“We all hate home,” declared Phlip Larkin in his poem “Poetry of Departures.” Written in his inimitable and characteristically lugubrious style, it was this idea that rang in my mind as I spent some weeks over winter break pondering what home is and how cruel, challenging, but ultimately vindicating it can prove to be.
I, like many in the Bowdoin ecosystem, was fortunate enough to go home over winter break. Unlike many, perhaps, my home is 6000 miles away, and, after a quick stop in England and some days in a Japanese quarantine facility, I was back in Tokyo where—on and off—I had spent nearly 20 years of my life.
Not much had changed. A new skyscraper or two had sprouted and obscured the horizon even further, and a few shops had closed and new ones had opened, a tell-tale sign of the volatility of pandemic times. But the gist was the same: the familiar restaurants, alleys, hills and shrines that had peppered my field of vision since my infancy had suddenly re-entered my life.
It was good to be back—don’t get me wrong. The feeling of being at home is always special. One feels this especially after a long holiday. It feels good to be in familiar surroundings, in one’s own bed and in one’s own room. Even the unprepossessing, pastel-coloured buildings in the neighborhood can look charming for once.
Perhaps this pleasant feeling was particularly acute because it was my first time returning home from college. Leaving the 4 p.m. sunsets, the deadlines and the pine trees behind and being reintroduced to a more temperate climate, a technicoloured megapolis and familiar places tinged with nostalgia was comforting to me.
But things were decidedly different this time. I found myself purposely distracting myself in a flurry of activity. I met high school friends, visited old-haunts, cycled and went skiing. I even started to read some of the assigned texts for the upcoming semester. However, eventually a realization dawned on me. In a disturbing moment of quiet inactivity, I felt the melancholy that I had carefully shelved in the back of my mind slowly emerge.
Philip Larkin was disturbed by the idea of home. “Home is so sad,” he announced in a poem by the same name. He hates the “especially-chosen junk” of his room and a life of comfort so “reprehensibly perfect” that it makes one uneasy.
How true this is. As one drives through one’s neighborhood or sets eyes on one’s room for the first time after a long absence, one finds it difficult to suppress that little bit of sadness—A sadness, I think, that is induced by how stationary and upsettingly constant things are.
One is overcome by a feeling of stasis when one realizes that one has walked the same streets for nearly two decades. There is the feeling that there is no new ground being broken and that there is no progress being made. When one cycles past one’s elementary school gates for the first time in a long time, one cannot help but feel a mild sensation of inertia. The well-meaning man in the barber shop sincerely tells me about how mature I’ve become, and I realize that is precisely the problem.
Home can be a distressing place precisely because it remains unchanged and constant. As Larkin articulates, home is “shaped to the comfort of the last to go” and “stays as it was left.” This has sobering implications. The relentless regularity of home cruelly accentuates one’s own progress—or indeed lack thereof—as a human being.
It reminds one of how little one has developed and the triumphant return one was expecting soon dwindles into a self-examining bathos.
Ultimately, however, I’ve come to think that home is a good thing. It is a barometer against which we can assess ourselves. It forces us to reckon with reality and ask ourselves some tough questions. Larkin may have proclaimed his hatred of home because it challenges us, but instead of cringing from the reality of it, it is something we should confront bravely and use as a catalyst for self-actualization.
I ask myself, how triumphant it would be if when one returns home, sets foot in one’s room and sits at one’s desk for the first time in however-many months, would one find oneself basking in a feeling of progress? Would one have a quiet confidence deriving from new perspectives exposed to, resolutions and goals achieved, discoveries made and new ground broken?
Alexander Kaye is a member of the Class of 2025.