At Home in the World

A couple of months ago I had lunch in Newtown with a much-admired fellow writer who was passing through Sydney on his way back to the United States. Michael is, like me, an expatriate New Zealander and although I don't know him well, I have known him for a long time - he came on section to Kuranui College when I was a third former there, supervised some of the classes I was in and left an indelible impression on my 13 year old mind, mostly because he always wore a white tropical suit and, in a Wairarapa autumn/winter, always looked cold. I reminded him of that this time and he said, feelingly, that it was because he was cold. He's an anthropologist and had then, in 1965, just returned from field work in Sierra Leone, a country he has returned to over and over again through the years ... anyway. At one point in our conversation he mentioned that he has always felt that he was born in the wrong place (a small town in Taranaki), that his true home is elsewhere, and that many people feel this way - perhaps I did too? I surprised myself, and him, by saying quite vehemently that no, for me my true home has always been the place where I was born and, rather than having to leave there to find out where I belonged, I've always struggled with an opposite feeling, that I've somehow strayed from where I should be. I've been thinking about this conversation ever since, wondering if that is actually the truth of the matter or is it some kind of sentimentalisation of childhood happiness? Over the same period I've been reading a remarkable book about a prophetic movement located in that same home town, nurtured by local Maori people over a hundred years and largely unknown, not only in the town itself, but in the country and the world. I grew up in the street where one of the more significant Maramatanga marae is located and walked or was driven or rode my bike past its entrance almost every day without ever going inside, without suspecting what was going on in there. One of the themes of the book is the magnetic, perhaps psychic pull, that the town exerts on those members of the movement who for some reason, willed or unwilled, go away: they are drawn back in the same way that I feel drawn back. Nevertheless, over the last few weeks, thinking about my childhood experiences there, those that have surfaced are of a solitary not a social kind. I remember, for instance, the concrete slab floor of a farm building, perhaps a cowshed, that lay in the paddock opposite where my sisters grazed their horses: the shed itself was either never built or had been demolished; to me that plain slab was the ruin of an ancient city, a place where the mysteries and wonders of the past could be evoked, were (at times) magically present. I had similar fantasies about the tray of an old flatbed truck that had been parked next to our car garage and left to rot. Again, I didn't really know what this thing actually was or had been: I thought of it as a ship and spent hours sailing it to imaginary locations, captain of a shadowy crew who all, perhaps fatally, resembled myself. In both these places time and space ceased to exist as real quantities or at least as limitations. I could go where I wanted to go, be who I wanted to be. There were others ... the straggly line of gooseberry, black and red currant bushes down one side of our section where I'd lie in the long grass and eat the fruit, the sandpit next to the water tank where I constructed vast machine-haunted empires, the empty sloping ditch past the quince tree on the other flank, the macrocarpa hedge down the back with its rickety gate leading on to the river bank ... when I think about these places and the things I did or didn't do there, I recognise the state of mind I entered into then as the same one that, if I'm lucky, I go into now when I'm writing. The same meditative, hyper aware yet somehow also vague apprehension of things of and not of this world. And so I think perhaps I'm drawn back to that place not because of any intrinsic quality it might have but simply because it was there that I found out what I most love to do. On the other hand ... after we'd had coffee, Michael and I walked back across King Street where we were approached by an Aboriginal woman who asked us for money. As Michael fumbled in his purse for coins, the woman looked curiously at him. Where you from? she asked. Michael appeared strange. Bewildered. His mouth worked but no words came. I realised that he truly did not know the answer. It took him quite a while but in the end he gave what seemed like the only response possible for him: I don't know. At the same moment I knew without a doubt, as I know now, if the question is put to me, exactly what I will say.


Elisabeth said...

Maybe I should sit longer and let your recent thoughts wash over me, but I want to respond now, as the desire might pass, as so often happens to me with blogs. So often I sense too, that people do not comment on your blog, not because they do not want to but because they are too filled by your writing to be able to say more.
Your childhood memories resonate with my own, in a different country with a different pull, Australia. On top of that I struggled under the weight of my mother's longing for her original home in Holland, where her family had lived for generations. Perhaps it accounts for why I have needed to stay put. Like the wonderful Australian writer Gerald Murnane,I do most of my traveling in my imagination. Home is in my head, but like you home is also attached to the familiar places of my childhood, where I happen to live right now.

Fresh Local said...

There is amongst many Maori people a way of asking "Where are you from?" that means identify yourself by waka, iwi, maunga, awa, and maybe hapu and whanau. So someone who heard the question might say where they were from and it might be a place they'd never been.

I've heard people say "I'm from Ruatoki but I stay in Wellington". The staying could mean I've lifted all my life there or I'm there for the weekend but regardless I'll always be from somewhere else.

If a non-Maori asks a Maori "Where are you from?" they sometimes get a quizzical look and the question "What do you mean?" - as in "Do you mean whakapapa or accommodation, or employment?"

Similarly NZers of my grandmother's generation would talk of "Home" and it could be a country most of them were unlikely ever to visit.

My strongest feeling now is that I've arrived home and that all the places I've been before were temporary. The initials of my family are E, R, S & T but I arrange them REST as it feels like I can finally relax after being so long on the road.

Martin Edmond said...

The title of this post is the same as that of one of Michael's books ... it's concerned with fieldwork he did among the Warlpiri in central Australia. As an anthropologist he's certainly aware of the different ways 'home' is understood among Maori as well. So there were multiple resonances activated when the young woman asked him that perennial question. In the end, she decided he was 'from America'.

Kay said...

Like you I can inhabit my birthplace in the wink of an eye, and like you, that is where I go when I write.
My son (who lives in Japan) had the odd experience of being in a gift shop here in Dunedin the other day when both a customer, as well as the shop assistant, mentioned that they were from Orepuki, a tiny place - now virtually a ghost town - in Southland. They were all so freaked by the coincidence; including my son who fessed that his mother too was from there; that they all fled the shop! (Oh, except the shop assistant of course.)

Martin Edmond said...

You are lucky, Kay, that your O is just a step away.