The café is cold. Despite the rapidly cooling weather these past two weeks, Starbucks is still in summer mode. I ignore the icy air from the vents and take a quick look around. Another man sits across from me, and behind me I can hear the rapid conversing of two women. Otherwise, the place is empty. The familiar Starbucks sigil is not as comforting tonight. I don’t know the people working, and I don’t recognize any of the customers either. This isn’t ‘my’ Starbucks, but the difference is still jarring. I’ve been writing at a particular café for five years, but as of yesterday I’m officially without a residence, and for the next few days at least, I’m a vagabond.
When I first started writing, I longed for the ultimate writer’s life, a life of travelling and speaking and wandering across the wide swath of humanity. People have always intrigued me, and I was certain that the only way one could truly learn about people was to meet as many as possible. That would mean moving. Not just travelling, but experiencing different lives. Roots, or connection to any sort of geography, were not as important.
These days, I’m not so sure about that.
I was lucky to grow up in the same house in the same town for the first twenty-five years of my life. I didn’t realize it then, but my parents were giving me a tremendous gift. These days, whenever I visit I can go to my old room and remember what high school was like, or walk down the creaky stairs and remember my dad and I playing hockey.
I never thought much about this in my twenties, but these days I am learning just how many lifetimes we have, and how difficult it becomes to sometimes to connect the dots. In many ways, it feels like I’m losing parts of my life. (If you can’t remember doing something or experiencing something, who’s to say it even happened?)
The café has filled up, and conversation rings loudly through the room. Even better, the extra bodies have warmed up the place. This Starbucks is located downtown, a few blocks from my friend’s place – her couch is my bed for the next two nights – and its interesting to watch the difference in clientele from my regular suburban location. Downtown seems to be home for younger couples and transient types. Most of the connections to this area are not about geography. On my way over to the cafe, I walked past a young couple playing with their child on the front lawn. The yard space was about three meters across, but it reminded me of home.
We are loathe to connect geography with spirituality or faith, but as our world consistently shrinks, as technology continues to drive the wedge of individualism, and as we’re continually prodded to ‘find ourselves’, this detachment from geography and faith is unsurprising. As I sit in this café however, filled with people and the accompanying anonymity, I am reminded that geography matters. That continuity matters. That for all those who envy the freedom of my ‘writer’s life’, I find myself longing for a place to call home. Not a room. Not an apartment. But a home.
I sigh and leave my laptop open as I head to the entrance. It's time to get some air. I head outside with my coffee, watching the people. Two women wearing tight jeans and high heels saunter past me. Behind them, a middle aged man stumbles back and forth across the sidewalk. A number of couples slowly pass by. I drift around the corner where an old man in rags is shuffling through the garbage for empty milk cartons. He finds about six, each of which he promptly tilts to his lips. I duck my head and move back to the front entrance.
When was it that we started believing that the journey of life was best lived as a journey? I understand that some people prefer living downtown, that they prefer the excitement and anonymity of large crowds. And I know that many of us do not choose where we live, that it is often through circumstance we end up in a certain location.
But maybe its time we stop holding up this mythology that to find what we’re searching for we must change our geography. People are as likely to live shallow lives because they have no roots, as much as they will live shallow lives because they never experience something bigger than their own hometown. Shallowness originates from the heart of someone who is only interested in their own life. Too often we hold up urbanites and travelers who believe they are better suited to facing the world because they've 'been places'. They thumb their noses at the 'poor small town folk' who have never been to Europe. Unfortunately, they really have no idea what they're missing. Life passes quickly, and our lifetimes flow like the rapid streams of a winding river. How good it is then, to have a place, a physical piece of land, to call home.
On the next block, I can see a couple of homeless people sitting on the church stoop.
Within this river of humanity and time, perhaps the most disheartening thing is to watch those who truly have no home, no ties to the earth. It seems inevitable that life will sweep them quickly into oblivion.
Unless we do something about it first.
Home is not just an idea. It is a place. Changing location, especially when we transition into adulthood, is usually a good thing. It gives us a new perspective. Too often however, it is held up as the ideal lifestyle for ‘real’ truth seekers.
I head back inside, and my skin goosebumps immediately from the blast of cold air. I am thinking about the two homeless people and the man at the garbage bins. I rub my arms to warm them, my mind drifting to what they will do when the brutal Ottawa winter comes two months from now.
Our fractured society is already the loneliest in the world, and it continues to crack as we wash away the old ideals of a home and family in the face of generational elitism left over from the sixties. I am convinced however, that the world is a better place when we’re physically connected to a certain location, because people are better when they are connected to other people in the same location.
My prayer this week is that you’ll remember there is no perfect place, but any location can be home. There is no perfect adventure, but every one who seeks the truth will have all the adventure they can handle. And while the roots may never go as deep as your parents’ home or your grandfather’s farm, we can still connect ourselves to the places we live by connecting with the people around us. Especially those who have no home. Because as important as location can be, it’s the people around you who matter the most, and it's they who will enrich the fabric of your life, no matter how cold it gets.