My mother gave me Tim Lilburn’s Going Home for my birthday in October, and I have only just now finished it. Though I began reading it almost immediately, and though I returned to it several times during the intervening months, I never seemed to make any progress in it. I enjoyed it when I was actually reading, but something else always needed to be read or done, and there was a month or so over Christmas when I lacked the inclination to read anything philosophical at all, and my appetite even since then has too often been for other sorts of reading, so I moved through it only haltingly, episodically, in fits and starts.
For all of this interruption, or perhaps even because of it, I found myself reflecting often on Lilburn’s ideas, even when I had not actually been reading the book for a week or more. I resonated with his attempt to recover the role of desire through his readings of Platonic philosophy and patristic theology, the subjects of the book’s first two sections respectively. I resonated even more with the third and final section, which was comprised of reflections, often narrative, often lyrical, on Lilburn’s experience of returning to Saskatchewan and of trying to find, or create, or encounter in it, a home.
Not surprisingly, considering my interest in the idea of home, this last section was the most profound for me, particularly as it situated Lilburn’s earlier ideas of desire into a particular life, a particular location, a particular landscape. Plato had his desire, it seems to say, and Cassian had his, but here is mine. Let me introduce you to its climate, and its contours, and its careen. Let me enact for you also the desire that I have been trying to articulate. Let me show you the home that is the object of my own yearning, this thing that escapes articulation in any language except the language of the erotic.
Confronted by the place to which he has returned, Lilburn’s response is a kind of lostness, a desire to be at home in a place that he no longer recognizes as home. “I had done nothing,” he says, “to educate myself to be someone who could live with facility, familiarity, where he was born.” He describes this placelessness as resulting from a lack of desire. “We are not craning, not small, not hurt by desire,” he says, “We are disastrously kept, healed of a saving disquiet – so how can we be where we are?”
Confronted by homelessness, by placelessness, by unfamiliarity, Lilburn embarks on a practise that physically reconnects him with the place of home. He describes digging in the Saskatchewan dirt to build a root cellar, walking through the landscape, taking the earth into his hands and passing over it with his feet. “Being in a place demands a practise,” he says. “It is not tourism or romanticism: things are not laid on, nor are they occultly given: here the practise is putting yourself out there and walking.” Elsewhere, he describes this tactile practise of a place and its history almost mystically, saying, “We need to find our own way to take this place into our mouth; we must re-say our past in such a way that it will gather us here.” This language and this practise are the language and practise of desire, a desire to be at home where one is.
Interestingly, at least to me, some of Lilburn’s language of a desire for home comes very close to the language used by George MacDonald in his novel Lilith. Though written more than a century earlier, MacDonald’s book is concerned with some of the same issues. His protagonist, a man named Vane, finds himself in another world, asking much the same questions as Lilburn: Where am I, and Where is home? Mr. Raven, who appears as both a raven and as man and who guides Vane through this new world, also responds to these questions in much the same way as Lilburn does. “The only way to come to know where you are,” he says, “is to begin to make yourself at home,” and the only way to make yourself at home is “by doing something.” His solution to Vane’s homelessness is also a practise of place, an activity that the place demands in order to make it a home.
For Vane, this activity will eventually take the form of returning water to the barren landscape, but he initially resists Raven’s council, choosing to ignore the practise that has been presented to him. It is only after his own plans have brought about disaster and left him still rootless that he realizes for himself what Raven had told him from the beginning. Reflecting on his situation, he says to himself, “I had not yet, by doing something in it, made anywhere into a place,” and it is this realization that returns him to the task that was initially set for him.
There are, of course, as many divergences as parallels between the texts of Lilburn and MacDonald, and it would do both of them an injustice to emphasize their similarities too strongly, but I appreciate how they serve to reinforce one another in at least this one respect. They remind me that home is never merely granted to me, that it does not come preconstructed, even if, at the same time, it is never merely created by me either. On the contrary, home is always a matter of taking the place where I am, with its inhabitants and its history and its topography, and putting it into my mouth, holding it in my hands, walking it with my feet, doing in it what my desire for it requires of me. Home, as the object of my desire, is only ever this practise, and nothing else.