Sunday, November 19, 2017

On the Meaning of Home, an Interview with Barbara Gates

September 12, 2010 by Jane Ross  
Filed under Blog, Writing Practice

My hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, has just experienced a massive earthquake. Though no lives were lost, many thousands of homes were seriously damaged, hundreds to the point of being likely teardowns.

Reading the news about the devastation and talking to family in New Zealand, I remembered my conversation with Buddhist writer Barbara Gates captured in the wake of the Asian tsunami of December 2004 in this interview. Barbara Gates is the author of an acclaimed memoir, Already Home.


Jane Ross: Please tell us about the path that brought you from your childhood in the Northeast U.S. in the 1950s to the place you now call home in the San Francisco Bay area.

Dawn view from the window of my childhood home | MJ Ross

Dawn sky seen from the window of my childhood home | MJ Ross

Barbara Gates: For much of my life, I’ve lacked a sense of home. My parents split up when I was four, and I shuttled back and forth between my New York City artist mom and my New England professor dad; I never felt settled in either home. As I see it now, much of the trajectory of my life—both relationships and work—has been fueled by a passion to reverse a sense of homelessness. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I sought a sense of home in joining with other teachers to found and run a community school. But in the wake of my dad’s death from cancer, I had a tantrum with everyone close to me, destroying the fragile beginnings of home with my boyfriend and with the teachers with whom I was creating a community. I left Cambridge for Berkeley on the run. I gradually began to settle into life on the other side of the continent in an unfamiliar place.

It wasn’t until a crisis—grappling with breast cancer and facing my own mortality—that I began my unconventional pilgrimage to explore the terrain right where I was. Through daily walks, research, imagination, and meditation practice, I became intimate with my home place—inner and outer.

JR: You share a sense of home with communities of writers and of Buddhists. How did you find these vocational and spiritual homes?

BG: As far back as I can remember, telling stories and writing have been vehicles for me to tap into what I think and feel, to heal what feels broken. I have developed kinships with others through writing—as I edited my high school newspaper and the Bennington College literary magazine, co-wrote a book about teaching women’s studies and, for the past twenty plus years, co-edited the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind. Some of my most tender intimations of home have arisen as a co-founder, co-editor, co-writer, through a creative back-and-forth with other writers exploring the nuances of words, images, and sentence rhythms.

Buddhism was the first spiritual tradition to which I was drawn. Raised alternately by my agnostic Jewish mother and my atheistic once-Unitarian father, I hadn’t found “home” in either temple or church. When I was in my twenties, my friend Jonny Kabat (later to become Jon Kabat Zinn) taught me to meditate. On his way to lead the early morning sitting at the Cambridge Zen Center, he dropped by my communal house to sit with me. When my dad died and my life seemed to fall apart, I began to turn towards a committed meditation practice. I went to Naropa Institute in Colorado to study vipassana meditation with Joseph Goldstein. Since then I’ve found some community with other meditators, particularly, with Wes “Scoop” Nisker and my other Inquiring Mind colleagues. But it has been through Buddhist practice itself—through learning to settle into the present moment—that I have truly accessed a sense of home.

JR: Your book, Already Home, grew out of seven years of journaling, reflection and research as you sought to understand deeply the meaning of home. At what point did you become aware that your work would result in a book and that others might be inspired by your journey to explore these questions for themselves?

BG: For many years, my column in Inquiring Mind explored Buddhist themes through stories of daily life. In response, readers sometimes wrote to tell me how moved they were by my stories and reflections. Some suggested I should write a book. After the cancer diagnosis, the writing I was doing became an essential practice for me. I felt as though I was writing for my life. My friends, Joanna Macy and Wendy Johnson (both Buddhist teachers and deep ecologists), asked me to join with them to form a three-woman book writing support group. “You’re writing a book aren’t you?” asked Joanna. It seemed I was! As the group read though all of my columns, we saw common themes: family, neighborhood, and community. These became the basis for the book.

JR: Once you had decided to write a book, how did the book evolve?

BG: When I first started writing, I hadn’t yet conceptualized the theme of “home.” As I wrote about the terror of dying young and of leaving behind a motherless five-year-old, I began to see how out of synch I felt with myself and the world. I sought connection with the streets of my neighborhood, with human neighbors, with other animals and growing things. So I broadened my attention beyond “woe is me” to the healing of the terrain and I broadened my sense of mortality to include the vast impermanence of evolving life. Gradually, I recognized my own longing for belonging. I saw that I was writing about home.

When I wrote a chapter, I usually began with a resonant image, something I’d seen or experienced which called to me. I didn’t know where it would lead. Take my relationship with Dee, the homeless woman who used to sleep in our family car. It wasn’t until I wrote a number of stories about Dee that I saw her pain and violence in myself and I saw my own feelings of homelessness. Through that writing, something began to heal for me and I recognized a common human yearning to be embraced in safety and forgiveness. So this writing offered me insight into myself, into Dee, and into all who are subject to the uncertainties of life.

