May 29, 2012
In a love affair, most seek an eternal homeland. Others, but very few, eternal voyaging. These latter are melancholics, for whom contact with mother earth is to be shunned. They seek the person who will keep far from them the homeland’s sadness. To that person, they remain faithful.
— Walter Benjamin, One Way Street
“Birds in flight, claims the architect Vincenzo Volentieri, are not between places, they carry their places with them. We never wonder where they live: they are at home in the sky, in flight. Flight is their way of being in the world.” (Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage)
I first read this in flight: between England and California, via New York. I re-read it on the deck of my parents’ house, resolutely bathing in the cold winter sunlight, the faint glitter of the Pacific to the south (not the west, as you might expect; this sliver of coastline is geographically contrary). There were probably birds passing overhead; somewhere, too, the rumble of a jet engine, the symbol of the ease with which we can now cross continents, slide through time zones, make new places for ourselves.
I read it and it first comforted, then worried me. What if home is just a memory that we carry with us? I wrote in the margins of the book. It seemed like a nice idea at the time – taking attachment to place, to land, soil, buildings, alleyways, something physical, and making it portable, memorializing it, putting it in a pocket. But memory doesn’t always serve people very well, does it? Even now, retelling this story that is not even a story, I have falsified things – some deliberately, but others no doubt without realizing. I will never realize. What if home is just a memory that we carry with us? Well, then, home is more fragile than I ever imagined. Then we really do live, like our documents, the invisible archives of our digital existence, in the cloud(s).
“This profound attachment to the homeland appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. It is not limited to any particular culture and economy. It is known to literate and nonliterate peoples, hunter-gatherers, and sedentary farmers as well as city dwellers. The city or land is viewed as mother, and it nourishes; place is an archive of fond memories and splendid achievements that inspire the present; place is permanent and hence reassuring to man, who sees frailty in himself and chance and flux everywhere.” (Yi – Fu Tuan, Space and Place).
A few months ago I went to a talk at the School of Geography and the Environment. I went as a member of the public – that is to say, in this case, as someone not affiliated with the University, an observer rather than a participant. I had emailed someone in the department the day before to ask if it would be okay for me to attend. I’ve lived here for five years and only now am I starting to feel comfortable enough to assume that I even have a right to ask these things – or maybe it’s that only now am I starting to feel uncomfortable enough in my own city-skin to want to push the boundaries, expand my map. I think in some sense I was seeking validation – I mean that although I was and am intensely curious about the subject of the lecture, on both a personal and professional level, I also attended in order to remind myself that I belong here, if I allow myself to.
“In a place where everybody is known from birth to death, identity is pregiven,” I read. “It is only the mobile strangers arriving en masse that provoke the need to be certain of who someone is.”
Whenever I try to talk about my own homeland to people – about the USA as a whole, that is, the vast place to which, according to my passport, I belong, the place where I am a citizen – I discover that I don’t have a vocabulary for it. This is just another way of saying I don’t really know much about it. Some of it is memory again: how much do you tip a bartender for opening a bottle of beer at a dusty counter in some midtown dive? I can’t remember, if I even ever knew. I’m useless when friends, visiting the country for the first time, want advice. I haven’t even seen most of it. My mother, I believe, has been to all 48 states in the continental US. I’ve been to fewer than 20. I’m not from there, I can confidently say about most of the country I’m from.
But there’s also a sense in which I have willingly closed myself off to understanding. I seek to embody the role of the outsider. At 17 I moved away from home, left California, the only place I had ever really known in the flesh. It wasn’t because I was particularly excited about the university I’d chosen (in retrospect, I had much better options). It was because I was attached to the idea of Boston itself; it was because I wanted to be an outsider there. I wanted to know what it felt like to not be from somewhere.
And now I find that the borders of My City have shrunk. I have this view, this window, and my slice of City is just an overgrown garden that I rarely venture out into. The ground elder has spread. The cherry blossoms have fallen and the trees are big and green. Last weekend we walked into town. It was cold out, almost uncomfortably so, and worryingly empty: a lone violinist on Turl Street, persuading his instrument to sing Vivaldi, a few cyclists on tired-sounding steeds, shopkeepers with cigarettes, a family strolling through the pale light near the entrance to Exeter College. In the covered market, the shops were mostly shut. In Radcliffe Square, the tower of St. Mary’s had been obscured by scaffolding; its spire was just visible, emerging as if from a winter cocoon.
