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Homecoming

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I grew up as the only child of a very young single mother doing her best to make ends meet. She made sure that always got what I needed, and sometimes even what I wanted. However, I do admit to still carrying a grudge at not being allowed to go to a KISS concert at the age of 14, when they rocked and rolled into Brisbane in 1980. At the time, they were larger than life itself to me and my friends, and so I ended up experiencing the second greatest tragedy in my life after the departure of my grandmother. At least the intense disappointment of missing my Gods in make-up was fairly well corrected some 18 years later, and in Finland of all places, which is where this whole story began in the first place.

Suomenlinna, Finland circa 1971

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We had lived together with my grandmother in a small apartment on the fortress island of Suomenlinna, which is located just off the coast of Helsinki. However, that joyous time was short lived, as my mother’s mum was gone before I really got a chance to know her, other than as the old lady who would make sure I was warm and well fed. I was just 5 years old. Whether either of us could, or wanted to, comprehend it at the time, that singular event turned our lives completely upside down. As a consequence, with the added bonus of veiled threats from my my absent biological father and his new wife to take me away, my mother made the amazingly courageous decision to emigrate to Australia, something that she was harshly judged for by the island’s locals as being incredibly irresponsible. However, I can only thank my lucky stars that she was such a bad parent. That decision set off a chain of events that would be instrumental in forming my basic values and attitudes towards life, if not also my core personality. “How can grandma go for a pee if she’s in that box?” Those were my innocent words of farewell to my grandmother as her coffin was lowered down into the earth. Maybe that pivotal moment, my first, and only so far, with the death of a person close in my life, was a definitive sign that my mother and I also needed to be free, just as as my now eternally breathless mummi had just become.

A sense of adventure and a deep desire to explore was the greatest gift my mother had ever bestowed on me, one which was cultivated via our travels to various parts of Australia, the most significant being the time spent in a small mining town in outback Queensland. That’s where, from a very early age, I quickly learned to become responsible for organising my own amusements while my mum was at work. I never remember feeling lonely. Quite the contrary, I enjoyed my daily solo rides (later with a motocross bike) along the dusty trails on the outskirts of town. It didn’t take long before I fell in love with the smell of solitude and the hypnotic echoes of empty space. I often wondered about what was to be found out there, beyond the horizon, but I still had enough sense not to venture too far, at least not at yet. Unconsciously, I suppose I already understood the limitations of Yamaha YZ80’s petrol tank. Nevertheless, I felt the powerfully undeniable pull of the desert.

Lake Moondarra, Queensland, Australia, circa 1974

“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.” — Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

The vastness of space in the outback was attractive to me beyond measure, so much more than a house full of things, or the streets of Helsinki. It seems the minimalist in me had already been born, though it would lie mostly dormant until about 2003 when I made the decision, as an apparently successful, yet very dissatisfied, person, to begin decluttering my life. That process would not only end up taking almost 15 years to complete, it would also ultimately cost me, I believe, my marriage. I’ve often thought about whether that was too high a price to pay, but I’m put at ease remembering the exchange of words from the movie Rounders between the protagonist, an unwillingly law student who loved the game of poker above all else, and his professor. Mike asks (and I’m paraphrasing here), “If you could do it all again, to have the choice to become a Rabbi instead of a lawyer, would you make the same choices?”, to which his professor Abe Petrovsky replies, “What choice? I didn’t find God in the Talmud.” I am eternally grateful to my mother for taking me to that empty, yet incredibly beautiful, place. Without doubt, it instilled in me the mindset and resolve to look for the deeper meaning in things, even if that would mean a decent load of struggles and having to go against the grain. At the end of my life, it’s quite possible that I may come to realise that I’d been a stupid, stubborn idiot, but I’ve, at least so far, found greater joy in heading down rough looking sidetracks than strolling down the more well trodden paths with the comfortably numb masses.

