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Because My Heart Is Island-Shaped

May 8, 2012

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As a Newfoundlander, I am a bit of a fraud. Living abroad, I tell long and rocky tales of the island that hangs off the East Coast of Canada. I talk of people riding snowmobiles to work, accents made up of English more olde than new, outport night skies like ink, moose as plentiful as the blackflies, and air so fresh, the smell of bedsheets taken in off the line could break your heart.

Those things are all true of my home. Newfoundland is an exotic, peculiar place. People do flatten their vowels and add fat, round “h” sounds where none are meant to be. You can wake up to moose in your back yard and bears in your cabin. The kitchen party is the heart of the culture where a set of musical spoons or a recitation is just as easily pulled out as a bottle of beer. There are places you can stand where the wind can make you fly, cliffs that are blacker and more treacherous than a sleeveen’s tongue.

And see? There I go again. So many years away have made me focus on the salty air and the half-Irish turns of phrase. I am fiercely proud of my identity as a Newfoundlander. I pull it out like a dare when I meet someone new.  The truth? If asked to ‘do” an accent, I need a fair amount of alcohol and concentration to even begin to get it right. I never had one. My mother grew up in a small community, and my dad has retired to one, but I grew up in a small city. I don’t know how to do a jig or snare a rabbit, there were people in my town I didn’t know, and I never had to snowshoe to class. The pulp and paper mill, the lifeblood of my hometown, made the air stinky and grey. We watched American cable imported from Bangor, Maine. Still, there were woods near enough by when you wanted to disappear and cry your way through a teenage heartache, there were plates of thinly sliced moosemeat fried in butter on birthdays and there was a gorgeous-in-the-sunset bay running right through the belly of it all that could set you to dreaming.

My fiction and poetry of late is full of the Newfoundland outport. Those are places I’ve visited, as exotic and novel to me as the black sand beaches on Bali or the frenetic streets of Ho Chi Min. I claim those tiny, colorful communities as my heritage, but they have never truly been part of me.

At least, I didn’t think so. The last couple of weeks have been a revelation.

I know now that our hearts are informed by the landscape on which they come into being. We are walking maps of where we come from, the topography is in our palms like lines of fate. You can travel as far as you like, redraw your boundaries a million times, but if you are born with a Newfoundland heart and try to force yourself to live in a block of concrete filled to busting with people, damage will be done.

My husband and I moved two weeks ago to a small town outside of Seoul. I take the train for over an hour to go to work and the nearest convenience store is a 30 minute walk away. We live in a house with a garden and trees. Yes, the garden is unmistakably Korean. The trees are low to the ground and there are little stone fertility symbols tucked under shrubs. It doesn’t matter. My heart needed trees. I didn’t realize how much I have denied the Newfoundlander in me by living in Seoul for so long. I feel suddenly full of breath. My God. For how long, had I been holding it?

I am writing this on the upstairs deck of the house. The sun is setting over a squat, lush mountain. I hear only the sound of the odd happy dog, the birds and the Cocteau Twins -the  noise I choose. And of course, the cows. Did I mention there are cows?

I sit here, the only white woman for miles, and I feel more at home here than in the middle of the expat neighborhood in Seoul. I am a Newfoundlander, see, every inch of me. I have ocean in my veins, and wildness in the soles of my feet. It is my birthright. Space and quiet are my natural way and I have never stopped looking for bears in the backyard. You can’t grow up in the middle of such a myth, and then expect to roll it up in your backpack as you board a plane, thinking it will fit. Make no wonder it has been coming out in my poetry and my barroom stories.

I’ve been leaking Newfoundland all over Asia for the past 15 years. That doesn’t mean I need to go back. I do need to respect my inner landscape, find more ways to feel my hair tangled by wind and my fingers soaked with water. I need a kitchen that will fit a party.  I need stars, not satellites. And I need to face the truth. I’m more of a Newfoundlander than I ever knew.

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10 comments

  1. Well said Shelley! When I lived on the mainland I longed to go home. I am home and I long to go back. Oh my. CFAs can’t understand like a fellow NLer. We are seen as a different species sometimes but for that I am glad. I have been stared at in shock for handing my car keys over to a fellow student on “da mainland” and can’t imagine growing up and not learning that if I have it then you are more than welcome to it. I could go on as could you I imagine. I love reading your posts. Great writer and that’s not a word of a lie my trout.


  2. A romantic picture, although it might take a bit more to encourage me to leave the concrete comfort of Seoul (although I might be tempted to venture out for a bit of salt beef).


  3. I love this Shelley, so well written and heartfelt. I half expected it to end with you on a plane heading home. I’m glad that instead you’ve found your own little island in Korea.


  4. I read this a month before I return to Newfoundland, to Cow Head, pop. 300? I so miss the smell of the sea and the blowing of the wind, the bake apple, the lady slipper orchids, the tuckamore, the young red moosies in their coats too big and lumpy. And all my dear friends there, your Dad…..
    Congratulations on the home, the deck and the cows.
    Life sometimes gets better and better and better.

    John


  5. Oh my Shelley, you do know how to get it right! I recently had a little visit to Halifax from the country here, outside Ottawa. The first morning I stepped out of the hotel onto the waterfront, I got light headed… from deep breathing so quickly, filling my lungs with that salt sea air, and expelling all the lingering dairy farm fumes… LOL One will always forever be the sent of home… but the other can kind of grow on you too…


  6. See, it is true. You can take the girl out of Newfoundland but you can never take Newfoundland out of the girl. For all the same reasons I am still just an old cowboy with horse manure on my boots, and it has been a long dusty trail from Colorado to Newfoundland, but there is no other place on earth I want to be…..Miss having you here also – just Dear Old Dad.


  7. Again a beautiful piece of writing – I love it.


  8. Shelley,

    Great post. Guess you’re not doing any more Sunday mornings at Caffe Bene. Soudns like you’ve got a great new place.


  9. I am so glad that I found this today. You have no idea how much it resonated with me. I grew up in Corner Brook and have spent far too much time explaining to people that you can absolutely love your hometown and province with all your heart while still exploring and being drawn to other places. “I pull it out like a dare when I meet someone new”. Thank you so much for that.


    • Thank you Jill. That’s a lovely thing to write. How did you find my blog?



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