At some point in my first year at uni I read (not for the first time) Anne of Green Gables. It was as delightful as ever, but when I got to the part where Anne leaves her beloved Green Gables to go off to college, I found myself crying like never before. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. It had revealed to me the reality of what had happened when I too had taken that step. Nothing would ever be the same again. Although the house I had grown up in was still there for me, packed to the gunwales with the toys, books, keepsakes and unfinished craft projects of a lifetime, ‘home’ would forever more be somewhere else – or at best in two places at once.
I have had eight other homes since then, in three cities, two countries and one ship, but because they’ve all been rented, and thus felt very temporary, there’s still an awful lot of stuff at mum and dad’s house (whereas my brother, who bought his first house about 20 years ago, moved all his stuff out then, apart from the childhood school books that we keep in the loft for nostalgia’s sake). But I think I am reasonably good at feeling at home wherever I am. My best friend gave me a framed quote once that says ‘Home is where there’s a stack of books by the bed.’ If that’s true, I make myself at home within minutes of arriving in any hotel room or bolt-hole. It doesn’t take me long to unpack a few personal items – my alarm clock, my eye mask, the book/s I’m currently reading, my mug (hotels never ever have decent-sized mugs) – and make the place feel like my own.
It had never occurred to me to wonder why it is I feel so easily at home anywhere, until I read Home, by Jo Swinney. Jo is 38, and has lived in twenty houses in five countries on three continents. In her book she describes how this lack of a permanent base, and the frequent longing for somewhere else, created in her “a sort of chronic, low-grade homesickness”, which she suspects many others share, where “we are not quite sure where home is, but we do know we’re not there.”
My Anne-induced homesickness was shortlived (I think I’d got over it by the next morning), and was not so much to do with the loss of a place, but the loss of the way things used to be. I missed being a school child (I still do, really – I adored school until my teenage years, and had more ups than downs even in secondary school), I missed the carefree-ness of life with no responsibilities beyond remembering your PE kit/flute/home economics ingredients on the right day. I missed mum and dad taking care of everything. In short, I missed childhood more than I missed home.
Reading Jo’s book I realise (again) how very, very privileged I am. I didn’t miss home because it was secure – my parents still live in the house we moved to when I was eight. My base is still there and secure. My parents and I still get on as well as ever, and going home doesn’t carry the mixed emotions that many people face when they and their parents are battling to figure out how this relationship works now. And I think both my parents and my faith have given me the stability that enables me to feel at home in myself. I’ve been in my current house for a year now, and returning from holiday recently I realised that the area I’m living in, though lovely, still doesn’t quite fill me with the joy, satisfaction and peace that my previous neighbourhood (Pimlico), did. Yet I don’t feel unsettled, because I carry that sense of home with me.
‘Home’, I think, from reading Jo’s book, is about security. When you’re longing for somewhere else, it’s because you don’t feel secure where you are. My tears over Anne were because I was realising I had left the security of mum and dad doing everything for me. Jo mentions an article from The New York Times in 2013, in which a psychologist explains his discovery that the best predictor of resilience and self-confidence in children is knowing their family story. They have confidence, he says, because “they know they belong to something bigger than themselves.” While I love hearing stories about my family history, and while that was certainly a feature of our lives growing up, I think there’s an even deeper level of that for the Christian. I know I belong to something bigger than myself not only because I know what a teenaged Uncle Richard said when grandma found cigarette butts in the outside loo, or because I know that my great great great grandad helped to build St Katharine’s Docks, but because I know I’m part of the story of the world, created by God, planned by him, designed by him, and placed right here, right now, for such a time as this.
As I have seen God’s faithfulness and felt his presence with me every step of the way from one home to another, I have found a deep sense of security in him. Wherever I am, there he is, so I’m home.
This was supposed to be a review of Jo’s book, of which she kindly sent me a free copy. It ended up being all about me – sorry about that! The book is really good – a clever interweaving of her story, the life of David, and the lessons she has learned about finding home when you haven’t been as lucky as I have. It’s well worth a read – she’s got an easy, relaxed style, and some fascinating insights. You can buy it here, and support your local independent bookshop in the process, or from any good book retailers.