December 11, 2016:
I'm coming home soon
I don't know what the fuck that means
I don't know if home is a house
A permanent namaste or
A curtain rod with 8 baseball caps hanging from it
All I know is I tried to make a home out of
Bunk beds and expectations
And I failed
Every night when I'm ready to go to bed, I climb up a wooden ladder into the loft where the mattress is. I usually take my pants off and roll into the sheets, either to warm up my legs when I'm cold or to cool down from the burst of hot air I've just crawled into, which is trapped at the top of the cabin. Lately, it's been more of the latter. If I've brought my phone up, I plug it into the outlet next to me, and I leave it on the nightstand to charge. Next, I fiddle with the lighting according to my level of tiredness. If I know I'm ready to go down for the night, I either turn the nightlight on or off depending on how paranoid I'm feeling, and eventually I drift off to sleep. Otherwise, if I want to read or write, I reach for the lamp that sits on the nightstand near the corner. It's an exposed incandescent lightbulb screwed onto a thin and extendable neck. It lights the whole place up at night by itself. With this light on, I can see my whole ceiling and each knot and ridge on every plank. I see the wrinkles of my bedspread at my feet. I see the junk on my nightstand. Tonight, it's a well-preserved copy of Dwight Currie's 'How We Behave At the Feast'; a couple of extra pens; a highlighter; a stray, unlit tea-light candle; and a tube of lip balm. There's my overstuffed rack of bracelets, the unplugged nightlight, and the case for my glasses. It's a rather large night table that would probably appear awkward in another space; its short legs and unusually long shape suggest it was built specifically for this one. In fact, it's so long that directly across from me, against the perpendicular wooden wall, I've displayed my collection of flat-brimmed hats in a horizontal line. They're staring back at me as I write this, all three of them.
I moved to British Columbia four months ago with a collection double this size in my possession. It may not have been a wise choice, given that it was October and winter was coming. Truth be told, I didn't know how people dressed here for their snowless winters. It turns out I'd be wearing my warm knitted toques far more than I did back home, under three layers and a fully WATERPROOF shell, hood on at all times, in order to protect me from the dreaded damp. (The fact that an unprecedented wet and icy snowfall graced the Gulf Islands and Lower Mainland this year threw me for an even bigger loop, but if you're wondering, yes, I still would have moved here if I knew.) The hats weren't useless, exactly. They just ended up serving a more nostalgic purpose than a practical one. When I went home for Christmas, I left my white-and-orange floral cap that I'd bought from the Osheaga merch tent this summer in a box in my basement. I certainly wasn't going to find any use for it in the middle of winter; even the colours weren't right. A black baseball cap with a flat brim, with the words 'Thank You Toronto' silkscreened across the front in white letters, was an article I'd traded my ex for his Montreal Alouettes hoodie. I bought the hat this past summer from the flagship store for a local patterned sock brand, YoSox, on Queen Street West. Proceeds from the sale of the hat had gone to a local Toronto charity to help feed disadvantaged and food-insecure youth, or something along those lines. Given that I no longer have the boyfriend, nor the hat, the trade doesn't sound as fair now in retrospect. Hindsight is 20/20. To have tipped the scale even more in his favour, I attached a lapel pin to the front of the hat, which was designed to look like a taco. It was made by Calgary artist Heather Buchanan and I'd purchased three pins from her before I moved away: a taco, an anatomical heart, and a slice of pizza in the shape of Alberta. I had intended to give the pins away as gifts but ended up bringing them to BC with me in my pencil case. When I met my ex and we'd agreed on this absurd trade of goods, I lovingly fastened the taco to the hat and said, "I'm not ready to give you my heart, but you can have my taco instead." I'm shaking my head at my own stupidity now, even though this was barely three months ago. (By the way, he did end up with my heart after all - albeit on credit - and I ended up being the one to have to pay for it. More on that later.)
Three remaining hats sit across the nightstand from me on the other side of my charging phone, which is face-down playing Sara Bareilles' sweet voice as I write. One: a black-and-white houndstooth cap from Black Market in Toronto. Two: 'Bonnet's 24hr Truck Stop in Irvine, AB'. A vintage trucker hat I picked up at ParkSale two summers ago in Central Memorial Park in Calgary, and the same hat I wore for part of my website photoshoot last spring. Also black and white. Three: my only women's hat, and it fits very uncomfortably over my large head. I don't wear it often and I tend to regret it when I do. It's a signature Toronto Raptors 'We The North' hat, all black with light gray spots all over it. I came out here with six, so I'm still missing one more. Where is it?
