Stories of Homecoming

Award-winning writer, filmmaker, travel guide and storyteller Phil Cousineau talks about the joys and challenges of homecoming — the oldest tale in the world, repeated from The Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz.  

Phil’s fascination with other cultures has taken him from Michigan to Marrakesh, from Iceland to the Amazon.  He’ s written more than 35 books, including The Hero’s Journey, Stoking the Creative Fires, The Art of Pilgrimage and The Book of Roads.  He’s also host of Global Spirit, the first “internal travel series” on PBS.

In this podcast, Phil explains why it’s so hard for the hero — or the heroine — to get back home again; why Americans feel so rootless; how rituals help us celebrate our travels, and why we need to share our stories, and reconnect with loved ones around the hearth. Here are some excerpts with the audio and full transcript below.

On Homecoming and Detroit

I just came back from the city where I grew up, and there are so many people walking around with sweatshirts for the Detroit Tigers, but also shirts that say DIA for the Detroit Institute of Arts. The people in Detroit who are essentially rebuilding the city are identifying not just with sports, but with culture.

Detroit has had the most precipitous decline in population in urban history. And so this is a huge moment. A rebirth, a renaissance. It’s very hard to begin to rebuild without this sense of pride. It’s an axiom now that if people don’t love, not just like or identify with, if they don’t love where they live, they will burn the place down.

Reading The Odyssey Today

This story is about the awakening of a man who has not quite appreciated his wife, Penelope, and who has upset the gods who are wrecking havoc on his effort to get home again.  After his time with Circe, Odysseus goes down into the underworld to find Tiresias, the sage, who tells him: You can get home again but you will have to suffer.  The gods will make it difficult for you to do this. You will have to curb your desires and the desires of the men in your crew. This is the psychological insight:  It’s your desires that have kept you from getting home again.  What does that mean for us today?

The Wizard of Oz

In the last scene the Good Witch turns to Dorothy and says, “If you just wake up, you will see that you have always been at home.”  The Buddha said this, too, along with other great spiritual teachers.  Wake up!  In some way,  we all go to sleep. And then philosophy, religion, travel, art,  wake us up again. When all five senses are alive, you can be home anywhere.

Full Transcript

Valerie: Phil, I’d like to welcome you to the show and thank you for being here today.

Phil: I’m thrilled to be talking to you any time, Valerie, especially on the radio.

Valerie: We’ve got a great topic today. It’s homecoming from Homer to The Wizard of Oz, and I really can’t think of anybody better than you to address that. So I’d like to begin by asking why you think it is we’re all so preoccupied with homecoming, especially here in America. Is there some sense that we need to revive our cities so people will actually want to come home and inhabit them again?

Phil: Great question. My friend Pico Iyer, the travel writer, told me recently that there are more refugees than any time in human history. There are more people traveling by air than   at any time in human history.  There is a constant population of people wandering, leaving home, making us more rootless than ever before. Combined with that, Americans, I think from the very beginning, have been rootless. Who belongs here, who can really call it home? Who gets to stay?

I travel a great deal and I often hear from my European friends that they think it’s a little curious how many Americans go to Europe to find their roots. Now, why would we do this? Because on some level, we still don’t feel quite at home in America or like we even could be.

Valerie: What you’re saying is important — that as a nation, we don’t feel at home. We have memories of our ancestors moving from railroad town to railroad town as the economic landscape of America changed. And we have memories of our families moving from one country to the next. And so our memory is perhaps more of dislocation than it is of a central hearth.

Phil: Yes. What did Will Durant say?  It took England 700 years to produce Shakespeare and France 900 years to produce Voltaire. Like that, it  takes centuries to come up with a common identity.  

As an athlete and sports follower and someone who’s written a book on the history of the Olympics, I find it curious that we have used the verb “to root” to describe our relationship with our sporting teams for at least 150 years. And I don’t think that’s an accident of language. I think it’s telling us is that when we root, root, root for the San Francisco Giants or the Manchester soccer team, we are sinking roots because we identify with them.

