AS PUBLISHED IN YOGA NATION
I can’t resist a challenge, and as I meet the challenge of living in New York, I become more and more settled here. I live in Brooklyn now, in an old Italian house, in a Dominican neighborhood. I’ve got an authentic New York State driver’s license, a dot.com job, a boyfriend, and a new immigration visa.Of course, it’s at this time that I’ve also begun to be wracked with homesickness. I ache to see the west coast. I yearn for long summer nights, late salmon barbecues on the beach, ocean kayaking and the smell of budlea, lilac and pine sweet on the night air. It could be the time of year: Canada is gorgeous in the summer. Or, perhaps it is time to go home?
It started a few weeks ago, when, sick in bed with a cold, I snuggled down with The New Yorker to read Jonathan Raban’s article, “Sailing into the Sublime, the Infidelity of Travel.” I opened it up, excited to see my part of the world represented. After my initial elation, and to my own astonishment, on opening up the magazine, I burst into jealous tears. It became intolerable that anyone else could be sailing up the west coast of Canada. It seemed especially unfair that miserable me-sick, and too poor as a recent graduate student to buy a ticket west-had to suffer the smelly, roasting, concrete-jungle summer in New York while this Englishman enjoyed himself on my islands.
I mopped up my tears, and took a look at what he had to say.
The tides between the islands, deep fogs, dense forest, magnetically green ocean, the imposing mountains that tower over narrow waterways, and eccentric people living in isolated communities, if you could call them that, filled Raban’s article. He watched this landscape from his boat. Concurrently, he relayed the early European explorers’ history of the area from their journals and ships’ logs. Raban was ‘discovering’ the coast, too; being filled with awe and desire as the sailors had, 300 years earlier.
I loved the coast with the same dazzled incomprehension, dwarfed with awe. But I have to admit, it was not until I’d been away from it myself, between the ages of 17 and 18-first year of university-that I learned how much I loved it. I have to try to explain why exactly it casts such a spell on me. It is beautiful, that goes without saying. But it also has some uncanny power, that Raban was trying to describe, as were Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver in the late 1700s.
The following incident might illuminate some of the coast’s illusive power. One cold, rainy winter weekend in 1995, I took a ferry from Vancouver to Galiano Island, an hour’s journey from the city, where I’d rented a tiny, mildewy cabin, and settled in for a weekend of solitary work. That night, a storm blew in. The lighthouse just across the waters, on Mayne Island, boomed out its sonorous warning, long after I’d let the fire die, put up the dishes and gone to bed. I woke up suddenly in the backroom. After a loud boom, all the windows in the front had snapped open in the fierce winds. I could hear the narrowed waters of Active Pass heaving and spraying up against the sandstone cliffs below. I ran out into the dark cabin with only the passing beam of the lighthouse to light the room. I fumbled with the lamps. The wind held the windows fast against me. Drawing them back into their frames proved a struggle. I fought the wind for them. After an hour I had the place secured, though I still worried that one of the tall fir trees would come crashing through the roof. Then, I put on my raingear and walked out into the storm.
When I’d turned 25, a close friend had given me a photograph of myself. It was a photograph she had taken the Christmas before, at the beach when we had been walking and throwing stones at the seagulls. We’d been talking-examining our general conviction that, as Wordsworth said, the world was too much with us. When we got to the playground by the holly trees, in the snug cove of Vancouver’s Maple Bay, we had both dropped our bags and jumped on the swings. I was trying to pull myself up onto the metal rings when she got our her camera.In the picture, I have my right hand just barely on one ring, my fingers strain to hold it. My right foot clears the sand below and my left arm hangs at my side for balance. The photograph is black and white, and around me stand the prickly holly trees which lend the shot a rim of darkness. That dark is echoed in my dark jacket, my jeans and shoes. What stands out are my pale hands, my pale face, with a smile on it, and the strip of sand below, also pale. Around the edges my friend had written the first five lines of a poem I’d recently written:
God’s mouth dark on my hair
hope blows around me on the sand
I am a girl lighting fires near the sea
Mum’s mouth a porthole underwater
an engine-room that seized.
She gave me this photograph for my 25th birthday. I had been miserably depressed and yet here my lighted face looked hopeful and open. “You can put this on the back of your first book,” she’d said. It looked as though in brooding over our problems, I had either solved them, found the joke in them, or discovered a higher path out of our habitual melancholy. It was quite a gift.
