Indulgences.

My best friend gave me

all her “women” for my journey.

A big stack of poetry collections,

to work through in the tearful nights,

building strength as I build endless fires,

for the endless cold.

I dog-eared a few pages,

and made notes in margins,

but it’s only pencil.

In the mornings, I read rupi kaur,

and push open the dirty curtains

to let the sun come up

through the frosted windows.

I brew tea on the propane stove

because the fire takes too long and I’m too cold.

But at night,

by the light of candles, flames dancing

in the draft,

I read Sylvia Plath.

And I let the darkness settle

where it will.

Hello from far away.

Today I drove just under seven hundred kilometres with my cat in the passenger seat to a trailer in the woods in Quebec.

The further east I drove the more the temperature dipped, and as I pulled into my new corner of the world, everything was covered in a thick wet blanket of white. Good thing I had my snow tires removed last week.

Up the muddy, snowy laneway until a rusty old trailer came into view. We’re here, I said to Murray, who had finally squeezed himself onto my lap, sandwiched between my legs and the steering wheel.

Through the door, with the classic creak and bang of any old trailer door, was a wood stove, a table, a little kitchen area, a bed. With numb fingers I lit a fire, then scrambled back and forth to the car to unpack my now very meagre belongings, as fat snowflakes settled over everything that wasn’t moving.

First order of business, find water from the “beautiful natural well” where my water for cooking, washing and drinking will be hauled from for the next month or so.

Followed the sign for eau in faded blue paint, through the muddy woods to a small wooden shed. Inside was a murky black hole with dead frogs in the bottom. Texted Marie, who rented me my hiding place a few weeks ago.

Just sweep away the cobwebs and dunk your bottle bottom first. It’s perfectly fine!

… maybe boil it first, just to be safe. But I’m sure it’s perfect!

Good. Great. This is what I wanted. The adventure(?) begins.

Vagabonds.

In the parking lot of a truckstop

because my cat needed a cuddle

and I can’t let him onto my lap

while racing east at highway speed.

Meow, he tells me.

I know, but we couldn’t stay, I tell him.

Meow?

Sometimes people just leave you.

Meow?

I don’t know why.

(He was probably just asking for food).

On the road to Virginia.

Caleigh and I have been friends since we were three. Since my mother babysat her and her sisters after school. Since we spent afternoons, into dusk, running around the tall grass and taller trees on Emerald Isle, a small spit of land in Ennismore, Ontario.

When you are three your friends are friends by circumstance. Friends by proximity. We lived a short walk from one another. There was a trodden path from my backyard to hers, one which I would run from start to finish with a towel on my head for fear of getting stung by a bee as I traipsed through the wildflowers.

We went to different schools, and then different universities, and I guess we lost touch. We still wrote each other every few months, or maybe once a year, to say “Hey, how are you?” Sometimes we would get cup of tea when home for the holidays.

We used to swim, catch bugs, bounce on her trampoline. That feels like a long time ago. Now she’s lived in Thailand, and travelled through Cambodia, Vietnam. And I’ve lived in Italy, travelled Europe. This winter, we had a cup of tea. It was the first time we had connected in a while…maybe years. But the most amazing thing about childhood friends of circumstance is that sometimes, much later, you realize you’ve grown up to have much more in common than a path running through back yards. We both love literature. We both love to write. We both love mood oils and and yoga and laughing way too loud in public places.

So over tea, I told Caleigh about a writing retreat I had seen happening in Virginia in June. Can I come? She asked. Well I don’t really want to go alone, I said. And so we hatched a plan.

Actually, we really didn’t plan much at all, beyond signing up for the retreat and paying for it. We didn’t really begin planning until the week before, at which point we organized some camping gear, food, and the morning of departure downloaded a map to the states.

I think we both worried that with so many hours in the car we might run out of things to say. We didn’t. We talked from Ennismore all the way to the border, paused to take out our passports and show them to the unsmiling woman in the wicket, and then resumed whatever story we were in the middle of.

