Ashes to Ashes

In recent hometown news, a near-hundred-year-old barn on the UConn campus was claimed by a three alarm fire. Built in 1922 and elegantly framing the walk near the UConn Dairy Bar, a favourite spot for locals and students alike (well, locals only when the students are gone…), the barn, and the others like it, was a significant part of my childhood. Other structures on campus of similar age and historic value have stood in significant symbolism for as long as I can remember, others, iconic of the University itself, including the Farwell-Jacobsen Barn which sits atop Horsebarn Hill Road.

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Fall Foliage, Horsebarn Hill, Storrs, Connecticut 2014

As a child, my Father and I would walk the family dog among the fields which framed it. My Mother, Grandmother, and I would frequent the Diary Bar in the summer (again, when the students were mostly gone), walking in its shade and admiring its window boxes. A couple of meaningful dates. A few close encounters. A first meeting. Several breakdowns in its midst. And, of course, many more happy times, befriending local barn cats and admiring bunnies which scurried into fields alongside.

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Window Box, UConn Dairy Bar Ag. Maintenance Barn, Storrs, Connecticut, Summer 2016

I have come to understand that home will change, particularly when the place I call home geographically is itself the same town as a University seemingly keen to build new things every month, but I digress. It seems at times the Universe has ways of reminding us when to close one chapter and begin the next. Its demise is a timely contradiction to University expansion which reaches for the sky more each month.

It often feels that people in Great Britain imagine New England, and even more specifically, Connecticut, to be pastoral havens for eccentricity framed with colourful leaves and wisps of snow once in a while, often forgetting some of the persistent issues the region faces. Barn fires, in particular, have ravaged property in the region since its settlement. It is always a tragedy, and in this case, the only fortunate thing was a lack of damage to livestock, animal, and human life.

I photographed the barn (and other parts of my hometown) when I was visiting my parents this summer and choose to remember it in the state which I saw it in then, rather than the image of a ruinous pile of ashes, embers, and general decrepitude which is circulating the internet today.

I would ask anyone who hears of the fire or also has memories of the barn and location as it stood to remember it always as a peaceful and beautiful complement to the town, and most importantly, to actively consider the other iconic places in life which we all too often overlook. Connecticut stereotypes are true at least about one thing: our communities and neighbourhoods are often strong (especially in the Quiet Corner), and I know all of my neighbours are rallying around each other.

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Top of Horsebarn Hill, Storrs, Connecticut, 2010

 

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Winter in Storrs

I was back in the Northeastern United States for the holiday interim, back in the [strange] Connecticut town I called ‘home’ for twenty odd years once again. Same quirky neighbourhood, same interesting townsfolk, same local paper, same solitarily inexpensive coffeeshop I used to avoid for fear of bumping into the past.

Anyone who has been generally rootless for any number of years can attest to the fact that, when the world barrages you with images you’ve never before processed, your analytical side is sharpened as finely as your subjectivity is tested.

I have found over the past few years that this test has awakened an excitement for the simple things I had, maybe, missed in the past. The town which (in the high school just a few moments walk from my front door) my peers and I would minimally complain about to foster within us a unifying hatred for a common enemy has suddenly become visible through a new lens by most of us who have returned to see the colours we couldn’t before.

I once found this scenery bleak in winter — devoid of colour and bereft of life’s motions (and then I met Glasgow [haha]). Coming back to town after months away in a new city, and after over a year on the other side of the country has changed that perspective: there’s colour exploding everywhere here almost as vibrantly if not more as in autumn.

It’s still not exciting here in a cosmopolitain sense which would excite a teenager or young adult. The biggest town scandals usually centre around the neighbouring Willimantic, Connecticut (still a hotbed for drug activity despite continued success with gentrification attempts) and the latest developments near and around the University of Connecticut. The people here love puns, bookstores, eclectically sensitive musicians posted on street corners, and eccentric characters. Things change year to year, but every year, most things remain the same. It is a community of people in a beautiful setting.

It’s still a sleepy town in the winter, and when it’s this cold outside (in the subzero celsius range), no one wants to part with the fireplace, but we like our spiced alcohol, our funny stories, our town anecdotes, and I am so grateful to have this community to come back to in a life which, by all other accounts, has stripped me of static roots… though I’m definitely not complaining about that.

This was always enough for me, and if nothing else, travel has validated the fact that there truly is beauty here unlike anywhere else in the world.

