I was just into my second glass of wine (a rather nice white Rioja, if you’re interested in that sort of thing), when the barman asked me a question: ‘Where’s home for you?’ ‘Wiltshire,’ is the obvious reply. After all, that’s where I live and have lived for 45 of the 49 years I’ve been alive. But this is no ordinary bar and no ordinary question.
I’m back at El Palmeral, a retreat in southern Spain, near Elche.
It’s run, as it has been since it first opened, by Mike and Julie. It’s likely they might read this, but I’d say it whether they did or not: they have big hearts. Those hearts are filled with love and compassion, the ability to listen to the problems large and small that people bring with them to this retreat (sometimes not even aware they have them), and a welcome for all those who come through the gate to this oasis of peace.
Although, having just written those very words, a donkey has started braying his/her head off, just over the lemon groves behind me. Shut up, donkey: how very dare you bring your noise into this place of silence?
Except, of course, we all bring our noise with us. Each person coming on retreat is here for a reason and some people’s noise is louder than others.
My secondary reason for being here is to tap into that peace and calm that closes around me the second the gate closes behind me.
But my main reason for being here is my enduring and ongoing friendship with Julie that – incredibly – only began three years ago when we were both exhibitors at an event, near Newark. She and I (and her husband Mike) have become firm friends and I look forward to catching up with them, whenever I can.
It’s Mike who is the barman. He mixes flippancy and profound remarks, with the same care and skill as he applies to the drinks that he makes.
I’m giggling even now at some of his lines: my favourite so far, has been the conversation we had about what the AGM for the Anarchists group (a real event, by the way) might be like. But he’ll also throw in a question that will make you stop and – perhaps – even shake you out of the complacency of what you thought you knew.
‘Where’s home for you, Heth?’ came the question. ‘Wiltshire,’ came the answer. And yes, it’s true that I love that county with all my heart. I love the Salisbury Plain, the stark whiteness (now it’s been painted) of the Westbury White Horse against the chalk hills overlooking Westbury, the glorious valleys and gently undulating banks of green land that I’m proud to call my home. I feel safe there.
However, the question of what home is and where it might be, is more complex than that. You can live in a place and not feel at home there. Similarly, you can be right at home in a place that you don’t actually live in all the time. The phrase ‘Home is where the heart is’ is something often bandied about, but I’m not even sure it’s that simple.
I often talk about how it’s important to be content with where and who we are right this moment. That’s not about geography and never has been. And yet, a sense of place, the knowledge that we’re where we are meant to be and being at peace with that, is probably linked to knowing where our home is.
The writer Adrian Plass – who’s also a regular visitor here to El Palmeral – says this in his book, ‘Seriously Funny’ (co-written with Jeff Lucas): ‘When you feel safe at home, you can go to any other place on earth and never forget where you really belong, nor be separated from the love that will protect the most important part of you wherever you are and whatever happens to you.’
That sense of safety is not likely to be linked to a building, although there is a sense of relief and happiness when you put the key in the door and go in. It’s more about a safe place to be. People can live in amazing apartments, villas and showpiece homes and not be happy. They can also live in remote cottages, two up, two down terraces and blocks of flats and be content.
Home might be where the heart is, but I suspect it relies more in that heart being content. For me, that’s about faith. It honestly and really is. I can’t say I never have doubts, or get angry with God or wonder what it’s all for, but underneath it all is a quiet and genuine confidence that – as the singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph once said: ‘Whoever it was that brought me here, is going to have to take me home.’