July 1, 1995.
I wondered if there would be fireworks on the ferry.
We were going to Canada and would be travelling by boat to North Sydney, Nova Scotia--an overnight crossing from darkness to daylight.
It wasn't the first time my wife and I had left our home in St. John's to seek a place in the world. In 1989, we had sold off everything we owned--which, by any standard, wasn't much--and flew to Ontario to live in Oakville. In terms of finding employment and prospects, Oakville wasn't a kind place, and yet I had loved every moment of being there. But that's a story for another day.
On Canada Day in '95 we boarded the ferry in Argentia and a couple of hours later, we stood in stunned silence as the rocky, barren shores of our homeland receded into the fog. Fireworks were no longer a part of my thoughts.
I wondered how long it would take to get there. I wondered if we would like it, if Nova Scotia was a place we could ever call home. Looking back, I never expected it would feel like home. After all, I've lived in St. John's for most of my adult life and never really felt it was home. I've always--give or take a few years--lived in Newfoundland and, again, that feeling of "home" has never been mine, except fleetingly.
N. and I talked about it over breakfast this morning--what exactly is "home," and why has it been so elusive? I said that even now I get the occasional moment--whether lying on the couch next to her and reading, or watching a movie, sometimes late at night when we're settling into bed, and once in a while when we're walking the trails, or I'm out for a jog, or even when I meet someone I know and have a great conversation in a parking lot or a shop--I feel something like homefulness. It's a sense of connection to your surroundings, feeling like the place around you is a reflection of who and what you are, what you've become. The place might even hold some history for you, but I don't think that's essential.
I know of Newfoundlanders who travel the world and settle in places like Ireland, England and even Australia and feel that immediate connection with a place and they stay there for the rest of their lives, presumably content most of the time, rarely wishing they could be any place else.
But that hasn't been my story. On Canada Day, I always find myself--as a sort of subconscious, reflexive activity--thinking about my connection to this country, whether I feel part of it, whether I don't. It's a dangerous thing to say you don't feel connected to your country, but there it is: I don't. But it's not the country nor its people: rather, it's all countries and all people.
But that doesn't stop me from trying. Like I said, I catch precious moments of being "at home," although I crave it most of the time, a low-murmuring, perpetual thrumming that reflects my yearning for a place to lay my head, not just physically but also spiritually and emotionally. For a writer, too much contentment is not a good thing. I have always craved adventure. I have never wanted to stay in one place for too long. I feared atrophy. I still do, to some extent. But ever since I can remember, I just wanted to keep moving--sipping the wine, nibbling the food, observing the people, their habits, tasting the culture, the lay of their land, a sense of how they feel about themselves and their own place in Canada. In the Fraser Valley, where I lived for a while, I didn't meet many people from British Columbia. Most were from other places. For instance, the young woman who often cut my hair was from Switzerland, and I couldn't help thinking that--with her vivaciousness--Switzerland must be a sadder place for having lost her. The middle-aged woman who served my coffee at Tim Horton's in Chilliwack was from Newfoundland. I met people all over town from Nova Scotia, Alberta, England, and France. I can't ever remember meeting a British Columbian there.
But a year before the B.C. experience, we were en route to Nova Scotia. I was going to do a Masters degree in English at Acadia University in Wolfville. My first impression was that it was small but beautiful. My wife, who had entertained prospects of finding meaningful employment there, was quickly disspelled of that notion. Before we ever landed in Wolfville, though, we stayed with relatives in Lower Sackville, essentially a suburb of Halifax, and that city is where we spent a lot of our time for the next two months. We saw movies at Park Lane, spent the occasional afternoon at the Public Gardens, went to a lot of coffee shops. I particularly remember the 10-mile walk on Sunday mornings for breakfast at Harvey's before heading off to the gigantic flea market just up the road. We never bought anything heavy, always mindful of the long trek homeward. The weather in Nova Scotia was warmer, brighter, and gentler than anything we'd known on The Rock. Perhaps, I thought, we can live here.
Wolfville was idyllic, although I had the sense of a dark underbelly, especially late at night. The decaying manses and massive willows wreaked of Southern Gothic and set my imagination astir. But I could never have lived there forever. It was too small. My wife--because she'd left everything she knew behind in St. John's--wasn't happy with the experience at first. She tried for my sake, but there was nothing there for her. We got lucky in January when a professor of mine and his professor wife moved away to conduct research at Princetion and asked if we would look after their house. A house meant a home, and while it wasn't ours, it could be. We imagined it was ours, but it was awfully big.
