Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Chemistry of Fire

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I have a bomb in my purse. Its presence is constant. It could go off at any hour, as long as I’m in range of the detonator. Across the province, the country, the continent, there are hundreds of thousands of people carrying their own bombs, strapped to belts, tucked in pockets, clipped to sun visors in cars. And here’s the thing I’m not supposed to say out loud: I can’t wait until the bomb goes off.


Every Christmas when I was growing up, my sisters and I would wake in the cold, dark morning and gather together in one of our bedrooms to open the stockings that had been left on our beds. Then we would bundle ourselves in fleece housecoats and slippers and take our opened stockings into our parents’ room, unveil our gifts, and watch as Mom and Dad opened theirs—painstakingly it seemed, as we were anxious for bigger presents under the tree. One year, we had just gathered on my parents’ bed when my father’s bomb went off. He was up, dressed, and out the front door into the cold Christmas morning while my sisters and I looked at each other. The presents would have to wait. Someone was having a bad day.

My father joined the fire department in our village on the South Shore of Nova Scotia before I was born. As a young child, I grew accustomed to getting out of the way when he bolted from the house at the squeal of his pager, the tires on the car kicking up gravel in the driveway. When he got home, I would hug him and take in the smoky-diesel smell of his turnout gear. And when the fire trucks visited my school during fire prevention week, I clung to him, showing my firefighter Dad off to my friends.


In grade school, students learn about the “fire triangle,” that fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen to burn. Take away one of those elements, according to the triangle, and the fire will go out: heat cools with water, fuel is finite, oxygen can be depleted. But I now know that the chemistry of fire is more complex. These three elements alone cannot create a fire. Something more is needed: a chemical chain reaction that allows the fire to build through ignition to the stage of flames and smoke. Heat, fuel, and oxygen can be present but they are futile—even innocent—without the chain reaction. It’s like attraction, the thread that ties lovers together, the roots that tie family together. You can trust someone and respect them, but without love, what kind of life can you build together? You can love someone and respect them, but without trust, would you go into a burning building together? This is a firefighter’s highest, or lowest, praise. I would—or would not—go into the flames with you.

Adrift a Sea of Hidden Fire by Meena Chopra

I left Nova Scotia at eighteen. I jetted off to university in Toronto and then spent nearly a decade in Ghana and South Africa, where I worked as a journalist. These were wonderful, lonely years. I swung through work, friendships, and relationships, looking for something to make a happy life. I found I could create a spark but couldn’t sustain it. I blamed the long hours at a tiring job. In Ghana, I blamed the exhaustion that comes from living in a place where daily necessities like electricity and running water are often luxuries. I blamed the passive alienation, the persistent feeling that I didn’t fit in, that I would always be seeking a link in the chain reaction, no matter how long I lived away

I began to think, increasingly with the passing years, about moving back to Nova Scotia. It might have been a flight of fancy, a grass-is-always-greener dream, but after sixteen years away I wanted to believe that the place where my roots were the deepest would provide that missing link. So when I finally found a job I could do from anywhere—no office required—I was fuelled. I went home.

I spent a summer in my parents’ house, in the village where I grew up. As I watched my Dad go to weekly practices and meetings at the fire hall, watched him peel out of the driveway when the pager squealed, I began to ask him more about the fire department. I saw how it fulfilled an innate need to work together, to serve, and sacrifice. It was the opposite of that feeling of unbelonging I had during my lonely years abroad. Some people thrive as the outsider. I didn’t. In Ghana, the local term for foreigners—usually white people—is Obruni. It’s often friendly and harmless, an expression of curiosity but as the years went on it grated on me more and more. Every time I was called Obruni, I was reminded that I didn’t belong and never would. I realized that belonging was the link I was missing.

Nine months after moving back to Nova Scotia, I bought a house. Shortly after I moved in, I applied to join the local fire department. I was interviewed by two of the department’s officers, got a criminal record check by the RCMP, and was voted in at the department’s regular meeting. Within a month, I became a volunteer firefighter.


