Most of you probably know that The Nature of a Pirate is on the ballot for the Aurora Award this year; voting is open now, and if you’re a member of CSFFA I urge you to get a ballot in, to support your favorite work by Canadian authors, pro and fan (as well as fan organizers, musicians, and visual artists!) working in all our beloved speculative genres.
Winning the Aurora for best novel last year for A Daughter of No Nation, in tandem with Kelly winning Best Short Fiction for her “Waters of Versailles,” was one of the great thrills of a magical year. I am thrilled and blessed to be on the ballot again. And soon we are headed off to Finland, and Worldcon, for even more magic.
As I write these words I am well and truly settled into life in Toronto—it has been four years! But when I embarked on the Hidden Sea Tales trilogy, the question of where my home would be was very much in the air. We were eager to move east, Kelly and I, but couldn’t see a way to do it: there were so many wonderful things and people tying us to Vancouver. I was in the weird lucky position of being somewhere great, yet suspecting that there was someplace even better. When we went it was sudden, and intense—a big leap, not without risk–and I’m so grateful that instinct to jump proved to be the right one.
The old proverb home is where the heart is goes back so far it has been attributed, provisionally, to Pliny the Elder, a first century Roman scholar who really made the best of having Plinius for a middle name. It’s one of those two-edged aphorisms. It can mean home is where any sensible person wants to be, because of their attachment to the comforts and beloved people therein. Or it can mean any old pile of bricks and mortar place will take on the sentimental glow of a home if the ones you love are there.
Both definitions contain within them the idea that a home embodies an ideal of safety, comfort, and affection.
But what if the heart lies in two places?
This may be slightly more of a thing nowadays than it used to be. Our population is more mobile, and it’s not an uncommon phenomenon to have partners and jobs in differing cities. Sometimes people fall in love without having met in person. Sure, people were always being separated by war or work or trade missions—that part’s not new–but communications technology makes staying connected more feasible, so long distance relationships have proliferated in new ways.
I am something of a procedural mystery maniac, and one of my recent obsessions has been a show called Shetland, brought to us by the grace of Netflix and the BBC. It’s set in the Shetland Islands (which Google Maps can confirm is exceeding freaking remote) and while the main hub of the action is the bustling 7500-soul metropolis of Lerwick, there’s an episode that takes place out on Fair Isle, an island with under a hundred people.
For anyone who’s read Child of a Hidden Sea and the rest of the trilogy, it should be no surprise that this hits my sweet spot. Shetlandis about a community of interlocked islands and the tiny subculture flourishing there. A big subtextual concern within the show is the idea of home, of place–of living in a locale where your social opportunities and your geography are so very bounded, and where every young person who leaves is an incalculable loss to the community. It’s very nearly a portal fantasy with murder.
One of the things about portal fantasies–a subgenre I absolutely love–is they tend to offer up these neatly bounded sojourns. The heroes of these novels go to the magical enchanted land, as my Sophie Hansa has gone to Stormwrack. They have an adventure, they upset the local balance of power, sometimes they see Aslan die a horrible death… and then they come home. If they have an ongoing relationship with that other world, it is somehow tidy, characterized by intermittent visits. There’s a sort of general assumption that these characters get a taste of magic, achieve character growth, level up… and then get back to the business of living in the real world.
Who could do that?
For Sophie, and to a lesser extent her younger brother Bram, the magical enchanted land is, among other things, a scientific discovery. Stormwrack is a research opportunity, a possible avenue into better understanding the nature of the universe. What’s more, they suspect it may hold answers to questions about our own future in the age of climate change… and since this Narnia’s existence is a secret, nobody but the two of them can truly study it.
The challenge, of course, is is human entanglements. Sophie has, in San Francisco, an up-to-the-minute super modern life whose many technological conveniences are just a backdrop to what really matters: her parents, and when he chooses to be at home, her brother too.
But the longer she stays on Stormwrack, learning about magic and figuring out how to survive an Age of Sail culture and applying her unique skillset to interesting problems for a government that is–very slowly–coming to appreciate them, the more connection she makes there, too. And a lot of those connections come with genetic ties; she gets at least one new family member in every book in the trilogy.
Sophie grew up in San Francisco. She loves San Francisco. She loves telecommunications and streaming video and her parents and driving cars and pop music and cheap electric lights and being able to look up just about any fact known, on the Internet, within the blink of an eye.
But more and more, she also loves her new home, the sailing vessel Nightjar. She loves its crew – its bosun, Sweet, the ship’s doctor, Watts, its first mate, Tonio (whom she sees as brother-in-law material, though Bram hasn’t quite figured that out yet) and most especially she loves its captain, Garland Parrish.
Sophie loves the sense of being around the corner from the next incredible discovery, and the feeling of doing something important, and the self-confidence she found when her homeborn context were taken away from her.
Who could give up Wonderland, Oz, or Narnia for San Francisco? How do you make that big a leap?
In The Nature of a Pirate, finding a true sense of home is a big part of Sophie’s journey. The rest involves a captured human smuggler, a conspiracy to sink some of the great ships of the Fleet of Nations, and – did I forget to mention? – a tiny matter of accidentally having to plan a wedding.
What Sophie finds, ultimately, isn’t tidily bounded. It’s messy. Home may indeed be where the heart is, but our hearts will always be boundless.
Toronto, Day 1074. I am sitting on a bench in Nathan Phillips Square, a few weeks shy of our third anniversary of moving here. I’m looking at old City Hall and the new Toronto sign that was installed for the Pan-American games. This vast public square is a five minute walk from my door, and if the rooftop garden was open I would be sitting there instead.