Valerie: That’s a beautiful use of the word. I had never thought of that, but our teams are our mascots for a sense of place. When there’s a home game, there’s all of this spirit that’s palpable in the stadium and the away team really has to work against that. So there is a real sense of place at sports events.

Phil: It’s almost obsessive. We wear the colors, the caps, we wear the jerseys. We deeply identify sometimes to the point of going berserk. But James Hillman, the great American depth psychologist, said rather than try to suppress that, we should actually increase the pageantry.  We are talking about our pride in the home team, the pride of the team that we root for.  

I just came back from Detroit where I grew up, and there are so many people walking around with sweatshirts with what they call “the old English D” for the Detroit Tigers, but also in shirts that say DIA, which means the Detroit Institute of Arts. Now, what does this mean? It means that people in Detroit who are essentially rebuilding the city that’s in a rebirth, in a renaissance, are identifying not just with sports, but with culture. They are actually wearing art institute or museum baseball caps and T-shirts. Why? Because for about 25 years or so, it’s been very hard to identify with home as the place has gone from one of the fastest growing cities in the world — Detroit got up to two million people in the 1960s — down to about 550,000 residents. This is the most precipitous decline in population in urban history. And so this is a huge moment.

Fans at Tiger Stadium with photo of the legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell roaring into the microphone

It’s very hard to begin to rebuild without a sense of pride. It’s an axiom now that people don’t love, not just like or identify with, if they don’t love where they live, they will burn the place down.

If you’re ashamed of home, which is traditionally a sanctuary, where you feel safety, where you feel a sense of refuge, I think a kind of archetypal anger builds up. If  you’re not proud of it, if you aren’t happy to go home, if you don’t find sanctuary and safety and identity, you will turn on the place you live.

Valerie: What do you think has turned Detroit around?

Phil: Well, I don’t often talk about economics. However, economics itself, like ecology, is a word with home at the center of it. It’s based on the old Greek oikos. So economics: It took some investment early on. It took a couple of major tech companies to go in, some banks to go back in and recognize that real estate was extraordinarily, almost egregiously cheap for a short amount of time. The investment comes in and then some pride follows and then a commitment from the people themselves to defend and remake home.

Valerie: Wasn’t there a really interesting homesteading movement in Detroit? I remember reading about people who were going in and for a very small amount of money reclaiming these crumbling brownstones. They were putting sweat equity and they were going in and rebuilding the plumbing and rebuilding the walls and the floors themselves. And they were young people. They were writers and artists who couldn’t find another city where they could afford to live. And so they started flocking to Detroit, saying, “This is a place we can build with our hands.”

Phil: Well, that’s beautifully put. I returned there a few years ago because of a film I worked on about our home baseball park called Stealing Home. How about that one? You’re trying to rip our stadium down and we feel ripped off like you’re stealing from us. But it’s also a pun, because the very first run that was ever scored was at Tiger Stadium with Ty Cobb, stealing home.

We showed the film which got nominated for an Emmy. And I ended up walking around all the little businesses on the main street in Detroit on Woodward Avenue.  Brand new shops that had been opened by young people, not just Americans, but a whole flock of young Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians who were coming because the property was so cheap. But also what I kept hearing was something really beautiful:  “This is where the edge is this.” A 25 year-old started telling me, “New York is behind us. I would just get swallowed up in Los Angeles. I would feel anonymous. But here I can make a contribution.” Now, isn’t that a beautiful element of how you build a home?

Valerie: This is perhaps the true meaning of the word living space or living room that you have a place to grow.

Phil: I kept hearing that in the voice of the people who were saying, “I want to bring this city back.” In other words, “I want to build a home.” You know, Greek myths as well as I do. There’s this wonderful notion of Hestia who’s the goddess of the hearth.

Valerie: Yes.

Phil. Not just in the individual home. But also there was a Hestia sanctuary in every town, every city, 300 major cities in ancient Greece. That’s what I’m alluding to, that there is something sacred about the home. And with your marvelous project, reinventing the home,  I think it’s important to remind ourselves that there is not just the economic aspect of a house. The equity, the mortgage and so on. But there’s a sacred element. And the sacred element is what you will fight for is what you will build a family around.