My resting state is now anticipation. When I stand in line at the grocery store, I wonder if people will think it’s rude if I drop my basket and run. In the drive-through, I look for escape routes and feel anxious if there isn’t one. If I leave my house without the pager-bomb, even to take out the garbage or hang clothes, I chide myself and go back to fetch it. Once, I fled from a meeting because I was so certain I heard my pager go off. I was halfway to the fire hall before I discovered I was wrong.

I am aware of the pain in my shoulders from practice, the blister on my foot, the mystery bruises that appear and later silently slide off my skin. Anxiety, aches, and nerves: these are the runoff from my service, the quiet badges I carry to belong.

A few weeks after joining the department, my first call came. I had dinner cooking. I remembered to shut off the stove but then took too much time to switch off the television and use the bathroom. I’d wondered how I’d react when my pager went off and found it brought a surge of adrenaline. And this, too, is part of the belonging. The rush. The sudden need to drop everything. I knew that all the firefighters were doing the same and that for the next hour or two or six we’d be joined together by a silver thread. We would rely on each other. The lights and sirens cut through the still evening as we prepared for the work ahead. The call was to a car accident. We were there to control the flow of traffic and help clean up debris, not the glamorous work of storming a burning building but vital to aid someone’s bad day.

In our department, we have office workers and mechanics. We work in health care and retail. Some of us are retired. We write and ride motorcycles and go south on winter holidays. We all carry the pager-bombs and we all have families who are left, like my sisters and I were left that Christmas morning.

When I was an outsider, an Obruni, I belonged to universities and jobs and professions—the necessary, easy belonging of adulthood. But I found little satisfaction there. Jobs change, classes end. Now, as I tug on my heavy yellow gear and try not to trip over my own feet, I realize it is the excitement and camaraderie of service, of answering the pager-bomb, that has made this rural Nova Scotia village more of a home than any other place I’ve lived. I have always had oxygen, fuel, and heat. But we just sustain the elements. In fire service—in fighting fire—I’ve finally found the chemical chain reaction to keep my own fire burning.

Filling the Void

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She was young. Many would say too young. Jasmine was fourteen years old when she first tasted alcohol. Being homeschooled until grade six hadn’t been an advantage when it came to fitting in at middle school. She wanted to be popular, as many young girls do. She looked at the different groups of kids and at the top of the pile were the jocks. She knew she would never fit in with them. She was never very sporty and although the jocks were considered popular she thought they were kind of dull and boring. Then there were the band geeks and the artsy kids, but they were losers in her eyes and she didn’t want to be looked at that way. One day while exiting the school, she noticed a group of kids smoking outside and she thought they looked cool and tough and everyone else seemed to be mildly afraid of them. Everyone called them the druggy group. She decided she would become part of this group.

Jasmine befriended a girl who she thought of as a “total druggy” and asked her to hang out. This girl suggested that they get drunk. Jasmine lied, saying that she had “been drunk many times before,” although it was her first time and she felt a bit scared but the desire to impress this girl was stronger than her fear. The two went to a liquor store and waited for a stranger to come by who was willing to “boot” for them. They got a 2-6 of vodka and went home to Jasmine’s basement where her strict parents were upstairs. They opened the bottle and the girl took a swig. Now it was Jasmine’s turn. She put the bottle to her lips. The unfamiliar smell almost turned her insides but she didn’t want to look stupid in front of this girl so she forced herself to take a large gulp. It burned as it slid down her throat and hit her empty stomach. It made her ill but she loved the feeling that it gave her, it was euphoria. She continued, she simply couldn’t get enough of the fiery liquid. She eventually blacked out and then threw up much of the night and felt terrible the next day but that didn’t matter. The feeling she got from the alcohol was so addictive that she couldn’t stop herself. In her own words, “This was where my journey began.”