Instead, I am watching a couple hundred people futz around in the early evening sun, waving selfie sticks, chasing pigeons, practicing synchronized dance moves, and climbing on the Henry Moore statue, The Archer, in front of the main entrance. There’s a young guy going from person to person asking them to take pictures of him making a “two thumbs up” gesture.
In another week or two, they’ll refill the fountain. Right now it has been cleared of its winter layer of skating ice, and is a bare concrete surface. People are taking advantage of the opportunity to get their loved ones inside the sign from a closer angle. There are kids and dogs and cyclists and seniors, single pedestrians, couples, families, tourists and packs of friends. It is Saturday night, and nobody’s in a hurry, and from this distance everyone seems to be at play, in a good mood.
The Square has two moods as far as I have seen. One is this – tourists and Torontonians chilling out. The other is thronging with some kind of organized activity, whether it is a farmers market, Nuit Blanche, a political rally, a big art show, or a formal parade. It’s not a park or in anyway green space, but it’s right next toOsgoode Hall, which has a law library, beautiful grounds and all the squirrels you could throw a nut at.
Something I did in October when I was in Vancouver was to tell everyone I know that I’d be at Caffe Calabria in the mornings, writing if I had the place to myself, and socializing if anyone cared to show. I met Barb there. Badger came, as did Emily from our old condo. I figured I’d see some of the cafe regulars, but it turned out there are a shocking number of them: I saw both Toms, for example, the alternate-energy physicist and the religious studies professor. An aspiring YA author, Jenny, was there both mornings. I caught Adita and Harry, the snowbirds whose daughter is a poet, on their last day in Canada. Oscar was there (what I know about Oscar is TMI for the Internet), and Yespat the engineer. I even exchanged friendly hellos with a trio of people I think of (not that this reflects well on me, but their voices carry and all they do is bitch bitch bitch some more) as the Friday Snark Club.
The sheer number of people I had a “Hey, how are ya?” relationship with and the delight that came with seeing them made me realize how many connections I’d built up just by going to work at dawn in the same place, 6-7 days a week, 2 hours a day. It drove home that I hadn’t even begun to do that particular kind of in-community root-growing here.
This lack of effort was no accident–in fact, I had it scheduled for November. I didn’t put much effort into a cafe hunt in May when we first moved to our new building. I knew there’d be guests coming and then travel and more guests and more travel, and the publicity push for Child of a Hidden Sea and then the film festival and more travel atop that. It was a thoroughly awesome summer and autumn, but I wasn’t keeping to the sort of schedule that makes it possible for me to settle into a routine.
Of course it was impossible I’d score another place quite as perfect as Calabria. It was 300 meters from my door, it opened at six in the morning, and Frank Murdocco’s eclectic curation of 20th century music is uniquely delightful, irreplaceable.
But! Now that October and all those trips are in the rearview, I’ve been going to a recently opened cafe called Portland Variety. The coffee is excellent, the atmosphere is right, the staff is lovely, tables are plentiful and the music leans to jazz (which is easier to tune out than pop, satellite radio’s litest hits or the go-to choice at Jimmy’s Cafe, the Doors.) I’m comfortable working here for hours on end, and there are starting to be other morning regulars. It’s not obscenely close to home, but the route back to the condo leads past the grocery, and that’s a significant plus.
It’s promising, in other words. I have high hopes that at last I’ve found this particular piece of my workaday puzzle.
According to my handy-dandy day-counting app, we’ve been here for 565 days now. I’m poking my nose into my second Ontario winter, and am curious to see how I feel about it now that the cold and snow lack, a bit, for novelty.
What’s far more significant to most of us about this time of year is less the dig for coats and toques packed away months before, and more the monolithic rah-rah-Christmasness of it all. December has come again, bringing with it three stat holidays configured, this time ’round, into one four day weekend and a Thursday off the following week.
Needless to say, this probably won’t be the most sentimental Alyx and Kelly Christmas ever. We’re never very sentimental, are we? There will be firsts: our first holiday with CinZo (and sans Rumble), the first in the new apartment… ah, that may be it.
The plan, such as it is, is to eat a couple nice meals out and see if we can find several amazing movies to see. Got any candidates? Anyone here a fan of doing a matinee on the 25th?
CinZo have gotten their present already: having failed numerous times to make the $3 cheapo versions work–and straining my hand in the process–I ordered a pricey and thoroughly awesome laser pointer that doubles as an LED flashlight and a UV flash too. (What does one do with a UV flash, exactly?) It debuted yesterday and we ran the kids up and down the apartment, up and down the cat tree and in circles until they were heaving with exhaustion.
There will, inevitably, be footage of this as soon as the right lighting comes my way.
A thing about living right downtown here is I mostly see sparrows and pigeons. Starlings, sometimes. Grackles and gulls, for sure. I’ve had cardinals and finches in the tree outside my window, there’s a young raptor who taunts me on Queen Street when I’m out without the big zoom camera, and I can go to the lakeshore for ducks and cormorants. It’s not as though the birds aren’t here.
But, day to day, it’s mostly sparrowkind.
In Vancouver last week I caught glimpses of all my faves: crows (commuting crows, by the hundreds!), starlings, great blue herons, three species of duck, bushtits, cormorants, and a glimpse of northern flicker. I thought I’d have to content myself with the scolding of a Stellar’s jay in the bushes, but it turns out my sister-in-law feeds them. I almost collided with one Monday on my way out the door; it was headed to a clutch of peanuts on the kitchen windowsill.
It was satisfying and soul-nourishing, and a nice concrete example of a difference, neither good nor bad, between Then and Now. But not truly between Here and There, because if I’d got a house outside of the downtown core, I’d be hip-deep in feathery company.