I don’t mind the way I write, but it’s a very real possibility that you do. I suspect you could find it overwrought, melodramatic or sentimental, and too wordy by half, and those criticisms hold a fair bit of water. That’s why I don’t often upload my life’s marginalia. Maybe that anxiety pisses you off, all “Don’t be such a victim, just post it for fuck’s sake”, brow furrowed at the screen. Or maybe it resonates for you too, you who also have hidden scribbles kept on post-its in a drawer or synced to the cloud or saved in a Word document you open every now and then to scrutinise and amend and dismiss again. Maybe, terror of terrors, these words leave you altogether cold. Well, that’s the worst my mind can offer: a skew in the corner of your cheek revealing a sceptical dimple, a tug on the narrow muscles of your forehead, a sardonic arch in your brow, “This is what she thinks is good enough to share? Huh. I wonder why.”
Of course, I know my writing could be better, but it isn’t. It used to be far worse, but that didn’t stop me. I would wrangle it into poems, I would set them to inchoate melodies, I would hum them and walk barefoot on the pavements of an indifferent island, to show I was different to it. Sad dirty feet, marked by bee stings and scrapes from bottle shards and tarmac dust, slopping grey streaks onto the cream plush carpet that was more bourgeois than my family really knew what to do with. With a foreign ferocity, my parents guarded that pristine forest of fibres from the hurricane of my footsteps. There were growls when I brought inside the mud they’d taught me to love before the millennium changed things for us, when gardens were still packed with earthworms and adventure, not dirt.
In 1966, during my parents’ own gardened childhoods, the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote that “dirt is matter out of place”. Dirt is matter out of place? That explains why I wanted to coat myself in it, to overwhelm our house with that dirt, I wanted to scream that we were matter out of place here, too. And I’m pretty sure I did, possibly one too many times. But my bare, dirty foot was important to me, a symbol of resistance, a battle cry and a defence against the secret fear that this had become our place now after all.
I was right, thank God. It wasn’t our place – we all left. There is no house in England now, just an apartment in a brand new city. There is no carpet to guard, but also no dirt to track in. It’s better this way, especially now that I know that being matter out of place is not just my lot but that of the multitude. I am dirt, many of us are dirt, and those that aren’t will always try to tidy us up with words like, “But you’re not really German” and “Well, you sound English to me” and “No, just tell me, where are you from?”.
On University Challenge they had it easy, “I’m Melanie, I’m from Chichester and I study Engineering”, and every Friday evening I’d circle back around to the question of what I would say.
“I’m Fiona”, I know that part.
“I study German and Linguistics”, bit of a mouthful but if I say it slowly, it should be fine.
“I’m from …” and my mind would stutter as Jeremy Paxman bulldozed into the next starter for ten. It’s a good thing I never got on the show because it would have likely thrown me into an existential crisis.
Let me wring out any semblance of self-pity that’s emerging here: I like that feeling now, the feeling of being dirt. I like my messy answers, my inconsistent enunciation, my blended bag of cultural artefacts that jostle me constantly and don’t let me forget that I’m never in place. I don’t think this is any better or nobler or cooler than being from one place and knowing where home is, I just finally understand that it’s simply another way of being in the world. I try to approach it all with a sense of patience and of play. And I hope that when I have kids, they’ll have at least a healthy smear of dirt across their faces too.