I’ve probably mentioned in earlier posts about my admiration of the work, or at least some of the work, of writer Paul Kingsnorth. When reading his latest book Savage Gods – which is, quite frankly, a strange and thought provoking book – partly about his and his family settling, or at least trying to settle, into a new life in rural western Ireland….and also about his sense of belonging, his life in general and about writing and words – it made me examine my own life.
I will do a book review of Kingsnorth’s book in a later post.
Before I begin, there is something that you should know. I don’t like myself. I used to when I was a child – young and innocent. But not now. I can’t understand why anyone would want to be my friend, or spend time in my company. I think it was Woody Allen who once said – and I am paraphrasing here – “I could never belong to a club that would have me as a member.”
I once had a dream. At the time of dreaming it, it was very clear. I don’t remember now who it was that I was talking with in the dream, but I was explaining to the person how confused I was about my purpose – why was I here on earth, what was my “raison d’être”? The reason or purpose of my existence. The person in my dream then told me the meaning of life in one short but clear sentence. I remember saying to him…or was it her…”That’s it? It’s that simple?”. And then realizing I was in a dream, I thought “I must tell everyone about this as soon as I wake up….it’s amazing and such a wonderfully simple concept”. You can imagine my excitement.
Of course on waking, the explanation about life and why we are here disappeared into the ether. All I can remember is how simply it was explained to me. I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to find my way back into that dream ever since. It often feels tantalisingly close, but is always just out of reach.
Kingsnorth’s book has started me thinking about that dream again and questioning why I am here, where is HERE and my sense of belonging to the place where I live. My thought pattern is a rush of jumbled thoughts and ideas, tripping over one another as they all trying to come out at once, so please bear with me while I attempt to give them all a place on this page, in some semblance of order.
When we are children we are often asked by adults “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. The question that they actually want us to answer is not what we want to be, but what job or career we want to perform in order to earn money which will then allow us to live in a certain manner. We answer and are then often told that we’re wrong in our choices and should strive to become something else….something perceived, by them, as better in some way.
In my case, I loved playing in the woods as a very young boy, but you can’t play in the woods as an adult. I wanted to do a job that would allow me to remain in the woods and keep me connected to nature. You can’t play in the woods as a job. But why not? Why is it that we cross an invisible line when we go from childhood to manhood that means that what was once a happy, pleasurable, natural thing to do – playing in the woods amongst nature, as a part of the natural world – now becomes unacceptable, even embarrassing. Something unbecoming. Man and nature are not and never should be separate. We are part of the natural world and we lived within it for thousands of years, until suddenly that wasn’t good enough. We considered ourselves above nature and decided that we needed to control it. Not just felt the need to control nature but assumed we had a god given right to control it. To use and exploit its “resources”. (If you’ve read some of my earlier posts you’ll know how I feel about nature being looked upon as a resource). Somehow we have lost our way, allowed ourselves to become detached from nature.
So, after that little rant – my answer was “I want to be a forestry worker” – not the type that cut down trees though, but some kind of fantasy forester who cares for the trees. A protector of the natural world.
This, in later years changed into wanting to join the army and to be just like my older cousin Tony – whom I admired greatly – who joined the British army, travelled to exotic places and also learned a trade. He learned welding, and after leaving the army worked on a huge pipeline across Australia where he earned enough money to build his family a beautiful home in Adelaide where they settled, way back when, to live the dream. I thought that I wanted the same thing.
When I visited him and his family back in the 1980’s on my world travels I asked Tony how he was doing and his reply was “Living the dream mate”. He seemed very content.
For some reason neither of my career suggestions was good enough for my dad and I was pushed towards going to university and/or becoming a quantity surveyor. Why a quantity surveyor? I have no idea, but dad seemed to think it was high enough up the food chain to command respect and a good income. Like most parents, he wanted a better life for his kids than he was able to have. (He missed out on university because of a little thing called world war 2, which found him at the tender age of 17 crewing destroyers and minesweepers in the fight against Hitler). But who defines better and how do you define it?
The pursuit of happiness wasn’t a consideration. By now I was a teenager 16 years of age and naturally, as teenagers do, I revolted. Although up to that point in my life I’d done well at school, even enjoyed being there some of the time, had good grades, was in the top end of scholars and achieved 6 O’levels without expending too much effort, but rather than bowing to dad’s “suggestion” of going to university I deliberately scuppered my chances by missing lessons and instead spent my afternoons in one of many local pubs near the school. Naturally, this ended my run of good grades, served to keep me out of university and limit my options in a world where pieces of paper are deemed proof of intelligence and a persons worth.
It also brought out a bad side of me. I was irresponsible, got drunk often. I must have been a real pain in the arse to live with, but mum and dad (and my brother) were there for me. It certainly wasn’t a time I was particularly proud of.
