2011: WHERE IS HOME: Figment of the Imagination and Other Contradictions

How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life.    --James Agee, A Death in the Family

We have made our lives far way from our small city, but we just can’t get used to being away from it, and we like to nurture our nostalgia when it has been a while since we’ve been back, so sometimes we exaggerate our accent when talking among ourselves, and use the common words and expressions that we’ve been storing up over the years and that our children can vaguely understand from having heard them so often.  --Antonio Molina, Sepharad

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. -- A. F. G Bell, In Portugal (1912)

Where thou art - that - is Home.  -- Emily Dickinson

It was May 6th, a late Friday afternoon, and exactly three months after I arrived in South Africa.  The three months that had stretched ahead so invitingly when I got off the plane, had flown by even though day by day they had seemed endless.


Now I was on the way to the Johannesburg airport with John, who had joined me for the last few weeks.  For the past six days we were based in Pretoria, the city that provided the bookends to my trip. My anxiety, sadness and sorrow about leaving sent me into something of a panic. Did I have enough material?  Could I really write this darn book? What did I have to say that made the project worthwhile? Was I exposing my inner self too much? What actually did I do those three months? My emotions rippled up and down from my center to a tightening of my throat, teasing me, scaring me, discordant.


I am sitting next to John who joined me for the last few weeks as I look out the window at the open veld.

The wavy brown grass, shrubby trees, horizon far in the distance, so familiar to me from my stays in southern Africa. I find myself edging away from him, turning my shoulders so that my back is towards him - my green-carded Canadian partner, who at this moment represents where we are heading. I don’t want to think about it, not yet.

Open Veld, North West Province

This is my private communion with my country that I am already yearning for before I have left it. I gaze and absorb. Words, unbidden enter my mind, prick like barbs: “I love this country! love this country!”

Why am I this affected I wonder as my seemingly incurable sentimental self gives way to teariness?

After all, I have lived in the US, mostly in and around New York, for more than forty years. This is close to double my life in South Africa and yet I could never be moved to say about my adopted country: “I love this country” or even “I love this city”.

New York City from New Jersey: Murkier, and not Table Mountain!

But neither had I felt this way on previous visits to South Africa, which have been fairly regular since 1991.  On those trips I was not there to finish gathering material for a book. I was not there to purposely immerse myself in memories, to conjure up an earlier life, to expose myself to current times. Cape Town insinuated itself into me, jarring forgotten senses – smell, taste, sight – as well as buried memories – that reconnected synapses I had thought were severed forever.

Why was I so affected - even as John and I were creatively hatching plans to return regularly and for longer periods?

Setting sun from above Camps Bay, over the Atlantic Ocean

One thought begins to surface. Was I harking back to the twenty-three and a half year old self that left without saying goodbye? I had told myself I wanted to leave. I had told myself I had no reservations. I was white and privileged. It was impossible NOT to benefit from apartheid. My skin was an undetachable badge that declared that the apartheid government had made sure that everything in the country would be, for years to come, geared to my comfort and privilege. As I could not change my skin color to match that of 90 percent of the South African population, I was doomed to accept much of that privilege, like it or not.  I didn’t like it, so the only option, or so it seemed at the time, was to leave. I had trouble envisioning staying once the organization I worked for was banned, once political activity had become dormant. After all, once outside I could join the vibrant and growing anti-apartheid movement and make a contribution that way. And leaving wouldn’t matter.

Or so I told myself.

Sky during sunset from St. James, Indian Ocean

I followed the man I married the day before we left Cape Town for the United States. He had a scholarship to study for a PhD in Physics. He did not intend to return. No future in physics in South Africa, especially not in his particular field. 

I left and I did not consciously say goodbye. 

Although I left with a passport, in one respect I was like other exiles who left with one-way permits or fled across the border ahead of their own arrests or deaths, I did not know when I would be able to return. The beauty or South Africa, combined with the horrendous and brutalizing political system, made it impossible for most South Africans to let go. The country I called home and then left, had planted a seed within me that grew taut like an indestructible vine, unyielding to stimuli from outside as I became integrated in New York and US life and culture.

They might have a home, but they don't have a house! Protests before the municipal elections were a common aspect of Cape Town life.

Now, after days and weeks and months that flowed into one another, during which I felt that Cape Town and South Africa began to once more take on the familiarity of home, I am saying goodbye. This time it is wrenched, not because I was once again leaving home. It was due in large part to finally having to acknowledge that while I might not regard the US or the town I live in as my emotional home, I could no longer claim South Africa to be 'Home' with a capital 'H'. But at the same time memory, physical recognition of place and space, tentacles that bind, years of nostalgia, years of longing for more permanent reconnections, all conspired to keep me linked in a visceral way even if I had to give up on the idea that South Africa was still home.

Home is not, I have come to reflect, a very useful concept. It covers far too much ground. We will say flippantly that we are going home, wherever we happen to be staying, for a short while, a longer while, or a long time. “Are you home for supper?” or “What time are you coming home?”, I find myself asking friends who are staying at our house, be it for a few days or a few weeks.

I smile at the immigration official, if a little wanly, as he says “Welcome Home” and hands me back my US passport at Newark Airport.  Home?

