“Home,” Robert Frost once wrote, “is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” In Home by Another Way: Notes From the Caribbean, Nashville spirituality writer Robert Benson offers another way of understanding home, a vision that is broader, looser and much more gracious. For him, home seems to be a quality of aliveness: it’s a welcome that deepens into open-hearted engagement with place and with people. This concept evolved from several years’ worth of two-week vacations he and his wife took on St. Cecilia—a fictional name for a real Caribbean island, which Benson wants to keep anonymous lest hordes of readers try to re-create his experience literally. The book, like a vacation itself, has an out-and-back structure, a lot of long dawdling sunlit moments, and something beautiful to bring back to those at home in Nashville.
There’s a lot of detail here as Benson chronicles the specifics of slipping into island life and island time. Central to the narrative are the leisurely rhythms of the days he spends with his wife: the scribbling round, the sunning round, the napping round, the sunset round. We find pleasure in their pleasures: watching the birds, sharing coffee on the porch, becoming regulars at the Heptagon restaurant, riding around together exploring the island and imagining how to make it all permanent. The details blur into a sense of rhythm, and what emerges is how rhythm is a way of making a home in time itself. We wonder—and there’s plenty of time for reflection in this book as it’s not a page-turner, but a sort of contemplative bask—we wonder what kind of home we’ve made in time ourselves.
About a third of the way into this book, we start to breathe more slowly, our heart rate drops and we even catch that sun-drenched, breezy, beachy feeling. But we’re not the ones at the beach, and we may eventually get a teensy bit restless for some kind of a . . . point. And it’s just about then, as Benson watches a seabird catch a thermal and spiral toward the sun, that the repetition and rhythm come into focus. He offers this image of the bird as a way of picturing what he’s after in all those rounds of his day, and by extension, what he’s after in this book: “One way or another I have spent most of my life watching for certain signs and wonders of the Something Unnamed that is at the center of everything. Over the years I have come to see that some sitting still is required if one is to see such things. …I have also come to believe that it helps to keep circling as well, which is as good a name for my scribbling as anything else I can think of. So I do, circling round and round, from scribbling round to sunset round, day after day, season after season, year after year. I don’t know the name of what it is that I will finally come to see. Home may be as good a name as any.”
Benson’s personal circling round eventually moves him toward a communal vision of what home can be, and it’s not a bit otherworldly. Inspired by the people he meets—such as Daisy, the cab driver who holds up traffic to check in with her daughter, or the dozen held-up drivers, who don’t mind at all—and by the island newspaper, which reveals such humane priorities as government-sponsored music education for all young people, he senses that people in St. Cecilia “are expected to live out their lives with something resembling civility and grace. In St. Cecilia there is an earnestness, an idealism, an authentic sense of concern expressed in the public discourse that is largely missing in the country in which I was born.” He picks up on what seems to be “a larger conspiracy, a conspiracy to commit civil society perhaps.”
It’s this gracious quality found in so many island people that leads Benson to realize he has “crossed over.” Not only is he keeping an eye out for a good piece of property: he’s also buying into a different way of understanding home. It’s a very hopeful view of civilization inspired by the reality he sees on the island. It’s not heaven, but “the people who live here still believe they are to be about the business of replicating heaven if they can.” Can we, as a culture, ever cross the line into an enlightened version of the civil society that perhaps we once were, back in the days when life wasn’t so complicated and big and hurried and stuffed full of stuff? That’s the question Benson leaves us with, and however unlikely it is that Nashville alone will ever transform en masse, we can celebrate the pockets of civility and grace that do exist, and help make more of them ourselves.
What Benson is about here—his spiraling search for home in personal and collective life, and his discovery of at least some of what he longs for on St. Cecilia—could perhaps be more to the point as a shapely sonnet, or a short essay, or a letter home. But as in any real writing, the point itself isn’t the whole point. This memoir is like a beach towel left on the cabana clothesline, lifting in the tropical breeze, calling less attention to itself than to the prevailing winds which point one wise man toward another way home.