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Trying to Find a Place in This World

In the last seven years, Convivium contributor Haley Welch has moved many times: to new neighbourhoods, new provinces, and new countries. To move on (or away) is not equivalent to editing out the reality of that place from her story, she writes.

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Topics: Cities, Culture, Community, Memory
Trying to Find a Place in This World December 27, 2018  |  By Haley Welch
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When I moved into my first apartment that I would not share with roommates, I was elated. It was a bit by accident, and not entirely financially feasible, but it was the best option at the time. I had secured a full-time, permanent position at an great organization and would make the move from my rented room in a suburban basement to a different city. And the job started in two weeks.

It was the kind of opportunity a former intern, current part-time graduate student with a dwindling bank account can only dream of, and so I eschewed my logistical concerns and went for it. This meant, however, that I would need to find an apartment more quickly than I could find a roommate. Finally, an opportunity to blossom into a full-fledged, single-dwelling adult.

The apartment building was very plain, but exactly what I wanted. Twenty floors high, it wasn’t unreasonably tall for my new city but it towered over the neighbouring century houses. It gave the allure of bygone pretension: a grand, beige staircase installed many decades ago graced the lobby and a pair of undersized posters with photoshopped scenes from London, England adorned the expansive walls. A dusty chandelier was suspended above the stairs and two lazy elevators flanked the far side of the lobby. Above sat nineteen identical floors of apartments.

The available unit faced east, ten floors up, and promised the most stunning views as the sun rose over the urban landscape each morning. One bedroom, a recently renovated kitchen, a small living room, and a matchbox washroom. 500 square feet that could be mine.

The building was the same as all the others in my price range: real estate management company, many floors, cookie-cutter apartments. I smiled with glee when my application was approved a few days later and I hurriedly made plans to move my furniture out of storage, across the province, and into my apartment.

This wasn’t my first apartment, and hardly my first residence as an adult, but it was a new beginning nonetheless. It was a new home.

There are many versions of home in this world, and I’ve lived in a few of them – rural towns, medium-sized cities, mega-cities, foreign homestays, rented rooms, shared apartments – sometimes for months, sometimes for years. In the seven years since I left for university, I’ve moved fifteen different times between and within seven different cities and towns, finding myself in new neighbourhoods, new provinces, and new countries more often than not.

One thing I’ve realized is that “home” comes in many different forms. Sometimes it looks like a comfortable bed, sometimes it looks like a converted attic with a tin roof, sometimes it looks like an apartment painstakingly furnished with funds from my first real paycheck. Sometimes there are roosters crowing at the break of dawn, sometimes there are roommates and late-night chats, sometimes there are doting host families that insist you eat mediocre cake, sometimes there are soft dog cuddles, and sometimes there is 90's pop flowing through the wall at 1:00am from the fraternity next door.

Still, what it means to be “at home” remains somewhat of a mystery. More than just a place or its contents, home is a familiarity marked by a sense of comfort and peace that persists even if the physical place is neither comfortable nor peaceful.

Each of these places was, for a time, my home. Those apartments and houses have doors that I used to walk through, kitchens I used to cook in, beds I used to sleep in, tables I used to eat at. They are the backdrops to scenes of my life, the spaces where I lived out everyday routines.

These physical spaces are not immaterial when it comes to understanding the idea of “home.” They certainly don’t define it, but they do help refine each version of home.

This became all the clearer on a recent visit to Montreal, a former home. As I roamed streets that I hadn’t seen or walked in years, nostalgia was intermingled with an unsettling familiarity. My feet remembered the sidewalks that were once part of my everyday and I basked happily in the recognizable glow of metro signs as they pierced the dark sky on an early winter evening. Of course, some things had changed. A city lives and transforms over time, and all the more, it seems when you leave it behind.

Yet a piece of my experience – a piece of the sense of home I had in that place – was still present. To move on (or away) is not equivalent to editing out the reality of that place from my story. Just as a song from your teenage years can transport you back to that particular decade, so too can a place reveal the pieces of life you hadn’t even realized existed.

This is true of every place I’ve called “home.”

Consider that first solo apartment. A few weeks after I had moved in, I was walking along the tree-lined streets of my new neighbourhood when a woman with a kind face glanced up from her garden and we got to talking. I mentioned that I lived in the building around the corner. “Ah yes, those towers of isolation!” she responded with the wave of her hand, as if to dismiss the comment just as soon as she said it.

She was right: that collection of boxes in the sky was isolating. One could come and go everyday, passing through the dreary lobby, riding the unreliable elevator, stepping into their space, all without seeing a soul.

But she was also wrong: the space had its own, unexpected, community. There was Steve – the man who limped through the building, never wore shoes, and talked to everyone. There was Bob – the odd neighbour across the hall with an old blind dog that burst into a barking fit every time someone walked past his door. There were the university roommates, the man living under rent control, the young woman with a tight ponytail and a giant dog, the recently arrived immigrant family who shared my commute schedule, the woman who had moved in with her boyfriend (and, she remarked resentfully, his cat), the maintenance man who knew everyone by name, and the begrudging superintendent who never smiled.

This cast of characters were the reality of that unremarkable apartment building. Not everyone talked while passing in the elevator. I didn’t know most of their stories. But I recognized them, and often we shared a knowing look or a mutual nod as the elevator delivered us to and from our homes.

I moved out of that apartment a year later. My new one had fewer cockroaches and boasted functioning plumbing – undoubtedly an upgrade. It was in the same city but new beginning nonetheless; a new home.

I suspect there are a few more versions of home awaiting me in this life – at least I hope so – but in the interim I want to treasure the moments that make this season, this place, home. After all, God created and sustains all these corners of the world, and I rejoice in the ways they are woven together in my story. Because whether my mornings start with the noise of roosters, Bob’s barking dog, or something else entirely, God’s faithfulness remains the one thing that never changes.

And on the rare occasion when I find myself in my old neighbourhood, I walk by that dusty old apartment building and I smile gratefully as nostalgia intermingles with a strange but welcome familiarity.


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