Brooklyn

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A few photos from Brooklyn. I dashed in for a night to see a friend I met on the set of a Bollywood film in 2008, then to Princeton, then back to Brooklyn, then Pawling for the holidays. I forget how much I love urban landscapes until I’m back in them.

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Scraped layers of paper and paint, rust, patched asphalt. The clatter of New York’s old subway system, which still seems to me like the only real subway system, so that Vancouver’s skytrain always felt like a slightly dissatisfying pale vision from the future.

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I love how haphazard it is – the logic of continual addings-on.

Tomorrow, I start driving back to Montreal for New Year’s. I hope you had a wonderful holiday, wherever you were.

arboretum

arnold arboretum of harvard university

Taken at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University while stomping around with an old old old friend. He runs a new company that produces films of medical procedures. We took the T to Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital and I sat in on a meeting, nodding, giving good eye contact and firm handshakes, quietly taking notes: masquerading, again, as someone who belonged.

Written mostly from a table in the Frist Campus Center, Princeton University

When I was admitted to Princeton, I didn’t want to go.

I was in grade twelve, sixteen years old and attending Esquimalt High School, and I lived in horror of snootiness and conservatism. I had only recently found the courage and inspiration to express myself exactly as creatively and freakishly as I wanted to, and it was making me happier than I had probably ever been. There was a scruffy-headed artist that I was innocently in love with. I played the double bass and danced with purposefully bizarre motions to any live music that could be found. Together with my best friend, we designed treasure hunts and performed nonsensical skits in the hallways and prank-called our friends. And then into this paradise dropped the famous Dean Hargadon “YES” letter: not yes from Yale, which I thought seemed vaguely arty, or yes from Harvard, which at least was HARVARD, but Princeton.

Princeton – the good ol’ boys club that I had visited during a school break, when the only student to be seen was the bland tour guide who told us the same things as the brochure and convinced me that I wanted to be at absolutely any school on earth other than Old Nassau. The prestige did not change my mind. Reading Fitzgerald did not change my mind. I wanted to go to McGill, live in Montreal, and be BOHEMIAN, for fuck’s sake. Beret and baguette and bottle of ink. What was the point of escaping the torturous doldrums of adolescent bullying and awkwardness, and Discovering Yourself as the kind of girl who wanted to wear four different skirts in four different colours, all at the same time, only to squander it on the toniest and most soul-crushing of all the Ivies?

Not that, as a sixteen-year-old native British Columbian, I had any idea what an Ivy League school even was. But I knew I didn’t want Princeton. I’m not sure if I would have actually refused admission; most likely my parents would have exercised their judgment and insisted. What happened instead was that the school flew me out to visit as a “pre-frosh” and cement my acceptance, a common custom among ritzy American schools that seemed unfathomably lavish to me. I would guess that 80% of my high school classmates had never heard of Princeton University. Most of them had never been to America at all. A round-trip flight from Victoria to Newark, NJ cost at least $600; we bought the ticket on Princeton’s dime and I flew by myself for the first time in my life, showing up bewildered but determined in New Jersey. This time the campus was alive and chaotic with students, and I was put up with a sophomore theatre major from Calgary who stuffed my bag in the corner of her messy common room and promptly dragged me off to see a play.

This was the play: THE WILD PARTY,* a musical based on a poem written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928. The poem was considered obscene enough to be widely banned. There was an orgy scene. I may have seen a penis; I can’t quite remember. How would it seem to me now? Certainly I’ve observed a lot more penises. At the time it was like nothing I’d ever seen, bawdy and arty and altogether strange, full of speeches I didn’t quite understand and lighting that cast body parts into abstract sculpture and songs that didn’t sound like anything I’d heard in a musical before. The acting was very good. The performers were confident and beautiful, and they seemed very old to me, though now I realize that they were very young. I fell in love with all of them. I had so little experience with the theater. It blew me away.

That night I lay restless and uncomfortable on the loveseat in the common room, curled up into a ball and watching through slitted eyes the shadows that the high lead-paned windows cast onto the cluttered floor. The hallways of the dormitory and the paths outside were full of trickling voices and footsteps as students went to and from Prospect Avenue, the road abutting Princeton’s campus lined with frat-like “eating clubs” in which most of the campus’s partying takes place. The Calgarian’s roommate had invited me to go out with her that night but I refused, awkwardly, terrified of these party houses that dedicated themselves to institutionalizing the elitist socio-economic hierarchies that were the very reason I didn’t want to go to Princeton in the first place. Also, I was painfully naïve, and knew it: I had never been kissed, had never been drunk, and in fact would not get drunk for the first time until my sophomore year at Princeton. I still thought of myself as a hapless outcast from the social life and mating rituals of my peers, and the idea of going to the eating clubs filled me with a thousand kinds of self-conscious dread.

When the roommate returned, jacket unbuttoned and purse slung carelessly from one limp hand, I shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I listened to her shucking off her ballerina flats and stumbling slightly on the debris blocking her bedroom door, and I curled further into myself, like a snail’s golden ratio coiling tightly around my decision: this is where I will spend the next four years of my life.

