Part 3: Seven Degrees of Homing
Jay Griffiths embraces the confines that her work often leaves behind in its pursuit of the wider, wilder world outside.
I am not here.
I am sorry, I can explain.
This event is titled ‘Stay Where You Are’, and I’m taking that literally. I am at home.
I’ve used this series to explore ideas of home, the hearth, homelessness and homesickness. And in this piece, I want to look at the variety of ways in which home manifests itself.
Home. The grounding note of the scale.
These are the seven degrees of homing I’ll talk about:
Home is one’s body, the body which in the gritty imagery of Anglo-Saxon was called the ‘bone-house’.
Home is one’s deep self, vulnerable when someone says something which really ‘hits home’.
Home is one’s homeland: the land, I stress, not the nation state.
Home can be understood in terms of time.
Home can be understood in terms of language.
There is a sense of home in music, the home-note of the tonic.
And there is the home of the world, the earth, which contains – which houses – all the other homes.
Seven degrees of home, seven notes in the scale of Western music before the melody comes home to the tonic, or the octave which repeats it. Seven colours, we agree to say, in the rainbow which houses every hue, from the violet, the lowest of the colours in the arc of rainbows, to red, the highest.
The second note in the scale. The violet shade in the rainbow. The kind of home: the body. I am at home, where now wild violets are in bloom. They flower low, just one step up from the earth, as the colour violet is just one step up from the ground in the rainbow.
It is my birthday, you see, and my bone-house has marked another year, this body, this first home from infancy, when we were closest to the earth. Another person’s physical body can seem like home: one’s tell-first, the person who you tell your news and thoughts to, the person whose physical nearness makes you feel complete at the end of the day, psychologically at home.
Boethius considered that there were three branches of music: the actual music of singers and players, and then the famous ‘music of the spheres’, and a third kind: ‘musica humana’, the internal music of the human body, in tune with itself. We speak of someone being ‘at home in their own skin’, comfortably at ease in themselves, evincing a kind of inner harmony.
The third note in the scale. Its colour is indigo. The kind of home: the self.
‘This really brought it home to me,’ we say. To be affected, intimately so. Speaking home. To penetrate, strike close. The self exists on a cusp of vulnerability and defendedness; these phrases imply. They suggest a relationship between home and honesty: ‘telling some home-truths’. ‘To come home to oneself’, we say, meaning a regaining of prior – and true – selfhood after an intermission.
The fourth note on the scale. Its colour is blue. Kind of home: homeland.
‘Occupy’ is the theme-word of this project. The word ‘occupy’, by the way, is from the Latin to seize, possess, and was also used, from the early fifteenth century, to mean sexual intercourse which fact, my dictionary says coyly, ’caused the word to fall from polite usage’.
In the Occupied territories, 1948 was the Nakba, ‘the Catastrophe’ when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes and today their access to their own home-land is tightly constrained. There is a phrase revolting on the lips of racists: Go Home. This is one kind of racism which Israeli settlers cannot use against Palestinians.
Occupied is also the word on a toilet door and in horrible mimicry, there are documented cases of settlers deliberately spraying raw human sewage over Palestinian homes in Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem. Sewage from other Settler communities is regularly siphoned through Palestinian villages.
Since 1967, the Israeli authorities have uprooted over 700,000 olive trees, about the same number of Palestinians uprooted from their homes in 1948.
When I say homeland, I am not referring to the nasty categories of political territory or nation state but to the actuality of earth, the flora and fauna, the kith, the landscape of your home, the love of which is rooted in the human heart like an ancient olive tree. In damaging the land itself, Israeli settlers are in effect providing emotional evidence that they themselves are not treating it as their home.
First the Palestinian population was evicted in the Nakba, the Catastrophe, now they are imprisoned, as the infamous Wall has put a whole nation indoors in a detention centre.
Let me read you something: “The walls of the ghetto will be fixed. The walls would be the final, fixed form of the catastrophe.” “Enclosure in the ghetto would be compulsory for all … but those with the proper labour card could travel from the ghetto to work, returning in the evening.”
So wrote Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s Ark, describing the Krakow ghetto being built for Jews but it is a mirror for the Palestinian experience now.
The fifth note on the scale. Its colour is green. The type of home: time.
“But those with the proper labour card could travel from the ghetto to work, returning in the evening.” If home is one time of day, it is evening. The sun has done its travels, its journeying of the jour, of the day. The end of the jour-ney is evening. Hometime for kids at school.
The Maariv in Judaism is the evening prayer. It was written by Jacob, and written at evening, and because of evening. He was in exile, in a strange land, and as the sun set, he encountered the place where the Temple would later be built. He felt spiritually at home. Times of prayer can be ‘homes’ in the hours of the day, a habitual prayer is a kind of home for the soul.
Habits themselves create a sense of home: people say they feel at home when they are in their daily routine. Habits can house your hours, your life. A habit is both time (as in rhythm tapped out) and also a home, as in to inhabit, having a habitat.
A happy rabbit has a habit of habitat tapping.
The sixth note on the scale. Its colour is yellow. The kind of home: language.