Again, going back to the Greeks, I love this idea of Xenia — it’s a code of hospitality. We have some of that in our language now. When we talk about the negative side, xenophobia, shutting people out. The hatred or the suspicion of strangers.

But the Greeks have another beautiful word, which I would love to bring back. Xenophilia, or the love of strangers. And the notion. “Would you like to come in? Would you like to come to dinner? Would you like to have some tea? Could you meet me in the taverna? Someone wants us to feel at home when we are visiting.

I love this topic, but it’s also double-edged for me. There is the literal home where we have our address and we keep our favorite books and so forth. There’s also this constant urge in the human condition to when we travel to make ourselves at home somewhere else.

Valerie: I know you’ve written a lot about pilgrimage, and that was one of the things I had hoped we’d cover today.  What it means to go away from home in order to find it again, how we seem to need the rhythm of going from one place to another in order to have that sense of coming home.

Phil: I would consider the Australian walkabout, the Aborigine walkabout as a pilgrimage. Going back to the site of the ancestors to be to be replenished, to have to have a vision. And I think that happens right up to the modern day in the pilgrimage is the journey that you can’t can’t take. I love the double negative in there.

In other words, there is a crisis and your wife can’t save you. Your best friend isn’t going to give you the answer. Your rabbi or your priest can’t help you. Even your psychoanalyst who you’ve been talking to for ten years. (But) there is something deep in the human soul, I call it the psychotropic function – and I don’t mean taking drugs,  literally psychotropic things – I’m  talking about the turning of the soul, the turning of the psyche.

Valerie: I want to get into Odysseus here because this is the primary myth. I know that you went back to Greece and tracked the steps of Odysseus coming home to Ithaka this summer. And I know that you have written about the meaning of this myth for all of us. So tell me, what do you think is happening? How is Odysseus is alive in all of us today?

Phil: It’s such a timely question because as you mentioned, I was just in there. I’ve been going to Greece since 1975, but Ithaka is very difficult to get to. So I didn’t actually make the visit until recently and I’m now inspired to take, to lead, a tour there next year in the footsteps of Odysseus and Penelope, because finally the women and the goddesses are getting their say in this ancient story. Both sides of the human race, the hero and the heroine’s journey.

Valerie: We see the same story with Greta Thunberg and all the wonderful young female activists we have now.  Greta got on a boat and she came across the ocean because she didn’t want to fly. She wanted to reduce her carbon footprint. So she came on an Odysseus like journey on a ship with a mast to America.

Phil: I think we’re responding to her to that voyage because this story has been in us for about twenty seven hundred years, probably older, if you go back to the oral tradition. So why is it important now?

Allesandro Allori. Odysseus questions the seer Tiresias.

Odysseus reluctantly goes off to war and when he leaves, he’s trying to take care of business. He’s just become a father. He has an infant son. So he turns to his best friend Mentor. Will you take care of my son while I’m away? And that’s the origin of our word in our notion of the mentor, the person who will take care of the children, of the young people when we go off to war.

We know he fights for ten years before Troy is brought to its knees and then razed to the ground. The psychological aspect of the one that is so significant to us now is that it takes him not just a couple of months to go from the west coast of what is now Turkey back on the west coast of Greece. It takes him ten years.

My old friend Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology, once joked that it was because he had to earn his way back home. And to do that, he had to fight. He had to overcome or endure two things: monsters and women.

This is the awakening of a man who has not quite appreciated his wife, Penelope, and who has upset the gods and the gods, especially Poseidon, are wrecking havoc on his effort to get home again.

One of the most compelling parts of the story is when he becomes lovers with Circe. She offers him immortality. “Just stay with me. Be my lover. You will be immortal. We will make love forever. You will never want for a thing.” But he is pining for Ithaka. He is feeling what the Greeks called nostalgia.

