How Nanaimo Won My Heart
A year ago, I flew into Nanaimo en route to Vancouver and had my first-ever taste of Island life. Today, I live on Salt Spring Island, and I credit Nanaimo for winning my heart - and taking me home.
One year ago tonight, I was de-boarding a plane at Nanaimo Cassidy Airport for the first time. I'd booked the flight on a whim. The day before, I was sitting in my living room in Calgary on a Skype call with Don, a longtime family friend. Don lives in Richmond and we'd met online as kids playing Neopets. We stayed in touch for over a decade until I introduced him to my mother and brother in 2007, when the three of us visited Vancouver in the spring. He won their hearts and thus became a family-friend, a connection I simplify to most people by saying either "friend" or "cousin". Don's partner, Rebecca, is a pastry chef and foodie, and I'd been following their gastroposts for the last year. So when he casually invited me to visit them with the promise to be wined and dined, I jumped at the chance - within an hour of us hanging up, I'd purchased a confirmed ticket for the following evening, via Nanaimo, because Vancouver was sold out.
As much as I like going out to fancy restaurants and getting drunk, that wasn't the entire reason I came out to visit Don and Reb. It was possible, logistically, because I had time. Loads of it. Six months earlier, I'd returned home from Europe with my ex-boyfriend to no job and poor employment prospects, so I didn't bother looking for a new one. I instead focused my time on self-development and poured my energy and resources into things I'd always wanted to do or had put off. I hired a private therapist and saw her once a week. I also paid for driver's ed, took my floral design certificate, and got seriously into yoga and barre, and I had a personal trainer. (Around this time, I'd gotten my photoshoot done for my website too. Looking at those photos now, I miss my workout-obsessed body - my arms especially - and almost miss having longer hair.) However, with my day-to-day life focused solely on the betterment of myself, I was growing more dissatisfied as the weeks dragged on. I fell into the trap of self-improvement. I was shaping my life around activities and practices I thought I needed to commit to, which ultimately left me feeling worse about myself instead of better. I also tried to do too many things at once, which was leaving me feeling discouraged. My activities were all fulfilling to me in the beginning, and I enjoyed the privilege of being sustained by everything I loved. Yet my connection to what I was doing began to wear with the novelty. As soon as all the classes, lessons, and sessions began to form my routine, the things I loved became things I dreaded, wearing me down with both logistical and emotional obligation. Instead of investing in myself, I started to believe that I was throwing away money. It didn't help that I was constantly in my head, either; rifling through the scars of my past in therapy, and dedicating my present life to becoming fitter, healthier, and a more productive member of society was causing me deep unhappiness, while feeling increasingly lonely and misunderstood.
What did make me happy was the chance to cancel my personal training and yoga classes for the week. I'd never been to Vancouver Island. The last time I'd been to Vancouver was in 2013, with my older sister when were still on speaking terms (albeit barely). Don had taken me out on the town then too, and he'd been a wonderful host, yet I felt guilty for being distracted. I was in dire financial straits at the time and shouldn't have been on the trip at all, had it not been for my earlier commitment and my sister's pressing. My financial situation this time around would be greatly reversed, and I wanted the chance to enjoy my time with him and his darling Reb, without pinching pennies. I also knew I had more to talk about. I was excited about my future plans. I'd decided I was moving to Toronto in the summer, and my friend Denis and I were looking to get an apartment downtown. Many of my travel plans for the summer were in place as well, which hadn't sunk in for me yet, but my eyes were wide. The energy was good. Mostly. Sort of. I was setting the stage for good things to happen in my life, even though I was plagued with the same anxiety and emptiness on the inside that I wore on my face and wrists in 2013. I figured I could focus on the good. That I had do. So I booked the flight.
I arrived that evening at an airport even smaller than the one in Kitchener, which I'd become familiar with between 2010-11 as a student at UW. I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, and even in the dark, I was taken by the smell and weight of the air. It was murky, humid and heavy. Seaweed. Fish. Where had I smelled this before? It wasn't until my suitcase arrived at the baggage claim that I remembered Croatia. My ex and I had been there for such a short time, just three or four days. We'd planned for a week but we missed our flight from London. His parents live on an island called Cres near the northeastern edge of the country, off the coast of the Adriatic Sea. It's a sleepy island, with a population under 20, surviving members of families who've lived there for generations. We stayed in the oceanview suite of his parents' inn, which they run out of their home. I'd fallen in love with the view from our balcony. The pace of life had charmed me, as did the climate, vegetation, and everything else that comes with a living day by day, surrounded by water. Our time in Croatia had calmed me. As I stood in this airport on Vancouver Island, something was beginning to calm me too, as the memories of our time on Cres came flooding back with the seaweed air, so vivid, bright orange against the gray-blue of the sea and sky. I watched young families reunite and elderly couples kiss at the baggage claim. All thirty or so of the people there were white, overwhelmingly so, yet they were friendly. Warm and friendly. Even though it was 11:30 on a Monday night, many of these strangers greeted me with a smile, and their collective kindness put me at ease. Even more - I felt welcome. I wouldn't get a proper welcome from anyone until the next morning, save for the kind man named John in the hostel who let me in after-hours (and let me pay the next morning, too), and my cab driver, an early, opinionated critic of Trudeau politics. The kindness of strangers was all I needed, yet it felt like the world to me, too.
