An (east coast) Christmas story

Christmas in the Maritimes is something special.

There’s lots of dancing and singing and great food and drink. But chiefly, Christmas, or winters in the east coast of Canada – and by east coast I mean the true east coast, none of this Ontario east coast fakery that people in Toronto are always trying to pull off because they think that they’re living in New York.

(They’re not.)

Winters in the true east coast of Canada are defined by freezing wet snow and lots of it.

It makes it hard to get places, so people who move away rarely go back and people who stay, don’t ever leave.

In 2007, I was flying home to see my family.

For the first time in years and years of going home for Christmas, I was travelling through Ottawa – a true mainstay of central Canada  – and the weather was terrible. Every flight was grounded.

Every flight, weirdly, save mine.

It was strange to see an entire list of cancelled flights, while right at the very bottom, shining like a beacon of Christmas hope was: WestJet – Halifax – on time.

I thought: I’m either very lucky or my pilots are daredevils with death wishes.

Turns out – a little bit of both.

As we began our descent into Halifax International, the woman sitting next to me proceeded to throw up the two mini cans of Pringles potato chips while breaking every bone in my right hand, to which she was clinging for dear life.

I too definitely thought we were done for. I distinctly remember being so sad that I was never going to get marry Marc, as this was to be our last Christmas apart before we were married the next year.

Luckily, we pulled through. (The plane, Marc, and I.)

Leaving the airport, I marveled at our surroundings. Halifax, like my airliner, had been completely buffeted by winter. Snow, ice and fog were everywhere. Driving into the city, the snow banks lining the streets were the highest I had ever seen them, as if the fallen snow had been parted by a wintertime Moses, and not the city’s plows.

“They’ve got to be like 9 feet tall,” I said to my mum.

“You should have seen them last week,” she said. “Before it warmed up.”

I checked the temperature gauge in the car. It read -12 C.

It was in this moment that I realized that British Columbia had forever ruined me and I could never again move back to Halifax, lest I die immediately from frostbite due to -12 C somehow being defined as “warmer”.

But, nevertheless, we made it home to properly set off the Christmas celebrations.

My family and I – that is my sisters, mum and I – are really big on traditions. Baking and decorating gingerbread men, holiday concerts with lots of singing and dancing, setting up the tree – it’s all a part of how we make this time of year special.

In terms of Christmas Day, it’s fair to say that we like to keep things simple: Stockings. Gifts. Cooking. Eating.

Which is why as soon as I arrived home, we set out to prepare everything for the big day. We trimmed the tree and helped decorate the house. On the 24th my older sister Kate and I traipsed over to the Organic Earth Market (the very broke Halifax equivalent to Whole Foods) so I could load up on tubers and cranberries and chestnuts and so she could get our free range, organic turkey.

“We only have frozen ones!” yelled the guy behind the counter.

We looked at each other and shrugged. SOLD.

Home we went, to put everything in the fridge before going to bed.

The next morning we opened our stockings, opened our presents and then set about getting ready to cook our dinner.

I’ll never forget my mum opening the fridge door, pausing and then exclaiming:

“THIS BIRD IS FROZEN TO ITS VERY CORE!”

Kate looked up from the stuffing.

“Oh,” she said, quizzically. “I…I thought it would defrost in the fridge over night?”

My mum’s right eyebrow arched so high it hit the ceiling.

“Defrost? In the fridge?” She shut the fridge door and began pacing.

Jessi, my younger sister, sauntered into the kitchen, picking up a piece of one of the carrots I was chopping. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

Kate glared at her.

I dropped my carrot and looked around at the metric tonne of vegetables I had left to peel and chop and yelled out: “Let’s just order pizza!”

I was already imagining us hanging out in our sweatpants and watching a movie instead of slaving away for the next six hours.

The looks I received from my family immediately withered my enthusiasm.

“We are NOT ordering pizza,” they all yelled back at me.

