We Can’t Go Home and It Hurts

We Can't Go Home

Fine, sure. Everything’s fine. We’re fine down here living in the United States. The kids are fine. School’s going fine.

There’s a global pandemic that has closed international borders, separating us from our family back home in Toronto while my husband works around the clock to cover the smouldering state of affairs at the White House, the prospect of an election gone wrong on the horizon, and my emotional pendulum swings wildly between groundless optimism and bottomless despair. Still, things are mostly, well, they’re fine.

The day-to-day pandemic living in the inner DC burbs is mostly comfortable. We have a nice home with outdoor space and trails and streams to explore right behind our backyard. We don’t go to museums anymore, but we can still walk among the monuments, basking in the vast amount of space that was designed to accommodate thousands of tourists who aren’t here. We’ve swapped theatres for Netflix, restaurants for take-out and school for virtual Zoom classrooms. We’re not living in a war zone—well, not yet.

I was quite sure I was fine. Then I hit that part of a long, slow run where you just start to settle into a rhythm, one foot pushing off after the other, sliding into autopilot. You haven’t hit a runner’s high yet, but everything is kind of numb, which is fine because you don’t even want the high. It’s this numbness that you’re after. Running on the same path, in the same direction, for the same distance, at the same time of day as always, running to feel nothing.

And then “River” by Joni Mitchell shuffled into my playlist and it broke me.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

All the aching yearning for home that I’d tamped down so hard I didn’t even know it was there swelled up from within. Tears welled up under my sunglasses and I was suddenly breathing hard even though I was barely jogging now.

But it don’t snow here
It stays pretty green
I’m going to make a lot of money
Then I’m going to quit this crazy scene
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

It’s a visceral sort of homesickness that likes to sneak up on me when I’m just trying to turn off the feeling part of my brain like any good citizen of our modern world. I’ll be halfway through a run or at the end of that second glass of wine or binge-watching a cooking show. I don’t even see it coming because I am really quite certain that everything is fine.

The truth is that I miss family. I miss my city. I miss the richness of living in a place where every street corner is layered with memories and family legends. I could show the kids, “That chapel is where Nana and Grandpa got married and that used to be a coffee shop where I studied during my first year of university before it turned into a Korean restaurant and then into the student resource centre. I missed dropping my kids off at day camp down the street from where my grandfather grew up and then taking them for gelato at the same ice cream parlour that’s been there for generations.

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

But we were up for an adventure, too! It would be fun, I told the kids. And it’s not even that far. We would visit anytime, all the time! That was the promise I made to them and to myself and to everyone else. We would be back so much it would be like we were never gone.

So far we’ve missed Easter and summer and two different weddings. The holidays are next up. It’s starting to feel like the border will never reopen, or even if does, or even if we can manage to find the time to quarantine, how can we safely visit with all the different people we miss during a pandemic anyway?

Oh, I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby say goodbye

The world felt so small a year ago, didn’t it? Discount airfares brought us across oceans for next to nothing. Hotels were booked from our phones. People planned parties at Caribbean resorts just because they could. And now how many of us, stranded great distances from the people we love, would pay anything just to sit together around a kitchen table?

The world was so small and then—SNAP—everyone was pulled back into the true confines of time and space and now we see how big the world really is.

But it’s still going to be fine. Isn’t it?

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

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