I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion of home, and how we create that sense in both our minds and in our physical space.
They say home is where the heart is, but as people live more and more mobile lives, by choice or through circumstance, the definition of home becomes more and more difficult to define and harder to encapsulate. Little pieces of place and experience all form some shape-shifting sense of “home”, which is both everywhere and nowhere.
Where are you from? It’s complicated.
Is home where you were born? In that case I am home in Britain, my husband is home in Denmark, our two eldest are home in America and our youngest is home right here in New Zealand. Our three children then all have their sense of home dictated by happenstance, by our location at the time of their birth. This seems somewhat erratic now that there are two different home countries in the mix for one set of siblings.
Perhaps home is defined by your passport, which becomes even more random according to the rules of your country of birth. Our eldest two are American because they were born there, regardless of their parents heritage. Our youngest is not a New Zealander because she was born there but her parents weren’t citizens or permanent residents (but if she’d been born there before 2006 she’d have been a New Zealander, but before 1949 she’d have been a Brit…). Either way, the youngest of our tribe still doesn’t share her home with her sisters, instead her home is in Britain, a home she inherited from me, despite never having been there.
Or is home where you grow up, or where you spend the majority of your time? And if so, what happens when you’ve been away from that home longer than you lived there? What happens when you keep moving?
And what happens when you have a young family and you are desperate for you all to share the same sense of home, is spite of location and nationality? As a family unit we cannot all have a different sense of home, can we? I suppose that Louisa, who is only 14 months, probably has the purest sense of home. She has no sense of different continents or culture or nationality or nostalgia or loss. Her home is wherever we all are. When we are all together, she is home.
That definition is delightfully uncomplicated, and I so much wish that we could all adopt that sentiment. But for us grown ups, at least, it’s more difficult. We were in the States for 11 years and for much of that time I thought of “home” as being in the UK. A mix-match of Whitley Bay, my childhood home-town, Tynemouth, my teenage-years home (where my mum still lives, so it will always be our UK base), and Edinburgh, my chosen-home for University and beyond.
For the first couple of years, America was just where we lived, but eventually it became home in the more traditional sense of the word. We would have to qualify which home we were talking about in discussions, home-Europe or home-America.
We moved to the States with not much more than our books and records. Our things needed a space to rest and so we started all over again, making our house into a home. Slowly over time, via Ikea, we created our space, our sanctuary. We made each house that we lived in into a home, our home. As a friend once mentioned, all our houses look the same. Different countries, different cities, different housing styles, but always the same interior aesthetic. And it is that sense of how we live that always created our space and defined our home.
A house for us became a home when our stuff was there with us, when the artwork was on the walls, the books were on the shelves and the stereo was functioning. Even when we were surrounded by boxes amidst utter chaos, sitting on the floor with a beer and takeaway food, we were home. It never failed us.
When we moved to New Zealand, we assured the kids that as we were all going to be here together, everything would be fine. Our stuff would arrive three months after us, but we were all together and so we had everything that we need, right here. We stayed in a hotel while we found somewhere to live. Even though the hotel room was teensy, we actually did have everything we needed. We were on a big adventure with our two brave kids and my enormous belly, their almost-here baby sister.
Once we found a house to rent we bought beds and a horribly uncomfortable cheap sofa. We made tables out of cardboard boxes and awaited the arrival of the baby and our stuff. Perhaps we were more excited about the sofas arriving… The baby came and it was wonderful for her to finally be here with us, but it didn’t really feel like we were bringing her home from the hospital, more that we were just picking her up and taking her somewhere where we happened to be living.
We were all unsettled, and understandably so. Moving country and starting a new life with a new job and a new school and a new baby within a six week time-span is not exactly a walk in the park for anyone. We told ourselves it would all get better and it was all going to be ok. We were sure it would, and we were positive that once our stuff arrived everything would improve in leaps and bounds.
