In a familiar place, I have more strength. I’m more willing to proceed through the day because I have help from memories, or from landmarks that reactivate memories. Memories, in a place I love, tend to inhabit very well-worn areas of my brain. As I get older I have almost a phobia toward the neural pathways less traveled. I recognize that this is probably not a virtue. But I’m nostalgic by nature. My mind spends a lot of its spare time retracing its steps, and enjoying that process, treading slowly back and forth, grooming mental trails hither and thither, from one happy event to another.
I recently went to a familiar place that I’ll call “home,” in quotation marks because there is one big, necessary piece of home missing from the equation: real estate. When I go “home” in the summer, I stay in a cottage, a place that does not belong to me, for which I only have a tenuous and temporary responsibility, but whose scents and sounds I can call up instantly, something I can’t do with most of the other places I’ve lived. The reason is mostly mathematical: I have set foot in this cottage most summers of my life; I can’t say the same about any of the other places I’ve lived.
My relationship to the setting of this cottage has a pagan quality. I believe the owner of the cottage, my grandmother, who recently died, imbued the place with some aura, cast a good spell on it, just by being there and loving it as devotedly as she did. I felt this effect as soon as I was old enough to, around age eight or nine. When I first walk into the place each summer I invariably get emotional. There is a lot of sighing, walking around touching things and gazing out the window. In recent years I feel more sad, because she can’t be there, yet the place smells, to me, like her, and I find rough drafts of her poems to my grandfather and to friends tucked between books, in her sewing basket, pushed to the back of a drawer that has nothing else in it but an old bathing suit. It’s all hers. I put on her sunglasses but the prescription lenses are too strong for me to see what they look like. They’re heavy, and they slide down my nose. I am there to appreciate the metaphysical gifts of the place, but now that she’s gone, I find it agonizing that I can’t repay her for inviting me into this world. There are no more chances to repay her. I can only feel what she felt, through a bond that was genetic and spiritual. She wasn’t much of a churchgoer in her later years, but her feelings toward this place tells me that she believed in something. Whatever it is, I believe in it too.
In winter, this part of the world still feels like home, though the cottage is uninhabitable. Out in front of the cottage in the dead of winter, tiny icebergs bob up against the breakwater. The view, of a basin that drains into the Bay of Fundy, which in turn drains into the Atlantic, looks more like eastern Russia than eastern Canada. So when I find myself here in winter, most recently for funerals, I stay at an inn in my grandparents’ town. I never otherwise stay at inns. This is a luxury I only afford when a family member has died.
Even in the town, a few miles away from the cottage, I am swaddled in the safety of the past. Without having to spell it out in real time, my brain is constantly saying (very quickly, at the speed of dreams): Here is where you did this. Here is where this happened. Here is a street, an arrangement of houses and trees, a drugstore and a movie theater, a coffee shop and a bookstore, that I know so well, which means that it more or less qualifies as mine. I don’t live here anymore — my parents lived in the town for a brief period when I was in college — but the features of this place are laid out so impeccably in my mind that there is no other word more apt for this place than “home.”
But if you can leave when you need to, or leave when you must, home is not really home. If you “must” leave, surely you’re going back to a place of obligations, responsibilities and hopefully comfort: that is home, not this, I try to tell myself. Home is not an entertainment, a spectacle to be observed now and then, or from a distance. It is not enough to know the surroundings and to attach meaning to them. You must also be there, and do things there, not just have done things there and reminisce about having done them. To “go home again” is not to hold a seance for the past. And it is not to seek attention as some honorary member of the present — to make a spectacle of oneself as the person who has come home again. At that point, home is not home any longer, it is just some fallback plan, some temporary distraction. It’s calling up an ex. It’s looking for an easy way out.
I am cynical about the itinerant life, yet I keep living it. I think a life of adventure, a life of being on the move, is really a perverse (and maybe petulant) search for some perfect consistency and permanence that doesn’t actually exist, a series of affairs with the world that fork off in all different directions, like tree branches, all reaching wildly for something (meaning, love, belonging), all taking a piece of the adventurer with them. There is no question that each of the adventures is probably fun, and enriching. The resulting person is certainly cultured and wise, or at least changed, but they are not necessary fully formed. They have been spliced too many times. If a person can’t be the same person in two different places, maybe that person has not really done the work of being a person. “An unexamined life is not worth living,” and an unexamined place is not worthy of being called a home. Somehow I have gotten away with examining Nova Scotia more closely than any other place without actually living there.
This time, I was in the town for tragic reasons, the death of the woman who made being there at all possible for me. All the more reason to not want to leave. What if, for some reason, I never got to come back? This is always my fear. I see the beauty of the place, and only the beauty of the place, and sometimes I wonder if my eyes exaggerate what I’m seeing, like a person in love.
The day I had to go back to New York, three days after arriving, I got up at 5:45 in the morning and walked a mile to a bus stop on the campus of Acadia, the university in town, to catch a bus to the airport, a two-hour journey. A cat trailed me down the plowed sidewalk, an overweight tabby that I decided was the second coming of my grandmother’s long deceased cat Baby. The snow, a few days old and nearly a foot deep, seemed to glitter under the orange streetlights. (Later my fiancé asked, “But doesn’t all snow glitter?” “No,” I insisted.) It was cold, minus-something Farenheit, and there were no cars on the road. But I didn’t want the walk to end.