Jasmine was now fifteen and, all too soon, alcohol became boring and no longer filled that forever-hungry, growling void inside her. Although she still indulged in alcohol and weed whenever the chance presented itself (and that came often), she needed more. In fact, there weren’t many days when she wasn’t under some kind of influence. She drank and smoked at school with her friends and the teachers never seemed to be the wiser or, if they were, they didn’t seem to care. As time went on, she had to imbibe more and more to feel the effects. She had to move on to bigger and better things. She moved on to ecstasy. Life got progressively worse and she ran away from home shortly after turning sixteen. She couch-surfed or slept wherever she could. It didn’t matter, it felt good to live her own life. She had been expelled from school by then and maybe that was good because she was mostly checked out when she was there anyway. Her parents called the cops and the police caught her and her seventy ecstasy pills. Even Jasmine’s friends thought she was crazy to buy so many pills at once but she was never the kind to do something half way and she had a stash of money that she had been saving to buy a car. The police couldn’t hold her or maybe they thought she would be fine now—just a young girl on the wrong path. It was a mistake to release her though because shortly afterwards she overdosed for the first time.

Her parents knew they had to do something drastic but also knew Jasmine wouldn’t willingly go to rehab. They told her they were going on a trip to visit some family in a nearby town. Jasmine didn’t suspect anything and resolved to not do any drugs on the short trip but she constantly thought about getting her next hit when she got home. She wouldn’t get home for a long time. She was checked into rehab. Her life had gotten out of hand so quickly. Even Jasmine knew she could not continue in this way. She met a councillor at the rehab centre and they connected because the councillor articulated what Jasmine was feeling. Other than that, rehab was all about getting through each day, making it out, getting back to real life. Jasmine did well in rehab and made lots of progress. She was released and it lasted … but not for long.


Jasmine finished rehab and everything was going well. She had a job and was developing friends in a new town where there were none of the old temptations from her home town. But soon the void inside her reared its ugly head yet again. This time, weed, alcohol and ecstasy were not enough, the void needed something stronger. Being sober had been a good thing for Jasmine. She knew this but was unable to resist the need to be numb. Cocaine was the next step on her journey and, luckily, it would be her last step before she knew she had to quit.

Her second relapse since leaving rehab was longer and much worse than the first. She continued to feel more empty the more drugs and alcohol she had. Coming down from coke was worse than anything she could imagine and the only way to make it better was to do more coke. At first, it was exhilarating because she was able to convince herself that she was better on the drugs. More productive. Faster. Smarter. But that soon faded away and all that was left was a shell of a human being. She cared about nothing except drugs and alcohol. She cared least about herself. She was so empty that it was unbearable and the cocaine made her forget for a little bit but eventually nothing would be enough to calm that inner voice, that inner fear and self-loathing.

Jasmine knew, just knew, deep inside that she couldn’t continue down this path. She had the sudden realization that she would die if she didn’t stop. Maybe part of her didn’t mind dying but another part wanted to live, for her family and for the hope that things could really get better. So she made a deal with herself: get sober for good or die. Jasmine decided to check herself back into rehab and make it work. If she wasn’t sober in six months, she would commit suicide.


Jasmine’s last attempt to get sober worked. She has been sober for over five years now. She has a good job and has just finished getting her high school equivalent. She is also a budding photographer and enjoys capturing lasting moments. In fact, she shot the photographs in this essay. On taking these photographs of substances that once plagued her and almost killed her, she says: “I don’t feel like I am a slave to those substances any longer. I can be around them and be unattached to them and what I went through. It’s a letting go of the past.”

Disclaimer: Names have been changed or omitted to protect the identities of the involved individuals. However, all events are true.
Related reading: “In the Museum of Your Last Day” by Susie Berg

In Between

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Even though my passport says I am Canadian, my body—my tanned skin and my dark hair—sometimes suggests otherwise. When I was nineteen, I left my home in Toronto for a five-week French immersion program in Chicoutimi, a lovely little town in northern Quebec. When I first met my host family, my host mother Marie-Paul asked me, “D’ou viens-tu?” or Where do you come from?

“Je viens de Toronto,” I replied.

“Non, non, quel pays?” Which country, she asked, shaking her head.

“Oh. Mes parents viennent de la Guyane.”

“La Guyane Francaise?” Both of my host parents laughed.

I laughed too the first time, but when this joke was endlessly repeated, it ceased to be funny. When you are told the same thing over and over again, it can become part of you. I came to think of myself as an outsider in Canada, even though I was born and raised in Toronto.

