Doing A Geographical

Ruby D. Jones

(Cardiff, Wales)

Half the world’s population of Manx shearwaters—small, albatross-like seabirds—breed on Skokholm, a tiny island off the coast of Wales. Before World War I, two ornithologists took a few of them far from Skokholm to test their homing instinct.

First, they took a shearwater to Venice, 909 miles away. They expected it to fly south to the sea, but it immediately headed northwest, arriving home in Wales two weeks later. 

The ornithologists upped the stakes: they transported a shearwater 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Boston, Massachusetts, and released it from the harbour. It arrived home in just 12 days. 

*****

I was raised in a tiny Welsh village overlooking the Bristol Channel, a stretch of slate-grey water that divides South Wales from England and opens out into the Atlantic. To the south: a ruined castle atop steep limestone cliffs, sheltering an otherworldly beach of sand and sedimentary rock. To the north: acres of rugged common land, a warren of sand dunes, and the coal-mining valleys where I was born.

It was a fairy-tale setting—and, like the best fairy tales, sometimes morphed into a horror story. Rescue helicopters soundtracked my childhood; the 250-foot cliffs were a popular suicide spot. Winters were endlessly bleak, battered by sheets of rain and howling winds. The ruined castle was the perfect milieu for my teenage goth self to smoke, mope, and write god-awful poetry.

It was also a wildly romantic backdrop, which wasn’t lost on my family. Nan worked at the cliff-top castle as a maid before meeting Grampy on the bus. Mum moved there from the city to be with Dad. As a teenager, I seduced my girlfriends and boyfriends at the beach, though sand’s incompatibility with sex is one of very few lessons I’ve only had to learn once. 

In that beautiful, brutal, unforgiving landscape, I had to learn two other lessons much earlier: how to swim and how to find my way home. 

I wasn’t the strongest swimmer, but I was good enough to spend summers hurtling along the waves on a cheap polystyrene bodyboard. I still have a studied deference for the ocean, its swell and spray and siren call, and I still get vertigo on clifftops: that sickly impulse to leap into the ancient vastness and fall forever. It feels like the urge to go home.

I was—am—less good at navigation. 

“Look for the landmarks,” Dad would say, but I always picked the wrong thing: a sheep with a manky leg, a rubbish bag torn apart by seagulls, a VW van plastered in surf stickers. I was attracted to novelty, to disposability, to things that had just shown up or would soon leave. Nothing I remembered would be there to guide me home.

*****

I was rarely home in my teenage years. My friends and I convalesced in a run-down pub in Bridgend, a deprived ex-market town five miles inland, where we went to school. Every weekend we caught the train to Cardiff, the capital of Wales—unless a rugby match was on, when the city shut down for packs of drunken men to sing the national anthem and slop beer all over the streets. We rolled our eyes at their obsession with being Welsh, as if it was some kind of achievement, but mostly we were scared of them: they were the kind of people who bullied us at school, and there were thousands more of them than us.

South Wales culture felt oppressively macho. Women were viewed as sex objects until their status changed to wife, when they were promoted to the sidelines of men’s lives: pushing the pram around the rugby field, rushing home to cook dinner for when “the boys” returned from the pub, washing their rugby kits while they snored on the sofa. Their lives were the opposite of what I wanted for my own. 

But knowing what you’re running from is not the same as knowing what you’re running towards. I couldn’t imagine a destination, only the act of leaving: the vague fairy-tale ending of happily ever after. Nobody I knew had left. Mum’s family all lived within a few streets of each other in the valleys where she and I were born, and Dad’s all lived within five miles of our village. 

Having a deep-rooted family means you’re only ever a scrap of new growth from the solid trunk of your ancestry: someone’s granddaughter, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. I quite like that idea now, at the age of 35. As a teenager, I felt strangled by all those roots and couldn’t wait to escape.

*****

I first moved to Cardiff when I was 19. I’d dropped out of an alienatingly elite English university and needed a safe bet; somewhere I could stick for long enough to finish my degree. I knew Cardiff well enough to know I liked it, and that would do.

I got more than I bargained for: my degree, a drug problem, and a broken heart. At 22, I fled to Andalusia, hoping that putting thousands of miles between me and my poisons, pills, and person would fix everything. I worked on a farm, clung to dusty red mountains, and bashed almond trees with big sticks until they released their bounty. I went to bed early and aching. I failed to forget about my ex. 

