Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Where The Heart Is.

As I started to write this, I was sat halfway through the seemingly never-ending train journey down from Scotland to the south of England. If ever you wanted, as the song says, a thousand memories of heading home for Christmas, I could regale you with stories of the many eventful incidents, tedious delays and colourful characters that I’ve met over the past few years on this journey back and forth between north and south. For this trip, National Rail, in their infinite wisdom, had assigned me a seat usually reserved for a disabled person, in amongst the old ladies of the quiet carriage. When I politely asked the elderly lady adjacent to me if she wouldn’t mind if I moved her things from my seat in order for me to sit there, she became quite cross and wouldn’t let me take my reservation as I was ‘not an invalid’ and she might need the space to stretch her foot. I offered to sit elsewhere if it was going to upset her but unfortunately the train was so full I had to return to my original seat with a promise to her that she could keep her suitcase in my foot space in case she needed to stretch. She then proceeded to have several very loud conversations on her mobile phone, despite being reminded by the conductor that it was the quiet carriage.  Her phone calls were, however, very important, as she repeatedly reassured me. Personally I felt that the regular updates on the weather that she was giving her son could possibly have waited – especially as it seems to me that anyone who is so keen on observing the rules of the rails should also probably respect the quiet carriage.

It later turned out that she wasn’t even booked into the seat next to me and so, when the rightful owner of F9 got on at Derby, I had to help move her, her suitcase and her foot into several different seats until she finally settled. The journey rumbled on in this farcical manner with another old lady nearby forgetting which suitcase belonged to her, prompting a long delay at Birmingham whilst she instructed different National Rail employees to look for it. Unfortunately she told each one to look out for a suitcase of a different colour meaning it took rather a while – and one failed attempt by her to make off with someone else’s grey case – before the correct, navy blue case, was found. Usually I adore the elderly and their whimsical ways but in this instance I wanted to get my schoolmarm on and order them in my fiercest voice to pick a seat, pick a suitcase and stick with it! All in a long journey home…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about home. Naturally in this season, people ask where you will be for Christmas and, without thinking, I reply, ‘Oh, I’m going home’. It’s true; I am heading home for Christmas, just as I have done every year since I was eleven. It’s what most people do towards the end of December. But what has puzzled me is what I really mean when I say this. Home, as a physical entity, isn’t so clear in my mind. This is partly because my Mother and Step-Father recently upped sticks and moved to the other side of England making this my first Christmas in our new house. Yet, if I’m honest, it probably hasn’t been clear where home is since my parents separated when I was about ten. ‘Home’, as I had always known it, broke in two and every year, regardless of which parent I was spending Christmas with, part of home was always missing. What’s more, since their separation, I’ve spent most of my life away from home; at boarding school, living in France, university, and now Edinburgh. I love these places which have often been the most stable constants in my life and so it seems odd to describe a place where I spend little more than a few weeks a year as home.

Every winter, as Christmas approaches, I'm aware of a mixture of guilt and sadness about this. Sadness as it feels like a certain set of co-ordinates are missing which I would otherwise use to locate myself and guilt in my knowledge that, despite all of this, I have far more of a home than many others. It is, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, as if I feel ‘homesick in {my} home’. Yet a couple of conversations with an older – and probably wiser, although he often hides it well – friend lifted me out of this. Firstly we reached a mutual agreement that Christmas, as a child of divorced parents, is rubbish. No more needed to be said on that subject. Then as we talked more about a real home and what that might look like, especially to those of us in our transitory twenties where residences shift like sand and there are few constant anchoring points, I came to three conclusions. The first is simple: that in order to feel at home I must practice gratitude for what I do have, being aware that it is only a shadow of things to come, a tent for me to live in whilst my real and lasting home is built. The second, paradoxically, is that I should not berate myself when the home I do have feels inadequate. Like a homing pigeon on the wing, I have an innate sense that I’ve not reached my destination yet and that there truly will be no place like home until I get there. If this is true, then the third thing that it leads me to remember is that home is not so much a physical building but something that I carry with me. Just like a snail, my home travels wherever I go: it is part of me. People talk of being a homemaker, but this feeling of at-home-ness is not one I have made myself. It is one that I have been generously given so that I might extend it to other strangers, pilgrims and any travellers lost upon their way.

Especially at Christmas, when I think about the reason why I am travelling home, enduring the tedium of the train journey, I am reminded of this hope which allows me to sing, somewhat tunelessly, with the illustrious Bono,

“Home...I don’t know where it is, but I know I’m going home”.

Photo credit: Sasha - in whose lovely presence I feel at home.