It was about 1:30 when I'd paid my cab driver and was standing outside the Painted Turtle Guesthouse waiting to be let in. My kind, anti-Trudeau cab driver waited outside for me and gave me his business card once he left, and when John from the hostel let me in, he didn't seem even the slightest bit disturbed by my late entry. He carried my luggage up the three flights of stairs to room D, which is a women's dorm I had to myself that night. I hadn't slept in a hostel alone before. I soon realized I a) had too much luggage for a four-day stay, and b) was paranoid about having things stolen. As quietly as possible, I tiptoed over to the window and cracked it open to relieve the stuffiness in the room. My mistake - the air was wet and humid. But with the window open, I could hear the ocean waves crashing gently against the harbour just a couple of blocks away. I couldn't wait to see it in the morning. Eventually I drifted off to sleep, the excitement of arriving in a new place and my collective exhaustion simmering into fatigue. The ocean was my lullaby that night, and it was one of the soundest sleeps I'd had my whole life.
The next morning was a sunny one, a rarity I wasn't familiar with at the time. I came downstairs as soon as the office opened for the day and met Zul, the friendly owner. I thanked him graciously for letting me pay in the morning for the night before, thinking it was an unheard-of, kind gesture. This would be the first of many of those. I escaped from the front lobby and Zul's elaborate stories about half an hour later to go get breakfast, and I found myself walking the harbour. I was supposed to take a call from my old case manager at 10am Calgary time. I ordered a coffee and sat down on a bench that looked out to the water, and I watched as a dozen or so retirees and their small dogs made their morning rounds. Ocean views and dogs, I thought, checking off my two favourite things. A couple of minutes after 9:00 BC time my phone rang, and I answered it with a deep breath. The two of us spoke for about an hour, the time always goes by quickly with us. I'll always remember this conversation, though, for how difficult it was to have and everything it took to have it. Six years of developing our professional relationship enough for me to confide in her, to trust that I would get her supportive, attentive silence to cushion my devastation. Hours and hours of therapy to understand it, to tolerate it, and to mentally prepare me as much as I possibly could - yet even that doesn't make things perfect. All the breathing exercises, the panic attacks in public spaces, trial and error. It was because of all of those things and no less, that no matter what kind of horrible thing I told her, I also knew things would be okay. They always were. With the Rocky Mountains and then some between us, there was safety; I never could have handled that conversation face-to-face. Instead, I held it together as I poured out my soul that morning, buried trauma and injustice and an awfully-coloured missing piece to my life, while inhaling the seaweed-smelling air. I stared out at the ocean with the sun casting rays onto my face, a then-24 year old woman, finally putting my terrified 10 year-old self to rest. And I survived it. To this day, the ocean is my salvation. I even wrote a poem about it: Whenever I'm drowning, I go to the water / It's the only way I know how to stay afloat.
Story continues below:
The rest of what you're about to read has already been told in disorganized pieces over the last year. Chronology shows that I'm going to talk about the kindness I received in Nanaimo. The flow, the magic, the support. It was letting Zul, Pearlita, and their dog Maya from Painted Turtle take me to the beach in Lantzville and making new friends and hearing stories. It was meeting Fred from Lucid Clothing and telling him my story, as I shopped for my photoshoot outfits. It was waking up at sunrise on Wednesday morning and walking to the harbour to watch the first seaplane take off. It was a magical morning yoga class at OmTown Yoga when I realized wellness didn't have to be about expensive classes in fancy studios and working out to look good on social media. It was utter and complete captivation by the beauty of the ocean at all times. Yet, I've never before told the story of the phone call. The phone call is the reason I came to Vancouver Island in the first place. This three-day trip to the west coast was not made for seafood, wine, gelato, or even to escape boredom. I had been dealt a significant emotional blow that I was trying to heal from. Time stopped. Things made sense, but I didn't want them to. I didn't want to be defined by traumatic episodes, and yet, I realized I had buried a very dark part of my childhood for fourteen years. That blow was cushioned and ultimately deflected by a series of seemingly unheard-of, kind gestures by strangers who would become my friends. Places that I'd popped me head into for the first time would become warm, welcoming spaces six months later, when I would live in the Painted Turtle Guesthouse while in transition. Downtown Nanaimo, the Nanaimo Harbour, and Commercial Avenue would collectively become a place of refuge for me, both in the three days I spent on VI a year ago desperately seeking relief from the past, and again last October, while I ventured into my unknown future, grappling with foreign, half-built concepts of home and belonging at a time when I had neither. The core of this little city would stand for my opportunities and second chances. It would present opportunities for me to help others in need as much as it would assist me in mine. At times, it would become coloured by shady characters, their evasion of the truth and the deceptiveness of their intentions, but always, and especially on those rare sunny days, returning to this place is a return back to myself and to my purpose: striving to live honestly, authentically, and with an open heart. (Note: I did make it to Vancouver afterward to see Don and Reb as promised, and rest assured, I was spoiled rotten with said seafood, wine, gelato, and many laughs.)