We were going to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day if it was going to kill us.

My sisters and my mum immediately set out trying to find a place where we could get a booking.

Unfortunately, trying to locate a space available on Christmas day for four people was hard. Very hard. Most places weren’t open and those that were had booked up months prior.

I was really starting to believe that my pizza wish was going to come true when Kate yelled out from the living room: “I did it! I found us a place! The holiday Inn Select will take us! It will take us tonight at 7pm!”

I nearly fell over.

The Holiday Inn Select? I had been making fun of that place since before I even know what sarcasm was.

“BOOK IT!” yelled my mum.

We were in.

At 6:30 pm we started the walk over to the hotel. In truth, it was probably only a 5 minute walk, but it had gotten so cold and windy that we budgeted a lot of extra time. We all huddled together as we exposed ourselves to the freezing night. Swirls of ice and snow flew across the abandoned expanse of the city.

Walking up the deserted street, I stared ahead at the glowing, fluorescent sign at Cruikshank’s funeral home, which advertised both the time and temperature of the day.

The numbers glowed eerily cold against the dark of the night: -26 degrees.

As I contemplated my life, walking to the Holiday Inn Select on one of the coldest Christmas Days I could remember, I ruminated aloud on how weirdly poetic it was to be walking towards a funeral home, as this was something of a funeral march.

“That’s not funny,” was my mother’s response.

We arrived at the hotel right on time for our reservation.

The Maître D immediately perked up when he saw us, mostly because my mother, despite her insistence on coming to the hotel, didn’t want to be confused with any of the other people who had really planned on being there for dinner. She was wearing a full-length ball gown that had been made for her a few years prior when she and her friends had gone to a gala to ring in the New Year.

It stood in stark contrast to not only the majority of the other clientele but to my sister Jessi’s low-rise jeans.

“Reservation for Gillis?” I asked, making one final wish for an Italian, wood-fired Christmas.

He escorted us to our table.

The dining room was huge – probably not the full length of a football field, but it certainly felt that way. And despite it being a ballroom, my mother was the only one who had dressed the part. Everyone else was sticking to Nova Scotia classic – jeans, running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt that’s just a little too big.

It wasn’t five minutes into our arrival that my mother had garnered her first fan.

A woman with a very thick Valley accent (Annapolis Valley, not California) came up to her and exclaimed, “YOU ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN. Can I take a photo of you?”

Over the course of the evening, my mother posed for no less than nine photos for this woman. To this day, I always wonder where those pictures ended up.

The dinner was a buffet so we all set about getting to our food. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, so I mostly picked at a very large piece of cheesecake that I had topped with about a quart of cranberry sauce to give it more flavour. My sister Jessi on the other hand has always loved buffets and exploded the button right off of her low rise pants, effectively making them no-rise pants.

I laughed so hard I almost peed mine.

Kate, the most steadfast of our group, spent a lot of the night asking my mother to “keep her voice down” as she proceeded to provide colour commentary on all of the other guests and “what part of the province they had to be from.”

I wanted to say something about the bird not being free range, or organic, but I kept my mouth closed.

We sat, ate, talked, laughed and made plans for how to properly tackle our Christmas feast the next day. And despite the commotion of the ballroom all around us, and the cold of the outside night, I felt a distinct warmth between us.

On our slow, bundled up walk back to the house, my mum began humming one our favourite east coast Christmas songs and I immediately began singing along. Together we all linked arms, and began two stepping down the street – without any cars in sight, there was enough space for us to dance together.

Our voices rang out into the night.

And that – that more than anything, is a maritime Christmas.

Farewell to Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia is new Scotland.

It is my Scotland.

Nova Scotia is a dark and stormy coast that births brave and beautiful people who dance and sing and make music that is perfect and pure.

Halifax is that feeling in your heart. That ache and crest. That inconceivable rush when you kiss someone for the first time and everything is unfettered and flushed and on fire and you haven’t a breath in your body.