In 2016, I flew to Toronto four times. This is unusual for someone who doesn't and has never lived in the city, but under different circumstances, I may well have moved there instead of here. In late 2015, I started screening for undergrad programs for the following September, for when I was planning to go back to school. I'd wanted to study abroad in the UK but abandoned my plan due to cost. With no intention of going to the U.S., I looked into Eastern Canada instead. I was interested in studying social work at the time, so I set my sights on McGill's competitive 3-year B.S.W. program. After I had read through the prerequisites several times, I'd concluded that the hours of volunteer experience and letters of recommendation required, along with my inability to speak French, made the odds stacked against me high enough to rule the program out altogether. January came, and I found myself looking at schools in Ontario once more. I didn't want to go back to Waterloo and live in a university town, so I looked at schools within Toronto proper instead. Several hours and a few hundred clicks later, I came across the Bachelor of Applied Science program in developmental psychology at the University of Guelph-Humber.
Looking through the requirements and what I thought the school valued from its applicants (like real-world experience), I was convinced that I'd be moving to Toronto that summer. I reached out to my friend Denis whom I'd met at Waterloo during my semester there in 2011. I had made plans to be his roommate then, only to bail shortly after when I decided to move back to Calgary. I wanted to make it up to him, and it had seemed like the perfect opportunity to try, since he'd just gotten word of his acceptance into grad school at U of T. The application to UoGH allowed the provision of written supports for applicants to defend their suitability, as well as to explain personal circumstances, such as extended periods of unemployment. This was recommended particularly for adult students like myself who had been out of school for a number of years. So it came as no surprise when I was asked to submit my written supports shortly after I'd sent in my transcripts. I sent them, but I'm convinced that they were never read. With more than a month to go before the application deadline, I received a phone call at 7:00 am the morning after I'd scanned in and emailed my supporting documents as requested. A snarky admissions clerk laughed through the phone to tell me I would not be accepted into the Faculty of Applied Sciences for the fall 2016 semester. She then followed up with a [non]sympathetic email a few hours later, reiterating the decision. I didn't know what to do. I reached out to my high school counsellour for advice, with whom I'd kept in touch for academic reasons over the years. He sympathized and suggested I apply to schools in the Maritimes. But I'd already fallen in love with Toronto and what my life could look like. I didn't want to bail on Denis again. After some impassioned conversations with a few close friends at home, I became emboldened in my decision to take the plunge and move to Toronto at all costs. I figured I had nothing to lose.
I had two plausible timelines for moving: at the beginning of August and at the beginning of October. I was in Toronto at both of these times, but I did not move there. Instead, I travelled to the 6ix to relish in a feeling of belonging and security that I believed to be home. The friends I'd met in Waterloo (who were all based out of the GTA) had remained near and dear to my heart throughout the years. I considered these friends to be my family in the truest sense, perhaps even closer. I felt completely accepted and understood for whomever and whatever I was, sans judgment, and so I ran to Toronto for room to make my big mistakes. When I look back now, it's much more obvious to me that it was the belonging and security of home as a concept I craved, rather than the city of Toronto itself. Not that there's anything wrong with it. I still enjoy being there and I treasure the memories I've made with the people in my life who live there. But I think in my desperation to get out of Calgary - my birthplace, my hometown, and the cesspool of my continually-festering unhappiness - I wanted so badly to trust that things would be okay and that I, too, would be okay eventually. But I knew better than to trust people. I knew I couldn't rest my happiness or opportunities in the mediocrity of another imperfect human, so I wanted to trust a place instead. A city. With no heart, no conniving mind, and no ulterior motives or deceptions. My penchant for honesty and impatience for the superficial attracted me to Toronto on an emotional level. Unlike my spoiled and bratty cousin of a hometown, Toronto was a bold, confident city that knew exactly what it was and what it represented. And it always has. I loved Toronto for its culture, diversity, noise, opportunities, competition, and excitement. I loved the way Toronto knew exactly what it brought to the table and how that influenced its place on the world stage. I loved that it actually had a place on the world stage. I loved that it was the centre of the universe! And truly, because I loved, and will always love, the way Toronto is proud of everything it is. The good. The bad. The way its people are proud too, and how that pride isn't contingent on the price of a barrel. For being a multicultural microcosm of our entire country, Toronto is wholly unapologetic of its authenticity and its history. And I loved Canada. I loved being Canadian and what I thought that represented. Above all, I wanted so badly to be able to love myself as I was without fear. So with the chance to make my new home, I wanted it to happen in Toronto. I wanted to become a piece of it all myself.
