The Search for Home:
Daniel Paul Journeys to his Hometown and Back.
What is home?
It seems like an easy question at first. Yet, the definition of home may be as diverse as the individuals considering the idea, layering a three-word question with vast complexity. What is home for you? Is it a street address? A geographic area? A family? A feeling of security or a sense of belonging?
I ask Daniel Paul Drent, “What is home?” and his initial response is a heavy sigh. I’m driving my sunset red SUV. Daniel Paul sits to my right in the passenger seat. We’re headed to Grattan. I take in the lonely road before us. Then, I turn my face to look at him to read his body language. Is he uncomfortable with the question? No, but I can see his countenance reflecting the weight of my words. Location. Loss. Gain. Gravity.
“That’s the same question we’ve been asking at Dwelling Place,” says Daniel Paul. “What is a good quality of life?” He’s referring a survey that the staff of Dwelling Place encouraged it’s tenants to partake in.
Dwelling Place is a non-profit organization. A visit to its website tells the reader that, “Dwelling Place improves the lives of people by creating quality affordable housing, providing essential support services, and serving as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization.” Daniel Paul, emerging from what our culture commonly refers to as homelessness, has now been a resident of Dwelling Place for several years. Today he serves as a volunteer community leader, but his story includes finding physical, mental, and emotional health among financial challenges.
As an Artist-in-residence with Dwelling Place from July through December of 2022, I choose to explore the idea of “home” with residents I meet in its community gardens. I choose to focus my conversations with residents at the apartments of Herkimer, Weston, Ferguson, and Reflections, all in Grand Rapids. I take photos of the gardens and its caretakers at all these locations and include a few photographs of the courtyard garden at the Verne Barry building. All but one of these locations are in the downtown area of Grand Rapids. I ask Daniel Paul who maintains a garden plot behind the old Herkimer Hotel for an interview. I want to know why gardening is a part of his experience of creating a home for himself. He’s a friend and obliges my request, although in essence his response is, “I can show you better than I can tell you.”
“I live in my apartment,” continues Daniel Paul, “but that’s not my home.” His sentiment echoes conversations I’ve had with other residents who are happy to have an affordable place to live, but always seem to be reaching for something beyond where they’ve settled. The layer of complexity in his own story is the story of our common humanity. It’s a search for meaning. A search for belonging.
He volunteers more of his thoughts. “There is a difference between a home and where you live. Home is the place to me that invokes feelings of belonging, comfort, and being at ease with your surroundings. It has a lot to do with memories. When you move into a new place, it doesn’t feel like home yet. It needs memories. Experiences.”
We continue on the road in search of memories. We’re driving toward Grattan, a township just north of Grand Rapids, Michigan with a current population of about 4,000 people. Daniel Paul grew up in the intersections of Grattan and Belding, a neighboring city not much larger than Grattan itself.
Daniel Paul elaborates on his pondering. “The Herkimer is not my home. It’s where I live. It’s not my home because I don’t feel like there is any part of it that is me. I like it. I don’t mind living there. I would like to be able to open my windows more than two inches. I don’t feel comfortable in knowing my neighbors because the gossip that goes through the building concerns me.”
We journey in silence for a while. Eventually we begin passing some fields that are clearly being farmed for produce. The windows are cracked just enough to smell the country.
Daniel Paul speaks again. “There’s nothing like the smell of fresh plowed earth. It smells rich. It’s fresh. It smells like home.”
I beg him to remember that line so I can quote him later. We laugh.
“Tell me more about your story,” I say. I want to hear everything.
Daniel Paul speaks up again. “The country isn’t going to going to smell like home for everybody. But it’s the environment that I grew up in. It’s one of the signs of Spring. I smelled it on the bus ride from school. I smelled it on Saturday mornings. It just carried in the air.”
We pass a few barns. Some of them dilapidated. I wonder – how does someone let their property or home just fall apart like that? More silence. I break it with another question. “How did your family come to live in West Michigan?”
“I grew up in Grattan,” Daniel Paul responds. “House. Barn. Couple of out buildings forty acres. I don’t know that buying a farm was my parent’s initial intention.
“Everyone in my family was born in Muskegon. But, I was born just outside of the city of Chicago. My father’s job transferred him there. We were there for no more than three years. My parents moved the family back to Michigan because they didn’t want to raise us in a big city. We lived in the Grand Rapids area for a few months, and then we bought the farmhouse.
“When we bought the farm, it had been vacant for several years. The windows were not in the frames prior to us purchasing it. My father showed it to his father after we bought it. His response? ‘What the hell did you do? Biggest mistake of your life. Coal furnace.’”
Daniel shares a hilarious story about his father, Don, making another “big mistake” later during his childhood. His father gets free flour and is excited to bring it home for Dawn, his wife and Daniel Paul’s mother, only the amount of flour is more than she would ever want. Its an entire dump truck. It ends up in the barn and suddenly they’re pig farmers, because what else do you do with a dump truck of flour other than feed the pigs?
Hidden Behind the Grass
Daniel Paul is pointing out different places during our drive that hold significance from his childhood.
“I went to elementary school there.” He points at an abandoned brown brick building as I drive past.
“Is it okay if we stop and poke around?” I ask? I’m already turning the vehicle around before he answers. Something in the tone of his voice held a bit of lament and longing and I knew he’d want to take a look.
In the time I’ve known Daniel Paul, I have never seen him as sad as he looked when we he saw the overgrowth of grass and weeds among the swing set of the school and when he was looking in the glass window of his old classrooms. He relates details to me of his old teachers and friends. He talks to me about the way the school came to close. And behind his words, I get a sense that though this place was once his home, he feels like he doesn’t belong here anymore.
