During the mid-80s, my father traveled from Lebanon to Canada in search of a steady income. He and my grandfather began their search in Alberta, traveling across the country until they reached its most eastern edge. A month later, by word of mouth, they learned about the convenience store nestled in the heart of Martin’s River, Nova Scotia, a community of fewer than 1000 people. My grandfather bought the store, handed it to my father, and returned to Lebanon shortly after.
As I write this, I sit at the kitchen table of the apartment above my father’s convenience store. It is likely the last time I will be here. After almost 30 years, my parents are returning to Lebanon for good.
I’m certain that as soon as they set foot on Canadian soil, they craved another place, somewhere farther away and more familiar. And now that they have decided to return to Lebanon, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what life in Nova Scotia has meant for my family.
When things end, we can do one of two things: we either take time to reflect on what has come to pass, extracting the lessons learned and finding value in the experience, or we let it slip beneath the surface, leaving it unacknowledged (and therefore allowing it to manifest in some other aspect of our lives).
Growing up, my home life was a microcosm of Lebanese society and Islamic tradition enveloped by a wholly rural, Western, salt-of-the-earth culture. The expectations given to me by my parents, friends, brothers, classmates, teachers, and the broader community seemed to always be at odds.
On this last visit to Nova Scotia, after my father had closed the store, my parents and I sat in the upstairs apartment enjoying each other’s company. It was then that I asked them how they had met, almost thirty years ago. I knew barely anything about their lives before Canada, and until then I’d never thought to ask.
I knew my father had traveled back to Lebanon in the late ’80s to find a wife. I knew that after my parents married, my mother had lived with her in-laws for a year before moving to Canada to be with my dad. What I didn’t know was that my parents had only known each other for six days before they were married.
My question offered them, my mother in particular, a moment to reflect on the past. And while she spoke nonchalantly about her experience leaving Lebanon and coming to Canada, her words were heavy, underscored by years of regret and longing.
In 1990, at 19 years old, my mother followed my father to the convenience store in Martin’s River. She spent the majority of her time in the upstairs apartment alone and quite shell-shocked. She was in a foreign place, away from everything she knew, unable to speak English, and without a clear path forward. My dad worked long hours in the store, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., leaving them both without much time to connect. As my mother put it, “We never took the time to really learn about each other.” Although they lived together, my parents never really lived together.
During that time, my mother found peace in her faith. She said that she would read the Quran and pray regularly in those early months, using religion to make sense of her situation. She had come to embrace a part of her upbringing that had never been central to her way of life before.
Near the end of that year, my mother gave birth to my brother, Mohammed. Two years later, she had my brother, Ahamed. Six years later, she had me.
With us, my mother built a home. As we learned how to become people, she learned how to become a parent.
Two years after I was born, my father bought the two-story house that sat behind our store. As I grew up, the house became the landscape of all my parents’ expectations.
And throughout my upbringing, they expected many things. They expected me to make good friends and succeed in school. They expected me to pray and speak Arabic, and to go to Friday prayer when possible. They expected our family to be a unit.
Their greatest expectation was that my brothers and I wouldn’t call our house a home. It wasn’t home, and it could never be home. Home was much farther away, halfway across the world, where my parents had been raised and where they had developed their expectations for life. Nova Scotia was just a placeholder until they could return to their true home again.
When you hear the word “landscape,” what do you think of? You may think of a view, of rolling grasslands or mountainous terrain, a garden, a forest, or even a farm or city skyline. Landscapes are not static places. They change and transform thanks to the people that inhabit, visit, admire, and think about them. Nature also has a role in the evolution of landscapes by changing the physical topography over time through natural processes.
Landscapes are places. To an extent, our expectations shape our understanding of what should reside in a landscape, a place. Upon closer inspection, we may find our expectations were right. But we also may learn that they were wrong or mistaken. Expectations follow us throughout life. One expectation replaces another, on and on, ad infinitum. We project our expectations onto a landscape, at times surprised by what we actually find. Sometimes what we assumed to be included in the landscape may be something else entirely.
