I write every day to process, and I hope to learn from my past.
For instance, I recently wrote this: “By now, I’d accepted that one day I might be blown to bits by a car or truck bomb. Amazingly, I even could see the silver lining to that dark cloud: I wouldn’t know much about it. What worried me was the bomb that didn’t kill me but left me a multiple amputee, perhaps unable to see or hear.”
These words date back to the 1970s. Was I writing a novel set in Baghdad or Beirut during that time? No, I was writing about the facts of life—and death—in my native city Belfast, a United Kingdom city torn apart in the early 1970s by a religious conflict that dates back to 1690, when protestant King William of Orange defeated catholic King James at the River Boyne in Ireland. Back then, as a fresh graduate, sudden death wasn’t my only worry: there was the usual laundry list of QLC (Quarter Life Crisis) issues—relationships, careers, a serious cash shortage, the gathering storm of full-blown adulthood and so on.
I did my best to navigate this sea of troubles, but when the possibility of emigration came along I jumped at it. Unfortunately, I left hastily with no planning and landed alone, mid-winter, in a small rural Ontario town where I had no family or friends.
I was totally unprepared for my new life. I’d taken a job that most of the townspeople felt should have gone to someone local. Then there was winter. In Ireland in January the average temperature is about 5ºC, – 20ºC days are unimaginable. As one of 10 children, I’d never experienced solitude which would be a hallmark of my new life. It wasn’t easy, but I survived.
Three very isolating years later, I moved to Montreal, which was love at first sight, as it still is. Mind you, my new life was still a struggle. I had no relatives or friends, no Northern Ireland community and few possibilities of friendship in my workplace. I had to learn to work and live in French, and much more.
On top of these adaptation challenges, I lived with survivor’s guilt and worried about “that call” bringing news that mum, dad, a brother or sister had been injured or killed in a bombing. My sudden amputation from Ireland’s green rolling hills, ocean beaches, sea breezes and rainbows was a low level, but persistent sensory deprivation. I might even have had a touch of PTSD. It’s not surprising that it took me three decades of sustained effort to feel truly at home.
My friends, even after decades, even as they succeed, still say, “We love it here but it’s not home.” This between-two-worlds; at-home-in-neither, life is, I know, a default setting for most of us who arrive as adults and it’s where I’d still be without my writing. In the end it was writing that brought me home and for that I am so very grateful.
Graphic by @sundaeghost