Halifax is wishing to live in that moment forever.

Halifax is the biggest sky you’ve ever seen. It’s a blue that burns.

Halifax is your neighbour practicing their bagpipes at 8 AM on a Saturday morning. It is a farmers market selling Annapolis Valley cider and hand-knit socks.

It’s riding your bike through The Commons, just before sunset, and marveling at a world bathed in a rose gold glow. For a moment, everything pauses. For a moment, the world collectively releases its breath.

Halifax is, for a moment, letting yourself go.

Halifax is walking along the waterfront, wind-battered and rattled, wondering what the winter will bring. It’s wondering how anyone could live through this.

Halifax is living through this.

Halifax is running and running and running and realizing that no matter how hard you try, you cannot outrun everything.

Halifax is letting your hair grow and your nails heal. It’s three months of restless sleep and restless nights and tears of such surprising heartbreak that, no matter what, you are never ready.

Halifax is getting caught off guard. It’s letting yourself get caught off guard.

Halifax is a city built on folklore and myth, sea shanties and Stan Rogers.

Its days are fueled by harbour hopping tourists and university students.

The Rotary. The Arm. The Waeg. The Coast.

It’s the ego of knowing that Nova Scotia is the best maritime province, but never saying that it’s the best maritime province.

It’s a night that stretches, wraps its arms snug around your shoulders, warming you with a laughter unlike one you’ve ever known.

It’s laughing until you cannot laugh. Doubled over by bad dates and mingled fates. Staring at the gallows of death and disease, and daring them to try.

It’s a love that transcends continents and causeways.

It’s a love that cascades.

Halifax is family, sitting in a kitchen and talking.

Halifax is sitting in a kitchen. The indefinable comfort of sitting in a kitchen.

Halifax is a barbecue where one person starts singing, and then everyone starts singing.

Halifax is just knowing all of the words.

It’s Sonny’s Dream.  And Gillis Mountain. And The Whistling Rover.

It’s unironically loving Rita MacNeil.

Halifax is a city that quietly swallows you whole.

Nova Scotia makes your blood run a little hotter. Gives your legs a new strength.

It forces you to stop. To stare at a sky, and feel the limitless of a place that is haunted and vaunted, and never unnecessarily so.

There is magic here.

Nova Scotia is new Scotland.

It is my Scotland.

And though I am far away, on the briny ocean tossed, I know she heaves a sigh and a wish for me.

2016: A year in review

So much already has been written about 2016. By almost every account, the year has been a raging dumpster fire – a hate-filled inferno consuming everything and everyone in its path.

And yes, a lot of really, really bad things happened this year.

But a lot of really good things happened too. And because life isn’t one giant binary, a lot of good and bad things happened all at once – sometimes at the exact same time.

My year has definitely been one of nuance. Sometimes black, sometimes white, but always very colourful.

Far and away, however, 2016 will be known as The Year That I Ran.

By my rough calculations, I ran around 3,000 kilometers in 2016. Much of this can be attributed to my marathon training and the fact that I ran every single day while living in Halifax. In fact, it has only been since falling ill over the past two weeks that I’ve actually slowed, and for the first time all year, ceased my endless striding.

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Besides my marathon (my 3:35 marathon!), I ran three trail races put on by MEC, and medaled in each. My first, a 15 KM trail race where I came third; my second, a 10 KM trail that wove its way along the old Musquodoboit railway where I came first; and my third, a 10 KM around Shubie Park in Dartmouth, saw me place second.

I take strange comfort in the asymmetry of it all and think of the many kilometers I will clock in 2017. Maybe I will finally clear a sub-40 minute 10 KM. And as Marc keeps patiently reminding me, maybe I will also join a running group.

For three months I lived in Halifax – a dream world where summer never ended and I wore sundresses and jean jackets every day. Where I rode my bike to the public library and read historical fiction and ate warm kale salad and peanut M&Ms by the handful.