You Really Can’t Go Home Again

… because home is not a place.

After over a year of living a life on the road which seems to be mostly lived in pursuit of the next goal, checkpoint, or idea towards the advancement of the tenets to which I devote my service to the world, it seems like an incredibly truistic and potentially cliche thing to say, but my arrival at this conclusion is the product of a great deal of (admittedly belated) growing up.

A life lived for over a year more often than not out of a suitcase (or in a mental  and physical state of planning and preparing to pack that suitcase) is both better and worse than it sounds: its glamour is lost within the first ten days when you realize that having a dependable place to do laundry is convenient and that some hotels are not as they purport to be online and by phone. These are freeing experiences, but imprisoning ones as well in that big questions always abound during times of transition and travel — “home” becomes not an identifiable location, but an experience. I am grateful for each of the challenging experiences I have undertaken to date and consider myself incredibly fortunate for my ability to do so.

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Before I left for Glasgow, I visited my hometown exactly twice. The childhood home my parents love and care for so fastidiously stands stoically, statically as the stronghold of love and family it always has been… but eventually, something changed.When I was a child, our house felt like a fortress — impenetrable to all evil, to all danger, to all harm, and to all reality. It was the place I knew as “home”, and was an indisputable fact in my mind that no other place could ever, or would ever compare in any capacity. The spirit of the house moved around me wherever I would walk — the idiosyncratic qualities of the tiny, restored carriage house conversion following me from room to room, alive with the spirit of love, bright, warm sunshine, my mother’s lively and lovely plants, and the family which had lit my life in so many ways for over twenty years.

Home, Storrs, Connecticut, July 2016
Home, Storrs, Connecticut, July 2016

During my year in California, my visits home would feel less like entering a fortress — it became an inevitable reality that the house was neither impervious to damage nor to change. Its sacredness did not change in my mind, nor in my activity or conduct within it. The value I placed upon it did not change due to my new circumstance: it was still the most precious icon of good I knew. My parents had given it no less care than usual — the opposite, in fact, in my absence, the house seemed to bloom in many ways. The community around it had not changed either, rather, it had strengthened. Things were bright and beautiful at the hands of my parents, and as my mother’s gardens exploded with color and life, my father’s copper weathervanes stood as always, monuments along garden paths decorating artisan stone walls. It had never been more genuinely idyllic in my eyes and heart, and was as beautiful in every regard as it had always been for all of its flaws. But time had changed me somehow: this was now in some ways only a place in that it clearly would have naught but a shell without those within it(or the memories of them)… but still was heaven.

Every element of our house place which had once served as such a fortress of security became steadily more an abstraction: a ghost which trailed me from room to room like Peter Pan’s lively shadow, just as it always had. As I grew into an adult over my year of life in California, I felt the spirit of the house let go, breathe out and into me, and find peace in the new reality of mine, as if it knew that it no longer held the responsibility of serving as the defensive citadel where I could quell my insecurities by hiding myself away from the world and from my responsibilities as a child buries her face in her father’s coat. Now, walking the same floor plan feels to hold, while bittersweet due to my usually-short stays there, a changed level of peace.

Front Door Light, Storrs, Connecticut, July 2016
Front Door Light, Storrs, Connecticut, July 2016

The house comes alive with sparks of light and flickers of love which refract upon the walls, contingent upon entry of the people who surround it — my parents, neighbors, close friends, pets, and family friends. Each of them and all reminders of their presence therein provide the inescapability of truth, that their presence was all along what truly made our house ‘home’. The cemented realization of this both caused my realization of the fact that there is truth to the phrase “you can’t go home“… but that, contrary to another popular belief, you indeed can take it with you in some ways.

The love of the people who make that house a home, who make that state and region home to me still and forever is transported with me everywhere I go: I have only to reach for a telephone or hold in my hands a photograph, hear a voice on a message, or glance at a gifted trinket of often nominal value to remember that their presence is something which I have invited into my life and which has returned my emotional investment ten fold.

The broken compass my father gave me as a souvenir from North Carolina “so I would always know which way to go”, the gold band I wear always on my right middle finger which is the twin of my mother’s, the note on the back of a picture frame from a lover, the seashell your best friend brought back from Bangladesh for you when you were fifteen, the Bob Dylan CD your other best friend gave you in high school, the book your wonderful neighbor whose presence is more like that of a grandfather than a neighbor gave you just prior to your departure, the writer’s magazines given you by a favorite mentor and professor, the text message from another mentor and professor to whom you owe so much, the stack of letters from my late grandmother, the heirloom bible from my great-grandmother. All of their love, by my invitation of these reminders into my life as both tangible and intangible elements of my life, holds the power and the capacity to make any place — or any suitcase — home.

