If you were starting over in an empty house without any of your accumulated belongings, what would you need to make it feel like home?
That's the question four of us, longtime good friends, were discussing over a cup of tea. And the question continued nonstop in my thoughts after our tea-drinking stopped and I went home.
Understand – my home is my joy, my hobby, my comfort. I love the antique clock on the mantel, the family photographs that make me smile, our wedding-gift silver that can turn a plain meal into a celebration, the handed-down Blue Willow platter that has held the Thanksgiving turkey for generations. I love to arrange and rearrange, to add a flower here, a candle there, to feel happy and snug with a book of Emily Dickinson's poems, to fling open the windows in the spring and light the first fire in the fireplace in the fall.
So how would I – how could I – start over? After the necessary stove and refrigerator and sofa and beds were in place, what would I need to add in order to turn a house into our special home?
I've decided that the first thing I would look for would be a big family dining table – big enough for all of us, plus extra leaves to add for relatives and friends. That's because so many of our special times have been when we've all been together around the table. It's where we giggle and laugh and sing "Happy Birthday to You"; where we celebrate small things such as an 'A' in arithmetic and a home run in the ninth inning, and momentous things like a promotion at work or a college degree; where we soothe one another's hurts; and quiet our worries. And it's where we share our dreams, because when families share their dreams, everyone pitches in to make them come true, and miracles fan out from family dining tables like magic.
Our home would need an old-fashioned fireplace. I know most people prefer the modern no-sparks, no-smoke gas kind, but we would need the type with burning logs that crackle and glow red and smell of wood smoke. It's where we always gather on bad-weather days to play Monopoly or work on a jigsaw puzzle or just read. It's where we daydream – where little girls can be Jo March or Nancy Drew and little boys can be Davy Crockett or George Patton. And where grown-ups can think wonderful things into being. Above the hearth in one of his homes, Frank Lloyd Wright inscribed the words, "Around these hearth stones, speak no evil word of any creature." Before a roaring fire, only good thoughts belong.
There would be an awful emptiness if the books we love were missing from our home, so I'd search for a great big bookcase to hold books. Slowly, we would reaccumulate the books we cherish – from "A Child's Garden of Verses," "The Little Engine that Could," and "Goodnight Moon" to books by Dickens, Twain, Hemingway, and Frost.
I'd buy pillows for our sofa. Silly? Probably, but pillows always create that put-your-head-back-and-your-feet-up feeling. Pillows say, "Don't worry, everything will be fine." I'd mix and match them: big red and white checks and blue toile and golden plaids. Lots of them – puffy and pretty and therapeutic.
We would need a yardstick in order to start a new measuring wall – out in the kitchen, probably behind a door, where children are measured, where year after year, and the inches march upward on the wall to show how tall they have become. It's where they stretch with all their might and where futures are fashioned with the words, "When I grow up..."
We'd need green plants in our home because they make everything feel fresh and vital. I'd put a pair of topiaries on the mantle, a basket of ivy in a corner, and never-fail philodendron on the coffee table. On the porch, I'd put a big pot of yellow and purple pansies in the spring, bright red geraniums in the summer, golden chrysanthemums in the fall, and a wreath of greens in December. If possible, I'd plant a lilac bush just outside the kitchen window where its "spring is here" aroma would fill the air when I fling open the window in May.
Just for me, I'd search for another old-fashioned desk like the one I've had forever, a desk that's the heart of our home, where I sort the clutter from my days and tend to matters that matter. It's where I plan birthday parties, address invitations, and arrange holiday celebrations; where I write thanks for kindnesses and praise for accomplishments; and where, before I go to bed on Sunday nights, I turn a tangle of details into a plan for the week ahead. Then, when I turn the light off beside my desk, life seems orderly in my little world within the world.
Finally, I'd go to an antique shop and find a china teapot and a few pretty teacups so I could invite my old friends over for a cup of tea. And we could talk and talk about subjects such as, "What makes a house a home?"
Journalists are suckers for homecoming stories, which is part of the reason the LeBron James story has gained such traction. The essay he wrote for Sports Illustrated with Lee Jenkins is titled “I’m Coming Home,” which is also its final sentence.
I’ve written about the power of the short sentence. It has the ring of gospel truth. Even if there are money and control and competitive issues involved for James, the dominant narrative is that the King, who once lost his way, has now returned... home.
Or has he? What about it, Thomas Wolfe? What about it, Kareem Abdul Jabbar: “LeBron can’t go home again. At least not the home he once knew. They may be grateful and joyful, but they are also wiser. Like the betrayed spouse, they will have to wait and see, they will have to be wooed, they will have to be convinced that his sincerity, to quote Porgy and Bess, ain’t a sometime thing.”
Those of you who read "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy will remember how Frodo Baggins, after destroying the ring of power, returns to his beloved Shire. It’s his best reward, of course, except the Shire is not quite the same, and neither is Frodo.
This pattern, Tolkien called it “there and back,” is so ingrained in the human narrative that we can trace it to the earliest examples of Western literature. What is "The Iliad" except a story about a king leaving the security of his homeland to wage a futile war to regain his faithless queen?
What is "The Odyssey" except a story of how much more difficult it is to return home than to go off to war in the first place.
By the time Odysseus returns to his beloved Ithaca, he finds his house, property, even his wife under siege. Such is his anger that the only remedy is brutal revenge. So much for coming home.
Back then they called it heroism. If it happened today, we’d call it mass murder. When I make this point, I am reminded of a painful fact: that war is still being waged near the land where the Greeks and Trojans battled. We are still sending men and women off to their deaths. We celebrate countless examples of their emotional homecomings. We cry when a child or spouse encircles the beloved warrior with an embrace. We hold aside for a moment that the soldier has returned home without a limb, or that he will be haunted – even to suicide – by the things he has seen.
My attitude to the homecoming story was shaped early by an important American story titled "The Man Without a Country." Written by Edward Everett Hale and published in The Atlantic in 1863, it was a patriotic allegory at the time of the Civil War. The story involves a young man, Philip Nolan, who becomes involved in an early episode of rebellion against the United States and then curses his country during a court proceeding. He is sentenced to spend his life as a captive on American sailing vessels never able to visit or even hear news of his homeland again.
He becomes a man without a country.
Someone should send a copy of that story to Edward Snowden. The young man who released national security secrets is a hero to some and a traitor to others. His actions have placed him in a kind of phantom zone. He has expressed a desire to return home, but under what terms? A big part of that story, if it ever happens, will be the power of the archetype. The return of the lost son. The homecoming.
“Prefer archetypes to stereotypes,” I wrote in the book Writing Tools. “Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.”
The difference between an archetype and a stereotype is the difference between opening and closing a window. A stereotype limits what we can see. An archetype expands our vision of what a story can be by recognizing that our feelings about LeBron James – and his return as a kind of prodigal son – grows out of our most profound identification with a place: kith and kin, hearth and home.
Let’s plug James into the plot of one of America’s most iconic stories. Think of James as Dorothy. Think of South Beach as Oz. Think of his Nike Elite Laser Crimson basketball shoes as the ruby slippers. Think of Ohio as Kansas. There’s no place like home.