I bought a pair of boots and I jumped on a plane and flew to Toronto where I stayed in a haunted hotel just so that I could see Christine and the Queens in concert. I sold raffle tickets at a Moosehead hockey game in benefit of the Canadian Breast Cancer society and watched Steve Patterson read from his memoire The Book of Letters I Didn’t Send.

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I slept poorly, save for the nights when I took lorazepam and my mind was forcefully quieted. I learned to hate the sounds of early morning bathwater.

In June, my mum and I travelled around the Baltic Sea, visiting Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Finland. Together, we bore witness to exquisite and individual beauty, etched in cobblestones and brick towers, public gardens and street cafes, war memorials, and palaces, and parliaments. Everywhere, a narrative of passion and purpose, and above all, perseverance. We marvelled, atop our rickety bicycles, at each living history, and we reached out so that we might touch and see, stopping at every street corner, so that that we might also breathe.

I also slept restlessly for most of the trip, and would nightly slip out into the quiet of our cabin’s deck, staring endlessly into the dim light of the longest dusk. And there too, I would breathe.

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This year I read too many books and watched too many TV shows. I quit my job and began a new one. I told a lot of jokes at the expense of rape culture and performed the most important stand-up set of my life in front of a sold-out crowd at the Rickshaw Theatre.

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I also told a lot of stories about periods and told one story about my mum at the North American premier of Listen to Your Mother Vancouver. On The Storytelling Show, I interviewed a lot of really cool women who are doing really cool things and who make me want to do cool things too.

Marc and I celebrated eight years of marriage on June 28th. Thirteen years together in August.

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I have no idea what next year will bring.

My heart wishes for adventure and love and laughter, with many good times with friends and family. Great runs, and a lot of time spent in the outdoors. Nights cuddled with Marc under heaps of blankets, eating olives and cheese, listening to Stuart McLean stories and reading aloud from our favourite books.

Warm summer days riding my bicycle. Bathing at the beach. Pulling weeds from our backyard and growing a small vegetable patch to call our own.

Maybe I will even write a short story or two.

I will try to breathe more. Sleep better.

And reach for the exquisite beauty in everything.

Just sit there and sweat it out

The east coast is humid as hell. The minute you walk outside, you are beset by a sticky, smoky, mug.

The coolness of our house is misleading. I am always sure that I am going to be cold during the first few minutes of my morning run. But that is nothing but a clever ruse on behalf of Nova Scotia Heating and the fact that we live in a very, very old home.

What I wouldn’t give for even a minute of respite from the oppressive exhalation that greets me as I turn to lock the front door. The world feels like an unwanted whisper from a strange man on a strange train.

Suddenly everything is too hot. Too close.

And my discomfort is palpable.

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But it never stops me from running. If anything, it just makes me faster.

I have the mistaken belief that the quicker I run, the more wind resistance I might generate on my flushed and sweat-steamed face.

And while I have yet to see any rewards for my efforts, I keep trying.

Other than three days flattened by a brutal flu, I have run almost every day since coming to Nova Scotia.

I race about the different neighbourhoods of my adopted home. My favourite routes take me to Point Pleasant Park and up to the Citadel. I careen along the South End’s tree-dappled streets, dodging new students moving into their bachelor apartments and soccer moms walking their huskies and duck toller retrievers. I ignore the workers re-paving the road outside of the old military barracks, and sprint past the tourists taking photos of the clock tower.

I have always had a tendency to make up stories about the different people that I encounter on my daily adventures, and since moving to Halifax my internal narrative has delved to new depths.

That man on the corner? Oh, he’s waiting for his man on the inside. But where’s the drop? Where’s the microfilm? Is it up that tree? Or has it been stashed around the corner, behind the fire hydrant? And is that even a real arm brace? Or is it a cleverly disguised weapon?

