Imperfect As I Am: Healing on Salt Spring Island
I've never been taught much on the subject of how to take care of myself. I've figured it out, though. Sort of. I've been winging it as best I can for the last six years. Sort of.
Only in the last eight months has that burden fallen into my hands entirely. I've always found ways of having other people take care of me. As independent as I've always claimed to be. As independent as others have been quick to confirm me to be and revere me for. Since moving to this rural island community last winter, I've had to surrender completely: not to the Higher Power(s) above but to the Higher Powers all around me, a collective power, the power of community. The kind and kindred (and the unkind) souls who, too, call this place home have taken care of me from season to season, in one way or another. From the wintertime when I was green to rural life and the dark underbelly of coastal life and its problems, my heart shattered after the danger of deceptive love and drugs, to the way my body and mind melt in the summertime heat and the erratic ways soul erupts in waves. This island has shown me kindness and care, in a full spectrum of remedies, all from strangers. turned neighbours. turned friends.
A pest control technician named James entered my life via a phone call. I had stayed up all night sleeping on my bathroom floor writing poetry to save my life. I wasn't suicidal, but the anguish my heart was experiencing was heavier than the weight of the world itself. I've never been that strong, physically, lifting things. Nor was this city girl of the cookie-cutter Calgarian suburbs built of a thick enough skin to handle hamsters. Nor mice. Let alone badass west coast rats. It was December and the only part of my cabin with central heating was the bathroom and its attached rear laundry suite. I was also convinced that the rats - later confirmed rat, singular - was above my kitchen cupboards, dancing happily through the night between an unrelenting tunnel dig into my cabin's electric circuitry. My landlady wasn't having any of it and didn't have patience for my fears (nor anything else of mine, I'd discover) and handed me a few wooden mousetraps to appease me. After multiple sleepless evenings of interrupted sleep and a 'winter acoustics' playlist not loud or repetitive enough to drown out the rat or my tears, I called reinforcements. The island's pest control company sent a man named James to call me and pick me up from town, and then take me home to solve my rat problem. I didn't catch his name the first time he called. A confusion and a blessing, it turned out, because he happened to share his first name with the young man who'd destroyed my heart, my bank account, and my faith in humanity just days before. At first, I couldn't find his truck where he asked me to wait for him, but he seemed to sense my unrest through the phone and patiently waited for me to articulate my thoughts. Something I'm never used to getting from other people. Patience. The willingness to let me speak and hear it all. This seemingly tiny gesture was enough to bring me to tears that sleepless, desperate morning; to this day, I hold those milliseconds in the palm of my hand. I eventually found his truck in the parking lot and took note of the "search and rescue" plate on the front. I was most certainly drowning, just not in water. We made our way back to my southend cabin and he told me his Salt Spring story - what I now call the 'elevator pitch', the twenty-second or so long summary of how I came to Salt Spring and what brought me here. I've shared mine probably a hundred times since I moved here and have heard many more, yet I never forgot James' - perhaps for his honesty, for his kindness.
Maybe I can never focus enough in the day-to-day to listen as intently as I did that morning, when I needed this man's professional help so bad. Perhaps I remembered every little detail this way because I've only ever known this desperation in like situations, where my life was on the line due to paralyzing fear. When I watched my father beating my mother as a child. When my suicidal brother walked out in front of a bus on a busy highway. When the circumstances of my life and the hereditary curse of mental illness brought me to a solitary confinement cell in a hospital at 20 years old, despite my best efforts "not to be crazy." I remember all of those moments from my own perspective with utmost clarity, yet I wish I couldn't. This encounter proved to be something different. A memory so striking, so poignant that it was like that day in December was etched in my mind permanently, yet it was positive. gentle. kind. The details of an ordinary man's life burned into my consciousness to be extraordinary. And yet, they were only enough. Enough to make conversation on the 25-minute drive that wound up, down, and around Fulford Ganges Road between majestic, snow-covered cedars. Enough to find me. Enough to rescue me.