When she decided she’d made a mistake, I ecstatically spunked the last of my savings on a flight home and moved into her tiny room in Bristol, a small city on the English side of the Severn Estuary—the crack of water that opens up into the Bristol Channel, whose tides I swam in as a child. 

*****

The Severn Estuary is under constant threat from developers, who want to build a barrage to harness the energy of its huge tides (the second-largest in the world). So far, its designation as an internationally important wildlife site has stopped them. Positioned on the North Atlantic Flyway, the estuary provides a vital service station for 74,000 birds to rest and refuel on their annual migrations. 

*****

In Bristol, I called the publisher where I’d taken a dogsbody job the previous year, begged for work, and was hired to proofread the index of the first Encyclopaedia of Wales. I’d heard plenty about the Encyclopaedia’s cultural importance, but I couldn’t have been less interested if I’d tried. The work was painstaking, time-consuming, and coma-inducing. I cried with boredom at my laptop in my girlfriend’s tiny room. 

This clearly wasn’t what she’d envisaged for our reunion. We started bickering, remembering past grievances, picking at old scabs. I moved into a house share to give us some space, but it was too late: our second honeymoon was over. 

I returned to Cardiff to lick my reopened wounds, crashing on a mattress in the starlit attic of a sprawling house some friends were renting. We threw locally notorious weekly parties: days on end of the floor shuddering with bass, sweaty crowds, walls melting through a veil of hallucinogens. I began DJing at queer club nights on weekends, getting paid in cash and free drinks. Daytimes, I smoked weed, copy-edited books, and worked part-time at a charity. 

Serendipitously, our landlady throwing us out coincided with me being offered my dream job: a full-time campaigner at a feminist nonprofit. The salary, measly as it was, allowed me to move into a new house-share on the leafy side of town: a handsome redbrick with hardwood floors, sash windows, and Victorian fireplaces. It was a 15-minute walk from work, and I bought a latte on my way there every morning, feeling like a real person for the first time: someone with somewhere to be. 

That job saved my arse before burning me out. Working 60-hour weeks meant I was no longer capable of DJing all night and partying all weekend. I even stayed home some Friday nights, though I missed the lifestyle terribly, and felt like a sell-out for abandoning it. 

Cardiff began to feel very small in those years. I got sick of seeing everyone I’d ever met when I popped out for milk. I got sick of people stopping me in the street and acting like they knew me; I only knew I’d probably met them at a party, maybe at my own house, and chatted along as though I remembered them. I felt like an actor, constantly playing a different role with different people, trying to remember who I was supposed to be to each one. I told myself I couldn’t square the circles of my various friendship groups—the hundreds of pill-heads, the few true old friends, the earnest activists, the professional colleagues—when, really, I couldn’t square all those aspects of myself. I was trapped in a hall of mirrors. Too many selves, reflected. 

*****

German ornithologist Gustav Kramer discovered that birds act strangely if kept in captivity when they would usually migrate. In the spring, the starlings he studied hopped around their cages, agitated, fluttering, and orienting northeast: the direction they’d usually travel. Kramer called this behaviour Zugunruhe: “migration-anxiety” or “migratory restlessness”.

*****

I became disillusioned with my dream job after a few years: the grind of trying to convince politicians to give a fuck about rape victims, the arguments between old-school feminists and smooth-talking policy careerists, my overwhelmed boss crying on my shoulder. The meaning I’d shoehorned into my days via work was evaporating. 

My friends were starting to calm down—serious relationships, early nights—but I still wanted passion and fun and romance, all the time. People told me I was being unrealistic; I thought they were settling. Besides, it’s not so unrealistic if you just keep moving.

Bristol became my playground. I escaped there most weekends. Compared to Cardiff, the pubs were better, the girls hotter, the politics Lefter, and, crucially, I could be anonymous, escaping all the selves I was stuck with back home. 

I stopped taking my antidepressants, desperate to feel more, and spun off into a supernova of hyperactivity—not sleeping, barely eating, making ludicrous plans—one of which was to move back to Bristol and commute to Cardiff daily via slow, expensive, unreliable public transport. A week later, I was sharing a cheap house with a few strangers off bohemian Gloucester Road in Bristol. 

