specific oceans

I’ve been reading Kyo MacLear’s memoir, Birds Art Life. I suppose it was always on the periphery of my thoughts, this meditation on time, space, art, thought, generosity, memory, life, death, and love. After all, after inviting my sister to read it, she told me she has mentioned it numerous times in her blog (and I have read many of her blog posts!). I’ve also seen it mentioned in various locations. But I didn’t really sit down with it until after I read Kerry Sakamoto’s comments:

“The book I go back to and turn the pages down again and again is Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear. I think it’s essential reading for anyone involved in an artistic, creative endeavour. I think it uncovers these dark facets of self-doubt around the creative process and tilts you toward the light in a beautiful gentle way. It’s full of wisdom and insight.”

It’s definitely full of wisdom and insight; it’s also about living with messiness and finding room – and oneself- even in spaces of constriction

MacLear is a beautiful, generous, open, and thoughtful writer. She takes us inside herself and examines her thinking and feeling as an anthropologist might, with both a critical and a generous eye. There’s nothing overly sentimental. But nor is this a cold and dry book. Rather, it’s warm, thoughtful, and spacious.

While it’s not necessarily a central theme in the book, migration is still part of her story and honestly, how could it not be? After all, MacLear herself is the child of a Japanese mother and British father who later made their home in Canada. And so identity runs as a subtle thread in the text; it’s woven into everything but at the same time, almost invisible.

One section of her book stood out to me because its evocation of a nomadic identity – one that is not rooted to place – felt so familiar. Reflecting on her young son, who misnamed the Pacific Ocean as the “Specific Ocean,” she writes:

“This lovely malapropism set me thinking about the idea of place and where we find our specific oases of serenity and belonging. I couldn’t stop wondering what it would be like to have a fixed point, the way Thoreau had his Walden. Willa Cather had Nebraska. Annie Dillard had Tinker Creek. Rachel Carson had Silver Spring. I had always felt an allegiance to the migratory and rootless: to those of no place and many places, who (out of necessity) had developed the ability to move and adapt quickly. My friends were mostly of the diaspora, mongrel and scattered people. But seeing my younger son respond so forcefully to the ocean made me wonder what we were missing.

I began to wonder if one of the things we were missing was the opportunity to miss, to yearn for, to possess the sort of deep local knowledge that inspires you to fight for a place. Viewing nature as optional—as always elsewhere or in the past—denies us, or spares us, the work of caring.

The book I ended up writing, The Specific Ocean, is about the places that sustain us. It is about the joy and mournfulness of deep emotional connection. Mournfulness because when you love a specific place you open yourself up to the singular sadness that arises when that place is harmed or lost to you.” (117-118)

It wasn’t until moving to Newfoundland that I really thought consciously about rootedness, about the possibility of place-based identity. I’d sensed it before, in prairie childhood friends whose relatives all lived within a 50 kilometre radius of our small town, for example, or in people who lived in family homes that were over a century old. I sensed it, too, in my intense interest in ‘the past’ and in the stories I might find in locked trunks hidden in secret, dusty attics.

MacLear does a fantastic job of articulating the relationship between nomadic identities and place. And in this, she captures, too, my own shifting thinking over the past decade or so that I have lived in Newfoundland, a place that locals cling to in ways that can confound Come From Aways. In that time, too, I have also come to learn more about Indigenous stories and ways of knowing, all of which are premised on holistic understandings of the self in relation to place. And in all of this reading and reflecting, I’ve also sought to understand how my own experiences of migration fit into these other pictures, and how I understand myself as a result.

What “specific oceans” exist for diasporic, mongrel, and scattered people?

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