One of the most affecting books I read last year, which also happened to be the last of the year, was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Listen to this very enjoyable podcast of the Scottish Book Trust [a new treasure trove, I suspect!] which will give you a good bit of background (in case you need convincing). I went to the reading more or less ‘cold’ and was swept away by it. It is described as ‘a tale of adventure, faith and the ties that might hold two people together when they are worlds apart.’ I was deeply affected by it in many ways but most potently it seemed to speak to the condition of alienation that I have (been?) chosen to inhabit and explore in my adult life (thus far).
The story is about Peter, a Christian missionary (sometimes it is helpful for me to think of myself in that way) who embarks on a journey which takes him away from his known world, his home, his relationships, his roots. I recognized myself, obviously enough, in him; one important difference being that when I made my way over here it was at an age when one characteristically begins to explore and expand oneself into new territories. And though my early journey had signs enough that I was on the right track: so much so that when people asked in conversation why I had come and I said ‘God knows’, with a variety of feelings colouring the utterance, I really did believe it. (And, God help me, I still do!)
Here in Japan one is always, like Faber’s protagonist, Peter, radically, profoundly and visibly, Other: an Outsider.* It will come as no surprise that I am particularly fond of the metaphor of Christ the Stranger (read this!) nor that questions of home are quite tangled at a deep level. (This is probably true for many of the diaspora, wherever you’re from, the world over.) Of course, the orienting of my blog title & epigraph I trust, indicates a belief that Home is a layered, necessarily complex, concept.
My compatriots, at home on an island surrounded in the vast majority by people of their own kind, who speak the same language and observe, for the most part, similar cultural being-in-the-world, are among the more rooted folk imaginable. I sometimes envy them this. Amid this strong sense of native identity, I have often been brought to tears just to hear someone who sounds of home, like the people I grew up with: not simply English, you understand, for that is available most places. This flash of recognition is a wound, a treasure, a grace, ultimately a reflex I am grateful for. I know in my bones, in my own history, what the separation of ‘fallen’ means. I know, too, that home, like God, is always here and always coming. So I like to hope that I am poised for that moment of ‘beholding’ (which makes the music of Haendel’s Messiah essential to my well-being).
It happens, every once in a while, you are reminded that, in life, you are at play in heavenly fields, and can, in an instant, be transported if not ‘home’ then ‘homeward’. Peter experiences this in the letters he is able to exchange with his wife, Bea. Who can tell what seeds blossom and when? To wit: I have enjoyed recently an encounter in the virtual world via letters, in a way, with someone who went to the same high school as me. Once we played in the same fields (literally); now we share the wounds of the loss of home, we share a particular longing (read ‘Nostalgia‘) and our grown up selves bear tinges of this particular sadness. Nonetheless, I am jazzed with hope and the sense of possibility that seeds, that were not even that close in our field way back when, might have had, in the meantime, the breath of the spirit blowing over them . . . inviting us, if not home, then homeward.
* Faber has said in interviews that he had initially thought of setting the story in North Korea.