We continue on to visit his childhood home. Daniel Paul as a youth was a part of the Future Farmers of America. He farmed a sizeable acreage in his backyard, and had a vegetable stand along the road. When we arrive at the house and barn, it’s clear that structures are being actively renovated with building materials being moved around outdoors. Daniel Paul asks me to pull into the driveway.
The property is now owned by a young couple. Daniel Paul shares his last name and there is a relationship established. Small town. Everyone is connected. We get permission to walk around and take some photos. We take photos in the barn. We take photos by a fence. We take photos by the old vegetable stand spot which is now overgrown by trees and weeds.
The final stop is at the cemetery of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. Here, Daniel Paul’s mother is buried. Interestingly, he brightens up at the sight of the church and while meandering among the headstones.
Later he says to me, “When I went to the cemetery, it really hit me, that is home. Who would think of a cemetery being home? But every headstone had someone I was familiar with. I knew the names of the families. It’s the hometown softball games, the church, the school… It was home.”
Tomatoes and Living
Daniel agrees to sit with me to tighten up some of my writing on his story. He sits across from me at the table of my home eating a tomato salad of orange, red and yellow tomatoes, with parsley and minced garlic. He made the salad from what he’s grown at Herkimer.
“Tell me again,” I ask him. “Why do you garden?”
“Why do I garden?” He chews on the question for a moment. “Well, it connects me back to the soil. There is something that always amazes me. This year, it’s my tomatoes because of how large they’ve grown. I garden because it allows me to have a connection to people in the building, it’s a commonality,
“And I like to be able to share my knowledge and help other people experience and learn what a garden can bring you. The happiness. The joy. The garden has changed one of my neighbors in so many ways. When she is in the garden, I see a different side of her. She’s excited that she put the top of an onion in the soil and that it grew.
“It gives access to fresh and healthy produce that I don’t have access to. When I was a kid, I’d grab a saltshaker and sit in the garden and eat tomatoes. While I don’t do that in the garden now, I can take it upstairs to my apartment and have that memory one more time.
“Having the garden, brings me back. It’s who I am. It’s in my genes. My grandparents did it. My parents did it. I did it. It’s something I’m meant to do and have to do. It makes me a whole person.
“There are some days when I don’t want to get out of my bed, but I think to myself, “I need to go water my garden.” It’s an extra push that someone or something needs me.
Daniel looks at his salad while I’m capturing his words.
“It shouldn’t take someone an hour to get a tomato.” He says.
For Daniel, Bridge St. Market is the closest place to purchase fresh, local tomatoes. Unable to drive due to a disability, Daniel relies on public transportation to run his errands and get around.
“If I’m going to go to Bridge St. Market to get a tomato, I have to walk four blocks to catch the Dash bus. The Dash picks me up. The driver gets two breaks along the way. I get dropped off about two blocks from the Bridge St. Market. I walk two blocks to get to the store. I buy the tomato, walk back to the bus stop and make my way back home. If I’m getting actual groceries, I have to take the Dash that will drop me off at the top of the hill, and not the one at the bottom, because it’s cumbersome to bring groceries up the hill, which means I then have to switch busses at Pearl and Monroe, which adds even more time to my grocery run.
“The city totes Bridge St. Market as the downtown shopping solution, when there was a Duthler’s across the street from that same location for years. No one claimed that grocery as the downtown shopping solution for Heartside residents.
“There needs to be a small grocery store, like the Bridge St. Market, in the Heartside area.”
A One-bedroom Flat
On the last day I choose to take photos for this exhibit, Daniel Paul invites me up to his apartment. I ask him how his definition of home has changed since our trip to his childhood town.
“I’m not sure.” He replies. “It was home. They took down the kitchen cabinets my dad built. Everything has changed. It was home. But I’ve changed. I don’t belong there anymore.”
We listen to those words replay as we ponder them. They fall heavy for me as I consider that I’ve grown too big for the room that held my upbringing. I am too much myself now to belong in homey places. And while it may be good for me, to say “I don’t belong there anymore” is to choose the pain of growth over the comfort the belonging. It hurts, even it hurts less so every time I say it.
Once inside his apartment, Daniel Paul pulls out family photos from a bag that was sitting on the couch. He gives me names to go with faces. He shows me a picture of his parents. He points out the dried flowers he’s kept from his mother’s funeral. I see the artwork he’s put up on his wall only a few months ago, as he settles into the place that he’s come to call his dwelling temporarily or for the long haul.
I can tell that he’s been wavering about where he belongs since our recent trip. Yet, he allows himself to be strong today. He is resolute. He is home.
– R.R. Tavárez
A famous song says
“A house is not a home…”
But what is a home
Are four walls needed to have a home
Is a house needed to have a home
The smell of the fresh turned over soil
The texture of the moist dirt in my hands
The sight of the first tomato on the vine
The crisp taste of the first radish of the spring
The place where my mom is buried
Surrounded by names that are familiar to my childhood
The Church I grew up in
Where my faith began
Where I had laughed, cried, and heard things that made me think
Not the place I grew up
The barn seems so much smaller
The large walnut trees in the yard are gone
The garden given over to weeds and spruce trees
Memories, some good, some bad, some life changing
Are there but it is no longer home
That place where I find comfort
The place where I can forget about the issue of the moment
The place that I can find joy
A moment to laugh
A moment to cry
No building required
No walls needed
No floor or ceiling exist
A house is a place to live
But everyone deserves a place to call home
Claim you home wherever that may be
– Daniel Paul Drent