And yet, I don’t feel a strong connection to Guyanese culture—in my home in Toronto or the “homeland” of Guyana—either. Most of my high school was Indo-Carribean or Indian but the stereotypical Guyanese girl in Toronto is rowdy, likes to have a good time, loves to dance, drink and fête until the sun comes up. They can be stubborn and mouth off. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to every West Indian, but it is the image that’s perpetuated. So my little sister loves to call me white-washed. She cites my disdain for heavy drinking, the fact that I don’t go crazy on the dance floor and my absolute aggravation when she blasts chutney music from her bedroom. According to the stereotype, I should like these things. According to my sister, that fact that I don’t makes me white.

So I’m not quite Canadian and not quite Guyanese-Canadian. Where does that leave me?

Waiting by Tiffany Rambali
















I have only two memories from my first voyage to Guyana, a trip that I made with my family when I was six years old. The first is of lying in a hammock when a frog jumped onto the cement underneath me. It settled in, relaxing. Its bulbous eyes seemed to pop out of its skull, black lines painted across its slimy green skin like veins. I was amazed that a frog could live in such a hot country. I could just imagine it melting into green slime until it was nothing but a cartoony pair of eyes.

The second memory is of the night we spent in my “grandma’s” house. She was not actually my grandmother; I’m not sure how we were related. That’s a funny thing about West Indians: everyone older than you is an aunty, uncle, grandma or grandpa. At this grandma’s house, I slept underneath a mosquito net in a room with the window open. Even at night, the humidity was suffocating, and even with the net I could feel my skin starting to itch. I tossed and turned until I finally fell asleep.

What I don’t remember from my first visit to Guyana was what struck me most on my second visit when I was eighteen. That time, we stayed with my mother’s cousin. All I could see were divisions, that Guyana was not one people, one race or one class: The fancy community where my relatives lived, the houses all like mansions with their own security guards and gates, and the shacks lined up in the village five minutes away. The names of the village and streets in French, English and Dutch, all remnants of the colonizers who left their footprints. The congregation of black people and Indian people in the malls and the way they eyed each other with apprehension. The domestic dogs, strong and fearsome like regal guards of a palace, and the strays with skin adhering to their bones, passed out in the heat.

There were no stereotypical Guyanese girls here. Yet, everywhere we went during that trip, I still felt like an outsider. In Guyana, everyone can tell you are from “out-away” by your clothes, your accent and for the simple fact that they don’t know you in a country where everyone knows everyone.

One night I was chatting with my cousin Kiesha. We were identical in age but I already assumed we would be different. She was Guyanese, after all, and I was…? I still wasn’t sure.

“I don’t really like to drink,” I told Kiesha. “I might have one or two, but that’s it.” I expected Kiesha to scoff at me, to laugh at my inexperience and “whiteness.”

“Oh, you’re like me,” she said. “I don’t like going out and drinking too much.”

You’re like me…. A little phrase that stuck with me. Kiesha and I were actually very much alike. We were both studious, partied in moderation and we both enjoyed a healthy number of extracurricular councils at school. We were even physically alike, our dark hair shoulder length and slightly frizzy, our bodies petite but slightly curvy—young women who could fit in each other’s clothes. How could someone so far from home be closer to me than the girls in my school?

I had always disassociated myself from post-colonial and diasporic stories. They seemed to be about the mixed-race child trying to make sense of their mom and dad’s sides of the family. Or they told of the immigrant in shock, of trying to pick up a new language in a new land. All of the characters, sometimes fictional and sometimes real, were literally outsiders—born outside their resident country. But the truth is, the children of immigrants are sometimes just as lost. Immigrant families flock together in niche neighbourhoods in select cities and their children try to navigate the culture of their community within the larger Canadian culture, the two constantly at odds—as they often are in me.

I had always felt stuck in that jarring gap between Canadian and Guyanese. It sometimes felt like a gorge, dark and lonely, any hint of a bridge long eroded away. But as I get older, as my known world expands, I’m learning to find myself in that in-between space and build my own connections across this gap. I’m starting to write my own story.


Related reading: Two poems by Ayesha Chatterjee

Fractures: An Adoption Story

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I am holding the court papers in my hand. Never did I imagine it would come to this.

