I’ll be home for Christmas, so the song wishes. I’ve been struggling to find some Christmas spirit this year, why it’s been a struggle this year I’m not quite sure. I’ve been in my office this afternoon trying to capture some of that old magic by listening to a rather calming play-list of Christmas songs. Whether or not the music is working is yet to be discovered, but I’m betting against it. I’ll be home for Christmas, one of the songs promises. Other songs tell the actual story of Christmas and others talk about roasting chestnuts, as if anyone aside from street vendors in Paris actually do that. But the one about being home for Christmas, that one is onto something.
If we’re going to think about that song, the first thing we need to figure out is what the singer means by home. What is home? If you answered something about it being where the heart is, we cannot be friends. If you said it’s where you hang your hat, please show yourself out. And if you answered the question in the way that many seem to be answering it lately, by suggesting that home is, in fact, wherever income taxes are the lowest, then you’re hopelessly vapid. Home, it’s such an interesting word, and it’s a word that we’ve manipulated and mistreated. Home, it seems, isn’t a house at all.
At least it isn’t to me. I grew up in my parents’ house. It was my home from birth through age 18, and it was my parents’ home for eight years before I was born. It was the home my parents brought each of their four children home to after checking out of the hospital. Lakeland, as it happened to be. It was the house that my brother died in when he was less than a year old. It was the house where my younger brother angrily punched through the glass front door when my older brother and I locked him out. The house that my mother read us bedtime stories in, using the best character voices. It was the house that I grew up in, and in that, it will always be my home. But today I have my own family and my own four walls that I now consider to be home. One of the great maturations of my life occurred when I no longer considered the house where I lived to be a temporary shelter. Times were I’d live somewhere until it had appreciated, a forced increase in value created through my own sweat and toil, and then I’d sell it on and move somewhere new where I could do it all over again. My current house has become my home, but is that what home means?
To me, it isn’t. Home is where I’m from, and whether it’s that old brown dutch colonial near the lake or a white modern farmhouse in the country, home is the space between. Home is the Bay. Home is the county. Home is here. It’s in this office where I type and it’ll be on Geneva Street later when I wind down towards the water, maybe in time to catch the sun setting low over Conference Point, but probably not. Home isn’t four walls, it’s the place you’re from. That Christmas song isn’t about a house, it’s about a place.
A great tragedy of our time, something that is blindly celebrated but shouldn’t be, is the geographic mobilization of the wealthy. The great exodus has begun, as families move from one state to another, fleeing high property taxes or high income taxes or both. They flee something that they know in favor of something new. Fleeing is all the rage. They make the decision based on the math, on the lifestyle, on the number of days that the sun shines. They move because they can, they move because they feel like it. They move because their youngest son is a really good skier and, well, and that’s reason enough. There’s a Whole Foods in the new town and a private school around the corner. It’ll be great there, they say as they pack their last bag and head to New Town, USA. Freedom, here they come. As long as we’re together, we’re home, the wife repeatedly whispers to herself as they cross the first of several state lines.
It’s just that I can’t see how it could be true. Home isn’t a series of places. It’s one place. My wife moved here from a town far away, and I have no doubt that she feels this place to be her home. But is it actually home? When we travel to a faraway land, after some time she’ll say she’s ready to go home, by which she means our home in Walworth. But when she’s at home in Walworth and she says she wants to go home, she means the little town where she’s from. There is no other home. There are other homes, places where we’ll live for periods of our life, but when she tells somewhere where she’s from, it isn’t the immediacy of the present address that she recites.
I fear we’re stealing a sense of permanence from our children by chasing a few more days of sun or a few points less of taxation. Are we so soulless that we have no concept of home anymore? Do we value dollar bills more than everything else? I live in a high tax state. While Illinois gets the headlines, the truth is that I pay a higher rate of income tax in Wisconsin. My tax-loving governor would happily raise my taxes even higher, and if he were to do so, what would I do? If my taxes went up, would I move? To ask the question is pure foolishness, because no matter what happens to this state it is my home. And I will not abandon my home because I want to save a few dollars. I would not leave my home out of expediency.
I often imagine a day later in my life when my children are grown. I picture my children out in the world, pursuing their own dreams and following their own paths. I can see them vacationing with their spouses and their families on a tropical beach or on a mountain chair lift. I imagine them striking up a conversation with passersby, and I can hear the conversation in my ears just as clear as if it was happening right in front of me. I am committed to the concept of home, to the importance of place and to the stability that it provides because when someone, someday, asks my kids where they’re from I want the answer to be simple and singular. I don’t want the answer to be a story that starts in one state and finishes in another. I don’t want them to say when I was 14 my dad moved us to another state so he could save 3% of his AGI. I’m from Williams Bay, Wisconsin, they’ll say. It’s just a small town in southern Wisconsin and in the summer I’d swim from my grandparents’ pier in the afternoons and my dad would grill chicken thighs on an old metal grill that my mom called his donkey cart. In the winter we’d ski at the small hill in East Troy and on the drive home the sun would set through the trees that line the edges of the harvested corn fields and it was absolutely perfect.