Image by Mika Rosenfeld
A surprising number of times a week, I have to tell someone my address, or type it down, enter it on a form – the postcode, the house number. I have to select the county from a dropdown menu. Then scroll through all the countries in the world to find ‘United Kingdom’ – except sometimes it says ‘Great Britain’ or even ‘England,’ and I must read through the names of many lands, to find this one, from which I’m writing. But at present, long before I get down to the question of country, I have a moment of indecision – which address should I use? The London one to which my bank cards are registered, and where my husband is based, mostly? Or the one in Sussex – my mother’s house – where the children and I are sleeping, mostly? Or should I share the address of the place to which we hope to move our theatre company, in Kent? Because we are between homes. I am keenly aware of the privilege of having a home at all, but it is nonetheless hard to have been in this uncertain place for so long now- not homeless but also not knowing where home is, or when we will reach it.
There is the standard chaos that accompanies moving, or trying to move, house. The stuff in boxes. The stuff to be taken to a charity shop, recycling centre, the dump – not yet taken. This on top of the regular chaos of caring for two ND children, neither of whom are currently at school – the remains of various slime-making experiments of my daughter’s, visible across the floor, and even the absolute essentials – pants, toothbrushes, toothpaste, iPad, plus a charger for when the iPad runs flat – are hard to locate. Add to this the chaos of sudden grief- when the world turns upside because someone you thought would always be there – or as long an always as your mind can hold – disappears (see last month’s blog about my ‘book-mother’, Nicky Singer). Add that lostness of loss. And then, to this recipe of dismay and disarray, add, at last, a kitten – my daughter’s 7th birthday present. Wholly impractical to take on just now. Especially because the kitten gets inside the boxes- both the ones of stuff to keep and the ones to give away. She gets under the sofa, up the chimney, into the bunk bed, to a place, behind a built-in shelf, that no one else can reach. Wholly impractical because she must be kept out of the bedroom when my husband is with us as he is allergic and she makes his eyes go puffy – and, actually, my son may be allergic too, so it might be snot, as well as slime, that I can see across the floor. And, while I am trying to clean the floor – which now has cat litter on it too – the phone rings and a woman from Zurich Health, who is supposed to be arranging life cover for me and my husband wants to know where I live, and – once again – I don’t know what to answer.
But the kitten – Artemis Shadow Moon Pearlina McDermott – to name her in full – that particular chaos contributor – has also been surprisingly helpful. A scrap of life, so small it is easy to lift her with one hand, and to feel the whole of her – bone, skin, fur, teeth, claws – somehow coherent, despite her tiny size and only two months of lived experience. I have never identified as an animal lover, but I have been impressed and touched by her presence, as we find our way through these hard days of snot and slime, swearing (the kids as much as me) and sobbing (me as much as the kids). I am impressed by her silence, her lack of language and yet the sense of thought that runs right through her, eyes to tail. Quick-witted. She reminds me of our childhood cat, Drogo. And Drogo reminds me of my dad.
He used to speak to the cat in German, his mother tongue, which he never used to address us, his children. But somehow, to the cat, it was allowed. Because the cat didn’t talk back – only miaowed- and the cat didn’t know or care about the war, about Jewishness or citizenship’s lost or found. The cat just wanted bits of chicken.
“Du bist ein Tier und du kannst nichts dagegen tun,” my father told the cat, firmly. Which meant, for those not bilingual in feline German/ English:
“You are an animal and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
It was both an admonishment, and an offer of friendship, a conspiracy based on their shared, untameable nature, within a civilised society. My dad- Oxford professor that he was- could tell the cat, and no one else, that deep down, he was still a child in exile. I’ve been thinking of him in these last weeks because he suffered a sudden stroke, went into a coma, just like Nicky. He too was suddenly speechless – all the words, in whatever language, gone. And while he was lying quiet in hospital, the cat took itself off into hiding. And then died, not long after my father.