I think back to the first time I met him—he was seven, I was ten. It was at a Chinese restaurant on the main street of Fredericton, the kind that served sweet and sour fried chicken balls with the unholy orange sauce that was popular in the 1970s.

My mother’s colleague organized the meeting. Did he know that it was a de facto interview for a new family? Although it was done with the utmost of secrecy—an “accidental bumping into” at the restaurant—I suspect he realized in the recesses of his seven-year-old brain that he was on display for us.

He was boisterous and restless, what would probably be labelled ADHD today. Yet, behind the rambunctiousness, there lurked an unsettled, hostile force. Did my ten-year-old mind detect this or is it framed by adult hindsight?

He ate exuberantly although I am sure most of the tastes were completely foreign to him. Between mouthfuls, he showed off a toy he had received for Christmas. While my siblings and I technically had veto power, in reality we knew that there was no sense in raising any objection: he was about to become our younger brother.


I remember the day he came to live with us. He was just about to turn eight; I, eleven. It was something we had in common, birthdays in the same month. The green VW Beetle pulled into the driveway of our home, mid-afternoon. Out he tumbled with all his worldly possessions: one small yet sturdy suitcase and a giant stuffed animal, given to him as a parting gift, as if to say bon voyage.

My heart broke at the sight of his meagre possessions. I was humbled and guilt-ridden at the thought of the house behind me filled to the rafters with stuff, when he had so little.

At first, like a new pet, he was a novelty—entertaining with his jokes about kings on their “thrones” (I learned that boys never grow tired of poop jokes) and his energy, playing for hours on end with his new Tonka trucks in the backyard.

Then the legacy of his childhood began to rear its head. He was the product of teenage parents, at first shunted between relatives and then sent through an ever-revolving door of foster homes. His anger at being so unwanted in the world took on a more visceral, physical response as he grew older. His fists became a weapon of choice in expressing the rage he didn’t understand and I, three years older but not much bigger in size, a convenient punching bag.

In a household already filled with physical and emotional chaos, we were not equipped to deal with the fallout of his neglected childhood. I skim a memory off the percolating surface of my own childhood.

I am lying in a snowbank, red parka against a freshly powdered white backdrop. My brother, jeered on by his friends, has just beaten me up on the way to school. I wait until I hear the scrunch of their boots fade away, weighted by the shame and humiliation of what has just taken place, before I can pick myself up and make my solitary way to class. I am grateful no one asks questions about the bruises beginning to turn the sides of my face a molten purple.

Although the settings change, it’s a scene often repeated over the years. I am nineteen before I stop being afraid of his fists. I am home from university and although he still gets angry, I see he has learned to lash out with his voice instead. Still, I instinctively shrink from the words of wrath and livid face whenever he vents his anger.

Gradually though, the jagged peaks of rage soften and time smooths out the dark crevasses of fury. A genuine fondness for each other replaces the childhood yoke between tormentor and the tormented.

I am amazed by the culinary skills that he seems to have plucked from thin air. He is ever the “mechanical genius,” as my father likes to call him, a blessing in a family that can barely figure out how to operate a toaster. It becomes a family joke: a pitch for a new Martha-Stewart-style DIY show that highlights the range of my brother’s talents—from inventing household gadgets and building furniture to crafting recipes for tasty homemade confections and canning organic tomatoes.

Essence by Anya Holloway

He is impressed by my career too, a whirlwind of airplanes and countries as I travel the world with the United Nations. I enjoy bringing him mementos from my travels: silk rugs from Iraq, handcrafted boxes from Sierra Leone.

It is now a relationship built on stabilizers, phone calls on birthdays and in the next port of call between trips home. He visits me in Ottawa many years later and presents me with a ticket to Phantom of the Opera at the National Arts Centre. I become teary-eyed at the thought that somehow we have managed to survive the upheavals of our early years and climb into a life raft together. It feels miraculous.

But then the miracle crumbles once again. I see that it is a mirage instead: shimmery, bathed in a golden glow, yet elusive and ultimately out of reach.