The next year, we moved back to Lower Sackville so I could finish my thesis--mostly in the bowels of Dalhousie University and the coffee shops of Spring Garden Road. N. found work for the summer at The Body Shop where she fared well, but they paid very little and expected too much. I'm not sure it was ever a good fit for her. As for me, while I finished my studies, I worked as a tutor, which left me plent of time for haunting the coffee shops in search of a writing career. I wrote voraciously and, up until recently, it was the most creative--perhaps even the happiest--time of my life. Everything I wrote--including some Darwin stories that never exactly made it to print, but were the origins for Finton Moon and Moonlight Sketches--had that spark of something special, feeling like something I'd never written before. In Halifax, I felt I could be anything and write anything, that my imagination and creative powers were limitless.
And then we came home. It was an abrupt end to a lengthy, hot summer that included forty straight days of blistering, hot weather. I've blended our three separate sojourns in Halifax into one--not consciously, but subconsciously. But the truth is, after I finished my MA, we went to BC for a while, then came back to Nova Scotia, and during the first year and a half in Nova Scotia, we lived in the Halifax area on two separate occasions. Constantly moving. Ebbing and flowing as regularly and dramatically as the Fundy Tide.
I still have a fondness for Halifax and Nova Scotia in general. But, as a friend reminded me a couple days ago, wherever you live for a while, you always miss it when you leave. And that's the way it is with Nova Scotia. Except I know in my heart it wasn't a fabrication, and certainly not a product of nostalgia. Even when I was there, I knew I was in love with the life. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, I was a free man in Halifax. I was free to write in the coffee shops of Spring Garden, Barrington, and Coburg. I was free to be a student. Free to wander the just-burgeoning Harbour Front and listen to buskers. Free to sit at Second Cup, the windows wide open in the evening and listen to the lonesome sound of a busker's saxophone or, across the street, the breezy, cool sounds of the Jazz festival. But, above all, I wrote. Letters to friends. Short stories. Poems. Essays. Articles. Huge chunks of never-to-be published novels. All of it--the experiences, as well as the writing--have contributed to what I am now, whatever I am. Homelessness, it would seem, brings out the best in me.
And while a permanent sense of "home" has eluded me, I know that I have felt at home many, many perfect times in my imperfect, perfect life.
Here in St. John's, I feel that same urge for going on a daily basis now. I don't know if it means we'll be leaving again soon or not. I no longer feel the need to prove myself in the world or to the world. In many ways, St. John's has been extremely good to us. Traveling is no longer some sort of internal competition wherein you feel you're nobody until you've done it, and done it enough. Now, it's a matter of necessity, just as it once was. But the necessity has shifted. I need to write. I require inspiration. But mostly, I need to be happy and for that I need adventures and the occasional something new.
I'm not sure where this is leading. I feel a shift in my personal universe. There are times I think Newfoundland is the best place to be. For all the reasons of restlessnes I've mentioned above, we've never bought a house in St. John's and, although we've been looking for a while now, sometimes I wonder if it's really a coincidence at all. You might say I've looked at St. John's from both sides now, and I really don't know it at all. Maybe, subconsciously, we've never been ready to settle here or anywhere.
Or maybe we're ready to settle but are simply feeling that old familiar necessity for one last big adventure.
Of maybe just a new series of original happenings.
Either way, I'm intrigued. And that means I'm writing more. But I don't wish to write from memory. I get so easily bored by nostalgia or by books that write only about the (yawn) "nature of memory."
I crave newness. Originality. If you turn on the oldies station, the radio might end up in the harbour with all the other raw sewage.
I want something I've never heard before, but with enough connection to the past that I feel at home when I hear it. You can use the same instrument to play an original song.
Just in saying that, maybe I've just found the answer I've been seeking.
Happy Canada Day?
Happiness is fleeting, but at least comes occasionally and often. Canada isn't home, but it's an incredible simulation and a fine holding ground. But every day is Canada Day, isn't it, really? You sort of have to celebrate it every day, even in the face of such a brazen attack as the current right wing prime minister is waging on its ideals, as well as its citizens, even the very people who voted for him.
Where's my black armband? The one I used to wear on March 31 to commemorate the surrender of Newfoundland independence without a single shot being fired because our own future premier had hidden away the key to the munitions cabinet.
Even if I could have voted in 1949, I would not have voted for this. In fact, I can say with absolute certainty, that in 1995, I would not have sailed into it.
I now reach the point where I'm not exactly sure what this blog post is about. although when the journey began... oh, who am I kidding? I've never really known where any journey was going to end up. That's why I take them.
I'm not nostalgic for that day we sailed wide-eyed and yet blindly into the North Sydney Harbour, and I'm certainly not misty-eyed about the day we returned to St. John's. Maybe I'm just reconsidering what it means to be me, what it means if I continue to live here, what it would mean if I left it.
All I can say, with any certainty, is that there were no fireworks on the ferry that night. And I think they missed an opportunty for glory.