But thinking of him has also reminded me that I have an appointment at The German Embassy coming up, because in this post-Brexit world I need to try and use my dad’s status to get the kids and me EU passports. And then I check the email which details all the documents we need to bring with us – birth certificates, marriage certificates, UK passports. Helup! as my father would say – because I have absolutely no idea where the folder-of-all-important-documents is. It isn’t in the drawer where it should be. Did I pack it away into one of the boxes that has already gone into a Big Yellow, big metal storage unit? Or did I – could I? – horror of horrors – have mixed it up and put it in the recycling pile? I email the lady at the German Embassy. Apparently, she has the documents on file already from our earlier application for citizenship – which is near completion- so it is okay, we can still come: please just bring passport photos and stamped self-addressed envelopes, she writes. Another moment of indecision about which address to use on the envelopes- I go for the Sussex one. We make it to the post office – get the photos done, buy an efficient looking purple plastic folder in which to store them. And then we prepare for a trip for London. Leave out plenty of cat food.
We turn up at Sloane Square, Belgrave place, near where I first lived in London, aged 18, when my father had just died, and I was starting university. We make it to the embassy- kids and snacks in tow. And I am congratulating myself on the miracle of having got us there on time when the lady comes down to the waiting area to greet us. She looks at me, the two children, and what we have brought with us, and her face falls.
Because it turns out that I wasn’t meant to bring only the photos and the envelopes. Obviously, I was still meant to have read the instructions and know to bring my husband, so he could sign and consent to the children’s passports, and to fill out, print and bring our completed application forms – none of which, in the chaos of everything, I have done. I feel ridiculous. Ashamed. Of my disorganisation. Ineptitude. Of wasting everyone’s time. And I am ready to turn away, with my animal tail between my legs, when incredibly, the lady at the German embassy welcomes us upstairs anyway. Fills out the forms for us anyway – the ones I haven’t done. Uses the edge of my purple plastic folder to measure the children’s heights, which I also haven’t done. And I call ‘Mr McDermott’ and he – Phelim – is able to speed across town to join us.
So as my ND children stim – biting fingers, turning on the spot, bobbing up and down- with extraordinary patience and grace, we are each presented with a crisp, signed document and a short speech of official welcome to Germany, as its new citizens. A piece of paper saying we belong – to a country whose language I cannot speak, except to cats, and which I have visited only a handful of times. I hadn’t seen it coming – in this environment of bureaucracy – that I would be offered the very thing I have been missing – a new home. And, as we turn to go, with our certificates of citizenship safely stowed inside my purple folder, I also do not expect to be stopped by the kind German Embassy official: “And I want to apologise,” she says. I am confused. Because, she really has nothing to be sorry for – it was I that turned up without the right people or papers, and she that has made it come out right. But she isn’t talking about this afternoon. She is talking about what happened over sixty years ago. And then she says she is sorry that my father’s sense of belonging was ever taken from him. And I am thanking her. And I am crying.
So, now I am back. In the little house in Sussex, out of which we are trying to move, with all the chaos, the kids, the kitten, and the grief. But also with gratitude. Also with a piece of paper, which states that there is another country in the world to which we belong. And also with a sense of wonder at the pattern of things. So while I try and sort out a few more boxes, I am going to leave you with the words of the poet and philosopher, David Whyte:
“To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence … But it’s interesting to think that … our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies; that though the crow is just itself…the stone…the sky” – and, I would add, the cat too – “we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile, and…It’s interesting to think that no matter how far you are from yourself, no matter how exiled you feel from your contribution to the rest of the world….that, as a human being, all you have to do is enumerate the exact way you don’t feel at home…and the moment you’ve uttered the exact dimensionality of your exile, you’re already taking the path back to the way, back to the place you should be. You’re already on your way home.”
To which I say, “Miaow.” Or – for those German Katze reading this –
And – when we have at last moved – you can all come round.
But in the meantime, you can answer this:
Where is home for you?
Where, if anywhere, do you have a sense of belonging?
And how do you articulate your sense of exile, and so put yourself back on the path, homeward? What’s your equivalent of talking to the cat, in German? Writing these blogs is one of my answers. Tell me yours….
Images and photos below by Zoe Gardner @limberdoodle