I’m looking for a
Home- where the wheels are turning
Home- why I keep returning
Home- where my world is breaking in two. Brian Eno & David Byrne, “Home”
The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace…the house is a large cradle…it maintains him [sic] through the storms of the heavens and those of life. Gaston Bachelard, “The Poetics of Space”
Because it’s Xmas I’ve been thinking about home, and the devastating effects of not having one.
Homelessness takes several forms. There’s hard-core dispossession, when people literally have no roof over their heads and live on the streets. Sometimes they find a bed at a shelter for a few nights. There’s couch surfing homelessness when people move round friends and relatives’ homes in an effort to stay off the streets. There are families and single people living in cars.
There’s the homelessness of asylum seekers, dislodged from their belonging by circumstances outside of their control, seeking somewhere on earth where they can safely settle.
Then there’s living in places where you just don’t belong, such as institutions, where you are only there because you have no choice. That was my kind of homelessness from the age of fifteen.
My kind of homelessness was middle class. I had a roof over my head. The roof was that of the boarding school I’d been attending. The family I’d lived in up to that point consisted of my mother, her second husband, my stepfather, and my two little half sisters. My mother married her second husband when I was seven, and he brought us to Australia from England.
Up to that point I’d been raised by my grandparents in what seems now an almost idyllic situation. We were cash strapped – Granddad was a retired coal miner, and working as a night watchman at the gasworks. I was much-loved by him and Eleanor, my grandmother, even though they’d raised three children of their own. We had food, clothes, shelter, entertainment, and Granddad’s corgi dog. I had an uncle, and an aunt who kindly painted my tiny toenails for me by the kitchen fire when she was attending to her own. I idolized my uncle. I was safe, treasured, and kindly disciplined. I had what every child needs – a bevy of adults to take a loving interest in her. There was always someone to listen, and there was always someone to play with. It worked for the adults as well: nobody was overburdened with sole responsibility for my well-being.
I hardly remember my mother during this time. She lived in the same house but must have been largely absent from my child’s world, as the impression she left was negligible. It didn’t matter.
It must therefore have been a great shock to me to be wrenched from that cosy world into the uncertain future offered by my stepfather and mother, both of whom were practically strangers to me, and transported to the other side of the world. Such a shock that to this day I have absolutely no memory of the parting. While she was alive, my grandmother revisited this trauma endlessly whenever we saw each other, which was rarely as we were now worlds apart, in every possible way.
My mother made an upwardly mobile marriage – her second husband was a doctor. Her first, my father, to whom she was married till I was three months old, played drums in a band. I know almost nothing about this man.I did go through a period of trying to find out, without success, and eventually I thought what the hell, the man obviously didn’t care about me and do I really want to find someone who didn’t care about me? No, I decided, and finally let it go.
The marriage took my mother out of the North Yorkshire mining town and working-class culture she loathed, to a new country and the rich possibilities of middle class professional life.
Unfortunately, her new husband was violent, abusive in every way possible, and had an eye for her seven-year old daughter. Suffice to say the next seven years of my life were a kind of hell into which I felt I had fallen through some fault of my own. Children do this. They assume responsibility for the most enormous adult events and if no one tells them otherwise, they labour under the burden for years.
The contrast between those seven years and the seven that preceded them was absolute.
At the age of almost fifteen, I revealed to one of the nuns at my Anglican boarding school just exactly what was going on in my home. Astonishingly, these intelligent, compassionate women believed me. I’d explained for them their bewilderment at my lack of scholastic progress when I clearly wasn’t stupid, my inability to sleep, my habit when I did sleep of walking and falling down the stairs, my inability to eat and thus to thrive, and my constant illnesses. Within days they had taken action. They consulted the Bishop, the Dean, and their lawyers. They summoned my mother and stepfather to the school, having first hidden me in a safe house so neither of them could see me. Lawyers, nuns, the Bishop and Dean confronted my parents, who made no attempt to deny my account of events in our house.
A deal was done. I was to be handed over to the guardianship of the nuns. I was never to go home again. My mother would be allowed to visit with me, but my stepfather must agree to never attempt to see me again, otherwise they would call in the police.
