May, 2011: It’s dark and I’m wiped. It’s 10:30 at night and I’m almost home. It’s been six hours since my friend and I left Bolton and the only hour that has felt long is this last one, the one that I’ve been alone.
Between Kanata and Ottawa, there is still a swath of green farmland and as I crest the hill of the silent and still darkness of the greenbelt, I behold the landscape of city lights before me, a quilt of earthly stars. I am always struck with a magical awe by this scene, like Dorothy and her friends when they first glimpse the luminescent Emerald City from beyond the poppy field. When I see this sight, I always whisper, “I’m home.”
But this night is different. I’m returning from a weekend of classes in Bolton, preparing us for our pilgrimage to Italy this summer. The theme of our Religious Education Part 3 course is “Leaving Home”. But to leave home, one must know where home is. Tonight, as I take in the sparkly scene, I whisper the question, “Where is home?”
Ottawa. The city I’ve always called ‘home’. I wasn’t born here and I’ve left many times only to return again and slip into the familial comfort and laidback ease of this old lumber town.
There are many reasons Ottawa has become my adopted home. I have extended family here and it’s the closest big city to where I was born. I went to both universities here and I’ve worked my entire professional career here. But Ottawa also contains a lifestyle that fits me. It’s quiet and green and it only takes a few minutes’ drive from anywhere to get away from it all. As an outsider, I find Ottawans can be cold and exclusive but I think that’s because everyone here is very focused on family and home. It seems that people from Ottawa never leave. It’s a good place to have a family. It’s a safe place (for a big city) to grow up. The players on the NHL team are neighbours more than celebrity hockey players. Anyone can have a picnic on Parliament Hill. And even though this capitol city now has nearly a million people within its borders, it still feels like a small town. It’s a very comfortable place to live.
But I was born and raised in Perth, a small Scottish town an hour west of Ottawa, home to 6000 residents, two centuries of Canadian history and the Mammoth Cheese weighing in at a whopping 2200 lbs. that won at the World Fair in 1893. I’m not kidding. A genuine 118-year-old piece of it is sealed in a glass case on the 2nd floor of the town’s museum for all to see. But I digress…
When I was 19, I left Perth for the first time. Unlike most of my peers who decided to go to a nearby city for university or college, I decided to take a year off and travel to Russia. The year was 1994, three years after communism fell. In retrospect, I applaud my parents for actually letting me follow through with that harebrained idea. I spent six months in St. Petersburg trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I missed home terribly. Here I was, 19 years old, no life experience, in a country which only three years before had empty supermarkets; which still had dodgy phones, mail system and airport officials; which had the occasional Chechen terrorist attack; and a population that collectively looked like they were suffering from PTSD. I was so lost.
When acclimatizing to a new environment, a soul goes through stages of grief to deal with the loss of the previous life. And I went through those until I found myself, near the end of my 6-month stay, at the final stage – acceptance.
When I returned to Canada, I had the unexpected feeling that I had not returned home but had come to a place that had all the markings of home but had been transformed into a world filled with lookalike pod people. I had grown so much so fast that at that time, I found I couldn’t relate to anyone I had grown up with, I had no patience for people in the grocery store grumbling over the fact that a sale item was not on the shelf and I was frustrated by the general public’s lack of global awareness. I felt betrayed by my home. I felt that I had been allowed to go on ahead but then they had never bothered to catch up. There is nothing lonelier than being among people and having no one to talk to. I felt homeless.
Throughout my years of university and travelling, I have experienced many similar emotional swings upon leaving and arriving and I soon discovered that it wasn’t dependent on destination. It didn’t matter where I arrived, ‘home’ was never what met me.
For several years, after university, I tried to create my own physical home. I tried to create one in my classroom. But then I realized that spending 13 or 14 hours a day at your place of work is not the best way to foster balance in one’s life.
I met my life partner in 2008 and for a brief while wondered if we could have a physical home together. But we both decided together, that he being in the Forces and I being a Wanderer, were not a traditional couple. And we decided we would never buy a house because that would tie us down to one place, which is something that neither of us wants. While many people define ‘home’ as being their house, a structure does not – cannot – hold the concept of ‘home’ for us.
After years of searching, I finally feel like I’ve found ‘home’. But it’s within myself. So I can always take it with me – like the mighty humble snail. ‘Home’ to me is a spirit. ‘Home’ is a feeling. It is a place I can truly be myself. It’s a time when all the focus of care and attention is on me at the time my soul needs it. And when I can give all the care and attention to another when I am strong. When I am ‘home’, I am loved for everything I am. I may have to apologize for using careless words or for not mowing the lawn on the one day of sunny weather when I said I would. But I never have to apologize for having obsessive-compulsive tendencies or for singing Broadway numbers while sweeping, or for not wanting to vote (because all the candidates are idiots). Because that’s who I am. And at ‘home’, I’m loved and wanted for that simple reason. In that sense, ‘home’ is with each other, wherever in the world we may be.