Boredom is my kryptonite. 

*****

It’s long-distance migration that excites us: the Arctic tern, who flies 22,000 miles from pole to pole; the caribou, who travels 700 miles overland; the northern elephant seal, who swims 13,000 miles through the oceans. 

We don’t want to know about the blue grouse, who descends just 300 metres from mountain pines to deciduous woodlands each year; or the tent caterpillar moth, who spends its entire life within a few metres of the fruit tree where it was born; or the humble earthworm, who burrows 6 feet underground in winter and slithers back to the surface in spring.

The furthest I’ve moved from home was 250 miles. The shortest was 20. My usual flight path, Cardiff to Bristol, is 45. An Arctic tern would laugh in my face. An earthworm might be impressed, but probably not; it’s much smaller than me, and has to travel through dirt face-first (Alexa, do worms have faces?).

*****

I lasted a month before Bristol started to bug me: the hipsters wanging on about their start-up, the rich white dreadlocked hippies hula-hooping in the park, the lack of self-deprecation endemic to Welsh humour. I started to miss the things that had most pissed me off about Cardiff—like family, I suppose, which is just another way to spell home

I moved back to Cardiff, this time renting a flat on my own. Bored and lonely, I started a long-distance open relationship with a trans guy in Leeds, a landlocked city 250 miles north, which consisted of internet sex, phone sex, and occasional real-life sex (when we could afford the eye-watering train fare). 

But God, the sex was good. Really good. So good I decided the best thing to do—the only thing to do—was to quit my job and move to Leeds.

Leeds was a big city with a flourishing queer scene. Party drugs fuelled our debauched weekends, and comedowns were eased by opioids left over from friends’ gender-transition operations. I easily slipped back into my old ways, as if the previous three years of staying still, working hard, and being a real person had never happened. 

Another skin, shed. 

*****

Birds sometimes become disorientated mid-migration by mist, wind, or drizzle, and get blown off course. This drift migration especially affects young birds who’ve never attempted such long distances before. It can lead to huge flocks arriving somewhere where their breed is not usually seen. This strange new population is known as a fall-out.

*****

I have good friends. Old friends. I cherish them and love them and haven’t always been brilliant to them. The fact that we’re still friends is a testament to their loyalty, not mine. I have been a negligent friend on many occasions. It’s something I’m deeply ashamed of, and something I’m trying to put right. 

I was always leaving, leaving, leaving, in favour of the newer and the shinier. My incessant boomeranging became a running joke. The numbers at my leaving-/returning-to-Cardiff parties started to dwindle. People don’t take you seriously after the fifth time—and who can blame them?

But my friends stuck around. They stayed in touch. They visited me wherever I was, when I let them, which was less often than I should have. Having people around for a whole weekend made me feel exposed, vulnerable, like I couldn’t keep up my party-girl act—which I couldn’t, because it wasn’t really me; and which they didn’t want me to, anyway, because they knew it was just a front.

I didn’t know. 

For an embarrassingly long time, I didn’t know. 

Years of partying had seduced me into believing a deep and easy closeness was only a pill away. It takes years of sober, plodding, faithful friendship to reach the level of intimacy that MDMA appears to bestow instantly. I took the shortcut so often I forgot where the true path was. 

Inevitably, after the first few weeks or months of changing the scenery but not myself, I’d wake up alone in a draughty rented room with a hangover–comedown and it would all feel empty and pointless. Why was I here? Who did I have in this city who really knew me? All of a sudden I’d miss everyone. Then SpareRoom.co.uk and Gumtree and text messages to friends: I’m coming home. Know anyone with a room?

I did this over and over and over again, expecting different results each time. I know that’s Einstein’s definition of insanity. I even knew that then. 

What I didn’t know was how to differentiate between the strings that keep you grounded and the strings that tie you in knots, so I avoided strings altogether. 

I didn’t know that novelty could become routine; that even butterfly-bellied limerence is tedious the tenth time around. 

I didn’t know the pleasures of dailiness, of abiding, of sticking around when things are boring and nothing’s new—which is, let’s face it, the vast majority of life. 

I didn’t know that no accountability means no community. 

