It was a tremendous day for a lift-off. Against that endless blue the Prairies are famous for, the plane reached into the sky as Winnipeg shrunk into itself, slowly enough to show me my old school, the long stretch of roadway strung up with fast food outlets and rodeo bars that I’d take every morning to get there, the shadow of the office buildings, and even my old street, cornered between the bends of the river. And as Winnipeg was swallowed into the vastness of the Prairies—those manicured squares of green and yellow stretching out every which way forever—the shine of those two snaking rivers was visible for miles. Outpost of the Great Canadian Wilderness: it’s my city in its sleepy gorgeousness, simultaneously simple and grandiose from up here. Like it’s always been.
And maybe a view like that will help start making this all a little more real for me. While I have three weeks left in Vancouver, those rip-speed last four days of mine is the last chance I’ll get to learn and relearn everything about that my hometown for an extremely long time. Unimanginably long, as a 22 yearer, when all you’ve known for your first 18 years was that exact city.
By this point, you could say I’ve already ‘had it out’ with the city. I’ve already had those ‘total-nuclear-meltdown’ style fights with it countless times, broken up, gotten back together, finally broken up for good (“I can’t do it Marty, we’re just no good fo’ each other”). Last Christmas we’d come to terms, me and Winnipeg, that we could be ‘just friends’: visit once in a while, wave goodbye without our finger crossed behind our backs. So now my feelings have mellowed in time to hop across Oceans with some measure of ‘for-goodness’ to it.
It was all a process of that slow chipping away, all part of the long long goodbye: first the four months in UBC, the days you were counting down towards Christmas and just wishing to get back home to see everyone and everything, your white Christmas and your family dinner—then that stretch of summer when everything’s the same except you, it’s time to move on but you’re in limbo between two worlds in a state of half-employment. It only takes one more summer like that (even longer, even less employed) to force you to swear that you’ll do anything not to come back the following year. And you work your ass off to stay away, broken only by those quick hoppover weekends where you have just enough time to wave to friends, eat some home cooked beauty, and pat the cat.
It chips away until now, 2015, I only realized once I arrived that it had been sixth months since I was last here. That’s the longest time I’ve ever been away, but it’s so overshadowed by the next leap that six months might as well be six weeks. Because after this it’s Japan for a year or two or three. I can’t make a date of the return, and nor do I want to: that’s all part of the adventure, the fly-by-nightness of this stage of the game. But that’s not the thing Mom wants to hear when you’re hugging her goodbye and she won’t let you into the ever-growing security line. That’s not the kind of line family ever wants to hear.
And as much as I said the ‘I’m leaving basically forever’ line to everyone I saw this weekend, I still can’t comprehend it: that this is an end-of-the-line/era/howeveryoumeasureit kind of moment. That’s the danger of the routine in these weekend trips home: they become part of the ordinary rhythm of life, the staccato intervals where you still get to keep up appearances with those you grew up with, when you can pretend that you can have lives both at home and at home-2.0. You trick yourself into believing it’ll always be like this, that you don’t have to make that emotional cleaving like after Paris. They’ll always be there, and so will you.
So I went through the motions of the past four days like any other time, enjoying dinner with relatives or a swim at the lake, never crying, never exactly overcome with uncertainty or fear. Just another weekend. I never appreciated, until the end, how this would be the last time going down the escalators into the airport with my mom waiting there.
And the harder I tried to imagine what was ahead, the more I found myself looking at all I’d left behind. As I biked along the river bend, the pink haze of the Saskatchewan fires cloaking the city all Chinese-like, or as I kayaked across my lake, water ceaseless and calm the air saturated with the variety of birds, memories hit and hit and hit. All those different moments came stronger than they’ve been for such a long time. I was twelve on my dock, gazing out on the far shore of tight knitted evergreens and I was wishing I could be anywhere else though I didn’t know where that ‘where’ was; I was sixteen at the park we all used to go to, actors and stoners, us half-rejects doing what we wanted; I was twenty on my dock, gazing out at the far shore and this time knowing the ‘where’ had to be Europe, had to be Paris, as I counted down the minutes I had left.
As the weekend moved forward, these places grew more saturated with their past, until last night I couldn’t go three steps through my house without being hit with a new memory of an old self, of things I’d almost forgotten had existed at all. It makes me think of a brilliant line from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, where the protagonist declares that, “If someone asked her what the purest definition of memory was, she would say this: the street you were on when you first jumped in a pile of dead leaves.” And that’s extremely true: of all my memories, the most evocative and most fragile are the ones in October, that season of radiant crackling, a dryness to the air Vancouver and Paris know nothing about. Jumping in, being swallowed by it. In summer the future weighs on you until you need to run and explore, in the fall it’s time for reeling everything back, examining and gluing together the split ends. And there’s never autumn’s like Winnipeg’s. It’s not surprising this weekend was one suffused with nostalgia, then.
And without the basic physicality of the city, there’s a danger I would have lost many of those memories for good. All that hidden history. This weekend has helped connect dark avenues in the story I tell myself—that process of A to B to C. It’s those little winks your house makes at you, like how the Ming-era pictures on our wall got me interested in the pre-Meiji pre-Republic culture of East Asia; how those endless hours spent on JRPG’s (the Final Fantasies and Symphonias of the world) got me hooked on modern Japan in the first place. It fills in the gaps that preserving the big dramatic moments can’t quite cover.
By the end of the weekend I’d become a full person again, no longer just a slicing of different people in Europe or the West Coast. Because Winnipeg had always been the anchor, the home-base, the rest stop between axes. It was, and probably always will be, there for me. And that’s all home fucking ever is, right? An accumulation of our unstitched selves?
And sitting on that couch last night—having those type of midnight conversations with the family where no one knows what to say but also doesn’t know how to leave—I got a clear sense of my own age and accomplishments. I’m not old yet but I am older—faster smarter and less prone to raging bouts of egotistical tantrums and mood swings. In the same way I haven’t made it yet or really made anything at all, but I’ve set off—have done amazing things in my four UBC years, and will continue to do amazing things on into Asia. At least, that’s the sense I got as my family, who looked at me but were already talking about their weeks, planning their Folk Fest-filled lives with me no longer in the picture.
I’m 22 and I’m moving to Japan. I’m flying back to the home that’s rapidly wearing out its own homeness. And even though I may eventually lose Vancouver, I’ll never lose Winnipeg. I’ve just gotta keep telling myself that… just keep the whispering going on this screaming jet plane.