There’s no going back, even when you’ve gone back. I know that doesn’t make sense. I’m trying to make sense of it.
Maybe I knew what a mess this would be when we moved to the west coast. I was only a child but I think I knew. It seemed important to resist Victoria for the first few months and then it seemed equally important to assimilate.
I tried not to get attached but people being what they are, it couldn’t be avoided. I was a child, I wanted friends, I knew I could not return to the East until I was an adult, and once I was an adult, I found it hard to find my way out of that maze.
What bothers me most is that the child was right. I didn’t belong in Victoria. My parents didn’t think about that when they moved us there. I never fit. Even after 20 years, I did not fit.
I grew through my teenaged years with friends who idolized the East. Toronto, Montreal, New York City, these were mythic places where artists and movie stars lived. But to me, they were home and I longed to be there. I did the best I could to join in but I also mostly ignored the fan aspect of their lives. Being a fan depends on the fact that you will only ever know a place or a person by their creative work.
There was a sense, among my friends, that what I wanted was to be famous or cool or whatever social currency had value at the time. I was a singer for a while, but I didn’t like the attention. What I liked least of all was people assuming there was something about fame that drew me to Eastern Canada. None of that was true. I just wanted to go home. Eventually, academia would provide a pathway but not for a while, not until I had made every effort to fit where I did not belong.
I was ten when we arrived in Victoria. I hated it. It never snowed but sunny days were rare. It was always damp and chilly. There were no big parks with people gathering on weekends. No street musicians, no random protests, no buildings older than a century. There was no outdoor market. Everything was clean. Nothing was a mystery. It was all plainly laid out. There were no pockets of international culture, none that were shared as a matter of daily life. Only Chinatown, I went there often but it seemed like a closed society. There were no Black people, not one. People were polite. They seemed wealthy. It was a very smooth culture, very new, very white, very clean. not much friction. No one was nosy. Everyone liked sports. No one seemed interested in national politics. It felt numb.
As I got older, the feeling got worse. But mingled with it was the feeling of love for the landscape and for some of the people I met. Artists, friends, I had friends. They seemed important.
After a while. I told myself I imagined the differences I felt between east and west. I tried my best to settle in, tried to find a place to belong. It went okay. I belonged to choirs, had a serious boyfriend from an older, established family. I had social obligations. I knew my way around.
But on the other side of the continent, my husband was living the life I expected to live when I was ten. I didn’t know it. I thought I would be able to submerge and become one with west coast culture, to blend in, to assimilate.
It didn’t work. It never really worked. I loved my parents, I felt a sense of duty to the family. I assumed I was being selfish and unrealistic. I became a preschool teacher and in that capacity, I was sent to Ottawa.
That did it. All it took was two weeks in Ottawa for the homesickness to overtake me again. In Ottawa, strangers talked to each other, I heard a dozen different languages being spoken on the street. There were rundown areas. “Diversity.” There were big parks with people gathering there by chance on weekends. On summer nights, you could go without a coat. I realized, I wasn’t making my homesickness up. Still, I tried to stick to Victoria. After all, my whole family lived there.
Eventually, it all became too much to bear. I applied to my dream school with no money to speak of. I applied despite the fact that I had not actually graduated high school. I was admitted.
One day, I stepped onto a plane and slipped away over the eastern horizon and my life began. I began my life. At university, I was not an outcast, I thrived. I was home.
20 years later, I married a man I would have met at least three times if I had just listened to myself and not to “good sense” or the needs of my family. He lived in NYC. He was a photo journalist. He still works in media. I learned that listening to the people who told me to be reasonable had literally cost me years of my life.
A decade before we met, a friend in Ottawa had picked up one of my husband’s books and suggested I write to him. She had a feeling he could answer my questions about oral history. She was right. She even nagged me about it. I ignored her. Average people don’t just decide to write to anyone they please. Right? A decade earlier, while I still lived in Victoria, he was working the Village Voice. I was writing for alternative newspapers then and had a fantasy of going to New York and applying to the Voice. It was a ridiculous fantasy. My friends talked me out of it.
Eventually we met online. We were married six months later. That was a decade ago. We’re happy. But now I wrestle with mixing the two realities. He knows the people my friends admired when I was a teenager. Their idols were his neighbors. His world is the world I was told was utterly fanciful, never reality.
Our reality is not luxurious or charmed in any way. It’s an ordinary life. But my ordinary life is based here, on the eastern seaboard, and rooted in the world of art and media, like thousands of other ordinary people. I would never have believed it, I was raised not to believe it. I was raised to believe the life I lead right now was unrealistic and unattainable. I was raised to believe drudgery is the only real way forward in life. All of that is a lie. Part of the reason I’m leaving this here is because I’m a big believer in fate and if you’ve found this and you think you should do something that sounds completely absurd to your friends and family, I am here to tell you, you should ignore them. You should do it.
But what is bothering my today is a side effect of that.
The people I knew, loved, and tried to keep as friends from back in that place, in that time, still look at my husband’s world with stars in their eyes. I can’t say much about my life without sounding as though I am bragging, so I can’t say much. So the distance between us grows.
My sister stalked me here. For that reason, for a while, I took some advice to stop writing here. When someone is wielding your happiness as a weapon, it is difficult to be honest about anything. My sister is unhappy. She believes in a kind of world I do not recognize. I think she will always be unhappy. But I have to let that go too.
She was looking for reasons why I don’t deserve to be included in my mother’s will. She believes my happiness disqualifies me from being my mother’s daughter. She believes that happiness comes with money or that people who are happy don’t deserve money, it’s hard to say. I don’t know what she believes, and I don’t care about how she sees the world, really. She’s wrong. My parents are my parents no matter where I am. Most artists are working class. We live like most artists. We are working class. I’m never going to be a receptionist or an accountant or even a preschool teacher again, it’s just not who I was designed to be. I’m no good at those things. I am entitled to have my life. My parents did not cease to be my parents because I have my life. In fact, they did what I did. Neither my mother nor my father stayed where they were planted. They left their families and moved far away, much younger than I left mine and no one told them they didn’t have a family anymore, because that would be crazy.
We have reached the age where some of the people from my husband’s life in New York are starting to die. Sometimes, I find out about those deaths by seeing a fan tribute on a west coast friend’s social media. I sometimes try to tell them how real those people are, to find common ground between us, between my life now and their life now. I am trying to build a bridge where one cannot be built and I know I shouldn’t do that. But I don’t want to let it all go. It feels like if I let it all go, then there is no reason for it ever to have happened, and maybe that’s true. I should never have been taken out of Montreal and transplanted to a territory where I could not thrive. I’m grateful to have understood it and more grateful for the circumstances and the courage it took to leave everything behind and follow my heart home. I am grateful but maybe gratitude isn’t enough reason to hang on to something. Maybe that place and those friends were never mine and can never be mine.
There is this gulf between their imaginary world and my reality and it’s becoming apparent that the gulf can only be crossed in one direction.
Now that I’ve come home, I must leave behind the things I found in exile. The two cannot coexist. It’s harder than I expected, and it has gone on for much longer.
Time to leave exile behind.