*****

In The Homing Instinct, Bernd Heinrich writes: “Home is where what you do has consequences, and where you expect and get feedback—both positive and negative—on what you do. … Not being homebound permits exporting the costs of our actions.”

He’s talking about the Tragedy of the Commons—whereby we, for example, export our plastic waste to faraway oceans—but I think this applies to all kinds of accountability. If the people around you don’t know you, they’re unlikely to kindly tell you you’re wrong, you’re being an arsehole, you might wish to reconsider. Why would they care? Why would you? They’re not your people, and you’re not their responsibility. 

*****

Spoiler: mind-blowing sex with someone you don’t love does not a relationship make.

I scurried back to Cardiff after nine months in Leeds. Another house share, another partying stint, another batch of new faces, all financed by a PhD scholarship and freelance editing, both of which I could do from anywhere. 

Free of the usual ties—a mortgage, a workplace, kids—I could do whatever I pleased; but I was nearing thirty, and my lack of strings had atrophied into the “freedom” of choosing between fifty brands of baked beans. 

Even dating was becoming a drag. I wanted casual sex, but the women I dated turned out to secretly want a relationship. Two stalkers later, I decided to embark on a six-month period of celibacy. Take that, libido. 

And then, of course, I met someone.

*****

Alex was meant to be a fuck buddy; someone to break my sex fast. We met online and had our first date in a pub in Bristol (that old chestnut), where she’d lived for 20 years. She was a decade older than me and an old-school butch; northern, funny, and full of swagger. 

After a gutful of cider and making sure she was a top (which she still teases me about, but I stand by), I “accidentally” missed the last train home. Our second date lasted four days and included a trip to B&Q (which I still tease her about, but she stands by).

A few months later, I moved back to Bristol and into her flat. We’ve been together ever since. 

*****

Monarch butterflies fly 3,000 miles from North America to Mexico in winter and return in the spring. But while they complete this migration on a population level, the specific butterflies involved change. They live for just five to seven weeks; mid-migration, new generations replace the old. The individuals who return are not the individuals who left. 

*****

Six months into our relationship, Alex and I went to Cornwall with our new border collie puppy, a bitch called Butch. 

We met a boy there, aged 12 or 13, the son of the woman whose farm we were staying on. He was camp as Christmas, chatting politely with his hand on his hip, tossing his thick black hair out of his eyes, a basket of blankets dangling from his arm. He did a perfect impression of the peacock—nature’s drag queen—that strutted around the place, mating dance and all.

One afternoon, while Alex slept off a boozy pub lunch, the boy led me up a steep dirt track and into a wood high on the cliff. He pointed out the squirrels’ nests. He told me his grandfather had planted this wood. He told me the difference between a wood and a forest, which I’d often wondered and promptly forgot. 

The trees opened up into a clearing, where we sat on two sturdy wooden armchairs (which his grandfather had also made) overlooking the mighty Atlantic Ocean. 

“I grew up by the sea, too,” I said, “in a place a bit like this.”

“Do you live in the city now?” he asked.

“Yeah, Bristol,” I said. “Have you been?”

“No, but I’ve been to London three times now.”

“Did you like it?”

“Not really,” he said. “You can’t see the stars.” 

He was quiet for a few minutes, frowning slightly, perhaps weighing up whether he could speak his mind without appearing rude.

“I don’t understand,” he said finally, flicking his hair out of his eyes. “If you grew up somewhere like this, why would you ever leave?”

*****

Migrating birds sometimes take the wrong route, flying in the opposite direction to the rest of the flock. It’s uncertain why, but the migration route is genetically ingrained, so it’s thought to be a programming defect; a glitch in the machine. 

Some glitchy birds breed with other glitchy birds en route, producing offspring for whom it’s genetically ingrained to fly in the wrong direction, who produce more offspring—and on it goes for generations. 

The wrong way becomes a desire line becomes a flight path.

*****

Alex and I adopted another rescue dog, Femme (of course), and needed more outside space. We couldn’t afford that in Bristol, so we moved to Weston-Super-Mare, a town further down the Severn Estuary with a reputation for being a bit of a shithole; but we could afford it, and it was commutable to Bristol for Alex, and the house was beautiful: parquet floors, ornate plasterwork, and a steep garden backing onto a wood. 

