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.

Oh, the Terror!

Some things:

I recently read an article about the many misunderstandings and misconceptions we – the collective, social “we” – have about singlehood. The author, a single woman, wrote about the many (often invisible) financial and emotional costs associated with being partnerless. She also argued against the often proscribed narrative that one needs to “fix” oneself – while single – in order to attract a mate. According to her, the “love yourself in order to love another” thesis is just a fancier way of saying that humans considered “broken” are unworthy of love. And when we say that someone has found love, we’re actually just saying that, per society’s adjudications, that they have been “fixed”.

This seems universally awful and I was struck my two ideas presented in the piece. The first, that as human beings, we have defined our natural, default status as “partnered” and use modifiers like stable, healthy, and loved (including love of self) to build out this concept.

Now, I have spent half of my life in three relationships and have not been single since December of grade eleven. So while I don’t know what it’s like to be thirty and living without a partner, I do know what it’s like to be thirty and living with a sense of brokenness. I know what it’s like to live a life defined by instability, sickness, and self-hatred and know that this had absolutely nothing to do with my relationship status.

Being in a relationship – as long as it is loving and constructive – can certainly help in times of crisis, but it will never prevent horrible or hard things from happening. And someone struggling, or simply living a nuanced life, isn’t any less attractive because of these things. They certainly aren’t “broken.” I know, because I have been, and continue to sometimes be, this person.

If society cannot recognize this, cannot see that life is an endless obstacle race that allows for the greatest of victories and most horrifying defeats, then this is the thing that requires “fixing.” And all those who refused to acknowledge this truth? They are the ones who will have a hell of a time sustaining a relationship – with themselves or otherwise.

The author also wrote about how being single for her, meant living a life defined by a prolonged absence of touch and she explained how long periods of time without contact – intimate or otherwise – can have a profound effect on an individual’s sense of self.

I have been thinking about this a lot since moving to Halifax because I often think about how much I miss touching Marc.

I wish I could feel his body beside mine in the cool silence of an early morning.  I miss holding his hand while walking down the street and the feeling of his fingers running through my hair when we’re driving in the car late at night.

I miss the solid comfort of his hand on the small of my back when guides me out of the way when we’re cooking together in the kitchen.

There are so many ways in which he and I make contact in our regular day to day; I’ve never before realized how important these little touch points are to me.

Some other things:

As previously mentioned, I have been reading a lot about Franklin and the Northwest Passage, especially in the wake of the discovery of the HMS Terror.

And I think I’ve become obsessed with scurvy.

Obsessed in the way that people become fascinated by serial killers, or the crusades, or other infinitely terrible things, and yet, I cannot help myself. The way the Dan Simmons describes this disease in his book is so unbelievably horrifying that it borders on the intoxicating. I cannot think of a more horrible way to die than to slowly and painfully waste away in the sub-arctic temperatures of the Canadian north, coated in my own frozen blood and sweat, my skin puffed and bloated, like putrefied pizza dough, punctuated and pixelated by my hemorrhaging bruises and festering boils.

How utterly, utterly wretched.

Scurvy has become a bit of a joke in our modern parlance. I used to say that in the absence of any fresh fruit in my life, coupled with the amount of penny candy I ate, that I wouldn’t make it to twenty without contracting the disease.

Now that I know that scurvy is so much more than just a few loose teeth, I am loathe to speak in such jest ever again.

Some last things:

I haven’t worn pants in the past six weeks. It’s been so beautiful and hot here in Halifax that my wardrobe has consisted solely of sundresses and skirts. On the odd night that the mercury has dipped below twenty degrees Celsius, I have conceded to nothing more than a pair of patterned leggings.

I have been practicing piano for minimum on hour every day. I am relearning all of my old royal conservatory grade 8 pieces. It really is extraordinary what your fingers and brain can remember, seventeen years out. My goal is to have three pieces memorized by the time that I leave. I also really need to work on my scales, because goodness knows when you’re not working on those every day your finger work grows shoddy indeed.

I am going to move to Shetland. Become a sheep farmer. And be happy.

You’ve got to put one foot in front of the other

Question:

August adventures 022

Do you make the first move?

I do.

I have only had three relationships in my relatively short time here on planet earth (the last one being my very happy – and enduring – marriage to my completely bonkers husband), and in all three instances I was the one to initiate the formal courtship proceedings.

Writer’s note: I did not in fact propose to my husband – he was the brave one to take that leap. However, had I not been the one to first declare my attraction, said proposal may never have happened.

To me, there is only so much angst that one can go through before reaching that crush crossroads: either declare your love for the person, or do everything in your power to get over your quivering loins (and moony eyes) as quickly as humanly possible.