The cracks appear slowly at first, almost imperceptibly. We are standing on the stairs of our childhood home. He is yelling at me for some forgotten infraction. I am exhausted, having been up most of the night with our mother, who lies dying in a room below. I am not afraid that he will physically strike me, but his anger is real, palpable and directed at me. He is using his size and the chaos of the moment to put me in my place.  That moment passes but the sensation of his belligerence lingers for a while longer.


Our mother dies. The animosity that my brother had exhibited in his early years reappears toward the rest of the family, but not yet with me. The familial pressure valve begins to hiss in earnest when care for our father becomes an issue. Leaks, then ruptures appear in his relationships with my other siblings. Still, he invites me to visit him at his cottage to heal my wounds after a disastrous posting in Afghanistan. Is this his unspoken mea culpa to me for the years when his fury and his fists were his most memorable traits?

Our father is rushed to hospital suffering from pneumonia. My brother wants him to remain in hospital post-convalescence; I would like him to be cared for in his home with the same loving attention we provided to our mother during her dying process. But I know that underneath these disagreements over sick, ageing parents lurks the broken bones of a neglected childhood that have never properly mended. The peaks of anger and hostility re-emerge from the past. It’s as if he is the seven-year-old boy again, feeling unwanted and unloved, shoved into a family container that is already filled with strife and unhappiness. Though the wounds have now split open on all familial fronts, I cling to the mirage of the life raft we built together.

Then the doorbell rings. As if culled from the latest courtroom drama, I am served with papers from my brother’s lawyer. I feel the heft of the documents in my hand. He has used the courts to transmit his pain, demanding his siblings be ex-communicated from the care and welfare of our father. All contact between us abruptly stops. The legal system becomes a giant X-ray machine held up for the world to see, a portrait of a broken family unit—a messy web of ghostly breaks. Affidavits are the X-rays through which every crack, every splinter, of the family skeleton is captured. And even without a doctor’s diagnosis, I know the X-rays will confirm that the fractures can’t be healed.

Searching for Home

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Enfolded in the hills of southern Vancouver Island, a two-storey house still stands in the center of a small acreage. When I dream of home, I dream of this house. I lived there until I was ten years old.

My dreams of the house are visceral. I feel the coarse loops of the carpet, I know the shape of light the dining room window casts on the far wall. When I awake, I am so full of longing that I feel as if I’m returning to dry land after breathing underwater.

Maya Angelou says, “I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears, and dragons of home under one’s skin.” I have not lived in that home for many years, and yet I feel as if I have carried a piece of it with me since I left.


Like the connections we form to our parents, the physical place in which we grow up—both the building and the surrounding geography—imprints itself on us as infants and helps to build a sense of security, what Alain de Botton calls a “psychological sanctuary.” Our childhood home is part of a powerful set of memories that goes to the very heart of who we are.

In my childhood, my home was the place from which all my feelings of belonging originated. Everything about it was magical to me—the crawl space where we stored Christmas decorations, the cookies that emerged from the kitchen—and the landscape, such as the ooze in the pond and the garden and its rows of corn and peas.

I once found a bunch of carrots growing in the unkempt grass on the edge of the lawn, several feet from the garden. When my father dug them up, out came perfectly formed, foot-long carrots, bigger than any we had harvested from the garden. “They must’ve grown from a seed packet I tossed away,” he mused. I thought of Jack and his beanstalk.

There were dragons at home, though. Divorce came, a bitter crisis that left us all shattered. My mother stayed at the house with my two sisters and I moved out with my father. I was ten.

My father told me I was lucky to be with him, I was better off away from my mother because she favoured my sisters. This seemed to make sense—my father was only trying to protect me. He assured me that the new house he was going to build would be good—better than the old one.


Simply living somewhere does not make it a home. That sanctuary that we all seek cannot be created instantaneously. It takes time. And familiarity. And so many unnamable things, individual to each inhabitant.

In the early twentieth century, the modernist architect Le Corbusier sought to strip away architectural affectation in favour of simpler forms. When he was commissioned to build homes for factory workers in France, he designed apartments that had bare concrete walls and naked light bulbs. Gradually, the tenants began to transform the apartments: “Unconcerned with spoiling the architect’s design,” explains de Botton, “the tenants added shutters, flowered wallpaper and picket fences.” Over time, the tenants were able to create a sanctuary away from the grimness of the factories by imbuing the apartments with their own identities.

