Thursday, May 19, 2011

Meditations on home....

I've been thinking a lot about 'home' over the last week or so, after Terri Windling wrote not one, but two evocative blog posts about home, belonging, and how where we are relates to who we are.  I meant to pick up the conversation thread earlier, but better late than never, as they say.  I was reminded of a strange short film I saw on TV years ago.  In his 1991, "I dreamt I woke up", filmmaker John Boorman (Excalibur) created a dreamy meditation on the notion of home and finding a place to belong.  This paragraph jumped out at me, because it's how I feel, how I've felt as long as I can remember.  That I'm not quite in the place I should be, in order to be really me.

And the world itself has never looked quite right to me.  But when I came here to Wicklow in Ireland twenty two years ago, I felt I had come to a place that had always existed in my imagination.  That here I could somehow come to myself at last.  Is that what home is?  Finding in the outer world a place that coincides with an inner landscape?  What makes a landscape?  Is it the contours, the colours, the light, the rock, the things that grow upon it?  What is the mysterious thing that touches us and says 'This is your place'?

As a descendent of immigrants from another, very different land, I’ve always felt as if I had a foot in two worlds and belonged to neither. This country is the only home I’ve ever known, I know its rhythms, its seasons, its beauty and its frustrations. But culturally, spiritually...this land remains a cipher, a mystery that I cannot take part in beyond a superficial level. This land has a people whose deep and abiding affinity with it has survived against all odds. But I am not of this people, and I cannot truly share in the knowledge they have. I can learn aspects of it out of intellectual curiosity, but I can never embed myself within their culture, I can never belong to it or learn its deepest secrets. I will always be an outsider.

As a child growing up, the stories I read, the cultural traditions I learned, the spiritual teachings I was given were all imported from somewhere else. They did not arise here, out of the soil of this country, in a symbiotic relationship between people and land. They rose out of a different landscape, they were the tales of my ancestors, stories that spoke to my soul, things I seemed to already know even as I was discovering them for the first time. Myths that made my heart sing...and ache. But they did not fit. There was a huge and impassable gulf between the land in the stories and the land beneath my feet.

Great stories, the ones that survive and are most loved, I believe are not created out of the aether, but rather they grow out of the land. They are embedded in it, linked inextricably to it. They have a sense of place and their role is to teach each new generation what that sense of place is. How to behave with respect for the land and its spirits (be they ancestors, or animal spirits...or faeries), how to belong, how to honour the earth beneath your feet in the place where you live so it will continue to sustain you, the place your ancestors have lived for generations. Stories like this hold vital lore. In oral societies it is the only way to pass down from generation to generation the important information that is vital for the survival of the community. Stories are the living library preserving knowledge of what plants are good to eat and when best to harvest them, or which leaves and flowers cure headaches or toothache or soothe a fever. When the animals that are hunted for food or fur will be on the move and what signs to look for. Everything you needed to know.

But what happens when these stories are cut from their roots and transported thousands of miles? Rather like cut flowers they live for a time, but deprived of the soil that sustained them, they eventually wilt and lose their vitality. They no longer speak secrets of the fields or forests they came from, but become something pretty and meaningless to put on the mantelpiece and nothing more. As a child I revelled in stories about faeries and bluebell forests, old magic oak trees and hedgerows, standing stones and King Arthur. But it was all abstract.  I’d never seen a bluebell...or an oak tree...or standing stones. I had no idea what a hedgerow even was. And King Arthur was a name. There was nowhere I could go to see where he might actually fit into the landscape. I knew of Elderflower wine, but I didn’t know what an Elderflower was. And conversely, though I know there are many edible native plants, like most Australians I haven’t got a clue which ones they are. If I was lost in the bush, I wouldn’t know what I could eat and what I couldn’t. I have no LORE passed down about them.  If you blindfolded me and waved a distillation of ‘the bush after rain’ under my nose it would make me hopelessly homesick. But if you said “what is that plant, what is that animal?” I probably cannot tell you. If you point to a wallaby, I can tell you it’s a wallaby. But I can’t tell you which particular kind, what it eats, or its habits. And, more than that, I cannot tell you its stories. I know quite a bit of folklore and mythological associations of animals like foxes, ravens, deer, wolves, cats, dogs, horses, cattle, bears, salmon...and so on. But I don’t know the stories of the wallaby, or the dugite, or the redback spider, or the pink and grey galah, or even the magpie (probably my favourite Australian bird). I can probably find out but they won’t be MY stories. Not the stories of my ancestors. They won’t belong to me and, perhaps even more important, I won’t belong to them. They might be in my head, but they won’t be deep in my bones.

As I grew up, I wanted to be many different things, but I suppose even more than an artist (which I took as a given), I wanted to write. I wanted to write stories like the ones I loved reading, the stories of oak trees and standing stones. But isn’t the first lesson of being a writer, ‘write what you know’? Every time a story bubbled its way into my brain, I’d be stymied before I even started because I didn’t know how to root it in a landscape I could only imagine. And the other possibility is even more fraught with danger. To take Australian indigenous stories and rework them could be considered ‘appropriation’ of the worst kind. How can I give my stories roots in this land when the traditions I grew up with don’t work here, and the ones that do I’m not permitted to use?

