Of Heraclitus and Homesickness

By Jin-yeong Yi

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“Photography is the inventory of mortality. A touch of the finger now suffices to invest a moment with posthumous irony. Photographs show people being so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives; [they] group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies.”

—Susan Sontag

“The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”

—The Bible, Matthew 8:19-20 (King James Version)

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

—Heraclitus

In The Man from Earth, a 14,000 year old Cro-Magnon explains why “home” is a highly time-sensitive designation:

Linda (L): Well, I don’t understand…why you can’t remember where you’re from. Geography hasn’t changed–I learned that in Professor Hens–

Art (A): Professor Hensen’s tepid lectures. But you’re right. 

John (J): Where did you live when you were 5 years old?

L: Little Rock.

J: Your mother, she took you to the market?

L: Mmhm. 

J: What direction was it? From your house?

L: I don’t know.

J: How far?

L: Um, three blocks?

J: Were there any…references that stuck in your mind? 

L: Well there was a gas station and a big field. I was told I could never go there alone.

J: And if you went back there today, would it be the same?

L: No. I’m sure it’s all…different and built up. 

J: Thus the saying “You can’t go home again,” because it isn’t there anymore. 

At around noon today, I drove to the town where I spent most of my childhood. This was hardly a once-in-a-lifetime event; I go there from time to time for recreation or shopping, and it is located less than half an hour away from where I live now.

The difference was that this time I went to the neighborhood I grew up in. I parked my car about a block away from my old street, and then made my way to memory lane on foot. I had forgotten where my old house was, but since I’d remembered the name of the street, I had been able to locate it with the help of Google Maps.

Besides my old house and the house to the left of it, I wasn’t able to remember much about the neighborhood. After taking a few pictures of the house, I turned around and strolled south for a bit, admiring the lush greenery that populated the area. There was a time when a smaller, younger me walked these streets, a time when I called this place home. This small world had gone on without me as if I’d never existed.

After getting back into my car, I headed west and, with a stroke of luck, located Ralphs. How quaint it looked; even the serif font of the signs marking each aisle were of an earlier generation. There wasn’t much to see; in not a few ways it was practically indistinguishable from the Ralphs I shopped at now. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I bought some sweets before heading back to the parking lot.

Being here was refreshing in a way; I almost felt like I’d traveled back in time, back to simpler, more carefree days when my greatest fear was incurring the wrath of my parents by getting poor grades, when my greatest pleasures were playing video games, drawing, and reading Calvin and Hobbes under the covers.

I sat in the car for a while, observing the nonstop activity outside. Cars and trucks rolling by, people going on with their lives. I looked around, trying to see if I could remember any of the stores and restaurants lined up before my eyes. With maybe three exceptions at the most, none of them rung a bell. How many of them had been replaced since I’d moved? That Lutheran church to my left, was that there when I was still attending the Catholic school down south?

What is home? If it’s simply a roof over one’s head, well, then it’s simple: it’s where one lives. But is there such a thing as a perennial home, a dwelling that is for keeps, a place where one belongs…forever?

My visit to my old neighborhood may have well erased any lingering doubt that the answer is no.

Clearly, houses, apartments, and the like fail to qualify as such. When it comes down to it, they are simply buildings that change hands after a certain period of time, because ownership is predicated not on intrinsic birthright but man-made legal concepts.

The room I presently live in, for example, is full of memories that were here long before I was born. Though it is my possessions and furniture that occupy this room, other people once carried on their daily existence in this exact location, this very space. I’ll never know what events these four walls were witness to, though I can imagine: good times with friends, frenzied quarrels over finances and relationships, mornings of admiring the rising sun, nights of gentle lovemaking in the moonlight, lonely evenings spent in contemplative solitude. The room doesn’t belong to me; I’m merely borrowing it.

There’s no place in this world, in this universe where one could have a permanent sense of belonging. Countries grow larger or smaller or disappear altogether, populations are altered or replaced, the face of the Earth itself changing with each passing generation.

Even the most sedentary individuals are travelers, for they, like everyone else, are always journeying through time. We’re not residents in this world, but merely guests. To be homesick is to pine for a place that doesn’t exist any longer—or never existed to begin with.

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm

—Jim Morrison, “Riders on the Storm”

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