Monday, September 28, 2009

Home/Not Home

Following my announcement that I'd be going home for a couple of weeks, a friend asked me a few days ago whether I thought I'd ever refer to Wellington as home. I'm pretty sure that I already do - a person can have many homes of course - but the question made me ponder the relative weight I give to that word when I attach it to one place or the other, and the extent in which I feel that I still belong in my native city, or in the house where I grew up. More or less implicitly, I ask myself that every year, every visit. It's the nature of the transition.

I wrote briefly some time ago of the effects of intercontinental travel on (my) memory and sense of place. After twelve years of regular comings and goings, even as so many aspects of the trip have become routine, the experience as a whole has not ceased to be distinctly surreal, and it invariably colours those first couple of days on the other side, when everything moves at unnatural speed and is bathed in a strange light. Under those conditions, familiarity itself can be perplexing, the embrace of loved ones dulled by the sense that surely you cannot actually be there, with them - how could you, when just yesterday it was so far? But then that yesterday recedes too, and as that circadian upheaval rights itself, you tentatively begin to settle into the old grooves. There is Mum and this is, after all, the apartment in which I was born. Everything - if not quite everyone - is more or less exactly where I left it.

Compare, if you will, these two pictures, one taken in 1975, the other in the last half hour

and observe how little has changed. Except for the young lad, that is. I have no doubt he thought he would spend his whole life in Milan, if he had even begun to contemplate his long-term future. Those imaginings of self in time, famously parroted by the language of pop psychology and human resourcing ('where do you see yourself in five years'?), are a manner of constructing your past to be, of remembering forward, that matter profoundly to whom and what we become. I think little-me would be shocked to discover that one day I would lose that fierce attachment to that place and those things, and be able to imagine first, then make possible, a life lived elsewhere.

But that's not the biggest change, nor the deepest cut. If you could pan a little to the right of that first image you'd see this,

a dear memory yet also a painful reminder of how much easier it is to preserve the look of an apartment than to hold on to the people who matter to us the most. Remember that house in Leipzig? Nobody seemed to care about what happened to its vanished dweller, yet that place was defined by an absence, and so is ours. Mum no doubt feels this much more keenly, but it is palpable and we both resent it. It makes this our home and yet not our home, a familiar space filled with a precisely shaped emptiness.

There is, besides, the peculiar experience of the expatriate, provisional returnings defined by the fact that you no longer live there, and the noticing of things forgotten and of often minute but nonetheless persistently incremental changes, as if your old home town was being replaced one person and one brick at a time, with the effect of becoming stranger, simply in that it's harder to make new friends, establish new connections, in a place you no longer live. The strangeness in and of itself is not something to fear - I am quite desperate in fact for certain changes to occur in this city, this country - but it does contribute to the overall effect on the psyche, that simultaneous sense of belonging and not belonging.

This yearly routine, too, shall pass, and some day I'll have no reason to return quite so often and attend to the particular duties that visiting an elderly parent entail. I ask myself sometimes how often I am going visit when the time comes, staying with whom, and with what motivation other than the obvious ones of seeing old friends and introducing the kids to their other birthplace. I wish then for renewals, something to give fuller meaning to the word home, and for this place to change in ways that urge me to return.


Philip said...

The television screen appears to have got smaller since 1975. This is sheer perversity.

When people ask if I'm going away for my holidays, and I say I'm just going home, they always seem to assume that I'm going to the ancestral seat rather than to the place where I live with my books. This has always struck me as somewhat bizarre, but as usual I'm unable to judge whether it's me being eccentric or the rest of humanity being fatuous.

Word Verification: dheddedi, a tuneless Arabian tune, hummed to irritate.

Di Mackey said...

I found this just as I had to go out and I was torn for a moment, as if I might not find the post again and I knew it was important I read it because somehow I knew you would capture something I have struggled to define, understand and explain in the past.

In some ways I envy your (almost) unbroken relationship with the past of your childhood. My mother died and eventually my father sold the house I'd grown up in and suddenly, I felt like an orphan.

Beautifully captured, Giovanni and yes, I managed to wait unti I arrived home from the city.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

Di sent me here.

The older I get, the more I find I have lost my sense of place, and I'm surprised to find how little I mind that.

merc said...

My house
is small
ghosts dance

From View, Mercurius, Poems On Change & Union.

Those 2 photos, 1975 and now, awe...I like the view through the far right-hand window and how the book order on the shelf has changed but the pot-plants remain.

wordverf; xicsn...unspeakable surgical term.

Giovanni said...

To make things worse, the removal of the dragon-tree on the left and the rearranging of the books are both quite recent events.

Grunt said...

And I am about to have a kind of opposite issue. As you know my Mother died last month. Because of this my husband and I (and our soon to be two children) will be moving from the home where I have lived for 14 years and my husband has lived for 10 years into the apartment which I grew up in and which we moved into when I was 4.

But my father's requirement includes completely renovating the place. He will live there with us and he wants it NOT to be the home he shared with my mother for 35 years, but instead his daughter's home which he will share with his son-in-law and his children.

So in a way, I will be going home to the same walls that saw me read for the first time, the time I got the rope burn, the time my brother made the maze for me out of boxes and sofa pillows. It will also be the place my children call home. But it will be entirely different with the Asian art in the living room removed and the flowers painted on the walls of the master bedroom covered over and the floors not stained a dark oak.

It will become a frankenstien monster of home. What was formerly childhood home, and parent's home will become my family's home (and that family will include my dad)and maybe, eventually, it will just be home again.

Giovanni said...

I have no doubt that it will, but you're right, it's the exact opposite of what happened at our place!

katy said...

I liked this post.

Home for me has been the homes of my parents' parents, though neither has been a dwelling. My own parents moved around but the grandparents always represented that stability, especially my mother's mother who lives on a farm in the house her father built and can tell me who planted the trees in the garden ("those gum trees were planted by my grandmother when she was a little girl").

"Home" is not a country for me but it has taken a while to realise this. I thought that by coming back to New Zealand I was coming "home" and it took some time to understand this ongoing feeling of grief I have now that I am here.

Giovanni said...

Home for me has been the homes of my parents' parents, though neither has been a dwelling.

Home doesn't have to be a place, or when it's a place maybe it's a place at a particular time, so that when you visit it later it has lost whatever it was that made it home - which is quite possibly what I'm finding now. Ultimately, though, for the most part it's the people, as you note. I very much like the emphasis in the Maori proverb: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

harvestbird said...

look back harder
through emptied spaces
no force of hindsight
can move the dust motes
indefinite shadows
the plants' life cycles
our words exhaled
the leaves sucked in.

Giovanni said...

Lady, if I looked back any harder I'd seriously stuff my neck.

It's very suggestively put. And the bit about the dust... are you sure you haven't been to the house? Plus it's been 25 degrees and sunny for the whole two weeks, it's like the weather in Google Streetview. I'm beginning to freak out, just a little bit.

harvestbird said...

"Look back harder" was the title of Peter Simpson's edition of Curnow's collected essays. I lifted it for your story because it seems to me that the kind of bi-cultural (emotional) habitation to which your post speaks was something that haunted, in the negative, the first wave of cultural nationalists here. For all sorts of reasons they couldn't have it, and stared down fears of inauthenticity with it as a result.