Annabel Boyer lives in Canberra where she works as a writer and editor. She also dabbles in audio production and has produced radio for the ABC’s Radio National and Radio Australia. She is currently working on a podcast about creativity in its many forms. Nomadic by nature, Annabel has lived in Mongolia and India.
After an absence of years, the naked twisting branches of dead and dying trees told me I was home. The feeling came unexpectedly as I rode a train to somewhere else, the route merely kissing the border of what is known as the ACT. But the feeling of deep recognition was undeniable.
It was the trees that seemed to hold the key, perched haphazardly like chess pieces across the undulating baldness of the landscape. Those bare grey branches, the steel grey of old bone or moonlight, spoke to somewhere deeper than the voice of my mind. A certain combination of latitude and light, a sequence of chemistry and air, called out, and something in me called back.
And now, this remembered recognition has become a memory I can call upon, an artefact in itself. I try to unpick it, deconstruct it; work out if it is real and what it means. For I am back here again, in Canberra, grappling with that idea of home and where I might belong.
The minerals, the water, the light and air, all leach into us to make us what we are. We are constructed, made out of the world around us. Perhaps for this reason, this feeling is saying, ‘This is where I started. This place is familiar from those early days out in the world.’
* * *
I became aware at a young age that there were places very different from the one where I was born. I left home and learned to love another place with different smells, chemical compositions, coordinates and angles of light.
When I returned, after many years of childhood absence, I didn’t recognise my home – Canberra, Australia – or understand it.
Since then, I have chased adventure, relishing my outsider status, rejecting the home that I feel has rejected me. Better to belong everywhere and nowhere than sit still long enough to feel the absence of true belonging.
For I am from here, but I am not. This is the contradiction I felt on the train. If I belong here, why do I find it so hard to be here? Much harder than those other places where I am more obviously foreign.
Having returned again, this time I am determined: if I sit tight for long enough, perhaps a sense of belonging will fuse together with the fact that there is some precedent for my presence here. Perhaps I will find what this home means.
If I run, I want to be running for the right reasons. Not away but towards.
* * *
This city is beautiful, precise and geometric like a cut jewel. I have never been anywhere with such birds and I regularly marvel at the skies. How can the sky be more beautiful in certain places?
Remnant bushland on hilltop islands provides a sense of place that is real compared to that excised from many of the gardens and boulevards. It makes this a true bush capital.
And yet. I feel that my own personal identity crisis has always been further exacerbated by the conflict intrinsic to being Australian.
Many of us come from a foreign culture that has not been overly receptive to its new home. Our cities have been created in the image of those in another part of the world. The houses we live in are still mostly unsuited to the seasons and conditions of this country. We entertain the illusion that most of this land is a vast nothingness. We apologise that it is not more like somewhere else.
To compensate, aspects of mainstream “Australian” culture over-emphasise a particular idea of what it means to be Australian. It is this construct that feels cringe-worthy much of the time because it is not grounded in any authenticity. It is a bandage over a hole.
Trappings of Australiana lurk at the fringes, like native flowers and gum leaves used to adorn table settings. They are cast like minorities in a mainstream drama series, to tick a box.
It is natural for migrants to arrive in a new place and be homesick. But in Australia that dislocation continues to be unresolved. We are tone-deaf to the songs of this land, ignorant of its secrets. Perhaps it is just a question of time.
* * *
There is a kind of homecoming in recognising the beauty of the land.
I recently went to the centre of Australia, near Alice Springs – our red heart – right in the middle of all that space. My experience was a repudiation of all the myths of emptiness. Red stones and split-blanched boughs arranged just so amongst the yellow spherical, star-spangled domes of spinifex. Peppermint gums luxuriantly green atop their white limbs, all the more striking for the tones of red and ochre beneath the bluest of skies. To describe it is rather like “dancing about architecture”, but it felt like the land brought me into its rich heart of contrasts and rocked me in its vastness.
In comprehending it, there was a spontaneous, unforced recognition of this place; of its beauty, complexity and mystery. Things we often grasp for but fail to find in our appraisal of our vast and secretive home.
There is no shortage of third culture kids*, everywhere-aliens or perpetual nomads. People like me, who belong everywhere and nowhere.
Across the globe, how many of us now experience this disconnection, the effects of transplantation? Will we always be like transplanted seedlings waiting for a different kind of spring?
Bittersweet longing almost seems to be the sorry twin to a wealth of experience and breadth of perspective.
Yet to me within this contradiction lies a kind of hope. That dislocations once made demand completeness. As the train trundles ever onwards, our bodies, our selves are not silent, they call out to places in a constant quest for home.
© Annabel Boyer, 2018