There’s No Place Like Home
I’m writing this while sitting on the lounge room floor in the house I grew up in. I love coming back here and often do without thinking much of it – driving the three-and-a-half hour journey like a homing pigeon on autopilot, barely noticing my shoulders relax as I turn off the main highway and onto the rickety country roads. Even at times when I have felt utterly lost within myself, I have still somehow been able to find my way back here. It is unconscious.
My husband is sitting at the kitchen table marking his students’ most recent exams. My parents are throwing loving wisecracks back and forth as they move about the kitchen cooking dinner side by side. My mum is cooking ‘Beer Balls’ at my request. Think spaghetti and meatballs in a delicious, dark sauce that tastes a lot like a topnotch barbecue sauce getting into bed with a six pack of Heineken and staying for the long haul. My mum saw someone at a live cooking demonstration years ago make the meatballs as an appetiser with the sauce as a dipping accompaniment. She thought to herself, “You know what would make this even more awesome? Pasta.” She was right.
Being back in this place always nurtures my soul and gives me a lot, but today it served me a lesson. It taught me GOOD.
A few weeks ago I was formally invited back here to my childhood hometown of Warracknabeal to take part in a huge long-weekend celebration: the 150 year anniversary of the settlement of the town. The invitation asked me to adorn my Rotary Youth Exchange jacket from my time as an exchange student in Denmark (which was back in 2001) and then join in the big Saturday morning parade, on a float for the Warracknabeal Rotary Club.
You can see said tractor/trailer/hay-bale float over my shoulder in the pic at the top of this post.
I’m not going to lie – I felt deeply awkward about receiving the invitation, and even this morning as I was getting ready for the big event, I still did.
The initial thought that went through my mind when I first read that email was how embarrassing it would be sitting up on a float, wearing a jacket that means the world to me but generally looks weird and garish to anyone who has not been a Rotary Youth Exchange Student or is close to one, especially as I would be moving at 10km/h down a LONG street towards a whole lot of not much, probably with a fifty-point turn thrown in for good measure at each end because the float wouldn’t otherwise make it around the round-a-bout.
Yet stronger than the looming embarrassment I felt for myself was the debt I feel I owe the Warracknabeal Rotary Club. My Opa (Dutch for ‘grandfather’) had been a member of the Club for many years before he moved to Melbourne and my Dad has been a Rotarian there since 1979. The Club and its members have always made me feel welcome and loved and, as a very young girl, it was their tireless work and projects of goodwill that taught me the definition of ‘community’ and what being in wholehearted service truly looks like. They supported me to go to Denmark for my year abroad, encouraged me to speak up and out in public when I was nervous to use my voice, introduced me to the beloved RYLA program that I now Co-Direct and, no matter how long between visits, they always welcome me back to town with open arms and genuine care for how I am. I don’t feel that there will ever be enough I can do to repay what they have given and taught me and, for that reason, they could ask me to do almost anything and I would say yes. Good heavens please don’t tell them that!
(SPOILER ALERT: Thank goodness for that feeling of being indebted. I needed to say ‘yes’ to that invitation.)
So I did say yes – straight away so that I wouldn’t torture myself over trying to make the decision while wanting to back out. Once I’d sent the response off into the ether, I immediately rang my dad to find out if his friends’ daughter had also received the invitation. She is three years older than me and went on Exchange a couple of years before I did. If she was ‘in’ I knew I would feel a bit more comfortable on the day.
I told a few close friends that I was going back to Warracknabeal to be on a float in a parade and they greeted me with the exact response I expected: laughter, jokes, demands for photographs and video footage, and general “the thought of you doing that is killing me!”-type hysteria.
I considered contacting the organiser and telling them that I was no longer available. I considered arriving late to make the experience as short as possible. I considered “forgetting” my Youth Exchange blazer.
Today, the day of the parade, I stayed in bed here at the house for as long as I could, shamelessly blaming the cold weather for my slow start. I took longer than I needed to in the shower, panicked about being late and then arrived five minutes early. I sat in the car and waited out those minutes so as to not appear over-eager, over-committed or over-visually present in my blazer. It reminded me of the way Danes will drive around the block for ten minutes if they arrive early to an arranged gathering so as to not be either early or late. The things we do.
And then came the inevitable changing point: the moment where the experience stops being what I am imagining it WILL be and starts being what it IS; the ‘time to face the music and get out of the car’ moment, which was pretty literal today.
I walked through the door of the meeting point (a Rotary-owned auction house) and, soon after, Rotarians began flowing in. Each one greeted me with the same warmth, generosity and kindness that they always have. Some thanked me for coming back to join them. Some commented on how great it was that my blazer still fit. (Agreed!) All asked me how long I was staying in town for and commented on how great it was to see me back.
It was lovely, but I was still feeling awkward. You can see it all over my face:
Another past exchange student who had gone to America ten years before I went to Denmark arrived not long after I did and, as soon as I saw his blazer, I relaxed. We had never met before, but we quickly and eagerly exchanged stories, overseas experiences and life lessons. I instantly felt connected, nostalgic and understood.
Thank you Ben if you’re reading; I can’t imagine how you might come to see this, but gosh it was good getting to know you this morning. The fact that you had chosen to return to Warracknabeal after a much longer time away and knowing fewer people in town than I do was most definitely not wasted on me.
When it was time to head down to the float there were four of us in Youth Exchange blazers, a lot of Rotarians representing different local Rotary initiatives and some young people representing other Rotary youth programs, all ready to go. We clambered up onto the trailer one-by-one, sat side-by-side on the hay bales and found ourselves mindlessly chatting and laughing in unison before the float even moved.
But then it did. And as a bright blue tractor pulled our hay-filled trailer down the street at 10 km/h, I sat and smiled and waved just as I predicted I would, and I felt awkward just as I’d predicted I would. But the community met me where I was at. They waved. They smiled. They cheered. Some of our family friends squealed with joyful recognition as they first discovered that we had come home.
And when my eyes met theirs I realised that hundreds and hundreds of people had chosen to come out on a cold, foggy morning to catch a glimpse of the floats.
Including the float that I sat on.
Including all of us, which included me.
It dawned on me for what should not have been the first time (but unfortunately was), that a whole town had been waiting in anticipation – some openly, some secretly – for an event that a volunteer organising committee had spent months and many hours lovingly piecing together. For a celebration of all that their town represented.
This was not about me at all.
I had been so caught up in my own silly pride that I had entirely missed the point.
This town is so much bigger than myself and my misplaced embarrassment. So much greater than me. And so much stronger than any one of us. The African term ‘Ubuntu’ rang through my mind loudly: “I am because we are.”
I remembered that it is an HONOUR to call this little place in the heart of the wheatbelt ‘home’; an honour to be remembered by a Club that owes me nothing but that I owe so much; a huge privilege to receive an invitation to stand beside so many community members – including nurses, caregivers, firefighters, volunteers, teachers, sports people and generally damn amazing human beings – and a gift to wear a jacket that means more to me than many of the possessions I own in a town that I always flock back to.
I was on a float.
Wearing a weird-looking jacket.
Pulled by a tractor.
In a parade.
And I’m friggin’ proud of it.
Thank you Warracknabeal: for having me, for remembering me, for always showing me kindness and for helping me pull my head in.
I nearly missed out on one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in years.