Monday, February 12, 2007

Belonging

I've been thinking a lot today about roots. In hyper-regionalist Wales, the questions of where you come from, where you belong, and what you are, are ever-present and all important. These are questions that are underlined for me by the fact that I am married to someone whose religion emphasises family connections. These things expose the weakness in my composition.

I was born in Texas, my parents were born in Texas, and my grandparents were born in Texas -- that is what I know. That is about all I know. I know history that can be collected from living memory. If you were to ask me or my brother where our family comes from, we would tell you Ireland not necessarily because it's true (although, I know that at least one family member came from Northern Ireland) but because it sounds cool to us and there isn't a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

I was born in Texas; I was raised in four cities: Austin, Irving, Houston, and Bloomington. That resulted in five different homes and six different schools before I reached 18 years old. And in adulthood, I have yet to live in the same home for more than two years. I bounce. I have always bounced. There are positives and negatives.

My dad and I are both the sort of people who enjoy hearing ourselves say things that we think are philosophical, so we talked a lot in the months that he and I would drive to work together, before Rachel and I left for Wales. We talked on several occasions about these questions of who and what and where.

Before my family left Austin, when I was 4 years old, my father discussed the move with his pastor, who offered a gardening analogy: Sometimes you can move a tree and it will take root and flourish; sometimes, though, it just won't root. My dad sometimes feels that he might have made one move too many, that Minnesota holds no strong claim to his soul other than the fact that it is where he and his wife happen to have jobs and where his youngest son still lives and where his oldest son keeps coming back to.

His hope for me, and my belief and hope for myself, back in those days of darting along the 494, was that Wales would become my place -- this would be the place where I would take root and flourish, where I would feel solidity and belonging.

A lifetime of bouncing, though, makes me impatient. As I understand more subtleties, I feel more isolated. These people, so firmly rooted in this place, struggle to comprehend and I struggle to convey. When I say something, people hear it through a sort of filter created by their impressions of what an American is, what an American means when he or she says something, how an American thinks, and what an American doesn't know. It's a problem made acute by my inability to communicate dynamically in this language I've chosen to throw so much money and time at. I stutter things out and people guess at what I'm trying to say, using the American filter as a guide.

Maybe I'm one of those trees that just won't root. Maybe this isn't the right soil. Maybe I just need to give it time. How long does it take roots to grow? I can't remember ever feeling more frustrated. People will say this is all just homesickness, but where is home?

13 comments:

wonderful-electric.co.uk said...

You might want to give it time, but then again you may never fully comprehend the deep-seated notion of family, hiraeth and all that.

I've spent most of my life in various parts of Wales - but like you, I don't instantly come across as having any understanding of the Welsh way of life - even though my best friends and my fiance are Welsh nationalists etc.

The question is whether you felt at home with family in Texas. If you didn't feel that there either, you may never feel it anywhere. Which is no bad thing I'd wager - otherwise you wouldn't be embarking on amazing adventures in Cardiff.

mona said...

I know EXACTLY what you are talking about having moved 26 times from countries to continents- and I have often wondered about roots- and about belonging somewhere-and not being part of an inherent culture, language or religion makes it hard to identify yourself with stereotypic groups. I remember it being extremely acute when I moved to Montreal- where I knew no one- ironically, that is the place I miss the most now. Trust me, you will soon find that you'll know where the best places to go in Cardiff are- like when you just want to chill, and the best place for ice cream, - and oh thats the place where such and such happened, and all of a sudden one day, it'll hit you- and thats when you'll feel at home- give it time :)
and well some people are trees and others are just birds-
plus you've got Rachel, and last I heard, ya know- just to add a really cheesy note to this already long comment- home is where the heart is-your family consists of people- not certain specific patches of grass.. now go have a beer at bar near your place and mingle with some locals

DaviMack said...

You can't really put down roots if your roots aren't out of the previous pot. When you go home to find that things are different than the way you left them, that you don't quite fit ... then you'll start to feel like maybe Wales is home. When you have outgrown the old pot with no hope of fitting yourself back in, you'll have been transplanted.

True, you may never feel as if you are really as integrated into the society as others, but that's an unique position: standing on the border of anything gives you a different perspective, and one which provides plenty of writing material ... and maybe being on the fringe is something which is more part of being a writer than being a transplant.

We've found that being on the border is where we're happiest, but it does tend to be a bit lonely.

THE PERIODIC ENGLISHMAN said...

"People will say this is all just homesickness, but where is home?"

Good question and good - if slightly downbeat - post. Are you okay? You seem fairly low - although it is very hard to accurately assess such a thing from the written word alone.

I recognise quite a lot of the feelings you write about. I'm Scottish, but live in Ireland. Variously over the past few years I have also lived in England, Portugal and (for a short time) Germany. But the last two years have been spent in Ireland.

I have always, however - throughout this meandering recent history - kept my house in Scotland. It just feels good to know that there is a permanent place back "home" that I can retreat to if being away becomes too much. Also, of course, it brings in good rent monies from impoverished Eastern Europeans. I like that a lot, too.

But the serious point, about never quite giving up my footholding in Scotland, for whatever emotional or sentimental reasons, means that I can never feel fully integrated in a different country. And I'm not entirely sure I want to, either.

The illogical pull of the land of my birth is brutally powerful, and can leave me weak with homesickness at times. I don't see anything wrong with this and choose not to question it too much.