We talked our way through New York state, and into Pennsylvania, where I had booked a campsite at Bald Eagle State Park. It had drizzled on and off throughout most of the drive, but was now clearing up and we were feeling hopeful. It was evening by the time we were following camp signs and realizing that the site I had booked was somewhere called the “rustic loop”, where there were no people, no rangers, and no facilities.

We pulled up to a large map which showed our site and one other, on the other side of the loop, as the only two that had been reserved. We were all but alone in this little pocket of woods. Fire wood could be purchased on the honour system…take a bundle, leave some money in the box.

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We set up our tent which once assembled seemed much too small for two, cracked a beer, and started heating up the soup I had pulled from my freezer before leaving. Once on the cookstove and thawing, the soup started to look mysteriously less like soup, until I realized I had grabbed a jar of gravy by mistake. So we ate gravy and bread for dinner.

After our lousy dinner which we laughed off, light was disappearing fast and we felt very optimistic about lighting a fire, though the bundle of fire wood had not come with kindling, and we of course had no hatchet. The forest was wet from the day’s rain, but we had some newspaper. About forty minutes into coaxing a tiny spluttering flame to bite at the large chunks of dampish wood, I paused. What’s that sound? A pitter patter on the leaves. We both went still for a moment, before the sky opened up and the pitter patter became an absolute roar. Rain.

Rushing around to throw everything into the car, we dove into our tiny tent, barely room to sit up side by side. Luckily we had been quick enough to grab the wine before battening down the hatches, so we spent the next hour or two drinking in our humid little dome, before nodding off to sleep. It rained all night long. At about four a.m, a train thundered by on the track we had not noticed cutting through the forest, terrifying us as we tried to discern what the rumble and flashing light could be.

We woke up in the morning soaked and exhausted. Stuffing our wet gear back into its bags, we threw everything in the car and took off. As we crossed into West Virginia, the sky was blue, and when we stopped for lunch, the sun was blazing and we dried our feet at a rest stop where we had a picnic.

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The retreat was to be held on a farm in Radiant, VA. When we rolled up, we were sweaty and tired, the sun still high and hot. We picked a spot in the field to sleep, near but not too near the other tents, as we were feeling anti-social (and smelly). We spread out the tent, fly, our sleeping bags and blankets on the grass to dry, and went in search of a shower. A little water and shampoo can go a long way after a damp and sleepless night.

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Now feeling like new, clean, dry women, we were ready to begin our weekend of writing and literature. We assembled the tent, and joined the group of aspiring writers in the barn for dinner, complete with corn bread and sweet tea.

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The rest of the weekend was spent in workshops, author talks, seminars and bonfires. We walked up the lane to the little free library and loaded up on books. We explored the farm, met people from all over the states (and one other Canadian, too!), and got inspired, sun burnt, and happy the further away from real life we felt.

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On the way home, we camped at Kiasutha in Allegheny National forest, and it was the clearest, starriest night I had seen in some time. We drank mugs of wine by a roaring fire we had coaxed to life ourselves, telling stories and talking about the future, watching the stars through the treetops and tracing fireflies in the underbrush.

I’ve been on North American soil for a year now, almost exactly. Sometimes it makes me sad. Sometimes I miss my foreign adventures. But then sometimes, I realize how many adventures I have had the chance to have here: sleeping in yurts in forests, driving to the coast, camping our way to Virginia for the love of literature. And I’m with my people. I’m reconnecting with my family, with old friends. I’m getting caught up by bonfires, swinging on porches and sitting on docks. I’m listening to my brother play the ukelele, swinging in my sister’s hammock, and listening to my grandfather speak endlessly about birds.

I suppose you could say I have no regrets.

Since before.

I, have a hammock.

Somewhere in a drawer is a list of things,
like self-improvements,
you could say,
things I needed, in another life
markers of okayness,
of moving forwardness.

