Pieces of Home – An Essay by Alex MacLean

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The popular quote says “home is where the heart is” while a dictionary will tell you that a home must be associated with a dwelling, a permanent residence. In a world of temporality and fragmentation however, maybe this definition needs to be redefined. We can’t always be “at home” where we live. In my mind, “home” denotes a feeling of comfort and familiarity. A history and ease with your surroundings, and above all, a relationship with them. The problem with associating home with a feeling in a world where permanent homes are often left behind in both short term travel and long term moves, however, is that these fragments of home often get scattered. Then we are left with the feeling of constantly missing something or someone. We speak about travel like it’s the most soul enriching experience of a lifetime and we move from institution to institution many times, without looking back. What isn’t examined, however, is all of the things we often leave behind.

Since graduating from college, I’ve lived in New York, Washington DC, Montreal, and Mexico – yet I still call Halifax, Nova Scotia, my “real” home. At each place I’ve gone to the airport with a sinking feeling in my stomach, leaving boyfriends, a best friend, my mom. Sometimes I’ve been returning to a former home with the excitement of seeing those I’ve missed, but at other times I know that I’ll never see those I’ve left behind again. This sinking feeling is due to knowing that a certain experience or person will only be associated with a specific time or place, like a newly finished novel or the remembrance of something different you had in a photograph.

I spent the last four months in Mexico, and in many ways, had never felt less at home. The foreign culture and language made me feel like an alien and suddenly I didn’t know how to act, speak, or at times, it seemed, even to think. As an employee, and not a vacationer or traveler, integration seemed to be the main goal, but what I craved more than anything was the feeling of comfort associated with home. One day when I was walking down the street, I started talking to someone who worked nearby on the yachts. Twenty minutes later we were eating Tortas, and, within the hour it seemed that we were friends.

His tiny apartment with a cement floor, a cluttered shelf with a stuffed Gorilla, empty tequila bottle, family picture, and a black cat mostly called “Macho” felt more like a home to me than my air conditioned and permanently clean hotel room and the overly bright and tidy parking lot of the compound where I was staying. Suddenly the feelings of “home” started to seep into me again. The feelings of familiarity and comfort started to come back as I met neighbors and friends of my new friend, spent hours lying on the couch with the cat, picked up tiles left by the roadside to furnish the floor, and spent an entire day at the beach with his long time friends who welcomed me like a member of their family.

And yet, between the mainly Spanish conversations which were only partially translated and the inside jokes, I was clearly still an outsider and would never truly be “at home”.” There was the tiny detail of my short contract, the knowledge that I was only here to stay for a short period of time and would soon be making my way back to my real home. But I could not help and begin to relish the familiarity of the rooster who would wake us up in the mornings, the sticky walk from the apartment to work, the strange drinks made from tequila, ginger beer and pop, and the cat who came back every morning.

And suddenly, everything was over. My contract had ended and my time in Mexico was limited. Friends from home told me how great it was that I was coming back and welcomed me into their homes with open arms. I thought about how hard my time in Mexico had been with the heat, the working hours, language barriers and constant pressure of performing. I knew Canada was a place where I could live for more than just a couple of months, and that I needed familiarity again, but it was gut wrenchingly hard to leave.

On one of my last nights in Mexico I went to a Banda concert, “Mexican country music” he’d called it. I was wildly out of place and didn’t understand any of the lyrics to any of the songs. We passed two drinks back and forth, laughing about how much we liked one and not the other, and I started to wonder how I could feel so at ease while also being an outsider, or how I could miss somewhere so much where I didn’t even belong, or how I would miss someone so entirely different from me who I could barely have a conversation with but who’d also opened up an entirely different world, who’d welcomed me into their home when I’d been floating around without an anchor. My whole concept of home and comfort seemed turned upside down.

It was raining in Halifax when I landed. I was accustomed to that and though familiar, a lot of things about Halifax had changed. The library, once a dinky and dusty place in an old building had been rebuilt into a giant and modern building with a roof top café, orchestra room and huge windows and couches with a four story staircase The mall was suddenly glossier and modernized with a slew of new restaurants in the basement. My mom had installed and figured out to use Netflix on her new flat screen TV. Amongst all of these things, however, I also sought comfort in my dad’s unchanged old office building, the candy store where we’d gorged ourselves as children, the church with the black window, the bars I’d felt so privileged to gain entry into as a nineteen year old. I was happy to be home but also filled with that sinking feeling. I really missed things and people in a place that wasn’t home and I would never get them back again. And soon I’d be leaving this place too, to go to another place with different friends and ideas and expectations.

“As we mature, we stop having the same adventures, or experiences” someone had told me when I’d come back. I started to think about myself and my experiences, the jigsaw puzzle of my life that hadn’t really added up to anything substantial. My ex boyfriend was working for a law firm in New York, my best friend from college was on the verge of getting her PhD, some of my class mates had been in the same dance companies for years. As usual, I felt fragmented, divided between countries and places and even identities, wondering if there, indeed, was a time when I’d “mature”. I knew however, that there was a weight to some of the lightness I’d accrued, the desire to not get too attached, or to leave at a moment’s notice or to try and recreate home wherever I went. It had originally started as a way to experience new and novel things, or as some sort of path of discovery, but as I sat at my kitchen table watching the rain, I realized that some of the discovery had left me yearning for things I’d once had.

If I could gather up all the pieces of things I’d consider home, I’d start with my friend’s kitchen in Montreal as we listened to Jan Arden and Rita McNeil, the warm glow of the painted walls and comfort of his couch. The feeling of driving through Halifax with my mom with a cup of tea in our hands and the radio set to a station with familiar radio hosts. Lilou, the kid I used to babysit toddling towards me at daycare, crawling over me as soon as I sat down. Most recently, however, I’d summon back hiding under the sheets as eight different alarms went off, as the rooster crowed religiously, the expectation of a stilted conversation but a warm kiss on the cheek and walk to the bus stop with the final words always uttered before I left, “I’ll see you soon.”

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