A Place to Belong
Looking back now, I can understand why I felt the way I did. I wasn't dissatisfied with my life, I just had this feeling that I wasn't living the life I was supposed to be. I imagined that somewhere in this world there was a mountain climbing, bread making, vegetable growing, part-time painter living my life on my behalf. I existed everyday with this ever present feeling of being misplaced, of being somewhere that I didn't truly belong.
But what is it to belong? When you look the word up in the dictionary there are multiple definitions, among them is the phrase 'to be connected to'. Perhaps it was this 'connection' that was missing? My husband was a pilot in the RAF and we resided in a busy military town in Oxfordshire but prior to that we had moved many times. I lived a 'suitcase existence' never forming an emotional attachment to any of the places we were sent to because I knew my time there was temporary. On our arrival at any new quarter, I would quickly unpack our boxes, place furniture and objects around the rooms and hang curtains and pictures. After a while this process became almost automatic, perfunctory. My only aim was to get sorted as quickly as possible so we could get on with the day to day routines. I wasn't building a home as such, I was simply filling the abandoned spaces with familiar things, which would one day be packed away again. I find it so comforting that the small, wooden clock that sits on the mantlepiece here in the steading has been there for four years already and will probably be there for another twenty, quietly ticking away the days.
Whilst we were only a stone's throw from the Cotswolds, the rolling hills felt like miles away as I looked out of the windows of my military house onto the congested, grey, cement-ridden streets that circled around me like arteries. By the time the weekend came around I would be in desperate need of some time in the countryside. A simple stroll in the woods or an amble along the river was all I needed to connect with my thoughts and realign myself with the season we were currently in. I dreamt of a life in the country, a little cottage or croft, nestled in the hills by a cascading river, a simple life where remoteness would force me to look inside myself and discover what part I could actually play in my life.
I worked in a beautiful preparatory school surrounded by fields and country lanes. I taught drama and loved every minute of it. Writing and directing plays and watching my pupils grow with confidence was a privilege. It also gave me a much needed creative outlet as well as some escapism. Yet, I spent most days feeling like an outsider, an imposter who had no right to be there. No one especially made me feel this way and perhaps it was imagined but the need to fit in and feel excepted meant that over the years I gradually lost my way, prioritising material possessions over making moments and memories in order to fit in. I knew the real me was ebbing away but there was nothing I could do about it. I was the victim of my own false priorities. The English dictionary gives the term 'to be suited to' as another way to describe what it is to belong. This alone tells me why I couldn't be completely happy in that life, I wasn't suited to it. I wasn't me.
Then one day it all changed. My husband came home and asked me if I'd like to move to Scotland. After twenty years in the RAF he was ready for a new challenge and had heard of an airline that was recruiting pilots. It was his understanding that he could be positioned out of Edinburgh airport. There are those moments that you never forget because they are intrinsically linked to an emotion so strong that they become part of your very fabric and this was one of those moments.
There is a song that whenever I hear it, my eyes uncontrollably sting with tears and my throat tightens with longing and grief. 'Caledonia' by Dougie MacLean is a song that speaks directly to me, it describes perfectly that fundamental need to belong to a place and how, when you are away from that place, your personality changes and the very essence of you drifts away, until you feel like a stranger in your own skin.
Scotland has always had a special place in my heart. As a child I spent many holidays here visiting my grandparents in Perthshire. I can remember the overwhelming feeling of excitement as the train rolled over the Forth Bridge and the landscape started to change. My mother would have packed a picnic for the journey and at this point would bring out a soggy flannel to wipe our crumbed, stained faces before being greeted by our grandparents at the station. Our cat, a ginger tom called Perky would be restless in his basket as my mum started to pack away the flask.
My grandparents lived in an old crossing's house in the middle of nowhere. Their only neighbour was a temperamental bull in the adjacent field. My brother, sister and I used to bet each other to charge recklessly across the field and leap over the gate on the other side. I don't know what grand old age that bull actually lived to but he seemed to go on forever. Maybe this is why Scotland has always been special to be? It is a familiar place where around every corner a memory is waiting for me to be reunited with it.
It's funny, but looking back now so many things are starting to make sense. On the occasions where my father came too we would drive up. There was always a family countdown, initiated by the mother as we approached the Scottish boarder and then, as we passed the sign welcoming us to Scotland, we would all cheer loudly. Yet I don't remember us ever doing the same on the return journey. As we drew near to the English boarder, one of us might make a cursory observation, perhaps as nothing more than a statement on the progress of our journey.
Our first year up here was strange, it felt as though we were pretending. Although the everyday chores of cooking, washing and cleaning continued as before, we felt as though we were on holiday. We rented a steading looking over a clachan and spent all of our days off touring, exploring and visiting the places of my childhood. For the first time in my life I was actually able to watch a year progress from season to season, I didn't have to rely on a school term to tell me which part of the year we were in. I knew from the changes in the landscape around me.
I bought our little steading by the loch without my husband even seeing it. I saw it online in the morning, met the developer that afternoon and had my offer accepted by teatime. I can still recall now the first time I drove up the lane to see it. I stopped the car halfway, got out and looked around. All of my senses were suddenly heightened. My ears were deafened by the near silence, the only sound audible was that of the birds, singing in the late winter trees. In the distance I could see the loch, glistening in the low sun. And there, across the fields, was the little steading, just an old farm ruin at this point, standing humbly, nestled amongst the hills. Years later, I asked my husband why he had been so accepting of my buying the house without his knowing. He told me it was because he knew that I would find the right home for us. He said, 'You knew what was missing all those years, so only you knew what we would need.'
We have been here four years this summer and we have never been happier. Our little steading by the loch has bought us closer together and allowed each of us to breathe and grow. I have found a slower pace of life, one that allows me to take the time to notice the rhythms and cycles of nature, to connect with something far greater than myself. I take pleasure in the smallest of things and the briefest of moments. Perhaps my favourite definition of the term 'to belong' is 'to be held by'. This very phrase fills me with warmth and security. The idea of these rugged stone walls encasing us, gently and peacefully rocking us, calming our spirits and soothing our souls.
Every autumn the geese leave the loch and fly off to warmer climes for the winter. As they fly over the steading the cacophony of noise echoes around the hills. I always look up. It's a spectacular sight to behold and I say the same thing to them year after year, 'Safe travels and I'll see you when you come home'.