A Place Called Home
I have been thinking about the things we search for in our lives, sometimes without even being aware of it.
Before we got married, the decisions we made about where we would live were all based on one key factor: we wanted to choose somewhere where we were confident we could stay for the long term. I didn’t want to move any more. More on that later.
But even five years on, I think I’m still in the process of trying to work out how to create and find that sense of home in the place we have chosen. Sometimes I think the periods of distress that we go through can be reminders of what we are still looking for.
By the time I left home for university, my family and I had lived in six different houses, across four quite different cities. I had gone to two different primary schools, two secondary schools, and then a separate sixth form. We had been part of at least six churches at various times. And despite all of that, I still had a very strong notion of what home meant: it was wherever my family were.
In that period of time between leaving home and getting married – about thirteen years – my experience became somewhat nomadic. Perhaps it always is when you’re trying to find your own way? I lived at ten different addresses. My books ended up living in boxes. The two churches that had most felt like home to me became not so. The church which had tried to reconvert me became impossible to keep up with.
In the past five years we have thrown absolutely everything into starting a family and reclaiming a house which when we bought it required a complete overhaul after having suffered very serious neglect. We have spent a lot of time here, warming the place up and paying attention to the things that were broken or failing.
But in the process of trying to put down new roots, I find I keep coming up against old insecurities, as if these have surfaced now in a way that I was able to keep at bay previously. I remember in early adulthood glossing over this as quickly as possible in conversation: “we moved around a lot when I was younger” was my standard explanation for not being able to say very succinctly where I was from. For a while, I also adopted London as my home, having moved there for university, and in this place where anyone could move about essentially unchallenged, I remember an exhilarating feeling of being free. But it wasn’t practical to stay there forever, and though I longed to return for some while, I eventually came to a place of accepting that that time was over and behind me. So it is as though now that we have finally settled, the difficulty which I had carried around with me almost undiagnosed has had time to begin to manifest itself.
I’ve become aware of several things.
One is that escape is always an option, but this old way of coping makes things worse in the long run because it avoids the solutions that might eventually help. I remember reaching a point where I made a very definite decision not to keep reaching for activities to attend with my daughter with “safe” people who were outside our immediate locality. I needed to try, where I could, to allow myself to be present (i.e. also painfully exposed), to look around me, and seek just a little connection here and there.
The second thing I’ve noticed is that this inner goal of finding a place that feels like home has made its way into other parts of my life too. I have felt a lot of distress in work this year, having to absorb the shock of finding that what had become familiar to me has been replaced by the unfamiliar. I had relied so deeply on that “familiar” feeling, having nursed it and watched over it for more than a decade. The familiar had represented family to me, and I had unconsciously attached to it as if it would last forever.
The third thing I’ve been thinking about seems to contradict this discovery of family but really they are two sides of the same coin. I find wherever I go that I feel like the odd one out, the one who doesn’t fit, who hasn’t been party to the rest of what is going on. I used to think this was a personal quirk, something that I just needed to get better at overcoming. It’s fair to say there are probably all sorts of reasons for it. But recently I began to see how it might be part of this bigger picture of having suffered through those tricky early transitions in life. I can see, now, how big these transitions are as I think about what my eldest will go through as she moves through her schooling. I am overwhelmed at times by the sheer amount of change to be navigated through each and every stage and year of parenting. It never stops.
So what, or where am I getting to? I think firstly I wanted to try to articulate my own story to myself: to know what it is, and to separate out its different parts. But I am also interested in how the theme of our personal stories is different for everyone, and I wonder how often we really know what our own theme is. It can take so long to come to the fore.
Finally I am conscious that my story will be echoed in the experiences of many who have been far, far more adversely affected by having to leave behind homes, and families or family members for reasons that are outside of their control. It doesn’t feel right to try to compare experiences of which I have no real knowledge, but I wonder if the point to discover is that there isn’t necessarily a standard way of life that everyone around you is enjoying. It’s easy to categorise certain things as extreme; I am reminded of Lemn Sissay’s account of his experience as a looked after child in My Name is Why, but could also think of Ukrainian refugees who perhaps never imagined that they might be forced suddenly to leave their homeland. The sense of it being extreme or extraordinary can give a story definition, but I don’t think this helps us relate. What I imagine does help is to look at those around us as though their lives are as real and as multifaceted as our own.