Nostalgia is Greek for the pain of going home again. It’s not sentimental. The original sense of nostalgia, which I just felt going back to Detroit is bittersweet. So he’s pining for Penelope, for his son Telemachus, and the land. This is really important. Valerie, we’re talking about the land itself, the land aspect of home. She says, “There’s only one person who can help you get home again because you have offended the gods — and that’s Tiresias. You have to go down to the land of the dead.”

This is one of the most magnificent aspects of Homer’s book. He (Odysseus) goes down into the underworld to find Tiresias, the sage. The soothsayer, who says: You can get home again. Now, here is the psychological revelation. You can get home again. But you will have to suffer.  

It is not easy to get home again. The gods will make it difficult for you to do this. This line slays me. You will have to curb your desires and the desires of the men in your crew. It’s your desires that have kept you from getting home again.

Valerie:  This is so culturally relevant. We are we are living in an age where we can follow our desires in a nanosecond. We can buy something by pressing a button on our iPhone. We can become famous by having the perfect tweet. We have all of these things that are preying on our desires and what I feel people are longing for is a sense of home….to get back to that content of the home and of the soul.  This is what you write about so beautifully in all of your books.

We have to let go of the desire for the perfect meal that we capture in our Instagram, for all of these things that are like Circe calling to us, saying, I’m going to give you your 10 seconds of fame. It’s like, how do we go deeper? How do we get beyond that seduction of technology and do what Odysseus had to do, lash ourselves to the mast, and get back home?

Phil: And then what do we do when we get back home? We can either revert right back to the whole cult of desire because the world is there. It will feed or all our desires, but we will still be lonely if we don’t make the next move. For me, the next move is to sink our roots into where we are.

We can do that by knowing the history of the place, the music, the people who lived there before us. Pay attention to the smells.  I call it the five senses approach. When was the last time any of us walked around our neighborhood and didn’t touch our cellphones, but instead just smelled? I live in North Beach here in San Francisco, and I’m lucky in that way. I can walk around the neighborhood. Of course I’m watching, but I’m also smelling because we have real bakeries here. We have many coffee shops. If I can smell, that is actually bringing me home again. James Hillman has the notion that that smell is the strongest and the most transportive — the most mythic of our of our senses, especially in the Underworld.

Valerie: It’s definitely the most ancient. For me, when I walk through certain sections of Mill Valley and I smell the eucalyptus trees, I’m immediately transported to the first time I set foot in California.

Phil: Oh, wonderful. I think it’s also a way for us to go home again. A single smell of castor oil, of all things, takes me there, because my grandmother lived with us for a while.   Grandma Dora used to pinch my nose and pour castor oil down my throat and say “Someday you’ll thank me for this, Philip.”  

Well, what has happened just now? I used the phrase, the word. I can roll those syllables in my mouth and my grandma Dora is standing right here in the room with me. I suggest that if we are trying to reinvent the home, we revisit our senses.

Here’s another example. Late last night, my wife, Jo and I went to hear a magnificent musician, Georgios Xylouris, who hails from Crete and the room was filled with two hundred people, probably two thirds of them Greek.  And why were they there? They were there to go home again through music and the sounds transported them. You could hear the gasps for two hours during this concert because the listeners weren’t alone. They were taken back to Crete, to Greece, probably thinking about parents, old boyfriends and girlfriends and so on. Our senses are transported. If we can honor our senses and our memory about home, I think we can even strengthen wherever we live. 

Valerie: I love your five senses approach. I think that would be a great writing exercise for everybody who’s listening. Go down and take a look at what you see when you look out your window, what you smell when you open the door and step out into the street, what you taste when you have memories of home. Think about what it feels like to polish a table and feel a grain of wood and actually care for the things in your household and touch them and get a sense of their own aliveness.

Phil: When James Joyce wrote Ulysses  (we know this because we can see in his journals and diaries and so on),  every chapter had a mineral, a god, a smell, a sense of touch. And I think this is why, when he finished being a brash Irishman,  he said he wanted to baffle scholars for a thousand years, but by reading Ulysses future scholars, future readers could reassemble Dublin brick by brick.

