- This 5,000 Year Old House
What explains a calling to visit a place you've never been? Bruce Chatwin wrote about his pull towards Timbuktu when he first heard of it at age eleven: "Timbuctoo, Tembuto, Tombouctou, Tumbyktu, Tumbuktu or Tembuch? It doesn't matter how you spell it. The word is a slogan, a ritual formula, once heard never forgotten." A spell cast by a place-name's ring of sounds is like an auditory form of love-at-first-sight.
So it was for Orkney and me. I was around the age of Chatwin and his Timbuktu when a relative claimed our surname had roots in Scotland's northeastern coastal highlands, a region called Caithness, and possibly in the islands within view of its northern shore, the Orkneys—the latter a claim for which no evidence has presented itself since.
But from this rumor I first got to say "Orkney," that mouthful of extreme Northern European weirdness. Whatever on earth an "ork" was, it seemed to me a word where a rare substance had been bared, like a rock broken to reveal asteroid crystals. And it possessed the honk of physical comedy, even without the vision of Robin Williams in rainbow suspenders. As for the place itself, I pictured skies and waters rinsed with platinum shine, a glistening pod of islands rising just above sea level. When I sought out the Orkneys on a map, I loved how the archipelago pixelated into the North Sea like thought bubbles. [End Page 91]
My life by that point had been shaped by near-constant moving and globe-trotting, during which my parents instilled in me a single intransigent faith: that travel is a creative act in this world that belongs to everyone. Places can interact with us—if we hone the physicality and imagination to metabolize them—to produce intimate cultural mosaics, a larger view of humanity, and some pretty excellent stories. To be called "a good traveler" was the greatest compliment in my family. Yet of all the places in a world I'd seen so much of, so young, only the Orkneys attracted me like a site of pilgrimage, a personal talisman of place.
Then I became a teenager and forgot all about them. Two decades passed in which I did not give the Orkneys another thought.
Then one day I was gazing at a map and remembered all of it: the lure of stony islands lashed by North Sea and Atlantic tides; the uncanny orky linguistics; the bone-deep call of my someday quest. And because of the unusual faith in which I was raised, I trusted my reignited and suddenly hell-bent need to go to them. I rustled up a couple of travel writing assignments to cover expenses, booked a flight to Edinburgh from my home near San Francisco, a car to get me to the Orkneys. A few months later, my husband and I were on a plane to Scotland.
All of which sounds so rash, writing this now—even fairly nutty. But so much grew out of that trip. And for many years leading up to it, too little had, as I'd allowed my father's wrenching death by alcoholism to spread like fallow ground near the center of my life. That I'd done so out of love, mourning, and an entombing degree of family loyalty are only the usual reasons why such a thing happens.
Six miles or so above the earth, I wrote in my journal: "Where I am matters less to me than whether I am able to leave it easily." This stark admission had always been my natural view. A few lines later some conflicting thoughts tumbled out: "Child? Child! Child." I was thirty-six years old and thinking of starting a family, a reasonable-enough-sounding phrase that does no justice to the whole-body, core-burrowing throttle it had me in: I was gripped by the possibility of becoming mother, of creating a real home for the first time in my life, of continuing a family line that had caused me so much pain. The question of motherhood felt...