Seasons

I left Melbourne for Vancouver in mid-August 2012, the last slog of Winter, a time when my spirits are usually about as grey as my sun-deprived face. I was very excited that I would be arriving in the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer. Sure enough, stepping off the plane in Vancouver I quickly became hot, partly because I was layered like the Michelin man so that I would not tip the baggage allowance over the limit, but mostly because the seasons were reversed. I waited in the customs line with sweat on my lip and a back on fire, a combination of backpack strain and warm, sticky, airport air. When I finally escaped the clutches of immigration, I stepped into fresh air and sunshine. The stark difference in light  felt almost blinding, especially given my increasingly jet-lagged eyelids, and looking out of the taxi everything seemed sepia-toned, making my new city seem all the more foreign and exciting.

Walking through the sunshine over the next two weeks was magical. Sunflowers towered above me on the sidewalk, daisies and geraniums were sprinkled in front yards and along windowsills. Vegetable patches grew randomly on street blocks and I plucked figs from big trees. I was enamoured by the heady smells of Summer blooms and shiny air—a romance back-dropped by the glorious mountains forever framing Vancouver.

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Soon I watched the colours change in the wide streets and walked through waves of orange, red and yellow leaves. It was romantic in a different way. Like something from a 1920s film where the lure of affair and adventure provokes reserved social conduct. Often I felt like I was dwelling in a neighbourhood that The Babysitters Club might be found:  the high houses, stair entrances, basement windows and towering, leafy trees seemed just like the streets described in the girl fiction series I read as a child.

P1020488 P1020487 Vancouver Fall 1

Halfway through October I awoke to vast sheets of water hitting my basement window. It was darker than usual and the pounding sound was everywhere. Later that night I was told: “this is it, Danni. Prepare yourself. It is going to be like this for five months.” I laughed about this.

Five months later I was not laughing about it. The relentless rain had taught me many good things, like the importance of leather-proof boots, jackets with hoods and careful planning of my backpack. It also taught me that Vancouverites are resilient, adaptive and opportunistic: always making the most of a break in the rain (“look, it’s sunny” meaning “look, it’s not pissing down”), managing to walk through rain with little more than a thin poncho and then stepping onto the bus like they just walked out of a salon. It also taught me that I can find value in dismal weather and to really savour small things like hot chocolates, dry socks and a night-in trying to learn how to knit. And I simply adored the brief falls of snow. But when February came and it was still raining I began to lose patience. By May I truly felt I was drowning in excess moisture. My basement apartment felt damp and I was sick—very sick—almost permanently. Colds, sinus infections, bronchitis, laryngitis. I’d lie in bed resting but felt like every breath I took was filling me up with more cold, more wet, more sick. Dragon’s “Don’t You Got Out in the Rain” played through my mind on loop (which actually was a good thing) and I wondered if these Australian-based rockers wrote this song while in Van?!

During my final weeks in Vancouver the blossoms ignited the trees and daffodils poked up to say hello. And, oh, the tulips! The beautiful, beautiful tulips! Slowly the sun appeared more often and people began to appear bouncier, healthier and happier. The day it reached 13 degrees I took a walk around my neighbourhood and smiled at people sunning on their decks, drinking cider on their lawns and basking in every piece of light. Shortly after this it reached 24 degrees. My friend and I had planned to meet for coffee that day but she wrote to me and requested we go for beer instead—it was just “SO HOT, TOO hot, for coffee.” The Australian in me smiled quietly… and pretended that I was not feeling hot, as well. (Here is a secret: I was. I even bought gelato to cool down. Well, to cool down, and because gelato rules, obviously!).

I arrived back in Australia in June. It wasn’t as cold as I remembered Junes being, which was a great thing. Sadly this soon changed, and I found myself feeling colder here than I ever was in Canada. Australians live in perpetual denial about their Winters: because it gets so hot in Summer it’s assumed we do not need sound heating or insulation in our homes and buildings. That’s until it hits 2 degrees overnight and we complain for weeks on end but do not actually do anything about it. We even forget to dress appropriately.

