TRIAGE

After thirty-four years in this house, we’re slowly but surely taking our first steps toward leaving it (I know, 34! Honestly, we were very young when we moved in).

When I say we, I mean my husband of course, but also my sons—especially Simon and Christian—because we’re all bound up in what comes next. Simon most of all, because though he has lived away from us for quite a while now, this reconfiguration of the future was his idea.

A few years ago, he floated the notion of all of us investing in a multigenerational living space. A subdivided house, a duplex, a triplex—anything that would allow us to live with privacy in proximity to one another; a super-home where Simon could gain solid footing in the real estate market, a more permanent roof over his head, and live a life most suited to his values and vision of human ecology: shared space, shared costs and community. The window for making this happen is two to three years.

It has always sounded right. All of us have looked at the horizon, trying to imagine the shape of the world to come, and experienced a shiver of apprehension and a feeling that our futures will be better faced in solidarity. Together.

Together is a word that right now means as many as six of us. When I’m gone or when my husband’s gone, together will still mean…who knows how many people? In some future iteration, it could include Christian and his family, and Penelope and Graeme and their families. Anything’s possible. It’s a word signifying that life is better lived among loved ones. In proximity.

I’ve noticed a change in myself since Simon’s idea began to germinate. My connection to this house, which has been the centre of gravity of my entire adult life, is weakening, and that’s helping me to tug at the roots that ground me to this place. The pain isn’t as acute as I feared. I don’t know what it’ll be like the day the moving truck pulls up and all we leave behind are scuffed floors and nail marks on the walls, but lately, the thought of moving away has taken on the aura of liberation.

My neighbour Gail took this picture of our house from hers, March 7th 2016

Our warm and welcoming little house is dragging me down with the sheer weight of all of the stuff that has accumulated inside it. To quote Sheldon Cooper, it has become “a swirling vortex of entropy. If left to our own devices, we’re each capable of filling any room, any free space with stuff at a remarkable speed.

With the exception of my husband—whose contribution to burying us alive is related to his difficulty throwing out or giving away things that still have monetary value (at heart, he isn’t a packrat), resulting in a crammed crawl space in the basement—Simon, Christian and I * are all afflicted with the ultimate room-filling compulsions: bibliophilia and cinephilia.

[*My married son Jeremy is very neat and orderly—I often think how he must have suffered, growing up, from the effects of our shared talent for agglomeration.]

Simon’s apartment is just like our home, with walls hidden by photographs, artwork and overstuffed IKEA bookshelves that are doing fine with his huge DVD collection, but straining under the weight his books.

It must be genetic.

  

But consider: the photos are of people we love and places we’ve been; each painting or piece of art has personal meaning, including a laminated poster of the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival where Christian performed when he was 16, and oil paintings created by my aunt. We don’t hang things because they match a room’s colour scheme. The DVDs represent hours spent watching and re-watching them together. And the books? I know that Christian, Simon and I have no interest in seeing walls. I know that all three of us (as well as our friend Cindy who is part of our super-home project) envision rooms encased with floor to ceiling bookshelves (she builds them!).

On one side, there’s the consumerism of this century that I want to run from, and on the other, its antithesis, a movement toward decluttering, minimalism and micro living environments.

There’s a beauty in the latter: the order, the simplicity, the detachment, the shedding, the room to breathe.

Darlinghurst apartment
http://www.idesignarch.com/minimalist-inner-city-micro-apartment-with-smart-functional-design/darlinghurst-apartment_3/

I can look at examples of minimalist spaces and the minimalist lifestyle and admire their aesthetic, but then my mind revolts, and what was fresh and cleansing very quickly becomes bleak in its blankness (imagine coming in from the cold of a snowy winter’s day to a white box that passes for your home), clinical in its austerity (like my dentist’s recently redesigned workspace) and devoid of everything except the rarest of personal items.

And that’s the rub. In the spaces where most of my family members live, meaning and material things are bound together through the pathways of sense memory. We feel compelled to live in very personal, evocative environments in which objects reflect and remind us constantly of who we are. This isn’t nostalgic or narcissistic, but rather, I think, a nesting, comforting behaviour. This is who I am because these are my loves.

