The last couple years have sometimes felt like one long goodbye to home. Turning to wave to friends and family as I pass through airport security to fly from Kentucky to Cambridge has become a marker of the passage of time, each goodbye—whether for an entire term or only the short weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks—a reminder that home is no longer the place I return to every night, the place from which absence is the exception rather than the rule. It is, I imagine, an experience shared by many students at Harvard, where so many come from other states or even other countries.
Maybe there is a meaningful sense in which Cambridge—or any other college town—can become a student’s home; I have noticed friends use “home” to mean their dorms, though I’ve yet to feel comfortable doing so. But that is not the kind of home I want to discuss, the kind of home to which one traces his origins, the home that can be as much a part of who a person is as his family or name. Whether you have that kind of home or not, the longing for a home like that—real or imagined—is a longing so frequently expressed in art that I am convinced the feelings wrapped up in that longing are universal.
Perhaps it is my own yearning for home that has drawn me to art rooted in these feelings. For my part, I associate that longing with a song I learned to sing in second grade, a song I’ve sung at school assemblies and basketball games for years since: Kentucky’s state anthem. “My Old Kentucky Home” is not so much a celebration of the state as a lament from the perspective of someone who has had to leave that state behind, who recalls with longing a more carefree past. “I will sing one song for my old Kentucky home,” reads the chorus, “for my old Kentucky home far away.”
The official bluegrass song of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, tells a similar story. “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” written by Bill Monroe—and made even more famous through covers by, to name a few, Elvis, Paul McCartney, and Ray Charles—tells the story of a lost love. “It was on a moonlight night, the stars were shining bright,” sings the lover, “when they whispered from on high, your love has said goodbye / Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining.” These are songs I can identify with, songs that couch love for home in a feeling of loss. For me the two feelings have become nearly identical.
But why does it feel right to respond to bereavement by singing about that sorrow, to answer homelessness by singing about a home far away? Can singing about my lost home help me find it again? Maybe in lamenting its loss we summon those feelings proper to home, mixing memory with desire, and summon something of home into our hearts. Maybe a song about home can be as if a magic spell, a melodic conjuring of a home which, whether we ever really return or not, lingers for a time—returning home, in a sense, to us.
If these last couple years have been a long goodbye, they have also been spent learning how to return to a home with which my relationship, if not my affection, has changed. This is the longing Kentucky’s two anthems awakens in me, the longing to return to a home that, though not exactly the same, is still lit by that same blue moon. Maybe it is the same promise with which T.S. Eliot ends his Four Quartets in a secluded chapel in England, the promise of an end that is the return to the beginning, a final homecoming: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
This Thanksgiving Break I will return to Versailles, Kentucky again, back to the town in which I’ve spent most of my life but only a few months of the past year. It will, I have little doubt, be much the same: the same main street with the same brick-front shops and restaurants, the same sprawling horse farms and winding back roads. But I will not be the same, and I will see home with new eyes, as if for the first time, perhaps catching the first soft notes of some new melody in the whispering leaves as they fall under the light of a blue Kentucky moon.
—Columnist Adam T. Horn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.