published Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Shavin: Ruminations on home and heart

Last month we celebrated my husband's 50th birthday. It was an affair two months in the making. If you know us, and I inadvertently left you out, forgive me. You missed a really special night.

There was an original comedic score of "Happy Birthday," penned and sung a cappella by six of our friends.

There was a homemade chocolate birthday cake flanked by 50 homemade cupcakes.

Most surprising perhaps (even I didn't know it was coming), was a trombone performance of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Let me just say that if you've never witnessed a trombone emerging trunk-first from your kitchen door out onto your back porch, well, you just haven't lived.

And speaking of witnessing, there was something else as well. The next day, there was a knock on our door. My husband answered it.

It was a neighbor, undoubtedly troubled by the carnival atmosphere of the previous evening. He was concerned for our salvation. Was my husband right with God? Were we aware we couldn't work our way to Heaven?

My husband chatted for as long as he could. I'm somewhat embarrassed to say we had another party to get to, and so had to leave. When we got in the car, he told me the purpose of the visit. At first I was stunned. Then I was outraged. Then I was sad. Then he was sad. Then we were depressed. And this went on for a couple of days.

I suppose we should not have taken the visit so hard. After all, the neighbor meant well. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what was so troubling, however, until I started to think about the conference I'd attended the previous week.

The title of the conference was Physical and Metaphysical Home: Memory, Grace and Structure. For four days, published and unpublished writers of all persuasions came together to talk about home: not just comfort and privacy and the poetics of space, but also persecution and discrimination and the politics of place.

Perhaps the keynote speaker, Susan Cooper, said it best when she quoted John Ruskin: "Home is the place of peace; the shelter not only from all injury but from all terror, doubt and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, it ceases to be home, it is then only a part of that outer world which you have roofed over, and lighted fire in."

Home, in other words, isn't just where the heart is; it is the heart itself, the private, pulsating soul of the human animal. How we live inside it is ours and ours alone, and that includes the simple decisions we make about what to eat and when to go to bed, and also the complex ones, like how we choose to understand and honor God. If these decisions are monitored or dictated by others, then I am just a squatter in someone else's idea of home.

Not too long ago, my husband tacked up a sign on our studio door. It is to remind us to have confidence, to be brave, to believe in ourselves as artists. It says, Fear Eats the Soul. I found myself thinking about this sign after the neighbor's visit. I realized that it is not just a message about how to go forth into the world, it is also a message about how not to go forth. Don't go into the world with fear, it says, because fear is destructive. It kills our passion, our spontaneity, our joy. Worse, it kills broad-mindedness. Throughout history, at the heart of the push for conformity, for homogeneity, there has always been fear of the "other."

Which is in part, I believe, what spurred the neighbor's visit.

Granted we had a trombone at our party, and that's atypical. But deep down inside, where it really counts, we are not so different from anyone else.

Older maybe, and more full of birthday cake, but with a longing for the very same thing: the freedom to think and believe as we wish -- especially in that place we've roofed over.

Email Dana Shavin at Danalise@juno.com.

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