I was safe.
I was ambivalent about these arrangements. My family was appalling, at the same time it was the only one I had. My home was a place of great danger, at the same time, it was the only one I had. I was relieved and grateful to have been rescued, but at the same time, I had no home. A boarding school is not a home, no matter how kind they are to you. I was supposed to go to various friends’ homes for holidays, which I did for a while, until the mortification of being unable to reciprocate their hospitality became too much for me. I would hide on the last day of school, and not reveal myself until they’d all gone. Then I’d be allowed to stay with the nuns in the great big empty boarding house, until term started again.
The nuns were good to me. They were beyond good to me. They did everything they could to make up for my losses. I wasn’t always grateful. When I played the piano in a competition where everyone else’s mothers and fathers showed up to support and admire, I wept after my performance that the nuns who’d come with me weren’t my parents, and I was the only girl there without anyone. My final act of ingratitude was to repudiate their religion.
The humiliation of living as an emotional beggar in an atmosphere of comfortable middle class families stayed with me for years. It will probably never entirely leave me. Where I live, though I’ve been here for years, still feels disturbingly temporary. Every time I try to think of it as home, I baulk.I can’t go there. Such is the power of a word. I don’t believe I won’t lose home again, and a real home is not supposed to be a thing you can lose. No amount of rational thinking and concrete experience convinces me otherwise. I remain, on this topic, seven years old, and dumbfounded at the turn my fortunes have taken literally overnight.
The legacies of that time have been many and I’d be hard pressed to decide which was the worst. However, this is a piece about home, so I’ll focus on that one. I have never been able to get my head around the concept of home. It’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s a magical name for a yearned for and unattainable state, full of meaning, feeling and emotion that I’m unable to let myself experience. Why? Because first I’d have to rage and grieve over having home snatched out from under me all those years ago, and that’s a dark place I can only very infrequently visit. To survive I’ve held those feelings at bay. I hop over them as I hop over hot sand on a blistering summer day, never letting my feet settle long enough to suffer anything more than slight discomfort. And only when I’ve forgotten my thongs.
The price I pay for acquiring these skills of avoidance and denial is never being able to feel I’m at home, or even that I have a home. The pay off is survival. We’re urged to confront that which disturbed us, rather than allowing it to fester and thrive and taint our daily lives. While that is necessary, timing is all. Premature confrontation brings down the defenses that have been our friends, and allowed us function in the world. After all these years, my instinct tells me it’s time to let them go, and I couldn’t have done it a moment sooner.
For our house is our corner of the world, Bachelard writes,…it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.
What then, of the child whose cosmos consists of abuse and exploitation? What, then, of the child whose topoanalysis reveals primarily sites of torment and terror?
The truth for me is that I can’t let myself feel home in the present until I grieve for the loss of that first one. I can’t imagine doing that grieving, and surviving the experience. Emotional cowardice provokes childish, self-berating dialogue: I can’t do it! Yes you can, you have to! No I don’t, you can’t make me! Well, if you don’t you’ll stay homeless forever! I won’t! I will not! You can’t say that stuff to me!
In a more adult state I realise I have to lay these matters to rest. I don’t want to leave this life carrying so much ancient sorrow into whatever comes next, even into nothingness. I want to leave with the cleanest possible emotional slate, grievings grieved, angers soothed, losses accepted, insult and injuries forgiven, both those I inflicted and those I suffered, at peace, as much as is possible, with the hand I was dealt. I want to have used my potential for surviving that hand to my fullest extent, and I want to leave satisfied that I achieved that.
In other words, I want to go home.
So this is my New Year’s resolution. I will do whatever needs to be done to assuage the loss of home. And then, with any luck, I’ll be able to feel home again, as I did when I was born, as I did as a little girl, as I did till I was seven. I think this will not only make life better for me, I’ll probably be a more pleasant person all round, having relinquished one more source of post traumatic stress that shuts me off from others whom I care for, and who care for me. The misery buck has to stop somewhere in a family. Let it stop with me.
Heaven knows- what keeps mankind alive
Every hand- goes searching for its partner
In crime- under chairs and behind tables
Connecting- to places we have known