Valerie: That book has always been such a vast puzzle. And just like Joseph Campbell gave us the key to Finnegans Wake, I think you just gave one for Ulysses to our listeners.

Phil:  I think that’s the key for getting home as well.  We can reinvent where we live now with a bit of an echo, let’s call it an echo of where we grew up. A color scheme on our walls, a sense of smell. Maybe by the flowers that we have around the home. We are constantly evoking the home we came from and strengthening the home we’re building at the moment.

Valerie: That’s beautiful, that’s a wonderful exercise. I’d like to wrap up with one of our favorite films about homecoming, and that’s The Wizard of Oz, because I think that resonates so much with all of us. We’re talking about a young person, and this film is laying out the archetype of losing and re-finding home that you’ve just so beautifully described in this interview.

Still from the 1938 film, The Wizard of Oz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I’m wondering what it is about that film that speaks to you. And if you had to come up with one theme in that movie that you would want our listeners to really meditate on. What would you choose?

Phil: Well, two brief ones.  In the early 60s, someone, I think was at CBS, took a chance and they played this film on Easter Sunday. And they got such a tremendous response, they played it again the next year and then the next year. The whole time I was growing up, The Wizard of Oz was associated with Easter Sunday. Now what’s the overlap? The theme of rebirth or resurrection.

In a true hero’s or heroine’s journey, the character dies symbolically at the beginning and is reborn by coming home again.  The Easter association is what I think catapulted this film into being a worldwide phenomenon. 

And then the second part is the very last scene of the movie…Dorothy is lying in her bed, feeling her head because she’s had a big bump and she’s wondering, where am I in my room.  And I believe the line is from the good witch Glenda.  “If you just wake up, you will see that you have always been at home.”

To me, that’s the key to the film. It’s metaphysical, which is very unusual for a Hollywood film. But there’s a truism, there’s an ancient truism there. The Buddha said it. What’s the essence of my teaching? Wake up. Most great spiritual teachers have said the same thing. We go to sleep, as Gurdjieff put it. We all know we’re human. We go to sleep. And then philosophy, religion, travel, art — these are all different ways to wake us up again. But what that means is this. If you wake up, and all five senses are alive, you realize you can be home anywhere.

Valerie: This brings back a memory for me. We moved a lot when I was a kid. And I think one of the things I’ve always related to in The Wizard of Oz is the sense that I think every child has that no matter how wonderful their upbringing is, there’s this moment when you feel like you’re a stranger in a strange land. You feel like you’re an orphan. Just like Dorothy who has lost her parents and she’s being raised by Auntie Em.

There’s that feeling, “Do they really love me? Is this really my home? Are these really my parents? Do I really belong here?”  When we moved to one new town, I had a sort of Orphan Annie scarf  I wore to school. And the kids called me orphan that day. And I remember just getting very determined and deciding that I was going to make this place my home.  I started making friends and I realized that the whole message for me in The Wizard of Oz is the point that we all feel like a stranger in a strange land. We all feel like the orphan. But it’s how we manage to make a place into our true home that really gives us character and gives our lives meaning. This is getting back to the beginning of this conversation, the notion that The Wizard of Oz is really about the discovery that we create home. It’s never given to us. We have to make it. We have to make it with our senses,  our spirits and our hands.

Phil: I would add two things to that, which is these are traditional tales, as Bruno Bettelheim says, in The Uses of Enchantment.  This (notion) is brought into the forefront by Frank L Baum who said, “We cannot rely on European fairy tales anymore. I am making one for young American children.”

First, there’s an animal component there. Toto is a reminder that you need to get back to your animal nature. You can’t do this alone with just ratiocination. You can’t get by on your superhuman intellectual effort. You need contact with the natural world. And the other aspect is this: It’s lonely to be a kid. It’s lonely to be in that never-never land in between youth and adulthood. But if you find allies — there’s the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the scarecrow – (that helps). If a young child is probably into the teens can find allies, they will know they’re not alone.

Valerie: That way you can find your way home.

