S. is at a meeting to plan a research trip. I have one of my cleaning fits. I take everything out of the pantry and fridge and clean the shelves, soak the shower curtain in hot water and mould remover, vacuum and mop the floors, even wipe the kitchen walls and door with a wet rag. Rookie’s annoyed at being woken up in every room. He gives me sleepy little growls as he pads off.
I clean after I’ve finished a big job or when I’m feeling out of place, to feel at home again or at least to maintain the ecology of the household. To regain control. Like most young people I know, S. has wanderlust. They’re tired of home, or resent it, want more out of life. For people like me who grew up in different countries (my father was employed to set up branches of a multinational insurance company), it’s different. You make your home where you can or drift somewhere else. Growing up I almost felt envious of the rootedness their wanderlust grew out of. They took their homes with them, after all, when they left, even if they resented them. They had homes to go back to. I say this without bitterness since there’s freedom in rootlessness too. The British class system, for instance, doesn’t touch me: I can wonder at its idiocies from the outside, at the way everything and everyone here is marked by it, so that no British person can escape it as long as they stay…
I’ve travelled since I moved to Norfolk. It didn’t change me or broaden my horizons. There weren’t really any horizons to broaden: I’m a foreigner wherever I go. After ten years here I’m still an outsider. The locals tolerate but don’t welcome outsiders. They leave you alone. That suits me fine.
But doesn’t every home contain an element of foreignness? A home in the sense of a dwelling is defined by its difference from everything that isn’t home, from the outside from which it separates itself with walls, fences, driveways. The familiar takes its meaning from the unfamiliar, is tied to it. And a home itself can suddenly seem alien – after a row with a lover, for instance, a break-in, or missing a month’s rent… Or when you let things pile up, when it gets dirty and colonized by spiders, damp, mould, limescale. There’s a Danish word for what happens to a house that hasn’t been lived in for a while: it gets jordslået, literally ‘earth-hit’. It gets fusty, mildewy, loses its homely borders as the earth starts to reclaim it…
Home is more than a house. But we’re more homeless than ever. The corporate coup is almost complete, the virtual is absorbing the natural, all roots are being cut, all ground razed. We move about in an unshared state of homelessness in which even the foreign is ceasing to exist, since there’ll be no home from which to define it.
What’s homesickness but the pull of home? Boredom, fear of the blue hours, the countless clever distractions and entertainments with which you try to escape them… They fall on you like veils. What do they veil? What else but their opposite, the fullness of time?
Homeless at home. What choice then but to prepare a home in homelessness? To go through homelessness and return to where you are, again and again.
Home in the midst of homelessness. Closer than this cottage, closer even than yourself. More you than you, as when you watched the landscape wake at dawn and you woke with it, standing on the same ground.