I realize now of course that this was a stupid thing to do, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
In the end, neither my dad nor I got our wishes granted and on leaving school I ended up taking on a mediocre job working as a shipping clerk for a freight company. My idea, at this stage in my life was to do this job for 6 months or maybe a year and then pack a bag and travel to distant lands. To escape my childhood home and explore new possibilities. Cast off the old and embrace the new. However, life gets in the way of living the dream and it wasn’t until 8 years had passed, living a comfortable but numb life, before I quit and set off for a year to backpack around the world.
As I stood in my bedroom, on the morning of my departure, and looked around both within the room at the furniture, the decore, my Olivia Newton John poster, my drawing of Diana Ross, my map of the world with the places marked with pins that I wanted to visit…and at the view of old cottages, trees and gardens through the window…and of course my beloved woods beyond… trying to absorb everything into my memory bank for what could be the last time, as I had no idea when, or even if, I would be back again, I wondered if I was making a mistake. Was severing ties with the place I was born and grew up – the place where my dad was born, the place where my grandparents lived most of their lives, the place where my great grandparents settled and made their home – the right thing to do?
At the time I didn’t feel that I belonged there and there were far better places to explore, more interesting people to meet, more exciting experiences to be had. Why be a stick-in-the-mud? Why root myself to the spot like my great grand parents, my grand parents and my parents had done when I have 2 feet that will take me anywhere in the world? So I left.
I didn’t realize it back then but I had, and still have, a self destructive streak – a certain self loathing – a feeling of never being quite good enough. An underlying feeling that accepting failure and giving up or walking away from things – situations, people – was easier than struggling to succeed. “I am not worthy” is my underlying mantra. This wasn’t always the case though.
As a child I had a more or less happy life, particularly in my younger years – say from my earliest recollection of memory up to the age of maybe 10, or there abouts. I was confident in my abilities. I was a good reader and read lots of children’s books – devoured them would be a better description. I loved stories of adventure, of friends going off to explore exciting places together, the feeling of camaraderie and trust among equals. I loved to play and run through the woods, to go biking with friends, to play football in the park, to read endless books in the quiet solitude of my bedroom, to write my own stories, to sketch pictures in my sketchbook, to take my dog for long walks where I could just let my mind wander, to sing at the top of my voice when no one was there. I had confidence in myself. I thought I was good at everything, could do anything. I even got to sing solo in one of the schools productions. Then one day my mum criticised my singing, so I stopped. I started whistling, but my wife doesn’t like that – so I stopped that too….or I try to. I sometimes forget and I get THAT look from her.
I had a lot of friends back then. Good friends. Kids I could count on. I have been keeping in touch with many of my old friends from primary school through the magic of Facebook. Or I should say I HAD been keeping in touch with them. And here’s where my self destructive streak comes in again. I have decided that it’s important to stick to one’s principles. I detest the way that modern man – and modern woman come to that – are destroying the planet, or more accurately, destroying the natural world – real plants, trees, animals, birds, insects, the microbes in the living soil – for something as false as money. The worst of such people are the likes of the new billionaires like Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook….or the Metaverse) who controls what opinions we are allowed to express on Facebook and other (anti) social media platforms and (as I saw it) backs up oppressive governments and helps them to push their agenda. So, I decided to delete my Facebook and other social media accounts (which are a huge absorber of my time) and therefore get back lots of free time, give a 2 finger salute to Zuckerberg, but at the same time this decision sadly served to sever contact with my long time school friends.
Before deleting my account I did post on there to let people know of my decision and to advise them of my email address in case anyone wanted to keep in touch. But my self destructive, self loathing side tells me that no one will. I am not worthy – remember.
I know that it sounds like I am sinking into the pathetic realms of self pity here, but I’m not. I have no pity for myself. I don’t deserve any pity. I don’t seek pity from you or anyone else. I made my choices, rolled the dice, made many mistakes, so many mistakes – thankfully along with a few good choices such as marrying my wife and raising 2 great kids. But other than that I find myself asking “what have I done…what have I achieved….how can I become happy?”
I find myself where I am, disconnected and adrift, without the roots and connection that indigenous peoples have to their land and their sense of place and belonging to that place – in some cases over millennia, such as the Australian Aboriginal tribes. I no longer look at my ancestors as being foolish for putting down roots. I envy them. I envy their sense of belonging.
Now if you ask me where I feel most connected to, I am drawn back – almost tugged back on a long stretched piece of elastic – to a particular place in the woods where I played in my much younger years and felt a certain contentment with where I was and more importantly perhaps, who I was. As a child I lived in the now. I didn’t worry about my future or regret my past. What was to come or what had already happened didn’t concern me. I had no ambitions, no expectations, no ego. I was there, fully there in the moment, enjoying life – just living.