 

* Coincidentally, there was a woman who acted in The Wild Party who graduated that year, so we were never at school together and never met; but five years later, we wound up as teachers together in India and became friends, along with her husband. I am sitting at this moment in their living room, about to eat breakfast with their two young children before we go ice-skating and engage in other Christmas Eve activities.

Drawing at the Boston MFA

Boston MFA

On Wednesdays, the Boston MFA is admission-by-donation – which, as was explained to me by Susie the first time we went to the Met together, means that you can LITERALLY PAY THEM A FREAKING NICKEL and they have to let you in! – revolutionary to my 17-year-old self, now a tried and true life strategy. At any rate, this Wednesday I took myself out for a perfect $11 night: $1 for entry to the MFA, including a remarkable Goya exhibit and a free life drawing session with the curious model pictured above; $8 for one glass of wine in the gallery that went straight to my head and allayed any fears that I might need a second; and $2 for a slice of greasy cheese pizza that I scoffed as I began the long walk back to Susie’s house.

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city trees

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City trees, Chicago (above) and Boston (below). I’m lying on my friend’s couch in Cambridge right now, looking out the window to where bare branches are tangling with power lines and the shallow curve of the streetlight is nudged by exploratory twigs. Night trees and 10,000 volts of silent electricity. As a child, I used to live for the nights when storms would blow down the heavy fir branches and knock out the electricity: we would light a fire and play board games by candlelight, wrapped up in blankets on the sheepskin rugs. It was a sort of party.

A few years ago I was at home with my family in Victoria, and the power went out just as it used to. We looked at each other, thought about it, and then we all four piled into the car with our various devices and drove up to the University, where lights and the internet were still available. I seem to remember commandeering an empty lecture hall to watch “Machete” on the big projector with my brother. The lofty atrium of the new computer science building was echoey that night, most of the students gone home to dorm rooms whose power had not been interrupted by the storm; they would never realize it had blown down power lines throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. A few hours later, we went home to bed, and in the morning it was restored.boston tree

On the road: Montreal

For the last month I’ve had this idea in my head that before I put up this website, I would write a grand welcoming essay that would explain everything about my trip, and also most things about the last 10 years of my life.

…Seriously.

This is a large part of the reason that it’s mid-December, I’m almost all the way to the East Coast, and my blog is only just now rearing its head.

So. Instead of polishing the last fabulous sentences of my abbreviated life history, I am sitting at a kitchen counter in a loft in Montréal, chewing on the corner of my winter-chapped lower lip and wondering if I even know, myself, what really happened in the last 10 years of my life.

I think I must have some idea of what my trip is about, at least, because the things that I imagined might happen keep happening. For example: “Well, I’m just going to be open to what comes,” I said to myself. “I don’t have to be any particular place at any particular time! If I meet some interesting people, if I like a city, if something seems good, I can just stay for awhile. No plans.” I said that, and yet I kept making plans, setting dates, and never really envisioned the circumstances that might inspire me to stay somewhere. Et voilà: Montréal, an unexpected new friend, a gorgeous jungle of a loft full of circus equipment and various denominations of Artist, and a storm sweeping up from New England that has kept me here for a few idyllic extra days. It has raised for me the question of: when is a situation so good that I just stay? How open am I, really to the forks in the road?

The journey, though. The spirit quest. I left Victoria on Halloween; I’m bound for the Panama Canal. Where have I been so far? Olympia, Washington, where my gallant vehicle jettisoned her muffler a mile from the I-5 and I temporarily lost faith in my own four wheels – then all across western Canada and the prairies, making what felt like the elementary school reunion tour – then eastern Canada, mostly high school friends and other people I know from Victoria – then Vermont, for a thoroughly New-Englandy American Thanksgiving with family – then Montréal, where I was waylaid by the aforementioned Utopian Loft, and also finally discovered What Actually Happened At Caitlin’s Wedding (a cross-Canada mystery!) – then Ottawa, for an impromptu graduate school reunion – and then back to Montréal, where I return with you to the kitchen counter, now scattered with dinner ingredients and wine glasses and half-empty bottles.

I have a scarf to finish knitting and Christmas is close. My Canadian phone number has been disconnected. This afternoon I went grocery shopping with Leila, a French artist who is subletting a room in the loft, and when the clerk asked for a phone number to contact for delivery of the groceries we both held up our empty hands in hilarity and consternation: neither of us have active phone numbers. Earlier in the day, she had been walking around with her iPad to display the loft to a friend she was Skyping with, and I smiled and waved into the camera, masquerading as someone who actually belongs here. But possibly I could? Possibly another road trip prediction might come true, and from being a square-peg, sore-thumb, bird-of-a-different-feather graduate student, I might find somewhere to belong.

Approximately 15 cities down and 15 left to go before I hit the Mexican border.

Montreal

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Photos from the the top of Mont Royal. I clawed my way up using the railings, skidding around on the ice in the same Doc Martens I wore the first time I came to Quebec, in 2001. It’s still just as beautiful and I still feel like a teenager.

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trees on mont royal, montreal

view from mt royal

view from mt royal