The dumping zone

Nothing in my house is new. I wonder if I could live among objects that don’t carry stories. Would I feel welcome at home? Or like I’m walking through a museum with blank placards, peppered with sticky notes of prophecy? You’ll have wonderful and awful conversations on this couch. Breakfasts will happen at this table, and here, maybe, you’ll rest.

This short telephone table here, it holds my keys and detritus, it’s the dumping zone. But before this, it sat in a living room with one purple wall. It held up a tacky blue lamp, next to the couch that was the only new thing in that house. My sister’s glitter-speckled nail polish spilled onto the tiny table as we piled together on the couch and floor, tangled dog and human limbs, laughing and arguing about movies over milkshakes.

This tiny table sat next to those moments of assemblage I remember as possible home – doors fully open but not mine every day. There were beds I could sleep on. Sometimes it was my sister’s, under the abstract floral curtain. Sometimes it was my brother’s floor, on a spare mattress, staring up at the shadows of a Lego pirate ship.

Sometimes I found myself on the hide-a-bed in the basement, in later years, in those times when I was banished from my main home.

From my own bed, I watched treetops sway out the fifth-floor window. I’d crack it open in the middle of the night and blow secret cigarette smoke out, looking up at stars and down at police cruisers, watching them while they waited for our apartment doors to open. And maybe the next day I’d be banished, grabbing a few dresses in a plastic bag before stomping out into the uncertain world. I’d bounce around other beds, and then finally back to my most possible home.

I’d never known such darkness as there was in that stony basement. I’d lose myself in Sims, building imagined fantastical homes suspended over pools, designing little lives that fit into neat patterns. I found a secret hack to refill the bank account. It was so impossibly simple on that screen, a dream I lived until 4 or 5 am before crumpling into the hide-a-bed.

Early morning felt no different than midnight. I’d stumble upstairs anyway, accept the offering of a sandwich in a brown paper bag and try to live the Sim-perfect routine, the one I’d mastered in the dark basement, except in the daylight world. Go to school, go to work, study. Find a home, go to it.

The basement could have been my home too. It was an offer to get away from the too-soon onset of adult life, from fighting. Just go to school and be a kid, they said. You don’t need to maintain home just yet, just live. Just live here.

But I fought and begged for my tiny corner, my room on the fifth floor. I pleaded, why can’t I just pay some rent and call it even? I wanted a door I could lock, a window I could quietly smoke out of, an explosion of branches reaching up into the sky, pulling me out of this mess on the ground.

Long after we left the fifth floor and the others moved away, I searched for new possible homes, for places that could hold the possibility of tangled dog and human limbs on a couch. I held onto what was left, bits of furniture and scraps of stories, patched them together, and called it home.

The dog lived out her years here and died on the kitchen floor, and I cleaned up a bit, then a bit less. I quit smoking and looked out the windows at the one spare treetop. And I pulled out this old table again, rickety but still holding steady. It greets me when I come home. It’s the dumping zone.


My year in Canoe

year in review

This year feels like 3 years, at least. Somewhere near the beginning I set out to deconstruct my life and turn it into something now. And now it’s…well, it is something, though I’m not sure what to call it. It’s like looking back on a long canoe trip. The retelling depends on my current mood, the audience, and the ever-rotating whirlpool of memory.

I could just make a list of big moments and life markers, but drawing a map in retrospect is much less of an adventure. Let’s say, for the sake of narrative, that my life over this last year was a canoe.

If I said I spent a year in a canoe to someone who isn’t fond of backwoods travel, or who’s never been in a canoe, they might recoil and horror and exclaim, “Oh, that must have been so horrible and stressful!”. And then, of course, the most strenuous of memories would come to the forefront, and I’d regale this poor city-slicker with tales of long portages, of being eaten alive by mosquitoes, of paddling through the night, never sure of when rest might come.

I’d try to describe the feeling of my fingers slipping on mossy rock as I flailed about in the rapids, watching that purple canoe (if my life is a canoe, it’s definitely purple, ok?) being tossed about and trashed downstream from me. Of finding it covered in cracks, irreparable maybe, and spending days going over it, trying to pull it back together with a pocket knife and some duct tape (who am I kidding? I ran out of duct tape long ago. That canoe, among many other things, is held together with green painter’s tape. Don’t underestimate the resiliency of that green painter’s tape. It’s hardier than it looks).
I’d pull my trusted friend aside and tell them of how, under the cold, indifferent moon, I lay awake and wondered how I’d ever be able to get back on the river the next day.

But I would get back on the river. I’d paddle sluggishly through marshes, canoe overfull and sinking. How did I pack so much into this tiny boat? I wondered, but it all seemed to be stuck together, piled in like a Tetris master, except with no layers magically disappearing to make room for more. My back hurt. My neck hurt. I think at one point I leaned forward and touched my toes, but then they stretched out far in front of me again, as if they were four femurs away. Damn those unattainable toes.

If I was telling this story to someone who’d spent a year or more in a similar canoe, it would sound much different. We’d lock eyes and share a hidden smile, both knowing the delight of steering your own way in the water.

I wouldn’t have to explain how it felt to make a slight adjustment to the tilt of my paddle and see the path change before me, to have the freedom to go at my speed, lackadaisical in the morning and big hustle at dusk. To know that I was neither holding myself back for another paddler to catch up, nor holding anyone else up.

With these quiet moments unspoken, we’d jump right into the brilliant, crashing moments of pure joy. Of scaling a cliff and diving down into deep, clear unknown waters, then floating for a moment on top, held by the river, and climbing out to do it all over again. Of the 21st time the canoe flipped, and I burst out into hysterical laughter because what else was there to do, and then even after I put everything back together again, I still couldn’t stop laughing.