I always face travel this purposefully. But it’s not that I thrilled at the idea of going back home. It’s the idea of being in transit, in limbo, which is another vice of the perpetually moving person. Because of the bus schedule, I would have two hours to kill on the bus and another five hours to kill at the airport. Seven hours: seven wasted hours, some people might say. Seven hours a person could be working, or sleeping. But for some reason I didn’t see it that way. I never do. I sleep-walked through Halifax Airport drinking a practically gallon-sized cup of tea from Tim Hortons and appreciated this luxuriously empty and clean waystation, a far cry from any American airport. I thought, naturally, of all the times I had been here, had admired the small mechanical plane circling around a huge metal globe suspended from the terminal ceiling. I thought of the number of times I had arrived at this airport ready and excited to go home (zero), had been depressed by the paintings on the wall in the section of the airport called “Artport.”
At the Starbucks a youngish male employee was sweeping the floor around a customer, a middle-aged woman wearing an oversized pink outfit. As he swept around her he said, “Excuse me while I sweep you off your feet.” I think it made her day, and mine. As I watched this scene, smiling at the easy kindness of this man, I was negotiating with various half-charged gadgets, thinking of a way to go back “home” (as opposed to home — New York City), to stay a few more days, since my job currently requires only something to type on and access to a bank account. I didn’t know if I would ever see my grandfather again. The night before, I had had a dinner to remember with him. At the end of the night I gave him a big kiss on the cheek. I was trying now, bumbling around the airport, to accept that good moments can’t necessarily be replicated. Having just accepted the death of someone I loved and admired so deeply, I was also in a good position to accept other indigestible truths: that life, all of it, every last detail, moves on together, more or less at the same speed. If you reach back for things while moving inexorably forward, you risk losing a limb. Somewhere down the line, life will recalibrate itself to make up for that bit of the past you tried to hold on to. I would not stay. It was an instinctive reaction. I saw my teenage self scrambling to reorganize the universe to her whims, and I had to tell her to get over herself.
Still, when I handed my passport to the customs agent a few hours later, crossing Halifax Airport’s technical threshold from Canada into the United States, she said, “You’re doing this pretty close to the time you’re supposed to board your flight.”
“Yeah,” I said vaguely. The plane was supposed to take off in twenty minutes.
The problem with home is that we fall back into old roles. We become 13 again. I was still being a moody teenager. I would get on the damn flight, but I was not going to be excited about it. Mostly I was afraid that New York City, that glitzy theme park, would distract me from properly grieving, would suck me back into its orbit and set me back on a video game-like course with a singular, all-consuming object: money. When I had flown up, on a small plane that seemed to be occupied mostly by Canadians going back to work or college after the holidays, the pilot gave us a night tour of Manhattan, sweeping over the city at a fairly low altitude, enough to make out the nearly completed Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, the Statue of Liberty, and the Empire State Building still lit up in green and red for the holidays. I thought the city looked more like Shanghai or Las Vegas than New York. There were colorful lights adorning so many of the buildings now. I could see the two pump houses at each end of the Central Park Reservoir, landmarks I know only as mile markers, having run around the reservoir dozens, maybe hundreds, of times, usually at night, a night just like this one.
The city seemed more exciting, more accessible, more inviting to lost and transient souls, than ever. Yet it is prohibitively expensive, more so than any city save for Tokyo, London, and maybe San Francisco. Even if it were not so financially difficult to live there, I know most of my Canadian friends and relatives would still look at New York and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” When I told my grandfather, a painter, the other day that I had now been in New York for a total of six years, he said, “I suspect that would make a person quite haggard.”
“Yes,” I agreed, and he laughed, because he’d just been saying that he thought I was still in college. I told him that running probably curbed the haggardness and helped me appreciate Manhattan, to see other sides of it. To remember that it does have trees and parks, places where cars can’t go. I told him that running in Central Park in winter, it was possible to forget that you shared a small island with nine million other people. But the fine print at the end of that sentence is too much for most people.
My grandfather eschewed big cities, artistic centers, and instead made a name for himself in the town that has such a magnetic pull on me, my grandmother’s hometown. It used to be called Mud Creek, which belied its beauty. He painted in his mother-in-law’s attic, which eventually became his attic. In the summer, he would ride his bike from their summer residence, my grandmother’s cottage, to the house, spend four hours painting in the attic, then bike home in time for lunch. He kept the same routine for most of his working life. The subjects of his paintings are my grandmother, himself, his children, their pets, and their immediate surroundings. They are interpretations of what my grandmother felt for the place. They capture what it’s like to be there. With such a vision, and from such a vantage point, who needs the rest of the world?
He has explained this before by saying, and I’m paraphrasing, but: Every place, by and large, is the same. Of course, it’s the mind that turns restless, tries to break free of the grip of geography. I’ve learned, in a difficult and literally roundabout way, that the mind likes anchors. A job is a good anchor. Family is the best anchor. When I’d return back home from the cottage in Nova Scotia each summer growing up, I would dream about it for months. Usually the dream was the same: saying goodbye to my friends and my grandparents. Something different would happen every time in the dream, some snag to delay my departure. In one dream someone would fall out of a tree and I’d want to go to the hospital with them. In another, someone’s bike would get a flat tire halfway between the cottages and the town. Or we’d be playing a badminton game, and we’d be so determined to finish that I’d miss my flight. Or I’d miss my flight because I’d gone on some fraught quest to get cigarettes for my friends.
During some of those summers, I knew I was supposed to be working, or going to summer camp. Instead I would watch my grandfather discipline himself day after day, and I would emulate him by writing for hours in a notebook every morning. My grandmother would swim in the frigid Atlantic, visit with or talk to her many friends on the phone, preside over hours-long dinners with her husband and me, and fall asleep with the bedroom window wide open, talking to her soulmate just out of earshot of me, walking past outside on the damp grass, off to make a negligible amount of mischief with my friends. Every place, by and large, is the same, I tell myself now, walking down a busy Manhattan street with my headphones clamped to my ears to block out the noise. But I’ll never believe it.