Upstate New York has bequeathed to the American culture two iconic towns, neither of which exist in the real world. Bedford Falls from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the village of Seneca Falls…or so claim the people of Seneca Falls! Oz of the Wizard of Oz book series and one memorable movie also derives its origin from the exact same area – author Frank Baum was spurred on by his living in Fayetteville in what is now the Gage Home.
In the movies, George Bailey/Jimmy Stewart never leaves home while Dorothy/Judy Garland does in spectacular fashion without really meaning too. There is good reason why George never does leave home despite all his protestations and plans: he is the heart and soul of the community. For him to leave would be to rip the life from the community as Clarence, the divine messenger, ingeniously shows through an alternate universe where George had never been born. George learns as Dorothy did that not only is there no place like home but that as an individual you are part of a community that is as much a part of you as every organ in your body.
In the real world, people do leave home. In the real world people leave their homes seeking sanctuary, physical safety, just to survive. In the real world people leave their homes seeking better economic prospects as a village in Ireland now remembers the centennial of its sons and daughters departing on the Titanic for America and knowing that its children today also plan to leave. And in the real world people also leave as communities to start a new life, a better life in a new land where they can create their own future as the Puritans hoped to do when they left England for what they thought would be a city on a hill that the eyes of the world would be upon.
Being at home in a new place isn’t so easy. Whether one is going off to college or a retirement community, leaving the world you know is a time of change, a traumatic experience, a time of stress. Home is supposed to be the place that requires the least energy and effort to live (which makes family abuse so especially heinous). Home is where everybody knows your name. Where you don’t need to ask directions of anyone or activate a gadget to find out where you are or wonder where you can find your favorite food. Cars practically drive by themselves there and the return drive home from a strange place always seems shorter than the drive there because you don’t have to think as much, expend as much energy. When we are removed from the cocoon of home for the strangeness of not-home, the uncertainty mounts, the stress rises, and the body and brain react accordingly.
In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled The New Globalist is Homesick, Susan J. Matt, history professor and author of Homesickness: An American History, addressed this issue. She wrote about the high psychological costs for the people who leave home and end up displaced and depressed. She was referring not only to immigrants around the world today but to Americans who in the 19th century left one part of the country for another. The movement and mobility we cherish as part of our heritage of freedom also is a taxing experience. Matt added that the medical journals refer to this condition by the clinical name of nostalgia. We may not have been swept away in a tornado like Dorothy, but the impact of our personal journeys may have been equally as tumultuous. And just as Dorothy succeeded in returning home, so too many immigrants today return home as soon as they can even to places like Somalia and Iraq.
Home remains a powerful idea and state of mind in us all. For America, the proverbial land of immigrants and internal mobility, the challenge of home is an immense one. For the country to succeed, we need its citizens to think of the entire country as their home. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, our home was bombed. No matter how far away we lived, no matter if we had ever been there or not, no matter even if we could find it on a map or not, it still was a day of infamy for We the people. Similarly on 9/11, the attack on New York was an attack on all America. Hopefully we don’t only need violence, presidential assassinations and wars to remind us that all of America is home to all of us. Hopefully there are other moments in which we can come together as one besides the landing on the moon, our country’s team marching in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and a presidential inaugural.
What about on the local level? What about here in New York State? What about the people in our community who are not descendants of the founders of the community? What about the people who have only lived in a community for 20, 30, or 40 years and still are regarded as the newcomers? What about the people who really are newcomers, the equivalent of just off the boat? For the health of the country we need the citizens of the country to feel in their hearts, think in their minds, and believe in their souls that they are home. For the health of the state, we need the citizens of New York in their hearts, in their minds, and in their souls to consider that they are home. For the health of every hamlet, every village, every town, and every city in the state we the need the citizens of these municipalities to accept in their hearts, in their minds, and in their souls that they are home. The consequences of failure are to become strangers in a strange land as Moses named his son Gershom in wilderness since he was not home.
When I suggested that we use New York State Heritage weekend as a time of community, I wasn’t just preaching kumbaya. When I suggested that bus tours be given of the entire community, I meant that the residents of the community need to see all the community as their home. When I suggested that all fourth graders be given a certificate of community by the mayor or town supervisor, I meant that a ritual is required to foster a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a sense of home. When I suggested that community passports be developed for the students to have stamped as they visit the different places in their community, the homes, the churches, the stores, the government buildings that are the foundation of the community, I meant that the students should develop a sense of ownership about where they live, that this is their home.
Here is where schools, historical societies, and the elected officials have a critical role to play. Historical societies need to reach outside of their comfort level to all the people of the community to lead in the education of the history of their municipality from its founding to its most recent arrivals. Teachers need to be able to teach the story of their community in the public schools. The curriculum must not only include it, it must be integral in practice to the k-12 experience. The training teachers receive in colleges and professional development programs must support this effort for the health of the community. Elected officials need to provide the leadership for it to happen. I know that is a lot to ask of people for whom local history is often of no priority whatsoever but unless the mayors, town supervisors, county executives, and governor support the effort, it’s not going to happen and we all will pay the price. We need our roots before we can learn to fly and fulfill dreams. Fortunately there are practical real-world actions which can be taken to make it so as I will address in a future post.
Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.