Don’t Quote Me: Leaving to Return

One of the most vivid and enduring memories from my childhood is coming home.

Each summer we would drive to our rustic cottage for a month off-grid. And I do mean rustic. No electricity – we went to bed when the sun went down or read by flickering candlelight. No running water – we carted water from a nearby spring and heated it on the propane stove in an old iron kettle. No air conditioning (the window), no shower (the lake), no toilet (the outhouse).

The bathtub; I seem to be awfully thorough in cleaning my feet for a 5-year old?

And it was perfect. Looking back, I can only imagine how freeing it was for my parents. No phone calls, no fussy meals, no e-mails (though I guess e-mails weren’t really a thing back then anyway?), no enforcing bedtimes, no electric bills. In our world of hyperconnectivity and pseudo-vacations (can anyone fully unplug these days, despite what those OOO auto-responses suggest) could we even imagine a week, let alone a month, of this lifestyle?

If it was sunny we picked wild berries in the morning and went swimming in the afternoon. If it rained, we played boardgames, or read books, or just sat and looked out the window. We had bonfires and went canoeing; I’d lay in the hammock and listen to cicadas by the hour (one of the most enduring sound memories from my childhood).

And then it would be time to leave. It devastated me every year. Nothing looked right. The raft came in; canoes got stowed away. The inside of the cottage was piled high with the detritus of summer living – lifejackets and deck chairs and swimming shoes. Things that weren’t meant to be inside; things that needed to see sunshine and water to come alive. Decades on I can still remember the almost physical pain I felt having the last glimpse of the lake be so forlorn; like all it’s character had been stripped away now that we were leaving.

But after wallowing for an hour or so, my sights were set on the next adventure. Home. It wasn’t because I was overly excited to be home (summer cottage life is hard to beat), but because I loved the unique sensation of returning home.

Of having the familiar become unfamiliar.

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors…Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

Terry Pratchett

As soon as we unlocked the door there’d be a huge stack of mail in the entryway. Something about that thrilled me. And then I’d get hit by the smell – a mix of freshly-cut grass and furnace oil. When you live in a space, the unique scent profile becomes indistinguishable. Coming home, you get to experience the olfactory reality for every stranger that crosses the threshold.

I remember walking through all the rooms – we’d leave things neat and tidy when we left – and it felt like some sort of out-of-body experience. The texture of my bedspread, the colour of the kitchen linoleum. Everything seemed brighter, magnified, distinctive. Look at the wall – light switches! And here a toilet! These ordinary things, these things I used 11 months of the year without so much as a second thought, suddenly seemed novel and exciting. It was like seeing the world through a new set of glasses.

Though intense and exhilarating, the experience was temporary. I lost the ability to distinguish the faint smell of furnace oil after a day or so; very soon I didn’t think twice about opening a refrigerator and removing a cold beverage, flushing a toilet, or taking a hot shower. But it’s a memory and sensation that has stayed with me for life.

G. K. Chesterton said: “Look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again.” Sometimes, the easiest way to do this – to gain perspective, appreciation, and a new way forward – is to leave. Why go? So we can come back.

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