A sweaty high school gymnasium, dancing in over-sized, hand-me-down heels to the debut single of a burgeoning artist named Beyoncé and her first-time collaborator Jay-Z—for me, that’s homecoming . It’s clambering into the back of a minivan with my six best girl friends and singing the remix to “Ignition” on our way to the local Bennigan’s for the after-party, which is what you did when you were 14 and rockin’ the suburbs. It’s streaking my hair with ungodly substances for Crazy Hair Day and marching through our town’s main square in the frigid October air for the parade.
But “homecoming” is a loaded word, one with wildly different meanings for different people. Just take this year’s two highest-profile homecomings. The first involves a certain Cleveland basketball player whose decision to return to his hometown made such big news that the New York Times endeavored to make it seem small.
From Odysseus to the Prodigal Son to Dorothy and Toto, the return home occupies expansive emotional space in human history.
The other, more controversial and unexpected homecoming was the return of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was released—to great celebration, then criticism, then ambivalence—after five years in captivity in Afghanistan.
Two very different news stories, often framed in very similar terms: someone’s coming home.
From Odysseus to the Prodigal Son to Dorothy and Toto, the return home occupies expansive emotional space in human history. And why shouldn’t it? “Home” is a comforting, alluring, and obsession-inducing concept. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a home—shelter—is one of the basic physiological needs that humans must fulfill before pursuing any others. A person, Maslow suggested, can’t meet any of his or her higher-level needs—things like employment, intimacy, or self-esteem—without first satisfying the fundamental need for shelter.
On the societal level, home and homeownership take on even more concrete, financial meaning. American homeowners hold more than 60 percent of their assets in real estate, a number that had been increasing in the 21st century until the housing market collapsed in 2008. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, “The disproportionate investment is a big reason median wealth fell almost 40 percent when the housing bubble burst, and also a big reason we still haven’t fully recovered.” And despite all this, 61 percent of people still consider owning a home to be “very much” a part of the American Dream.
Depending on whom you ask, a home could mean stability, belonging, and support—but it might also mean difficult relatives, a sniveling dog, and bankruptcy. Whether or not you have a home—and how you live your life in relation to it—has enormous economic and psychological implications. So, all this week, we’ll be telling the stories of what a home means to people—from an urban commune, to a remote cabin in the woods, to a few boxes where one woman stores her childhood.
We’ll also explore the homes for non-human things—like sports teams, which might belong to a town but not have a home to call their own. Or endangered species, which need a new home—but might only find it at the expense of the existence of others. We’ll even find out exactly how much a dog understands the importance and excitement of a soldier returning from war.
We’ll gawk at the topsy-turvy real estate market in Japan, where homes are considered disposable. And we’ll be reminded that there’s no need to go overseas to find a broken housing market.
So gather up your treasured belongings, call your folks to let them know, and don’t forget the corsage and boutonniere—it’s Homecoming Week.