Seasonophilia? Can I call it that?

Some people have a favourite season. Not me. I love them all. Long hot summer days and cold dark winter nights. I could never understand some friends in Nunavut who put black-out blinds on their windows to shut out the almost endless summer sun. At Arviat’s latitude, the sun dips below the horizon for a little over four hours at the height of summer, casting the land into twilight, but never darkness. I loved the almost 24 hour daylight, because I knew it was short-lived and in a few months we would experience the opposite – short short bitterly cold days when leaving the house could take half an hour because of all the layers of clothes required and the possible shovelling of snow to get out the door.

In summer I closed my flimsy curtains before I went to bed, although they were useless against the sun that would soon appear above the horizon again. Children played on the swing outside my house at midnight. If I happened to be in bed at that time, it was only to catch a few hours sleep before a 3 or 4am start to catch low tide and check my fishing nets with my friend Crystal, or a 5am start to go early morning beluga whale hunting with my friend Frank.

Winter, on the other hand, was a time for wrapping up, drinking hot chocolate or tea after brisk walks in -20˚C temperatures, reading and long hot baths. It was a time for visiting, talking and playing board games.

In Ireland, the seasons are less extreme, but no less wonderful. Each season comes with its own unique smells, colours, bodily sensations; each with its own festivals and feasts. Each season requires a different set of clothing and footwear, and different ways of being, doing and living. Some seasons are easier than others – less hassle, less bad weather, less rain.

It’s the start of each season that I love best. You wake one morning to a subtle change in the air – a smell, a rise or fall in temperature, an almost imperceptible change in texture – and you know that the transition from winter to spring or summer to autumn is finally taking place.

It’s been a long hot summer here on the Rio Guadiana. The land is parched, the air is dusty, and it has been reported that October has been 5˚C warmer than average. I’ve been anticipating the arrival of autumn for some time. I’ve been longing to wear jeans and long-sleeved tops, tired at last of shorts, t-shirts and flimsy summer clothes. I’ve been looking forward to early evenings in, hot chocolate and buttery toast, soups and stews, a hot water bottle in the bed.

Autumn, at last, appears to be getting the upper hand. A little rain fell last week (although not anywhere near enough), there’s a chill in the air each morning and evening, and yesterday morning, as I rowed the girls over the river to school, the first wisps of inversion mist hung over the river. This morning the mist was stronger,  moisture in the air finding my face when I removed Carina’s weather boards and greeted the morning at 8am.

As autumn wears on I will expectantly anticipate the transition to winter and from there to spring. And on it goes. Each season with its own sensations, its own wonders, its own reminders of how lucky we are to be alive on this oddly tilted planet!

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Home

These days Katie gets very indignant when I say seemingly innocent things such as ‘Let’s go home’, or ‘You left your coat at home’.
‘It’s not my home’, she scowls at me, hands on her hips, making a face that is endearingly comical. ‘Carina is my home’.
And she’s right. Carina is her home. Unlike the other three of us, Katie has lived more of her life aboard Carina than anywhere else. And she misses home terribly. She misses the physical space that is her home. She misses her own bed, the toys she has left behind, her dressing up bag. She has great plans for all the things she plans as soon as she gets back home. She also misses the river where Carina is currently anchored and, at every opportunity, tells anyone who will listen how great the river is. We are on a countdown now to going home – not home to a geographical location, but home to the structure in which we live – our boat.

I’ve pondered the concept of home a lot over the years. What does home mean to me? And how have my conceptualisations of home changed over time?

An aerial photo of our house, taken (I think) in the 1950s.

An aerial photo of our house, taken (judging by the TV aerial) in the 1960s.

