Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Home is not where you live, but where they understand you...


In my drug induced (migraines people), hazy, mostly-asleep state last night, I started writing this post in my head. Times like these, I wish I had some kind of dictaphone imbedded into the walls of my bedroom, which I could activate simply by saying “dictaphone on,” or perhaps something slightly more clever. Though wasn’t Worsdworth’s definition of poetry something along the lines of a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquillity? I must transgress and disagree with Wordsworth on this matter as I certainly wish I would have gotten up last night to write down the jumbled (but I suspect altogether far more interesting) thoughts on my topic yesterday evening, rather than try to rationalise them at my computer this morning. Though, having said that – this difference is perhaps why I am not a household name and Wordsworth is.

No matter. On to the subject of my drugged-up musings. Something I’ve been spending rather a lot of time thinking about recently is the idea of “Home”, or what it means to be from somewhere and to belong to one place. These scintillatingly introspective thoughts have been triggered primarily by my looming application for permanent residency in the UK, but also by a recent trip to the North of England to trace the ghostly footsteps of The Boy's adolescence. Then there’s also the excellent book I finished reading yesterday, Kevin Myers’ “Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast,” as well as Arthur Miller’s “Man Who Had All the Luck,” which I saw at the Donmar on Friday night.

Now you might be wondering how the unlikely combination of the UK Home Office, a trip to Lancashire, a book about 1970s Belfast, and a play about small-town America in the 1940s might conspire to inspire a blog post, but it will all make sense in time.

This August I will have lived in the UK for five years, which doesn’t seem that long in relative terms, having lived the twenty one years prior in various US states, but consider that this has been between the ages of 22 to 26, in other words, some petty important years. Two and a half of these five years were spent in Edinburgh, nearly two years in London, and the rest of time in Belfast (ah ha! A picture emerges). Edinburgh feels like home in one way, London in another, Belfast in yet another, but none of these places is actually home for me. I’ve come to think of them, each in their own way, as my home, but it’s simply not the same thing. I don’t think I really realised how true this was until my recent visit to The Boy’s family home. His grandparents and parents were both married in the small church adjacent to the house where his parents now live and generations of his family are buried in the same church’s cemetery. Seeing all this, the legacy and proximity of the history of a single family, affected me in a strange way. Sure, back home there’s still the first school I went to, the park where I kissed my first love, the canal across from my grandmother’s house where we spent endless hours playing in the summer, the desert fields we used to drive to, lie in the back of my truck, and stare up at the sky for hours, talking teenage nonsense. But none of these things, none of the places, people, or events that built the foundations of who I am today are here in this country; they’re all back home in Phoenix.

In some ways all my moving around has made me feel a bit like I’ve sectioned myself into smaller pieces and left the clich├ęd “piece of me” in the places I’ve lived. The biggest piece of me is rooted in Arizona, with smaller pieces left to seed in Edinburgh, Belfast, and London. Friends left behind, family, memories, boyfriends, animals, cars, books – all left behind.

So what does this make of me? I know better than to assume that knowing exactly where you come from, or exactly where your family has come from, is no help in trying to figure out where you’re going or even where you belong. After coming back from Lancashire, I found myself strangely envious of the subterranean roots of The Boy and his family; generations of a single family, born, living, and dying in the same 30 miles radius. There is something about this that part of me longs for, connection to a single place, “home” as an absolute certainty. But then remembering an earlier conversation The Boy and I had about belonging, he told me that, growing up especially, he wasn’t always sure where he belonged. Sometimes when the sense of being from somewhere is so strong, it overpowers other facets of personal identity. If you leave your home community (not a very original term, I know, but hey) for work, travel, or education, you might be seen as something of an outsider, both in your new community, as well as back home. This is something that makes complete sense to me, and it is part of why I left Phoenix to begin with. Arizona may be the only place I can truthfully call home, as well as being perhaps the only place that I will always feel rooted to, but it is also one of the few places where I feel like a misfit, where I don’t understand the tribal code and don’t always speak the same language.

As for the UK, I still can’t say for certain how I feel about calling this country home. To be sure, it is easier on a day-in-day-out level for me to live here, but this is tinged with a certain hypocrisy. I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes like being a bit of an outsider. At home, I’m one of millions of other American girls, living in an American city. Here, I’m a definite (read unique) member of an expat minority. Not that I don’t aim to distinguish myself in other, more respectable arenas, but being an American girl named Crystal still marks me out as unique, even in a multicultural megalopolis like London. Even more so in a smaller city like Edinburgh and in Belfast it bordered on the celebrity with my “say-it-again” accent.

People always ask me what brought me to the UK, or if I miss my family, or if I plan on staying here forever. Most of the time my answer to these and other similar questions is that I don’t really know. Not a very exciting reply, but true nevertheless. I can’t really say if I’ll always want to live in the UK. I like it for now; some cities, Belfast, London, and Edinburgh; I love, and look on as sort of surrogate mothers to my birth-mother Phoenix. I’m starting to think that home is where your friends are, your 21st century family (or is this something made up by transient people who are more inclined to leave their families behind?), but then what happens when you move around too much and leave friends behind as well? What happens when you fall in love with a city itself, like I have with Belfast or with Edinburgh or London? Is this all it takes to have a home – to feel as if it is your home in some way? Walking through Soho some time ago with The Boy, I asked him how long he thought he might stay in London. I nearly fell over when he said he planned to stay here forever; that this was it, he’d moved to his final destination and he wasn’t leaving. I don’t know if London feels like home to him yet, but I suppose he’s got the rest of his life to make it feel like home. While I do love living in London and occasionally entertain thoughts of setting up shop here, I still feel like most days I don’t even know where I’ll be next month, let alone five years from now.

But I’m really wishing I wrote all this down in my dreamy, drugged-up state last night. It sounded a lot more meaningful in my head than it does on paper today. I suppose the root of all this is that I’ve been feeling really homesick lately, but then when I think about it, I’m not really sure where I’m feeling homesick for – if it’s Edinburgh, Phoenix, or Belfast. And then the more I think about it, the more I realise that there really isn’t anywhere I can properly call home, and how can I be homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist? Maybe what I’m really missing is old me: me at 20 as a University student in Tempe; me at 22, alone and on my adventures in a strange new country; me at 24, in love with a crazy Irishman, living in his hometown and loving it; or me now, at 26, in London, living out a lot of dreams, but still feeling like life could change direction in an instant. I suppose I don’t really know what I’m missing. I just know that it’s missing…