And I’m home again. Another little red house on my Monopoly board game of life (and this one is definitely Park Place). Already it’s like swallowing robust coffee and absorbing sunshine in equal doses. This place settles me, and if I am away too long (even for the duration of a work day), I miss how it feels under my feet.
There have been many footsteps here before me. The 1897 Victorian has walls that not only talk, but they Twitter as well. When my long-anticipated haul arrived from BC in October, the mover told me his mother lived in this very house when she first moved to Canada from Ireland. I said to him, “Oh, I bet you say that to all the girls.” He insisted, and went on to indicate the window she looked out of, when it was a rooming house. In that moment, the world seemed as big as a sesame seed bagel.
Pig manure is still my true indicator of home. The rich sting of pig shit (so rich it would actually make you cough if you breathed too deeply) as I rode my shiny BMX down Arthur Road has stayed in my nose and lungs for over 30 years. And I can still smell the sweetness of tobacco curing in the kilns. In my nostalgic nose there’s the stagnant swamp too—and the startled screams of bullfrogs leaping into the murky pond. After the last ripples of the frog’s tight cannonball trajectory disappeared, the beady golden eyes would appear under a hat of duckweed. The redwing blackbirds would bend the cattails in half with their weight, talking absently about their long fall commute. Although my home has shifted to the urban belly of Toronto, that home in the country resides in me.
Living in the country, the pages of the seasons turn more slowly. My grandmother still marks the return and departure of the redwings and robins on her calendar. She records the daily temperature, the first frost, snowy owl sightings and the other events that seem worldly when you are living amongst them.
The tall stands of sun-bleached corn on Arthur Road have been harvested, the ground tilled under and ripe with fat worms and split arrowheads. There was always a palpable loneliness to the fall fields, all that was green turning to spun gold and the geese taking to the sky, again. The last of the leaves are hanging on like Cirque de Soleil performers, not willing to end the show too early.
I miss the subtle changes in bugs, buds and birds. I used to know the coming and going’s of the birds like my grandmother, but here, in downtown Toronto, the symptoms of fall are witnessed by the changing storefront windows and Starbucks beverages. The pumpkin cream cheese muffins and pumpkin spice lattes are giving way to all things cocoa-ish and peppermint-laden. The Holt Renfrew windows on Bloor are full of darling penguins in tuxes, impeccably dressed swans and mannequins in cocktail dresses with Santa beards.
The smells here are constant, not seasonal. The deep fryers and greasy pork of Ginger, the sugary waft of Wanda’s Waffles on Yonge, roasting oily coffee beans, hot urine staining the walls outside the nightclubs, shawarmas and smoking grills lined with Polish sausages on the street corners.
My friend Michelle who lives in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, has been sending me meteorological updates of -40 degree temperatures (for the last month)and the distinct smells of the North. We live somewhat vicariously through each other via emails and smells, comparing a Nunavut Halloween (kids arrive via snowmobile with costumes over snowsuits) with my colourful account of the scantily clad gays glammed out on Church street. I brag about a garlic-spiked Lebanese kofta wrap with pickled turnip, and Michelle explains the fine-tuning of her gin-soaked muskox with juniper berries while contemplating what to do with her freezer full of Arctic char.
Her home is so white and wide. The brand of cold where your breath streams out of your nostrils and mouth like a fairy tale dragon. Can you smell winter? Yes. It’s gasoline and blue, and the snow makes the sound that cornstarch in a plastic bag feels like between your fingertips. Like cheese curds on your teeth, there is a squeak that is associated with that kind of cold. I imagine myself visiting, eating gin-soaked muskox in a nice sauna suit.
My sister says it’s snowing in Banff too. I don’t let on that I’ve had lunch outside under a tree the last two days with a fine trickle of sweat running down my back. Kiley’s home has become the mountains, and even though I know she remembers the frogs and redwings too, her deep breath and exhale has become the tall fragrant cedars and even taller peaks of Three Sisters. She runs with elk and bear, and knows the trails that snake into the woods and up the mountains like a genius cartographer.
For some reason, Dax and I (except for my sojourns out west and to Africa), have always lived just blocks away from each other in Toronto. We have found familiarity in the streets that hum and cast neon hues on to the pavement like artificial day light. My sister knows mountain ridges as we know the best places for coconut curry, burritos as big as footballs and runny eggs Benny.
In fact, Dax could spell off all the coffee shops and cannolis worth their beans and butter in a 5km radius of anywhere that he might be standing. I could point you to the best place for gorgonzola shortbread cookies, $10 manicures, $7 matinees, French martinis, lamb burgers and pulverizing shiatsu treatments.
And with an my shiatsu therapist’s elbow in my back and lightning bolts of pain radiating in a dozen directions, I think of Merryde and her tug of war between Australia and the idyllic bed and breakfast she owns on the Nile in Uganda. And that thinking elicits a homesickness for Africa and the sticky days and cool equator nights that became my being. I see the faces of all the chimps, I hear the crying pitch of the hyrax in the darkness and the hornbills ushering in morning. The redwings, the hornbills, the chimps, the bullfrogs—my home has become a hybrid.
I wonder where I will ever lay my foundation when I keep tearing my house down. I should enter a house of cards building contest. I’ve left a trail across Canada and all the way to Congo, leaving integral bits of myself in each place so I can continue to tap into all that makes me feel alive.
I click through Adam’s photos of Margarita Island and think, yes, I could live there too. Like a chameleon, I could slide in and blend with the jungle surroundings. I imagine the burning sunsets and serene mornings with my feet in the sand. But a reader tells me my answers are in Guatemala and Peru.
But when I read about the elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, I want to be there too. Living with the elephants, living outside myself and in tune with an animal so displaced from its home. I feel displaced at times, but in a good way. There’s always a learning curve ball being thrown at my head it seems.
I’ve come to accept that it’s human conditioning to be missing the last place you’ve been, and yearning for the next. I know I’m not the only one in this quagmire…but life sometimes seems like a shook-up snow globe. Once the blizzard inside the globe stops I can see what I’m supposed to see, and then it’s time to get shaken again. Let it snow.
There is undeniable envy when I meet people who are confident they will spend the rest of their life in one spot. My grandmother has lived on the same road her entire life. With the exception of a few months at the end of her life, my great-grandmother did the same. My parents moved into the city 10 years ago from Arthur Road and Canada Post is still grappling with it. The Chapin family wasn’t supposed to migrate like the redwings. And unless someone suddenly discovers wild populations of chimpanzees in Canada, I have a difficult time imagining that my things won’t see cardboard boxes again. (Not anytime soon, Mom and Dad).
This house that I call home now is an oasis of calm, hazelnut candle whiff and as feng shui as Google suggests—minus the eight carp in a backyard pond and three Chinese coins tied with red ribbon to the back of the front door handle. I even find myself with a newfound staring problem. I look at the crown moulding and gleaming hardwood floors until my vision blurs; like a 3-D picture–when you are instructed to let your eyes relax in order to see another image. I look in my bedroom, as though I am walking through a museum with a roped off area. I look at this person’s books and photographs and step in.
I am here.
“Home is the nicest word there is.” –Laura Ingalls Wilder