I have always liked to believe that specific places have a sort of power, a hold over at least those who are born and raised there. In truth, that “power” is just a familiar association with a place that gets ingrained in our memories; there isn’t actually some spiritual magnetic force that works to draw us back to those lands that once nurtured us. Oh, but I like to imagine that there is. I recently had the opportunity to return to the land where I spent my childhood and to revisit the specific places that had such powerful formative effects on me. It had been many years since I had been home, and yes, it doesn’t matter how long I have been away, it will always be my home.
My daughter is considering attending Washington State University in Pullman, my hometown. She asked me if we might take a trip over there just so that she could get a feel for the campus to see if she could possibly spend the next two years there to finish her education. As my parents and sister still live there and we hadn’t been back in many years, I welcomed the chance to take her over there. It would mean an eight hour drive in very hot weather, but the opportunity for father-daughter bonding and to be able to show her all of the specific places that had had such powerful formative effects on me, as well as check out every inch of the WSU campus and visit family, was one I couldn’t pass up. Off we went. I had a pretty good idea about what that visit would be like. I was wrong.
I can always detect the moment when I really feel that I have come “home” again; the countryside of the Palouse in Eastern Washington takes on a very specific look when you are about an hour out of Pullman. What was rocky scrubland with tumbleweeds a few miles back turns to waving fields of soon to be harvested wheat, barley, lentils and other crops. At least that much hadn’t changed. I was hoping that not every field had already been harvested, that we would be able to see the golden wheat stalks waving in the breeze that was such an iconic memory for me. Though the combines were at work all around us, there was still quite a bit of work left to do, thank goodness. The sight of the waving wheat enfolded my soul like a blanket. Yes, I was almost home again.
It was when we first entered Pullman’s outer city limits that I had my first revelation of how things would be different this time. My aging parents had needed to relocate to a different home, and staying with them was no longer a possibility. For the first time in my life, I would need to stay in a hotel in my own hometown. How strange it was to check into a Holiday Inn Express and have the receptionist there say “So, what brings you to Pullman?” I had been born there, I had grown up there—that very question irrationally bothered me. I had left it thirty years ago as my career had drawn me away. At the time, I had been excited to leave and see something more of the world. I was becoming aware of the part of me that fervently wished I had never left at all. I let the receptionist know that we were just there to show my daughter the WSU campus, as she was potentially interested in attending there. I also told her that I had been born in Pullman, where I had spent the first 22 years of my life, as if to assert that I somehow still belonged there, that it was still a part of me. We got moved into our rooms and then called my sister, who lived in the lower lever of the home my parents had moved into so she could care for them. We were on our way over to see them.
It was a large house, bigger than the one that I had spent the majority of my childhood in. Since they hadn’t been there that long, it was also relatively bare. It had a different smell, a different feel. It was comfortable and spacious and perfect for them. It just wasn’t my home. To see my family in such a different environment was very surreal. Later, my daughter and I drove around the city and I took her past some places of importance to me. I had lived in two houses there, one from birth to third grade, and the other from third grade until I moved away. When we pulled over next to the former, my daughter asked “Which one was it?” The one I pointed at only occupied the space of the home I had once known. A completely renovated, larger, and different colored home stood where mine once had. The address hadn’t changed, but that was all that remained the same. In my mind’s eye I could only see a little white house, a big white wagon wheel stationed between two large hedges in the front yard, and a little toddler playing with a black kitten in the sidewalk leading up to the front door. I was recalling a black and white picture of myself, taken fifty years ago. I looked around at the other houses on the street. All were changed in some way, either via renovation or paint job. The street I had known was gone. The elementary school I had attended was also gone, replaced with a much larger, modern facility. The hill behind the school where my cousins and I had spent so many winter evenings sledding was now a terraced parking lot. I couldn’t bring myself to visit the street where the other house was. I didn’t think I could handle looking at it, knowing that that chapter had also come to an end.
The next day we headed up onto the campus very early before the expected day of record heat could really kick in. We walked the campus for over two hours, only seeing three other souls. My daughter led the way with a campus map, choosing what sights to see and in what order to see them. Once again, I struggled with conflicting thoughts. Here was the campus I had known so well, but so much was not as I remembered it. Buildings stood where parking lots had once been. Trees had grown so much taller—or had been removed. I had spent five summers working for the campus maintenance department; I had once known every inch of every building there. Now, I was actually making wrong turns, and almost getting lost. I think I managed to hide my dismay from my daughter. She came away really liking it there. She hasn’t made her decision as to where to go to school as yet, and that is her own decision to make. Of course, I would love for her to choose to follow in my footsteps, but she would be attending classes on a campus only she knew. Mine was gone.
We needed to hit the road early the next morning as we had another eight hour drive ahead of us. Not long after leaving the city limits I pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway next to a recently harvested wheat field. Scattered along the side of the road were some wheat stalks that had been missed by the combine. The wind appeared to have carried them there. I stopped the car and got out, gathering about ten of the stalks and putting them into a plastic bag. I took a moment to look out over the field and breathed deeply, inhaling the rich smell of the land that had nurtured me for so long. I realized then that no matter how many new buildings there were or how much taller the trees had grown, no matter who lived in the houses I had once occupied, no matter how different the city itself had become, it was the country around it that called to me. The smells and vibrant colors of that land throughout the seasons would always be there to come home to.
Remember the land that most nourished or still nourishes your soul. Don’t stray too far from it for too long. The feeling of your soul returning home is what your favorite electronic device must feel like when it gets plugged in to be recharged. There is a tangible energy that brings a sense of belonging and peace when you are once again in the land that helped shape who you became. There is a spirit in that land of which you are a part, no matter how far you roam. It calls to you as one of its own so that it can feed your soul again. Heed that call whenever you can.
As I write this I can see most of those wheat stalks in a vase on a shelf. One is on my nightstand. They are tangible pieces of that land that is such a part of me. How comforting it is to know it’s still there—different, but yet still the same—and that when I return I will still, in so many ways, belong.
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3 thoughts on “The Home of the Soul”
Beautiful story, Jeff! I keep a jar of red dirt on my altar from my homeland. I know this feeling you are describing. Unfortunately, the attitudes and prejudice of that land will never allow me to return. I will hold it in my memory as a sacred place, though. Thank you!
“It s no mere coincidence that our feelings about a place take on spiritual
dimensions. An old rancher once told me he thought the lines in his hands had come
directly up from the earth that the land had carved them there after so many years of
-Gretel Ehrlich, “Landscape”
Jeff, thank you so much for this piece of “home.” Resonates…..