Thursday, 9 July 2015


A couple of days ago, a friend gave me a cutting from her Frangipani tree. For ages, she'd been talking excitedly about her Plumeria, but since I wasn't at all familiar with that name I just made agreeable 'that's nice, dear' noises to let her know that I was happy she was happy.

Turns out Frangipani is the common name, which makes Plumeria the more official one. And there I was, just about ready to decry another Americanisation of a decent English word.

When eventually I visited and saw the tree in bloom, I suddenly found tears prickling my eyes. Not because I am emotionally invested in gardening; the truth is I struggle to keep anything alive that won't pretty much take care of itself. But the heady scent transported me across years and continents to our garden in Cape Town where, in a heavy terracotta pot, we grew our own Frangipani tree. It had been a gift from Tim's parents for our 20th wedding anniversary and it stood right outside the patio doors so that, with the right breeze, the perfume would trail into the sitting room.

Perhaps the tears came easily because right around then I had been feeling horribly homesick. I don't really know what to do this feeling, since I have always been one of those people who poo-poos homesickness. I guess I wasn't big into attachment, and therein lies a tale. Anyhow, my lack of attachment served me rather well, I thought. I have moved home from England to Mozambique, then to South Africa, along the way spending anything from a couple of months to a year in places like Switzerland, Portugal, New Zealand and Uganda.

Never a twinge of homesickness, a fact I felt quite proud of. A rather misplaced sort of pride, as it turns out.

Since leaving Cape Town four years ago (gosh, is it really so long?) I find waves of homesickness rolling over me at unpredictable times. I never knew homesickness could be so corporeal, that it can feel almost tangible as it courses its way across synapses of time and space.

The whiff of the ocean, a walk in the craggy hills, sitting for coffee in a place with a certain kind of vibe, particular blends of colour and design, the yellow and green of my daughter's football shirt. Any of these things could set up in a me a longing for home so strong that I am tempted to take to my bed.

I know what you're thinking. It's kind of presumptuous, isn't it, for this Anglo-Irish Brit to call South Africa home. Maybe so. But there was something about the place, the quality of the air and the light, the rhythm of our days, the thrum of a deeply embedded story, the blending of cultures that seemed to match an echo in my own soul. I felt a sense of belonging that was about more than my daughters being born there, it was visceral.

The mystics say that this yearning to belong is part of our human condition. That there is a whisper inside us that tells us what we were truly made for. And all this activity, all this striving for things and position, is part of our anxious effort to make our way to that place. We've got it all wrong somehow, we've been sold this cheap version of something called The Good Life and we're all trying in our own crazy ways to get there. But the yearning, the energy, the instinct is part of a deeper truth, like salmon who somehow know to follow the river upstream, to home.

We are homesick for a place we have never been. When I was growing up, the picture that was painted of heaven failed to awaken any hunger in me. I would sing along with hymns speaking of golden-paved paths and eternal rapture and wonder at the way the words slid off me without finding any place to stick. Perhaps I wasn't Christian enough, but I was damned certain I wanted to enjoy this wonderful world a bit more before settling down on a cloud somewhere.

I did know I was meant to be significant, though, that somehow - I was very fuzzy on how - I would end up playing my part in a story that was terribly important. I knew that beauty moved me, that nature and music filled me with a sense of the grandeur of life that spilled over the edges of my reality and spoke of something bigger, greater. I knew that I was made to love and be loved, even when the love I knew was a rather shabby version of the real thing. How did I know that there was something out there called The Real Thing? The way salmon know that by swimming they will find their way home.

I am learning to lean into this unfamiliar sensation we call homesickness. Though it punches me in the gut and causes me to catch my breath. I am allowing it to speak to me of a soul yearning for a place I have never been. I am listening to those whispers of longing for places of beauty and love, and to hear the echoes of the place I truly belong. I am making space for this ache in my heart to become my prayer that one day, though it takes thousands of miles and endless days, I will arrive.

And perhaps, though I don't remember it well, when I get there it will feel like I'm returning to where I came from, to the place I was made for.

Friday, 3 July 2015

The singing pilgrim

I haven’t written for a long time. Apart from shopping lists and notes to my kids. “Gone to walk the dog, back later.” Writing was the song I sang back to the world, the notes of my life finding some kind of harmony as I put them on the page. Writing helped me make sense of my world, as if the words I chose became way markers that I was discovering, following, painting for myself.

Then something happened. Someone took my song sheet, balled it up in their fist and shoved it down my throat. And the words just stopped, there was no space around the sides of the dribbled-on paper for them to get squeezed out. The letters got sort of mushy and they bled into one another until they were slipping all over the page and I couldn’t decipher them any more.

When I was kid we went to church almost every Sunday. My parents had been raised Catholic and then right after I was born they ‘got saved’ into a more happy clappy version of church, but still they brought their check list with them. Going to church once if not twice every Sunday was on the list awaiting its weekly ticks. I didn’t mind so much, everyone had to be nice at church which they weren’t always at home. And anyway the best thing about going was the singing. There were no guitars back then, they were slightly frowned on as though guitar music might somehow be intrinsically unChristian, but the piano accompanied the rich voices flowing together as they skipped their way through the Redemption Hymnal. 

Worship was an ‘as the Spirit leads’ sort of affair. Mostly, one of the more well-established church members would call out a hymn number for us all to sing - I remember my Dad doing it a few times and if I was standing next to him I would blush to the roots of my hair - but other times someone would simply begin singing a capella until everyone else joined in.

How I wanted to be that person, while simultaneously feeling like I couldn’t think of anything worse! To be able to flow in the space of a heartbeat from speaking words to singing them, with a roomful of people listening, seemed to me sort of like dancing in public but with very few clothes on. Yet there was something entrancing about it, the way everyone else would join in, following the Pied Piper along the staves and crotchets. You sure had to hope you didn’t start a song no one else knew.

Other than the tendency to blush if someone merely glanced my way, there was a deeper reason why a girl like me would not sing the notes of the Piper for the rest of the congregants. I had made the mistake one day of asking a friend, mind you a friend with a beautiful voice, if she thought I could sing nicely. And since that time, when she’d pointed out that there were times when I was off-key, I couldn’t get the words to come out of my throat. I had been silently mouthing the interminable stanza-chorus repeats every Sunday for months, convinced that so long as my lips were moving nobody would notice.

For a couple of years, my not-writing has been disguised behind the lip-syncing of Facebook status updates and photo captions on Instagram. A good quote here and there, a pithy comment or two and who would know the difference, right? But I keep feeling as though the words are backing up in my throat, there’s a heaviness in my chest where nouns, adjectives and verbs are piling up behind the dam wall. Something needs to give, to let them out.

It may be messy. There be the odd note that’s off-key; I may sing flat for a while, but sing I must. And nobody needs to join me, I’m not expecting to traipse along with my pipe ahead of a snaking column of singing pilgrims. I think singing in the shower would be more my thing, soap in hand as my personal microphone, letting out all those dammed up words to mingle with the cleansing rivulets of truth as they tumble over me.