The real reason we bought it, though, was the incredible view over the estuary. On a clear day, you could make out the buildings of Cardiff, dwarfed by a backdrop of mountains flanking the mining valleys where I was born. 

That few inches of landscape contained my entire past: everything and everyone I’d loved, left, and lost. Like an astronaut looking back at Earth, I saw home clearly for the first time, felt its gravitational pull: a planet behind my ribs. 

*****

The Welsh have a word for this feeling: hiraeth. It’s usually translated as longing, homesickness, nostalgia, or grief, none of which quite capture its complexity. 

Hiraeth is brought on by leaving home, but returning home doesn’t necessarily cure it. It’s a passionate longing, but you’re not sure what for. It’s a sadness and an ailment, but it’s sometimes self-inflicted; even, occasionally, pleasurable. It’s an emotion and an instinct and an absence yearning in your belly. Its object can be a place, a person, a time, or something indeterminate: an echo of an echo, a memory of a memory. 

Hiraeth can only be approached slant. Its form is the fragment, if it can be said to have a literary form at all; music—especially the tug and ache of strings—is a more fitting medium. Writing about hiraeth may well be akin to dancing about architecture; yet, we can’t get off the dancefloor.

*****

I’ve always found there to be a creepy beauty about off-season seaside towns, but stupidly, I hadn’t banked on how quiet Weston would be: no sirens blasting or students partying, no straight couple fucking and fighting in the upstairs flat. 

It took me weeks to sleep soundly in all that quiet, then weeks to stop oversleeping. It took longer still to shed my city metaphors. On a rough night, the crash and suck of waves against rock sounded like motorway traffic. 

I thought I might like the solitude—and I did, for a while. 

I thought I might write more—and I did. 

I thought I might learn to stay still. 

Trying to stay in a continual state of limerence, whether via compulsive house-moving, drugs, or sex, is all-encompassing. It’s busy work. Moving house, let alone cities, takes up a lot of cognitive function. Staying still frees up a huge amount of time and energy. 

But you have to put that energy somewhere, fill that time somehow. And while the burns on your heels from running too fast for too long start to heal, the past has time to catch up with you. Slow blisters, rising to the surface. Pop.

*****

Weston, 2018: the hottest summer Britain had ever seen. Water, water everywhere, and not a mud-free drop to swim in (the downside of the Severn Estuary’s magnificent tides: miles of sinking mud). 

We eventually found a small rocky cove where sinking in the mud was a possibility rather than an inevitability. We swam every day, dried out on the rocks like lizards, chatted to locals, felt like part of a secret society. Fish and chips, cider, salt-crusted hair. Fluorescent sunsets pouring across huge skies. 

I was happy that summer. I also felt like I was living in a horribly obvious metaphor. Wales disappeared into the horizon’s blue-white heat haze. Of the two islands in the estuary, Steep Holm (the English island) was still visible, shimmering between sky and sea; Flat Holm (the Welsh island) had disappeared altogether. 

Not enough stepping stones home.

*****

Whenever life has felt too hard to handle, a refrain has thrummed through me: You can always leave. It’s an early warning sign like the alarm calls birds use to warn each other of a predator, except the predator is my own impulses. 

As soon as the refrain appears, the urge is overwhelmingly strong: all I can think is run. It’s like when the coke starts to wear off and the first sliver of reality seeps in and all you can think is more

Doing a geographical—a term coined in AA to describe addicts’ tendency to convince ourselves that, if we just move to a new city and start afresh, our problems will magically disappear—is my go-to reaction. It also has a shelf life. The defining feature of novelty is that it wears off. Your old self always finds a way to creep back in. 

*****

They weren’t wrong (whoever “they” are) when they said Weston is a bit of a shithole: all boarded-up pubs, discount stores, used needles, and nothing whatsoever to do. 

I should have known, I admonished myself. I should have known before moving. I should have known myself better. 

But I didn’t. I didn’t know. I never know before I do it. 

It wasn’t all bad. Some mornings, the first fingers of sun snuck around the curtains and I’d wake buoyant, fizzing, aglow with a singular purpose: get out into that light. I’d pull on yesterday’s clothes, make a quick tea, climb the steep concrete steps to the garden, and watch the day break. The sea was the colour of fresh bruises, of oysters hiding pearls. The sky was ablaze: rose-gold, burnt amber. The whole scene was slapstick-beautiful. It swelled in my chest, snagged in my throat. 

