Already Home:
A Topography of Spirit and Place

by Barbara Gates


Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston 2003. ISBN 1570624909.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 02/12/2004

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Ocean View in Berkeley, California, is home to Barbara Gates, a freelance writer, editor and co-founder of the Buddhist journal, "Inquiring Mind". She spent seven years writing this memoir while observing everyday events in her family and on her block, exploring the natural and human history of her house and area and being in tune with the inner workings of her own mind. While writing and exploring, she found an interrelation among her observances and learned to truly inhabit her home by uncovering the many layers of its history.

Barbara wanted to be open to an identity that was more inclusive than her mortal self. To do that she needed to get to know her home place, including all of its darkness and blemishes. Her personal darkness included the diagnosis of breast cancer. Over the years, she said she continued to find out not only about the terrain but about herself. She learned how self and terrain are inseparable as she was confronted by the impermanence of her body and an endangered world.

Buddhist mindfulness practice helped Barbara give names to new practices such as "skunk practice" when her dog Cleo encountered a skunk on their walk one day. "Skunk practice" became a new mindfulness practice that was inclusive. It didnšt leave anything out no matter how dark or scary, "no matter how much it stinks".

Reading Barbarašs book was a huge gift. First of all, to observe her courage and then to realize that mindfulness leaves nothing out. In embracing it all, she found a sense of home. She offers us the challenge.

During her encounters with neighbors, research into the previous owners of her house and walks with her dog, Barbara also learned about the Ohlone Indian shellmound on the north bank of Strawberry Creek. Archaeologists have found that people lived on these mounds for thousands of years as far back as 3700 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). Evidence shows the shellmounds were intentionally elevated villages with storage pits, earth ovens and hearths on top of ancestral remains.

"Shellmound mind" became Barbarašs new experiment in her imagination. She asked herself, "Can I risk that ancient experience of home where categories such as household and church, garbage dump and cemetery—so separate in our current world—converge?" She began to see both garbage in the local dump and human remains in the cemetery as "stations in an immense recycling plant". "I see the two juxtaposed in the vast shellmound home of our world—where life breaks down, feeds the gulls, the worms, the bacteria and feeds into new life."

"Shellmound mind," Barbara said in an interview, "is a state of dynamic awareness, where dread, disgust, anger and other difficult emotions are compost for insights that enable us to live in place."

The title of the book comes from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote about the whole cosmos being found in a piece of paper or in our bodies. He said, "...meditation means to look deeply, to touch deeply so we can realize we are already home."

The author set out to look deeply into herself and into her Ocean View neighborhood, where she discovered the whole cosmos. In doing so, she inspires others to step beyond the comfortable and take more risks. The risks can involve exploring new terrain including the garbage dump and the cemetery, observing the street outside your window and entering new emotional terrain.

Already Home is an invitation to cut doors in our fences, share dinners and perhaps silence with one another. The book also reminds us that as we sit comfortably in our warm homes, there are homeless people outside. As Barbara became intimate with the place where she lives, she said she "...settled more fully into a wide sense of myself [and] began to glimpse an inner sense of home."

Barbara's story truly inspired me. It is helping me connect to the land on which I now live in southwestern Ontario. Already Home is also a great tool for the "Writing Your Way Home" classes I teach. Visit her website to find out more about the author and her work. Her "Questions for Reflection" offer the reader an opportunity to reflect on her own home territory. Enjoy!

Check out our interview with the author of Already Home.

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