I spent the summer traveling. My #2016travelyear started in May and ended in late July, and I did it alone. I made HUGE mistakes in wide open spaces, as well as on top bunks in cramped hostels, from Amsterdam to Kyoto and everywhere in between. (I made mistakes on bottom bunks in Kyoto too, but that's a story for another time.) While I wasn't aware of it then, I was travelling the world while keeping a mental inventory of what the places I visited all felt like. A three-dimensional checklist was forming in my subconscious of what home really meant for me. What constituted a residence and the kind of place I'd be comfortable calling one, and for how long. What living really meant to me. I surprised myself when I reflected on these questions, because my answers were so varied. There were dingy huts in the Philippines I could see myself living in for months on end, maybe even a whole year. I wondered how I would go about learning Dutch so I could move to the Netherlands, although as challenging as the language would be, I knew that learning how to ride a bike in my mid20s would come a close second. When I visited Hong Kong, I was in such awe of the workings of the city that I decided I needed to live there for at least a year before I died. It would be the only way I'd get to see everything that I wanted.
I fell in love with being in the air in a truly romantic fashion. Flying alone felt like the safest place in world. No one could touch me. Not my family. Not my ex-friends or lovers. I was literally soaring tens of thousands of feet above my problems, my entire body submerged into heaven itself. Only I wasn't dead. I was more alive than ever, pulsing with more vitality than I knew a body could contain. I still feel this way. Being in the air remains one of the joyful states of being I think I will ever know. The fact that I managed to do this more than twenty times in the last year reminds me that I'm terrifically blessed. Flying has made for very exciting breakthroughs in my creativity as well, and some of my most awesome realizations and inspirations have come to me in the clouds. To me, being on an airplane is one of the most powerful embodiments of what it means to truly live. But on my fourth and final trip to Toronto last year, which was also my final flight of 2016, I understood that my love affair with the sky was just that. An affair. It was and would always remain one of my greatest, most passionate loves, but I know now that I could never live my whole life on the road, or in the sky. I can't make a home out of that kind of love.
When I landed in Toronto, I was met by a friend of mine who brought me a sushi burrito. I thought that was one hell of a good welcome. But the winter was cold this year. The city was cold too, and indifferent to my struggles when its own unforgiving grind can make life hard for its own already. I couldn't depend on a city to make safe spaces for me just because it lacked a human heart to keep from breaking mine. A place in itself can never hurt me, this is true. But its people can. A city is merely an assortment of lit-up buildings, employing and sheltering millions of imperfect people, and every one of them is capable of breaking a million hearts. I came to Toronto one last time and was exhausted from carrying my already-broken heart in a suitcase. I didn't know where else to go. It was the only place that had ever felt like home to me. Toronto didn't fix my broken heart this winter. The people in it took the pieces and ground them into powder. Then the powder blew away with the smoke, carried by the breeze of downtown streetcars gliding down the icy streets all through the night. I don't know when I felt more alone. Was it when I rode a ferry back to Salt Spring Island from Victoria, having barely slept before I left my boyfriend that morning and tried to collect what was left of my life that he didn't steal? Or was it the night before I left Toronto, wandering around downtown in the biting winter wind, having just lost my weekly pass and mistakenly buying a January Metropass to replace it? Was panic worse than pain? Or was suffering just that, no matter where in the world I was, or the time zone I was operating in? What I knew was that I felt like a failure. A foolish and unwanted failure on all fronts, for letting my ex advantage of me and for putting me in this insufferable position, where in turn I was seeking solace in the tired and unwilling arms of friends - just friends - who had never signed up to be my new family. Toronto became my blue Democratic America and the people I knew who lived there became my collective James Dean. I believed what I wanted and sometimes needed to believe in order to keep myself sane, even if it ended up being the furthest thing from the truth.
