In August 2001, I left my hometown of Calgary. In December 2016, I returned. Fifteen years. My return so far has been marked by emotional ups and downs, uncertainty and hope about the future, the desire to persist alongside the desire to leave again, anxiety and reassurance, discomfort and calmness, fear and courage. Nearly every day feels different, nearly every day feels disconnected from the next. My return is best told in fragments.
I am surrounded by voices, all noisier than mine. They urge me to do this, to do that; they ask me questions; they refuse to be silent. What is the harm in desiring to be alone? The thought of engaging with others is unappealing; I have little to say. The thought of interacting with others exhausts me; I don’t wish to feign energy or enthusiasm. The thought of re-connecting with the city is unthinkable; I love Toronto, not Calgary. I am not happy to be back. I am not happy to be here. This is the only truth I can speak, right now.
I seem to remember only blue skies in Calgary, in all seasons. Where have they gone? Were they always grey? From the kitchen window this morning, I gazed high up at the grey skies and instantly felt their heaviness on me, their weight sapping my energy. I looked away, annoyed, and went back downstairs to my bedroom, hoping that tomorrow would bring some sun.
I feel like I am traversing an unfamiliar landscape. The trees in the horizon are dry and brown as I drive along the city’s roads. I am desperate to see other colours, so I close and re-open my eyes, then squint a little, but the colours remain dull, lifeless and fail to stir me inside. Where do I go to see more colours? How long is the wait before they become lively and vibrant again?
I parked on 6th Avenue, walked two blocks south along 6th Street, turned left on 8th Avenue, and wondered why it was so quiet, why there were so few people around.
I walked south on 10th Avenue, turned right on Kensington Road, scanned the window storefronts, and hoped to see a familiar face, or to find somebody to explore new places with me, who could help me see Calgary through a different set of eyes.
This morning, with my espresso in hand, I walked from the kitchen to the front window of the living room. Sipping my coffee, I looked down at the snow-covered ground, stared straight ahead through the cold air, and then up at the grey sky. Nothing about these views animated me, except for the sight of my parked Ford Focus. I had bought it in Virginia, drove it to Toronto, and shipped it to Calgary. I am attached to my car, greatly comforted by its dependability and loyalty. It represents my freedom; it is there, ready to take me away wherever and whenever I wish. It feels a bit silly; my car is inanimate and yet it makes me feel like I didn’t return to Calgary alone, like I arrived with a companion. It can’t speak and yet I refuse to let go of the meaning that I have attached to it. It is something that I can show, that people can see, that signals my life lived away from my hometown, lived across cities, provinces, states, and countries. In a city where nothing feels like mine, my car feels like everything.
I began to meditate today. Amid a flurry of anxieties and fears, it seemed like the sensible thing to do.
This morning I left the house to check out a coffee shop that seemed trendy online and warranted an in-person visit. My plan was to have a cup of coffee and to journal there. Upon arrival, however, I discovered something else, something better: a nearby bakery with delightful croissants and breads. Perhaps because I didn’t believe what I was seeing, I neared the display of baked goods, scanned what was offered, and zeroed in on the loaves of bread. Inspecting them closely, I exclaimed happily, though quietly, “I found good bread in Calgary!” With just a slight exaggeration, I felt hopeful about the city; I felt relieved to be proven wrong. I bought a croissant and a baguette to take home and brought both with me to the coffee shop, where I proceeded with my original plan. When I grew tired of writing, I crossed the street to the East Village Experience Centre to learn more about this neighbourhood’s development. From an employee inside, I learned about city plans to build new condos, a new public library, new grocery store, and much more. I listened attentively so that I could imagine the future of a livelier city more vividly, along with the opportunities for growth, density, and vibrancy that would follow. I was happy. I went home with my discoveries, good mood, and a fresh baguette to share with my parents.
Sometimes, I feel uncomfortable in Calgary. Sometimes, in some of my conversations with people, I feel restrained by their words. Though they are only words, the actions to which they allude suffocate me and threaten to chain me to a life that, to me, feels unnatural, confining. Sometimes, in some of my conversations with people, I see dead ends. I feel confused about this and I am aware that it may be a product of still needing to find a way to reconciling myself to my new life in Calgary, but when these feelings come I still want nothing more than to run away toward the free and endless horizon.
