For the past two weeks, I have been in the US visiting family. I only come back about once every two years, and every time, the emotional complexity of returning to the country in which I was raised takes me by surprise.
On this trip, we had a large family gathering at the palatial beach house of a friend of my uncle’s in the exclusive community of Sea Island, GA. It had all the hallmarks of a luxury holiday: quiet views over a calm sea and empty beach, private pool and comfy sun loungers, Spanish Moss-shaded pavements perfect for gentle cycle rides past sprawling mansions. It was a peaceful world set apart from the bright billboards and soulless strip malls of middle America and all that normally makes me cringe. And yet I was restless, feeling the whole time not quite at home, not quite on holiday, feeling a stranger in a place which felt at once familiar and foreign.
I began to wonder if my memories were of an America that never actually existed. Had I simply viewed my country through the naive lens of youth? Had long years of absence cast a tint of nostalgia over the past? Was it really just the freedom and selfishness of young adulthood that I was longing for — the long summer evenings spent on friends’ porches sipping beer, telling stories, staring into the dark starry Appalachian sky?
I wondered if I have really become more British in the 12 years I have been away.
And then I rode with my parents through the sea-blue mountains joining North Carolina and Tennessee on our way to their house, and I felt myself draw a deep breath for the first time since setting foot on American soil. I felt free again. My heart soared. I was home.
I spent nearly an hour today at a local bookstore scouring the poetry section, and I realised as I walked away with three new books that I only ever buy American poetry anymore. When I choose a poem to read at Evensong & Benediction at Old St Paul’s, more often than not, it’s American with strong agrarian and pastoral themes; I return over and over again to the work of poets such as Jane Kenyon, Wendell Berry, James Wright or Mary Oliver.
It has, I confess, often seemed an odd juxtaposition: American poetry about hay bales and horses read in a Scottish city centre Anglo Catholic church. And yet, as I reflected on it today, I realised that it is that poetry which speaks to me most strongly of sacrament. The poems and their deeply evocative images offer both vulnerability and spaciousness, fragility and abundance, fear and blessing, absence and presence, longing and hope. So perhaps the smell of hay and the scent of incense, the golden fields and the gilt monstrance, the wheat and the wafer aren’t such strange a juxtaposition after all.
I wish sometimes that the unexpected juxtapositions of life could be so easily resolved, that life’s sacramentality could be as simple and beautiful and rich as the poetry and ritual it creates. I wish that residing in what often feels like two worlds did not cause such an ache, that presences and absences were not so resolutely inseparable. I wish above all that I would not feel somehow incomplete as I prepare yet again to leave one home for another.