a powerful impulse for everyone in the group to plunge themselves into uncommunicative isolation by reading the piece individually in silence. For those responding to your writing, taking in your language (words) through the sense of sight is a significantly different cognitive experience from taking in language through the sense of hearing. The sense of sight tends to objectify, divide and classify what it perceives, whereas the sense of hearing tends to be experienced inside our heads. For your purposes, you want sympathetic, understanding responses. Let divide-and-classify come after your writing is published. Without the hearing, the quality of your authorial voice will be easily overlooked and misread. Similarly, hearing yourself speak your own words is a substantially different experience from reading them silently.

Read your piece aloud at least twice. Never once. Always two times—or more.

Another temptation is to read the piece aloud once through, and then let the critiquing begin. This doesn’t work, because the sentences and paragraphs your listeners hear after they’re already familiar with what’s coming are completely different from the sentences and paragraphs they hear for the very first time. Similarly, for you, reading a piece aloud for the first time is almost always about performance and nerves, and little if anything in your own writing is actually heard by you; but the second time around is often quite fruitful; you begin to hear nuances you hadn’t noticed before. So, read your piece aloud at least twice. At any point in the stages that follow, anyone in your group may request additional readings of the whole or any part of the piece, and you may at any time spontaneously decide to read aloud again; the more readings, the merrier.

The first reading is just for the listeners to get an overall sense of what the piece is about. The second and subsequent readings are for them to pay attention to details of language, images, ideas, feelings, intentions. (Also, after the first reading, your listeners may take notes.) After the second reading, lead your group through the following steps.

(Notes:

  • Steps 1–3 are to be performed by all the listeners of the writer’s group.
  • Repeated responses are valuable and not to be withheld—i.e. “I was going to say what she said” is not a valid response. If a listener heard what she heard, that listener should repeat it! It’s crucially important for you, the writer, to hear it more than once if the same response arose in more than one person.
  • Precision is required: your listeners must use the language given below. Why? Because it’s magical and it works. Think of it as a magic spell: say “Abraca-DOH!-bra” and nothing happens.)

Step 1. Positive Pointing: “I noticed/liked…”

Each member of your group, in turn, quotes—verbatim—words and/or phrases from your piece to you: specific language from the writing that particularly struck or impressed or simply stayed with them. The reasons for their quoting back what they do are irrelevant and distracting; stay focused here: you need to hear what parts of your language resonated in them, regardless of why.

Most important: verbatim quotes. Listeners often want to paraphrase: “I liked the part about…” Paraphrases use their language, not yours, and this is about your language, not theirs. You need to know that your words were heard, and which words and phrases in your writing have sticking power—for good or ill. Again, the listeners’ reasons are irrelevant and will mostly introduce impurities into the process. (Reasons for listeners’ responses will become important once you begin asking your own questions—see step four, below.)

2. Center of Gravity: “I hear this saying…”

This is when your listeners “say back” to you what they hear as “the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center of the piece” (Elbow and Belanoff, Sharing and Responding). Surprise, surprise, often this is not your intended main idea, but a segment, image, or anecdote where your writing feels more impassioned, more personally charged—i.e. what’s really on your mind and in your heart concerning the subject—whether or not you were aware of it while writing.

The utility of emphasizing center of gravity over thesis is powerful: It is easy (especially when under pressure to write something for a good grade) to jump to a hasty, underdeveloped thesis with no center of gravity, whereas a substantial center of gravity—precisely because it is heavy with meaning for the author—has zero tolerance for a weak thesis.

The easiest clue for where your listeners (and you) should look for the center of gravity is the language they quoted in step one: those passages drew them in because those passages have the force of gravity.

3. Active Listening: “I’d like to hear more about…” and “Have you considered… ?”

(Author, please insist that all suggestions in this step begin with either the words “I’d like to hear more about…” or “Have you considered… ?” Those phrases keep the authority of the writing firmly with you without diluting it.)

This is your listeners’ opportunity to share two powerful things with you:

  1. “I’d like to hear more about…”: Having articulated what rumblings and nascent ideas and images they hear emerging in step two, your listeners now suggest, based on their genuine interest (genuine not feigned interest is critical!), what you could develop further—what they felt they wanted or needed that is already rumbling in the piece and might be given full voice.
  2. “Have you considered…”: Alternative choices—suggestions of changes—that could strengthen what the piece is trying to say.

If your listeners become too insistent, gently remind them that this piece is your creation, your baby, and you’re responsible for its growth and wellbeing.

4. Author’s Questions

Finally it’s your turn! Ask your group any questions you want about your piece and how to revise it. If you think of a yes-or-no question, first turn it around so the answer will be fuller than a simple “yes” or “no”: for example, instead of “Was my paper clear?” (“No.” Awkward silence.), ask “What parts were clearest?” and possibly add “Where could I be clearer?”

Here is a list of suggested author’s questions from Jamie Hutchinson:

  • What do you hear lurking in this piece (what’s just beneath the surface)?
  • What does it make you feel? Where [in your body] and why?
  • What do you want to hear more about?
  • What kinds of connections do you hear in it? What connections do I still need to make?
  • What don’t you understand? What seems unclear?
  • What holds this piece together?
  • Who does my audience appear to be? Friends? Teachers? Strangers?
  • What’s your favorite part? Least favorite part? Why?
  • What seems unnecessary to the piece?
  • Where do you lose interest as you listen to it?
  • What would you remember about it tomorrow?
  • Where could I use more detail, more examples?
  • What theme(s) do you hear in the piece?
  • Which sections need more development?
  • What tone of voice do you hear in it?

Further Questions to Consider

Again, from Jamie, questions for you, the writer to ponder:

  • What kind of response do you want from your reader?
  • What feels “risky” to you about writing this piece?
  • What do you most care about in what you’ve written?
  • What would you like someone to get out of reading this piece?
  • Where does your voice feel strongest to you in this piece?
  • How will you know when this piece is finished?
  • What was the color of the sky when you…?

As with all deep processes, this one deepens with practice. Enjoy!

“The Adamant”

 

“The Adamant”

Thought does not crush to stone.
The great sledge drops in vain.
Truth never is undone;
Its shafts remain.

The teeth of knitted gears
Turn slowly through the night,
But the true substance bears
The hammer’s weight.

Compression cannot break
A center so congealed;
The tool can chip no flake:
The core lies sealed.

— Theodore Roethke

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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