Rootlessness

By the time I was seven years old, I had lived in seven different houses, and my family’s itinerary spanned three countries and two continents. There followed a seven year reprieve, of relative stability in rural Suffolk, where I gradually found my marks, and some roots, climbing (and falling out of) trees, catching tadpoles and paddling in streams, or rowing a dinghy down rivers, under red brick bridges and low hanging branches, from one village to the next. I was at peace – with the countryside around me and a few close friends at least – but society at large still felt very foreign, and I struggled to comprehend where on earth I might fit in. Things didn’t make much sense, middle-class English people, those I was supposed to be part of, felt vaguely threatening, and my gut instinct drew me more to people like Steve, the window cleaner, with his broad Suffolk accent and liberal covering of tattoos. At fourteen, the family uprooted, and relocated across the channel. For some reason, here I found a place of sorts. The woods and fields of East Anglia were replaced by concrete, and ageing apartment blocks, asphalt and trolley buses, and the urban sprawl of working class French towns. But my first friends were a mixed bunch, the sons of North African or Southern European immigrants, the children of single mothers, others with dysfunctional households, others still from families returning after years if not decades of expatriation, in short, borderline misfits like myself. I felt comfortable among them, and where topics of conversation lacked, we found camaraderie in skateboarding and minor mischief in the city jungle. But in the space of four years, our family of four moved four times….The steamroller of relocation continued its inexorable forward motion.

In 1996 I moved to London, to begin a degree at University there. Over the period of my degree, I rented three different rooms across the city, and my second year was a year abroad. I went home to my parents during some of the holidays, and but one of these homes was new to me, as my parents had moved from the town to the country while I pursued my studies.

After graduating in 2000, I returned first to Japan, a country I had felt a profound kinship with and where I hoped I might establish myself, at least for a while. But the seeker within me became restless, unable to find solace for the dull pain of living that had begun to appear as a blurred backdrop to my days. It was not clear to me exactly what this unease was. Part of it felt like insecurity, I was like a boat without an anchor. Every time I went somewhere, the rug of stability seemed to get slowly, slowly, tugged from beneath my feet. So I saved my money, shouldered my backpack, and headed for Nepal, carrying a Buddhist rosary (which I wore as a necklace or wrapped around my forearm as bracelet) and an envelope given to me by a local monk I had befriended. My instructions were to save the envelope for the flight – when I opened it on the plane, I found it contained three hundred crisp US dollars in cash, payment for many hours of hard toil in the temple yard and garden, a task which I had set myself and for which I expected no return.

There followed a thirteen-year period, in which I freelanced translating books, living abroad on tourist visas and juggling visa runs, or taught English in Asia. In all that time I only once spent a full year in one place (well, the same country at least, but not the same location), and became accustomed to, even happy with, living with very few belongings on a default shoestring budget.

In hindsight, it is hard to determine what part of these wanderings was choice, and what proportion was due to circumstance. Many spiritual traditions say the outer reflects the inner, and certainly at times it is hard to see where my decisions ended and where personal initiative began to merge with outer conditions and the options. What I now see, though, is that there was an extraordinary momentum, not a rocket blasting its way through my life like a lightning bolt, but a more subtle, slow and heavy energy, a bit like a mole, slowly tunnelling away at the solid ground beneath my feet.

Though I subsequently managed to stay put for a couple of years in France, I did not recognize the country I had, as a teen, expected to belong to, and, unable to fit in, found myself a nomad once more.

Now on the surface, and to many, such a lifestyle may seem very exotic. Indeed, it might seem like the privileged life to which they aspire. But for me, it had a price. It set the tone for the personal issues which would bug me throughout my adult life. I was rootless. I was an oddball; in France, my life and cv were described as “atypical”. I had no roots, no base camp, and no harbour. Where was home? In his thought-provoking TED talk, “Where home is”, the writer Pico Iyer reflects, “For more and more of us, home has less to do with a piece of soil, than with a piece of soul. If somebody suddenly asks me, ‘Where’s your home?’ I think about my sweetheart, or my closest friends, or the songs that travel with me wherever I happen to be.”

But none of these criteria were of much help to me: sweethearts have been few and far between, for it is hard to get attached to a man who is just passing through, who appears suddenly like a parcel on the doorstep, before departing just as suddenly, almost like a thief in the night. My friends are scattered around the globe, from Canada to Peru, from London to Japan, from Denmark to Indonesia. As for songs… songs are tricky friends, at times they conjure up good memories, at others they carry nostalgia, and a reminder of the finality of things past.

I yearned to find a place to rest at last. To dump my threadbare, sun-bleached pack. To live off more than a subsistence income. And, not surprisingly perhaps, the more I aspired to this, the more it seemed to elude me. ‘Where on earth do I, could I, belong?’ I wondered. I feel for refugees and forced migrants, for whom this feeling must be a hundred times more powerful – for they, in contrast, know very well where home is, while being well aware they can never return.

But there are lessons, gifts even, within each story. At no stage in my life can I recall having derived a sense of identify from a nationality, or a citizenship. I have thus been spared the futile burden of patriotism, and the delusion that a country could identify my brethren, my tribe. At most, there have been times when I sensed that the French and British cultures I grew up with, and the accretions from other cultures I adopted, perhaps defined me to some extent. Gradually, I learned that my home could only be whatever I carried around inside me. As each tortoise has its own shell, I too would have my own abode within. One day, reading a book of Advaita Vedanta teachings, I came across a Sanskrit word (which I have unfortunately been unable to dig out again), meaning “established in the self.” And I realized that, ultimately, the only place I could find true roots was within myself. On a more worldly and practical level, I realized, too, that I could potentially belong in any number of places. My home would not be defined by my place of birth, by my ancestry, or my allegiance to a nation.

At present, I remain, for better or for worse, a wanderer. The solution to the riddle of my ‘perpetual motion’ has not yet been revealed. But there is more peace than before. It is hard to stop a train in motion – perhaps the putt-putting engine of my peregrinations still has a little life in it. And I return, once more to Pico Iyer, and these few words that resonate so much with me: “Home is the place where you become yourself.”

5 thoughts to “Rootlessness”

    1. Hey Mike, hadn’t seen your comment! My apologies. Well it could be very nearby, but who knows. I do think it could potentially be in any number of places…But who knows. Thanks for reading and commenting anyway.

    2. Hi Mike, sorry I didn’t see your comment! Yes it may be very nearby Mike. I certainly feel it could potentially be in any number of places. We’ll see. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment anyway 🙂

  1. Fabulous read Jim you’ve got such a way with the English language. I hope things are working out for you on your travels and, as it’s that time of year as I write this, I wish you a happy festive season, wherever it may find you and in whatever circumstance.

    1. Thanks for the generous comment Tim, sorry I didn’t respond sooner, I must make more of an effort to check my blog for comments – I don’t get that many!

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