Once again on a very short three day spring stop in Vancouver I’m reminded of my dual life — I live in Toronto, I thrive in Vancouver. It remains the one place where I reconnect with what’s important to me, where I get back to me. I usually go home resolved to stay grounded. Then… I lose myself. I’ve never understood why and I won’t begin to this time either.
This visit is a bit different. Last time I was here for a luxurious two weeks. I walked everywhere, I saw everyone important to me. I went home feeling connected to people who have/make time to spend time. What a relief. In Toronto, I hibernate. I’m static. I hide out. I give out my time sparingly… I’m protective because my experience there is people are too busy… spending time isn’t a priority. I try not to take it personally. But, I do.
In Vancouver, I expand.
This time, riddled with a very sore back which makes walking very far a lot more difficult, I stayed close to home in Kits (thank goodness for great Airbnb apartments in familiar neighbourhoods). I had just spent four days in Portland on a work trip and the 50-minute flight to Vancouver flying over the Cascade mountains was gorgeous and left me happy to be on Canadian land.
Home. Second home, first home. They are interchangeable to me. My family and lifelong friends in one place, my heart and soul in the other.
If this life is about working out unresolved issues from a previous one, I’m sorely behind because I just can’t fully accept having to live somewhere that doesn’t suit me and constantly pine for the one I know does. I may never stop regretting giving up on Vancouver after only six short years. The best thing I can do is try to visit as often as possible the place where 16 years ago I finally came, after years of hoping and planning to live. One that changed me in every way:
I learned balance after a lifetime of extremes
I learned a completely different and much more suitable lifestyle
I finally began to reconcile the shock of losing my mother
Which somehow led me to an unexpected, life-altering reconciliation with my father
I took great strides in moving forward – something I advocate yet sometimes find hard to do
Tested my independence, learned to be alone, discovered I prefer and need great amounts of time on my own
Learned to accept my true character, learned how to stay true to it, and the kind of work that jived with it.
In a nutshell… living here meant EVERYTHING and everything important – every way that I am now began in Vancouver.
Alas, I leave for Toronto tomorrow – to cold and snow. Where I must wait at least another month for the kind of blooming abundance that is here now. It’s no small thing. It’s part of what suits me vs. what I endure.
It’s why I’ll be crying as he plane takes off over the Pacific Ocean tomorrow afternoon.
“I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely.” Jodie Foster ended her memorable 2013 Golden Globe lifetime achievement award speech with these words. At 50, she was honoured for her 47 year film career, among her peers, friends and family. I’m sure it was an incongruous moment for many people. How could someone so successful, so talented, so obviously surrounded by love and support possibly be lonely?
That’s a million dollar question, isn’t it?
I’ve written a lot about loneliness, about my experience with it. I’ve defended it as a part of being human, as something to be worked through, not avoided. I’ve even said learning to deal with it is a kind of right of passage toward adulthood.
That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when it unexpectedly descends upon me.
Lately I’ve been trying to describe what loneliness is like, put actual words to the feeling of it. What I’ve come up with pales in comparison to its reality. Loneliness equals emptiness, a void, a hole, an abyss. It’s a place where no thoughts or words can exist. There’s no sound but it’s not even numbness. It just is.
It’s a big something that could easily swallow you up, but it feels like a whole lot of nothing. I’d say a heart-shaped hole, but I don’t think that’s quite right. After all, the precise difficulty is in being able to feel the lack.
Loneliness is no-one’s fault. Not mine, not yours for not being able to fix it for me. Loneliness is momentary but feels endless. It comes and goes. Sometimes daily. Other times so intermittently that you think it might have gone away for good. Like you might have finally been able to banish it from your life. Somehow.
That’s why I’ve been very surprised by that old familiar feeling for the last few weeks. I’d been thinking, and even saying out loud, that maybe that part of my life, the lonely part, is over. I used to think it was attached to the loss of my mother. Then, I said my final goodbye to her by scattering her ashes last November and I felt only relief and a momentous push forward. On my birthday in early December I sat surrounded by good friends – some I’ve known for years, some newer than that, with an unfamiliar but beautiful feeling of satisfaction, and happiness.. joy even. I entered the new year on an upswing.
