Searching for the Hearth (Essay/Reflection)

*first appeared on Dec. 20th in Ekstasis Magazine.

Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes.
(“And he turned his mind to unknown arts.”)

— Ovid, Epigraph to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I.

One night I lingered in the wet, thick air just a few hundred yards from the home of my youth. Diesel fumes curled around me as I waited for the inevitable—to come home. I looked at the ‘Thomas Kinkade’ lights before me with a blank stare, a numbness circling and swelling within me as the fumes greeted the fog. It was cold and dark, but I remained, as if this unseen sacrifice saved me from the space between home and the unknown. The warmth waited for me just yards away, shielded only by a dark distance and the spiraling emotions that drove me like a stake into the moist Georgia dirt.

Home had become the bed of my deepest sense of alienation. The blend of muddy greens and flaxen grasses that ran through the landscape had seemingly poisoned the well of my youth. It wasn’t always this way. I recall the cold winter mornings in our mobile home, the hearth before the fire—the only thing that brought us all out of bed. We’d congregate before it: to dress, eat, watch the news, or merely wait until the snow finally arrived (a rare occurrence). I remember being forced to leave one morning in early January for school when I had woken too late. There was no time to warm myself before the fire: not to dress, eat, or even speak. It always felt so wrong to leave a place like home without first feeling its warmth.

II.

Yesterday, I went to the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) in Bern. I’ve been living in Switzerland for just over three months now, far away from the cultural palate of colors of my hometown in southern Georgia. Bern is indescribable during the Christmas season with its dark, poignant greens and the silence of pale snowfalls. It seems as if every person carries something warm with them—either glazing their red cheeks, or else with coffee, tea, or Glühwein cuddled in their hands. Things really change here during the Christmas season: windows are laced with fresh greenery, tall Christmas trees are erected outside in each neighborhood, and (of course) the snow actually arrives. Even small structures are erected for the season, little “Christmas cottages” at the Weihnachtsmarkt for those who brave the cold to celebrate winter’s crown. It’s as close as you’ll get to a Hallmark movie—minus the paltry romance.   

But we haven’t seen the sun for what feels like weeks, and the endless fog has enveloped me every morning and evening as I try to pierce its gaze from my window on the 14th floor. It’s as if the whole city has been enveloped by a Nebelmeer (“sea of fog”), and I return from cold, eerily quiet walks to find the moisture beaded on me like a blade of grass after a strong dewfall. And the bells ring and ring. Saint or sinner, no one can escape the sound of church bells in Switzerland. Even in the famed Bernese Oberland (known for its picturesque, rural Swiss landscape), tiny churches remain stamped on remote mountains with bells that travel alpine valleys with ease. If you’re lost, you can always listen for the bells. Riding home in the dark just last week, the bells of a church cracked so loud in the fog I almost fell off my bike. The distance between the uncanny and holy are held in remarkable tension as the weight of the water in the air brought them down to greet me.

III.

Why not go home? Why stand there in the brittle cold? These are complicated questions. Let me avoid them entirely. Instead, I’ll tell you about a book I read once. I’m not sure how long ago it was. I recall meandering around a bookshop when the obnoxiously bright orange and yellow paperback caught my attention. The name “Joyce” sparked my literary ambitions while the cheap paperback placated my stodgy sense of style at the time. I had tried reading Joyce’s Ulysses. No one had told me not to. It was a mistake (of course), and Ulysses still stands on my shelf unmoved. It wasn’t Ulysses that awoke such a strong and strange energy in me, instead, it was Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—a small Bildungsroman about an Irish Catholic boy who “turned his mind to unknown arts.” It’s a miracle that this book patiently found its way to me.

The young Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s protagonist in the Portrait, was raised in an Irish Catholic home, the mother devout and the father an unpleasant product of an Irish nationalism of the period. Early scenes in the book reveal both Stephen’s precociousness and deep sensitivity to his surrounding milieu—a culture where faith, family, and country stand in bewildering tension as he overhears heated arguments around the dinner table, particularly following the death of a prominent but scandalous Irish politician. Stephen’s development, or “coming of age”, is marked by his frequent attempts to make sense of these conflicts as a child, adolescent, and later as a young man. Each phase is preceded by a rapturous decision, marking the distinct stages of his self-development (Bildung).

In the midst of these tensions, a rupture occurs when the young Stephen finds his way to the bed of a prostitute, ironically using the money he had won from the Jesuit college he attended to fund the liaison. This was no accident on Stephen’s part. Folded into the moment of an existential decision, he embraces a bold hedonism and sensuality amidst the social-cultural unrest outside and inner unrest within. Proudly unrepentant, Stephen later attends a compulsory retreat in remembrance of Saint Xavier. During the retreat spanning four days, the priests spend hours expounding “The Last Four Things” (death, judgement, Heaven, & Hell). Each day they cover a “Thing”, and Stephen finds himself sitting under lengthy descriptions of the torments of Hell from a priest.