In spite of being a "small island" (I embed those words between quotes because it is now summer, and 11,000 - 30,000 is purely relative to me, not just a fraction of my hometown's population of 1.4 million but rather a number to describe a measurement that is 'busy' or 'quiet' or 'full of tourists' on any given day) I never met James again. Or at least, I've never been able to recognize him. He was days away from becoming a grandfather when we met and perhaps he's gone to Victoria to be with his daughter and new grandchild. Or perhaps he just shaved his head, and he's one of the 7,000 or so middle-aged white men who inhabit my home with me, and unapologetically, I'm unable to tell any of them apart, let alone remember their names. After this goes up, there's a chance he'll come out of the woodwork and shake my hand. Things happen this way here. That exchange, however, as simple as it was will forever mark the turning point of time here on Salt Spring. The day I found truth in the law of attraction. The community here that has protected, nurtured, and cared for me became visible to my jaded eyes after that day. I mean, I knew this place was magic. Everyone said so and I said so, so it had to be, right? Good things seemed to be happening to me. The scenery, the landscape, the way of life here is designed to be slow enough to make you stop and think about the beauty of the world, the beauty of life itself. I thought that was the Salt Spring secret, if there was one. But after that day I learned that this wasn't just a place and I wasn't just a visitor. For a time, I was here to be a resident. An equally-footed member of this community and a contributor to what this community is, which in the simplest of terms from my perspective, is made of authentic people sharing what is truest to their souls, mindfully connecting and interacting with each other and the island. I wasn't going to call myself a Salt Springer or a local by any means. But like so many others who came before me, I came here with a purpose unbeknownst to me. And, whether or not I realized it, the Island was going to keep me here until that purpose was fulfilled. I came here to surrender. I came here to heal.
Fast forward six months and it's as if I've woken up one morning to the reality that I have, indeed, settled into Island life. I never thought I could do it. My near-daily rants about my longing for the city's conveniences, and my further-depleted bank account from my four trips home to Calgary do a great job at distancing me and others in my life here from that reality. And yet, after two months of a very uncomfortable struggle, here I am. I'm living in a studio apartment with windows on three sides on the east side of the Island. The apartment is always a mess. An awful mess. There is always a mess on the floor, and it's made of garbage and laundry: clean, dirty, and questionable. Every pile carries the remnants of a task I said I'd do but didn't, from dirty dishes to piles of quarter-read books, to the printer/copier/scanner under my desk that's collecting dust. See, I've never really been good at this either. Cleaning. Organizing. Maintaining a home, or quite frankly, even finishing what I start. Yet in this midst of all of this, I wake up one morning and I feel something shift. It's a Sunday - my Wednesday - and I'm getting ready for work. I'm slightly hazy from the night before but it's clearing. I've been smoking weed every night. For migraines. For stress. I learn that sativa makes me a better person but it does little for my binge-eating night habit, and I never re-watch anything, but Kim's Convenience re-runs become exceptionally interesting. I leave the bathroom door open as I've come to do, so that all the light from the window floods in as I'm showering, as long as I'm in there by 8:30 or so. There's always been something about morning light that I love.
I say that sativa makes me a better person because it takes the edge off the anger that cuts through the skin I've grown and hurts the people around me. It's the anger that comes from growing up the ultra-youngest of four children with a twelve- to fifteen-year age gap in an intergenerational, bi-cultural family that was falling apart. The anger that grew from people leaving, constantly; fighting, loudly and violently and publicly; and watching greed, materialism, and suffocating pride drive my parents' divorce, my mother's career, and my whole family's list of bad habits down a one-way highway, drunk, too fast. The anger that came from being a pawn in games played by every immature adult I knew. Yet being forgotten about, disregarded, invalidated, when it came to my own individual needs and concerns. The anger that came from being raised by adolescents who should have been adolescents, who themselves were raised by adolescents who should have been adolescents. My whole life, I've carried more anger than I can handle. Anger, I swear, was not all mine. It's come out in ways that have hurt myself in all the ways that are obvious, but what I realized that morning in the shower, with the perfect morning light flooding in from between green cedars and mossy maple trunks, is that with all this anger and mistrust, I have hurt the people close to me, and I continue to hurt them. I will continue to hurt the people closest to me, those who - inadvertently or otherwise, in place of the ill-equipped, inconstant family I didn't have - nurture and care for and protect me; people in my life whom I value and treasure the most.