While most would say the former is pretty much one of the hardest (and scariest) things out there, hot damn, I cannot even IMAGINE taking on the latter. Sure, there is the chance that you will be left with a relatively heavy heart, especially if your plans to profess your love fall short of a successful outcome, but COME ON.

Never knowing if the other person likes you back? Constantly destroying yourself by wondering, “What if?”

That, my friends, is Dante’s ACTUAL tenth circle of hell.

The first boy I ever asked out was a dude name Jacob*. He was a year older than me, and we did improv and theatre together, sat next to each other in chemistry and physics, and just generally had a great time.

He was really into skateboarding and making movies, and I was into pretending I was into skateboarding, but I did like to make movies, so our friendship was pretty stellar.

One day after school he was in the editing suite, piecing together the score for his latest project when I thought to myself, IT’S NOW OR NEVER.

I awkwardly stood in the doorway and mumbled through my much-practiced lines. Our dialogue was something along the lines of:

V: Hi.

J: Hi.

V: Ummm, do you want to go see a movie with me this weekend?

J: Ummm, sure.

V: Like, just the two of us?

J: Okay.

V: Okay, great!

I leave. He then follows me out a few seconds later and qualifies:

J: Uh, were you just, like, asking me out on a date?

V: Um. Yes.

J: Oh. Okay. Yeah, so, I really like you as a friend, but I don’t think it’s the best thing if we go out.

V: Okay. Sure. No problem.

END SCENE.

Okay, I would be lying if I said that this exchange didn’t leave me feeling REALLY bummed out, but truth be told, I would much, MUCH rather have endured that short (intense) grieving period then never knowing if he liked me or not.

And hey, in the end, our friendship survived, and I ended up dating his (much better looking) friend Ryan*.

JOKING.

About the better looking, not about dating him.

(Kind of.)

My solid-steel guts were also the catalyst of that relationship. After months of extreme back and forth ICQ flirting (holy crap ICQ!!!) I accosted him as we were exiting the gym after our high school’s annual holiday square dancing jamboree.

I basically just dropped all of my Christmas cards, gifts, exams, and papers on the floor before turning to him and blurting out:

“Soooooo, I don’t know if you like, but if you do well, that would be awesome, and if you don’t, well, that’s okay, because I really like you as a friend, and I don’t want to lose you as a friend, but if you like me more than a friend, well, I think we could have something great, and…yeah.”

To which he replied: “Oh. Yeah. Great.  I’m totally in the same boat.”

SUCCESS! SUCCESS!

I was so happy I practically started crying. Then we went ice skating and didn’t kiss for a week.

Ahhh, young love.

My next boyfriend I snagged by asking him to go for a late-night walk down at the beach, which was actually just a smoke screen for me to seduce him into kissing him under the moon AND GUYS SERIOUSLY IT WAS SO ROMANTIC.

Oh, and I also told him: “I like you.”

(In my head I was thinking – PLEASEPLEASELIKEMETOOANDKISSME)

And he did! (Like me AND kiss me!)

SUCCESS AGAIN!

Finally, my last foray into making the first move was when I told my beautiful, brilliant husband that I liked him, by literally doing just that.

We were eating dinner (AS FRIENDS) and I wasn’t saying much. When he asked me what was wrong, instead of lying, I took a huge gulp of water, looked him square in the eye, and then said:

“I REALLY LIKE YOU.”

To which he replied, “Oh. Thank you!”

What a gentleman.

And then Ilikeyoutooblahblahblah…

SUCCESS TIMES THREE!

Now, I’m not going to lie and pretend that letting these guys know how I feel didn’t make me sweat like a glass blower’s arse. And sure, my track record is pretty good.

But I swear it – I felt a million times better just saying those words, rather than having them fester away inside of me like a rotten banana peel made out of feelings.

Because dudes, that is just the worst.

So I implore all of you – take your love and run with it! You never know what amazing relationship adventure (short or life-long) you may end up on.

And then when you do, please be sure to tell me all about it.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And nerdy.

You can’t handle the truth!

Everybody lies.

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At least so quoth the ever enigmatic, and exceptionally surly Dr. Gregory House who both angered and titillated thirty million North American television viewers at the height of the program’s popularity.

And he was right.  Most people, as much as they would like to admit otherwise, distort the truth in one way or another (sometimes even on a daily basis.)

Why, it’s bloody hard not to.  Take the classic example:

A: “Hi!”

B: “Hi!”

A: “How are you?”

B: “Good!  How are you?”

A: “Good!”

This exchange is the absolute worst. Not only is it shallow and formulaic, but it actually makes me think that we are preconditioned to not tell the truth.

