My mother was the kind of woman who knew she wanted to be a journalist from the age of 12. She never stopped moving. Maybe that’s why I remember so clearly the one ambitious sewing project that she managed to finish. It was a sampler that lay over one of the chairs in our family home embroidered with the words “Home is where the heart is.”
I’ve often pictured my mother’s needlework as I wandered the globe, first as an expat in England, then as an expat in Japan. Where was my heart, and therefore my home: with my mother, my husband, my husband’s family, or in some of the places I’d visited and connected with? Hadn’t I left a piece of my heart in each of those places?
Then when I finally returned to my native land, having spent as many years abroad as I’d consciously lived in the United States, I was no longer sure if this country could be my home any more, as it appeared to have changed so much.
Misery loves company, especially when it includes Joanna Penn
Oh, why does life have to be so complicated? Why can’t it be summed up on a sampler?
Still, I have taken much solace in knowing I’m not alone in grappling with such questions. Just last week, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my expat-to-repat group now includes the extraordinary Joanna Penn, author, speaker, and business consultant.
I am a faithful subscriber to Joanna’s blog, The Creative Penn, which not for nothing has achieved the distinction of being one of the top ten blogs for writers. Recently, Joanna gave us the thrill of live-blogging the writing and self-publishing process for her very first novel, a fast-paced thriller called Pentacost.
Somehow, though, it hadn’t clicked with me that Joanna was an expat.
But then I read her 8 April 2011 post and watched the accompanying YouTube video, “What the Concept of Home Means for Writers.”
Joanna was prompted to talk about “home” because she’s repatriating to England after having spent the past 11 years in New Zealand and Australia. Not only that but it turns out that Joanna was a so-called third-culture kid. Her family moved all over the place when she was young, including to Africa for a while.
For Joanna, home is a spiritual bond
Joanna thinks outside the box when it comes to publishing, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that she thinks outside the box when it comes to being an expat. She seems to regard her displaced state as par for the course, as nothing particularly special. This is because she sees herself as a writer first and an expat second:
… for me the concept of home is not necessarily where I’m physically based at any one point but somewhere where I spiritually feel I belong…
We could say Joanna is out of the James Joyce mould, as described by Anthony Windram in his latest TDN article, “James Joyce’s Paris.”
This is not to say Joanna isn’t fond of the countries where she’s lived. She says she still has a soft spot for Malawi, where she went to school as a kid, and has enjoyed her more recent time Down Under.
That said, I sense she will be glad to see the back of Oz in some ways — judging by her response to one of the commenters on her “concept of home” post, that she is “looking forward to being without mosquitoes, huge spiders, sweltering heat and humidity.”
Joanna’s mention of the spiders gives her something in common with Robert Pickles, who has stirred up some controversy for his Daily Telegraph series on why he’s decided to ditch his dream of Australia and move back to Blighty — the “vast array of insects … with fizzing wings and frenzied little eyes” being at the top of his list of dislikes.
A tale of two cities that are now “home”
But that is where the similarity between Penn and Pickles ends. Unlike Robert Pickles, Joanna Penn never really thought of Australia as “home.” Right now she feels a spiritual kinship with two cities: Oxford, where she went to university and near where her father now lives, and Jerusalem, which she’s visited at least ten times because she loves it there so much.
What’s more, Joanna connects these two cities in her mind and has done so ever since reading the Thomas Hardy novel Jude the Obscure as a kid.
The novel’s tragic hero, Jude, is a working-class boy who tries to educate himself. He idealizes Oxford (known in the book as Christminster) as a “city of light,” where “the tree of knowledge grows.” Coming over a ridge and gazing at the city of his dreams for the first time, he refers to it as a “new Jerusalem.”
Joanna approves of Jude’s hypocatastasis. (“And did those feet in ancient time…” is now playing in my head.) Steeped in religious studies, she sees both Oxford and Jerusalem as holy cities, worthy of pilgrimages and therefore an intense romantic attachment.
Some parting spiritual reflections
In the week of Passover and Easter, I sometimes envy those people with strong spiritual ties, a pull that I’ve never especially felt.
In fact, the only time I’ve ever wanted to kiss the ground upon first discovering a place was when I landed in Taipei and my husband took me to a restaurant called Din Tai Fung. The dumplings were so delectable that I decided then and there that if ever I were told I had only a few days left to live, I’d demand to be transported to that restaurant for my final few hours.
Could a Taiwanese dumpling house really be my spiritual home? No doubt that explains why I’m writing about Jamie Oliver’s food revolution on this blog whereas Joanna Penn is working on her second in a series of religious thrillers set in Oxford and Jerusalem.
Still, fans of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman should understand how I feel… My mother would understand it: she was an excellent cook, when she had time for it…
But I digress.
Question: What do you think of Joanna’s notion of a spiritual home? Is “home” for you a place that has captured your heart, your imagination and your spirit? Or is it a place where you live with your nearest and dearest?
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