By John Hill
An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
for every tatter in its mortal dress.
William Butler Yeats
Home structures the story of our lives. Mine began in Ireland in a cloud of unknowing. I was told that I cried so much in the first few months of my life that I had to be operated on for a ruptured hernia.
In my 4th year, I contracted tuberculosis, discovered accidentally while I was staying with relatives in England. Unable to walk, I created an imaginary home inhabited by imaginary parents during the two years I was in hospital. I believe those imaginary homescapes and the regular visits by a faithful aunt helped me survive an ordeal that my mind could barely acknowledge.
Eventually I learned to walk again and returned to Ireland. I remained fragile and was sent to a boarding school with only five pupils run by a German Baron and his wife. They were forced by the Nazis to leave their homeland and created in Ireland a school inspired by Rudolf Steiner by whom they had been befriended. It became my second home. I remember the affection and tenderness of that old couple who taught me to appreciate the beauty of nature. Still, today, I remember the dark woods, winding rivers, and sparkling lakes, all alive with wondrous creatures. My attachment to the earth was further strengthened through our lessons on nature, often held under an old willow tree.
Having grown up on the edge of the Irish Sea, I was familiar with the ocean that continually changes and mirrors the mysterious origins of human nature. Its violent storms and reassuring tidal rhythms, its myriad shapes and colors, celebrate life’s intensity and diversity. For months I would sit on the seashore and talk with the ocean: “Sea, you touch every land on the planet, you hold the secrets of my life. Show me your ways.”
As a young man, I walked the docks, approaching new ships for work, hoping the sea would take me to the next station of my life. I was lucky that some of those ships did not invite me onboard, otherwise I probably would not be alive to tell this tale. Finally, an old cargo ship on its last voyage accepted me as a member of the Royal Merchant Navy of Norway, starting as a cabin boy cleaning toilets. After an Odyssey of five months through many lands, I found myself studying to become a psychoanalyst at the Jung Institute in Zurich.
When I arrived in Switzerland, home became marriage, children and profession. Despite financial stress in the first 10 years of family life, I don’t think I ever felt more secure and fulfilled than I did in sharing a home with a loving and loyal wife, partaking in the life and development of two wonderful boys. My family life was definitely matrilocal. My social life extended only to my wife’s family and friends.
Later we lived in a beautiful wooden house in Einsieldn, a small town with a massive basilica that houses the Black Madonna and is situated near a picturesque lake nestled in the majestic Alpine landscape. For many hours I worked (the soil) transforming the rather plain Swiss garden into a landscape of rocks and boulders, embellished with colorful shrubs and flowers—little Ireland!
There were, however, times when I became homesick for my native land and culture. Each year I revisited Ireland to reassure myself that my Homeland would not disappear but survive as part of my identity. Dreams of Ireland’s Celtic myths and modern Irish literature sustained my new life in Switzerland. As if to keep alive the memory of my original homeland, sensory images would return again and again–the sound of the sea, the smell of the turf, the lilt of Irish folk music.
Today, when I am away from Switzerland, I not only miss the music of the alphorn or the taste of Swiss pralines, but also the picturesque villages, the dark woods, and the majestic mountains of my adopted country. I must see, hear, or smell my home even when I am not physically in it—for as the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty said, the body is not an object among objects but our way of belonging to the world.
I assume most of us do not want to give up a secure life. I was no exception. I would have liked the gifts I received in the first half of life to last forever, but a midlife crisis with all its ambiguities and uncertainties ravished me. Women were telling me a tale I could not understand—some part of myself was not alive and they knew it. I eventually broke the home I had built and chose a solitary life, connected with a mature and free woman who lived in a land far away. This relationship was not about householding; its focus was on the recognition of a soul that animates body, heart, and mind, and has a different agenda than the conscious self. The pain of separation from the old and the comings and goings of the new forced me to develop a fierce independence.
I am grateful for all that happened during those years, yet my heart remains sorrowful for the pain I inflicted on people whom I have loved. I have learned to accept responsibility for who I am, for my strengths and weaknesses, to recognize the effects of traumatized stillborn parts of myself, and to care for them, preventing them from hurting the lives of others.
After having experienced the trials of midlife, I am now entering the final stage of life. I feel more rooted and at home in myself than ever before. I can accept the house that I have built, with its shine and its shadows. I have been able to translate, at least partially, the landscapes of Ireland into other homelands, particularly my adopted homeland Switzerland and the Greek Isle of Patmos to which I return every year. My Irish soul delights in the sea, the barren rocks, and the little chapels of that holy island. I now have many loved ones—including my former wife, my children, dear friends, and professional colleagues with whom I have shared the drama of life.
Home has become a function of consciousness, a consensual concept, and a way of constructing relationships to those near and far, to the city and to the cosmos. Home is a work of art that takes a lifetime to create. Part of its story is contained in attachment to houses, gardens, animals, landscapes, schools, churches, ideas, music and works of art.
Home can also be understood as attachment to major attitudes that change during the course of one’s life. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann once described the powerful forces that mold us: trust, in childhood; longing in youth; responsibility in maturity; and wisdom in old age.
I have always been impressed by the Indian notion that a woman is never without a husband. My heart seems to be saying that I have had four marriages: to mother, wife, soul, and death. I have felt at home in these marriages. The final one is still in the process of being built: it began soon after I reached midlife. It is the work of the spirit—a summing up and acceptance of one’s life narrative, for better or for worse, in order to face the final challenge.
I hope that the shelters I have built for myself can, in different ways, provide shelter for others. I expect to take those shelters with me as I face the final question: Do we have a home that outlasts our short life on earth? Most of us will end our life on a mattress. That will be our final space on earth. I imagine the mattress could become a magic carpet that will carry me into unknown territory.
Schopenhauer examined the fabric of that last space we call home: “Life may be compared to a piece of embroidery, of which during the first half of his time, a man gets a sight of the right side, and during the second half, of the wrong. The wrong side is not so pretty as the right, but it is more instructive: It shows the way in which the threads have been worked together.”
This article has been adapted from John Hill’s exploration of the archetype of home, At Home in the World, distributed by Chiron Publications. Hill is a psychoanalyst at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. He has lived in Ireland, England, America, Switzerland, and Greece, and on a Norwegian merchant ship.