The ache for home

Dedicated to my friend Benito, who understands what it is to love a place as one loves a person.

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” – Maya Angelou

It is late Sunday morning. I am listening to Pearl Jam, black coffee by my side (it is flat broke time of the month for me – given the choice between cigarettes and milk, I choose cigarettes, like the addict I am); outside my back door birds are splashing in my very own birdbath. It is already too hot to go outside, yet in my flat it is cool, and somehow relatively neat too. I am not feeling particularly fulfilled, or even content – the events of Friday somehow unlocked hordes of nasty little mannetjies now twisting their fingers joyfully into my brain. Yet I am home, in my own tiny little kingdom, and though my mood does not match this knowledge yet, it can be enough – I declare it enough – that I am here.

So my third post in three days, after three weeks of silence (let no one ever accuse me of being too balanced), and I thought I’d finally write about home (as you might have noticed from my repetitive use of the word). One of the most evocative words, isn’t it? I think only love and all of its derivatives surpasses the amount of songs written about home. And idioms. And poems. And quotes – I just spent about an hour reading these, feeling oddly nostalgic as only the idea of home can make one feel, perhaps because we are as rarely truly home as we are truly and wholly satisfied – being still and feeling whole in that stillness is rare enough that it is almost discomfiting finding oneself in one of these moments.

People say (this is a quote I encountered in many forms and shapes, attributed to many different people) that home is perhaps more a person than it is a place. If that is indeed true, then in my case I believe that this person is myself. I am only truly home when I am surrounded by myself, where there is no need to explain myself, where I can walk around naked because it is hot without worrying that someone might spot me, where I can sing “Skinny love” at the top of my lungs, where I can smoke a cigarette in the bath (gross, I know. Exactly – I don’t need to explain this habit to myself), where I can eat breakfast at three in the afternoon. Where I can be wholly idiosyncratic without worrying about how my oddities are perceived by others. A place where I am lonely, sometimes, because there’s only me there, but I know that I cannot be home anywhere else if I am not home with myself. “A home filled with nothing but yourself. It’s heavy, that lightness.” – Margaret Atwood

But home is also more than that. Home is the place you find your soul can relax inexplicably. Where your surroundings resonate. I believe home is the place you come to for the first time ever and yet recognise.

When I first moved to Stellenbosch, a bit more than two years ago, I came home, to my very own space, more entirely than ever before. I had never been here before. I knew no-one. I was excruciatingly lonely at first. I found the people here strangely enclosed within themselves, locked within their friendship circles, comfortable in their experiences. I still don’t see myself as a local. Yet the mountains, and the vineyards, and the coffee shops, and the little streets, and the odd feeling that I am at the juncture between Europe and Africa – all of these things rushed out and embraced me. All of my previous experiences came together – living in France, as a little girl, living on a farm in Natal, living in other student towns – and became encased in one little town daring me not to recognise it, daring me not to embrace it as the sum-total of my life so far. My chickens came home to roost, so to speak.

I have loved very many places throughout my life, and will yet love many more. Like the people I have loved, I carry these within me. Thollon, in The Alps, where I would stare up at the cliffs and the slopes covered in pine trees and dream about living on my own in the woods. Where I tried to build numerous tree houses and often ran away from home with my mom’s full support – she would pack me a picnic basket and I would set off for the day, returning self-assured and triumphant, half-written stories in my head and a bag full of pretty stones over my shoulder. Gansbaai, where I scaled neighbours’ walls endlessly (most of them only came to stay for the holidays), stared balefully at the sea when it was stormy, strung shells together in endless dream catchers, and first started keeping a diary. Stanford, where we had a pet pig who loved raisins and having her stomach scratched more than anything else in the world. Vryheid, Natal, where I got my much-longed for horse and my Labrador, who is still alive – there I was a teenager walking or riding kilometres every day, with my dog running ahead, staring my fill at green fields and thorn trees and dongas.

Ladismith, in the Klein Karoo, which until now I have loved more than anywhere else: sitting at a lookout point, looking out over the town and glinting dams, at the field which is rich in its scarceness, at the tiny flowers and insects populating its soil blissfully unaware of my gaze. One’s eye never forgets the odd meeting of breath-taking views and minute dense life of the Klein Karoo, the barrenness of fields grazed raw by ostriches next to green rows and rows of apricot trees.

Bloemfontein, with its bone-chilling winters and warm people, its flat stretches of nothingness, its farmers and students and townspeople – here my eye learned to search for beauty, for it was not as  easy to see as I had been accustomed. Which was good preparation for Potchefstroom, where I spent my student years and which, though I think of it fondly as my alma mater, I never managed to find beautiful. But here I came to love its people, here I spent hours on end between classes drinking coffee and looking at all those walking past me, here I sat in Lover’s Lane staring up at oaks wiser and more beautiful than any I had ever known.

And then I came here. I came into my own, you might say. But loving a place, even this place, is never complete because some parts of oneself are always elsewhere. In the towns I have visited fleetingly and experienced intensely – Amsterdam, Brussels, Durban, Hoepertingen, Cape Town, Graskop, Kleinmond, Senekal -, in the people scattered elsewhere whose lives are precious to me. Perhaps of all the things I have come to understand, this is what has remained with me the most: the price of travel, of being enriched by people and places all over, is to always long for a place which no longer exists exactly as one experienced it.

I spent my holiday refreshed by another place I dearly love, outside Swellendam, where my parents live surrounded by vineyards and citrus trees, where the Breede River flows fat with fish, eagles always hovering overhead. And I carry it in my heart, now that I am back, and though I revel in my own routine and my own music again, the very fullness of being with my family has cast the joy of being home again in a slightly more nostalgic light. The richness of being there has not impoverished my experience of being back, but it has made it more poignant, somehow more painful. Another place to miss, even while I revel in my being here. Like loving people, loving places means scattering pieces of yourself loosely, freely, where you cannot control what happens to them. It means allowing your heart to hurt for a place because you have left something of yourself there. It means coming to terms with your own incoherence, your own incompleteness. It means accepting that you are becoming less whole, even as you are becoming more so.

Because love cannot always fly without resting,

Our lives return to the wall, to the rocks of the sea:

Our kisses head back home where they belong.” – Pablo Neruda


6 thoughts on “The ache for home

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