Many customs and traditions and folklore didn’t survive the journey across the oceans. The traditions of Easter and Christmas did arrive with my ancestors, but they’re empty of a great deal of meaning here, they are celebrated in seasons that make no sense. Easter is filled with bunnies and chocolate eggs and baby chickens...just as autumn is beginning to kick in. Christmas is celebrated with plastic pine trees, the original symbolism of an evergreen tree completely lost in a land where leaves don't fall even in autumn, let alone summer. I remember the excitement I felt as a child when spray-on fake snow appeared in the shops...we could make our windows look like something out of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Dickens.  Just like a REAL Christmas! Except of course our houses didn’t look right and it was too hot to even pretend it had snowed. It’s no use just swapping the seasons around, celebrating May Day in October for example. Our winter is short and mild...a pleasant respite from the harsh summer. I don’t feel at all like celebrating when it’s on the way out and summer is rushing headlong in. Yet spring brings with it a burst of colour as even the desert blooms, and summer is our harvest time. But again, it is harvest time for imported species. I don’t know what is fruiting among the native flora.  Spring brings daffodils out, and in November every street nearby is awash with mauve as the jacarandas bloom.  Summer here is cherries and peaches, apricots and grapes. These are my indicators of seasonal changes. Aliens to the land I live in. Nothing I know fits.

And yet I love this land deeply and I don’t know if I could ever live anywhere else. Perhaps for a while, but my heart would always be where the sun sets over the sea by white beaches, where the smell of eucalypt trees after rain is like a magical essence powerful enough to wake the dead. Where the first flush of green after the long, brown summer makes my heart sing. The smell of peppermint trees down by the Blackwood River, the utter beauty of Green’s Pool near Denmark. The sound of the dawn chorus...could I live without the sound of magpies warbling?

So what can I do? I want to find a way to live (and perhaps even have a go at writing) that roots my traditions, my ancestors’ stories, into this land so that they truly live and breathe and grow in this landscape, a way that harmonises with but does not in any way compromise the traditions of the people who have been here for more than forty thousand years. It’s got to be possible, somehow. Because I honestly believe that until we late-comers find a way to truly belong to this country, we will carry on misunderstanding it, exploiting it, destroying it, and denigrating its first people and their traditions.  We need to create lore (rather than law) of this land in a way that roots us here, making us part of the intricate web that binds everything. Because until we do that we’ll only ever be visitors, temporary residents scratching the surface. We will never truly be home.


Oya's Daughter said...

Beautifully written, and I empathise, truly I do. As a multicultural woman, I'm not really sure if I'll ever be allowed by arbitrary laws or people's prejudices to be "at home" anywhere I go. People tell me here got "get orf home." I wonder where that is, exactly.

But I have always wanted to be in England, and even though its politics make me want to tear my hair out, I adore this place - I love what it IS, not what other people try to force it to be. It takes a bit of courage sometimes to go against the accepted grain and approach a place with what your heart tells you, even if other people don't appreciate your skin-tone. My bones know this country, whether my kinky hair and accent says so to other folks who live here. And that is what matters.

Let the land speak to you and it gives you every right to say what you have to say. Sure, you're going to get some shift for that, but if you look through the myths and stories of every single culture on earth, there is a common thread. There are fairies in Africa, vampires in Saskatchewan, and witches living under hills in Japan. I did exactly that kind of blending when I wrote Lon'Aite - Dark Huntress and Wendigo and Baba-Yaga. It can be done because people have done it already; that common thread weaves through all stories, and must have done for a reason, surely?

You'll do it. Don't let anyone tell you different.

WOL said...

Many of the first European settlers in Australia were brought there against their will, transported. Themes of exile, loss, grief, and the challenge of a new unknown land run through your early history. Study the land, and write about finding a home in an unhomely place, where nothing is like the home you were forced to leave. As you say, write about what you know: That sense of displacement, of coming to terms with a world that is backwards.

Mo Crow said...

I love your big heart Christina, you shine in all your art, words & song!
the songlines are all around us...
have a look at Aña Wojak's performance honoring them here in the Sydney Botanic Gardens when she was artist in residence, one of the most profound performances I have ever witnessed

Valerianna said...

Beautiful, powerful writing Christina - you ARE surely a writer! I've been navigating these themes as I work more and more with my ancestors - all from Europe and the British Isles. The deeper I go into working with them, the more I feel I want to be in the Celtic lands. I know a pilgrimage is needed, hope sooner than later.