Mornington Island, Queensland — circa 1988

As I stared out at the majestic Atlantic ocean for the first time after over 4000 kilometers looking out at the road ahead, I understood everything that had to happen in order to bring me to this point in time. There’s a saying that the greatest hunger is cured with one meal. I’d been hungry to find a greater meaning in my life for many years, but for the past two I’d been starving. Then, in March of 2017, when I was at the lowest, most feeble point of my life, a miracle began to unfold. After having so profoundly questioned the purpose of my life, with no answers forthcoming, I’d almost given up, but somehow I was able to climb out from the shadows of my hopelessness and self-pity. I can’t say where the energy to do that came from, as I felt completely empty, just like my bike’s petrol tank the few times I’d pushed it too far leaving me with some pretty long and exhausting pushes to get back home. Looking back at it all now, I have to almost conclude that it was by the grace of God. That climb was certainly metaphorical. In reality, it involved walking the Camino de Santiago Portuguese, the Portuguese Way pilgrimage trail, a journey of some 240 kilometers from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. Of course I didn’t start out knowing what the end result would be. All I knew was that I felt compelled to go on a walkabout, just as I would do as that young boy in the Aussie outback. I guess some of the wisdom of the aborigines had rubbed off on me?

“Everything is within walking distance if you have the time.” — Steven Wright

As I slowly rolled down the Galician coastline, I enjoyed the smell of the ocean’s salty sweetness, reminiscing about the experiences, and lessons learned, from the just completed second and longer camino — so many amazing places I’d seen, so many great people I’d met and shared stories with. I was also taken back to that day of awakening when, from staring blankly at the featureless white ceiling of my room, I was raised from my deathbed. It wasn’t yet my time to become breathless like my grandmother. The pilot light in the depths of my inanimate shell had begun to again burn brightly, igniting the long dormant lamps, which lined the pathways of the chaotic maze that my mind had become. I could once again see a way forward again, a way out. This was no more evident than at the moment when Portugal, my final destination, came into view through the mystical morning mist, which slowly drifted over the Minho River, the aqueous fence line dividing these two uneasy neighbours. As the furnace like sun rose to escape from behind the distant mountains, my nostrils welcomed the cool morning ocean air. I was filling my tank with the essence of life, and now, maybe, I might just have enough fuel to reach for the horizon?

Almost home. The majestic Minho River separating Spain and Portugal | Image by Jyri Manninen

I’d experienced fairly tough conditions at the beginning if this journey, but now, at the end, I’d been blessed with the best of it. It felt like I’d been rewarded for having had the courage to pay the price, that I’d earned my place in the sun. Accompanied by the regular clickety-clack beat of the wooden pathway, which hugged the last few kilometers of the Spanish coastline, I every so slowly made my towards the ferry terminal to make the short hop over to Caminha. I now didn’t want this adventure to end, or then I needed more time for my tears of joy to fully drain before someone saw me.

During my life, I’ve lived in some 8 countries, and had at least 60 addresses that I can recall. I guess that’s a fairly clear sign as any that I’m a nomad . However, despite the possible romanticism that can be drawn from this, it’s definitely also had its downsides. The one that I’ve struggled with the most is the feeling that I don’t belong anywhere. Interestingly, though, a friend of my, who’s also an only child, once said to me that while we suffer the most from loneliness, we’re also the best equipped to endure it. I’ve lived in many places, but true homes have been few and far between. I’ve found it tough to not have a long-term physical abode, as a tangible symbol of safety and security. At times, I’ve also allowed myself to indulge in wasteful self-pity as a consequence of the loneliness that its absence had manifested. Yet, on this day, that feeling was gone, or at least I’d finally made my peace with it. It seems that this journey’s greatest lesson had been left to the very last few miles. I now clearly understood that I was exactly where both needed and wanted to be — right at this moment, in times passed, and all those still to come. Whether in the company of others, or going about my business in solitude, I am a nomad, a seeker. Above all, I understood that I am, and have always been, home.

Jyri Manninen

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Watch Homecoming, part 5 of the 5 documentary journey video series on YouTube here.

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