JR: For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of Already Home is the straight forwardness of the language you use and the naturalness with which you connect Buddhist philosophy with down-to-earth experience. How did you come to write in this way?

BG: I’ve always wanted to open up possibility for those who might ordinarily be shut out. In the 1970s I was a cofounder and staff member in a school for low-income kids who dropped out of the public system. I hoped to offer them experiences in learning and self-governance that they probably would never have had. Likewise, I’ve wanted to offer insights gleaned from Buddhism to those who might not have access to them otherwise. After all, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike experience disconnection from themselves and their world. So, in the hope of passing on the teachings to those who might not be comfortable with Buddhist terminology, I’ve told stories instead of preaching philosophy.

Here’s an example. I tell a story of an adventure I had with my just-skunked dog, Cleo, in the back of a pickup truck swerving down a winding road. Responding to Cleo’s terror when she careened back and forth, I found myself embracing her, anchoring the two of us amid tumbling shovels and ropes. In that hug, skunk stink alchemized into gamy life stink. Following this incident, I coined the term “skunk practice.” This became a metaphor for me of a way of fully living life, of embracing what seemed unembraceable, including heartache and loss. It’s a version of Buddhist mindfulness practice.

JR: Already Home woke me up to many aspects of my neighborhood and community that I had paid little attention to in the past. Have you received a similar response from other readers? Is the book changing the way people view their home environments?

BG: Many readers have told me that the book led them to realize that didn’t know the names of their neighbors or much about their home places—where their water came from, whether there were toxic chemicals in their local air or ground water. Readers from far-away places—from Israel to British Columbia, from New Zealand and France—have started writing and photography projects in their neighborhoods. Others have investigated remains of native settlements that preceded them in their home places. Still others have begun to notice their inner terrain and to try out meditation.

JR: What suggestions would you make for other life-writers who might be interested in exploring their own understanding of home and using this as a catalyst to deepen their writing?

BG: I suggest carrying a little back-pocket notebook as you take walks through your neighborhood. Scribble observations—scents, colors, textures, lists of debris, vegetation, graffiti—as well as unexpected images, memories and insights as they arise. Later, copy those into journals. At another time, read them through and circle favorite details, phrasings, metaphors, new understandings. When you are ready to write, draw on these treasures. Often you will rediscover observations, even musical language, that you didn’t even remember you had scribbled down—rich fodder for your explorations of home.

JR: In the wake of the tsunami that struck in December 2004, I know that you have been reflecting on the scale of homelessness in Southeast Asia. What can the tsunami teach us about the idea of home and the solidity that we give to this idea?

BG: For many, a sense of home is strongly identified with a yearning for stability and security. But an understanding of the nature of home can be radically informed by reflections on the vast impermanence of the natural world, epitomized by the recent tsunami. Awareness of the ongoing evolution of things—the perspective of vast shifting time and space—is essential to insight into who or what we are and our place in the world. As devastating as tectonic violence can be to human life, the constant recycling of the earth’s crust makes for rich soil, allows for a lush and habitable planet. Powerful jolts, such as the one that led to the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 may be the heartbeat of the earth, perhaps essential to the evolution of complex life (our planet’s first organisms having probably arisen in the deep sea alongside volcanic gashes).

Throughout Already Home, I have juxtaposed small personal events (such as my own confrontation with mortality through breast cancer) with the vast impersonal evolution of the place and its inhabitants. I begin the book by evoking the movement of tectonic plates along the San Andreas Fault slowly tearing apart California. From a Buddhist point of view, the evolving elements are operating according to the impersonal laws of cause and effect. Earthquakes and volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes are happening all the time as the planet evolves—leaving individual lives inherently insecure and unpredictable. What is important is our response. We need to train ourselves to respond with wisdom and compassion. Home might be seen not so much as a place but as a way of relating to pervasive and ongoing change.

JR: In this world there are many indigent people living on the street and many others who, though they have places to live, still suffer from feelings of “not being at home.” What is the key to our feeling at home?

BG: I suggest two intersecting journeys: 1) Get to know the folks next door, the local ecology and its history, see that who you are and where you are cannot be separated. 2) Through meditation—train your awareness to open to the inner terrain of body and mind. A true sense of home cannot be found in a house or, for that matter, any “thing” subject to vicissitudes of shifting winds or shifting earth. You may not be able to control whether your family stays together or whether your house is stable. But you can train the mind to be stable, to include whatever comes your way. Such stability and inclusiveness of the mind is essential to the recognition that you are already home, that you have been home all along.

—Email interview conducted and edited by Jane Ross. Interview first appeared in the March 2005 issue of the Story Circle Journal.

A chapter from Already Home was included in The Best Buddhist Writing 2004 (Shambhala, 2004).

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