April 19, 2016

Where God Is: On Home, Travel & Displacement.

Arno Smit/ Unsplash
A few days ago, I found myself blurting out to a friend that it must be a form of madness or self-torture: this collecting.

Over the years, I’ve collected beautiful things from beautiful places: coconut rattles, rosewood chopping boards, hanging miniature bells, dancing figurines and carved lamps, wall hangings and vibrant placemats.

I’ve bought these countless pieces of art in markets and from toothless, radiant old souls for a home which still feels only like an abstract concept at best.

I have not chosen to settle down in a house of my own—or, equally accurately, that financial situation has not yet chosen me—and I happen to be addicted to travel.

All the same, I have been living in my imaginary future house for over a decade now.

I think fondly of its schemes and its layout and its magic. I know the predominant colours of each room because I have all the things I will put in them. I see myself walking around its floors, opening cupboards, glancing around a curated space of well-lived eclecticism. I already know the soft, fresh peace of it, the bright, alarming art of it.

An entire wall is devoted to glass jars filled with loose teas in a kitchen brimming with cooking, flowers and mismatched chairs, painted and pulled close around a table engraved underneath with the names of those who have visited. (I imagine my friends crawling under the table with compasses in their hands, and phones for lights as they write secret messages I’m not allowed to read until later).

In the downstairs bathroom is a print of an otter holding an umbrella in the rain. Halfway up the stairs, as you turn a corner, a slender wooden giraffe (Gerald, hauled home in a backpack, with only one remaining ear to show for his journey and my questionable packing skills) stands proud. Music plays in multi-room stereo, changing with my mood, and books, which I collect in groups of spine-colours (everything is about colour), are piled high and wide.

There is nowhere which is not both simultaneously spacious and filled.

But this house doesn’t exist yet. Not outside my head at least.

I don’t know exactly where it will be, or who I might share it with—if I share it at all. I hope I might. I hope they appreciate colour, tea and coordination (which is strictly accidental but always there).

Instead, I flit around from place to place, gathering ideas and notions (and long, scrolling whatsapp conversations with my friends who, too, are scattered around the globe). When home, I stick images from magazines into a scrapbook which has been growing since I was about 15 (if I show it to you, I must really love you) in the manner of a girl dreaming of her wedding day. I’ve never been particularly interested in that though, I’d rather get on to the honeymoon.

Sometimes I question why I am so drawn to travel when I am such a homebody at heart.

The problem seems to be that I am both. I want a place to call my own, to surround myself with…myself, I guess…and create a sanctuary in which my keepsakes are set and gathered around me. But I also want to live a life of adventure, dislocation and change. I still haven’t worked out how to be in two places at once or, rather, how to be more than one person at once.

Seeing the world is addictive, sometimes for surprising reasons. I have written before about a realisation that one of my favourite things about travel is the feeling of being so displaced. This is the second, non-homebody person in me talking now—the side of me that almost wants to feel lost and challenged by a place which is untamed and unknown, because there she is the most free.

Adventure is exciting to me. When we take away what we know and are familiar with, we are left only with what is essential and vital. We may be brought to what is real by unfamiliar, concrete, small things—a hot sun and wet air; the scent of incense drifting through a street; a throng of mopeds which flow around each other like entwining streams of water; a bird which you are convinced for weeks is a frog (its call is so throaty); a language which leaves you on the outside (the unlikely collisions of consonants, the unfamiliar pitch and intonation); but human bodies which include you (the gestures, the expressions, the smiles and nods).

True independence teaches us dependence. When we realise we can survive alone, we simultaneously realise that we cannot, that we should not—that we are connected to others and always will be. We need them and they need us.

Sometimes it takes a cutting off of much of everything else to realise that. And how beautiful it is to have a to-fro impact—to help others and be helped; to see that people are there, and fundamentally good.

Still, I surf between my two selves when I think of where and to what or to whom I belong.

I wonder about what a home-craving travel addict can do to feel at peace.

The clichéd, obvious-but-potentially-life-altering solution lies in the common factor in all circumstances and choices: me. When I live in my real or imaginary home, there’s me, and when I gallivant around the world in search of who knows what (it varies—sometimes it’s as simple as really fresh coconut), there’s just me again.

There I am, doing these things, unable to escape myself. On and on and on, the world turns, and there I am, always there, the one constant factor. So, yes, this is really where I need to set up my home: inside myself.

There was a time, recently, when I felt completely lost. The thing I thought I’d gone to Indonesia to do turned out not to be mine to do at all. Very early on in the trip, it became clear that my entire purpose was uncertain, and my pre-imagined ideas were mere casualties of my misguided projection and misunderstanding.