It was easier to discover and explore “I” when I wasn’t in Calgary. Now that I am back, what will happen to “I”? I am afraid of the influence of “you,” “we,” and “them” on my “I”…
I spent my afternoon viewing art at a lovely gallery. I don’t go to art galleries often enough. I don’t know why. They have a strong therapeutic effect on me; they soothe my anxiety and pacify my mind. This gallery was no different; once in it, I instantly felt calm and uplifted. I feel like I have found a refuge in the city; I feel hopeful about my search for beauty and meaning in Calgary.
In Toronto, I miss Aggie, Mel, Caro, and Lou; in Montreal, I miss Anthi and Efhi; abroad, I often think about Sabry, Luci, and Rachel. I fear that lack of proximity will widen the gap between me and my friends; I look forward to the day when I meet them again only to learn that distance reinforced our friendship. I cannot tell many of my stories, with their happy and unhappy endings, without recalling my friends’ parts in them. Without them in it, my life has less depth. These friendships are now effortless, and yet I know that there was a time when we were still building trust, understanding, and closeness. My friends are no longer physically close to me, and yet I am comforted by their presence in my heart, wherever I am.
Sometimes I think about Vancouver or Vancouver Island. Or Portland, Oregon, or Seattle. Other times, I think about Europe, maybe northern or central Italy. Sometimes, I even think about a return to Toronto. Without warning, and usually when I am behind the wheel, thoughts about being in other places emerge; they are either gradual and reflective, or they are swift and alarming: “I can’t stand it here!”
I have reached 44 consecutive days in my meditation practice. Though it hasn’t transformed me, it is helping me to discard unhelpful thoughts and serves as a useful reminder to focus on conscious breathing when thoughts and uncomfortable emotions overwhelm me. Breath, I am learning, is the only reality that enables me to be here, to do what is meant for me to do in this life. I am my breath, not my thoughts. It has taught me that my return to Calgary is merely an event in my life meant to bring me closer to me. Meditation has helped not only to ease my anxiety and facilitate reintegration, but to appreciate the purpose of my departures and my returns. I have begun to regard meditation as indispensable in my life.
Today I visited a downtown art gallery where six photographers were being exhibited, with the work of one catching my attention. Danny Singer’s photographs of horizontal views of main streets in prairie towns rekindled my love of road trips. From photograph to photograph, I delved deeper and deeper into the world of travel possibilities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the American states south of them. I swelled with excitement; I ran wild with imagination. My taste for travel by car intensified.
I have been meeting new people, and have enjoyed doing so, whether through volunteering, part-time jobs, or other social activities. I have recently met a German girl with whom I am becoming friends and once I came home from a gallery visit with the contact information of another potential friend.
After my volunteer box office shift this evening, I decided to go home to rest rather than stay for the free film screening. It was only 7 o’clock, but I was tired. On the way to my car, my eyes were pulled upwards by the striking light of the golden hour, the period shortly before sunset. Everything in view was picture perfect, with light and shadows in exactly the right places to accentuate all the physical objects inhabiting that moment in time and space. Once in the car, I decided that I would go to a hamburger joint, grab some greasy grub, and drive to a street where I could see the sunset before heading home. On my drive over, I marvelled at the continued play of light and shadow. Those tree branches, whose dullness and lifelessness I criticized in February, were now a delightfully rich outline of twists and turns against the golden, darkening sky.
This week the temperature warmed, the sun shined, and Calgarians emerged from their homes onto the streets; spring has arrived. Three months have gone by since my return to Calgary. A full season has passed, a full cycle completed. I feel relieved for it; I feel grateful that nothing is permanent, that everything has an end. As the dreariness of winter lifts to make room for spring, I am beginning to see light through the cracks, possibilities in places where previously I saw voids that I didn’t believe could be filled. A full season has passed, a full cycle completed. I feel relieved for it; I feel grateful that nothing is permanent, that everything has an end. As the harsh cold of winter begins to recede, I am beginning to appreciate the patience needed for great shifts of changes. A full season has passed, a full cycle completed. I feel relieved for it; I feel grateful that nothing is permanent, that everything has an end. As the fierceness of winter subsides, I am beginning to see how much beautiful growth there is in enduring and waiting.
Written and photographed by Filomena Calabrese. Edited by Agnieszka Polakowska.