Some of Danielle’s boxes

My sister Danielle moved here from the West Coast earlier this year, months before finding a new place. When she did, and the movers’ truck finally arrived and we helped her to begin unpacking, I was reminded of this desire to recreate the familiar. This was my Facebook post the following day:

[…] Danielle left her life in BC behind and is finally settling into her new nest.

This is the stuff that made it to Quebec, except for the furniture, which has of course already been spread throughout her new place by the friendly movers.

This is what a lifetime of baggage looks like–once you’ve sorted through it, evaluated its worth and decided that it will follow you to your next destination across a continent.

Every box that’s opened tells a story. Out of every box floats an echo, a hundred memories.

With every box come the beauty of music, the pleasure of books, the familiar feel and smell of clothing, and tchotchkes–those tiny, useless, priceless mementos of the struggle to have a full, rich life.

The unpacking of the tchotchkes mattered. We stored them in a large glass cabinet in her new living room. Each was dusted off and placed on a shelf with great care. Minimalism, shminimalism.

Painting by Suzanne Howard

A few years ago, I came across a little book about a big question. It’s The Burning House, and it asks: if your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door?

We’re spared some tough decisions thanks to our laptops. With those tucked under our arms, photo albums could be left behind without too much anguish, I think, but what of the rest?

I’m not a phobic person, and yet I often find myself spooked by thoughts that one day, I’ll be driving home from work and see charcoal plumes billowing from our cottage. The fact that our house is sixty-three years old plays a part, but it must certainly also have something to do with The Burning House question. What I would grab seems less significant than what I would MISS.

The burning house scenario is the experience of most immigrants, no matter their status upon arriving in their new country. They’ve left so much behind. Nothing is familiar. What do they ache for and what is most precious?

 

WHERE IS HOME ?

His name is Fadi. I was evaluating his level of proficiency in French for future classes at a company which manufactures skin care products.

Fadi is young. Clearly. But he has the kind of face that won’t have changed very much when he’s forty-five. An old-young face. Curly pale hair combed back and off his forehead, exposing a hairline that wants to recede.

His look was « conservative office » : serviceable shirt and trousers, neat but bland, no jacket.

What struck me was his nervous intensity. His mouth was dry. His serious eyes widened every time he spoke—softly, but also rushed.

Why he should feel such a sense of urgency still bothers me. I learned that though he only arrived in Montreal a month ago, he has already found a position as the I.T. guy in the office.

An Armenian Syrian, he left Aleppo with his three brothers and came here to start a new life. He is, in fact, an electrical engineer, and I imagine his brothers are highly educated as well. But their parents stayed behind, unsure and afraid to leave their home.

As he explained this, I could almost feel his tie to his parents pulling painfully hard on his chest. And thought again about his home country being bled of its youth and its hope.

When I asked him what he would do if he won 15 million dollars that very night (usually, a lighthearted means of testing a student’s grasp of the conditional tense), he answered in French, without hesitation : I would use it to bring peace to my country…I would help others in my country.

 When I asked him if he would go back to Aleppo, he said Yes, but I would also live in Canada.

 And within the turmoil of his earnest answers and my own desire to reassure him, was the problem of home. And what’s referred to as le mal du pays, in French. Homesickness. Fadi is suffering the first stages of it. Yet still, he wants to stay here and make a new life.

Though I’ve never lived more than a twenty minute drive from the place I was born, I felt instant empathy for Fadi. Far from home is a difficult place to be.

My home

I’ve had three true homes in my life.

The first was an upper duplex in Lachine, just around the corner from the house where my husband was busy growing up, though of course I had no idea at the time (we would meet years later, as teenagers, in a different city).

My family left that duplex when I was three to move into a brand new semi-detached, two story house in Pointe-Claire, but my grandmother moved into the space we left behind, and stayed there for years, so it never lost its familiar and settled feeling for me and remains etched in my memory.

I left my parents’ house to go live with my husband when I was 22. We nested temporarily (2 ½ years) in a 4th floor apartment right on the lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, where we made our twins, providing us with the incentive to take the biggest plunge of our lives into a depressed real estate market (well, maybe the 2nd biggest plunge : having two babies is tough to beat).

Decades later, we’re still here. Our house is a 10 minute walk from my mum’s.

You see? I call her house «my mum’s», though it’s the same semi-detached house I grew up in. I think I began doing this when my twins were born, because from that moment on, my home was the place where our children were.