We went to a few pubs we had not been to very recently: our old haunts. We spoke of people we used to know. It wasn’t that some things seemed like a very long time ago, it was more that some things seemed like they had never belonged to us at all – these things had happened to people who looked like us and talked like us but were just impostors in a parallel universe. It’s hard here to know if the ghosts are haunting us or if we, in our constant presents, are the ghosts, haunting our own pasts. Something about a small city invites this kind of thinking. The passage of time is what makes it three-dimensional; the history, even if it isn’t our own history, the lives and deaths of fictional characters who have also crowded these pavements, are all as crucial to its makeup as stones or sewers.
Five years ago I arrived in Oxford for the first time. It was hot and I walked from the train station into town. I had no map but ended up by the river, at Christ Church meadow. This day is just like that day: no clouds, no threat of rain or evening chill. Coincidentally I find myself at the train station again, walking through town, in the vague direction of home. Now of course I don’t need to ask for directions or pause every so often to get my bearings, but even the familiar can feel devastatingly unfamiliar when you feel weary or out of sorts, and there are days when I recognize almost nothing here.
As I walk, I listen to music. A woman is singing, “I build it up…I dream it up…I build it up…I dream it up…it’s easy living inside my head, it’s hard to live without pretend.” We construct our own cities, write our own maps – we build them up, dream them up, often long before we’ve even visited. I remember crossing a bridge five years ago, looking down at the green ribbon of canal, the trees bent thirstily towards the water. Everything I knew about this place was fiction – either my own or someone else’s, Waugh’s or Beerbohm’s, say – but already the fiction had begun to mix with experience. Here’s a place where everything and nothing is always changing: it’s known for being rigidly adherent to antiquated traditions, and yet there’s this constant flow of people, arriving, leaving, all the time.
Downstairs in my study it is cool, as if it’s trapped the chill of spring. In the late afternoon I walk to the pool, which, like the city, is empty – just a few other dogged swimmers crawling their way up and down the lanes. When I pause for breath at the wall and look to my left, out the great window at the side of the building, I can just see the tower of Magdalen College above the green of the trees. I feel slow. It seems to take me a long time to get from one end of the pool to the other. It seems to take me a long time to walk home.
Later, we listen to music in a room that smells like a church but isn’t a church. The heat is heavy, almost foreign. “Home is only a feeling you get in your mind/From the people you love and you travel beside,” the band sings. After the gig, we drink pints on the pavement as people pass by on bicycles, in sportscars. I say things I don’t really mean, I guess to be contrary, but later I wish I could keep my mouth shut sometimes. As we cycle home the skirt of my dress gets caught in my bicycle but it’s nice to have bare legs finally. In the morning, the way the heat smells and the still air feels and the birds sound remind me of waking on an island off the East African coast; the smell of the mosquito coil, burning in a tiled bathroom; the oppressive net, draped over our disheveled bed. The smell of cigarette smoke on a hot morning or a balmy evening always makes me think of other places, other climates, Paris or Fez on an aimless summer morning, café hopping, dropping cubes of sugar into mud-brown espresso.
If I acknowledge that it is five years sine I first arrived in Oxford I am also acknowledging that it is five years since I first met the person with whom I share my life now. I think of the film Away We Go, which is a film, in a sense, about finding or making a home – about having the freedom and the burden to choose a place. There’s a scene, I think towards the end, when Burt and Verona, who are searching for somewhere to live before their baby is born, are talking about their situation. “No one is in love like us, right?” she says. “What are we gonna do?”
Cheri Lucas writes of a long-distance relationship: “In between these meetings, we’ve created a space for us, just us, online: a portal through which that flow sustains. A borderless space that transcends geography, that exists somewhere only we can access.” That borderless space is the home, perhaps, even if you live in the same city, the same home; even if you live alone. It’s the overlap of person and place. Mobility creates the illusion of rootlessness – as long as we are mobile, carrying our places with us, able to communicate via portable devices, it seems conceivable that we might float forever, that there might be no need for a sense of belonging to anything more tangible than an idea. But the truth is blurrier. We may carry our places with us, but our places carry us, too.