I knew I was longing for Summer. I am a cold-blooded lizard/girl of the sunshine. I exult in the feeling of being hot, and I quickly feel cold at the slightest drop in temperature. I wear jumpers whenever I visit my Dad’s house in Summer because I hate the feeling of cold air-conditioning on my skin. My toes and fingers are frequently blue and I long to roam barefoot. Needless to say, I am very proud of myself for enduring three back-to-back Winters.

Still, I did not realise just how eager for the season change I was until last month when I was strolling back to my house from uni. It was six pm but not yet dark, an exciting symbol in itself, and the air felt slightly thicker and softer to walk through. It was still and warm and pleasant. I was neither hot nor cold. I became aware that my senses were working overtime and I was overcome by a feeling of safety and comfort, though it took me some moments to pinpoint exactly why. It was the smell: the sweet tinge of jasmine, mixed with fresh cut grass and yellow eucalyptus blooms that can make me want to sneeze, but can also leave me hopelessly nostalgic. Combined it was the smell of my everyday life, but it seemed pronounced and special in that moment; extraordinary.

I guess it was the smell of home. 🙂

Where Am I? A Lesson in Calming the Fuck Down

I awoke yesterday morning after dreaming of the Australian continent, or an ambiguous mass that my dream mind knew to be Australia. I was hopelessly trying to pin something on it, like someone tries to pin a tail on a donkey while blindfolded and dizzy from being spun around. I just couldn’t grasp it, pinpoint it. When I awoke I felt suitably displaced, perhaps even more so as I remembered where I was: Melbourne, Australia.

 

I arrived in Australia after a 23 hour transit from Vancouver to Adelaide. The weeks leading up to that flight are a blur, all mashed up into one long hazy day. Five days after arriving in Adelaide my partner and I jumped in our car and headed East to Melbourne. Ten hours later we arrived at our friends’ home, greeted by hugs and news of the past year. Three days after that we were signing a lease for a new apartment. One day following and we had the keys to said apartment and were moving in. And somewhere in the midst of that I was inducted into my new office at uni, I picked up some boxes of my Canadian life I had freighted to Melbourne airport, and I sifted through even more boxes of my Australian life I had locked-up in a storage unit while away in Canada. In short: I really had no idea where the fuck I was, or which “life” I was currently living!

 

I’ve tried not to panic too much about this. Having just spent ten months living abroad independently and then partaking on a whirlwind move back, it seems pretty reasonable. It surely takes time to consolidate the pieces of one place with another; one time with another—and this has been a big shift in both place and time.

 

When I awoke yesterday, however, my mind did not find this justification reasonable. Not good enough, it said, not today! Of course it had a lot to do with that thing that happened the night before. That thing where our Labor Gillard Government got upended from the inside by Kevin Rudd, who I watched get signed in as the new Prime Minister via a webvideo the next day. Well, I half-watched. I had to close the video box before his oath was over because it was too much for me to take in. Don’t like this reality? Just click the red box; close the internet; shut down your computer! Too bad it’s so much harder to shut down your mind.

 

I came back to Australia uncertain of myself but certain of many other things, including that Julia Gillard was our Prime Minister and Tony Abbott was our Opposition Leader and there was going to be an uphill slog to keep it that way at the September election. But in the time it takes to check your Facebook newsfeed this fact became history. Not having a TV or wifi or even a radio set up yet in the new apartment I pieced everything together via Facebook status updates and a quick news search on the smart phone. Fuck! That is about all I could muster. Fuck. When I finally went to sleep that night my subconscious set off trying to find “Australia” all night long but to no avail.

 

I woke up bewildered, agitated and somewhat lost. Something about the leadership changeover triggered off the part of myself still confused about why I was suddenly in the Southern hemisphere, what emotions such a move should manifest in my body, where I’d left off and needed to pick-up from, and how I was going to reconcile my time in the foreign country with this fresh start at “home,” which in fact felt uneasily foreign itself right now.