I can rattle off the postal codes of all of these places without hesitation, like I’m pinning them onto a mental map. And yet, I’ve come to realize that my attachment to our battered but cozy A-frame house is waning. I’ve also noticed that the objects in it mean less and less to me.

Does this signal an important change in me? Maybe. Over time, I’ve felt more and more weighed down by the familiar objects that I once loved for the memories I believed they held, or the comfort I thought they gave me. If you live long enough in the same place, you can become buried alive.

“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there any more.” ― Robin HobbFool’s Fate

tumblr_m0yc8bdwXC1qjfqe4o1_1280  the-burning-house

In a quirky and beautifully designed small book compiling the hundreds of photographs that first appeared on his blog, Foster Huntington asked the question : If your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door ? and then set about curating all of the answers he received.

It’s a great question, and answering it is also, I think, taking steps toward defining not only what we value, but what « home » really means.

When his house in California was burned to ash by a wildfire, Pico Iyer, the British-born essayist and novelist perhaps best known for his travel writing and nomadic life, came to the realization that from then on: «My home would have to be whatever I carried around inside me. » It was, he said, a terrific liberation.

quote-home-is-not-just-the-place-where-you-happen-to-be-born-its-the-place-where-you-become-pico-iyer-73-18-06

Someone once told me that home ownership—the notion that we « own » a property and that it’s ours—is a delusion. He said that no matter how many papers we sign at the notary’s, we’re still just passing through; just temporary stewards of the building. Three families lived in our home before us; I wonder how many more will after we leave it. Surely, no one will stay as long as we did.

An eye-catching piece popped up on Facebook a few months ago, about a Japanese artist who uses a 3-D printer to create  architecturally ingenious plastic shells for hermit crabs, that support miniature, identifiable cities (the tiny crustaceans appear nonplussed, but their shells wowed me).

The whimsy, technological brilliance and beauty of these little works of art are dazzling, but  I wonder if the more important message isn’t found among the hermit crabs themselves—tiny squatters of nature who scavenge their homes from the floor of the sea and discard them when a better shell comes along.

3d-printed-hermit-crab-architectural-shells-aki-inomata-1 3d-printed-hermit-crab-architectural-shells-aki-inomata-6

Sometimes, though, there are no shells.

Last summer, the results of Montreal’s first official homelessness census were released.

  • The census takers were able to find 3016 people living on the streets.
  • 76 per cent of homeless people in Montreal are men.
  • 93 per cent of the people who sleep outside, in Montreal, are men.
  • 44 per cent of people experiencing homelessness were born in Montreal.
  • Immigrants represent 10 per cent of the homeless population.
  • 10 per cent of Montreal’s homeless population is aboriginal, even though less than one per cent of Montreal’s total population are indigenous.
  • Veterans represent six per cent of Montreal’s homeless.

Homelessness in the city’s suburbs is disguised as «couch surfing » in the basement of a friend.

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Man begging at the underground entrance of the Centre de commerce mondial de Montréal.

Fadi’s anguish stems from trying to create a new home here while pining for the one he left behind. He is part of what Pico Iyer refers to as « the great floating tribe» : the hundreds of millions of people living in a country not their own.  His problem is the result of the movement we call migration.

But as Pico Iyer says: « Movement is a fantastic privilege, and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing. But movement, ultimately, only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to. And home, in the end, is of course not just the place where you sleep, it’s the place where you stand. »

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Penelope, feverish, cuddling with her mama, Anne.

Before she was two years old, my granddaughter Penelope became sick with a flu. She got the very best of care; was held, cuddled, given medication, read to, and sung to patiently by her mama and papa. Still, at a low moment, clutching her blanket as she lay on the couch, she looked at her parents and said, in her tiny soprano voice : « I want to go home.»

We all understood that to this brand new little person, home already meant that place where there is happiness, where there is no worry, and where there is safety and security.

 

I wonder if it will be—can be—any more beautiful than this,’ murmured Anne, looking around her with the loving, enraptured eyes of those to whom ‘home’ must always be the loveliest spot in the world, no matter what fairer lands may lie under alien stars.

― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of the Island

If you’re interested in reading about the migrant experience, you can take a look at this blog post: YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN.

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There’s no place like home.

 

 

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