I grew up in the middle of Ireland in the house where generations of my family were born and died. My family has been living in our little cottage outside Edenderry since the 1880s. Growing up, half of our neighbours were Daddy’s cousins and the other half had also been in the area for generations. My home extended beyond the house to the fields, hedgerows, trees and woodlands in all directions. I knew it all intimately. I knew the names of the fields, the names of some individual trees, the names and stories of the people who had once lived in houses that were now mere piles of rubble overgrown with ivy and ash trees. My personal history extended back to long before I was born, as I played and walked with my dog and picnicked in places imbued with stories passed on to me by my Nana and other elderly relatives. My Nana was born in 1900 and my grandfather (who died in 1942) was born in 1875, so I am very conscious of being only two generations away from the Ireland I learned about in history lessons at school.

Me, aged 2-ish, with my aunt Cissie, Rowdy the dog, my wheelie dog and the Rockin' Donkey.

Me, aged 2-ish, with my aunt Cissie, Rowdy the dog, my wheelie dog and the Rockin’ Donkey.

I suspect I will never know any place as well as I know my first home. I dwelled in it so deeply, it seeped into my soul, like bog water darkening the bones of Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen. I grew up and I went away, but always I returned home. I lived in Japan for three years and though I had a wonderful time there, it never felt like home. Perhaps because my closest friends were other expats, or because I lived alone, or because I lacked the language to effectively communicate, I always felt like an outsider. There were particular places I loved – a shrine, a mountain path – but I never got beyond their external beauty or peacefulness to know their history and their meaning to local people. Places lacked depth for me.

Nunavut was different. Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, became home when I lived there in the early 2000s. Unlike Japan, my closest friends were local people, long term residents, families, people of all ages. The people I lived with became my family. My research explored the relationship between the people of Arviat and the sea. I learned what the place meant to people. The landscape and seascape around Arviat became imbued with history and memory and each time I went on the land or to sea, places became more meaningful to me as my memories and experiences became entwined with the stories my companions and friends told me.

Daddy and Tom outside our house in the 1940s

Daddy and Tom outside our house in the 1940s

I left Ireland when I was 22 years old and have lived there on and off in the intervening twenty years. And in that time, my home has changed and I have changed. The physical landscape has changed – more infrastructure, more urban and rural development, and more people. I no longer know the places of my childhood as well as I once did. And where once I knew everyone I met on the road or on the streets of Edenderry, these days there are so many people I don’t know. I have also lost many close family members whose presence was implicit in my sense of home – Daddy, my uncle Tom, my aunt Lily, my uncle Gerry. Home resided in them. I still have a huge vast extended family back in Ireland, including my mother and sister. But these days, given what eager travellers they are, I’m as likely to hang out with Mammy and Antoinette in places other than Edenderry, and so my sense of family and my sense of home as place have become unglued from each other. We’re family no matter where we are.

Which I guess brings me to the most remarkable thing that happened to cause me to change my conception of home. I got married and had a family of my own. In the four and a half years Julian and I were together before Lily was born, we lived in four different places – Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Littleport, Cambridge. As we uprooted from place we became rooted to each other. And when the girls were still very young, we decided to buy a boat and set sail. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that we don’t stay in any place for very long.

So, where is home now? I’ve had this discussion with Lily and Katie quite a lot, especially this summer, when we’ve become uprooted from our boat and have moved temporarily back to the UK. Home, for me, is wherever the four of us are together. It’s not a physical place. Our roots are in each other. I consider Carina to be our home, but she will likely not be our home forever. No matter where we live, or what type of accommodation we live in, home for me is the comfort and stability of being together as a family. And that’s why, when I hang out with my mum and sister on the boat, or in a hotel room, in New York or in Vienna, we’re home, because we’re with each other.

Over the years the symbols of home have become less important. I’m less concerned about being Irish or being from Kildare or Edenderry than I used to be. That kind of nationalism and tribalism has lost much of its meaning for me now. My memories of place – the home of my childhood – remain strong and inform the way I live my life today. I suspect no place will ever affect me as strongly and deeply as the place where I grew up. Home used to be people-rooted-in-place. But these days, home is far less about place and far more about people. These days home is that ever moving location where I live with my family.