I mean, when talking about fleeting exchanges (picture you and the other person as two ships in the night), I can pretty much guarantee that neither of you actually wants to know how the other is doing when you ask.  It is but a mere formality – an extension of the actual greeting.

In fact, hihowareyoudoing is one pretty much one word, the opener, which is expected under normal greeting circumstances,  while finegreatgoodokay is the expected answer, the closer.

End of story.

Both parties may walk away satisfied.

I can totally understand why in some cultures you don’t even bother asking this question unless you are prepared to really find out how that person is – because, really, otherwise what’s the point?

Now, I am willing to concede that there is probably at least one of you out there, shaking your head, thinking to yourself, “I always tell the truth no matter how I’m feeling!”

So dear reader, if you manage to actually (sincerely) articulate how you are doing every time someone asks you, I bow down to you and your amazing resolve.

I would also like to meet you.

And your friends.

(KIDDING!)

As for me?

I’ve been known to tell a few porky pies.  And not just about how I was feeling.

I’ve told my husband that I have eaten breakfast when I haven’t, just because he likes to eat right away in the morning and I don’t, and I once told the mother of one of the kids I tutored that I got migraines instead of just outright quitting the job.

(That was one strange kid, believe you me.)

I would watch as these little white lies fluttered out of my mouth, like ivory-winged moths escaping the dark, searching for a light.  They would burn up, the farther up they fly, and I wondered, as I watched them disappear, what purpose did they serve?

To answer this question, I once spent a week day trying not to lie.

Which I found to be hard.  Very hard.

I was unsuccessful on many fronts.  But mostly I was incapable of getting over the hihowareyou hurdle.  No matter how hard I tried, goodgood seemed to get away from me without my noticing.

Every time I would have to take back my words and try again.  But even then I couldn’t successfully complete the task.

What can I say? I’ve been programmed.

And I’m okay with that.

Because otherwise I like to believe that I lead a fairly transparent, truthful life.

And let me tell you this: when I ask you how all you beauty cats are doing, I mean so with the most sincerity.

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This is me asking you, “HOW ARE YA DOING CHAP?”

And that, I promise, is no lie.

Notes from the underground

I live with a man to whom I have pledged my troth, until the sun supernovas, the stars fade away.

During the first month of our courtship, I flew away to Nova Scotia for two weeks, and during this time we wrote to each every day; back and forth we went, feverish, all firing synapses and tricky fingers – and often times very late at night (or early in the morning), so our typos, like our emotions, were plentiful.

I would love to share with you something he wrote to me – something that will forever make me laugh, something that will forever live in my heart.

An excerpt – Monday, August 25, 2003, 00:17:34:

As the evening progressed I began to feel more and more that I was part of some macabre Dostoevskian dinner party, wherein a carnivalesque ambiance lies so heavily upon the evening that I expect at any moment to have one of us drop down dead, or for Inspector Porfiry to burst through the door and proclaim me a student and a criminal in equal measure. 

Finally we began to watch the Anniversary Party with director’s commentary.  This was good because it allowed a dimming of lights so the rest of the party could no loner sit around awkwardly as my face watched my mind build and destroy lines of compassion and comradeship, leaving me on a sober island alone, being the only member of the melodramatic depressed monkey stock. 

Finally I went into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, and announced I was retiring for the evening. 

Many sad farewells were exchanged, and then my door was closed and at last the misanthrope was safe, and glad that his room was devoid of mirrors and the curtains were pulled.  Then I turned off the one light by my bed, and sat, and in the darkness.

I wrote, since I could not speak, and my fingers were the tongues of my mind, and true for once for they were too long steeped in the deception of my company.

Last Night:
Because I spent an hour untwisting my phone cord, so I could lie where you lay that first night though miles apart; your heat a weir around my slippery heart; electric pulses shaping the darkness with the phosphorescent paintings of your words.  And today I am order in my sock drawer, pairing and pressing, thinking of the arch of your strong feet trembling beneath my touch.  You make me believe in a symmetrical world beyond my usual preoccupation with chaos; the gyre widens not forever – the hawk will tire, and bank, and glide in a descending inscription to the face of the world.  To live forever in the heights of my mind is a beauteous peril, and folly.  It is the loose loam between my toes, the touch of another, a lover, you who unquakes my weakness and fear of uncertainty.

Tonight I will sleep deeply; I may not dream.

But when I wake, I live a life of magical reality – this man and I, sewn up in a sea of soliloquies and stardust; tulips and tea.

The nose-less sphinx, straight roman roads under pumice and ash – I could have been a statue if I hadn’t met you.

I wish you all beauty and brilliance, this windswept day, and always.