I’d tell them about the nights when I thought I was all alone, pouring my heart out to that same quiet moon, and then looked over to find other canoes pulling up beside me. When I found new friends that had been down this way before and who promised to ring their bells loudly and keep the bears at bay. I swore to ring my bell too, to build a chorus for fellow travellers.

And just when I resigned myself to the idea that I was just going to have to paddle this whole canoe by myself, never handing that paddle over, it seemed to grow a little wider and longer. So I invited some of my friends, new and old, over to paddle with me for a bit. We swapped tips on building campfires and commiserated about the lack of maps. We patched each other’s holes and sang silly limericks to liven up the journey.

I’d never ridden in such a full canoe, but it just seemed to get bigger and bigger, fuller and fuller, yet even with the growing crowd on board, it just got more buoyant. It seemed to be the size of a yacht, though without the same amenities. It wasn’t a yacht, I told myself. This is an aberration, it’ll be just me in a tiny canoe again soon enough. That’s how it’s always been, that’s how it always will be.

But I’m sitting here on the dock now, at trip’s end, and I can’t deny the fact that this boat can no longer be called canoe. It’s some kind of freaky cruise ship, and it’s full to bursting. It’s a really odd shape, as if an architect was tasked with building something called “big ship” with the dismantled pieces of a long-haul rig and no instructions. It’s definitely held together with a lot of green painter’s tape, and mostly serves frozen pizza and soda. Lots of its mail comes on fancy red paper, but it floats.

Perhaps this year sounds less like your typical canoe trip and more like one of those dreams you have after you ate a slightly mouldy muffin, but I swear, it’s the honest truth.

The Empty Tap

I often try not to take modern conveniences for granted. I look at house life as only one step removed from camping, just with a more permanent kind of tent. It keeps me light on my toes. And when the modern conveniences fail, as they often have and often do, it feels a little less catastrophic.

Water is, so far, the most popular thing to fall off, and it really messes up my life when I reach for the tap and find it empty. Even when I think I’ve adapted to whatever work-around I’ve set up, I still reach for the same tap, expecting liquid.

Earlier this fall, my brother and mom replaced my bathtub taps for me as an early birthday present. The hot water tap started with a slow leak, and then would not shut off with the water pressure. The new taps are shiny and pretty and do exactly as a tap does: They keep the water on, or off, or at a desired level somewhere between the two.

Looking back, today, I think oh – what a luxury, hot water that won’t stop! And it was really only a small inconvenience, to turn the taps on and off at the source before and after a bath. Even after the fix, it was a few weeks before I stopped reaching for that shut-off valve, before I trusted the new taps completely.

This weekend, my water heater started leaking all over the basement floor. Not a colossal flood – phew – but enough to be trouble. Enough to find another shut off valve, and to make boiling water for dishes a safer bet than counting on the big tank.

So I found little tanks and filled them, and laughed to myself whenever I reached for the empty tap. At the moment, I’m still optimistic. I can still flip the “make the best of it” switch, to make small adjustments, to not feel so hard done by.


The little hot water tanks.

I know that eventually, like all of these systems I count on day by day, this too will wear out. Living in a house as camping won’t be novel, it’ll be demoralizing.

Eventually, I’ll get tired of the makeshift shower or using the bath as a sink (or the sink as a bath) or whatever the best possible option is. Eventually, I will just want to take modern conveniences for granted, to move through my day a little more seamlessly.

For now, I just hope to find a way to fix the latest problem before the supplies get too low – before my optimism runs dry.

Rehearsing tough

There is a line that I draw, and redraw, and redraw, between what is tolerable and what is not. It shifts with my expectations, my confidence, my priorities. It shifts with my mood. It shifts with the seasons.

In Winnipeg, we always talk about the weather. Are we special? No, every place has its own set of atmospheric vagaries that shape our movement, fashions, habits, routines.

What’s exceptional about our weather (as much as it pains me to write those 5 words, which, standing on their own, read as the most mundane declaration in the prairies, but stay with me, please!) is the yearly range, the distance between extremes. Well past 30 above in the summer, often beyond 30 below in the winter. But we don’t jump about too much, we adapt in little shifts.

As we descend, each 5 degree drop comes with a twinge and a resigned sigh. Last week, in the mid-teens, I replaced screens with storm windows and packed up all the open-toed shoes. Today I pulled my hood up to defend against tiny hail droplets, but took comfort in the fact that we hadn’t yet moved into full-on hat and mitts territory. The cold approaches and I retreat at first, scaling back further into my house and piling on blankets. Then I acclimatize, re-bundle, and wander out again, smiling at the sun on my face even as the wind blows more and more bitterly.

It’s not winter yet, but it will be. And I know that when -30 comes, I’ll look back at these flirting-with-zero days with a mix of envy and desperation. Winter’s approach feels certain; Spring can’t ever be trusted.

Here, we complain, joke, mythologize the weather. Our city’s rich music scene, often credited to the months spent in half-hibernation. The warmth of our personalities. Our resilience.

I worry that strength and resilience are misread into a much harsher reality: Expecting the cold, and facing it with a sad, cynical smirk. The blunt bravado behind what won’t kill me will make me stronger.

This strength comes at a price, as it always does. To steel my cheeks, unflinching in the face of 60 km/h hail-speckled wind, may lessen my suffering for the dark months, but it’s harder to just flip the switch back come July: The air is kinder, it’s time to feel now. It’s more than the weather that seeps deeper inside, reinforcing a kind of permafrost.

After spending the longest part of every year rehearsing tough, it takes more than a short spurt of relative warmth to truly thaw.