After 29 years, Marlon is going home. If he can figure out where and what home is. Prison “never felt like home. You have to be thinking, be aware of your surroundings and the people you are around at all times,” he says. “You really have to bob and weave in here to miss the madness.”
Now that he’s getting out, he would love “a place where I could get away from everyone who wasn’t a true loved one. I could kick back and close my eyes and not worry about anything. A sanctuary of refuge and protection.”
Because of his crazy family, foster care placements and dangerous neighborhoods, Marlon never had a home like that, even as a child. “I don’t know if such a place exists for me,” he said, “but I’m going to try to find the closest thing to it I can.”
Marlon is on Act 2 of his heroic journey. Most of us have such journeys, which are sometimes called “life.” They have been written, sung, shown on movie screens for thousands of years. I am on one; you may be too. It helps to recognize our journeys for what they are.
In Act 1, heroes leave home, either searching for something better, following a dream, righting a wrong, or seduced by outside attractions. Many non-heroic types are forced on these journeys, too. Home disappears, or becomes unlivable, or never existed, or is ripped away from us. Illness or trauma obliterates our comfort and safety and sends us on a journey we never wanted.
In Act 2, goals accomplished or not, the hero tries to get back home. This struggle is often harder than the original quest. In Act 3, he finds that everything he needed was at home all along. He just hadn’t known it was there. Home may or may not be located in a familiar physical place or among familiar people. Where and what it is, is the subject of this story.
Marlon’s Act 2 began about three years ago, after a particularly stinging denial of parole. After decades of trying to beat the system, to meet the stated requirements for parole, he realized the quest was impossible. For a poor African-American man, the system cannot be beaten. He would have to change himself.
With the help of some church-affiliated self-help programs, he undertook the heroic quest to find his true self. He had to come to terms with the pain of his youth and face the harm he had caused with his crime. He had to learn to express what he found in language the Prison Board would accept — words like “remorse” and “responsibility” figure heavily.
He isn’t putting on an act. Putting on an act wouldn’t work. Marlon has become peaceful, more centered, more honest with himself, less angry. “Wiser” would be a good word. Other inmates come to him for advice and counsel. He is finally set to be released this spring.
The next phase of the journey might be even harder. Jobs aren’t plentiful for anyone, much less 52 year old ex-convicts. He won’t have many legal rights out here. He is halfway home, but there is still a long way to go.
I think many of us are on journeys like Marlon’s, even if they don’t lead through prison, and even if we don’t realize we’re on them. The point of the journey isn’t some external goal. It’s to come home to your true self. The purpose of the outward quest is to free you from the false limits society has put on you, your false sense of who you are, so you can see yourself more clearly. But if we get lost in the quest, we will never find our way back.
Not all individuals are lost, but society as a whole certainly seems to be. We are blundering around, tearing up the world because we are stuck in Act 1. We’re fighting monsters and pursuing treasures, when we need to move to Act 2 and come home.
Where is Home?
So what does home mean, and what is the treasure to be found there? I’ve been asking people, and most say something like what Marlon said. Home is where you feel comfortable, safe, known, accepted, and loved.
At the extreme of the journey, a part most of us thankfully never reach, is homelessness. Imagine this discussion from the point of view of someone who is sleeping in a cold alley, threatened by junkies and cops. How could they feel safe, comfortable, loved, or familiar?
Some people do amazing things with making their corner of the street homelike. They hold on to photos or treasures that might seem like junk to others, or they create their own pieces of art. That’s one reason it is so cruel when the police roust them and take their stuff. It’s not that what they had was valuable. It was familiar; it was home. It’s also why anything you can do to make a homeless person feel safe, comfortable, or loved could be lifesaving.
Sometimes home leaves you. American novelist Thomas Wolfe’s most famous book was called You Can’t Go Home Again. The young protagonist can’t go home for two reasons. He has alienated his people by writing unflatteringly about them in his first book. And even if the people took him back, his town has changed so much through real estate speculation and pointless growth that he can’t recognize it.
Familiarity is certainly part of home. People say familiar smells, sounds, sights, and people help them feel at home. My son Sekani has lived on the same block in the Mission District his entire life, but he says the Mission has changed so much it no longer feels like home. Other San Francisco neighborhoods that have gone through less change feel more like home to him, even though he’s never lived there.
Environments are changing so rapidly all over the world that many adults must have feelings like that. The familiar is gone. So home has to mean more than familiar surroundings.
In thinking about home, I notice that home is a lot like love. A place where you are accepted, where you accept others and accept yourself. That means home is inside of you. You just have to find it. Finding it might require a heroic journey: physical, mental or spiritual. But it might just be a question of deciding not to be lost anymore.
The Prodigal Son
One of the oldest journey stories is Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son. As you probably remember, this kid had a good life on his father’s farm. But he was bored. The outside world seemed more exciting. He got his father to give him half the farm as an advance inheritance.
He sold his half of the farm and left for the City. He partied for a while, spending too much. When times turned hard, he went broke and wound up living in a pigsty, sharing the pigs’ food to keep from starving.
The Prodigal Son had, as recovery counselors say, ‘hit rock bottom.’ He wanted to go home, but he was sure he wouldn’t be accepted there after screwing up so badly. However, when he walked down the road to his father’s place, he was welcomed with open arms.
I never understood this story. It sounded like bad parenting. My son Mathias had to explain it to me “It’s a parable, Dad,” he reminded me. “He’s not a real father. It’s about how God or life will always take you back.”
Spiritual writer Stephen Mitchell called the Prodigal Son “one of the most healing stories ever told.” You might be on drugs, in prison, selling your body on the street. You might be a corporate lawyer, an oil executive, or be similarly lost, but you can always go home, and it’s not that hard. God will always take you back, because God is within you.
Remember this story is a fable. In our lives, home may not be a familiar physical place or people you know. You might never have felt at home in your family in the first place. That’s why the healing journey is necessary. It frees you from the boxes that life puts your soul in.
It’s Not That Hard
No matter how lost and desperate we are as individuals or as a society, I think there is a home for us. Look at the Prodigal Son. He was living in a pigsty, and it was all his own fault. Why would anyone take him back? Turned out that all he had to do was walk down the road.
An even more striking version of this allegory is the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy spends the whole book/movie trying to get home. She faces terrible dangers, following the advice of a charlatan wizard who couldn’t help her. It turns out that she had the ability to go home any time she wanted, just by clicking her heels together.
But the instructive thing is what happens when she gets home. Her journey had all been a dream. All she had to do was wake up.
All we have to do is wake up. My meditation teacher Marc says these stories are metaphors for the human condition. We went from being at home in our bodies, in Nature, on this planet, taken care of by the Tao or Mother Nature or God or however you call the world. We leave that home when we fall into dreams of flashy excitement in a City run by phony wizards. We can’t help it, since all of human society lives in that dream. The modern world is an illusion factory, churning out an endless torrent of irresistible dreams.
But the dream is killing us and our Home. And we’re not stuck in the dream. All we have to do is wake up.
“Only when you are sick of being sick
Can you be well.”
Only when we realize we are lost can we find our way home. Realizing it is the hard part. When we do, we are ready for Act 2. I wish you well on this phase of your journey.
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3 years later, Marlon is living in Los Angeles, trying to get a Braille business started. It’s been hard, but he’s not giving up. My son Sekani says he no longer feels so out of place in the Mission where he grew up; he ‘just had to learn to accept the changes.’