redux: nostos

Note: this is from March, 2017.

looking west

I have been thinking about nostalgia. Some days it seems to be my lodestar. I know from my time as a student of classical literature that the term is not truly Greek, though one its roots are Greek words: νόστος, home or the return home, and άλγος, longing. The words were yoked in the 17th century by a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, and the compounded word, nostalgia, was considered a curable disease. (Think leeches and opium.)

We were recently on Vancouver Island for five nights, three of them near Tofino and two of them in Victoria. Both places were part of my formative years. Victoria was where I spent most of my life until I met John in 1979. I’d been away a lot — Greece, Ireland, England… — but I always returned to Victoria. My parents lived there. I’d gone to high school and university there. (My family moved every two years during my young childhood — my father was in the navy — so we spent time in Halifax as well as Matsqui, in the Fraser Valley. But again, we always returned to Victoria until my father retired from the navy in 1969 and went to work at the Esquimalt dockyards.) And the Pacific Rim was a place I first camped with friends in (I think) 1971 or 2, returning as often as I could for years afterwards. I remember the road from Port Alberni before it was paved and once having to hitchhike out from Long Beach to Port Alberni and getting rides with loggers.

John also spent time on the Pacific Rim in his early 20s. His girlfriend then was from California and was a surfer. He’d gone with her to Long Beach for a surfing competition in the late 1960s, camping on the beach in a Volkswagen van. So he carries his own passle of memories when we walk down trails to beaches grey with mist or watch surfers paddling between the swells. In his, a girl with blond hair is carrying her surfboard down to the water. He remembers how everything was damp, even in good weather.

This time, in both Victoria and on the beaches of the Pacific Rim, we talked about the past. For our generations (I add the plural because we’re 7 years apart, which is nothing now, but in the years I’m referring to, 7 years was a gap wider than it seems now), it was possible to live without much stuff. I didn’t have a camera until I was in my twenties. No cell phone, no computer, no easy access to any kind of social media. Our records are held in memory. A server in one of the places we had lunch in Tofino said she often wished there were more photographs of those years — her boyfriend’s mum had lived in a cabin at Chesterman Beach, she said, for 25 dollars a month — and it’s true. I have none. John has none. We didn’t record our meals for Facebook or Twitter. The driftwood shelters? I don’t have a single photograph. The time I camped with my dog in November and on the one clear day saw whales from Florencia Bay with the binoculars my father lent me? No photographs.

In a way it’s the same with Victoria and other places of my childhood. My father had a small Brownie camera and we have some snaps of our family lined up down the front stairs, dressed for church. We have a handful of slides from later years, mostly of my brothers and me standing against old wagons or plaster dinosaurs on camping trips to Alberta. None of us collecting bark at Clover Point for the little wood-heater in the kitchen. None of the mornings on Salt Spring Island when my father cooked buckwheat pancakes in a old black skillet. Or the falls at Englishman River where we went for camping trips over long summer weekends. Or Bamberton. Yet my memory of these times is as clear as sunlight. Or is it? There must have been shadows too. But walking the route I took to school in grades one and two or passing the house on Moss Street where my best friend lived, I never see a single one.

Nostos is also about the story of returning home. In the Odyssey, Odysseus keeps true to Ithaka. It’s his compass point, his end-point, his journeys-end, his haven.

                              Yet, it is true, each day
I long for home, long for the sight of home.

(from Book Five, 218-19, trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

He tells his story again and again, to anyone who will listen, faithful to the place and his beloved who waits for him. Yet places for which one feels nostalgia are not always home. There’s not always the possibility of home-coming. When I walked out on the breakwater at Ogden Point the other day, what I felt was a homesickness, yes, but as often as I looked at pretty houses in James Bay, even the ones with For Sale signs on them, I knew there was no way to return, not even with leeches or opium. Or the long beaches, lit by fires and stars. Yet I keep returning, wanting something of who I was when I first knew them.

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