I’m not unhappy, but that’s besides the point, because it would seem that lonely has nothing much to do with happy. Jodie Foster can probably attest to that, as she spoke of loneliness while beaming out at her two sons.
I should have remembered that, for me at least, loneliness is attached to sense of belonging, that one persistent demon I have yet to fully conquer in my life. Where do I belong, and to whom, other than myself? Who’s with me in this life? Who’s willing to go that distance?
I can’t pin point the exact moment I felt that old familiar again. I might have been surfing the internet, tweeting, facebooking, tumbling, watching a movie or the news, or reading. Loneliness freezes the moment and I can’t think of anything to think. It’s deep, long and empty. It doesn’t feel attached to anything, anyone or any circumstance. I don’t know where it starts or when it will end. It doesn’t make me sad until after it’s over. I don’t feel like crying, I don’t need to talk to anyone. It no longer feels desperate. I just have to wait it out. It’s only in the aftermath that I can name it. And then the intellectualizing begins. Why now, why me, why can’t it go away forever? What will make it disappear?
It’s just the strangest thing. It’s so incredibly…. lonely. And then it’s over til the next time.
Rummaging through some computer files, I found this piece that I wrote in about 2001. In reading it over, I wondered if it’s still true in the age of social media and quick, all-hours connection.Also, it seems I’ve been writing about loneliness for a very long time!
Henry Porter, the debonair British editor of Vanity Fair, was a guest on the talk show I work on and while the lot of us were out for drinks after the taping he said something simple, yet so profound that all who heard it have found cause to repeat it at one time or another. He said that recently a single male friend of his made a confession of sorts, saying he envied Henry his marriage relationship because when you live alone and are unattached, you have no witness to your life, and no-one’s life to witness. And it can be quite lonely and a little frightening.
I call it the “check in.”
Something else: While reading a book called Solitaire, in which writer Marion Botsford Fraser takes the temperature of Canadian single woman — currently an unprecedented 4 million of us — one thing became painfully, depressingly clear to me. People will say anything in order to avoid saying they are lonely. Out of 50 excerpted interviews, only about four women were able to even utter the word. These four women were over 50. If you’re young and single you may not use the L-word (those damn L-words are a big problem, aren’t they?). It seems to be socially unacceptable.
But the truth is we all get lonely. Every single living being. Even cats and dogs get lonely. We are not meant to live in isolation from one another. It is the most natural thing in the world to be among people, and to fall into couples. To touch and be touched. To have a witness and to bear witness. What is unnatural is this denial and bravado we are all striving so hard to pull off. Like we’re fooling anyone anyway! Lest we should be considered crazy women with a small apartment, dinner for one, the cat batting about the ball of yarn we are using to knit doilies, or worse, booties for someone else’s baby. Lest we be perceived as drying up from lack of sexual activity. Lest we be considered social outcast loser women who sit at home every night crying into the hot water of our bubble baths. But, God forbid and heaven’s above, don’t, ever, ever, ever let anyone catch us being human, and being (don’t dare say it… okay, but only if you whisper) l-o-n-e-l-y.
I used to be one of these women who feared a word. Not anymore. Maybe because of this book, and all the transparent denial within it. I do get lonely. Sometimes capital L lonely. Used to be my lonely feelings were attached to a specific person. So, if I spent a great deal of time with someone and then we were separated, I’d feel lonely for them. Like a best girlfriend who went away, or a boyfriend after a break-up. That was before my mom died. As long as she was alive, I really never felt free floating loneliness because I knew I always had someone within reach. A witness to my daily thoughts, triumphs, sadnesses, boredom. laughter, tears, what’s for dinner. Someone to check in with. Someone who thinks what is on my mind at any given time is important and interesting. Someone to whom I can give everything that is in my heart and on my mind. Knowing that they are willing, because of trust and friendship and love, to share their personal self and all their intimacies. I guess I’m past the point of pretending, for whatever reasons I used to, that this is not what I want, what I need. I am willing to be strong enough to be vulnerable enough to be human.