The now-blank month ahead, so full and remaining, seemed to be crashing around me in a rush of falling debris, clanging as it fell and ringing its truths in my ears,

“This isn’t going to be what you thought it was. This isn’t quite the home you were meant to build here.” And then, “These pieces are yours to rebuild and restructure; what will you create from us?”

As I stepped over the rubble and surveyed the chaos, I found a few parts of the structure still standing. I strode over to them and knocked them down too. I had to start from scratch.

It is impossible to avoid stepping up your spiritual gears if you spend any decent amount of time in Bali.

Meditation is everywhere—that buzzword I found so perplexing for years (what are you meant to do, exactly?). But sometimes when we are most fearful, disappointed and suddenly lonely, that’s exactly when we are most likely to understand anew where help is available all along.

When I was young, I used to talk to God. My connection to him felt natural and effortless. I remember riding on my bicycle speaking to him (I had thought a man was following me and was scared so I spoke to God for comfort along the ride home). As an adult I still prayed now and then, but perhaps less vividly, not exactly perfunctorily, but certainly sporadically and distractedly.

In Bali, with my sense of purpose all crashed around me, I found myself sitting cross-legged on my bed and speaking to him as though he was there in the room with me (which, of course, he absolutely was).

I talked as though I was a child again—with my eyes open, casually, honestly, my gaze vaguely resting at the top of the curtain pole as I pictured him. He being the strong holder-upper of the veils which we can choose to open or close. And I verbally exhausted all expression of what I was feeling in that moment as though laying out an inventory of circumstances he might not have been aware of (ha!). What I feared. What I felt I couldn’t do. What I felt I so desperately needed, and how completely I was ready to give up any pretence of knowing what I was meant to be doing.

Finally, I informed God that, having finished telling him things, I was now going to close my eyes, assume a meditative sort of posture (palms on my knees facing skywards, the whole shebang), and listen. I told him I would be grateful if he would tell me things. I told him I hoped he might shout at me absolutely anything I needed to hear to slap me around the face, metaphorically, and point me in the right direction. I asked him to show me what I was meant to understand. If he liked, I told him, he could give me messages, or phrases, or visions, or some kind of idea of what on earth was going on.

The effect was immediate.

I hope I will never forget that first time. I felt so showered with divine attention and a sense of change.

The first clear phrase and feeling that filled my mind was, “Finally, you’re here!” I should have done this ages ago, and it was wonderful that I was here now. I saw visions, felt and heard clear phrases which guided me, and was filled with peace, a sense of connection and deep relief.

Over the next month, I did this every single morning: the open-eyed curtain-pole talking to God, then the closed-eyed, meditative receiving. Each time, I asked openly that I would not simply be hearing my own chattering mind and that I would not be projecting my own thoughts and mistakenly imagining them to be those of what is most pure.

Afterwards, each time, I ripped open my laptop and hurriedly wrote a “transcript” of what I’d said and what I’d heard or felt or seen in response. I tapped away at this document at lightning speed, desperate not to forget anything. I made note furiously on what I was meant to do that day, that month, and for the rest of my life.

Things were revealed to me slowly and with great patience (I am sure I am still only at the beginning of understanding what there is to understand).

When I look back through my ever-growing document—pages and pages of things to look out for, certainty I should feel about particular decisions, clues about what was next’ inklings and visions of the nature of my connection to certain people—I also see things which meant little to me at the time. Things which seemed nonsensical or trivial even, but which I dutifully made note of nonetheless make perfect sense looking back.

I can see how things were being laid out for me, set up with a sure-footed, gentle patience.

Patience: what I learned was that God is endlessly patient. That he is consistent. That he is hugely welcoming and ready and waiting to guide me. That I am pretty rubbish at just listening, but that it’s okay because I can get better. That he has humour, and firmness. That he can be angrily protective against our own propensity to make poor decisions for ourselves, and that he has all manner of tricks up his sleeve. He will steer nature to show us how to surrender to what is true all along.

I will always be grateful for rediscovering a connection which is living, powerful and vital, exactly when I needed it. Soon, I was beginning my morning prayer with gratitude, laughter and astonishment at how quickly things could turn around—how clear it had become that I’d never really been alone, even when I’d felt I was.

If “home” is a sanctuary, a resting place that gives us peace and energy, I know I have found a sort of home.

There is my bricks-and-mortar home—the one I do not have yet, but believe in. There is the one I see when I close my eyes (the giraffes, the books, the cupboards I open and close) and there is this home-ward connection which is always wherever I am (physically or otherwise).

This connection is the synthesis of everything I carry within and without of me.

This is my portable, powerful, plugged-in home, with all the dancers, lamps and coconut rattles I could possibly want; and with all the veils fluttering gamely in the breeze.


Relephant read:

Home is not Where We Think it is.


Author: Ella Whittington

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

Images: Rachel Crowe & Arno Smit/ Unsplash


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