I’m not sure if when I come home I find myself or I lose myself. If I find myself the assumption is that for the majority of the year, living in London, I am playing at being someone else. If I lose myself it means that London has made me and home exists to take me apart bit by bit. Going home becomes an act of making oneself vulnerable.
Last year I saw a play called Visitors by Barney Norris. Visitors was about many things but central to the action was a relationship between an older couple and their son. The mother in the family had dementia and the son was keen to sell the family home and put his mother into care. The writer managed to create characters that were nuanced and when it came to representing the relationship of the parents, he did, in my eyes, something interesting. The abundant love between the father and mother, their complete devotion to each other, functioned to alienate their son from them. In Visitors love created distance.
After Visitors there was a panel discussion centred on the theme of ‘home’. This was rambling, as these things usually are, but I found myself becoming frustrated by the consensus (between audience and panel) that home is always refuge and shelter and its place in our identity is naturally a positive thing.
I thought this was a sentimental and narrow view on what home is or can be. It was as though I had walked into a Norman Rockwell definition of the word. Home: agrarian, wholesome, white.
Homeless, rootless, orphaned, fostered, wandering or dispossessed people, it was implied, are somehow less when they don’t have a home in this sentimental definition. Without a home you were not whole. Furthermore this definition was troublesome because it admitted no place for those who only find themselves, their freedom, and sometimes their family, when they leave their original home. Often – actually – a place of challenge, neglect and much worse, for many people.
Even though most animal species migrate, the travel at Thanksgiving, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, Passover, and any other number of religious, national or regional holidays always struck me as peculiar behaviour. The long lines in stations, the exorbitant transport costs: home must be positive to warrant such adherence to tradition? It’s impossible to talk of home, to even write the word without acknowledging its secret echo: family. Home and family are two words, and community is a third, that often seem indivisible from each other. But they can be, and maybe should be, divided.
All these things I am thinking about recently because I too made a journey home for Christmas, and it is the last Christmas I spend in the house I grew up in. When my mother informed her family by e-mail that she wanted to move and sell the house I did not revert back to being a child, stamping my feet and clenching my teeth. Instead I felt relief. I moved from home when I was nineteen, thirteen years ago, and I don’t feel I have any claim on its territory anymore. If the sale of the home gives my parents financial ease in their retirement, then as an adult I should be happy. When I lose this home, my parents will live separately and so I lose not just the house, but also the combined image of my parents in my mind – though really, that portrait disappeared years ago.
Sitting in different rooms in my house, I notice how it is more like a musical score than a physical space. When I hear a door creek I know what door it is, when I see the light change on the wall I know a cloud sails in front of the sun. The corners of the room have ghosts: birthday balloons in April for my sister and I, holly bush in December, green palm branches for Easter.
The house I will loose is not a house that gives me refuge in the present, but rather a place that gives me access to the past: an architecture to solicit a sense memory of earlier days: sitting with my dogs against the Aga in the kitchen, reading. Lying in my bedroom, hearing my mother’s heels staccato on the tile hall floor. Hearing the same sound, years later, when my sisters came of age. My father humming an Irish folk song as he walks up the hallway.
When a couple get married or a child is born, well-wishers frequently talk of new starts and new chapters opening. Maybe the same can be said of the sale of a home. Aside from what is lost, what can be gained? More harmony for my parents as individuals? Freedom for my mother from the memories that cling to her (she has lived in the house for over sixty years)? Or maybe without the house as an anchor, the sense of family will dissipate even more?
It’s difficult to speak about these things as a family, particularly in detail. In order to survive we went silent on certain topics years ago. I’m not sure what is ultimately worse: arguments or total silence. I think that both bring their own form of stress and sadness. A friend of mine recently told me about Yom Kippur, which I had never heard about. My friend talked about ringing her family and friends once a year and asking for forgiveness for anything she may have done to unintentionally hurt them throughout the preceding year.
This concept blew my mind. I wondered if things with my Irish Catholic family (or your family?) might have been different if years ago we had all just asked forgiveness of each other and had the opportunity to start afresh every year. I know it doesn’t work as simply as this, but it struck me as a practice worth considering in the future. Sometimes in life you feel you’ve floated so far away from the shore that no one can hear you. I feel that way sometimes when I think of the past and forgiveness and moving on. I feel that forgiveness and moving on are on the shore and I am out at sea.
Returning to my first sentence: if I find myself when I come home, then once my home is sold, there is a piece of me that will be forever lost, and if I lose myself then once my home is sold I reduce the chance of losing myself in the future. I guess none of this would matter if I had managed to create a new home for myself already. Even the ‘home’ I have in London is on the market because the landlord has grown too old to manage it. In London you’re only ever just a body passing through a room.
Maybe home isn’t that important. Maybe instead of home we should be talking about space. Space that makes you better, safer, happier, a space you carry with you, that you can own and that doesn’t toy with your feelings or expectations like the word ‘home’ does. It is unfair to assume that just because the homeless or the immigrant are not living where they came from, that their lives should be considered somehow tragic, or that they should be considered less. I’m an emigrant in Ireland, an immigrant in London and homeless in both, but I don’t think that I am less than.