 

My mind proceeded to chase after its own tail for the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon; hunting its identity, country, political ideology, opinion and all other things that go along with the term “home” and any disruption to it. After a few hours of (pretending to do) PhD work in my office, I stumbled down Sydney Road in Melbourne’s Brunswick with a buzzing head. How do you feel, dannijean? What do you make of all this? How much of last night’s government debacle is about misogyny and gender? Did you even really like Julia? Is it even about liking? How does this compare to the Harper government in Canada? Oh, Canada… Do you miss it yet? Do you wish you were still there? But didn’t you want to come back? My thoughts were thankfully interrupted when I spotted a thrift shop and walked in. I bought a potted parsley plant for $1. It was a clear and obvious attempt to attach myself to something that had roots.

 

While waiting for the bus home, clutching my small plant, I overheard two elderly women complaining about the unreliability of the bus system. One lady commented: “bus drivers just don’t care anymore, they just don’t care,” and my mind, caught up in a neurotic self-questioning, immediately thought: ‘what does it mean to care in 2013 Australia? What is “care,” exactly?’

 

ERGH! I AM SUCH AN ANNOYING PHD STUDENT SOMETIMES.

 

A few minutes later, having boarded the bus still clutching my parsley, I watched a woman hop-off with a toddler strapped to her back and a small child skipping behind her. I thought, ‘that woman probably has to go home now and spend the next however many hours looking after those little beings: prepare them food, bathe them, entertain them. She might have swirling thoughts like I do but she probably does not have the time or capability to indulge them.’ And then, as if the blindfold used in my pin-the-tail-on-the-country dream game was removed from my eyes I thought: ‘well, I DO have the rest of this whole day to indulge my swirling thoughts… But, I also have the rest of this whole day to put them aside for now, water my new plant, drink a cup of tea, have a bath, and lie on the couch PERFECTLY STILL if I choose.’

 

Well, hallelujah, dannijean. Welcome to Perspective Town, population: growing.

 

It seems that when you are able to put yourself at the centre of everything you generally will, and some days you will let your mind go traipsing down the road which has too many speed signs and not enough stop lights. All of the questions I was sweating over are interesting, and most of them are certainly worth thinking about, but just because I’m trudging down this road doesn’t mean that clear thoughts and structured arguments are as well. I believe psychologists describe this predicament as: “analysis paralysis.” The truth of the matter is, sometimes I really do not know how I feel or what I think and nothing but time will sort that out for me. When this happens, I thank small parsley plants and Mums with children for reminding me that there’s a place beyond my relentless questions and expectations—this place has no “I,” is not concerned about how or when the unresolved questions will be answered, and—most importantly—it is very, very quiet.

 

Canadian City Comforts

Last week I found myself travelling on a bus again, this time heading North into Canada after a lovely time with my partner in the state of Washington. I’ve travelled with this bus company so many times this year that I was given the ride for free, as a loyalty reward. (Yeah, that amounts to roughly three cinnamon buns, or a six-pack of beer—a small but nonetheless welcome win for a student traveller).

 

My chest was heavy from another farewell, another stuffed suitcase, and another imminent border crossing. I only have a short time left in Vancouver, six weeks or so, and I know I need to lift this heaviness if I am to enjoy the remaining time. And dammit, I would really like this last hoorah to be a “hoorah!” Gazing out the window at the dying light I set about making a mental list of things I know I can find comfort in while travelling here in Vancouver. Here it is:

 

1. Leonard Cohen. When I first arrived here, I listened to Leonard Cohen on repeat, especially at night while trying to sleep. Funnily enough I did not make the “listening to a Canadian-songwriter while in Canada” link, at least not consciously! In hindsight it was clearly a Freudian slip. Regardless, it is perfectly apt that Cohen has animated so many of my Canadian memories. His music makes me cry but there is something like a sincere hug delivered in it—a certain empathy translated by it. Let the Cohen marathon begin!

2. “The Northern Lights.” There is a patch of lights at the top of one of the mountains that shadow the city from the Northern horizon. I assume the lights are either Cypress Ski Resort or Grouse Mountain; either way it is lovely to know that if I look North at night I will see that sign of life sparkling. I am a sucker for city lights at night. They give my solidarity company and make me feel connected in a mobile world.