Lately I’ve been wondering why I no longer keep a consistent journal. I feel like I’ve lost the habit of putting pen to paper and sometimes I just want to write something down to remember it – a passing thought, a good sentence I may need in the future; to recount a fun night out or a good conversation, or to work out a worry. My iPhone notes app has 238 very small entries in it! Everything from grocery lists to rough drafts of articles, recipes, books I want, music I need, song lyrics, blog post drafts, quotes from authors at their readings, interview notes, etc. Most entries would have been expanded and expounded upon in my journal. Is technology making me a lazy writer… and thinker?
Then I remembered this:
Originally published March 20, 2006
In eight short days I leave Vancouver, where I have lived the last five and a half years, to return to home to Toronto. Well, it’s not so much going back as it is going toward (I thank my wise Uncle John for asking me to differentiate between the two). I’m going toward my future, toward what I have made peace with as the next part of my life, rather than the last half of it, as I had recently been stuck on thinking. I’m sure some people out there can identify with the dilemma of losing both parents, therefore having a viable via genetics end of life date. That thought immobilized me for the better part of last year.
But… now that I’m on the move again, it’s time to truly relieve myself of the past. So, I’ve made what I’ve learned is a controversial decision to get rid of a lifetime of journals filled with a good deal of stuff I have moved beyond. After much thought, soul searching, double checking and some stomach churning anxiety, I see no real need to continue lugging The Vault around. Good thing too because movers charge by the pound and a lifetime of paper weighs A LOT!
There’s just one tiny problem. It’s impossible to open The Vault without actually reading and noticing what’s in there. Impossible to cut up paper with eyes closed. I have to wonder why I left it til the last week to crack. Day One only released a mere five journals out of about one hundred!
Now, The Vault is a trunk full of not just journals since about 13 years of age, but day timers for about 20 years in a row (wherein I wrote everything I did and everything I thought to minute detail), photos, letters and emails received and sent to family, friends, boyfriends, hopeful boyfriends, ex boyfriends (torturous)! The Vault also contains my juvenilia and other younger writing (which will not be pitched).I made a few mistakes with The Vault today:1) I read some of those crushing, vulnerable, even pathetic emails and letters;2) I read but one journal passage (1985 I think) which defined my life with men, then and up until far too recently (but hopefully not going forward);
3) I opened up some letters from my much missed dead mother written in 1981, the first time I left home to move West. The letters reveal our lifelong closeness and inability to live apart. What a joy to see her handwriting, evidence of her life; and read the words, evidence of her love; but Oh what heartbreak to be smacked hard again with the reality of her loss.
Result – a pool of tears onto an ocean of spilled ink.
It’s good to cry though. So they say. I was just trying to save it up for my last walk around the Seawall, behind sunglasses and away from everything, released and lost into the vast Pacific.
Try as I might to look at this move as just another day in my life, it’s really so very much more than that. The need to purge – to not lug the life back that I brought here – is large.
Next week my pal Steph and I are gonna burn all this paper. Cutting it up is just the dress rehearsal. People have been advising me not to do it, but I crave, and am fully ready, for a life unfettered by the past. From now on, what is in my head and in my heart, and on the legitimate writing page is what will be remembered.
Music is powerful. It can get right under your skin when you least expect it. I had this experience last night.
I downloaded the new Pink album, The Truth About Love, and then settled in to listen as I was falling asleep. Well now, Pink’s music is probably a little too lively to fall asleep to and it wasn’t exactly doing the trick. So, when song # 9, Beam Me Up, came on, I was expecting another high energy song. Instead I got a soft guitar intro and Pink’s quieter, more vulnerable voice. Not fully paying attention (to be honest I had begun to play a game on my iPhone while listening) I was surprised to find myself crying after the second verse. Completely unprompted. It was the soaring music, which by this time included a violin, more than the words but then:
“There are times I feel the shiver and cold
it only happens when I’m on my own
that’s how you tell me I’m not alone”
(now I’m officially balling, – it’s that word ALONE that always does it)
“Could you beam me up
give me a minute
I don’t know what I’d say in it
I’d probably just stare
happy just to be there, holding your face
could you beam me up
let me be lighter
I’m tired of being a fighter
I think – a minute’s enough
Could you beam me up?”
