New Zealand – 2004
I live in a small Waikato town where I make frequent use of the local library. The catalogue uses a rather outdated MS Dos system in which you have to type the letters SO (i.e. Start Over) every time you want to go back to the original search screen. I sometimes think this is a metaphor for my life. I have started over many times in many different towns. You would have thought I would be accustomed to it by now. I have made homes in seven different houses and the most recent move took place a mere six months ago. On a world-wide scale of human migration, dislocation and alienation, this isn’t earth shattering but, to me, it seems to become more difficult every time.
This last time I left a house that I loved and a town that I had become familiar with to the point of affection, after living there for seven years. Our home there was stylish. The light streamed through several skylights and gleamed off glass and wood. I miss the atmosphere of it and the feeling that I was home when I walked in the door. I miss the route around the nearby estuary that I walked whenever I could and the bench that I sat on half-way round. There I could drowse in the sun and dream of things past and future and return home renewed and energised. We sold the house to people who love it and who appreciate its character; they even said we’d be welcome to visit. I think of them in “my” house and resent it, childish as that seems.
There is nothing wrong with my new house but somehow I cannot get it to feel like my home. I walk in the door and look around as if I were a stranger. I have taken down the curtains put up by the previous owner in the living room, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they don’t feel like the curtains I would have chosen. Yet I cannot choose what to replace them with: wooden blinds, colourful Roman blinds, drapes? Nothing seems to fit. This has nothing to do with the curtains but rather with my state of mind.
Starting over is more than making a new home. It means moving to a place where everything is an unknown. You know no-one, don’t know where anything is and don’t have any favourite places to go. It means enrolling your children at new schools and going to fetch them in those first few anxious days, hoping they come out chatting to someone. It means finding your way round the shops, the library and the doctor’s rooms usually all by yourself when the children are at school and your husband is at work. All this requires a particular kind of courage. It is the kind of courage that enables you to cope with change while presenting a confident and happy front to your family.
Wherever I have found myself I have taken my courage in both hands and applied for a variety of jobs. None of these jobs has required much in the way of formal university qualifications (though I do have such qualifications) and none of them was ever likely to lead to a career, just as well perhaps as I was never going to be there for long. That is something else which one forfeits – a job with long-term prospects. A series of new jobs condemns one to always be the junior, the trainee, the person who needs to be shown the ropes. It also condemns one to being talked down to though the people doing it think they’re being helpful.
I am lucky because I learned to love reading at a very young age and that has been my solace ever since. By reading one can transport oneself to other shores, other lives and other experiences. One can also use reading to anchor oneself in a new situation. By reading the history of a new place one can get a sense of why it is as it is. However, reading one’s way in is not a means of finding true belonging. To move frequently is to always be an outsider. To read of the similar experiences of others, though interesting and affirming, does not necessarily lessen the feelings of alienation.
Another fundamental principle in my life has been feminism. The notion that girls can do anything and that marriage is a relationship between equals was very much part of my early education. Yet here I am following my husband from place to place while he earns the family income.
One of my erstwhile colleagues hearing me complaining about how much I missed my previous home said “You could have kept your home and given up your husband”. What a thought! I could have stayed in my comfortable old life and given up over 20 years of companionship. So I guess this is ultimately a love story. I have chosen to follow my husband wherever his work has taken him because our relationship is more important than houses, towns, friends, jobs or careers. As I often tell him, all this is worth it because he loves me and vice versa! More good news is that I’ve finally chosen new curtains for the living room. Once they’re up, I may feel more at home here.
Malaysia – 2014
It was amazing to find that piece of writing when I was six months into yet another new life – this time in another country on another continent. So many of the points I made then apply to my present circumstances. I am making another new home but this time it’s more than the curtains that I’m unhappy with. This house was let furnished (as are almost all houses in Malaysia) and I have had to find space for our things in among the landlord’s dark, heavy furniture. Fortunately the house is big enough that I’ve been able to use one room as a store-room and put away those items that I really don’t like. But still it doesn’t feel like home.
This time our children have not moved with us – they are grown up and live their own lives back in New Zealand. This adds a whole new dimension of loss in addition to missing our previous home, our beautiful surroundings, our jobs and our friends. In the earlier piece, I mentioned not having favourite places to go. Once again that is the case and, although we’ve now been in Ipoh six months, we still have not found any.
I’m not permitted to work here at all – it is a condition of my residence permit. I have attempted to find volunteering opportunities but have had no success thus far.
Lest I seem to be feeling overly sorry for myself, let me quickly state that the love story continues! We have now been married for over 30 years and are as happy together as ever. And recently our daughters paid us a visit. It was wonderful, not only to be together again, but to see our present lives through their eyes. They found the things that are different about our lives in Ipoh interesting and exciting. They also loved the house and thought we’d made a good job of turning it into our home.
And reading remains my solace. Although there are no libraries here, I have an e-reader that makes getting enough reading material easy. Getting lost in a good book has always been my way in (by reading about the history and people of Malaysia) and my way out.