Chambers of the Heart

“Home is where the heart is” – the words roll off the tongue easily enough. I’d heard them spoken many times over the years, but as a long-term homeless man I never really knew what to make of them. For most of my life, I’d considered the notion that ahome might resemble a heart as pure nonsense, espoused by people who’dnever had to think too hard about it, people who hadn’t lived a life like mine.

Did the cliché mean home is a familiar place, where we’re meant to feel secure and loved? Or was it more a state of mind, where the walls and roof are constructed out of one’s sense of happiness and belonging? Whatever the case, no interpretation made any sense to me, and I could speak from experience: I had dragged my own heart 20,000 kilometres every which way, only to find myself forever homeless.

The physical home of my childhood was a wretched, terrifying place where I was beaten almost daily by my angry, alcoholic father. Black eyes, cuts, welts and lurid bruises were the wages of my efforts to protect my younger sisters from the violent cyclones that torethrough our house. Our mother laid into us too, but she added emotional and psychological battery to the mix. That home, in the town of Tamworth, New South Wales, was most definitely not where my heart was.

Nor was the Catholic orphanage where I was placed, along with my sisters and against my will, at the age of 10. St Patricks in Armidale housed a population of wicked nuns whose mission was to “break the spirit of a child so the spirit of the Lord may enter”. But those women destroyed more than just the will of the children thrust into their care. The Sisters of Mercy also broke my skin and my teeth, not to mention the hearts and minds of countless vulnerable kids like me and my sisters.

I had other “homes” after that – boys’ homes, foster homes and reform schools where I learned to harden myself and address any threats with my own growing violent streak. Unsurprisingly, by my 20s, I was living in the gutters of Sydney, totally alone, with no home to go to, and not much of what I’d call a heart either.

After a few years drifting up and down Australia’s eastern seaboard I replaced the word “home” with another, more portable term that accurately described the places where I’d stop for the night: these locations were known simply as “camp”, and they ranged from the occasional couch or the relative comfort of some unsuspecting Australian’s veranda, to being wedged right down in the filthy cracks of society – the same cracks countless people like me had fallen through before.

Over the years, out of pure necessity, I made camp in all kinds of places. I have slept inside industrial garbage bins, on the urine-spattered tiles of putrid public toilets, on train platforms, in boiler rooms, on park benches, in cars, under bushes, in public gardens, in a cardboard box, in a plastic bag, in roadside ditches, in the dirt beneath country churches, and even in the middle of an outback road where I clung to the still-warm bitumen to stave off hypothermia. Not one of these places was where I kept my heart.

I was rarely comfortable, and I never felt safe. To be homeless is to be completely vulnerable – a bashing victim in waiting. Under cover of darknesspolice and security guards could be quick with a baton or a boot to the ribs, to ensure sleeping souls like me didn’t blight society’s aesthetic with our modest, huddled shapes. And then there were the sickos who took pleasure in attacking the homeless. I copped it plenty of times,once ending up dazed and bloodied in a hospital emergency room.

Almost as bad as getting bashed was being “blanked” by everyday Australians who’d look straight through me as if I was made of glass. In their eyes, either I was so far gone from society that I’d ceased to exist, or the sadness of my situation was too much to confront, so it was easier to pretend I wasn’t really there at all.

After fifteen or so years, I was tired of it all. It was clear that society had no stomach for the likes of me, and I could no longer cop society either. Between 1990 and 1999 I shut myself off from the world by retreating into a rainforest in northern New South Wales. I simply wandered into the forest one day and decided to stay. It was a beautiful place and there were no people around to make me feel like shit; already an expert at that myself, I figured I didn’t need any help.

The stillness and quiet of the forest was pure bliss…for a while, at least.  During my years as a hermit in the bush I allowed myself to think the forest might be my true home. In terms of how long I managed to stay in one spot, it certainly eclipsed the other places I’d lived. SometimesI’d ponder whether the forest was the only place on Earth where I could truly say my heart was located – though I could never quite convince myself of that.

My grasp on the “heart” part of the old saying was tenuous. What did people mean when they referred to the human heart? Was it a byword for love? If so, that concept was alien to me. As far as I knew, no-one had ever loved me. And I hated and mistrusted just about everyone and everything in the world.

I was totally alone in the forest, living, foraging and sleeping in the undergrowth with nothing but insects and native fauna for company. But I knew that if I stayed there long enough, I would die and rot away to old bones on the forest floor. Meanwhile I was slowly poisoning myself with the drugs and alcohol thatI concoctedmyself, or procured during rare trips to town. Eventually I was faced with a weighty choice: forest or society? Life or death? To my great surprise, I chose life.

I walked out of the woods, and day by day, piece by piece, slowly reassembled my shattered life. I stopped drinking and drugging, and started to give myself the education I’d been denied as a child. In electing to give society another chance, I soon realised I needed to give my fellow human beings another chance, too. That would require me to be open to forming relationships, instead of pushing people away. Rather than erecting walls, I’d have to make myself vulnerable. I needed to grant people entry, instead of locking them out. I’d have to welcome them into my heart. That was a terrifying prospect, but I was committed to doing it. After all, I had chosen to live.

The long, gradual pursuit of my education provided the perfect framework for my burgeoning connection with aworld I’d always thought hated me. Along every step on the path that eventually led to my gaining a PhD, I was blown away to meet many beautiful, supportive and loving people who were willing to take my hand and help me emerge from the darkness of my past. One by one I allowed these people into my heart, where they all took up residence and made themselves right at home.

Inside the rooms and corridors of the rambling old shack that I call my heart: that’s where I’ve truly found my home. It turns out home isn’t some fleeting camp, nor is it made of wood or bricks,nor the ferns and palms of a rainforest.

My home is made out of people. They are the familiar walls that wrap around me and make me feel safe. They are the windows through which I can observe the world from new perspectives. They are the doorways that beckon me to step into new adventures and better relationships. They are the roof that keeps me in check.

I looked up that old saying. It turns out a Roman philosopher named Gaius Plinius Secundus is credited with coining the phrase “Home is where the heart is.” His musing may have endured fortwo thousand years, but with all due respect to Gaius, I still disagree.

For me, the words work better the other way around: my heart is where my home is.  

One thought on “Chambers of the Heart

  1. Yes! The Home is where the Heart feels at ease. Safe and free to Be and Communicate. The contemplation and realisation of Where and Who gives you that sense, is the adventure of Life.
    Have read and read-read your book. I salute your Will Power and stoic Intent to do the right thing no matter what. Genuine Nobility in your action to get to the well established place of true belonging.
    Would be a great Australian Story on film! I’d like to see that!


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