The elusive idea of home

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Moss hangs like dewy beards…

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest United States until the age of 22, the temperate coastal rainforests of British Columbia are deeply familiar to me. Towering fir trees sway in the the breeze, their canopy shading the spongy, humus-rich earth below. Crumbling deadfalls provide anchor for opportunistic hemlocks, moss hangs like dewy beards from their branches, and ferns blanket the forest floor beneath. Crows chatter from the treetops, audible but usually invisible, and frogs chirp from the many sodden ponds and streams. The interminably grey skies release an impressively continuous supply of precipitation, which somehow the earth absorbs. But the smell stirs me most: the combined rich, earthy scents of decomposing organic material, cedar bark, cold rain, fir needles, and fungus. Something about that smell fills me with some sort of concurrent joy and heartbreaking loss that I can’t even identify, and yet gives rise to a lump in my throat even as I smile. It’s confusing.

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The damp woods of Pacific Spirit Regional Park in Vancouver, BC.

One might think that this bittersweet stirring is the distant draw of home—a place to which I have an abiding and meaningful connection. And yet, I cannot help but feel the exact opposite. I do not feel at home here, just as I never felt at home during our three years living in Colorado. Instead I feel a vague sense of unease; I am strangely unsettled, antsy, disconnected, yearning somehow.

But let me back up for a minute. I suppose I should mention that we moved to Canada. Yep. Canada. Many people joke after discouraging elections that they are going to move to Canada, but we really did that. Without getting too political here, we simply decided the United States was a difficult place for us to be in this cultural moment; divisions run too deep, there is too much anger, too much violence, too much shouting and not enough listening. There are many people suffering and many others who are uncaring. People have become (were always?) hard, tense, suspicious of one another and unnecessarily confrontational. I guess America just isn’t feeling very much like home these days. Canada is far from perfect, but we at least have a few years of psychological breathing room to reassess our life choices. Canadian society where we live is, for the most part, gentle, compassionate, and peaceful. I am finishing my graduate studies at the University of British Columbia (MFA), and my partner is continuing his job by telecommuting. Just like that: next chapter.

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Wreck Beach in Vancouver, BC, as seen through my pinhole 4×5 analog film camera.

All this uprooting, relocating, and traveling has left me with a nagging sense of groundlessness. It’s hard for me to even elucidate what constitutes home anymore. Is it where I was born? Is it where I live now? Is it wherever my little family is at any given moment? Or is it, as I am inclined to believe, more of an ineffable feeling, rather than a strict definition?

There are certain places, like Central Oregon and New Mexico, that just feel right. Although we only lived in the former for a couple years, and the latter for almost seven, something about those locales feels like home. Maybe it’s the incessant sunshine, the lazy hot days of a desert summer. Maybe it’s the small-town atmospheres, the outdoor recreation, or the relaxed ethos of mañana, mañana. Or perhaps again it is smell: sweet vanilla ponderosa bark, sagebrush in the crisp morning air, heat rising from desert sand, or the intoxicating aroma of roasting green chiles. (Looking back to my last post, admittedly too long ago, this connection between home and olfactory phenomena is a recurring association for me. In fact, I’ve posted about the feeling of groundlessness previously, too.) I visit these places in my dreams and, as often as I can, in my waking life as well. I certainly could use some sun after seven months of coastal rain and cloud.

So we are left conflicted. We do not feel at home where we live, and yet the places that do feel like home are currently mired in a social-political moment that renders them difficult for us to inhabit peacefully. We are in self-imposed exile, and it feels that way. My heart draws me to the lands south of here, but my brain tells me it is not time to be there. For now, I will have to settle for a road trip in the RV (which we have almost finished renovating – check out the updates here), traversing Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico for the next two months. I’ll take a *slight* detour to Scotland and England in early May to attend a film festival in which my work is screening, returning to New Mexico in mid-May to continue my journey. Stay tuned – I depart tomorrow!

 

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