“It’s so beautiful here. But you never told me how much it would hurt.”
At the end of a year, I always like to go back through photos I’ve taken to see where I’ve been. I do it even if I really haven’t been anywhere – because your journey can be made through images, and through words, and through simple interactions. Photos, for me, are a way to express a snapshot feeling. It endures so much longer when captured on the screen of my phone or in a photo that hangs from a string in my tiny living room.
What I noticed was that nearly all of the photos I took that ended up being most popular were photos of Toronto. Photos of home.
Over this year, I’ve learned very deeply that home isn’t a place – it’s a feeling. Home is about being safe, comfortable. It’s about laughing without inhibition and it’s about crying without pride. It’s about lying in bed on Sundays, surrounded by my purring cats. It’s about smiling without anything bothering me at all. It’s about experiencing my lost culture through new and empathetic friends. And those are just the little things. Home doesn’t stay in one place. It can go with you, anywhere you want it to be.
This year, my sense of home was disrupted several times. Through changes, necessary ones to advance my life and career, I realized that I was making a mistake tying my feelings of comfort to the sameness in my life. And what I learned was that if I don’t feel safe, I don’t want to express anything. Instead, I retreat into myself, waiting for the moment that I feel safe enough to talk about the thoughts on my mind, the feelings in my heart.
This is why I didn’t write much this year. I no longer felt safe enough to express my personal ties to the activism that I do. I ended up burning out, and fairly spectacularly. So I retreated into myself, and in that sense, I found home.
I watched a film recently called “Brooklyn”. It stars Saoirse Ronan, a brilliant young Irish actress who, in her words, played her own story on screen. The film is gentle, elegant, carrying just the right amount of emotion – but what struck me most is just how strongly that feeling of home is emphasized. Eilis, the main character, leaves her tiny town in Ireland for Brooklyn – and ends up finding herself very homesick. As homesickness only leaves when something changes for the better, she discovers very quickly how important it is to feel safe and loved in an unfamiliar place. It’s a luminous film and it’s stayed with me these past few weeks as I work out exactly why I spent half of it hurting with the beauty of the story.
I come from a small town, you see. A lot of what Eilis experiences in the film, I experienced moving away from home. I crashed and burned fairly badly, which I have written about at length. But I found familiarity in the stories of others, the empathy of friends. Now, when I return to my small town, I find myself hurting with the beauty of its simplicity, of the familiarity. But it’s not home more than Toronto, with its glittering lights and mesmerizing rhythm, is. The difference is that I have the familiarity, simplicity, and comfort inside. The difference is, I discovered that home is here, in my heart.
So I look at these photos and I wonder what it is that makes my soul hurt in that beautiful, nostalgic, alive-making way. It’s not that I love the city. I do, but that’s not why I took the photos. It’s not that everything is easier here and I’m always happy. I’m not, and that was hammered home explicitly to me this year. Toronto is a hard place to live and its crowds and fast-paced life can get to me.
No, the reason that I love the photos is because in them, I see home as it was that clear summer morning with the sun rising over the city. I see it in the lapping waters of Ashbridges Bay, the gentle breezes that blew through my tied-back hair as I stood at the edge of the bay. I see it in the pinks of the sunrises, the fall of the light. Because I took the photo to reflect the mood I was in when I saw the image. I took it to remind myself on these nostalgic, tough, dark winter days of what home really is.
I don’t make resolutions. That’s not my style. But I’ll make a wish for you, all of you who waited awhile to read another blog from me with more passion and activism, or maybe something like this, something gentle and reflective: I hope you find home and keep it. I believe that’s the only way I got through this growing year. And I didn’t realize it until I saw “Brooklyn” and understood exactly what I was meant to learn this year.
I have to be my own home. I have to make my own comfort, happiness, and brightness. And so I go forward, knowing this, sitting in my physical home with all its stories and beauty.
It’s meant to hurt because it’s meant to help you learn.
I am so very grateful for my sense of home.