3. The tulips. At last, the sunshine is out and Vancouver is bursting with bulbs that make one’s heart sing.

 

Wreck Beach

 

4. The #9 from the menu at my local Pan Asian Restaurant. A heart-warming bowl of beef pho served by friendly staff, back-dropped by terrible R’n’B club music, and costing a lean $6.50.

5. Shiatsu. Since the start of the year I have been having regular shiatsu therapy. It is my new favourite thing. I actually sleep soundly for a few nights after I have a session (no small miracle in my world), and I return home feeling nurtured, relaxed and happy. The therapist is a beautiful Czech-Canadian with a face you know must belong to a woman who has lived a long life, but that shines so warmly you have no way of telling how young, old or otherwise she is. She has the body of a jiu jitsu competitor and a wit as dry as my own. Her compassion is in no way contrived and I feel sincerely lucky to have crossed her ethereal path.

6. Those crows. Every afternoon, a little before sunset, a murder of crows makes its way from West to East across the city. By murder I mean: hundreds upon hundreds of crows. Every evening, like clockwork. If I’m having a bad day I try and watch those crows fly over. I like that I can count on them to show up every day, and watching their routine flight reminds me that there are bigger things happening on this planet than the stresses of my today.

7. Enjoying a giant coffee and a book in the sunny window of Liberty Cafe, Main Street.

8. A jigsaw puzzle—started at my previous Vancouver sharehouse and left there to be finished. Better hop to it if I am to make those pieces fit before I depart…

9. Art exhibitions. It’s always great to lose yourself in someone else’s creative world. This time I am going to choose to lose  myself in the latest exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), UBC: Safar/Voyage, a collection of works by Arab, Iranian and Turkish artists. While I’m at it, I might stroll down the wooden stair-trail hiding behind the museum. Last year I found the trail quite accidentally and followed it all the way down to discover this:

 

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10. Swimming. I started swimming at my local pool soon after arriving in Vancouver. I have had a fear of swimming laps for most of my adult life, not because of the pee or athlete’s foot, but because I grew up in a country town and we had our swimming lessons in the ocean. We would swim laps between two small jetties. I was a strong swimmer, but there were no ropes or lanes or swimming caps where we swam… only salt water, seaweed and spray bottles of vinegar for the jelly-fish stings! I was terrified I would not understand the etiquette and get publicly shamed via the scolding of a fit, greying version of Thorpey. Turns out, it really isn’t so terrifying at all and thus far I have not been scolded. And being reunited with my love for swimming has been so rejuvenating. It’s not nearly as good as swimming in the ocean, but I love being in water, any water, and having to focus on my stroke and breathing allows me to switch off from all else. I haven’t swam since I moved into my new neighbourhood a few months ago, but it is indeed time to again do so.

 

Oh, the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone …

Oh, I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long…

(Leonard Cohen)

Can you enjoy things that are still a little bit shit? 2012 answered: yes. (Or: how i learned to stop worrying & love the little-bit-shit).

Perhaps it was because we were all moving towards the end of the world, but 2012 felt like the middle section of a film to me. 2011 set the scene and 2012 was the part of the film where the story builds intensely—cars start getting chased at high-speed, the protagonist screws up and looks likely to lose the love of his life forever, the siege begins, the Sandra Bullocks frantically work to keep the buses they’re driving above sixty miles per hour.

I began the year weening my body “back to life” after a rather tumultuous year health-wise, a task helped enormously by the salt water, heat and happy friends in my favourite part of the world. Here:

Innes NP Coast

Heading back to Melbourne I felt better braced for 2012 and all I assumed it would entail: my PhD confirmation, moving to Canada with my partner, and looking myself in the face and asking it some hard questions (as in, “hey, face! I’ve got a bone to pick with you”). I was ready to shake things up; to challenge myself. Yet, when I found myself sheepishly following a guide towards a Meditation Hall in regional Australia at seven a.m. one crisp March morning later in the year, I did wonder how and why I managed to embroil myself in such “challenges.” But this is a story for another time. My reason for mentioning this moment is that while sheepishly walking towards the Hall I desperately questioned my choices. Like the aforementioned hapless protagonist who just can’t get his timing right, I almost quit on the dream. That particular dream being zen, or at least, the ability to sit still for longer than five minutes a day. I am still not sure how I managed to stay for the duration of the course. I suspect it has something to do with my persistent sense that something good had to come out of doing so, even if that good ended up simply having an interesting tale to tell over dinner sometime in the future. Somehow it all just seemed a necessary part of the 2012 plotline.

