Updated: Jun 4, 2021
All my life I’ve wanted to fit in – to fit in to a nationality, to gender, to a religion, to a group of friends, and I never really felt like I did, and poetry didn’t answer that by saying “Oh, I fit in with poets.” Poetry answered that by putting me in company with other people who put language around the idea of not fitting in, and thinking that maybe there’s other questions I can ask myself than where will I fit in. (Páidraig Ó Tuama)
Bachelard shows us ways of dwelling again in the flesh of space, of dreaming our homes as nests and shells, of reimaging hidden gardens and caverns where we can delve back into a world of natality, newness, beginning. (Richard Kearney, Introduction to Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. xviii)
Hiraeth – a Welsh word, untranslatable in English, suggesting a yearning for a home that can never be returned to, or never existed.
Letting go and moving on. That has become my mantra. Perhaps it’s the mantra of all born into colonial diasporas, set adrift in a postcolonial world. Marked by whiteness and Britishness, mine is the diaspora of the privileged – not the colonised but the coloniser, not the economic migrant but the expatriate, not the refugee but the home comer – as if this strange place among strange people could ever be ‘home’. ‘Of course you’re English,’ they assure me, as if identity were nothing more than an accident of pigmentation, an accent acquired as camouflage, and an impressive academic title to mask all that I do not know and will never understand.
Accents, pronunciations, untranslatable words.
Tear up. Destroy meaning. Shred language. Rip words apart. End contracts and commitments.
Tear up. Want to cry. Feel the welling up of tears behind the eyes and a lump in the throat.
Tear away. Enact a painful separation. Sever an attachment. Pull violently apart.
Tear away. A wild, uncontainable self. The self that dwells behind the façade.
My parents were Scottish, of the MacMillan clan. We had our own distinctive tartan, woven as much out of nineteenth century invention as ancient historical truth, but there is no history free of imaginative reinvention. My Zambian upbringing was threaded through with the music and poetry, the customs and traditions, of a mythical homeland – my Brigadoon. ‘If you decide to get married and you have to choose between a Zambian and an Englishman, choose the Zambian,’ my father advised, ‘because they’re tribal like us.’ Was he joking? I've never been sure. My mother was firmer in her expectations (getting married was ‘when’ not ‘if’), and more down to earth in her advice. ‘Learn to type before you get married, Tina, and then you’ll be able to support yourself and your children if he ever leaves you.’ I took her advice and ignored my father’s. I dropped out of school at fifteen and became a secretary before I met and married my beloved Englishman.
I’ve never lived in Scotland, but on my many visits I feel the taproot of an unfamiliar belonging in a place that appears as a mirage, shimmering just beyond the horizon of the visible, mappable landscape. To reach it I must dream my way across a bridge that arcs from the real to the imagined, to a land where fairy people hide in forest glens and skelkies mourn on lonely shores, where witches dance in churchyards at night, a prince sails away and may never come back again, a wee wifie waits in a wee but-an-ben, and lochs have bonnie, bonnie banks where lovers wander in the gloamin’ and red red roses bleed their poems into the heather. Some wish the lochs were made of whisky.
Here is Kenneth McKellar singing "Land of Heart's Desire",
and here is a photograph of the Firth of Clyde, which in this image looks like my mythical homeland.
My story is repeated millions of times in millions of dislocated lives which must be discovered in music and myth, in poetry and song, for ‘Forces are manifested in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge.’ (Bachelard, p. 6)
Maybe homelands imagined on maps that never existed, and identities discovered through stories that never were lived, lead people like me to fit in among those who will never fit in.
These are the thoughts that drift through me as I prepare to leave my houseboat on the tidal Thames in London where I’ve lived for eleven years. I could say it’s the only place I’ve ever felt at home, but perhaps that’s because of its impermanence and its groaning lamentations through the glowering wind-swept nights. The feminist in me resists calling boats ‘she’, and the thought of reinhabiting that primal home of my mother’s womb repels me, but nevertheless, when Henri Bosco writes of a small house in a storm he is describing some of my nights on the boat:
The already human being in whom I had sought shelter for my body yielded nothing to the storm. The house clung close to me, like a she-wolf, and at times, I could smell her odor penetrating maternally to my very heart. That night she really was my mother. She was all I had to keep and sustain me. We were alone. (Quoted in Bachelard, p. 66)
When we fall in love with a house and it becomes a home, are we expressing the insatiable yearning for a home before and beyond words and worlds that only ever exist as an imagined memory of wordless and formless origins? Are psychoanalysts right to interpret this as a deep down longing for a return to the womb by way of the tomb? I used to scare myself sometimes. What if the moorings snapped in the midst of the storm? What if the boat sank and the water came pouring in? What would it be like to drown?
Truly I'm not ready to die, but as I grow older I realize that we can only be fully alive if we can gaze at the horizon of death. I'm reading Ruth Ozeki's novel, A Tale for the Time Being, and here is what she writes about the teachings of Zen Master Dögen Zenji:
The great matter of life and death is the real subject of "The Merits of Home-Leaving." When Dögen exhorts his young forest monks to continue, moment by moment, to summon their resolve and stay true to their commitment to enlightenment, what he means is simply this: Life is fleeting! Don't waste a single moment of your precious life!
Wake up now!
Each home we leave is a rehearsal for the art of dying, if we stay awake.
London is a country for those who have no country, a home for those who have no home. It belongs to all of us and none of us. To live on the edge of that restless city on the restless river, to sway in the winds and watch the swans and wonder at the transience of times and tides, is to find a place that swirls through the cycles of time, that does not sit safe on mortgaged land, nor require a picket fence to keep me in and others out. It was home to me because it was a place for nomads and wandering souls with no dry land to settle upon.
Now we’ve moved – my English beloved and I – in this last quarter of our lives. Our little house sits snuggled behind the dunes, on the wild and haunting beauty of the south coast of England, close to the exit, the escape route from this diminishing island with its shrinking visions. I wonder if he feels at home? I ask him the question, but neither of us understands what the answer might be. Maybe that's because neither of us understands the question either. What does it mean, to feel at home?
Letting go and moving on. I am thankful that the most important things remain, for now – marriage, children, grandchildren, the most loyal friends, life itself and good health. I haven’t let go of my parents either, for in death they are more intimate and cherished than they were in life, and the bitter betrayals and rages have melted into wistful and haunting remembrance. I mother them by giving them a home in my heart where I remember them as the parents they longed to be. They are in good company, as every year the numbers grow of those I called friends and now I call memories.
All is ephemeral in the end. Even the lifelong inhabitants of our deepest hollows and caverns of love are joys and sorrows that we kiss as they fly on the wings of time, burdens of belonging that we must learn to put down, moorings that must be unleashed. We let go and we move on, we tear up as we tear away, we carry our memories in lacy shawls woven out of silken threads of mourning and hope, sadness and courage, knowing there will be a final letting go that moves closer every year as we swirl through the cycles of time.
We let go in order to move on, we tear up as we tear away. We let ourselves fall into the unknown, hoping that there are angels to catch us and wing us on our way.
And we write, on pages that we only sometimes tear up.