To cut a long story short I settled in New Zealand – as far away from my place of birth, geographically speaking, as I could be without heading off into space. I just used the word settled, but despite living here for longer than the time I lived in my birth country, I am anything but settled. We, my wife and I, have lived in our current house (notice I use the word house, not home) for almost 28 years. I’ve been in New Zealand for 33 years now. I am surrounded by books, many of which came with us when we emigrated here in 1989. We have made gardens to grow much of our vegetable needs and planted over 25 fruit and nut trees. The trees have put down roots, deep roots to anchor them in place no matter how rough the weather is. But I remain unable to show the same commitment to place as they do.
This place may be where I live, but it will – I fear – never be my home. I don’t belong here. It’s a beautiful country to live in, as far as scenic beauty is concerned, but I am alien to it and in it. I don’t fit. I’m an outsider. A “bloody Pom”, even though I have New Zealand citizenship – something that I waited over 12 years before committing to. I’ve always felt that living here was meant to be something temporary. Our house may be “home” as far as my children are concerned, it is their home because during there formative years it’s where they were brought up, where they played football and cricket in the back yard, where they felt most secure (I hope). But it’s not mine.
That being said, even my children seem to have rejected it. Both of my children have left for places new. One is still in New Zealand. He was born here, but now lives in our Capital City. Preferring city life to our more rural, small town backwater lifestyle. My older son, has lived stateside for over 10 years. I suspect that he feels an even bigger disconnect…or perhaps doesn’t sense the disconnect just yet. (But he will).
He was born in England, brought up in New Zealand, lived for 9 years in Boston and now lives in San Francisco. I hope that they both discover the importance of belonging to where they currently live or realize the importance of coming back to their roots.
As I get older I have more respect for my forebears. They put down roots, they became part of the community, they made friends, they belonged. I’ve lived here in this house for almost half my life and yet I have failed to commit to the place. I have failed to make friends here on this side of the globe. I had colleagues and co-workers at the various jobs I have had. I’ve met others through playing sports, but once I leave the job or stop playing the sport, those people slip away from my life. We have nothing in common any more. The job or the sport was our only common ground. I know a lot of people but there are few, if any, that I can count on as true friends. We reap what we sow I guess. On the bright side I have my long suffering wife by my side (for which I am eternally grateful), my collections of books all around me, my opportunity to use this blog to practice my writing and express myself…and my cat, who sometimes looks like he’s actually listening to me. I’m also very grateful for my kids and my grandchild….and more to come. But they are not here, where I am. It would be wonderful for us all to be together in a place where we all feel that we truly belong. But we aren’t and probably never will be.
On my travels I have felt a connection to a few special places that I have visited, passed through. Places that stir some strange primeval emotion deep within me, something bordering on the spiritual. But they are fleeting and my “modern man mind” dismisses it and I move on.
At the time of writing this, I’m 62 years of age and live 12,000 miles away from my childhood home, but I can see, hear, smell, sense in every way that particular place in the woods. The path is wider here and on one side is an old sandstone wall, waist high, tumbling down here and there. To the other side the land and the trees and bracken beneath slope slightly down hill away as far as the eye can see. Ahead of me the path forks and – like another writer by the name of Frost – I have to decide whether to take the well trodden path or the one least taken. Or do I waste my life and just stand here unable to choose? Then again, is simply being here at this spot in the woods, surrounded by nature and where I am happiest, wasting my life?
I can feel the bits of fallen twig moving in the sand on the path under my feet when I walk on them. I close my eyes and I can hear the constant buzz of insect life and see the beech leaves gently swaying on a whisper of a breeze that is barely audible, but is just enough to make the leaves dance. And below them, in springtime, an endless sea of bluebells that me and my younger brother would pick and take home for mum. The smell of earthiness all around me as fallen leaves decay into fresh soil and bring about new life. This place where I stand leaning against the sun-warmed sandstone wall in the woods, on this sandy path, in dappled light beneath the century old beech trees is warm, safe, familiar and comfortable. It is where I feel most at home, most rooted if you like. Despite the years passing, and the distance I am from it, everything is fresh and in the now.
This place is also where, 27 years after my departure from by birth place, I returned, briefly, with the ashes of my parents. They followed me, my wife and most importantly, their first grandchild out to New Zealand to live, back in 1990, having never even visited there before. Abandoning their roots, their friends, their entire previous lives. They asked that, eventually, their ashes be returned to the woods where they once walked. These woods where my father scattered the ashes of his parents – returning them to nature – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This is the place I chose to scatter their earthly remains, beneath the beech trees with a good view of the springtime bluebells that my mum loved so much. It was the least that I could do for them. It’s also the place that I wept inconsolably as I scattered their ashes, despite the fact that they had both died a couple of years earlier, so those wounds were no longer new, fresh and raw. I wept not for them, but for myself….in my own typically selfish way. For they had returned to their roots and could never be separated from them. They belonged.
I had made some notes about life and being and belonging that I was going to refer to and work into this post, but once I got going the piece more or less wrote itself and I didn’t need them. I can perhaps use the notes when I tackle my review of Kingsnorth’s book. As usual thank you for reading. I honestly do appreciate any constructive comments.