Going Home

“Going home and spending time with your family and your real friends keeps you grounded.” – Jennifer Ellison

This weekend, my wife and I went “home” to the greater Portsmouth, Ohio area. She and I were both born and (as for me, mostly) raised there. Her parents are still there. Mine moved on when I was 14, but I still have plenty of roots. We were without kids this weekend and owed her Mom some “we” time, so made the 2+ hour drive from our house to my wife’s childhood home. I think I can speak for my wife to say that going home for both of us this weekend was bittersweet.

Life in Portsmouth is completely different from our life in Columbus, Ohio. Portsmouth is the epitome of small-town middle America with a population of less than 30,000. Columbus is a major metropolitan city where the population approaches 2 million. In Columbus, we have something going on every night of the week; dinner with friends, kids’ sporting activities, organized after-work events, and so on. In Portsmouth, there might be one event per week in addition to Wednesday evening church service. When we go “home,” we experience the life of our childhood. The life that we couldn’t wait to escape. The slower, sleepy life that would drive us nuts from boredom on the long-term, but that we honestly relish in bits and pieces on these brief weekend treks down memory lane.

This weekend, I went hiking  for four hours with my cousin’s husband. From start to finish, neither of us could get cell service among our three mobile phones. Not that we wanted it, I’m just offering a sense of how remote things are in the greater Portsmouth area. My wife and I also attended a car show, which is where people from all around the local Tri-State area (Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia) drive their always polished, often restored, sometimes cobbled together hotrods and put them on display for eager gawkers and some serious bragging rights. The night usually wraps up when the hotrods begin to file out onto the main road and leave a good bit of rubber behind in a plume of blue-grey smoke. It is like a scene out of the movie American Graffiti. We spent a good bit of time with family sharing food and catching up on stories and events. My wife and I also squeezed in a 3 mile training run in the downtown area and on the campus of my first alma mater, Shawnee State University. During our travels around the county, I drove past every house I lived in until I moved away from the area. All of this brings me back to the bittersweet point.

A part of me – a very small part indeed – misses that life. Sure, we couldn’t live in the house we live in now. Our kids wouldn’t have had the opportunities that they’ve had in the Columbus area. No, we couldn’t travel like we do. Yes, I find myself getting cranky at the painfully slow drivers while I’m down there. On and on. But. BUT, a small part of me misses that simpler, small town life. A part of me misses the time when the big event of the day was putting two bare feet into the water and casting a fishing pole. That same part of me misses the house I grew up in, the friends with whom I learned about life, and the roads on which I learned to drive. Judging by my wife’s eagerness to show me the artifacts of her past, I think she share’s the sentiment.

I’m sure this is just the nostalgia of the trip taking hold. If you moved us back to Portsmouth today, my wife and I would go stir crazy in 3 days – or less. I think the important thing here is to revisit memory lane with vulnerability every now and again. With vulnerability, I mean to be open to the trip, to slow down and walk the paths of the memory, to revisit events and consider their impact on you. We can so easily get caught up in planning the next big trip or office politics or whatever. But there’s nothing like a trip to your childhood home to ground you in the terra firma of who you are and what in life is important. It offers a whole new perspective to the impending work week.

The house featured in this post is the current state of my parent’s home when I was brought home from the hospital more than 43 years ago. I remember it as a quaint red brick and red siding house in good repair surrounded by a chain link fence to keep me and our small dog in the yard. But that was a long time ago. Times change.

Ulysses: Nestor

In the second episode of Ulysses, we follow the prodigal son Stephen Daedalus to his workplace where he is a teacher. We pick up as Stephen is teaching a History lesson to a class of boys. Class lets out early for field hockey. One of the students, Sargent, hangs back to go over his arithmetic lesson with Stephen. After Mr. Deasy, Stephen’s boss, gets the boys organized on the field, he comes back in to pay Stephen his wages. During the exchange, the older Mr. Deasy doles out several “words of wisdom” to Stephen. Additionally, Mr. Deasy asks Stephen to have a letter he has written about foot and mouth disease printed with his newspaper friends. The two spend some time on the topic and then part ways.

Themes:

Like nearly every other part of Ulysses, the action in the Nestor episode is in the words. Several themes arise for me:

  • Mother: While Stephen teaches Sargent his arithmetic after class, Stephen imagines that no one except his mother loves Sargent. A slight framed runt of a child, Sargent reminds Stephen of himself. As he imagines Sargent’s mother doting on the boy, Stephen’s thoughts float back to his own recently deceased mother, who is haunting his memory.
  • History: At the start of the episode, Stephen is teaching the boys a history lesson. During the discussion with Mr. Deasy, the elder man offers Stephen a history lesson of Ireland, to which Stephen replies, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
  • Teacher vs. Learner: Both Stephen and Mr. Deasy both recognize that Stephen will not be in this job long. Stephen acknowledges early in the episode that the kids don’t respect him and his slack authority with which he holds class. Later, Mr. Deasy tells Stephen that he doesn’t believe he’ll be in the job long, to which Stephen offers up that he is more of a learner than a teacher.
  • Jews and Gentiles: Mr. Deasy offers Stephen several anti-Semitic positions during their conversation as the wages exchange hands. Stephen points out that merchants can be Jew or gentile. Mr. Deasy praises the English for their “pay their own way” spirit but says that the England is caving in from within because of the Jews. He offers up the reason why Ireland has never persecuted Jews because “we never let them in.” This is an interesting foreshadow because the main character of Ulysses, Leopold Boom, will later be revealed as a Jew.
  • Conflict avoidance: In episode one, Stephen gave up the key to the tower too Mulligan and Haines without a fight. In Nestor, Stephen allows the boys to mock one another without asserting any authority. During the conversation with Mr. Deasy, Stephen offers only minor deflections to several incorrect or disagreeable assertions. As we’ll see throughout the book, Stephen abhors violence of any sort and avoids it completely.

This short episode is packed with themes and sets the stage for plenty more depth. I hope you are at least a little intrigued by the book. Now on my fourth read through, I’m enjoying Ulysses more than ever.

Each one of these posts could be at least double the length with additional linkages and historical notes, but I’m keeping it fairly high level. This process is slowing my reading significantly, but I’m finding that it is paying off. With an eye for themes, I’m being more methodical and purposed in my reading. And if I inspire just one eager reader to begin enjoying Ulysses, it will be well worth the time.

Cheers!