And when, years past, I spent a long evening over Chinese food and wine and green tea with a new South African friend obsessing about South Africa and he asked: “When are you going home, Steph?”, I knew he was referring to South Africa and not my New York apartment in Washington Heights.

Or more recently, having dinner with two young black women in Cape Town, one the daughter of a coloured friend, one her friend from university who is African, I delight in their talk and ebullience, in their South African-ness . When they talk about South Africa there is anger and pain but also an acknowledgement that this is where they want to be. There is also pride when they list many of South Africa’s assets. After they regale me with stories about their visit to New York in the middle of winter, a city they obviously enjoyed, I ask them whether they ever think of leaving South Africa. No, they say, their voices assured, no hint of doubt. They love their country. They would like to travel and live elsewhere for a while, yes, that would be good, but South Africa is their country. They have no desire to live elsewhere.


Then there is the police officer who flags me down at 11:30 on the Main Road in Claremont where I am happily driving my zippy Yaris rental car on my way "home" to my cousin in Tamboerskloof after dinner with friends. At first I am hesitant. I can’t see who is behind the flashlights that are being waved up and down to signal me to stop. Do I stop or drive on? I am aware that the Main Road is not the safest road to drive on at this time of night but having overshot the exit to De Waal Drive I am heading for the next one. Should I just ride on and not stop as I have been often advised in situations such as this?  I slow down as I get closer and see the police car. I stop. A young white policemen, Afrikaans, trim, minus the swagger that I associate with policemen in the US, walks over and says with a friendly smile that it is a routine check. He asks for my license. I hand him my New Jersey one. 

 "Ah, New Jersey," he says as if he sees one of these on a regular basis. I tell him I am from Cape Town. “Good!” he responds, “South Africa is The Best!”


I interview Jean Marie Nkurunziza, an impressive young man who is working on gender justice issues with refugees in South Africa. He says at the beginning of the interview: “I am a Burundian by birth, an African by nationality.”

Home - he knows what it means to him.

I have come to the conclusion, a conclusion that I did not anticipate when I left for my three-month stay in South Africa, that in point of fact I have no home. Is it a figment of my imagination and that’s why I can’t find it? 

As the idea takes hold, I like it. It is freeing. It provides a sense of maturity and security. I am no longing seeking something too elusive to capture. It can be anywhere. I feel best where I have a community. And I have a number of them. Some bigger, with deeper roots. Somewhere I visit for short occasions and feel “at home” because of friends there that welcome me. And South Africa (more than Cape Town) where I am drawn back by a strong thread, resists letting go when I leave.


 Tree in front of our house in New Jersey in February, the day before I left for Cape Town

The same tree in bloom (white lacey blossoms against Rhododendrums) when I arrive back

Home is Montclair where I live in our family house where my daughter was raised. Home was England, to a lesser degree, for some twenty years, where first my parents, then my mother lived until they died, after leaving South Africa in the same year I did.

In the 1980's in northern Mozambique, I walked in the early evening with Anastasia my interpreter along a narrow dirt road that led out of the small village we were visiting. The African veld stretched away from us every which way in the receding light; the smell of fires, the sounds of birds in the calling in the stillness, the voices and activities of homestead life drifting towards us. It was a blissful walk, as we continued our ongoing conversation about what was happening to women after independence. A young man bicycling along the road dismounted when he reached us and walked alongside a little way, pushing his bike. He was curious about this white woman in his village, clearly not a common occurrence. Anastasia explained to him in Portuguese who I was.

“Aha!” he responded, obviously pleased. “A Internationalista!!!”

Many years later I still like that designation: Internationalist. I care about the world. The world is my home. 

Which is not to say that when I think of "home,” I think of the world. South Africa is what comes to mind when I am feeling nostalgic. Montclair and the US when I am in practical mode. I have no single place to identify as home.   Nonetheless, South Africa  tugs on my emotions; the feelings it generates about space and place are rope-strong. No other place comes close.

Breakfast on my last day in Cape Town in The Gardens with Sindiswa and Kate

An untranslatable Portuguese word captures the feelings about home better than any English word: Saudade. “Not an active discontent or poignant sadness but a ... dreaming wistfulness.” Am I destined to feel this way about South Africa, whether it is home or not? I don’t really know.

I smiled when I saw the subject line on an email from my cousin in Cape Town a few days ago: “Homingl”. I am not sure what she meant by this typo. In my mind I added an ‘e’ and a new word was formed,   "Homingle”. The mingling of many homes and connections and threads that tie me to places at different levels of flexibility, depending on where I am at that moment, both physically and emotionally.

Home. Africa. The World.

Yes, that feels right.

And yet I know when someone says to me “When are you going home again?” or “Do you miss home?”, it will refer to South Africa. No other place comes close.  It's more about feelings, than reality.  And when it comes to saudade, feelings trump.

And yet, and yet.... as I write this at my desk in Montclair, as I read emails from friends in South Africa relating how cold it is, and know too that I am comfortable here in my skin.  I know the place so well.  Friends abound.

Perhaps it is as simple as Emily Dickinson declares:  Where we are, that is home.


African Penguins

Boulders Beach, Cape Town: No doubt they know where home is: their community

I want to be alone...  home or not, let me outta there!