My weekend foraging for firewood while glamping in beautiful West Wales has me musing on a topic that returns to me again and again over the years.
Just what is home? And is it up to us to define it?
This week, I was supposed to be travelling. But I was sick. I stayed at home.
Much is written about the power of travel, about how new places, people and experiences light up our senses and stimulate our minds. Little is written about those other two words. Sickness. And home.
Recommended reading: The Importance of Doing Nothing
Perhaps it’s a product of practicality. When writers get sick, it’s much harder to write. Only when all hope of recovery is gone do people push through and put pen to paper, keyboard to screen or blink to assistant as in the case of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the journalist who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly*. This man had suffered a stroke that left him “locked in,” able to communicate only by closing one eye. An assistant would trace the letters in the alphabet and his eyelashes would flutter when she reached the right swirl. Each word took two minutes. The work, ten months to write.
And to write about home, whether healthy or well, is to write about love. That is, a word we assume we know what it means until we actually stop and think.
And that’s how they all tie in together, those three words, I think.
They force us to think. They give us the time to think. The permission to think instead of achieve.
When travel strips us from our everyday cares, removes our social crutches and forces us to face the truth that there is no-one but ourselves for company one long and lonely night, when there’s nothing, really nothing else we can be doing but waiting silently where we are…We give ourselves permission to really let our thoughts fly.
It’s either that or watch another Miley Cyrus film in a language we can’t understand. For the third time.
And sickness, spent at home, does much the same thing. It leaves us with our thoughts and a desperate desire for change, to make this stop, in a way that sickness on the road cannot. On the road, sickness focuses on survival: the need to reach somewhere safe and the desire to go home.
At home, we are left with our thoughts. And, if we’re lucky, reruns of CSI Miami.
Of all my thoughts about home lately, which I promise to corral into order as soon as these fiery cytokines settle down again in my blood, the ones I recall the most are the cries of the terminally ill.
“I just want to die at home.”
Since hospitals remain dismal places, with air that smells like corrugated cabbage and corridors washed down with printed leaflets and bleach, the first hearing of such a statement sounds like a perfectly sensible idea.
Yet it’s a desire that delves deeper than that. A desire to reach home even when it is hours and days away with a painful path to get there and an uncertain welcome at the end.
My father once told me of a patient he cared for in Bellevue Hospital, New York. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, he longed to reach his homeland, Croatia, though he no longer had family there.
Since this was the early 90s, the hospital staff were aghast.
“You can’t go to Croatia, there’s a war on over there!”
“Well,” shrugged the man. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
As I write, I feel shaky and I know that a fight to the death is going on inside me. Thankfully, medical opinion predicts that it is I who should win and the microbes the ones to die. This time around, at least. One hundred years ago, it would have been a different story. And even now there are no guarantees.
I have watched the CSI reruns. I have shivered and slept and let my thoughts fly.
And then I turned on Twitter. To see that the theme for this week’s #FriFotos was “home.”
Robert Frost once said that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
To which I’ll add my own fevered line:
Keep well. Enjoy the photos. Find home.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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