Phil: Yes, that’s the formula throughout human history.  What about the classic and corrosive American loneliness?  Our myth of individualism?  We are the greatest innovators and tinkerers in human history, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs.  However,  the myth of individualism pits us against our own families, against the community, against the tribe. In The Wizard of Oz, we see young Dorothy, alone scathingly alone. But then she finds three allies.  And remember, when they begin to dance to the Land of Oz, she actually skips along the road. It’s one of the most enchanting moments in movie history, because I think that’s how we all feel when we find we’re not alone.  

Valerie: That skipping, its lightheartedness. The joy of discovery.

Phil: Yes. Yes.  I’m inspired by a Russian painter, Chagall, who once wrote, “I paint in order to be surprised.” I believe that as a writer, the greatest writing happens when we surprise ourselves. “Where did that come from? How did how do you think of that?” I like to think of the surprise element about coming home again, where you bring a gift to the people that you love. You’d make some kind of shift in order to surprise yourself in your own relationship with home.

Be open to some kind of change when you come back as a traveler; you’ve asked me to think about that and I’m so glad that you did. When I went back to Detroit. Was it the same? Was I the same? No. It’s almost completely different. But so am I.

Valerie: Is there a particular ritual you have when you cross your threshold? You do a lot of travel. And you’re really the spokesperson for what we can gain from pilgrimage. And your own homecoming must be profound.

Phil:  For me, it’s music. I put on, maybe some blues or some classical. And when I hear the music, I feel like I’m home again, here in San Francisco. That’s what grounds me. I think there’s a universal element to that.  For millennia, when a pilgrim would return home, the neighbors and the family would put on a kind of fete or feast. You didn’t just sit around and think about what happened in your six months of being on the road. People danced and they sang and they ate together. So you break bread. You have a drink. You clink glasses. Those are all elemental rituals, where you say: “All right. That part of my life is over for now. I’m home again.”

Valerie:  Homecoming is so active. We have to embrace where we are.  Embrace the people. Have a reunion with everybody in the neighborhood, with our family, with our friends.

Is there anything else you do, Phil? Is there a person you call or something you like to do with your wife or your son? That that makes you feel, “I’m home now. I’m really here.”

Phil: We tell stories. My son Jack is 23 now and we have a kind of traditional greeting upon return. “So, Pop. Was it fun? What did you do? Who did you meet? What did you see?” Those are elemental questions. I know, this can sound really literary, but my inspiration for this is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The pilgrim heading to Canterbury finds a stranger on the first day of travel to tell her story to. “I am from London. This is who I am. This is what I do.”

But Chaucer has this wonderful notion. On the way back, you have to find a second stranger to share what happened when you reached Canterbury Cathedral. This was written about eight hundred years ago. But psychologically, it is so astute. The moment we begin to tell this story, “This is who I saw. This is what I felt” — we incorporate our travel into the home.

Valerie: That is beautiful.

Phil: We need to incorporate, “to bring into the body.” That’s what that word means, to bring into the body and into the soul what you saw.

So what did I tell my son, when I returned from Detroit?  “Jack, I saw many people. I was honored at this library and had a wonderful month at the James Thurber house in Columbia in Columbus, Ohio. But the most moving element of my journey was that I went to the grave of your grandfather.”  I could see my son was deeply moved by that. It’s a bit of a risk sometimes to tell our friends and family what was truly the most important part of our travels. But you know what? It’s searingly honest as well.  I cannot have a complete trip back home without going to my father’s grave and then going to raise a glass with a couple of old friends.

Valerie: That’s a beautiful description of homecoming and the way we wrap things up emotionally when we allow ourselves to be fully present for them.

Phil: It takes a few risks, but it does.

Valerie: And the rewards are marvelous. I want to thank you for being with us today, and I hope to talk to you again about other aspects of home. It’s always a delight to speak with you. And I’m going to tell our listeners how they can learn more about the art of making a pilgrimage and all your books on creativity that touch on the art of coming home. Go to www.PhilCousineau.net    Thank you so much for being with us today.

Phil: It’s been a joy. I felt like I was home talking to you. 

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