Paul Groth describes landscape as “the interaction of people and place: a social group and its spaces, particularly the spaces to which the group belongs and from which its members derive some part of their shared identity and meaning” (1997, p. 45). Landscapes as an idea are imbued with emotional energy that shapes our understanding and expectations of a place. We see farmland in the distance and expect there to be animals grazing and fields of rising crops. We may get closer and realize that there is absolutely nothing there. The land is barren, left unused for decades. There are no animals or crops, or even a house or barn that would signal the existence of some past life.
A landscape can include people, animals, objects, and, further still, values and meaning. Laura Alice Watt describes landscape as “a representational and symbolic space” (2016, p. 15). Religious ideology is represented and reinforced by the physical space of a church, just as the idea of family is defined and reinforced by the physical space of a house. The place informs our expectations, and our expectations shape the place.
Expectations and assumptions are essential to life. They are how we make sense of the world, believing that A leads to B leads to C and so on. It’s a simple way of managing our complex environments. And there is a fine line between expectations and assumptions: when we expect, we want something to happen. When we assume, we think something will happen. For both, we hope the outcome is in our favor.
While describing Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space for Aeon magazine, Gillian Darley writes, “[Blachelard] guides us through an actual or imagined home, its comforts and mysteries, assembled and brought into focus, in a place and at a time undefined except by the limits of our own daydreams, longings, and memories—those inner landscapes from which, he said, new worlds can be made.”
Traditionally, the concept of home has been related to comfort and security. The shared expectation among humans is that each of us has a home. Home is part of our very essence. It’s where we come from and return to. Throughout the day, we may enjoy the company of friends, attend class, spend time at work, visit family. But at night, we are home, safe, asleep.
Darley continues, “The well-being of the warm animal (or human) protected in its nest or cocoon or cottage from the bad weather raging outside is a primitive sense of refuge that we can all share, adult or child.”
We are comfortable with the image of home as hearth, but why? What is home? What makes it so?
Many people conceptualize home as a place of safety and, in a way, acceptance. Home is inherently a place, defined by the people, animals, objects, and things within it. Home acts as a centering idea. It binds us to something beyond ourselves.
There is an inherent comfort to that idea: that we belong somewhere.
Home is a place that, once lived in, becomes a shared idea. The idea of home is transferred to the people that live within it. A home’s shared atmosphere, customs, culture, and way of life inform our expectations of it. Home is specific to the individual but can also be scaled to encompass the village, town, city, state, or country.
As I’ve alluded to, there is an underlying sense of trust in our basic conception of home. It is one that breeds feelings of comfort and belonging, the loss of which reflects a disruption of our idea of home and the inherent trust we have in it. When we leave home, we expect to be able to return. Those without a stable conception of home become wanderers—drifters.
Home can be the context of our environment and the choices available to us, as well as the values we deem important. Home can be the freedom, or lack thereof, we have in our current situation, based on where we are. When we can’t say for certain that we have a home, a feeling of longing develops. We yearn for a routine, for community, for social interaction, for a place to be. Home provides us with meaning and a sense of belonging. When our expectations of home never seem to align with our immediate surroundings, the idea of home becomes nostalgic. We long for an ideal that we’ve constructed in our minds.
Above a small hill behind our house is the Trans Canada Trail, now called The Great Trail. As a child, I would follow it across a bridge overlooking the river my community was named after. The trail would lead me to a forest that, during my adolescence, felt like another world.
Looking back, I now understand that my constant adventuring through the forest was an escape from the social pressures of my lonely and isolated parents.
I spent a lot of time outdoors, admiring the natural world. And in Nova Scotia, nature prevails. Deep, thick clusters of trees hug every trail, road, highway, home, village, town, and city. The province is surrounded by water, so no matter where one goes, the vast and sublime Atlantic is always nearby.
There were times when I would go too far into the forest behind my house and fear I’d lost my way, only to find a familiar bunch of trees, or the mysterious bottom half of what seemed to be a pillbox, to guide me home.
However, after exploring enough, I would come to learn that the forest didn’t go on forever—far from it. Soon enough, the sound of squirrels dashing across the forest floor and trees groaning against the wind would be replaced by cars zooming over the highway.
