We flew toSudburylast week for the Ontario Library Services North conference. I was there to present a seminar on the importance of storytelling. We hadn’t flown anywhere for some time and for a while I got captivated by the sweep of land beneath us.Canadais enormous. It was exhilarating to think of the size and scope of this country and to remember how it felt to be young and footloose exploring it.
That was back in the early 1970s. I was in the hardscrabble work of surviving as an under-educated, unskilled, untrained person. Life was tough. When it got to be too much and the streets got too cold, I would hit the road, determined to find a place I could be comfortable in and call home. I was on the road a lot.
To me at the time it felt like I was another in a long line of nomads who’d turned to the vagabond life as a romantic gesture. I was Jack Kerouac. I was Thomas Wolfe. I was Walt Whitman singing a song of the open road. But I wasn’t really. I was a displaced, lonely, scared little boy in a young man’s body. For as many hours as I spent getting somewhere, I spent as many wondering where I was. I wasn’t an explorer. I was lost.
I stayed lost for a long time. See, my life had taken me away from my people when I was a toddler. Departure got to be more familiar than stability. I lived in six homes by the time I was thirteen. So home was always a strange concept. When you get used to being shunted around at other people’s whim it leaves you insecure and rootless feeling. I lived a lot of places but never really felt at hone in any of them.
Until I met my wife Debra in 2003 and we eventually found our home in the mountains. We’ve been here for the better part of six years now. We commuted from the city for a time but it always felt more right being here and we made it our permanent home in short order. It’s a small red house with blue shutters that looks out over a lake set down between mountains. It’s rustic and simple but elegant and majestic in the feeling that lives here. I feel real here and grounded.
I feel what the word home means in this place. It means somewhere you can’t wait to get back to. It means a memory in the smallest, most seemingly insignificant things like the old wringer washer that serves as a flower planter now. It means the symphony that its silences hold. It means knowing you carry something in your spirit that neither time nor distance nor life’s end itself can take away from you.
I know now, that if time and life were to take my eyes I could navigate our home’s geography by feel. I could read it with the tips of my fingers and never knock a knee or jar a toe against any of the small juts and peninsulas of our living. Lord knows I’ve practiced it enough.
On moonless nights when sleep has laid claim to my wife, I’ve sometimes crept across the creaking boards to sit at the window overlooking the mercury platter of the lake as coyotes yip on the ridge behind us and the sudden streak of an owl flayed back the skin of night above our yard. I’ve sat there in that wonderful aloneness, closed my eyes and felt all of that against my skin like breath.
Or sometimes the noise of something moving beyond the walls in the darkness has called me from our bed and I’ve stalked it window to window and felt this space tattoo itself to my skin. I can walk the length and breadth of this place in darkness and never feel the lack of light. Each room has a texture it lends to the air. Each room has a space filled with the energy of our life here. I’ve learned to see that with my skin.
Geographies become us when we inhabit them enough. And I enter every room skin first, the smell of our being here borne on currents of air like motes of dust, settling everywhere at once, leading me back to her with every sure and practiced placing of the foot. I never stumble. I never need a light to guide me through this house.
So when I flew across that wide expanse of country with my wife at my side, I realized that home is not geography. It’s not a physical place. It’s a feeling, a truth that comes to nestle between your ribs. A North Star leading nomads to where they belong.