I admire people who can write songs that convey, through lyrics and their perfect musical arrangements, so succinctly what is felt so deeply. I’ve been trying to write about my personal feelings about losing my mother (it’s partially because the anniversary is coming up that I feel so emotionally susceptible to a song like this) for the almost 15 years she’s been dead. I feel I’ve never been successful. The feelings are buried so far down by now but they are still so raw and I can never get to the crux of them. I just miss her.
All I can do is thank the musicians for their work – as artists, they quest for perfection and relatability in the songs they send out in the world. I doubt they really know how often they strike us at the exact time we need them.
You know how it is; you break up with someone great because you’re convinced it’s the right thing to do. Maybe the timing is wrong or you think there’s something more suitable out there. Time passes. Nothing better presents itself. You don’t have the self-revelations you thought you might. And so you begin to revisit the decision, flirting with the possibility that, this time, things could be different… and better.
That’s how it is with me and Vancouver.
I came here for a rest and refuel, as I’m inclined to do every couple of years since my 2006 heart-wrenching break up with the city at the end of things. But tonight’s Jericho Beach sunset is the exact lure to get me thinking about staying.
How can this sunset, and the blue hour it creates, go on nightly, weekly, monthly, yearly without me! Dusk is my favorite time of day, even without the blue upon blue upon blue of ocean, mountain and sky.
You can’t live somewhere just because you like the weather, can you?
I remember asking myself that when weighing whether to stay or go back to Toronto. But comparing this weather to the 45 degree plus exhausting heat and humidity I’ve experienced most of this summer, the answer is a resounding “yes, you can!”
Okay, maybe I should forget about the sun, Vancouverites are the first to remind me about its rare existence in this rainforest of a city. I must try to be practical and not let idealization creep in.
It is true that I wasn’t always happy here and if I recall correctly I had a fair number of lonely days and nights. I struggled for work and money, for acceptance from new friends who feared getting too close because I might leave. I had a big and then a smaller heartbreak. I dealt with the worry and guilt that comes when tragedy strikes far away back home.
Through it all though, the certainty of a mountain in my view and the ocean surrounding it was usually enough to ground me. And I don’t think I ever took it for granted. When I come to Vancouver now, I’m newly wowed by it, yet I have the luxury of knowing my way around, and feeling at home. The first few days of my 3 week stay felt strange, even confusing, but then I started roaming.
Retracing my steps is a habit I have, not just in Vancouver, but here I roam to remember my early days on the west coast, when my senses were so acute because everything was brand new.
At English Bay I think of the first time I happened upon a sunset, only to discover a crowded beach of aficionados, picnicking, throwing footballs, playing music, holding hands. From that day forward it was a daily check for sunset time and a rush to watch it, no matter what. I simply had to see the sky change hues with every passing moment.
Only in Vancouver do I fuss about missing the sunset. This visit, I’ve been alternating my viewing locations. Each one has different characteristics, each vantage point is unique. I’m trying to commit every single one to memory.
I suppose it’s natural for Vancouverites to worship the sun, considering its shyness.
A West End roam wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Lost Lagoon and my beloved swans. My first spring in Vancouver I became part of a small but passionate community of Swan Watchers. We were joined in the mind/heart work of making sure their eggs stayed viable and in delight we surrounded the nests during hatching to just love the cygnets out of their eggs.We made sure our schedules allowed us to see their first tentative dip into the lagoon, and their awkward climb on mom’s back for their first twirl around.
That spring was equal parts exhilarating and difficult and I pinned all my hopes for a successful Vancouver life on the healthy lives of those wee creatures.
Walking the seawall conjures a 10-day trip I made in November 1999, two years after my mom died, when it rained every single day, which suited my mood and allowed me to cry without detection. At dusk one night, I made my way around the perimeter of Stanley Park, snapping pictures even as the rain fell. The sky was a brooding but hopeful mix of blue/grey/yellow and I made a vow that I would be living in Vancouver within a year. I framed that one photo and hung it in my work office to remind myself of the commitment.
It was an easy goal to meet.
As I write this, I’m sitting mid-point Stanley Park seawall looking out into the open ocean. Tony West Van is on my right and the historic Siwash Rock on my left. Taking pen to paper at just this spot is so familiar. The first summer I lived here I would walk from my Alberni Street apartment, past Lost Lagoon, across the park to the seawall and along to at least this far. Then I’d double back to either 3rd, 2nd or English Bay beaches – depending on the value of my need for solitude. How many problems did I work out on those walks, on this bench, or laying in the sun listening to the waves?