Although I tried to convince myself that my new house was as good as the old one, in truth I looked for my old house everywhere—even the surrounding landscape was not beyond my scrutiny. Behind the new house was a small marsh and sometimes I would clamber through the brush to stand on the edge, breathe in the familiar smell of skunk cabbage and imagine that this was just like the pond at the old house. But it wasn’t.

Where before having friends over was as easy as a knock on a door, it now involved phone calls, conversations between parents, strict curfews. The new house fulfilled the criteria of Le Corbusier’s “machine for living in,” but I know that I never felt at home there. And I did not have the autonomy that the factory workers had to transform the house myself.


Five Yellow Houses by Jennifer Harrison

Nine years after my parents’ divorce, I moved out to attend university in Victoria. That same year, my father moved into a new house. My mother had long since left the old family house and so suddenly, I had no childhood home. It left me feeling adrift. So began my moving years.

Built around the school calendar, the moving cycle would start in the autumn: my regular roommates and I would find a place in September and disperse when classes ended in April. I stopped returning to my father’s house in the summers and so would move again. I could have found a cheap apartment and stayed put, but I didn’t. I just kept moving.

In September, my roommates and I would regroup and find a new place to live. We had become fast friends, four young women in our twenties and precocious to no end. We cooked, made wine, got robbed, fell in love but, eventually, each of them finished school and moved back to their hometowns. Except me. I stayed in Victoria, but kept moving.

I became an expert at it. I used every container available to avoid the hassle of finding new boxes: I packed blankets and sheets in laundry bins, knickknacks went into garbage cans. I never unpacked drawers but simply removed them from the dresser and brought them to the moving van just like that. I kept all the boxes I did have for the inevitability of the next move. Over five years, I moved eleven times.

I never questioned what I was doing. “Geography has little meaning to the child,” Angelou says. “Since the child cannot control that environment, she has to find her own place.” I moved through my geography in a blur. Finding my own place was something I didn’t know how to do.


I was twenty-eight and living in Vancouver when I met John. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was the love of my life. After a year of dating, we moved in together. I flattened all my boxes and tucked them into the basement, sure that the time to leave would soon come.

A year went by. I began to feel restless, would grow irate at the sheer amount of stuff we had. John had so much stuff. In fact, he kept not only his own stuff in the basement but stuff that didn’t belong to him, including stuff that belonged to an old roommate of his, Mark.

“Get rid of it!” I insisted.

“I’m not throwing it away,” John said.

I hated Mark. I didn’t know Mark. “I’m not going to be the one who hauls it to the truck when we move!” I declared. I had drawn my line in the sand.

I wanted to move, I realized. Moving felt normal.


De Botton calls home a “guardian of identity…where we slowly resume contact with our most authentic self.” For years, I had kept the dragons of my first home buried beneath the preoccupation of moving. But now, I couldn’t move. What was I supposed to do with myself?

I put up coat hooks by the door. I found a coffee table for the living room. I hung up a poster from a museum in Scotland that John and I had visited together. Slowly, the apartment began to reflect my personality as much as John’s. My feelings of restlessness began to fade.

One day, John and I ventured down to the basement to do some reorganizing.

“Do you still need all these old boxes?” he asked.

“Well, if we move, I’ll have to find more,” I said.

“Yeah, but when exactly are you going to move?”

I put them all out with the recycling.


It happened when I was cooking dinner. When I was discussing Shakespeare with John over a bottle of wine. When I was washing the dishes. How did I get here? I’m home. My first home is still with me—all the dreams and dragons of it. I carry it close, but it no longer burdens me.

John and I still live in the same apartment. We replace washers in the taps, clean the windows, sweep away the dust that gathers in the corners as if by magic.

Sometimes, I fall asleep on the couch in the afternoon, dream of light shining green through maple leaves, of gravel roads. The furnace in the living room pings as it cools down and the sound follows me in my sleep. It will be the only noise I’ll hear until John opens the door and returns home.

Angelou, Maya. “Home.” Letters to My Daughter. New York: Random House, 2008. 5-7.
De Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.