In his 1981 book, The Nine Nations of North America, Joel Garreau opens with his description of a colleague of his from the Washington Post resigning and leaving for the west. As the colleague drives over the Appalachians, through the midwest, hits the Great Plains and finally starts to ascend the long ramp up to Cheyenne as the mountains come into view, he is filled with doubts about having done the right thing. Yet, as he enters Wyoming (where he was born and raised) all of a sudden the sky is the right colour, the horizon is at the right distance, the ground colours are correct, and he is suddenly sure he’s made a good decision. He is home.
Come 2011, and Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America gives a different twist on the same question of “where is home”, turning now to cultural affinity rather than geographic zones.
Home is not — as many know — simply where you were born and raised, although a good friend of mine, Allan Holender, does hint in his talks and book on Zentrepreneurism that doing with your life what you loved to do at age ten is key — and that may well imply that home can also be found in the setting of that part of your childhood. James Howard Kunstler, in his 1998 book Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century, devotes a chapter to that period of his life, pointing out how much living in Manhattan (again) after having been in the instant suburbs of Long Island did for his life, and certainly his views on place are informed by that urbanism as translated to the smaller town.
Still, finding home is part of the human journey. It is one we should all take.
Sometimes, of course, we need to find part of it, and be satisfied.
When I was young — in that eight to eleven range — I had a recurring dream. It was of a small house with lots of windows — very light, very airy — on a rocky promontory surrounded by extremely tall trees, almost all conifers, whose roots ran along the rock for there was little soil to work with. Down below, waves crashed. The room at the point was my study/library, and it was here that I did the work I did.
I was never conscious in that dream of whether this house was in a city or town, close to one, or totally rural. The house itself was stone and wood and glass, almost like it grew out of the cliff itself.
It was like no place in Toronto.
I was an adult before I discovered a “where” this could be, for it is precisely what British Columbia’s south coast looks like. There are many places like this along the Sunshine Coast, on Vancouver Island, on the Gulf Islands, or along Burrard Inlet or English Bay in Vancouver itself. I later got to spend almost a decade living there (alas, not in such a place!) and still very much love the sights, smells, sounds and horizons of the left coast.
But along my adult years I also discovered Europe, and with it my love of history turned from a reading choice and way of thinking into a recognition of how much being in history’s depths meant to me.
My first trip to the south of France, in 1992, came with an experience I shall never forget. We’d landed early in the morning, tired after an all night flight, drove to the apartment we were using, took an hour’s nap, then set out for lunch up the hill to Mougins, an old hill village on the Côte d’Azur. On the central place we ate at an outdoor table — 25° in October is certainly easy enough to get used to! — and then afterward poked about a bit.
I opened the door of the Romanesque church opposite — my pre-reading meant I knew it was over 1,000 years old, at least in style — and a wave of must, dust, old candle smoke and the like rolled over me. A millennium of sweaty bodies, it seemed. I was hooked on the idea of being part of something so old, so choked with experience.
This is where I sit even today: torn between the raw newness of a supernatural Pacific shore with its temperate rain forest, and the historical life of my civilisation and ones before that, layered down into a way of being that is from whence I come (my roots are Breton and Norman if you go back far enough) and which makes past, present … and future … alive in a way nature alone cannot, and endlessly churning and building North America does not.
What this says, of course, is that now that I live in the place of my birth again — and indeed only a few blocks from where I was a child, pedalling around the streets — this is not home.
The last part of finding home is to find the work you were meant to do. These writings are a part of that — much, much more so than my career’s worth of work ever has been — and so in that way I have at least come home a little, for that study/library I dreamt of was definitely a writer’s room.
May you find yours … and find your way to it.