If I had to put my finger on just what this part of the world means to me which, let’s face it, I’m constantly trying to do, it would have something to do with the fact that it’s the place I made peace with the past, started fresh and learned to be my original self.
I was finally able to alleviate the bottomless pit of loss the death of my mother had left, and learned to live without her. I learned how to be alone, and in the process discovered I prefer solitude. I lived for the first time on my own time and began to fully understand I’m a writer. I began to live as one, letting my creativity take me to new places and I followed it without fear. I learned to enjoy and appreciate the outdoor life, which up until then I regularly shunned, saying “I’m a city girl.” Not so, I found out. I became protective of the beauty of this place. I learned to open up my heart again, even if it meant getting it broken.
In recent years, I’ve forgotten that one , and it’s had consequences. In Toronto I live a too static, too insular life. It never occurs to me to chase down a sunset, and though I live minutes away from the lake, I rarely go there.
All this it very difficult to explain casually when asked, “what’s with you and Vancouver.” Easier to point to the beautiful surround of the city, no matter how cliché.
In these last few weeks of summer 2012, I’ve roamed every part of Vancouver that I know and to which I have special memories attached: North and West Van, there on the seabus – which, much to my amazement used to to be my commuter venue to one of my Vancouver jobs – and back by the Lion’s Gate Bridge, and it’s breathtaking view (or, as Doug Coupland says “one last grand gesture of beauty, of charm, and of grace before we enter the hinterlands”). Commercial Drive to Cafe Calabria, my Italian touch-stone in the city, Granville Island, just because it’s there and it’s great. And home of the wonderful Vancouver Writers Festival, where I’ve spent much time listening to – and drinking with – my tribesmen and women a.k.a writers. A walk along Alberni and then Pacific to look in on my first ever and most recent Vancouver apartments. I’ve gone to all the old haunts, and relived a lot of great, and some painful memories.
I should be exhausted from all the walking and remembering. Instead I’m relieved. It scares me when I think I’m forgetting the important time I spent living in Vancouver.
But I’ve also added some new memories and connections. I’ve been staying in Kitsilano, on the opposite side of the bay to where I always lived, so my roaming has included places I’ve never spent a great deal of time. Kits Beach, Jericho Beach, Point Grey, getting to know the small businesses and cute cafes and bars on West Broadway and West 4th. A discovery of a new, growing part of town, Olympic Village.
When I worked at Citytv on West 2nd, there was nothing there: no bus route, no Starbucks or any decent lunch spots, no fun place to go for after work drinks. Now there’s the beginnings of a vibrant community and a gorgeous new seawall walk linking Granville Island to Olympic Village to Yaletown and beyond.
Now, I know there are some problems associated with this area of town, but from the point of view of fresh eyes, it’s good to see Vancouver not only growing, but with a renewed sense of civic pride born of the world’s favourable gaze during the 2010 Olympics. It’s what I hoped would happen.
This luxurious stretch of time here – remembering the old and discovering the new – is maybe my attempt to reconcile my regret about having left, and to begin a process to decide what to do about it. Try again, or stay put. Is it where I should be living, or is it my second place, a place to come for peace and restoration.
The one big plus on the side of returning has nothing to do with any place I saw, anyone I spent time with or any landmark I visited. It’s simply this: I like myself better in Vancouver!
Usually the person you feel most comfortable with, the one who can still surprise and inspire you no matter how long you’ve been together, the one you feel your very best self with is the one you return to, saying “I made a mistake, if you’ll have me, I want to come back.”
Maybe Vancouver and I are due for a second chance.
Is it possible to suffer a broken heart because of a failed relationship with the city of your dreams?
Moving home from Vancouver almost a year ago was like saying goodbye to a lover I didn’t want to leave, but with whom I knew there’d only ever be heartache. It’s not surprising then, that I would be filled with a longing that is most times very difficult to put into words.
Funny, how I keep trying…
This whole year has been a reintegration, a re-learning of sorts and I should probably keep the process to myself. But…
If you haven’t lived in a place that doesn’t get ridiculously cold and, worse, barren for 6 months of the year, then it’s hard to understand what you’re missing, or even that there are liveable, viable places like that in the world to conduct your life (that aren’t resorts, I mean).