Oh I could write volumes on this as a white person in a land where the land whispers the stories of the indigenous ancestors here so loudly to me. The issue of appropriation is something, for sure - as is the issue of displacement from ancestral lands. There is a good book I just read about this, from a Celtic perspective -"The Spiral of Memory & Belonging" Frank MacEowen - with some useful techniques for working with ancestors and one's feelings of displacement. Maybe its not as much of a split for me living in the Eastern Woodlands as the mosses, stones and mists are surely akin to the British Isles, not as stark a contrast to living down under! I can only imagine what that does to the psyche....

Thanks for this evocative post!

Mo Crow said...

Talking about feelings of displacement... next time you're in Kings Park could you listen to Gija Jumulu and tell us what that grand old boab tree has to say about the move?

Lynn said...

Thank you for a thoughtful and beautifully written post. The idea of "home" is one that's fascinated me for years. I love the idea of the landscape of your ancestors singing in your blood. (I've experienced that each time I have visited Britain: it just feels like home, even though I was born and raised in Canada.)

Lovely, lovely post.

Tiffany D. Davidson said...

Interesting thoughts, and something I too have always felt (living in America).

I've got the all five parts of the film above loading currently to watch with supper tonight.

Blessings :)

yew tree nights said...

A lovely post!

As time goes by, I begin to think that home is a constantly shifting thing (of course, that may also be because I, myself, am always shifting). Growing up in Canada, and not being native, I have thought a lot about the things you wrote about in your post. I used to be very preoccupied with Ireland and Germany, the places where my family is from. But now I find every place so interesting. I think I could live anywhere... I want to live everywhere. I would love to get to know as many facets of the earth as I can, and see what emerges in my own self to reflect them. And I think that home is something which is internal as well.

I hope you will forgive me for writing altogether too much. At least you can take the (perhaps small) comfort that your post is very thought provoking!

Raven Moon Magic said...

Im late but I saw that I would need a quiet moment to process this. I too live in a land out of sync with the dominant world and we too have been told all our lives we are invaders of these lands and have done nothing but wreck things since we came here. Its hard to live somewhere that my family has been living for nearly 200 years and still not feel welcome. I dont know how to be anywhere else either, I tried, I travelled the world but ended back here where I started. I feel its my duty to live here and carry on my families heritage. I can imagine to have a close heritage to another country must be even harder. How long have you family been in Australia? I have no emotional ties to any other country. I find all I can do is make my own little world and try to exist the best I can within that. And fake snow! haha has to be one of my pet hates, people are still painting that stuff! At least there are some good Xmas books out for our kids about celebrating down under. I always write on American blogs that they have no idea how lucky they are that their festivals just flow effortlessly with the seasons, it must be a wonderful feeling. As for the natives to our lands and how we have placed our selves in their worlds, we are taught from pre school that we are multi cultural (my daughter is part maori)and learn maori songs, colour counting and history so that everyone is connected, but it still dosent stop the constant fighting about what was done 150 years ago. I would love that to stop so we all can just be and move forward together!!! sweet dreams!!

Much love to you Christina and much understanding on how you feel


elfmother said...

I know exactly how you feel, being a daughter of British immigrants myself. My childhood memories are bound up with images of the English woodlands of long ago. The feeling of not really belonging is a strange one, often contemplated by me. I returned to England when I was younger yet found a curious 'homesickness' for the dry desolation of the bush. I married a Spaniard so now my children have inherited this sense of rootlessness. We are like plants growing in the air. We inhabit the bridge that crosses the land.

Ramona Daniel Gault said...

Dear Mermaid, I'm moved by this post and all the comments. I'm a descendant of English/Scottish settlers, living in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. As a shamanic practitioner, I practice awareness of the spirits around me, but I've felt the local spirits are a bit standoffish. Who can blame them? But I do believe we can approach them in humility and seek to work with them. Also, local spirits in many places over the world now have been neglected for long years and have grown distant. It takes time and great patience to cultivate a relationship and draw them out again. Read books by Michael Harner, Sandra Ingerman, Frank McEown, RJ Stewart, David Spangler, to name a few, about working with your local spirits. And then just sit quietly in natural places and seek their companionship. I don't think we have to live as exiles; indeed, nostaligia is simply the result of not being connected to where we are. With compassion and love, the local spirits and even the local natives will sense your sincerity in time and respond postively. I do believe this.

Ruthie Redden said...

Hi Christina, as you can see i am very behind in my catching up lol.

I loved this post, beautifully written, your words go very deep. For so many years i too felt just as you describe, that i was never quite in the right place, (or in the right time). You have reminded me just how blessed i am to have finally "found" my place. When i moved here to the south west of scotland, aged 32, it was very emotive, a huge coming home for me. The land, the colours, the history all sang there song & welcomed me home, even though i had never lived here. It felt like i known it all before.

I wonder if it is the magic in our bones from long ago ancestors? I do think with your amazing ability to create such moving writings that you will find your harmony.

x x x

Sheridan Voysey said...

Beautifully written with some wonderful reflections on 'home'. Well done from this Aussie living in the UK.

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