I also don't see anything wrong with these unsettled feelings you seem to be having. For as long as you are in Wales, you're Welsh (if you choose to be) and that's your home. I consider myself to be Irish for the time being and immediate future. Why not? What does it matter what anyone else might think? The fact that you pine for your "real" home, or that you are actually American, is neither here nor there. Go Welsh, dude. I might just join you.

People are altogether way too precious about nationality - please note that I'm not discounting the beautiful love of country that so many people (including myself) can feel. It is a crazily powerful attachment, and so I am always happy when people move to Scotland from elsewhere and feel part of things. Why would I ever feel otherwise?

You're right, though, sometimes these things just don't work out (the pastor's tree taking root analogy). But from what I have gathered over the past few months of visiting this blog, you have made every effort to make it happen. Immersion in culture, language etc. If others still feel the need to view you through the distorted prism of your American-ness first and foremost, then I would respectfully suggest that the fault is theirs and that you have nothing to reproach yourself for in this regard.

Stick at it, you're doing just fine.

Kind regards etc....

(sorry for going on)

Nick said...

I know what you mean. I, like you, bounced around a lot as a kid (Houston, Galveston, Mexia, Chicago, Milwaukee), and then bounced to the Twin Cities for college. I'm currently living in the only place I've ever lived for more than two years, with my wife and kids. Does it feel like "home?" Not exactly, but I'm not really sure what that's supposed to feel like. The only time I ever felt that deep sense of belonging was when I went with my wife to Germany (where my family comes from, a long ways back). And even then, I'd guess that that feeling would evaporate if I had to try and live there for any length of time. I've got nothing to ease your angst with, just that another Texas-to-Minnesota transplant (one who has also studied some Welsh, by the way), knows just where you're at.

Crystal said...

ever hear about hydroponics? sometimes trees can grow in the most unlikely of places.

perhaps roots don't need a city. maybe home is a state of mind.

Eric said...

Or maybe you just need to remember that anything is better than when we lived in Fargo. So much better in fact that wherever you end up feels a thousand times more homey than the little city that swears it's big. No quaintness, no culture.

tuckmac said...

Hey Chris...

No, it's not "homesickness" or anything like that. Well, I don't think so, anyway.

It took me about eight months to truly feel as though Canterbury was my home. And the feeling seemed to be dependent upon the people with whom I was able to surround myself.

Canterbury, a year and a half later, is no longer "home." All of our friends have moved on to places like Brighton, or London, or home to their own respective countries.

My Lady and I have just moved into our "wonderful artist loft" in St. Paul. This obviously isn't home "yet" but I think it has the potential. Again, due to the people who live here.

Perhaps the issue in Wales, isn't the insular nature of their nationalistic culture, but rather your current inability to fathom their hearts enough to have made the friends necessary to have the feeling of "home" surround you.

As others have said, your child-bride is the first ingredient to your happy home... And I'm sure that eventually you're going to find that Wales can BE home, once there are enough folks around you with whom you relate, and feel comfortable.

Hang in there, Chris. You're living a life that many would covet.

Smiles,
Tuckmac

Brian said...

I know I'm one of those guys who covets your life, since I came awful close to doing the same thing last year. I stuck close to home, because I have deep roots here, and this area (west of Chicago) will always be home. At the same time, I have felt a huge pull towards striking out and creating a new home, in a place like Wales, or Dublin, like what you are doing now.

Perhaps Wales will become a new home, given time, or maybe it will simply be an adventure, a side-trip towards a place you will eventually call home, which your kids will also call home.

Ynot said...

You will hate me for saying this, but your post sounds like you have made up your mind already. Like Mona says, some people are trees, and some are birds.

Perhaps you find yourself to be too much the proverbial "other". Well, whatever you become in life, you will always be an "as well" whether you like it or not. You can be as Welsh as you can become. But you will always be Texan "as well". You may return to the US one day, but by then, you will be Welsh "as well".

I don't think this is particulary bad. It is just life in the age of travel and speed. 100 years ago most of the planet was not exactly well traveled. Only the rich went back and forth. Some of the poor mostly went forth, and never went back.

If the gypsies are any sort of example, their identity and culture travels with them wherever they go. It is not site-specific.

Enjoy Wales. But enjoy yourself, "as well."

Kerry said...

The only thing I can add to the discussion and the wonderful support given to you by your friends is the perspective of time. Over the last 40 years, having been every bit as nomadic as you (without leaving the country) David and I both understand that now, a couple years from retirement we are finally ready to settle down near family and friends.

Not to say that you are like us, but travel lust at this point does not predict if you will want to live closer to family and long-standing friends, or if you will be happier continuing to make new friends in new places.

For now being nomadic can certainly teach you the importance of those relationships. And one of the characteristics of family and friends is that they will be there (more or less) whenever you go back.

Elimare said...

Is it the Banyan tree that has aerial roots that blow around in the wind? Wonderful looking things banyans.

Also tumbleweeds break free from their roots to go where the wind takes them. Goes to prove you don't have to be fully rooted to be alive.

bryan torre said...

Good post. Nothing to add, except some empathy (Illinois, Alberta, California, Washington, Texas). I would agree that home is more where the people are who you're tight with than geography or even familiar cultural elements.
As you point out, there are tradeoffs; I intend to err on the side of new experiences and new perspectives during the remainder of my life...