Our excitement was tangible. On the day our shipping container was due to arrive I was expecting a call to say that they would be here in ten minutes. I got the call, but was told that our container was full of cobwebs and they’d need to fumigate instead of deliver. We were so disappointed. But we’d been without our stuff for over three months, we could do a few more days…
The funniest thing happened. Our stuff arrived and it was wonderful to have our sofas and our books and our artwork. The kids were delighted to see their soft toys and books and games again. But our furniture from our old life was far, far too big for the house we were renting. Nothing really fitted, which made everything awkward. Our two sofas had to be jammed together to fit in the same room, so someone always ended up getting their legs trapped in the tiny gap. Our bookshelves were mammoth in the space, and the fact that they were crammed in the dining area meant that you couldn’t really move your chair in or out from the table. The stuff that we had craved for so long just made daily life more awkward. Where once there had been empty spaces and room to breathe, we now had all this annoying clutter. Our house looked like our home but it still didn’t feel like it.
At some point we thought that maybe we’d feel better if we bought our own place, so that we could paint it and make it our own without asking for permission from someone else. We jumped through hoops, we moved once more. Our stuff was still too big, our lives still didn’t fit into the house, but it felt better. We put excess furniture into storage under the house and created an office/ dining/ studio/ bedroom. It wasn’t ideal, but it was ok. Surely the elusive sense of “home” would be with us soon. Any day now. Really, it must be on it’s way.
But it didn’t come. What followed was an acute sense of longing and loss. We’d given up too much, our chosen country, our friends, our lifestyle, our sense of ease. It wasn’t just the lack of space, or the lack of insulation, or the lack of a garden which grated, it was the lack of our own lives. We had our stuff, we had our little family. We should have had all that we needed. And yet we didn’t. We just wanted to go home.
America was the place where we created our home, where we made our own space and defined it by our togetherness. We had made traditions and memories, activities and thoughts which transcended walls. By moving away from America, we realised just how much of what we’d had had been given away. We thought we had just left behind pans and cake tins, outgrown clothes and unloved books. We thought our family of friends, our memories and our sense of place would come with us in our hearts. We hoped they would be enough to sustain us while we started over.
Unfortunately it felt like we left too much behind and didn’t find enough here to replace it. We were always looking backwards to what we left, not forwards into the future. In New Zealand we feel fragmented, there are too many pulls in too many directions. We want to make it work, we want to leave. We want to settle, we want to be elsewhere. We are all finding and defining own own sense of community as we simultaneously pull away from it.
Now that we have made the difficult decision to leave behind everything we moved here for, there is a sense of loss, but there is a lightness, a sense of hope. We are in many ways coming to terms with a loss and grieving a dream. We put an opportunity on a pedestal and decided that it would be our dream. But it wasn’t. Admitting that it wasn’t our dream was both crushingly difficult and immensely liberating. If this wasn’t what we wanted then we didn’t have to suffer any more to make it work. We could leave it behind. We could walk away and we wouldn’t have to keep looking back. We could create something new.
And it is with that immense sense of relief and hope and opportunity that we are making the next step. As of today, the 22nd of December, we do not yet know when we are leaving or how we are leaving or what we will take or exactly where we will end up. We’re ok with that. We have to be, but this time it isn’t a forced acceptance, it’s a genuine acceptance. The next part will be difficult, but that’s ok, it’s all par for the course. We hope to leave in the next two or three weeks but we have to be patient and trust that all the parts that need to fall into place will do that soon. We will go when we go.
When we get to wherever we are going, we are going to find a house and make it our family home. We need a place where we can all just be, where we can sit quietly in the stillness and absorb this crazy journey that our lives have followed. We need the space and time and calm to be ourselves, to redefine who we are when we aren’t stressed or anxious or feeling like fish out of water. We need a space that is a refuge, an oasis of predictability in an uncertain world.
When you are always anticipating just one more move, it is almost impossible to concentrate on living the life you have right now. The grass always seems greener, the opportunities more plentiful on the other side. As a massive part of our quest for happiness we are prioritising finding a place to call home, where we can abandon ideas of moving again unless we really, really want to.
Home is what you carry around inside you. Home is your sense of self. For us, home will always be a mixed bag of spaces and places and experiences and people from all over the world. We need to find a house to hold that, a physical space to attach to the mental space. We will find one, we will create one, we will figure it all out. Because we’re all here and we’re all coming and we have everything we need, right here, in our hearts and with each other.