The memory of those three days, and especially that morning of the phone call, were what came to me on an Asiana flight to Seattle in late July. I was delirious; sleep-deprived and distraught, about to land in Seattle for the second half of a fifty-hour Saturday, July 23rd, and I was in a panic. I'd just flown around the world by myself, and the devastation of having to fly back to Calgary was sinking in. I had to get the fuck out. There was no way I could live there anymore. I'd spent the better part of the last year exhausting everything I'd ever wanted to do in my hometown, but my family problems weren't improving, my relationship had crashed and burned (both the ex I went to Europe with and the sub-par dude I found myself latching onto shortly after - both were mistakes in their own right), and my opportunities were very bleak. Boredom and a bad job market were flowers next to my unhappiness, which was so insufferable I could no longer take it. Toronto was looking like a bad idea. What was the point? It was another big city with more to spend money on and a higher cost of living. A youth mobility visa to the UK would get me out of Canada for two years, but I didn't care much for England, and they had just voted to leave the EU weeks before. I'd wanted to use that visa to get me to mainland Europe. But at what cost? I was writing down my thoughts madly, snippets of depressing poems that didn't make sense as sensible people slept on either side of me. Eventually, I heard a quiet voice speaking to me, and I realized it was mine. Take a break, it said. From everything. None of this is gonna work out if you don't take time for you. I remembered Nanaimo. In that moment I saw the ocean before me and everything about spring on the coast that I loved. Vancouver was out of the question. I was going to the Island. I didn't know anything else besides that, but it was all I had to know. My moment on the plane was quite the moment for me; I didn't think self-actualization happened at the heart level the way it's discussed in movies and fictional literature until it happened to me. It was so powerful that I kept it a secret. I mentioned it only as a possibility, and I didn't start telling people until I knew I was doing it for sure. I braced myself for their criticisms, but they never came. My only guess as to why that was was that my loved ones - people who are actually close to me, who have gotten to know me and can accurately list ten of my drivers in life - could see I was finally making a decision for me. They saw that I was speaking and moving from my heart and that I was letting my intuition guide me. I shouldn't say the criticism never came, because it did, from family. I've never been close to my family and my extended family had been estranged from me for the better part of the last decade. They didn't understand my desperation. They're also the happiest people I know in my hometown.
Leaving home to create a new one continues to teach me many things. What I know for sure is that Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island have showed me what home is supposed to feel like. I've lived in a place I could never call home for the better part of 23 years. I tried to get away twice, and my returns, which I'd once thought were out of necessity were really out of fear. My toxic family situation pushed me to go and pulled me in with equal, opposing strength. Like many who grow up in affluent cities, I was conditioned to believe I had it made. Calgary had it all and if I lived there, I could have it all, too. But I don't want it all. I never wanted a house, a car, or a stable, resource-based admin job. I never wanted a rich husband or half-bred kids, either. I thought I did. I thought I wanted those things because I was raised to believe those were the best things I could get, that the be-all, end-all was domesticity, wealth, and the racism-sparing complex of breeding with white privilege. FUCK THAT! The chance to have and do everything I wanted brought me more misery than my 2013 financial anxieties ever did. Doing and having everything I wanted in a city that gave me twenty years of trauma was a series of band-aids on a gunshot wound. Dating and socializing with spoiled suburban kids turned shallow adults did nothing to build my character. I needed to grow. I needed change. I needed so much less.
I rip on my hometown a lot, but the truth is, I actually love coming back to Calgary now that I don't live there. I thoroughly enjoy the time I spend in the city now, doing all the things I want to do with the people I love. (I've already been back twice since I moved in October.) I get stressed out on my trips home in a different way: my schedule's booked solid days before I land with dinner and coffee dates with friends, and I know I'm going to spend a ton of money, drink too much, and eat way too indulgently for the amount of time I'm there. But there's no place like home for that, right? Home - I don't use that word lightly. It means so many different things to me now, as does the saying, "home is where the heart is." Listening to and following my heart has taken me home, finally, and I don't plan on leaving anytime soon. Home looks like a lot of different places, but it feels the same. It took a long time to get here. It was an unconventional way to go, it wasn't easy, and I can't exactly tell you why it all happened this way. What I know for sure is I ended up where I'm supposed to be. I was guided by the love of strangers turned-friends, and protected by my own wisdom. Nothing would have been possible if I didn't push myself to trust the kindness of strangers a year ago. Then, if I didn't trust the kindness of strangers across the world, flying from country to country as a solo female traveler, making every single flight and standing patiently through every "random" search. Now, I trust the kindness of strangers every day. It did take a long time to get here, my whole life. But great things take time. Trading in the Rocky Mountains for cedar, arbutus, and the gray-blue waters of the Pacific has been the best damn decision I've ever made, and as long as I live in this country, VI will remain my refuge, my immortal muse, and most importantly: my home.