It was mid-December – I think 1993 – I was driving back to Surrey having finished the term at University. Somewhere around Horsham, Chris Rea’s “Driving home for Christmas” came on the radio. Whilst one of those benign Christmas songs, something quite painful struck me. “Was I driving home?”. I now lived my life in Eastbourne, and it was becoming such that my closest friendships were University ones; I had less in common with my childhood friends; and to cap it all, earlier that autumn term I had decided to finish the relationship with my boyfriend ‘back home’. What was I driving home to, for? It felt like I was driving to somewhere I didn’t fit, a place I felt so different to all of those around. The 3 week break ahead felt like a time to be endured rather than enjoyed.
We are moving into a time of year when many clients share stories of dread or heartbreak related to family and relationships put under the pressure of the festive season (a theme I have written about before). I have been thinking about this in the context ‘home’: what this means to us, and how our expectations don’t necessarily match those around us – especially with extended family that we don’t see in our ordinary daily life.
What does home mean to you?
Growing up, ‘home’ was first and foremost the building where I lived with my family. But more recently it has occurred to me that the actual building I felt most at home, or at least represented the energetic hub of my family, was the bungalow of my maternal grandparents. There was something about the ritual of the visits there: from the short run down the hill from school and up their garden path, to the kitchen door always being open, to the bar of chocolate and comic laid out on the kitchen table to greet us*. Small things, but symbolising ‘being welcome’ and something of a belonging.
I would describe much of my quest as an adult oriented toward finding a where I belong. I understand this as the fracturing of ‘home’ as a felt-sense, not a place, when within a short space of time I started a new school outside of the village I grew up in, my maternal grandparents died within a fortnight of one another, and my paternal grandparents left the area just months later. All at the time I was just hitting puberty. Adult Helen finds it hard to remember how that younger Helen digested all this. Did she? Has she? The search to belong since suggests not….or not quite.
Looking back, I can recognise how different I felt to those around me, kind of an ‘odd one out’ who did a really good job of looking like she fitted in.
I recently finished reading Greg Madison’s excellent heuristic exploration into what he calls ‘existential migration’. “The End of Belonging” looks at why people choose to leave home to live as foreigners in another land. Rather than a motivation to see the world and experience foreign climes, existential migration is a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about personal existence; to leave the homeland in order to answer questions that can’t be answered at home. In sharing his experiences of a visit to Calcutta, Greg suggests “we are living paradoxes. We need to feel at home but have never done so, we need to belong but renounce opportunities for belonging, we venture out into the unknown in order to experience the homecoming that will finally settle us, but doesn’t“.
I devoured the whole book in a weekend sitting.
It is no secret (if you read this blog) that I relish opportunities to travel to my wife’s homeland – France. There have been times when on leaving here and entering France that I have cried: a kind of strange cocktail of relief, sadness, yearning**. I have made sense of the tears on leaving – the giving up of Helen as she “should be”. I remember sitting on a TGV to attend a dathun near Limoges, France in 2018 reading Brene Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness“. She explains in that book the difference between ‘fitting in’ with belonging. “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” In my yearning to belong, I had spent my life fitting in.
Greg’s book, and the accounts of those he interviewed, helped me put words on home is less the place, but more as an interaction of the internal and external. That long held “I feel different” held in a geographical location “I should feel the same as” caused a dissonance. And this is where I have now found an explanation as to the the tears on arriving in France – as feeling “at home”. Having spent an adult life of ‘fitting in’ as surrogate to belonging, to go to somewhere where I could authentically live as a stranger, brings a lot emotion. The internal sense of not belonging finally fits an external reality of not belonging. I am less the Francophile, and more a refugee. The paradox of leaving home to feel at home.
Aspirants entering the Buddhist path are referred to as refugees. In taking refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha (the teacher), Dharma (the teachings), and Sangha (the community of practitioners), practitioners are renouncing samsara. This is not giving up on the world nor its inhabitants, but rather renouncing them as the causes of happiness. In fact, the path of meditation is often called ‘the road home’. When we sit on the cushion, not only are we synchronising body and mind (which is an interesting parallel to Greg’s internal and external world resonating), we are also settling into our experience ‘as it is’ as being enough.
Being and longing…the etymological roots of belonging.
On my own path, the more I explore notions of being and becoming, the more I get a sense that truly belonging is a lived-experience only to be found in and through the body. There is no PLACE like home, just a being that is outside of time and space. But coming to find home in the body is not easy. I have my own experiences of how hard it is to settle into my own being and rest; and each week I witness clients struggle to trust their direct experiencing too.
During longer meditation sittings, I get glimpses of when being and longing co-emerge. Body and mind synchronised, being with experience ‘as it is’. And in that openness, in that gap, there is a tenderhearted quality that arises: a longing that many might ascribe the word ‘compassion’.
Toward the end of his book, Greg brings in Heidegger’s writing on ‘dwelling’. “The strangeness of the-not-at-home offers us an ‘authentic dwelling place’, ‘home’ qualitatively different from an inauthentic taken-for-granted’ hominess”. To chose homelessness, to become a refugee, calls us to our dwelling. He also draws our attention to the impact of globalisation and internationalism, “in place of the alien we have only the superficially unfamiliar” rendering the task of how to dwell incredibly difficult without contrasts and paradox.
There is so much to unpack in this theme, to explore from Greg’s writing. I would encourage anyone interested to pick up a copy of this book. Certainly for me, it has contributed greatly to thoughts as to my path as we step onto the threshold of another new year. I am looking forward to withdrawing from the world in the next couple of weeks; closing the doors, spending time with kindred, settling into ‘home’, within and without. As always, I will be using Twixmas to reflect on the year that has been and to contemplate the year to come – and as I write, I am certain that “the road home” via and dwelling in bodymind is going to be a major theme for 2023!
*I’m not sure I have ever got over the sibling rivalry caused by my brother getting the Beano, and me the Dandy. I guess that is the raw deal of the second born 🙂
**Strange, but (as Greg discusses in the book) ‘the weird yet familiar’ is not so strange in existential thought: look at both Heideggar and Freud’s work on the uncanny or unheimlich