Sitting at my desk in my craft room, making some cards for some friends, radio playing in the background, my thoughts turn to what it means to have a sense of place and with it a sense of belonging.
I am transported to age 8 when I am catapulted from our small 2-up, 2-down council house in a small town in the UK to what seemed to me a huge house in an exceedingly hot country. I am lily white and not used to the sun. I don’t speak the language that most of our neighbours speak – Afrikaans. It is the first time I feel the sting of losing my sense of place and belonging and I feel very lost. I believe now it was my first taste of ingrained trauma. For a long time, when I slept, I would dream vividly of being able to speak fluent Afrikaans and everyone wanting to be my friend.
Our neighbours to the left of us are Afrikaans. As I play in the front garden, dry and brown from no rain, I watch them over the chicken wire fence talking in guttural tones wondering what they are saying. I feel small, insignificant, foreign. I wish like crazy I could understand them, but they seem so distant from us. I so desperately want a friend – I am so very lonely – but I don’t know how to approach them and they never approach us. I miss my friends in England.
Over time, I come to know the divide between those South Africans that speak English and those who speak Afrikaans – a hangover from the Boer war perhaps? To them, those of us who speak English are interlopers – rooineks (red necks – used to describe how we would get so burned under the African sun), or pommies. Tolerated, but certainly other. To us, they are Dutchmen – it is meant as an insult, though I do not know why.
I’m stamping the platypus on the card ready to be coloured in; I think of all the different schools I attended. We move around a lot. Dad’s business, or drinking, would take us to different suburbs, or provinces. Was he also searching for a sense of place? I am always the new girl at school. Always not belonging. I try to adapt, but with each new school, it is more ingrained into me I don’t belong.
I realise how hard it was for me, being Autistic, not know it and not understanding how to make friends. I did remarkably well, considering.
The lady on the radio interrupts my thoughts. She is saying how she immediately felt a sense of belonging when she met her family in China and they placed a family hat on her head. She had found her place, she said.
Where is my place, I wonder. Where do I belong?
I’m driven to discovering my family, my ancestors. Recently, I have been talking to Dave about going back home, moving to where my ancestors lived, to be among “my people”, to walk among their spirits, to feel their quiet whispers in my heart.
Will that be my place?
I’m thinking about my dad now. “What was Nanna’s accent?” I had asked him just a few days ago. In a box in our store room, I had discovered some old family photos he had sent me. “I remember she used to say, ‘Hello, me-duck’?” “That’s the Derbyshire accent,” Dad had replied. “North Midlands. Our whole family is from up there.” It’s called East Midlands, but I don’t correct him.
Midlands makes sense. I think of my Ancestry DNA results. Dave had bought the kit for me one Christmas. 66% English, 15% Scottish, 13% Irish, 6% Welsh. The English contingent places me firmly 100% in the Midlands. With dad from Ripley and mom from Birmingham, it was never going to be anything else. Grandad had done the family history, and Uncle Peter too. Us Doxey never moved anywhere, Goughs neither. I think we were amongst the first to leave the country, and still to this day remain the only ones that have.
My autism wants to place everything in boxes. Having a need to compartmentalise everything means I struggle with the natural fluidity of life. My brain wants to categorise everything. 66% English, whole family from the midlands, DNA confirms this ergo this is my place, where I belong.
Someone else is on the radio; “I would lie about my parents, but as soon as I unpacked all the stones and owned them, embraced them, things started to happen for me, good things.”
Am I owning my stones?
I came to Australia running from something, or perhaps it was running to something – a sense of place, an adventure? I know I was trying to fill a hole.
My hands automatically colour in the platypus which is taking shape as my mind remembers the first day we arrived in Melbourne. The minute I stepped off the plane, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. Every cell in my body was saying “GO BACK!”
Australia, founded in 1788 by the English. She’s desperate to break free from the motherland though. I definitely don’t belong here.
My card is taking shape, almost done now. I hope my friend likes it. I’m thinking of my hobby, my special interest. I’ve been doing it off and on for nearly 20 years, yet I don’t somehow feel I belong in the paper craft community. Why is that, I wonder. Is it a sense of unworthiness? What is it that drives my sense of not belonging anywhere? Who determines that sense of belonging? Me, surely. I get to say if I belong or not. Is it just that I have no sense of belonging anywhere and so even my hobby precludes me?
I can see why suicide becomes a thing. It’s an awful thing to feel you don’t belong anywhere. Sometimes, often times, not even in your own family.
Is that why I’m chasing ghosts? Do I feel I belong to them more than I belong to the living?
My card is done. I am pleased with it. The radio interview has moved on and I am exhausted from all the thinking.
I make myself lunch, plonk myself on my spot on the sofa. I look out into the garden. What if I just stop running? What if I just stop searching? What if I just … stop?
I feel the stones inside of me rattling. I wish I knew what they were trying to tell me. I want to go home, but am I just running again? I wish just one of them could help me compartmentalise and clarify what I desperately need to know. Maybe stopping, just for a minute, all my thoughts and all my actions, will provide some answers.
I close my eyes.
Where do I belong? Where is my place?