For the past month I have been away from home. First in Vancouver, teaching a creative nonfiction summer course at the University of British Columbia, then to Moose Jaw, for the Saskatchewan Festival of Words, and from there to the Sage Hill Experience, a two-week writing retreat-slash-workshop held in a Franciscan monastery near Lumsden, Saskatchewan. A month of sleeping in unfamiliar beds – a student dormitory, a hotel, and a friar’s cell, albeit one with a closet and en suite bath. Of eating starchy cafeteria food, deep-fried fast food, squiggly foreign food, alone or with friends, or with strangers who, over time, became friends. A month of talking, of being available, of being excited, of squeezing a bit of writing time between long bouts of teaching, of seeing cities through the windows of taxis, of reading Ian Rankin and doing Sudokus in airports.
We do our best to make a semblance of home when we travel. In Vancouver, where I woke up every day at 4 a.m., I played my favourite jazz CDs while reading two books I’d started before I left. Merilyn joined me for the Moose Jaw Festival, and we were given a suite at the Temple Gardens hotel; we spread our working selves out luxuriously over two desks, each in a different room, as we do at home. We had evening drinks with fellow writers Miriam Toews, Steve Galloway, Mark Medley, Chris Humphries, Claire Cameron, and shopped for fresh clothes and toiletries on Moose Jaw’s main street. And at Sage Hill, we chatted with fellow faculty members Larry Hill, Denise Chong, Ken Babstock, and Helen Humphries, went birding with Trevor Herriot, walked into Lumsden with our workshop group, bought wine in the local pharmacy, made coffee in our room (still waking up at 5 a.m.), and worked on our respective works-in-progress until breakfast.
I was away from home in a geological sense, but didn’t feel like an exile. I know there is a certain lack of gravitas in travel, a cut-offedness that happens when your schedule is handed to you by someone else. You give yourself up, suspend your investment in the bigger picture. At the Regina airport, where our flight to Ottawa, from where we would then have to drive for an hour and a half to our home near Athens, was delayed for seven hours because of a mechanical failure in the aircraft, I sat like a Sphinx staring out over the tarmac, or at the large-screen television (Chicago Whitesox 7, Detroit 4), resisting the lure of the free-credit-card Sirens, unable to readjust my internal timetable, speculating with fellow stranded passengers over Tim Hortons coffees about the cost of renting a car and driving to Saskatoon, which none of us, in the end, did.
Even when we got to Athens, we were still somewhat uprooted. We have bought a house in Kingston, are in the process of moving into it, and after two hours’ sleep in our Athens house we got up, loaded our car with chairs and boxes, and drove into Kingston to let a team of workers into our new house so they could replace the kitchen windows. We slept that night on an air mattress in our otherwise uncluttered master bedroom, dressed in the morning from our still-packed suitcases, then drove back to Athens to feed the cats and put more boxes in the car.
So, in a way, we are homeless even at home. We have already mentally said goodbye to our house in Athens, although we haven’t sold it yet (MLS # 14604233, check it out). But none of our “things,” as D.H. Lawrence called those personal household items that everyone loves and no one needs, are in our new house in Kingston. We are between homes, like refugees from our own lives. Did we bring laundry soap? The book I was reading? When will we have Wifi? What does this switch do?
In one of the essays in my book Bringing Back the Dodo, I examined the concept of “home” as it pertained to my mother, who lived all her life, after the age of 19, in Ontario, and yet always referred to Newfoundland as “home.” She never felt at home when she was here. I am more like my father, who left Windsor, Ontario, when he was 18 and never went back, never referred to Windsor as home. He joined the Air Force, so that whatever he was able to think of as “home” changed every four years. Like my mother, he never felt at home, but for different reasons.
These days, when a land-line seems like an unnecessary attachment to a particular place, the concept of home is undergoing a drastic change. An unsettling number of people now claim to feel more at home on Facebook than they do at their own dinner tables. They’d rather text than talk. On the radio this morning, I heard that high-school reunions are disappearing because so many people are keeping in touch through social media they figure they “don’t need the physical contact.” Social media are producing a generation of sociopaths.
Most of the year, I teach my UBC courses on-line. But these two weeks of actual residency at the UBC campus are more rewarding than the twenty-six weeks of virtual workshops, no matter how convenient it is to be able to check the on-line forums from a Starbucks or hotel room. And I think I give more to my students when I’m sitting around a seminar table with them than when my face is an avatar on their laptop screens. I like it when a student buttonholes me in the hall and asks if we can go somewhere to discuss the personal essay form over a coffee.
For me, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, home is other people. I feel most at home when I am with Merilyn, when our children and grandchildren visit, when friends drop by for drinks. Of course, all that requires a home, and a home contains things. But the place isn’t the home, the people in it are.
And as soon as we get the land-line installed, I’m going to call them.