Some years ago, I was returning home after being abroad for many months. I can’t say I missed England, or Britain, but I missed English. And, on my homeward journey, I heard English spoken – as a mothertongue – with relief and gratitude. I was home in words. Sometimes I find that if I say – or hear – the precise word for something, my psyche feels as if it has been welcomed: the word is offering my mind hospitality. I can feel at home. At other times, a particular word comes into view, unsought-for, but glowing like embers, inviting me in, to stay a while, have a drink with it. In the course of any day, words can be flitting-tents on a desert journey, quick shelters on a stumblepath.
Mother tongue. Native language. Word world. Language and land combined, Langland peerlessly plowing the earth for a harvest of eloquence.
Rose Auslander was a Jewish poet whose name became her destiny. Auslander means outlander; foreigner or alien, and she became a foreigner in her own land, a fugitive to escape the Holocaust. She hid in cellars fleeing from place to place: ‘And while we waited for death, some of us lived in dream-words, our traumatized home in the homelessness.’ After the Holocaust, she refused for some eight years to write in German, and instead wrote in English. Here is one of her poems, Mutterland, published in 1978.
“My Fatherland is dead.
They buried it
in my Motherland –
Language is home. Words make shelters, they fluff out nests for themselves. They dig into the earth of their derivations, find their roots, at home in the families of language, at ease in their connotations with neighbours. Cognates snuggle up together, genealogies of related words nestle together, they fall asleep on each other’s shoulders: they have spent so long in each other’s company that they smell of each other. Some words don’t get on with their relations, and quarrel with their etymologies and take a different path. Other words accept they’ve made the same journeys, walked the same routes, their feet have trod the same ways, their iambic pentametres limp at the same moment and stride out a little further at the same time-rhyme, the little neologisms skittering around their heels like puppies yapping for the attention they need if they are to survive.
I give you one such: Chillax. A word that should have been strangled at birth.
The seventh note on the scale. Its colour is orange. The kind of home: music.
The tonic is the note which is the ‘home’ tone of the key. From this, it sets out
on an exploratory beginning, a stepping forth.
The melody journeys, and wanders, but it has a homing instinct, it strains, like a horse near its stable, it is pulling at the reins to get there, the tension is clear – either on the seventh or on the second, and if the melody stays on either too long, even the least musical person tries to hum it home. Back to the stable. The stable, the secure note of the octave or tonic, back to where all is harmonious, the home tone in harmony with itself, well fitted, well joined. The word harmony is related to both art and also joining things together, a door fastening, and also the joinery of a ship’s plank: Schindler’s ARK, and Noah’s ARK.
The eighth note on the scale. Its colour is red. The kind of home: the whole world.
In the arc of the rainbow, we have reached the red at the top. In the arch of the scale, we have reached the eighth, the home tone.
The octave reflects the tonic and if we began on the ground with the muddy earth, then the octave suggests the world, the planet Earth. The word for ‘home’ in ancient Greek was Oikos which gives us ECOLOGY, the study of this world-home, this planet Earth which is the home of all the other homes, holding music, language, time, homeland, mind and body.
But the earth is not feeling at home in her own skin. She is too hot, itchy, restless, irritable, climate-changeable. And the world-home, the Earth, the one world which could welcome life, earth the beckoning miracle, is now unhousing us: Noah’s ark will be called for countless times over as sea levels rise, and no rainbow’s promise will cover the damage. The people of the Pacific Island of Kiribati are jetsam on the waters of the future. By 2030, some say, Kiribati will be underwater. This is the homelessness to come, people on the move within nations and between them as a result of climate change.
It is hard not to hear the harm of disharmony in the oikos, the world-home. Degrees of unnatural temperature are degrees of dissonance, until a kind of cosmic tunelessness creeps up on us on the waters. It is quite a feat to unharmonise a world, to dis-temper the well-tempered Bach, to unwaltz Strauss, to de-music this sphere.
And we are in the hands of thugs, a tone-deaf cabal who have seized the conductor’s baton and occupied the dais, and the world is being occupied – fucked – by a philosophy which is a menace to humanity and mocks the music of the spheres into disharmony, all proportions broken.
Pythagoras considered that the sun, moon and planets all emitted a unique hum – orbital resonance – and that the quality of life on earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds. The proportions, in the movements of the sun and moon and earth and other planets, are a form of music – this is the ancient idea of the music of the spheres – this music which is literally inaudible but a harmony nonetheless. A harmony of maths. A harmony of spirit. Listen very carefully and you won’t hear it.
Boethius, as we’ve heard, thought that the music of the spheres had two corollaries, not just the music of singers and players but the music of the body. Listen very carefully and you might just perhaps hear the gentle hum of your animal body, the human purring-home in the bone-house.
Jay Griffiths is the author of non-fiction works including Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, and Wild: An Elemental Journey and fiction including A Love Letter from a Stray Moon, a short novel about Frida Kahlo. She won the Discover award for the best new non-fiction writer to be published in the USA. She has also been shortlisted for both the Orwell prize and for a World Book Day award and won the inaugural 2007 Orion Book Award in the USA. She lives in Wales.
This piece was commissioned as part of the 'Stay Where You Are' project, alongside works by Jem Finer, Lavinia Greenlaw and Ben Rivers. 'Stay Where You Are' was curated and produced by Steven Bode of Film and Video Umbrella and Gareth Evans. Supported by Jerwood Arts. Film and Video Umbrella is supported by Arts Council England.