The other morning after speaking to my parents on the phone William asked me why I was quiet (I know, it doesn’t happen often). “I’m homesick” I told him. “But you’re at home Mummy” was his response. Quite. So why, seven years after landing in this Great Southern Land, do I still not call Australia home?
It has got me thinking about what ‘home’ means and the link between home and identity. According to the OED home is ‘the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family’. So on the surface where I am now fits; it’s just that pesky ‘permanently’ I have a problem with. I don’t have a problem with commitment on the whole, and I am the sort of person who, when I do commit, gives it my all to make it work. Even in the short term, I hate to be seen as having failed but more that I haven’t tried so I have employed the mantra try, try and try again (heralding the Lions?)
We have a fabulous life here, as I talked about on May 2nd. Our needs are more than met, the boys are thriving in their respective school and pre-school, we have some lovely friends, and yet. And yet. There is a need in me which I almost cannot name, which defies definition and yet which somehow exemplifies homesickness. It is an ache I carry for much of the time, a tug that I feel when I see a tall, grey haired grandpa or yearning to be where my soul can rest. I worry that I cannot be the best version of myself without repairing the roots I yanked from the loamy Scottish ground seven years ago.
There is a saying which suggests that the most important things we can give our children are ‘roots and wings’. I suppose the whole point is that they are mutually dependent; we can push push push ourselves as long as we have that starting point to return to if we fail. But if that starting point is shaky and unconvincing, what kind of support structure is in place?
I am incredibly lucky; I still have four uncles, four aunts, many cousins who also have children. At two out of three of my children’s christenings (all taking place in the church in which my brother and I were christened, Andrew and I were married – where we have a family pew, yes really!) my cousin Naomi’s children and my own have gone from a shy hello to a plaintive, ‘When will we see X again?’ The joy I felt being at Cowbog (see header photo on this blog) two years ago was renewed every time I saw my boys with their cousin (now plural) and the children of my close friends. The strong, binding web of family and shared history is impossible to break entirely and it seems can survive neglect but as a sad version of itself, like a holiday house that would be nice to visit if only you had the time or money to invest in it.
For many people The UK means London or some other urban centre. Some friends we have here had a wonderful few years in Oxford, others in Bristol. All of them enjoyed their UK hiatus but treated it as such, a break in the norm. They always knew they would return home. My UK, my Scotland is the glorious, soft, fresh-aired countryside of The Borders. Rich in history and legend, The Borders is populated by canny, determined souls whose passions run deep (apart from when it comes to the rugby where jersey sleeves are singed by emotion). For my first 20 years – probably more if I’m being honest – I was ‘Julia Wilson from Cowbog’; the farm was central to my very identity and like a ripple on a pond, Cowbog at the centre was supported by gradually bigger areas and layers of family.
In this age of international travel and expatriation perhaps it is unusual for place to play such a large part in the formation of identity. So many people chase the dream, be it corporate or lifestyle that it is easy to identify only with those within the immediate family bubble, wherever that bubble may journey. While I admire the ‘us against the world’ ethos that such a family habitat naturally demands I’m not sure it’s what I want to give my children. Perhaps I am not strong enough, perhaps I need my comfort blanket of family, perhaps I don’t want to grow up.
Going beyond myself though, I think about the boys and their identity and sense of belonging. We joke that the Scottish brainwashing has worked on William but only partially on Sam (Edward I could claim as mine but that is only in a maternal sense, not a patriotic one just now). In fact, in the car on the way to school recently we were discussing the Lions tour as the boys had just received their shirts from Gran and Grandpa. William said something like “I’m Scottish, the same as Mummy but you’re not, you’re from here.” This was to Sam and Edward. Obviously there was no malice intended but the division is there (Should we prepare for massive psychological bills?). I of course told them we all had the same passport and that was that! Gorgeous Sam though had insisted on wearing his green shorts with his Lions jumper as he ‘supports both’.
I recounted this conversation to Sam’s lovely teacher at pre-school whose take on it was typically lovely and caring as she suggested that we are all citizens of the world and all just the same. If only this were true. Unfortunately patriotism has a large part to play in our identity and though of course our family loyalty is first and foremost to the people we love, I wonder about the impact of identifying ourselves differently within that unit.
One of my favourite poets, Eavan Boland explores this theme wonderfully in her poem Lost Land. I considered just putting a link here but, just in case people were too busy to read another page and didn’t click on it I thought I’d make it easy and include it. I would hate for anyone to miss out. I first heard this on my post-colonial poetry course at Edinburgh and it still gives me goosebumps.
The Lost Land
I have two daughters.
They are all I ever wanted from the earth.
Or almost all.
I also wanted one piece of ground:
One city trapped by hills. One urban river.
An island in its element.
So I could say mine. My own.
And mean it.
Now they are grown up and far away
and memory itself
has become an emigrant,
wandering in a place
where love dissembles itself as landscape:
Where the hills
are the colours of a child’s eyes,
where my children are distances, horizons:
on the edge of sleep,
I can see the shore of Dublin Bay.
Its rocky sweep and its granite pier.
Is this, I say
how they must have seen it,
backing out on the mailboat at twilight,
on everything they had to leave?
And would love forever?
I imagine myself
at the landward rail of that boat
searching for the last sight of a hand.
I see myself
on the underworld side of that water,
the darkness coming in fast, saying
all the names I know for a lost land:
Ireland. Absence. Daughter.