No place like home

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
― Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

Coming home last night around 10:30, I stopped by my local convenience store to buy some penny candy. I can do without chocolate and any number of other confections but penny candy remains my weakness. When the craving hits, I will not be denied. Mind you, the selection isn’t what it used to be but then we all have our version of the “golden years”, don’t we. Or we do if we’re old enough.

The store was surprisingly busy. A number of young people were stocking up on late night snacks, a guy ahead of me was buying a pack of smokes, and one would-be customer had to leave when he realized he had forgotten his wallet. He reassured himself by checking the time, confident he could get home and back before the store closed.

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What struck me as I was hanging by the candy waiting for the line to diminish so the busy clerk could make her way down to me and answer my need for a sugar rush was how pleasant everyone was. Even the guy who forgot his wallet was no more than disappointed. He took it all in stride and left with a cheery “I’ll be back”. The clerk was all smiles and patience and the other customers were chatting here and there, chuckling at something or other. If Norman Rockwell were still around, he could have found inspiration in the moment, Canadian-style.

It made me glad to be just where I was at that moment, hanging out later at night in my little corner store with a group of people, unknown to me, who seemed to feel something of the season or maybe just a general satisfaction with their lives, at least on this mild, Canadian night, all of us aware at some level that such nights would have to give way to bitter chill some day soon.

I happen to know that the owner of the store is an Iranian by birth. He immigrated to Canada some 30+ years ago and has been making a go of it as a convenience store owner ever since. I know him to say hello to and he is always congenial and happy to talk about his time in Canada and even to complain about taxes and how hard it can be to make a go of it in these tough economic times.

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I like to give him as much business as I can and, in doing so, I am following a trend that seems to be growing in the city. Both of my daughters are increasingly committed to the idea of supporting local entrepreneurs and businesses where and when they can. And they seem to have been joined by an increasing number who are, perhaps, realizing that the sense of place and belonging that comes with connecting through local enterprise is a pretty good feeling.

And times are tough in some ways around here. If we’re paying any kind of attention we know that the economy is stagnant, that good jobs are hard to come by, that poverty in Saint John remains high, that the population is aging, public services are increasingly costly, etc. Most of us could add to the list, I’m sure.

But I’m grateful to live where I do. I know I have been fortunate in ways it is all too easy to forget. Many have said before me that those of us who were born here won the lottery. While we are drawn to the big news stories of refugees, terror and mass killings, it is easy to forget that for a great many in the world, daily life is a challenge few of us born in the West could ever imagine.

Some years back, when I was in Africa with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, this was brought home to me in a way that has endured. As guests of the Ghanaian National Association of Teachers, my colleagues and I were given the very best the country could offer as far as accommodations and other amenities went. In one instance, we were staying in a Beach Resort close to a town that had as its major attraction Africa’s oldest slave castle. Built by the Portuguese in the 15th century, it was a very substantial reminder of a dark time.

One afternoon, when I had some free time, I decided to walk from our hotel into town. It took me about 15 minutes and along the way, I noticed certain things I had missed before. The huts along the road had no electricity. I was able to see darkened interiors where a fire in the centre provided a place for cooking and, if needed, heat as well, I suppose. Pavement, sidewalks, street lights? Non-existent.

On the return journey, I decided to follow the shoreline and take the palm-fringed, white sand beach that I had noticed from the resort, a beach that was, curiously I thought, virtually entirely unused. Anywhere else and it would have been teeming with sunbathers and the aquatic set, I thought.

Not long after I had started my stroll, I realized why the beach was unused: with its tidal action, the beach was the only logical alternative for a population that had no sewer system of any kind.

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As Christmas approaches, more than anything I hope that all of us blessed to call Canada home realize just HOW fortunate we really are. And, the times being what they are, I hope as well that we have a chance to say hello to someone new around here and help to make them feel just a little bit more welcome. I hope someday they’ll be able to call this place home.


2 thoughts on “No place like home”

  1. Carl, I love your story. It reminds me good times in Senegal, in India, in Haiti and in Colombia. Whenever I would come home after having worked in developing countries, I felt very fortunate. Not only did I feel fortunate to be born in Canada, I also felt fortunate to be able to share the knowledge I had learned since childhood with people less fortunate than me. I felt fortunate to learn from them about spontaneity, resourcefulness, and solidarity. Their attention to me left a deep impression.

    Are they poor? While they have so few material possessions in comparison to what we own, they are happy and honoured to make us feel that we are family. A simple meal in their company becomes a banquet. Nothing is more precious than a warm and cheerful welcome. When a stranger asks me candidly how are the members of my family, he or she is no longer a complete stranger. The world is becoming my family. And I have obligations and gratitude towards my large extended family.
    In India, I learned that family is the greatest wealth. Let us all appreciate our wealth.


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