And it wasn’t enough. 

*****

After getting abuse from our racist neighbours for campaigning for Labour in the General Election (“stupid little girl” was a personal favourite), which the Conservatives won in Weston by another landslide; after E. coli was found on the beach; after sinking into the familiar black treacle of depression; even my therapist, who’d encouraged me stay put for a while, agreed I’d be better off elsewhere. 

“What’s your gut feeling?” a friend asked. 

I’ve always struggled with that question. It’s hard to trust your instincts when it’s your instincts that get you in trouble. If I followed every gut feeling, I’d have moved a hundred times more than I have. How was I supposed to know whether leaving was a good idea this time when it had been such a bad idea so many other times? I didn’t trust myself.

I did know that this time, it wasn’t my usual panicked refrain—you can always leave—ringing through me. It was more visceral than that: blood-warm, bone-deep. It throbbed through my veins, a slow and certain pulse:

Go home. Go home. Go home.

*****

In A Book Called Hiraeth, Dora Polk writes: “There seems to be a perpetual tension in the Welsh between an urge to stay and an urge to leave, a yearning for something better, a grief for something left behind … a desire for roots and a desire for wings.” She attributes this to the country’s seafaring tradition, born more from economic necessity than desire. 

But choosing to leave, far from extinguishing hiraeth, infuses it with the guilt of abandonment. The self-exile, Polk argues, experiences a “forked” hiraeth: an ambiguous feeling, “based on a love-hate relationship with country and kin, and a miserable state of self-division that is emotionally ravaging”. 

If you wanted to leave—if you couldn’t stand staying—what right do you have to miss home?

*****

Shortly after the elections, Grampy died, Dad’s dad, my last surviving grandparent—and, if I’m honest, my favourite. It was expected: the cancer he’d lived with for years had snaked its poisonous tendrils all through his body, and he was refusing chemo. He was ready to go, he told us. I had a chance to say my goodbyes, holding his papery, liver-spotted, war-tattooed hands. As deaths go, it was a good one—as if that makes it any easier.

I was tasked with writing the eulogy. It’s rare that my narrow skill set is needed in my deeply practical family, and I laboured for hours over each sentence. It was hard to avoid clichés; Grampy genuinely was a pillar of the community. He’d lived in the same house, where my father was born, all his life. He ran the rugby club, fundraised for local charities, spoke every Remembrance Day at his great-grandkids’ school, called the bingo in the village hall. He knew and was known by everyone, his roots thick and deep and strong.

His funeral was enormous. Hundreds of people crowded the 12th-century church around the corner from his house: the same church where he married Nan, my sister married her husband, and my niece and nephew were christened.

Afterwards, we gathered in his local pub. The landlady, who was my best friend as a kid, dished out rib-crushing hugs and mountains of food. My dad and uncles kept refilling a massive jug with lager and cider and God knows what else, carrying it from table to table and sloshing it into everyone’s glasses—apparently, a post-rugby tradition that Grampy had been a big fan of, and the same jug he’d used as a young man.

Inevitably, at some point in the evening, the entire pub started singing. Rugby songs, Welsh hymns, Tom Jones. The old boys, the last of Grampy’s generation, led in beautiful baritones. Someone played percussion on a pint glass. It was exactly the kind of thing I’d have rolled my eyes at as a teenager—so clichéd! so predictable! so fucking Welsh!—but in their rheumy eyes I saw not only my grandfather but my history; my legacy; maybe even, as the national anthem goes, “the land of my fathers”.

God, what an embarrassing, sentimental, cringeworthy thought (what was in that jug?). I buried it deep and started singing.

*****

We scattered Grampy’s ashes in the clifftop castle where we’d scattered Nan’s, where she’d worked, where they’d courted. There was no official ceremony; just a small group of us, huddled together against the drizzle, sharing memories. Dad read a poem. We all cried. We walked back to the beach sharing stories, all with the same setting: here

The tide was out, exposing vast slabs of sedimentary rock, each layer of sand and mud and silt, of compacted shell and bone, laid down over millennia. The fossil hunters were out gathering rocks swirled with ammonites, feathered with ancient coral. As a teenager, I laughed at their excitement about bits of old stone, but that day, walking along with my family, I understood them for the first time. 