Keeping in touch

I’m almost forty-two years old. I grew up in the little cottage that has belonged to my family for about 140 years. My father and his father were born in that house, my mother still lives there. My roots are planted deeply in the midlands of Ireland. But for the past twenty years I have been a nomad. At the age of twenty-two I moved to Japan, and from there back to Ireland, then to Nunavut in Canada, then to Scotland, back to Nunavut, back to Scotland, then to England, then onto Carina, and now here I am in southern Spain. I’ve lived all over the UK, and I’ve travelled extensively across Canada, and along the east coasts of the United States and Australia, and throughout Europe. I’m a wanderer at heart. Over those twenty years, advances in communication technology have made the world a smaller place and both my home in Ireland and my friends and family scattered all over the world no longer seem as far away as they once did.

When I was growing up we didn’t have a phone. Neither did any of my relatives, or any of my neighbours, with the exception of Jimmy and Mrs. Phelan who lived about 300 yards down the road. If an urgent phone call needed to be made we would run down to Phelan’s and Jimmy or Mrs. Phelan (Mr. Phelan was always ‘Jimmy’; Mary Phelan was always ‘Mrs.’) would show us into their sitting room and close the door to afford some privacy. Afterwards, we would hand over 10p. We didn’t make phone calls often. I remember one night, when my sister was small, she got her finger caught in the bathroom door and the doctor had to be called. Daddy wasn’t home, so Mammy sent me across the road to McGlynn’s and Mel ran down to Phelan’s to phone the doctor.

When I was 16 years old I got an opportunity to go to France for the summer to work as an au pair and improve my French. The family I was to stay with wrote me a letter and asked me to phone to finalise the arrangements. Mammy drove me into Edenderry and we queued up at the public pay phone outside the Bank of Ireland, waiting our turn to make the call to France. During those few weeks in France, I wrote home every couple of days, long rambling letters about how homesick I was!

I was 19 years old, in my second year at university, when my parents got a phone in our house. Throughout my years at university, I would queue up – in cold, wind and rain – behind a long line of other students, waiting my turn to use a pay phone to call my parents at work, or from my second year on, at home.

During the three years I lived in Japan telephone calls were prohibitively expensive and my parents and I had an arrangement. They called me once a month and I called them once a month, so we got to talk every two weeks. Those phone calls cost a fortune, so our primary means of communication was by letter. We wrote long letters to each other. My parents’ letters were regularly wrapped up in newspapers, particularly during the summer months, when Daddy sent me the Monday newspaper each week with the latest stories from the weekend’s football and hurling championships. The newspapers were wrapped in envelopes you could buy at the time especially for posting newspapers. Japan really did feel like a long long way from home.

Shortly after I moved back to Ireland in 1998 I got my first laptop and my first email account. The friends I had made in Japan – Japanese, American, Canadian, Australian, British – all got email accounts at around the same time, and suddenly we were able to keep in touch easily and cheaply. Of course, the dial up internet service we had back then was painfully slow, but compared to writing a letter, it seemed like the speed of light.

The cost of international phone calls had started to come down too, so that when I moved to Nunavut in 2000 I was able to email my parents every day and by buying cheap international calling cards, I could phone them once or twice a week. That first year in Arviat I worked at the elementary school and most evenings after school I spent an hour in the computer lab, emailing family and friends in far-flung places. Sometimes at weekends I would let myself into the school to listen to sporting events on Irish radio on the internet. Listening to Michael O’Muircheartaigh’s voice brought me closer to home.

In January 2004, in Scotland, I got my first mobile phone, and now I could keep in touch with my family in Ireland via text message. We could send messages on a whim and the distance between us was cut even shorter.

