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.
A few months ago I went to a concert by myself. I do this a lot, go out alone. Sometimes I prefer it. I really didn’t think it was a big deal until I told a couple of people about the concert. Of course the inevitable question was, who’d you go with? The reactions surprised me.
Apparently it’s courageous to do something social on your own. Or, maybe it’s even anti-social!
I’ve often written about my intermittent loneliness and how I feel that it is something that, although difficult, can be overcome. The key is to learn how to not let it affect big decisions. I’ve let that happen and learned from it – I hope. The biggest one, I believe, was moving back to Toronto from Vancouver before I’d given my life there enough of a chance. I felt indescribably lonely and was susceptible to family and friends saying, just come home. It was a mistake, but one I am trying to make the best of.
These days I’m more willing to wait the lonely feeling out. To let it run its course, because I believe it always will.
I never felt lonely a day on earth while my mother was alive and because I believe my loneliness is attached to her death, I always think of it as situational. That she’s been gone 12 years doesn’t seem to affect my characterization of the feeling. It comes, it goes.
A new book called Lonely by a Canadian writer, Emily White has got me doubting myself and wondering if I’ve caught the bravado bug I sometimes accuse others of having, the ones who are unwilling to admit their loneliness.
White bravely tells of her chronic loneliness which she felt most of her life, but intensely so for about 3 years in her mid-30s. Three years! Chronic? Oh dear.
I have to admit I read the book with much fear. In fact, in parts my heart was beating so fast I felt sure I was having a full out panic attack. Her early life mirrors my own: feelings of separation, isolation, too much of a gap of age and temperament with siblings, parents at odds with one another, their evident loneliness, a mother who held me a little too close to fill in the spaces for her. Hell, even Emily White’s first boyfriend had the same name as mine. Has my loneliness been with me my whole life? Could feelings of loneliness and isolation be the reason I have so few memories of my young life?
I looked up from the book at the prints decorating my bedroom – it’s not the first time I’ve wondered why every single one of them depicts a woman alone.
Has loneliness so shaped my life that it’s the reason I am middle-aged, single, with no safety net, a tiny social circle and indistinguishable social life and, worst of all, no kids? Did I somehow make this happen? And collect the art to reflect it back to me each day upon waking?
Do people look at me walking down the streets of my neighbourhood and say, there goes that lonely woman. Always alone. (no wonder I feel giddy when I can go into a local coffee shop once in awhile accompanied by a – usually male – friend. Phew, they will know I have friends and maybe even a boyfriend!)
White makes a case for loneliness as an affliction caused by genetics and nurturing. She believes we are wired through DNA to be lonely. And that sometimes our loneliness mirrors that of our parents, in her case mostly her mother. Because she wants it more out in the open, she believes it should be listed in the updated version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), due to come out in 2012. This, she says, would ensure it gets properly funded for research and treatment, the natural progression of this being medication.
Now, I haven’t done the exhaustive research she has but I disagree.
I think loneliness is a periodic state of being that visits itself upon each and every one of us at various times. Let’s face it, more people live alone now and gone are the days of close knit communities and extended families. The key is learning to understand how it affects you and what to do to work through it. After all, we’re supposed to grow and learn in life. Sometimes my loneliness is acute and it feels like nothing can alleviate it. Since I’m pretty comfortable alone it’s not being alone that triggers it. It’s being alone when I don’t want to be and feeling like I can’t connect with anyone. It’s that feeling that there’s no way to communicate my deepest feelings that makes me the loneliest.
Admittedly, the biggest reason is not having a one and only – which isn’t necessarily a love partner, though that would be nice. And I’m trying to find a way to understand how to make that very neglected part of my life work. But, just one or a few good companionable, compatible, supportive friends would do the trick.
I have friends like this, but they are mostly busy with their lives of husband/wife, active young family connections. Or they’re too far away to connect with very often. I’m a natural sharer and sometimes feel unbelievably bereft, and afraid for my future with no safeties in place. Also, being alone so much means that my nurturing instincts can go numb with disuse, or worse, get misplaced on someone entirely inappropriate. Something that can catch me unawares if I’m not careful.
Emily White thinks this type of dulling of the senses is a result of loneliness. She also offers up plenty of studies, although they are relatively small ones, that show how loneliness affects heart health, and is implicated in dementia. These pieces of information are nothing short of terrifying to me and the surest way to get me to try any outlet at all towards connection.
White says lonely people are reluctant to tell their families and friends that they are lonely. It’s true. Most people end up feeling responsible for how you feel and it only serves to turn them further away, not closer. I prefer to just bare down and get myself through it. But I’m also not afraid to say it’s a pretty big part of my life right now. But that really is my challenge, not anyone else’s.
I do know how to reach out and I enjoy sociability. I welcome it, when I’m feeling up to it. The truth is, through many years of therapy and 5 years of living away from home, I discovered the original me and that person requires more time and space, which usually means plenty of solitude of the chosen variety.
Most lonely people I know -whether they admit to being lonely or whether it’s something I sense – are creative, singular, and as I like to call it, living outside the much touted “normal” lines. I can’t really complain about feel lonely when I bring it on by leaping out of my life every five years, at least.
My worry is that I will always do this and never settle down and that my innate (not genetic though) loneliness causes me to do this.
Perhaps I will never know. It’s not a worry I really want to take on. I prefer to believe it’s a badge of maturity to learn to live with loneliness. or should I say, live it out.
But I certainly have no intention of taking a pill for it. Nor will I stop my solo, apparently oh so courageous, outings to concerts and social gatherings.
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.
Yes, he’s named after the character in Tempest. He’s 8 years old and for the last 6 months or so he’s been quite sick with diabetes. But he’s doing much better now. It’s been a bit of a trial for us, and very expensive. One day I’ll write about my frustrating experiences at the vet, but today my neighbour told me she saw Caliban playing tag with another cat outside and it just made me so happy to know that he’s feeling well enough to romp around with his pals again.
Another neighbour took this photo when he was at the height of his illness, so he looks a bit thin, but still gorgeous. And in case you’re wondering, his markings and temperament indicate he might be part Bengal. He’s pretty feisty, even when he’s feeling low.