It’s Christmas Eve, 2015. It’s late afternoon, it’s dark outside and raining. I’m sitting in my parent’s living room sipping mulled wine and listening to carols (from Kings College Cambridge no less) in front of the wood-burning stove. Mum is doing a 1000 piece jigsaw of 1950’s toys; Dad is reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Lucy and Helen are napping across the hall. It sounds idyllic I guess.
The truth is I’ve been mainly sleeping, eating and watching Star Wars back to back (started with IV-VI, now on I) since I arrived 2 days ago. I’m exhausted after a long and draining year. Too exhausted to talk, or read, or go for a walk on our beautiful coastline. I’ve just about generated the energy to write this post.
Over the past two weeks I’ve been asking and being asked the usually December question… “So, what are you doing for Christmas?” “I’m going home”, I would say, without hesitation.
It’s only later that I would realise how odd it was to still be talking about my home being the place I go to for Christmas (Ballymoney, Northern Ireland), not the place I live…and have lived for the past 16 years now – Edinburgh, Scotland.
I lived in Ballymoney for 12 years. The living room I’m sitting in now is not the living room I grew up in. Mum and Dad moved house 2 years ago. It still hosts a few familiar, comforting pieces though; the candle of the snowman and little boy on the mantelpiece and the watercolour of a stone bridge on the wall…and it’s still the place I find myself, without thinking, calling home.
This summer we spent some time in Ireland – a week in Donegal and a few days at Lucy’s home of origin; Tullyroan. We were sitting around drinking wine in Jimmy’s cottage on Tullyroan Road on a cool summer evening. Jimmy’s cottage used to be occupied by two men who worked on the farm. I was listening as the neighbours and family friends reminisced about the old days and the two men who had lived there. They recollected a story about how one of them had never been to Belfast (only 30 miles down the road). Here was a local man in the second half of his life and he had never been more than two day’s walk from his home. He had lived and worked in the same community his whole life. We may think of that as strange now – we’re so used to cheap and flexible transport – but I guess this wasn’t that unusual a couple of generations ago.
The geographical place most humans have lived throughout history (since we left our nomadic ways behind) was their source of everything – food, shelter, work, community, family – now most of us choose where to live to benefit our career, or be near a ‘good school’ or to reduce our commuting distance… or to increase our commuting distance so we can have a larger house.
The world is now so small to us. Information from all over the globe is at our fingertips every second of every day. We can be viewing a photograph from a friend in Peru, while texting a cousin in Canada and emailing a colleague in Abu Dhabi. A friend said to me the other day that it would take a human less time to get to Mars in 2025 than it would to get to Australia (from the UK) in 1825.
I wondered – in this intricately connected society, where we can travel physically (or just mentally) around the world in no time, have we lost our sense of home?
I was recently in the midlands of England with work and took the opportunity to visit the place I was born and spent the first 6 years of life – Leek, Staffordshire. I had a strong desire to go back, to see again with my own eyes the house I grew up in, the first school I went to, the park I played in and the streets I walked. I had memories and photographs but the need to be there, to inhabit the space was calling out to me.
I did visit. It was strange. Not because it looked different than I thought it would, or because I couldn’t remember where things where. It was strange because I wasn’t visiting anyone. There was no one there to welcome me, to identify me. I had no idea who was living in my old house and they certainly wouldn’t know who I was. Needless to say I didn’t know the teachers at the school I went to 28 years ago.
I parked the car, got out and wandered around all the time feeling like I was being watched – who is this strange man wandering these quiet streets in our town, standing outside the primary school? I took a few photographs and moved on quickly. This was no homecoming. My home is no longer in Leek.
John O’Donohue says; “Home is where you belong. It is your shelter and place of rest, the place where you can be yourself”.
I long for that sense of home and consider myself very fortunate to have family and friends who I belong to and can be myself with. My home is in Edinburgh now but it is also in the deep roots found in family and good friends wherever they might be.
This Christmas I’m giving thanks for the people in my life who are my home. I hope, in our generation, that we don’t sacrifice the deep connection which home brings for the transient connections we increasingly find all around us.
I hope you have a restful and peaceful Christmas this year.