It wasn't Toronto's job to impress me, to welcome me, or to make me feel good about myself. It also wasn't Victoria's job to protect me from my ex-boyfriend's demons the night he relapsed, stole from, and assaulted me a few weeks before Christmas. I tell myself that all of this happened in exchange for something potentially far more damaging in the future, knowing full well that he and I would still be together now if that night had never happened. I wouldn't know any better, so I would still be believing all his lies. I can't tell you just how finished I was with all the bullshit when I came back to Salt Spring Island in January. I'd spent the entirety of my holiday season getting burned alive when I was trying to stay warm. After flying across the country and back, spending hundreds of dollars, and putting my energy on credit too, I had nothing left to give to Island life. I didn't want to argue with my landlady, pump my own water, or lose sleep in hypervigilant fear of rats inside my attic all over again. I simply didn't have it in me. So I surrendered. I slept. Hibernated. Unpacked all my boxes just as I had done less than a month before, when my ex was making dinner in the kitchen and watching hockey on TV. My new cabin felt too big and too small for me all at once. It was always too quiet. I drowned out the silence with everything I could, because above all, I didn't want to listen to my own loneliness. But it got better. I settled in. I figured out how to make my temperamental hot plate behave and how to keep the place and myself warm using the electric fireplace and the baseboard heater. I figured out how to alternate the use of my electronics without tripping the breaker, and when the snowstorm came, I went 15 hours without power while we were buried in a good 20cm of snow, throughout an entire night. I was fine. As the days have become weeks, I've come to appreciate living here as a truly remarkable blessing. It's everything I needed coming out the shitty tail-end of 2016 I had crawled out of, while also being so much more than I'll ever deserve. As my landlady said when she welcomed me back, "This is home for the next three months. So make the most of it." And I have been. This place feels like home. It feels like my space. It's a dreamlike rustic cabin on the edge of the woods, where I'm lucky enough to rest my head at night, along with all my hats. Except one.
My nightstand is missing a fourth hat, my Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap. I bought it at Kensington Market in October. I remember the day clearly and how much fun we had. I didn't feel quite as happy as I did in the summer, because I had left Calgary and my whole life was in two suitcases, which I was dragging around with me. I was also beginning to see Toronto as the big city it is and less like the safety net I wanted it to be. As a fair-weather fan in the middle of baseball season, I bought the hat in a shop near Bunner's Bakery, a vegan and gluten-free bakeshop, where I've made a tradition of stopping in for vanilla cupcakes whenever I'm in town. I brought a friend with me that day. We met in the summer through a mutual friend, one from my Waterloo network. We'd grown close in the months that followed, but we haven't spoken since my last trip. The hat itself is missing now because my ex had it, but I found out he'd gone out and given it to one of his friends from the hostel we were staying in together. I'd managed to track the friend down and he agreed to ship it back to me. But when he was rushing to get his affairs in order before flying back home to Europe, he'd run out of time to send it. He left it with another friend, to whom I'd reached out and tried to arrange the same thing with, but he ignored my message. When it comes down to it, it's just a hat. Just another thing. It's my only proper baseball cap and the only hat I own that isn't primarily black and white in colour. I don't actually like baseball, not even a little bit. I bought the hat to fit in, to feel like I could be a Torontonian from the heart out. To remind myself that I still was. My favourite part about the hat was the barcode inside the brim, which read "Mass Money Maker." I decided to leave the sticker on when I read it and it made me laugh. The men in the store were so insistent that the hat was authentic Blue Jays apparel, and I was getting a better deal with them compared to the stadium shop downtown. I honestly didn't care. I liked the hat. But just like the young woman who was by my side when I bought it, and the man I was in love with when I last wore it, it's gone. Memories of happier times are all I have left of it, and maybe that's a good thing. Memories are far more valuable than pieces sewn together. They're more powerful than the photos we take to capture them. Memories will change things, and make you feel things. They can motivate or deter. Memories are what make a life up, and they're the proof that you really lived. Other people might not share the same ones you have, but you don't have to prove the richness of your life to other people. When we're struggling to grapple with our failure and it insists on following us wherever we go, sometimes the only remedy is a reminder of everything that we have already achieved. Those aren't awards, engagement rings, or passport stamps, nor are they a collection of mass money-makin' baseball caps. Our achievements are the highlights of our lives, the early mornings and balmy evenings when we're good to drop dead right then and there, because in that moment, we have the whole world. I feel very fortunate to have had a number of those moments in recent years, so I can remember them with a particular clarity. Some of these moments involve my ex-boyfriend before that night in Victoria. Another is the night I met the friend I bought the hat with, the same friend who brought me the sushi burrito at the airport. Our happy memories are precious and priceless because they are joy, frozen in time. Our mistakes and those of others can't poison the goodness of what we remember. Pictures, videos, or any of the more traditional souvenir types can't capture this. So as long as you have your mind, shit, take mental pictures and pay attention when you've got the whole world in your hands. Feel the weight of it. You owe it to yourself, whoever you are.