In this spirit–the spirit of transcending something–even as I walked in the midst of it, I opened the door of the cabin, marched determinedly against the wind. I marched to the hairpin turn in the road and towards the Bluffs Provincial Park, about a mile away, which overlooked Active Pass. Sure of my direction, I ignored the trail and began to stride diagonally up the slope softened with decades of pine-needles and tree-rot. When I reached the top, scratched by unseen branches, having tripped more than a few times and having landed on my wet palms, having cut them, I felt some kind of weird calm. Below, hundreds of feet down, the waters of Active Pass hurled themselves onto the rocky beach. Sheet lightening was moving off towards Vancouver Island, striking purple and white onto the ocean. On me the rain fell with hail-like force as I sat under a short fir tree, one I wagered would stand through any wind; I was inside the storm. I slipped, like the moon that dipped beneath the horizon, into a space of supernatural calm. I had transgressed my need for safety from the elements. I was in another place altogether, somewhere hard to map, at the heart of that storm.
* * *
It’s November in New York now. That spell of homesickness from the summer has passed. New Yorkers have long returned from their summer vacations, and the crowds of tourists have thinned out. I’ve returned to graduate school, to teaching freshman composition, and I continue to waitress, off the books, in a Soho bistro. American Thanksgiving is not too far away. New York is at its best in the fall.
Access to the best of New York has been somewhat limited for me, given my budget, but waitressing has its perks. The owner of my restaurant opened a new French bistro in the meatpacking district last week. He invited staff from all three of his other restaurants, to come for a pre-opening drink with some of his A list celebrities and special friends. I met up with three other waitresses there and we sat together on the red leather banquette, under pseudo Parisian tiled columns.The two hours we spent there represent something I love about this city. In the glow of the golden light, watching the bustle of bartenders in white shirts with rolled up sleeves and slicked back hair, under signs and long scratched mirrors advertising French drinks and food, the place seemed to woo and reward us for the many hours we’d spent serving food and drinks till 3 and 4 in the morning. It was spinning a fantastical, seductive romance in which I, too, the student, waitress, nobody, could feel as rich and lovely as the model, actress or writer sitting to my left. Judy Davis, Tim Burton, and Matt Dillon were all sitting at banquettes close by.
When I walked dizzily to the bar to get my next free drink, a woman tapped me on the arm. She introduced herself, “Hi, my name is Alice–you were my waitress once.”
I readied myself for what was coming. It would be something like hearing my own voice on a tape recorder, I felt sure: unsettling.
“I have to tell you, I never remember my server,” she beamed, “but you were so cool, so chill–my sister and I both agreed you were the best server I’ve ever had; I recognized you right away, you were great.” Relieved, I smiled. We toasted each other and I slipped away with my fresh drink.
The friend who gave me the photograph for my birthday has commented on how much happier I seem in New York. It’s true that I love being here for these kinds of fabulous moments, under the charmed lights, to eat the sparkling food and drink the champagne, to be remembered, to be recognized. Although the values of my socialist, Canadian upbringing chastise me, I enjoy this glamor. I enjoy the materiality and the make-believe of it. I am seduced, I let myself be carried away in the dream of loveliness, of deserving, a peculiarly American sense of righteousness. Even at the fringes of this privilege (the real celebrities ate a full complementary dinner in the restaurant; the invited staff shared drinks in the bar) I feel wonderful. Charmed.
The east wasn’t always charming. Careless of, the west’s power—taking its raw, fearsome beauty, for granted—I had argued and cajoled and pestered my parents until they had agreed that I could attend Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, 3,000 kilometers from home. It was what we westerners called, “back east.” In other words, far away and totally foreign. At seventeen, that’s what I’d wanted.
My residence room at Queen’s had been made of industrial, pre-fabricated brick, a monstrosity popularly known as the “Death Star.” From the first moment I detested the place. But I moved in determined to find some elusive freedom. As the semester rolled on my luck didn’t improve. I didn’t meet anyone I liked or trusted. On Halloween I went to see Aliens at the campus cinema. Then, being, naturally, lonely, I mustered up my courage and called an acquaintance from the payphone outside the theater.A blustery autumn wind was kicking leaves up in the city park I hurriedly crossed to get to his house. Kevin was drinking rum and coke. I drank too much. In no time I was seeing double, forming formless words which fell out of my mouth into the nothing air.
No one was home but me and him. Paralyzed by alcohol, lost in a haze of longing for somewhere which felt like home, I let his rough and groping hands travel all over me. I let him have sex with my highly intoxicated, teenage body while my mind left to walk along Pacific shore and drive my old red Datsun through the forested roads.
