Here’s an essay I was invited to write a few months ago for a magazine called Global Vantage. The topic for the issue was ‘crossing borders’. I am including it here because although it isn’t directly related to my chosen theme (unlike the baby monkey, which still makes me laugh and smile) it somehow feels relevant. Somehow.
Oh – and also because it will be utterly irrelevant and a huge lie in a few days when I touch down in IRELAND!!!
I’m going to hunt down a few Clearkins in County Monaghan and see if they recognise me. My great great great (great?) grandfather on my mothers side only left there in the mid 1800s. I’m sure I’ll be welcomed with open arms.
I have only been home once in my life.
I was there for two hours.
Let me explain: I grew up in New Zealand, and on one level, I left ‘home’ when I was thirteen. Not in any dramatic sense – I wasn’t an adventurer-in-training. I wasn’t forcibly removed by famine or war. I simply went to boarding school, and only returned home for twice-monthly visits and two months of annual holidays, sleeping in a room that felt less and less like it was my own.
Home wasn’t home. School was an easily-picked lock. During those years I developed a fairly chronic case of insomnia and became adept at sneaking out of my dormitory, navigating the creaking halls and doors of Selwyn House, scaling the fence, and escaping into the night-time streets of Otahuhu. I found bicycles that I could unlock and borrow for nocturnal explorations further afield. I cultivated friends in the area who would wake to a tap-tap of stones on their windows and let me in for a few hours of deep-and-meaningful chat and, god willing, maybe even sleep. My wrist alarm was always set for 5:30am, to warn me that it was time to sneak back across the wall, past the hound, round the Ablution Block and back into my bed in time for the rising bell.
I can trace my family back seven generations in New Zealand. I have held in my hands the bible that my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Amos Smart brought with him on the voyage from Southampton to Lyttleton. I have walked the path that he took with his young family, across the Port Hills and into what would become Christchurch. When I gaze into the New Zealand soil, I can see the line of men and women stretching those seven generations deep, their shoulders bearing my feet up. It’s a pretty good mob.
A century after my family arrived in New Zealand, some of them were still leaving to fight in wars defending a “mother country” that was on the direct opposite side of the planet. After six or seven centuries of settlement in New Zealand, Maori still have the legend that upon death the soul travels up the spine of the country and into the sea via the roots of an old Pohutukawa tree, and returns to Hawaiiki, the ancestral homeland.
We identify our home by it’s geography – mountain, river – but also by our canoe. And when I stand on the marae (meeting ground) and announce my whakapapa (my genealogy, who I am, and where I am from), my Waka (ancestral canoe) is the ship Randolph. The very act of saying where we are from reminds us that no matter how many generations we stand on, we are from Elsewhere.
So back to the story: after boarding school I went to university in a distant city. I stayed there after graduation and bought a small house on a beach. I planted a garden, using great care to research and use plants that weren’t just native to New Zealand, but native to that particular stretch of coastline. Occasionally I would work on farms near where Amos Smart and his children had first broken in the wild land to raise their livestock imported from Europe. I made an annual pilgrimage to clean my great-grandfather’s grave, neglected in a corner of an Akaroa cemetry. But whenI was 25 I left again, and this time it was even further afield: I was off to train as an actor in Russia.
I was running from my home, in search of my ancestors: Russia is the mother-country of an actor’s art. A Russian director, actor and teacher named Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky in the early twentieth century laid out a system that became the foundation of all modern theatre practice – everything either grew from it or developed in reaction to it. And I was there to study in the very school he founded, to place myself as the fourth generation in a line directly descended from this master. I wanted to stand on the shoulders of some of the greatest actors of the century.
As I waited in the transit area of Heathrow airport to transfer to an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, I glanced down at the ground and saw a new and incredible sight: below me, stretching deep, deep into the soil, below the carpet, the floor, the concrete foundations, were more shoulders, more ancestors than I could ever count. A random two-hour stopover in England had me, for the first time, standing on the home soil of my forefathers. I found myself somewhere where there was no myth of arrival, no place that the soul would have to escape in death and return home from. The generations below me were uncountable – if I traced my genealogy back, it wouldn’t end at a boat, or in a dusty Moscow theatre: it would merely dissolve into the billowing vastness of time and history.
More incredibly, after a quarter-century of life, I was standing for the very first time in a place where to be fair-skinned was indigenous. Where the original names of the flowers and plants were all in my native tongue. Where the land wasn’t ‘discovered’ by some intrepid adventurer, be it Kupe, Tasman or Cook, but where it always just… was. For two hours I marveled, in my nationless international transit prison, at this unexpected homecoming.
I flew on. And I have never gone back.
I have never returned because that land does not draw me. In many ways, England is as foreign to me as a mountaintop temple in Burma. The people there are not my people. They are my opposite due to the very fact that they are still there, slowly being crushed by the gravitational pull from that soil, stuffed with their infinite ancestors.
As I write this I am gazing out the window from my current, temporary home: a 31st floor apartment in downtown Chicago, where I am working on a play about an inescapable purgatory at the end of the road in a nameless border town; written by an iconic American playwright; staged by a celebrated Catalan director with a Galician name; a German set designer; a Serbian costume designer; and a (mainly) American cast. Of the thirteen cast members, four have ancestors who were forcibly transported to this soil as slaves. Others have ancestors who escaped famine in Ireland, war and poverty in Italy, herring in Norway or bagpipes in Scotland. Only one, Monica Lopez, could claim, perhaps, those deepest ancestral ties to this soil that I felt in that English waiting-room. But even then, those ancestors lived thousands of miles to the south and could never have imagined the ice of a Chicago winter.
All of us have left our homes. Perhaps none of us ever had them. Living Elsewhere is our permanent condition. Homes are where we make them – and where we leave them. My little house on the beach was destroyed a year ago in an earthquake. The land itself was trying to shake me off.
You see – I have been home once. It was a foreign country.