I think about the meaning of home a lot.
I am a foreigner in the United States, a transplanted South African who misses the complexities of my beautiful country. I also think about the meaning of home because I work for The Telling Project — a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that uses storytelling to bridge the gap between military veterans and the civilian communities in which they make their homes.
Coming home after military service is not easy. There’s an entire literary tradition, spanning back to the great nostos texts of the Ancient Greeks, dedicated to its complexity. Simply put, many veterans have a difficult time adjusting to civilian society because military service is an intense overload of experiences. It has a way of reprioritizing everything you think you know. For many veterans, returning to a civilian world that doesn’t get it (and doesn’t seem overly interested in understanding) doesn’t feel like a homecoming. It feels like loss. It feels like being a foreigner in your own country.
So, what does home mean? I’ve come to think of it as a fleeting thing – an alchemical moment that happens when hearts align. Striving for the next such moment and holding to the memory of the last holds the world together.
Allow me to explain: I grew up a privileged white kid in the waning years of Apartheid. The townships were on fire while Apartheid’s white beneficiaries lived mostly insulated lives. When Apartheid ended, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] was established. I came into my young adulthood, sheltered as I had been, watching national broadcasts in which the mostly black survivors of human rights violations told their stories.
The TRC was very controversial, its functions various and complex. And so I speak only for myself when I say that it opened me up. I had to admit my own racism and complicity, my own ignorance. I hurt with the people that were hurt in my name. I reveled in their resilience. I was in awe of their generosity. They made themselves publicly vulnerable in the act of telling. The very least anyone could do was to listen.
South Africa remains a broken country, and we must all continue to hold ourselves accountable. But for those few moments, as painful as they were, we looked each other square in the eye, and to me, it felt like we were all home together.
When Jonathan Wei, the founder of The Telling Project invited me in 2007 to help develop the Telling Project process, I didn’t know that I was being invited to come home. The Telling Project asks veterans to tell their stories in interviews that are recorded, transcribed, and shaped into play scripts. We provide performance training and rehearsal. And then the veterans step onto stages and gift civilians with the opportunity to listen to stories of loss and triumph, of laughter and grief, of guilt and pride, of disappointment and patriotism.
Because when people make themselves vulnerable to each other by telling their stories and listening, they become home to each other, whether or not they served, no matter where they come from.
From May 5-7, three U.S. military veterans and two military spouses will share their stories of service at the Zeiders American Dream Theater in Telling: Virginia Beach, the Telling Project’s 51st original production. Later this year, veterans of the Vietnam War will share their stories in Norfolk in collaboration with WHRO. In so doing, they present Hampton Roads with an opportunity. For more info or tickets, click here.
This is a modified version of a blog post run on the Minnesota Humanities Center blog on February 9, 2017.