Gillian had instructed me to let myself in and to say the dogs’ names, Dante and Clyde, so they might stop barking when I came through the door. They did not bark at all, as it turned out. They were gigantic and gorgeous, the one black and the other mottled. I said hello to both of them and reached out my arm, low so as not to be threatening, so they could come and lick my hand. Their friendly tail-wagging welcome made me glad. It was uncomplicated, as far as weary arrivals go. No talking necessary.
I was relieved to close the door behind me and free myself from my coat and my luggage and boots. I made myself a cup of tea with the red, old-fashioned kettle that was there on the stove. The tea was easy to find in the white wooden cupboards, as were the mugs. I selected a dark ceramic one, noting that the choosing of a mug was always something I did with great consideration. The fridge, where I looked for milk for my tea, was packed to the gills. The kitchen floor was checkered and the whole room was charmingly unmodern. Not too clean, not too dirty. Just right.
The dogs settled in the living room, flopped down on the large, soft couches. There were two cats, I was told, but they had not revealed themselves yet. The room was dim and full of pet hair. There were dark, evocative paintings on the wall, and there was a blue rug beneath the old-fashioned trunk-turned-coffee table. Plants with outstretched vines, a piano, guitar, accordion, and a music stand all stood perfectly positioned on the wooden floor. It looked like a scene from a play that was about to begin, and was indeed, where I would be playing.
The adjacent dining room was brighter. A big, oval wooden table stood at its centre, taking up most of the room, and there was a large book-case taking up most of the far wall, brimming over with books of all sorts, some new and some tattered and old, titles that beckoned me to stay longer than I could. A window overlooked the back yard, and the wall that framed the kitchen doorway had photographs and children’s drawings, knick-knacks, and posters. There was hardly an empty space to be found.
Everywhere my eyes looked, there was the cluttered accumulation of a family and music life lived. Still alone, I could almost hear the echoes of children playing and growing, the clunking of dishes, the footsteps. It was magical. There was so much presence of life spilling from every saved object and item, and it occurred to me that it had not become this way all at once. It sank in that many years of living had created this.
I had not seen a house like this in quite some time. Most of the places I had been staying in were apartments of students and musicians. There’d been guitars and records and beer bottles but hardly any books, and certainly no children’s drawings. This was a house I could relate to, though the ones I grew up in never accumulated quite as many artifacts. My family had moved every few years and each of our homes gave glimpses only of various family chapters. This was a house like the ones I used to babysit in when I was earning money in my teenage years. This was a house like the ones I used to imagine having, the type of house I used to want before the road became my home. This house was a home. It evoked both comfort and a twinge of sorrow.
I took out my notebook to describe it because I realised it moved me to witness it in the midst of my transitory travels, and it wasn’t just personal, about what I used to imagine and never got. It was about my fascination with these units of shelter where babies are raised thinking it is their whole universe, that children run in and out of with muddy shoes and gushing stories, between school and friends and activities, then teenagers, then adults returning for visits. It was about the joys and sorrows that the walls contain over years. It was about the structures that house the meaning of time itself.
After the show, where several people had gathered to listen to my songs, eat snacks from trays and plates and talk about life, when only Gillian and I were left in the kitchen, we began the great conversation, filling each other in on our lives. We had interesting points of intersection that made us feel like the greatest of friends. Such different backgrounds, and yet we had had similar experiences, similar losses, similar reactions and thoughts and reflections. I talked about one day having a home and she talked about one day leaving the one we were standing in.
The shower upstairs, where I went to soothe my tired muscles before going to bed, had a selection of soaps and body washes, shampoos and conditioners and cleansers and razors and I thought about how all the bathrooms I see have different ones, and how people go out and buy these products with their various, coloured packaging and their many scents. I wondered how they made their choices, and how so many of us seldom finish one product before we buy another, wanting a change, but not wanting to let the old one go. I stood under the hot water and opened a few to smell them, as if I could get to know about life itself if I did. My senses were grateful for the fragrant information.
I missed my old bathroom collection. I missed my old books. I missed the idea that I would one day have a dog or a cat or maybe even children. But I also knew how much I loved seeing so many homes, and loved that I would see so many more, that I would stand in other kitchens with other interesting people, getting to know myself better as they talked about themselves. I thought about the fact that I did not want Gillian to leave one day, because I wanted this house to be here forever for me to keep visiting. I knew it didn’t work that way. I wondered if I would ever live somewhere again.
I’ve seen the inside of several other fridges since then. I have spoken to many more people about their lives and mine, while sitting at their dining room table eating their food. I have stood in many more showers smelling the soap in an effort to absorb who they are into my understanding. I have pet many more dogs and cats, played with more babies, glanced with fascination at book titles on other people’s shelves, paintings on other people’s walls, and photographs, and drawings. I have figured out ovens, and faucets, and coffee machines, found the kettle and tea and chosen mugs for myself to drink out of, found the light switches in the dark, fumbling. I have slept on many beds and couches knowing my home is not a unit of shelter but hundreds of different ones belonging to others, spread over cities and countries and continents. I have left and returned to the same ones, and encountered new ones on each leg of my long journey, and I have been grateful beyond words for the privilege to visit in every single one.
This morning I read that Gillian’s house had a fire. Thankfully, everyone, including the pets, was rescued. They were told, at first, that the house would have to be demolished, but as it turns out, they will be able to salvage the structure with some rebuilding. It is too early to tell. I can’t imagine any of the books survived, and it is heartbreaking to think of the children’s drawings gone, and all those records and plants. Gillian remains the stoic and positive person I’ve known her to be, grateful that everyone is safe.
It was just today I was sifting through boxes of mine at my parents’ place, wondering why I’ve kept old university essays of mine, old letters and photographs. If I had a home, they might be out on display, but as it stands, they are just filed away. For the first time in years it occurred to me that I know who I am without these old artifacts, that whatever traces of me I have clung to by hanging on to them, will be with me regardless, integrated into the very fabric of my soul.
Gillian told me that the firefighters saved the musical instruments after they got all the pets out to safety. I had offered her my accordion, which sits at a friend’s place in Berlin, in case hers hadn’t survived. When I found out the instruments were rescued I was not only relieved, I thought it a marvellously poetic gesture on the part of the firefighters.
What matters most? That everyone is safe, yes, but that we can keep playing music, literally and figuratively, is what gives us that crucial vitality, our meaning. The songs we sing and the stories we tell keep every piece of evidence that we have lived lives and we are still thriving. Artifacts are beautiful to hold and show, to hang on walls, but they disintegrate and fade, are vulnerable to the elements, just as our very bodies are, here for a time, then gone. If the stories and songs of our lives and loves can survive and still be shared, we have not lost a thing. We are lucky.
If this house doesn’t make it, I will be visiting Gillian wherever she creates her new home. Perhaps, one day, she will visit me in mine. Perhaps I will bring her a book as a gift, or some fragrant soap. Perhaps we will draw new pictures.