Hi, loves. 🌿
On calling so many places home
Last night, on our walk home — or “home” because we are in Montreal, staying at a family friend’s house — Noa asked if she could play at the park across the street for a few minutes before coming in. It was already 9:30pm, but somehow, even after three weeks, she hasn’t really made it onto east coast time, so it wasn’t a crazy request. We’ve been letting her do so much on her own here: walk across the street for croissants, down to the stationary store to browse, all the way to my parents’ condo.
Sure, I said, and she slipped off into the night to play on the jungle gym alone.
I took out the compost through the basement door, weirdly reveling in the rhythm of these deposits. Tuesday: compost; Wednesday: recycling; Friday: garbage. A city at work. Communal agreements. Piles on the curb. (We don’t get this with apartment living.) It was so quiet outside, so calm. I could live like this, I thought.
It took Noa a little too long to come back. Panic rose in me and I yelled out the front door for her to return. Coming! she yelled back. Nothing had happened; my mind had just flown off in fear for a moment. She was perfectly safe over there alone. She walked in the door, I sent her up to shower, and I thought of how many versions of a life one person can choose.
The question of home rings out much more loudly when I am in Montreal because it is where I am from (I think only of Didion’s Where I Was From). Some part of me belongs most comfortably here — the rhythm of the two languages, the accents, the country itself — and also feels an uncomfortable level of dissonance whenever I return.
For years, decades, really, everything felt claustrophobic and all too familiar: the faces, the parties, the stories (again, here we are back with Didion). Provincial is what we all said to each other as we set off for New York and London and Berlin and Washington, DC, and Johannesburg. We lunged for our twenties and thirties in bigger places that could hold so much more of who we wanted to be. Places that would allow us to grow beyond the selves this city could hold or witness.
I imagined myself nowhere other than New York, and for the 12 years I lived there, that vision never faltered. Its home-ness, its rightness, was not questioned. It didn’t even change when we moved to Vienna and I spent the whole first year across the ocean wishing I was back in New York. I saw my life abroad as some sort of weird interlude, not the very truth of it. It took ages to settle in, to accept that the real thing — my real life, not the imagined thing I’d left behind — was quite good. I didn’t know then that I’d never go back to being that young woman who only ever wanted to live in Brooklyn. Her desires would change.
This summer I went back for the first time in years, and there it was: my old life, in those same streets, and yet I didn’t feel at home, not at all, even though it is still where I’ve spent the biggest swath of my adulthood. I peeked into my dilapidated apartment building with my best friends and it all felt like so long ago. A friend who lived through that period saw the pictures of me outside that door — the one I pushed open for 9 of the 12 years I lived there — with nothing but a tote bag on my shoulder, and she said it made those years — our harrowing, hilarious twenties and early thirties, when we had nothing but the bags on our backs and the imagined weight of the worlds on our shoulders — come rushing back. Who were those people? What were they running after?
It’s been three years since we’ve spent a summer in Montreal, and every time we come, I see how far my life has traveled from here. I say that not with any hint of snobbery or condescension. I spend most of our time wishing we did live here: the simplicity of it all feels spectacularly easy and sane after braving the traffic and freeways of LA, the weekly American mass shootings, the ripping away of reproductive rights. The Canadian pace is slower, calmer. This time of year is so green and lush. People sit out on terrasses and eat and drink. A friend once said, Montreal is full of Type B people, and I find this both funny and maybe true? And was also perhaps why at 18 I was desperate to leave?
What am I getting at here? It is late and I am tired and this letter is coming at you with virtually no childcare for weeks on end. Perhaps it is this: that “home” now feels like a fractured reality — many cities on a pie chart, each an incomplete sliver of a whole. Nothing substantial enough to outweigh the other parts.
This is where I should default to the sappy: home is wherever the heart is, or home is wherever you [cue: husband, daughter] are, a roaming (roving?) entity. But that’s not what I’m searching for,
Yes, Montreal will always be where I am from: its frigid winters and language politics and terrible drivers and Franglish are in my bones. But if I am now talking about a self in a place, and I am unwilling to resort to the idea of family as home, then what? Can I accept that I will never again find The One Place that feels absolutely right? Where I am my most complete, whole, integrated self? (Does such a thing exist?)
That home will be drinking wine with my oldest friends while our daughters, who barely know each other, play together like sisters in a park from our own childhood? That home will be sitting on a beach in LA with friends who will only ever know the adult versions of each other, but feel deeply, soulfully connected nonetheless? That it will be those walks along Smith Street in Brooklyn, coffee in hand, tote bag on shoulder? The number 13 bus in Vienna, the F train in Brooklyn, the Atwater stop in Montreal? That home will have to be all of it and none of it?
No ALL THE THINGS this week. I am…not reading or listening to any podcasts or watching anything on TV, so I’m useless in this department! More soon. xx
Feeling this piece in my soul. I haven't been home to Montreal in so long. <3
I think about these questions a lot, Abby. I wish there was a succinct and satisfying answer--please let us know if you find one! ;-)