From my roots: our holy place

Having started the 4th week away, in the remote countryside of South Bohemia, I begun thinking about the deeper meanings of my 4 generations of women project, in relation to a sense of belonging, being part of a continuous (female) line, the meaning of home and what it means to be displaced, even voluntarily, from the place of one’s origin.

I thought about what is lost and what is gained when one leaves a country of one’s origin, when one’s sense of grounding is exchanged for freedom to re-invent oneself, free of expectations…yet to what extent can one really escape one’s origins? And what does it mean to lose one’s grounding, or, in different words: What is the price of this freedom?

All these thoughts reminded me of a conversation I once had, with the writer John Berger, when visiting him in his home in the French Alps.

I mentioned how struck I was by his reflections, in the book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, on the meaning of home, as the centre of the universe (and what happens when one becomes exiled, displaced from the place of one’s origin). This is the particular passage I am referring to:

“Home was the centre of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one. The vertical line was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead of the underworld. This nearness promised access to both. And at the same time, one was at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys.”

John B told me this idea came from Mircea Eliade’s book The Scared and the Profane, which I have now been revisiting, finding number of resonances with my 4 generations of women project.

The passage that spoke to me in terms of the importance of place in particular:

“There are for example, privileged places, qualitatively different from all others – a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the foreign city he visited in his youth. Even for the most frankly non-religious man, all these places retain  an exceptional; a unique quality; they are the “holy places” of his private universe, as if it were in such spots he received a revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.”

I realised it is no chance that it is here, in this particular part of South Bohemia, that the idea of filming 4 generations inspired me and is being sustained, annually.

It is slowly becoming evident to me that the 4 generations project cannot be divorced from the place where it was conceived. And while not the very location of our ancestral home (our immediate female line is from Prague), it is a place we have adopted, made “holy” in the private narrative of our family history and being here has become integral to our story.

It is equally important these rituals happen in the summer, when we can be in close, visceral contact with the landscape, nature, with minimum clothes, able to feel the texture of the vegetation, the breeze and the scent of flowers, as we walk barefoot, feeling immersed in the here and now.

But perhaps there is even more to this, beyond a connection with a place, the rootedness. It is also about time.

According to Eliade, a “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites. This attitude in regard to time suffices to distinguish religious from nonreligious man; the former refuses to live solely in what, in modem terms, is called the historical present; he attempts to regain a sacred time that, from one point of view, can be homologised to eternity.”

Without being fully conscious of these hidden meanings, I have, in my annual and to a great extent ‘artificially constructed rituals’ nonetheless touched on some of the elements of the sacred time. In my insistence on these rituals being re-enacted year after year, I created a sense of a circular time (or even a spiral time), where one returns, in the same configuration, to the same place and season. This return is both an acknowledgement of the circular rhythms we are all governed by, as well as the celebration of the transformations that occur within the given time period: most notably ageing and gaining of experience.

In the context of the 4 generations of women, this circular rhythm further re-enforces the feeling of interconnectedness between us, bringing with it the profound sense of being grounded in a life that extends beyond the individual, within a place that has become sacred.

Text and images by Tereza Stehlikova, South Bohemia, July 2020

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