By the time that I’ve figured out his entire backstory (he’s on his way to meet an ex-CIA operative who he has been trying to get out of the game but who keeps getting dragged back in because of that one shady incident in Dubai twelve years ago), I am half way home.

But not before I espy the woman who just returned from reuniting with her estranged brother whom everyone thought had died in that tragic ocean kayaking accident. It just turned out that he owed money to a man from Havana and had to disappear for a couple of years. She was afraid to tell him that she had sold all of his belongings to put herself through a two-year pottery course, but he was just happy to see her. She told him that she would help him out with the money she makes from her artisan salt shaker business.

Or something to that effect.

The more I make up stories about the people I see, the more it astounds me that anyone can really purport to know anything about anyone.

I am currently reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror, a fictionalized account of Franklin’s doomed expedition in search of the legendary, and always elusive Northwest Passage. It is engrossing and horrifying and I find myself completely sucked in by Simmons’ reimagining of what it was like to be a crew member of the HMS Erebus or Terror.

Talking to Marc the other night, I exclaimed, “My God, Franklin was so dumb. I cannot believe what a loser he was.”

To which Marc very kindly reminded me that I was in fact reading a work of fiction, and we would be hard pressed to really know what anyone was like on that expedition, what with everyone having frozen to death in the barren wasteland of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.

I quickly acquiesced that he was right.

But I remained rankled. It just seems too true to let it go.

So I’ll just keep making up my own stories.

As I sweat through the mug.

Every day.

Every, every day.

I think they said, the sky’s the limit

Of late, a lot of people ask me how I am.

I mostly tell them that I am okay.

Because I am okay. I am a lot of things, but mostly I am okay.

My life in Halifax is pretty simple: I run around the city, I work at my desk. I go for nightly walks up to the Citadel where I take photos of the city’s breathtaking cloudscape.

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The sky is big here. There are no mountains.

When I walk, I listen to Grimes and Of Monsters and Men. I also really like the soundtrack to the movie Drive.

At home, my bedside is littered with biographies of runners. I have reread Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast twice.

The more time I spend at the Dickson Centre, the more I tune out its tired yellow walls.

I don’t think I could ever be a nurse.

I make vegetarian frittatas with Annapolis Valley vegetables and aged cheddar cheese. I eat a lot of chocolate peanut butter oatcakes.

My mother likes to tell me that oatcakes are healthy.

I don’t think anything with the word ‘cake’ in it can be good for you. But they are delicious.

I ride my bike around the city: to the gym, to the library, to Point Pleasant Park. To the famers market at the Halifax forum.

I sometimes feel lonely. I have to choke back tears. I’m never ready for them, and I always get very angry with myself when I cry.

I chastise my healthy, human self for being silly and immature.

It just makes me feel dumb.

I’ve learn words that I never knew before, like neuropathy and gabapentin.

I think a lot about nerve pain and restless nights. Aching legs. A fatigue that settles like an east coast winter fog.

I do everything I can to sustain summer’s warmth.

When we were in Europe, I borrowed a lot of my mother’s clothing. Living here, I have swallowed her wardrobe whole.

There are some items I can’t make work, no matter how hard I try.

And I try pretty hard.

On Monday, we went to Sears to buy new slippers and a bathmat. Afterwards, I made her try on these pants. They looked really good.

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She didn’t buy them. They were overpriced.

Ten years ago, my mum was visiting me in Vancouver. I took her shopping on Robson Street. Her favourite store was Mexx, and that afternoon she left with a pair of wide-legged, grey tweed trousers with built-in suspenders. They made her look like a Pulitzer prize reporter, circa 1940. All she needed was a small cap with the word PRESS imprinted on a piece of paper, folded into the brim.

They were perfect.

Whenever I think of my mum at her most epic, I think of her, on that April afternoon, standing outside of her change room.

She looks at me. She squints her eyes.

“Vanessa,” she says. “I really don’t think so.”

To which, I say: “I do mum.”

“I really, really do.”