Friday, June 10, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part I

When English poet Robert Browning penned "Home Thoughts from Abroad," he'd become an ex-pat living in Italy, longing for many simple things of his native England.

I'm no Browning, and my longing for "home" has somewhat passed-- but the title of his famous poem seems like an appropriate metaphor to describe a few ramblings from Denmark, where we will be spending the next three weeks.

As we drove from the airport to this house-- which my grandfather had built in 1939-- Sarah remarked as to how much Denmark "looks like Washington" where we now live. Indeed, this is quite true... western Washington is much like "Denmark with mountains;" water... islands... frequent rains... a myriad shades of green... a certain "softness" to everything.


I used to think of going to Denmark as "going home." But what is "home," really? Is it the place you were born, or the place where you settle and find your sense of connectedness to what's around you? Or is it some of both? Perhaps in our youth, home is more of a physical place... but as we age, it becomes more of a feeling; a state of mind. Home ceases to simply exist, and becomes something we create.

This house-- 71 years young-- started as a family retreat, and then became my Aunt Ulla's summer home. Although 14 years my father's senior, she was his youngest sister. As siblings go, they were good friends... connected by an interesting dynamic that often bridged sibling/parental roles. She was one of the few who could tell my father to "calm the f&%# down!" with any measure of success. As I ponder the two of them, I sometimes think the radical differences in their approaches to life-- he: tense, angry, demanding, short tempered, type A; she: calm, patient, philosophical, relaxed-- directly explains why she outlived him by a good 20 years.

The house was named "Tofte" and-- aside from serving as Ulla's favorite place to live-- served as a family retreat of sorts. Set on originally 24 (now 12) acres of wooded land, it became a landing place for people to find peace, young and old alike. Over the years, a steady stream of family members, friends, artists and others would come here for anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to get away and somehow leave behind whatever ailed them... even if just for a short while.

Although there is now wireless Internet and a flat screen TV in the house, time has pretty much stood still here, since 1939. Time here is... slow. The noisiest thing is the "din" of birdsong... which (at least in summer) starts up around 4:00am and keeps going till 10:30 at night. In the high north, it stays light a long time, in summer...

The presence of Aunt Ulla was central to the healing nature of being here: She was willing to listen sympathetically to anyone's story and woes... after which she'd gently insist that people forget their drama and trauma, perhaps with a suggestion like "Well, I think you should have a beer and go sit in the sun and read a book." It wasn't that she didn't honor that people had difficulties... it was merely that she didn't tolerate anyone wallowing in their troubles. Her particular brand of healing took the form of an invitation to step outside one's troubles... on more than one occasion I can recall her saying things "Well... that'll still be there when you get home, but you can't do anything about it while you're here, and worrying will not help."

"Tofte" is a deeply introspective place. It invites you to look inwards and to "sit in your truth" even if it's rather nasty and unpleasant... the same energy that makes time stand still here also provides a neutral and embracing backdrop against which nothing "new" is piled on top of a person's existing troubles. Which-- of course-- also makes it a deeply healing place, for most people. A few-- and they are very few-- have found the lack of "distractions" and the fact that there is really "nothing to do" here distressing enough that they just want to leave.

I spent a lot of time here, as a child and as an adult. When I was little, we'd come here for family gatherings, and just for weekends. Sometimes-- when my parents were traveling abroad-- I would come and stay here for extended periods of time, becoming part of the place while Ulla looked after me. I would observe the ebb and flow of people, and how they would change as a result of their visits; somehow becoming "lighter" or happier or more balanced. In my late teens and as a young adult, I would spend entire summers here.

I often write, when I am here. Somehow, I seem better able to focus, in these surroundings. In days gone by, other writers... and painters, and artists... found the same to be true, for them. In that spirit, I find myself writing these words.

The seven years that have passed since my last visit is probably the longest I have been away from this place.

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