Memories are important because nothing lasts forever. EVERYTHING is temporary, and never before in my life have I been schooled so thoroughly on impermanence than by this past winter of 2016. Losing my dad didn't even come close. Which brings me back to the concept of home, and where I'd like to leave you tonight/this morning. I have slightly less than five weeks left in this cabin. My lease is over at the end of March, and come the first of April I have NO idea where I'll be living. Am I scared? Not really. I mean, maybe I should be since I want to stay on Salt Spring for the summer and there's an extreme lack of housing on the Island. But the perpetual uneasiness and unhinging that comes from not belonging anywhere isn't paralyzing me anymore. I understand now that I don't have to stay where I'm not wanted, nor where I don't want to be. My presence, like my time and energy, is owed to no one but myself. I also don't see belonging as a physical thing as much as knowing where in the world I'm valued - truly, wholeheartedly embraced for everything I am. Not tolerated, not accepted, and not admitted based on conditions. There is no physical place or sub-class of people anywhere that will guarantee this type of reverence for my brand of human imperfection. Instead, I know I'm loved in all corners of the world. I know where I can find a bahay kubo in the Philippines where I would be welcome for years and which living room floors in Calgary's inner-city have my name on them, if I ever need to crash. Paradise won't be in every beachside condo or cabin in the woods. There's ALWAYS trouble in paradise. Even the most idyllic communities come with their own set of rules and expectations for living there, and there is nowhere in this world a person can fly that will absolve their problems upon landing, never to be spoken of again, not even at 40,000 feet. I have, however, been very lucky with my journey on Salt Spring Island so far, and for that I am deeply grateful. Every day I seem to be meeting genuinely kind, caring neighbours who are willing to go above and beyond for others in this community. I have been touched by the pure generosity of strangers in so many aspects of my life, and I continue to walk square into these miracles daily, living among angels on earth.
Home to me is no longer a geographical place or a physical construct. That doesn't mean it can't be. All my travels have made me rough for the road and I do want a place to call mine one day, in the legal sense. I'd like to buy or build a modest home out here on the west coast, but it needs to be big enough to hold me, my erratic heart, and my endless thirst for knowledge about the world inside of it. That means big windows and bookshelves, by the way, but I don't need much more beyond that. Having the world at my feet has enabled me to hold my world in my arms with ease. I've learned what is really important to me, and how that doesn't include things. It isn't how my life looks in photos and it certainly isn't what people I don't like think about me, that matters. What matters to me is being able to make memories with the people I love and being well enough in body and mind to do that for a long time. It's remaining knowledgeable enough to be helpful, but curious enough to keep learning; it's being brave enough to keep asking questions; and it's keeping enough emotional intelligence to show empathy to every person I meet. I hope one day I can bring myself to extend that empathy with those I've known for a long time, the people I can't forgive. Give me all those things (and the occasional ocean view) and I'm good. For life.
You can't buy these things, and I was naive to think that money could buy me a well-intentioned and wholehearted life. I tried anyway. This kind of life can only be built, and it's made from unshakable willpower, understated sacrifice, and a lot of lonely nights. It gets easier if you have a space to come home to each night that feels like yours. And for me, that space doesn't need a curtain rod with baseball caps hanging on it anymore. Not eight, not six, not even the three I'm still left with. Home is in my heartbeat. It's what will warm the hundreds of spaces I'll inhabit in this lifetime, from ocean to ocean, from the heart out. It beats on valiantly, still daring to love, nestled in my chest under skin that speaks of redemption. I won't have this space forever, and it was never mine to begin with. But that's okay. I'm still breathing, still thinking, and my heart is still beating. These are the only measures of life that matter.