Later, after he’d left the house and gone to his girlfriend’s, I wondered where I had been at all. Here, in this messy bedroom of another teenager? Or at home, in the woods? If I had stayed in the room with Kevin, would any of what had just happened, have happened? I wasn’t sure. My nostalgia for home meant that I couldn’t see where I was, and this was dangerous. When I returned to the actual coast, in my physical body, eight months later, I could see that it was gorgeous. It was sublime. It offered freedom that the east had taken away. I could not believe that in all my childhood, I had never truly seen what was around me.
Ironically, I still associate the east with a kind of sexualness–eating and drinking, splashing around in the civilly sexualized bars and restaurants of New York. This kind of sexual engagement with my life makes me want to stay here, not flee. Great food and drink, beautiful spaces, bright, funny, diverse friends and lovers are the fabric of rich living. With the occasional professional kudo thrown in life here seems full of potential. That is the east’s–well, New York’s–charm, that it promises so much.
Clearly, the west coast could never make me feel this way. The west promises nothing. The west is raw, fertile, fibrous, base, consuming and destroying in unregulated, uncivilized proportions. It was luck and force of will which had taken me to the heart of that storm on Galiano Island.
When I look in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, I find several predictable definitions for infidel: namely, “unfaithful, unbelieving”. For infidelity: “lack of faith, disbelief in religious matters or a particular religion; unfaithfulness or disloyalty to a friend, superior, especially lack of sexual faithfulness to a partner”.
It’s clear why I would leave the west. And why I would stay on beyond the time it has taken to graduate from an MFA program. I needed a way to surface from the centrifugal suction of depression, to escape from nature’s heady appetite. I need civilization-not civilization as a moral kind of order, but engagement, culture. Like a nineteenth century explorer invited to court, I traded the power of the wild for the power of human ideas and constructions. The price of my defection comes in the form of the tag, infidel. To be unfaithful to the coast makes me a non-believer in its raw ecstatic religion, and non-complying with its sexualized cloying. This seems fine to me. A price worth paying, indeed a price that needs to be paid. I sell my soul.
In New York, it’s virtually impossible to walk as slowly and ponderously as we had in Vancouver. It seems that everyone here could be depressed but everyone is just toobusy to stop and think about it. That is also something I enjoy about life here. The need to be hyper-alert. Somedays I feel like Alex, the main character in Stanley Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, whose eyes were clamped open while violent and repulsive images, bright lights and noise assaulted him. All around me here are humans handling human life, evidence of our ingeniousness and our cruelty. Everywhere people are running. Here the unspoken motto seems to be, ‘be aggressive and survive’. We–us strangers–are bonded by our understanding that this is what we will do to survive. I will do it and so will you.
In contrast, the morning after the storm on Galiano, after I’d cleaned up the fallen branches and blown scrub from around the cabin and chopped some more wood for my next visit, I’d hitch-hiked to the ferry. I found that ferry service had been moved an old dock on the island’s west side. We hitched rides over there. The air was electric with anticipation. All foot-passengers were talking to each other, comparing the damage, the shortages, the urgency with which we had to leave. We were smiling at each other shyly, as though we were all about to reveal some intimate secrets. We had all been awake in the night. I knew the excitement and yearning we had been feeling. Someone might have been swept away or crushed, or might have succumbed to the seduction of the storm. This kind of intimacy displaced our aggression, fears and excitements. We bonded against the storm, cradled safely in our puny, makeshift society. The land had brought us together in just the way that New York City drives us apart, living out our aggressions, fired through with our fears, ambitions and desires.
The west is not innocent, not passive, not a parcel of natural resources that yields to our demands for wood and water. It’s rather female, in my characterization of it here, the voracious, powerful, unyielding, hungry female. My draw into the bosom of the beyond-human, is homoerotic, violent, instinctual, a breaking into or allowing myself to be drawn back in to a highly charged union. I flee this because I want to be a distinct part of the fabric of culture as it exists, no matter what the price.
Interesting that my draw to what is socially feared is where I find depression, isolation, and ecstatic solitariness. My draw to that which has been sanctioned is where I find intellectual stimulation, society and physical danger.Last night my ex-boyfriend called from Canada. I was sitting on the couch in my newly repainted living room, fiddling with this essay. He asked me how long I would remain in New York, if I had reasons to stay here beyond graduate school. I said I would be staying. He seemed surprised. I thought of Jonathan Raban’s article, now filed away in my filing cabinet. I would not throw it out, just as I could not turn away from my need for Canada and the west coast. I remain faithful, even as I am continually committing the gravest and sometimes most risky infidelity by choosing to live here. But for now, these images and these places exist in my imagination, powerful and seductive, the places I turn to for solace and fierceness of a different order. I am bound to return to these actual places. Right now I return there in my mind only, and this relationship-by-proxy is what I am calling home.