The tussle between good and bad/love and hate at this meditation course was not dissimilar to the experience I term ‘the Canadian saga.’ Plans to complete one year of my PhD program at UBC in Vancouver began in 2009 but were constantly interrupted—first by sickness, then by administration, then by last-minute news that my partner was not allowed into Canada. So when I finally arrived at Vancouver Airport in August 2012 to be told something along these lines: “You do not have the appropriate documentation, you’ve been given the wrong advice, you ought to be deported,” quitting seemed to be the clear and final option. Especially since, despite the fact that I had flown to Canada specifically to study, I was effectively banned from doing so until I got the correct visa. And P.S., I’d need to leave the country to get that. I took a moment to ask myself: ‘if my life was a movie, what would the audience want my character to do?’ *looks at screen begrudgingly* ‘Fine. I’ll hang in there a bit longer.’ I decided to think about my quitting options while travelling on the Greyhound bus to Bellingham, Washington where upon crossing the border and re-entering I would be issued with the correct paper badge. Since I was literally taking a bus across the border, then taking a bus back again, I had some time to waste between bus-rides in the charming Fairhaven district. Here I strolled into a gift store displaying the sign: SORRY TO RUIN THE ENDING FOR YOU BUT EVERYTHING WORKS OUT FINE. Assuming this was true, I decided not to quit and I returned to Vancouver. (You see, I am only superstitious if I am desperate. Similar to my reading of horoscopes, or the weather-forecast: I believe what is foretold when it is something I wish to believe in).

I started grad school, I read a lot of Critical Race Theory and Affect Theory and attempted to write about both, and in the meantime I battled a range of mundane problems new folk in foreign countries face: getting lost walking to your own house, buying the wrong items for your dinner because the products are strange, speaking in phone-circles to set up a bank account, realizing you have an accent and sound weird and sometimes completely indecipherable, missing the crap out of your loved ones/favourite coffee shop/local  pub/etc. At times it felt quite like being back at the meditation course: I felt isolated, silenced and confused about what I was doing here, and my broken-record mind went: ‘I should quit. No, I should stay. I can’t take this anymore, I have to quit…’ Meanwhile, as this brain-pendulum swung, I quietly and incidentally fell in love with the city of Vancouver.

My new neighbourhood, East Van, was a delight: on the streets I would smile at new graf that said things like: ‘you look pretty today,’ or laugh at cheeky squirrels bolting across the footpath and up tree trunks. I couldn’t find a decent coffee but cinnamon buns made up for that. The bus drivers were almost always friendly, even on the busy, jam-packed, claustrophobia-inducing #99. The changing colours from Summer to Fall had me walking the streets with my mouth dropped open in awe. When it started to rain that day and never really stopped, I marvelled at these Vancouverites’ resilience: they weren’t deterred; they just slipped on their rubber boots and raincoats and got on with things. Then I saw snow for the first time in my life and felt giddy. Then I snowboarded on it—and Canada knew as well as I did that I was hers.

The 2012 USA election came along to shake me up. In truth, I didn’t pay much attention to the campaign. By this I mean: I followed it, but with a sense of detachment. For the most part I didn’t connect to what I was hearing, watching, reading. It seemed too ridiculous to be real. It was an unreality, I decided. Five days before the election I realised this wasn’t Saturday Night Live and if Mitt Romney got in we were all in serious shit. And so I watched the voting updates with that “vote-count nausea” one gets on election days. When it became clear that Obama was the winner, I sobbed.