An apartment with a living room
A terrace
Yoga
Work less
A hammock

That was a long time ago,
a lifetime ago,
when I stumbled over foreign words to get
a coffee
a pastry
a loaf of bread or a cup of tea
Quanti litri? 
(That was a joke, see?).

I live somewhere else now,
not near a river but near a lake,
across the ocean.
My apartment has a living room,
which is also the kitchen,
which is also the dining room.
There is a terrace,
but in Canada I guess we call it more of a patio.
I don’t do yoga very often.
I work less, much less,
because jobs here are hard to find.

I have a hammock.
It’s old, second hand.
It’s faded, and tippy.
It’s not the colour that I wanted,
more of a faded grey
that maybe used to be blue.

But it has a cup holder,
and a place to tuck a book.
And I can lie in it
and hear the neighbour’s dog
launching itself off the dock
with a splash.
I can hear a creaky clothesline,
and boats,
and waves that smell like weeds and fish,
not salt.

And I like it,
I guess.
It’s different here.
I could stay,
if I squint my eyes hard enough.

 

Lemon Tree Lament.

I had seen the village
between the mountains and the sea,
with the flowers that seemed to burst forth
from behind every bendy corner
every broken wooden fence
every ditch beside pot-holed country roads.
It was always sunny there
and the water was always warm
as I floated on my back, looking up at blue skies
collecting salt, on my skin.

We would drive down winding mountain roads,
in a yellow Fiat that was an antique,
seats damp from our bathing suits,
or sweat,
as we drove forty minutes just to get an ice cream
or a granita
in the next town over,
just for something to do
with our sunglasses on.

I learned that what sounded like
fikkitindia
was actually fichi d’india,
the cactus that I loved,
that apparently sometimes fell on people.

I thought of it there when I was far from it,
counting money for rent
sleeping on an air mattress
in a dingy one room apartment
that was not mine
on the third floor
above the dumpsters;
or when I wore three pairs of pyjamas,
to stay warm
on a springy mattress
in a place that smelled like water,
where the heat only came on three times a day
for an hour,
always wishing for summer,
wishing we could go back.

There were lemon trees,
in the village.
They were twisty,
and crooked,
with bright yellow fruit hanging
against forever blue skies.
I told myself that one day,
when I had “made it,”
I too would have a lemon tree.

When we were living Rome,
in the winter,
I saw a young man with glasses,
who said he was from Naples,
who had a small three-wheeler truck,
overflowing with flowers and plants,
ones that seemed exotic in the grey city,
which he was selling in the piazza.
He seemed cold,
but he had lemon trees.

I don’t think we had made it,
per say,
but we gave him twenty euro,
and put it on our little city-balcony.
It only ever had two lemons,
one fell off.

Maybe it died.

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How the lake snuck up on me.

I have been in Canada for six months now. I came back a hurricane.

I took refuge in the impermanence of my dwelling: a canvas tent in a back yard, moved every few days either by me or the wind to keep the grass alive and to avoid growing roots. I loved the spot by the gazebo, twinkle lights strung up above me, providing a canopy of magic, but the days under the maple tree were kind to me too. Falling asleep to the leaves rustling by a wind I hadn’t noticed until I finally crawled into my sleeping bag and quieted my mind, suddenly making it seem a roar.

This was temporary. This too would pass.

But I am still here.

When he first asked me to spend the night, I said no, I would always leave before the sun came up. I would never let one day bleed into the next with him. I would wake him up at 4am, the sun threateningly close to the horizon, on those summer nights. We would roll out of bed, stars still visible, reassuring me that I had not broken my promises, as long as the heat bugs had not yet taken the place of the crickets. I would doze in the car as I urged him to race against the sunrise until finally I would crunch up the driveway, unzip my tent and roll into my sleeping bag, the taste of smoke still on my tongue.

One time he held my hand and made me flinch.

When he told me he had found a place, and he wanted to share it with me, I wanted laugh. Or to cringe. I didn’t want a “place.”

