Hometowns

I’ve always struggled to answer questions about my “hometown”, because many people do not comprehend that a person can speak one language at home and live in a city that speaks another. I carry memories that are composed of different childhood haunts, landscapes and languages. Though I’ve lived in a bunch of different places, I choose to call the one I’ve spent the longest amount of time in my hometown, knowing very well that I have few reasons to go back there now and in the rest of my life, may spend just a handful of days there. It is a painful thought, but I have moved often and know that this is the way of towns.

What is a hometown? I’ve often associated a hometown with a physical space where we spend our childhood, a place that conjures images of innocence and safety and being taken care of for most of us. However, limiting a hometown to childhood might negate the present and put us in a floating space that doesn’t exist. Where I live now is my home if I identify with it enough to elevate it from being merely a house or a camping ground on a long journey, and if I live here for a considerable amount of time and put out mid-life roots, surely this can be my hometown.

Those of us who have not grown up in one city cannot be condemned to eternal rootlessness. I’ve lived in a different city every year since 2008. I have accepted the knowledge that much as you try to ignore a place simply because you know that severing an attachment is agonising, a piece of the city seeps in and nestles in your head, sometimes without your knowledge. Then, when you lie on your bed on a blue night and look out of the window, rendered sleepless with the splendour of it all, you are reminded of the shafts of moonlight that slipped through the branches of the banyan tree next door and soothed you to sleep in a different time, in a different city. So, you see, a hometown is more than just a physical entity: it is also a psychological shelter.

These thoughts were inspired by the first chapter of Exile’s Return by Malcolm Cowley. I have just begun the book, but I am already deeply in love with his warm, accessible writing: it makes you feel like you’ve known him for a while. He writes very touchingly about childhood homes, and if I, despite (or because of) my vague roots, identify with this excerpt, I know there are a lot of you who will appreciate it better than I do. I’ll leave you here with Cowley’s words:

This is your home…but does it exist outside your memory? On reaching the hilltop or the bend in the road, will you find the people gone, the landscape altered, the hemlock trees cut down and only stumps, dried tree-tops, branches and fireweed where the woods had been? Or, if the country remains the same, will you find yourself so changed and uprooted that it refuses to take you back, to reincorporate you into its common life? No matter: the country of our childhood survives, if only in our minds, and retains our loyalty even when casting us into exile; we carry its image from city to city as our most essential baggage:

Wanderers outside the gates, in hollow
landscapes without memory, we carry
each of us an urn of native soil,
of not impalpable dust a double handful
 
anciently gathered – was it garden mold
or wood soil fresh with hemlock needles, pine
and princess pine, this little earth we bore
in silence, blindly, over the frontier?
 
– a parcel of the soil not wide enough
or firm enough to build a dwelling on,
or deep enough to dig a grave, but cool
and sweet enough to sink the nostrils in
and find the smell of home, or in the ears,
rumors of home, like oceans in a shell.
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