Wait. Sobbed?! It was unexpected, even for someone who frequently sobs at odd things. Sure, I like Obama, but he’s not exactly John Lennon. Far from it; Mr “I have a Drone” brings much to be disconcerted about, as the excellent Juice Rap News pointed out:

So what to make of this sense of relief and celebration? It troubled me for some time. Should I have “celebrated” this kind of move, even though I knew this was, in many ways, a celebration of “the lesser of two evils?” The concept seems inherently problematic, especially in light of my feeling towards troublesome celebrations, like Australia Day, which I wrote about earlier this year. I’m still mulling this over, but the following is how I’ve navigated the territory.

In the first instance I recalled an extended member of my family saying “better the devil you know” when discussing his voting strategy, notably, to always vote the Australian Liberal Party, which at the time had been in power for several years. He was not willing to take a “risk” on the other major party (even though both were pretty damn similar then). Now, for those who are more politically-attuned, taking a risk might mean a full-fledged riot involving pitch-forks and megaphones, but for a lot of voters, it is the case that taking a risk might simply mean voting for the other, fairly similar side. This surely sucks, but that does not mean it is not true. Thus, if more voters—lots more, as it turned out—decided to vote for the more progressive side in the 2012 USA election, then I think there’s something encouraging in that. The fact that a black man has been given another chance to be President of the USA when not so long ago Jim Crow was the call of the day, is something to feel encouraged by. The fact that this same guy included (however shallowly) gay people in his winning election speech when not so long ago teachers were being lawfully sacked for being homosexual is something to feel encouraged by. These are small moves but in a world in which every political action we take is suffocated I think we need to acknowledge these moves for the political possibility they give. It shows us that people are thinking differently, maybe even more openly. It shows us that they’re willing to take a risk, however small we feel it to be.

To dream about an independent overturning outside of these two parties is admirable; worthy; NEEDED, but to disregard the better situation of Obama over Romney is perhaps to overlook our systems of knowledge and how they function to create power and ultimately change. They do not exist in isolation and nor do we. If we want to change the system I don’t think we can distance ourselves from it, nor can we upend the entire thing from outside overnight. Even when we work from the edges we remain tied to the inside of that beast, and so our best bet is to nudge those walls from “within.” So, in the same way I applauded the excellent anti-misogynist speech delivered by Australian PM Julia Gillard to Oppositional Leader Tony Abbott (see speech here) but continued to actively disagree with several of her political platforms, I applauded the Obama re-election. If I don’t stop and acknowledge these wins when we have them, I’m afraid I may as well crawl under my bed and wait for Romney to blow us up. At least with Obama in power I am more inclined to leave the bedroom, maybe even the house, and start fighting those Obama policies I think are bullshit and need changing. Of course, this might just be a way for me to defer my guilt, or sugar coat it?

In the end, it was Lawrence Grossberg’s (2010) thoughts in a recent interview that made me think it okay to pause and feel celebratory before making the next political step. He says:

“…one understands that reality is making itself and it will continue to, and that therefore there is a contingency about the world that opens up possibilities. Not in the utopian way that leads to misunderstandings and accusations like you are a gradualist or something because you want to take it step by step to get “there.” I don’t really want to get there. I just want to take that one step and hope that that one step makes the world a bit better, and then we’ll figure out what that context is and take another step.”

I believe Obama beating Romney made the world a little bit better, but it was just one step, and now we have to figure out what the next step should be to make the world a little bit better from here.

I  guess that’s the game strategy I employed in 2012 in general, and is perhaps what we all do most of the time. We take a step towards something we feel will be better and we find ourselves in a new situation, which we work to better again, though often on new terms. A lot didn’t “work out” for me this year – like being separated from my partner for six months, losing people, battling health problems – but in response I took some steps which led to wonderful and surprising things, like experiencing a different way of life and forming new friendships, research connections and health resources. And now it’s 2013 and in twenty-four hours I will be meeting my partner in Seattle. He didn’t get the Canadian visa on the second-attempt, so now he will reside across the border, and I will visit him there as often as I can. This situation is a bit shit, and it’s certainly not how I thought the “movie” would go, but as it turns out, where 2012 was leading me to in its crazy mixed-up storyline was a remake of Sleepless in Seattle… which is also arguably a little-bit-shit. BUT, I am pretty certain we will find a way to love it.