"Create Love" Sidewalk Art, San Francisco, California, August 2016
“Create Love” Sidewalk Art, San Francisco, California, August 2016

I have been blessed with incredibly fierce, lovable, empathetic, intelligent, and kind people as moderators to the difficulties of life, and the reminders of them are too many to list. Not all are tangible, but all are equal, and all represent the constant reminder of the fact that human kindness, and the resulting strength of human community, can cultivate a sense of family which strengthens the individual by granting the ability to make each and every place home as these reminders are carried symbolically in the house of the soul, lining its walls with memories and decorating front doors with welcoming, healing symbols.These memories represent the faith and kindness which is essential in defining the not-so-sad reality that “you can’t go home again” — because travel, by this experience of mine, thus grants the ability to realize that home is no longer a place.

One day when visiting your hometown, you will eventually run into someone — a character from a life you lived and left who will look upon you with kind, familiar blue eyes outside of a bar after a chance meeting, you initially not recognizing them after so many years have passed. You will chat for a few moments, allude to your new life delicately and with great reverence for the past one, and they theirs, you will briefly cover the requisite polite and friendly bases, and realize that with each interaction, you arrive closer to a sense of peace with the past of your hometown, and thereby, the future of ‘home’. They will not mention the pain, they will not introduce the mention of the gaping hole left by other characters which you have since reinforced and filled with love ever stronger. They will hug you, you will say farewell, and their scent will remind you of things you could never have remembered otherwise; they will shake the hand of the person you now walk the world with as if to ensure your safety and happiness, and you will leave the interaction with the sense that that life you lived and left has at least arrived at its final chapter. You will return home and shower off their scent with a degree of unwillingness, wishing the best for them, for their family, and for the characters within that life you loved and lost… and those who lost you. But critically, due to these travels and the changed definition of ‘home’, you will take the positives with you.

"Painted Ladies", Willimantic, Connecticut, July 2016
“Painted Ladies”, Willimantic, Connecticut, July 2016

As I sit in yet another hotel room on a record streak in the throws of searching wildly for a flat which takes cats (something which is proving the ultimate test of my patience and conviction to my new life here), my suitcase open and my life littered across two single beds, I realize that these potentially-jading experiences have instead strengthened me and likely do to many others who are blessed with the presence of such beautiful individuals — and those who possess the ability to recognize the good in all.

Glasgow, Scotland, Blurry Skyline, September 2016
Glasgow, Scotland, Blurry Skyline, September 2016
Glasgow, Scotland has proven to be, thus far, the most friendly place I have ever lived, or been to: at each juncture where otherwise-trying experiences may result in a complete breakdown of patience, communications, and faith, there appears a reason to smile: a dog and her owner stop to say hello, ducks surface on a pond, and the cab driver is happy to chat about life, religion, politics, or anything else you fancy. A woman will go out of her way to ensure that you are not wandering the street lost and feeling alone, walk a quarter of the way to your destination with you, and hug you goodbye. I feel at home here like no other place due to the kindness of the people and the goodness of the community, even on the rainy days.

And even on those rainy days: the windy days, the cold days, those harbingers of a cold fall and winter to come, the cloisters offer comfort, the shop owners offer their smiling faces as an unspoken addition to the service they provide, and I find certainly that again my community is growing. My heart, thereby, grows as well, and I make room for more love to accommodate the influx of support and to give as much of it back as is possible to the beautiful community here.

Mom's Garden, Storrs, Connecticut, August 2016
Mom’s Garden, Storrs, Connecticut, August 2016
The heart is an infinite space: you have only to open it to the world to feel at home wherever your suitcase rests tonight. And, on the rare occasions on which it rests on the floor of your childhood home, or on the bed of the dorm rooms you used to frequent, you will find that, truly, you bring ‘home’ back to theirs as they bring it to yours. I continue to build home up in my heart, expanding room upon room indefinitely.
Only when the traveler reaches a cessation of the internal questioning of “where” home is have they acknowledged — and thereby found — that home is described and supported only by “who”, as we fill our lives and our hearts with stories which accommodate the fulfillment of our own capacities to love.