When he showed me the place, the lake groaning under the ice whispered my name. Orion hung over the roof of the house, the birch trees reaching up towards his sword, their arms falling just short. In that moment I saw the summer ahead. I saw my skirt hanging over the edge of the hammock that I would sling between those birches, the vegetable boxes he would find me digging in when he came home, and I could hear the snap of the fire pit down by the water.

I put my favourite candle on the hearth, next to a Buddha statue that was left behind, and now I have a place.

What the boar told me.

A friend asked me once why I felt the need to make such a final production out of goodbyes. Why I needed to ceremoniously visit all of the places that held a piece of my heart, leaving each behind, one by one.
“When you quit smoking,” he said, “you don’t pick up a cigarette, you don’t slide it out of the pack, holding it up to say, this is my last cigarette. One day, you simply don’t light a cigarette. One day, you simply smoke a cigarette and then don’t smoke another. One cigarette is your last, though you probably didn’t know it, at the time.”

Florence, Italy.

It was cold, walking though the city after dark, but I wanted to see the lights. Christmas in Florence was always a spectacle. Somehow the streets were all but deserted, a shocking contrast to the sea of bodies that had occupied the Piazza’s on December 8th, when they lit the city. That night, as the tree came to life in Piazza del Duomo, I could not move. Now I could dance through the streets unhindered.

From the station, I walked through Piazza Santa Maria Novella, admiring the ornate facade of the chiesa and the various hotels where tourists were already tucked in for the night. From there I made my way to the Duomo, looking up at its impossible mass and marvelling at the mystery of the dome and how it came to be. I then crossed to Piazza della Repubblica, passing the carousel, now still, finally reaching the covered and columned space which typically held the bustling leather market. It was deserted. No vendors shouting prices, no tourists. My footsteps echoed as I crossed beneath the stone ceiling, weaving between the columns, eyeing the lonely porcellino, a rare sight. It’s said that the porcellino can tell you whether or not you are fated to return to Florence…you must simply drop a coin from his bronze tongue. If it falls through the grating, you will be back some day, if it bounces out, you won’t. The myth keeps the statue surrounded day after day by flashing cameras and smiling tourists, engaging in the ritual.

“I need a word with you,” I said, pulling out a coin.

I looked from side to side. No one in sight but a boy sitting on the curb lazily strumming the guitar in his lap. I softly touched the porcellino’s snout, rubbed smooth and bare by thousands of hands.

“I want you to know that I will listen, whatever your answer might be,” I said aloud.

I placed a coin on his tongue, behind a row of flat bronze teeth, took a deep breath, and let go.

With a clink, the coin hit the grate, balancing precariously on a rung but not slipping through, as it had done every time before, always reassuring me that this would not be my last time in this beloved city. Yet this time, there it sat, ready to be plucked away by greedy fingers. I thought of snatching it back and trying again, but I remembered my promise.
I looked the hulking bronze beast in his unmoving eyes for a moment, digesting his prediction.

“I never claimed it was my last cigarette,” I whispered, walking away.

Natale.

Florence, Italy.

The sky was dusky as we began our pilgrimage from Oltrarno to the Duomo. Though only a one kilometre walk, the sea of people into which we were swept up set our pace, meaning it would take us almost forty minutes to reach our destination. The street was alive with chatter in various languages, my nose filled with the sweet smell of waffles and roasted chestnuts, twinkle lights hanging over us in a canopy of gold.

When we finally arrived in front of the cathedral, it took us another fifteen minutes just to press our way through the crowd enough to skirt the baptistry, until we were finally in sight of the looming tree, decked out in red Florentine fleur de lis. I noted the swish of coats brushing past one another, the stomping of hooves as horses harnessed to carriages waited for eager tourists to climb inside.

Here is good, I said, stopping in front of the nativity, though we would be pushed and pulled like the tide as we waited, ending up several metres from the spot which we had decided was ‘the one.’ There was nothing to do but laugh as we were thrust against one another, waiting for the countdown.

Dieci, nove, otto, sette… it began.

Here we go! I said, thrilled, turning my eyes towards the tree once again.