Comforting, sometimes, to hold history in your own hands. 

Comforting, sometimes, the crush of all those layers. 

*****

Six months passed and I was miserable and pining: for Grampy, for home, for belonging. Alex could see how unhappy I was. We put the house on the market. I know, I know—I don’t deserve her. I’m hoping the surf beaches and my friends who she loves and my family who love her and Wales’s socialist tradition will heal some of the ruptures I’ve made. 

This is the first time I’m moving back home with someone rather than moving away from home for someone. That feels important. It feels new. 

It also feels fucking terrifying. 

Too much to lose.

*****

I’m writing this in July 2020. We sold our house in Weston and bought a place in Cardiff in January. We’re staying with my mother in Bridgend, the town I spent my adolescence fleeing to and my teens fleeing from. Having intended to stay for a few weeks while a builder made our house inhabitable, we’ve been at Mum’s for six months due to COVID-19 building materials shortages and lockdowns. I’ve moved house five times in previous years in the time it’s taken to not even move once this year. It feels like karma. 

Mum’s bungalow backs onto farmers’ fields. The grass grew lavishly long this spring. The wind made waves in it while clouds sent dark green shadows speeding towards me: the gorgeous vertigo of clifftops. I waded through it thigh-deep, dew-soaked, joy streaming from every pore. The dogs leaped through it like lambs, running circles around each other. I love it when our moods collide. The bliss of embodiment; of not overthinking it. 

In the last two days, the farmer has cut it all down. What’s left is stubbly, Samsonned, the texture of legs that need a shave. The fields’ new haircut has revealed a web of desire lines: narrow paths, connecting stiles to gates and streams to hay nets, that humans and other animals have made by walking. Our desires coalesce into narrow strips: I want to go that way. 

Welsh farmers used to call these desire paths cynefin: another word with no direct English equivalent. It’s come to mean “haunt” or “usual abode”. It captures a deep feeling of belonging to a place with a shared history. Your cynefin is your natural habitat. 

*****

I’ve left and returned to Cardiff enough times to know you can’t step into the same city twice. This will be my sixth time. I’m trying to prepare for how different it will be. I last left when I was 29; my life has changed inexorably since then (thank God), and the city has changed, too: it’s become kind of cool, ludicrously, and the gentrifiers—who we hoped would stop on the English side of the estuary, like they always have—are closing in. 

And that was before Covid-19. Now, everyone’s talking about the “new normal”: social distancing, only meeting outside, no pubs or cafes unless they can go al fresco (a laughable idea in famously rain-soaked Wales). My map of the city will need to be redrawn: old places scrubbed out, new places scribbled in. I don’t know when or where or how I’ll next get to gather with the friends I’ve missed so much.

I know these concerns are laughably puny in a pandemic: who gives a fuck about beer gardens with friends when people are dying in their thousands? I know I’m incredibly lucky: I haven’t lost anyone to Covid-19 (touch all the wood), and I’m relatively young and healthy. I know it could be so much worse. Unfathomably worse. 

I know. 

I also know—finally, after 25 house moves and over 40 housemates—that people and places, put together, make up a life. 

*****

James Baldwin wrote: “You will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.”

Dora Polk concurs: “Sufferers of hiraeth can seldom hope to find release through the restoration of beloved places, people, things or conditions that are lost from or lacking in their lives.”

What if moving home doesn’t cure my hiraeth? Will I miss having a home to miss? What if, yet again, I’ve misdiagnosed what I was yearning for?

But what if moving home does cure my hiraeth? What if I become what Polk calls di-hiraeth: “blunted, insensitive and indifferent”? What if C.S. Lewis was right: what if “our best havings are wantings”, and in our desires’ fulfilment lies our ruin?

I know it’s too late for these last-minute panics. I know that, wherever you go, you take yourself with you. And I can never not know that, if push comes to shove, you can always leave. 

But what if—just this once, just for now, just to see—you tried to stay?

Ruby D. Jones

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Ruby D. Jones writes essays about the body, desire, addiction, mental illness, and grief — all the fun stuff. Her work has been widely published in literary magazines and placed in various competitions. She works in human rights, is (allegedly) writing her first book, and currently lives in Cardiff, Wales, with her partner and dogs. www.rubydjones.com

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