‘One can never leave home’ wrote Maya Angelou in Letter to my Daugther in 2008, because ‘one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.’
I have been thinking a lot about home lately. As a child I had a stable home. We moved around a little at first, never straying far from that centre of my father’s universe that was Lundfod where he grew up. Once I started school we stayed in the same place until after I left home. My childhood was spent in the little village community of Gjellerup, smack in the centre of Jutland peninsula, as far away from the water as it is possible to get in the little island country of Denmark, where people are of the land and have both feet firmly planted on the ground. Once settled here, my parents got on with their business and we kids got on with being kids and growing up.
It was safe and it was summer, and I played with friends on the street until we were called in to go to bed, even if it still seemed like broad day light. Or it was winter with snow piled high outside and candle light on the well-decorated, freshly felled pine tree, cosy inside, and we played board games and card games with our parents. It was safe and we were never in doubt we were loved. It was a good place from which to go and conquer the world. And so I did, but that is another story.
This was home and I belonged to the place. My community was a very ancient village, the one with the oldest church in Denmark, from 1140. This community was tight knit and deeply religious, but growing fast in the secularised, liberated 1970s. Though we were newcomers, we were all able to find our community, our belonging, here in this rapidly expanding village as it merged to become a suburb of the larger town, Herning. I started at the new school as soon as it opened in january 1973, sang in the choir, joined the scouts, roamed the streets playing cowboys and indians, princesses and dragonslayers and racing our bikes down the gently sloping hills. Friends, whom I still hold dear and count among my very best friends, are friends from my childhood home (you know who you are).
No matter how much I go back and walk the streets I used to play in, look at the homes I used to live in or visit the school I went to, in that little village, I know that there is no going home. It is never the same as the memory of home I carry under my skin. Because I am not the person I was and I will never be that person again, never belong in that place as I did. Similarly, the people I associate with my belonging to that place are no longer there and are no longer the people they were. Experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe questions the notion of an essential self – the person you are can never be the person you were or the person you will be: Even physically, 98% of atoms in your body changes every year.
Nevertheless, when I go to Denmark and look at the landscape, the architecture and the people, hear the language and the songs and feel the place, I know that I belong. I am recognised, I fit in. I belong to this country, this people, this language, this history.
And I don’t. Having lived for 23 years in Australia, away from Denmark, my mother tongue is 23 years old and the society I knew then has moved on, through several crises and cultural shifts. Some of these shifts are significant and others more subtle. For any migrant, this is a significant experience and sometimes cause of sorrow. It reminds us perpetually of the flux of all things: ever-newer water flows and one cannot step in the same river twice (Heraculitus).
It may be true you never leave home, as Angelou asserts, but I have found the home under my skin has morphed and changed, as I run through its manifestations inside my head and adjust the shadows, dreams, fears and dragons to fit into the narrative of my life. One may never leave home, but home is never what it was.
And this is exactly why I need to go home to Denmark: so I can adjust the home under my skin, at the corner of my eye and in the gristle of my earlobe. Thanks Angelou, and rest in peace.