And then came Facebook and Skype. What a world these have opened up. Sure, I’m critical of Facebook. I dislike the advertising. And I dislike when people I don’t even know want to be ‘friends’. (I ignore them). But it has made the world such a small place for me. My friends from Japan are all married now with children of their own; the kids I taught in Arviat back in 2000 are now parents; my old school and university friends are all moving towards middle age as gracefully as I am!! I love that I have the opportunity to carry on these important relationships with people. I suspect that without Facebook I would not have spent Easter two years ago with my friend Meredith and her family in Haddonfield, New Jersey, or visited Sara and her family last year in Princeton. Without Facebook my friendships with Gavin, Bernard and Finbar might have fizzled away to nothing. Without Facebook ataata Paul and anaana Linda would not have given Lily her Inuit name, Niviaq, and the relationships Lily has through her name would not exist.

In the three weeks that Julian and the girls were away, Julian and I emailed almost every day and we Skyped a few times. I Skyped my friend Katie in Bristol for a good old catch up, and I’ve been able, through Facebook, to keep in touch with my adopted family in Arviat during what is, for them, a most difficult time.

Compared to most people I know, Julian and I are lightweights when it comes to communication technology. Between us we own one laptop and one old mobile phone, but we don’t own a smart phone or a tablet or any of those other things. But with the improvements in technology over the past twenty years we are able to easily and cheaply keep in touch with family and friends all over the world. It makes travelling a lot easier, knowing that the people who are important to us can be in touch any time they want; and the children can talk face-to-face with their grandmothers any day of the week. In many areas of my life I am an unashamed Luddite, but hurray for technology that allows us to stay emotionally close to our loved ones.

Humility

Arviat shoreline, October 2007

Arviat shoreline, October 2007

I remember an afternoon in Arviat, over a decade ago, talking with Joe Karetak about the sea. Joe has lived his life on the west coast of Hudson Bay, travelling across the open sea by boat in summer, and on the sea ice by snowmobile in winter and spring, hunting seals, beluga whales and polar bears, and fishing for arctic char. He knows a thing or two about the sea. Like all Inuit hunters, a great deal of Joe’s time at sea is spent watching and waiting – waiting for the tide to turn, waiting for migratory animals to arrive, waiting for a seal to surface – and weighing up alternatives. So many hours, days, years, lifetimes of waiting, quietly being attentive and watchful, preparing for sudden bursts of activity and action. The anthropologists Nuccio Mazzullo and Tim Ingold refer to this as ‘alert idleness’. As a result of all this watching and waiting, Inuit hunters possess a deep knowledge of the marine environment and its animals.

And something Joe said to me that day has stayed with me ever since. Being at sea is a ‘humbling experience’ he said. ‘The environment leads and you follow. The sea controls you’. Wise words. We need to accept our own humility in our engagements and interactions with the marine environment. The sea is awesome and powerful. We, by comparison, are puny, and no technology we have invented can match that power.

Arviaraarjuq at sunset, autumn 2006

Arviaraarjuq at sunset, autumn 2006

Life lived on the sea moves at a different pace. It can take a while to accept that. Each time we’ve move aboard Carina we’ve had to readjust to a slower pace, to moving with the rhythms of the sea, to staying put when necessary, to moving on when the time is right. It can be difficult at times to explain that we don’t know when we’ll reach our destination, and we don’t know how long we’ll stay there once we arrive. Wind direction and strength, tides, currents, swells, waves, storms, fog, hours of daylight – these are what guide us.

Sure, we can tweak our sails to gain an extra knot of speed, but a distance that took two hours to cover yesterday might take seven hours to cover today; and the calm seas of today might be whipped into a frenzy tomorrow. Who knows.

The trick is to let go, to accept that the sea is more powerful than we are, and to go with the flow. To wait it out when that’s what’s required, and to be ready to move on when the sea permits. And, like hunters in Arviat, to wait and watch, and in that waiting time to grow into ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the sea and of ourselves.

Paul Pemik's boat, near Tikiraarjuq, August 2006

Paul Pemik’s boat, near Tikiraarjuq, August 2006