During my final venture into the forest, I went so far as to reach its edge, where the trees met the highway. The throom of cars zooming past blocked out all other noise, and, just like that, the forest’s mystery and wonder diminished. The forest was bound—limited—by the highway. It was no longer vast and infinite in my mind, but conquerable and small. The forest was less menacing, less gigantic. Could it even be called a forest?
I had thought the forest went on forever. I had held this assumption from a very young age, and even during the experience, I was unaware of what it meant. And it could mean many things: man’s fear of nature, the ego as archetype, the retrenchment and demise of the natural world. It was only until I was well separated from that place, with many more years of experience under my belt, that I could name the experience for what it meant, not just what it was.
When our expectations of home don’t align with what home really is, we develop a sense of longing for a home that matches our expectations. Along this vein, homelessness is akin to restlessness. Homelessness relates to the feelings of dissatisfaction we may have in our lives. For some, there is a tension between the desire to have a home and the desire to be free. One may have a home but still long to travel, adventure, or establish a new home elsewhere. When we desire a new sense of home, our current home may feel uncomfortable. It may become unlivable, even. Throughout life, a person’s desire for home oscillates between settling down and moving beyond or away.
The concept of home is fluid and continuously shifting within us. Home may feel right to us until it doesn’t. In a way, we decide what it means to us. We build a home and then tear it down. Throughout life, there are times when we must recenter ourselves and answer the question again: what is home?
Is home really where the heart is? For some, yes. Some of us need to feel the warm embrace of our loved ones, or the closeness of family and friends, to feel at home.
As cliché as it sounds, that statement has a great amount of truth to it. Clichés tend to be overused particularly because they are so honest. They are true to an extent—while they work to explain a certain phenomenon, they tend to simplify the experience. “Home is where the heart is” underlines the importance of being connected to people rather than places. However, it is still an expectation: if I am with the people I love, then I expect to feel at home. But there are unspoken assumptions that come with this conception of home that can be easily uprooted. What if those you love don’t love you back? What if they live far away? What if home is a terrible place to be and is made terrible by those who share the space with you? What becomes of “home” then? It can be a disorienting experience when your expectation of home is suddenly changed—or was always bad—by exogenous forces, whether they be people or otherwise.
Home is as much a marker of identity as anything else. It’s a place where we can develop, grow, learn, understand, and create.
As it has been defined, we build homes all the time, with places and then with people. We continually renegotiate home as our wants and needs evolve over time. We simultaneously long for and resist home, never wanting to be too comfortable or too lost. This relationship can be likened to chaos and order: too much of the former and we fall into anarchy, too much of the latter and things become oppressive.
What makes a person say, “I am in love with my life”? One answer is that we love life when things are in alignment—when they make sense. When we accept the past and anticipate the future because the present is just so good that we wouldn’t have it any other way. Home contributes to that feeling of alignment. When we “feel at home,” we’re a step closer to loving life.
Soon after I turned 18, I left Martin’s River to attend university in Mississauga, Ontario. I had become tired of the familiar landscapes of Nova Scotia.
My decision to leave home was quite decentering for my mother. Mohammed and Ahamed had left long before me, and my parents were both counting the days until I would go too.
Throughout her 30 years of life in Martin’s River, away from her family and friends, my mother had built a home with us, her kids. She invested a great deal in our well-being, our success, and our futures. Life had given her a new landscape, and she had learned how to build a home within it.
After my brothers and I had left, she found no reason to stay. Home had been us, and now we were gone. That was the driving force behind my parents’ decision to leave. Now, thirty years later, they are finally on their way out, back to their first home.
For me, my expectations of home had transcended what Nova Scotia could give me. I wanted something more exciting, more my own. I had found myself longing for something else.
Now, four years later, I realize the city was what I expected, but not what I wanted. Home still alludes me, but my expectations for it have never been more concrete.
Now the idea of home has become a quiet one, far off in a small town where things are simpler.
Home is a little room in a little house. It’s peace and joy. It’s a regular, quiet life that is mundane but beautiful. It doesn’t need much to sustain itself, and it’s burnt all the other lives I thought I wanted. I’ve built it in my mind, over and over again, and I can’t wait to say that home is mine.