If you have, then this would be the longest winter of your entire life!!!
Sweet and helpful people tell me that it’s been a good winter, not too many cold snaps or snow, but that’s really besides the point for me. In October when the leaves started changing colour (admittedly pretty), and then falling off (oh dear!), I knew I was in for a long lush-less period of browning grass and cold, dark concrete, dirty, slushy snow that hangs around for eons. But I never would have anticipated the impact of it on my psyche – I guess I thought, well I was born here and survived 39 winters in a kind of desolation I never named, because I didn’t know any damn different! So, what’s the problem?
Well,, I only learned to appreciate nature by waking up to its unrelenting beauty every day. It really does change your whole perspective!
Lovely Desiree, my friend in Vancouver, said last night, “well, it’s raining here.” Another well-meaning friend commented, “We have our own weather issues… it’s cloudy” Um… big flippin’ deal!!! My umbrella has been sitting under my work desk for months now, and I would kill to be able to use it over dragging on coat, scarf, hat and boots for the 5th month in a row!!! My dear West Coast friends, you probably don’t know this but RAIN and cloudiness is far better. You see, it means things are green, spring comes early and it never gets all that cold.
Vancouverites love to compare themselves to Toronto and Montreal, feeling they always come up a bit short (oh they deny this, but it is sooo true!) It seems like a pointless effort, since they are really apples and oranges. And here’s why:
Each region of Canada has a way (and means actually) of life that is based purely on geography and climate. A road trip across the country is the best way to understand this. The things that concern us here in the centre of the universe don’t even register on the radar of rural Albertans, prairie folk, Islanders or west coast dwellers. This is the main reason why both sides of the country feel alienated, to one degree or another, by a centrist government and media. Who can blame ’em?
There are differences that are so subtle it’s easy to dismiss them – except that at the moment they are glaringly obvious to me. This morning, for instance, seeing the temperature was finally a balmy 1 degree above zero, I pulled out a top I haven’t worn in ages, but that was a staple in my wardrobe in Vancouver – in any season. Why? It’s a light weight cotton long sleeve, which up until this point would have me freezing both under my winter coat and sitting at my desk. Simple but important difference – you don’t have to invest in four seasons worth of clothing!! (good thing in a city as expensive as my beloved)
Folks in Vancouver have impeccable shoes, hair and very clean cars. Nothing is weather-beaten. It’s one of the first things I noticed, with pleasure.
By the time I left Toronto 6 years ago, I had grown to hate winter and that fact was a big influence on the decision to live in a part of our country that pretty much skips that season.
I guess I forgot that part!
Last week I spent a day at Canada Blooms, a gardening trade exhibit. We were shooting stories for the tv show I work on and it sure felt strange to have to go inside at this time of year to see trees, waterfalls, streaming rivulets and flowers. It was so out of context for me that some of the displays looked downright funereal. At first struck by the crowd, I soon realized I was one of them, desperate to see green, growing things; willing to drop any amount on whatever it takes to make my 2×4 Toronto garden look lush for as long as possible (AND I DON’T EVEN HAVE ONE).
Here’s the crux of it: I never want to be a person who feels desperate for anything, least of all for want of a pretty flowering tree to gaze upon.
But there’s also a deeper psychological issue at play here. I was brought up in a household full of extremes where I perfected the art of crisis management in order to feel any semblance of normal. To step out of the spiral I figured out that the extremes in weather too closely mirrored my early life. I had to find moderation in all things – the ubiquitous balance to which everyone here gives lip service. As crazy as it sounds, for me that included weather, maybe even started with it. I thought I had succeeded , so this winter (and the horrific heat and humidity of this past summer) have been as much a test of endurance, as a barometer of personal growth.
The truth is, as beautiful as Vancouver was and is, I could never quite find a way to make it feel like home. Had I been able to conquer that I would never have left. It was truly the biggest bout of unrequited love I’ve ever experienced. Geesh, you’d think I’d be happy it’s over!
Still… Spring has never been more welcome, and having said that I will rest my fruitless and exhausting comparisons and just find a way to make peace with my decision to live here.