This moment was no more honest and clear as it was gentle. Forgiving, even. Not forgiving with all the cascading layers of self-aware cross examination I find myself spiralling into, after several years and thousands of dollars in therapy I've invested in to "not be crazy." No, sativa stops all that. It clears the air and it holds space. Safe space. There was nothing safer than standing in my shower naked under hot water, the cleanest water in the world, as the morning light cast shadows into the home that is mine, here, on this Island that heals. The healing was my work. The Island has taught me safety, trust, responsibility, and reminded me of the good of humanity using its slow pace, its kindness, and its care. Nor did I spiral backward into guilt and shame, which often comes with these heavy, climactic realizations in life that we have indeed fucked up royally. Even though others revere us and admire us for our accomplishments. Even though others love us unconditionally, forgiving our faults. We have all made our mistakes. We are imperfect. We all do the things we say we will never do. And yet.
In spite of all these realizations, the introspection, the well-structured and realistic future plans, in spite of the awareness and the self-forgiving understanding that none of the past was my fault, it materialized for me on that morning that my faults are not in the past. There are here. With me, always. I can attribute my genes to some, but my short-temperedness is mine, not my father's, and this passive-aggressive communication is also mine, not my mother's or my sister's. So much of what I am is my family's culture, fears, traditions, and suppressed ambition, and yet ALL of what I am is what I've created and cultivated. This woman, this grown-ass woman sitting on her porch on a Tuesday afternoon, is carrying all my losses and victories, stories and memories, nightmares and reveries, everywhere, all the time. I built this. I built me. This work has been shaped equally by my parents and siblings and our distances between each other; my past and present friends and lovers who star in the most critically-acclaimed productions of my life; and my community, who helps me hold myself together day-to-day. What I make, of myself and of my life, is my responsibility. And so I have a responsibility to do better. To be better. To treat the people who have helped me take care of myself and build this beautiful life better. This anger will not define me or my relationships, and my whole family's bad habits do not have to be my own. Not that I don't have my own, because I do. But I have to be willing to own that. All of it. Nothing is given. It is all borrowed. Rented. Everything is on loan until it is reproduced as mine. And then I have to own it, all of it. I cannot give it away or pass it off as belonging to anyone who was once in my life or anyone who is never guaranteed to be, or to stay. So here is my work. My healing. That to take care of myself means to take care of others. That to be taken care of by others is taking care of myself, and as I was reminded one day by a man named Jonathan on a ride into town, "we're all in this together." And that includes me.
In the days since that after-high morning in the shower, the weight of this realization has remained close to me but levelled out. Real life proves to be beautifully breathtaking and frustrating beyond my wildest dreams. I have a full-time job which requires me to interact with sometimes hundreds of people per day and to work closely with coworkers who are equally as opinionated as I am. I do this to pay bills, feed myself, and fund a lifestyle that's comfortable and true to who I am on an Island that is not at all cheap to live on, in spite of all the otherworldly things it offers for free. I am also not in perfect health - I still suffer from migraines, which I monitor by trying to stay on top of my hydration, meals, and sun exposure, and going for acupuncture treatments. After a winter spent mostly inactive and inside, I am not at my healthiest weight or my best groomed. And yet, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to ignore that my very existence here and now affords me a significantly high quality of life, and I would be stupid not to enjoy it. That full-time job is one that I absolutely love, and I work for people who are genuinely invested in my success, now and beyond my capacity as their team member. I can go to the beach and literally drown my troubles in the ocean several times a week; the scenery is absolutely stunning and alive everywhere I go; and I'm surrounded by wonderful people who value the things that I do, and give voice to what's in my own soul by virtue of the way they live and interact with the people around them and their environment. The Island. Our Island. I may not be a Salt Springer, nor regard myself as a local by any means, but there is definitely a part of this Island that has become my own, reciprocated by the way it's taken me as its own, for now, and perhaps forever. And just as I've done with my darkest days, I'm grateful that my time here thus far has given me some of my brightest days, the memories of which I'll be carrying with me everywhere, all the time.