“The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world…Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption…and then imagine this sickening stench multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all of this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of Hell.”

In this moment, Stephen’s sense of guilt becomes overwhelming as the words take root in his mind. He can’t think. He can’t breathe. He feels he will die with this burden, then and there before all, unless he repents. Stricken with despair, he visits a priest and confesses, creating a second powerful rift that launches him into a new form of life. For the young Stephen, this act of repentance evacuated the air of its filth. Gravity was beaten, and now grace alone lifted him down the same dirty streets he used to traverse on the way to his liaisons. Entering a new stage of his own Bildung (“formation”), he devotes himself utterly to the church and its ascetic practices. In one scene, the newly pious Stephen even denies himself the smell of flowers, making himself a fragrant martyr of sorts in a private, passing moment. It doesn’t take long for others to notice his transformation, and soon even local clergy begin to take interest, later encouraging him to join the priesthood.

IV.

Religion, faith, piety, spirituality—whatever it is, it always slips through my fingers as I try to grasp it. I, much like Joyce’s protagonist, suffered from a bout of such piety. In a strange attempt at holding the pieces of my young self together, I fell into puritanical thinking in a way most people can’t even imagine. I read and thought, prayed and penanced, choosing a dark austerity that helped my sense of guilt and loneliness find a home. In the Puritans I found something dear, the intellect somehow tethered to the soul and the emotions oddly naked in the tomes of these peculiar men. But this dance was all held together with one integral concept—depravity. And the empirical experience of my life was all I needed to believe. There was simply no time to smell the flowers.

This idea overtook me, bringing focus and definition to my life in ways I never imagined. It both condemned and liberated me—again and again. And in this cycle of something, people noticed. It wasn’t long until I was invited with opportunities to uncover a pastoral vocation, as if I just needed the faith enough to see it spelled in the clouds. With time I was offered the keys to this cryptic wisdom—a mysterious invitation to the “higher things” from furtive old men. And like young Stephen Dedalus, my life swung rapidly to the rhythm and reason of my own self—the same self that passionately fell in love, that same self that fervidly felt condemned, and that same self that wholeheartedly wanted to live.

V.

It didn’t take long for Stephen to run out of steam. The ascetic practices, once liberating, became tyrannical as the baroque theology of his Jesuit companions became equally empty and lifeless. His humor changed, mirroring the growing “hardness of heart” as his faith in family, church, and country continued to decline. Instead of arguing for proofs of logic or reason in relation to the divine, he began developing his own understanding of the beautiful, what appears to be the only sacred thing left in his experience. This labor of thought quickly creates a distance between Stephen and his friends, who remain entrenched in an Irish Catholic tradition. This alienation eventually grows and extends beyond his friends and family to Ireland itself, which becomes a symbol for his own sense of homelessness.  

In a moving scene, Stephen decides to abandon his pursuit of the priesthood. Following the decision, he finds himself walking on a nearby beach. In one final, pregnant moment, he catches a glimpse of a beautiful woman by the sea, and everything becomes clear. He must leave Ireland. What had brought him warmth and belonging, sense and reason, had become cold and bitter, senseless and godless. Stephen Dedalus could no longer exist in the cultural swell of early 20th century Ireland, his home. He simply could no longer feel its warmth.

VI.

The snow returned this morning blanketing everything with a quiet weight. I walked to Eymatt again, a small-town bordering the city. I saw this weight carried by a branch along the way. A tall swan stood nearby, guarding the Aare (river) like a white knight. I walked past a frozen marsh and caught a glimpse of an old woman, patiently coaxing a street cat with a blade of grass. The quiet, the warmth, all there, buried beneath yesterday’s snowfall.

I’m thinking of home: the many blondes in our family and their southern drawls, the fried food that also functions practically as a sedative, and even the warm winters when the snow never arrives. Just the same, the warmth emits, and my family will (yet again) needlessly light a fire in the warm Georgia winter.

The many ‘falls’ of Stephen Dedalus (from Daedalus) have taught me much. And like Stephen, my own turn to “unknown arts” has made space for me to exist in the world again—the same sort of space that my faith had created in the past, somehow entirely different and yet the same. And I thank all of those who have made such space for me here across the Atlantic—the place where I finally embraced myself as an artist, a co-creator with whoever holds the warmth and affections I speak of. Leaving the hearth of home has saved me many times, but what young Stephen Dedalus failed to realize is that the return home is just as daring. And that such a return could save one, even a young artist who cannot feel the warmth of home. The artist always occupies this space between home and the unknown. There is simply no artist without a home. Still, I thank Joyce for the song he gave Stephen Dedalus, this daring embrace of reality that cannot be anything but marvelous and, in some way, divine. 

“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time
the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul
the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Photo: Craig Adderley

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