The smell of stinky feet when you walk into my gym – one of those big gym franchises with a lot of intimidating, mildly attractive muscle gym guys – is down right putrid once the weather goes from Antarctica-type cold to still-kind-of-terrible, almost-spring-time-freeze-your-butt-off-outside-but-sweat-in-your-boots-once-inside kind of cold.
The stink actually hurts my nose a little and makes my eyes water, but it’s better than suffering from the restlessness I feel from a long, frigid winter with hardly any exercise. So that’s what pushes me to get bundled up in the middle of April, venture outside in the snow or freezing rain and head to the gym.
Today, I need to run. And clear my head. A colleague told me the other day that my French was still bad and all my insecurities that have built up from being an outsider for the last two and a half years came flooding out and crashing down on the pretty little picture I’d created – and believed in – of the well-adjusted francophile from Saskatchewan.
I am still making mistakes in my French – despite my goal of being perfectly bilingual by now (and I put special emphasis on “perfect”); I sometimes feel like a complete stranger in the country I was born in, less Quebecois than many immigrants. Sooner or later, I think, I need to face that I am always going to be a minority and my professional footprint will always be in scale with that – I’m not going to become the next Dany Laferrière or Kim Thuy.
With a second language comes a self-consciousness that attaches itself to everything you say, everything you think. Every time you open your mouth, your accent announces to everyone in the room that you come from somewhere else.
I’m currently reading Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life and there was a line that caught me:
“I had always felt an allegiance to the migratory and rootless: to those of no places and many places, who (out of necessity) developed the ability to move and adapt quickly.”
I often thought that if I had been born somewhere else I would have felt better in my own skin. Quebec City-born author Bernadette Griffin once talked about building sky scrapers on the foundation of her youth. I, on the other hand, travelled around in search of someplace to build a foundation on.
Now, having lived in Quebec City for two and half years, I wonder again: how would my life be different if I were anywhere else?
My wanderlust is, of course, a privilege many immigrants and refugees forced from their homes do not have. So Maclear’s journey in Birds Art Life to get out of her own head by accompanying a musician friend birding in and around the Toronto area is another reason the book resonated with me. I needed to find some perspective – and my stinky gym just wasn’t doing it this time.
“Was it possible that my focus on making art, on creating tellable stories as intercepting my ability to see broadly and tenderly without gain? What would it be like to give my expansive attention to the world, to the present moment, without expectations or promise of an obvious payoff? Was I capable of practising a “God’s love” kind of attention? An adoring and democratic awe?” Maclear asks herself in Chapter One.
Was I also capable of that? Was I able to stay put, and to enjoy the life I’d started to construct here? My new house with my little places of paradise: my backyard pool in the summer, my upstairs yoga studio in the winter? Maybe there were bigger things going on somewhere else, but did I need to be bigger?
As Maclear writes, “What bothers me is the unspoken assumption that not getting bigger is a form of arrested artistic development.
“If I am guilty of hiding behind tinier people in a tinier parallel world it is because I am searching for other models of artistic success.”
In one of their birding outings Maclear asks her musician friend about posterity. He talks about all the great writers and artists whose work fills shelves in the famous libraries around the world and then he says, “What I want is a tiny spot on a shelf. A few inches of space. It doesn’t matter where. Maybe in a corner. That would be nice.”
I agree. That would be nice.
You might also like my book, The Year I Turned 25: A Memoir About Sex, Anxiety and a Dog Named She-Devil