I left the literal chill of Calgary three years ago for the hustle and bustle of Toronto. I traded Stampede for Dundas Square; suburban malls for the Eaton Centre, Queen’s Park, Lake Ontario and a beach less than a mile away. I’ve never been a Westerner or a Prairie dweller; those skies are too big for me.
Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has a wealth of history that is more familiar to me, a child of the mid-Atlantic and New England. We have brick here, lots of it. We have summers and negligible winters (comparatively speaking). There is a pace and a pulse to Toronto that Calgary will likely never have but with that pace comes…or goes…or lacks…detracts…irritates…
Big cities can turn on you in an instant, a New York minute. They promise you shelter, a degree of anonymity and then bang, literally, stray gunfire can cut you down. It has always been so. When I was in my early twenties, the very first apartment I had overlooked a green belt in Washington, DC that snaked between two major thoroughfares. Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? A green belt in the midst of all of that asphalt. I’d sit on my balcony at night and watch muzzle flashes in that green belt as rival gangs fought each other for that patch of grass. I learned that gunfire isn’t “bang-bang” like we said when we were kids; it was more of a muted popping sound, depending on the wind and how close it was.
I feel insecure in Toronto now. I feel unsafe. I’m tired of the rudeness, the traffic, the inability to go to sleep at night without wondering what’s going to happen in the wee hours when the five pubs that surround my house close, spewing forth people in various stages of drunkenness and ill-humour. I remind myself that this is part of the “pulse” of the place that I wanted when I fled the icy confines of Calgary.
Do I long for the suburbs? Oh, dear God no! I was in the hinterlands, that paved Siberia yesterday and fled towards the smoggy skyline of downtown at inordinately high speed. Acres and acres of treeless subdivisions, row upon row of houses that all look the same interspersed with the small-to-medium shopping plazas – no thank you. Where I live, I can walk to anything I want or don’t want; in the suburbs there is no escaping the car, the sameness.
Place has been on my mind a great deal lately. The Novel has re-immersed me in Scotland, land of bitter conflict and soulful joy – and that’s just in my own family. That place has a gravitational pull on me that cannot be easily explained. When I’m in Scotland everything feels raw; a feeling that scares and attracts simultaneously. I could never live there; it would tear me apart. Part of me wants to be torn apart.
I have been homesick lately; odd, for a gypsy. I long for the ocean, the sable coloured sand of my youth. I am taking my children for the first time to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where I spent every summer from birth to age fifteen. Those barrier islands change hourly with the wind and tide. Our cottage is gone but the sand is still sand; the ocean is still my tumultuous swimming pool filled with salt. We will go out on Avalon Pier, climb Jockeys Ridge. From that highest sand dune, we can see both the Atlantic to the east and Albemarle Sound and the tidal inlets, ribbons of water that snake inland to the west. We will watch the sun sink like a fiery red ball beyond Roanoke Island as I tell them about Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony.
My kids might shrug, complain about the black flies. We will trudge back to our motel and scrape sand out of places we didn’t know it could go. But at least they will hear Atlantic surf, a sound they will never forget. They will wade into the water and marvel at the warmth as the Gulf Stream passes close to shore there, so unlike the frigid Pacific waters off Vancouver Island – the only other ocean they’ve encountered.
In July, I’m to be mentored in a workshop by a man who has mastered the sense of place: Alistair MacLeod. With only a sentence or two, MacLeod can take the reader across the sea to the Highlands of Scotland then back to the pine forests and rocky coast of Cape Breton. Reading one of his short stories last night I swear had to rub the salt spray off my skin.
I just finished a book called The Sandalwood Tree; set in India in 1947 at the end of the Raj, in a single sentence I was transported. I could smell the dust, the dung fires and could see the colourful saris and Bougainvillea vines climbing the trees. I don’t think I could handle the real India; however, it was thrilling to feel its life come off the pages of a book.
Is it easier to write about a place like India – so powerful, so extreme, so in your face than it is about an everyday North American concrete jungle like Toronto? Can I make the streets of my east-end ‘hood leap off the page? Do I want to, feeling as disenchanted as I do right now? Maybe I should take my coffee cup,sit outside in the wet-blanket heat and let it wash over me for a bit. Maybe it would help me feel the love of the place once more.
Place. It’s easy to miss even when you’re right there.