David Brooks’ column in the March 20th New York Times reports on a TED conference in Vancouver recently where the rock star Sting recounted a long dry period when he couldn’t write a song. His creativity revived after he began to think about his childhood in a town in the north of England where the streets led down to a harbor busy with shipbuilding.
I think many people hesitate about returning home, either literally or in imagination, because of our over-emphasis on childhood slights, misunderstandings, and even abuse. Another way to look at all these horrors, large and small, is that they are part of the texture of life, inevitably, and can’t be either cleaned up, controlled, or forgotten without robbing us of some of the equivocal richness of our heritage—the heritage that may lead to compassion and nourish our creativity.
But there are many people, like me, who cannot go home, either because home has been destroyed in our endless wars, torn down and replaced with something suitable to the modern sensibility or inherited by relatives who for one reason or another want nothing to do with us.
I remember my last visit, several years ago, to the house outside Louisville where I lived from birth until I went away to college. It was my older brother’s last Christmas, which was the reason I was invited, and the event was a little chilly. The house, its outdated grandeur descending into fustiness, lacked appeal; I could hardly believe I’d lived there. But there were no reminders of my childhood, or the childhood of my siblings, three now dead; it is the kind of house that not only devours its children but devours their artifacts.
I was glad to leave, although haunted by the realization that I will never go there again. The house is now on the market, although I can’t imagine anyone in this day and age wanted to inhabit its cavernous interior.
On the other hand, I would have been crushed and quelled if I’d stayed there, a possibility I never considered, which contributed to my shock when my granddaughter, a bright young woman once interested in studying marine biology, announced that she’s thinking of staying at home and going to the local university rather than venturing to one of the four colleges that have accepted her, eagerly, with the offer of some scholarship money.
I am appalled at the idea of her future shrinking to a basement room in a tract house and an on again, off again trip to a small town college that certainly cannot offer her anything in marine biology. I’ve often seen high school graduates, coming from parents with no advanced education, at the last minute abandon the promise and the challenge of leaving home for college.
How do we teach girls the daring they need to leave home?
I don’t know.
Perhaps it depends on dismissing some of the sentimental clouds that obscure the reality of home, and remembering that Sting’s north of England was a place of grime and hard work.
But he clearly was born with the need and the drive to get out. Is this something that comes naturally, without encouragement, to boys? What are our girls missing?
[For more on Sting’s talk visit the TED Blog.]