UNO!

And with that, the tree came to life with thousands of tiny white twinkle lights, a myriad of diamonds tossed onto an impossibly large pine, lighting up the piazza and our faces as the contagion of excitement reached us, crushed amongst the many bodies.

Let’s go, I said, suddenly beginning to feel overwhelmed as people shouted and cheered, their breath touching my cheek as they called out auguri! to one another.

We slipped away as quickly as we could, skirting the back of the cathedral where the crowd was thinner. Soon we could breathe, and we made our way to Santa Croce, where mulled wine at the Christmas market was calling our names.

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I could feel my heartbeat accelerate as we approached it. I had missed being here. My head was full of foggy memories of eating sweets and drinking mulled wine or hot chocolate while perusing Christmas wares and admiring lights…I was so relieved to be back in the city I loved, a city I had called home for three years.

We rounded the corner and once again found ourselves swept up in an impossibly dense crowd. We had to hold hands to avoid losing one another. It was too loud to talk, and the crowd was too thick for us to stop, to peruse anything at all. I could smell the sweets, chocolate and spices, but could not steer us towards them. I could feel my heart rate accelerating once again, yet with anxiety rather than anticipation or excitement. This wasn’t how I remembered it. I could hardly move. My gate was controlled by the flow of the swarming bodies surrounding me. Other people’s scarves were brushing past my long hair, making it cling to them with static. I felt hot and uncomfortable.

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Mulled wine ahead! said Liz. We belined for the wooden hut, lighted by antique-looking bulbs, a large bubbling vat emanating a sweet and spicy aroma. We wedged our way to the front and held up two fingers. Due, per favore! 

Hands cupping plastic cups, we took a seat on the steps of the basilica, finally able to observe the market on our own terms. As the wine warmed my stomach, I felt myself relaxing, finally able to breathe, to move. From here I could observe the happy Christmas shoppers, seemingly unfazed by the hustle and bustle of those around them. The steps were occupied by cheerful young people in clusters, each with a cup of mulled wine clasped between gloved hands. I turned back to the soft glow of the market. It was magic, from afar. I sipped happily, my bum becoming cold on the stone steps, but my heart full and content.

Maybe I’ll try the market again tomorrow.

 

A one-eyed bandit.

We had been driving for hours. Endless twisted pines, craggy rocks and sapphire lakes as we wound our way through northern Ontario, until finally we were within about a half hour of the Sleeping Giant, our destination for the night. A small liquor store came into view, and we pulled off into the dusty parking lot to pick up something to drink by the fire later that night.

We were three days into the first adventure we had taken together, and had settled into a rhythm, settled into being renegades, the open road ahead of us, a cab full of gear behind us. Our parents were both thrilled and shocked that we had taken on this journey together, curious of the outcome. We got along fine, now that we were older, but we were two very different people. He was a homebody. I was a gypsy. We had never spent so much time together before, as we were now, but several years of travelling abroad had created an ache within me to see the rest of my own country, and to make memories with my family to balance all the solo adventures I had boldly set out on. As we blazed westward at highway speed, the stresses of life after summer were pulled out the windows along with the smoke from my brother’s cigarettes. Somehow we never ran out of things to talk about. We told stories, we told jokes, we sang songs.

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The old wooden screen door banged behind us as we stepped into the quiet shop. An older woman shuffled up to the front counter and greeted us. Hello, we both said as we perused the shelves. The woman chatted to us from behind the counter as we browsed, her voice following us up and down the two or three aisles, asking where we were from, where we were heading. To the park, we told her. We’re driving across the country. We placed our purchases on the counter. The woman had one strange eye, which she squinted as if trying to keep it from falling out of her head.

To the Sleeping Giant? she asked.

Yes.

Do you have your firewood yet? she said in an almost warning tone. We looked at each other, slightly confused.

We usually just buy a bundle at whatever park when we’re at.

She leaned towards us slightly, as if to tell us something in strict confidence. Well, you sure are lucky you stopped in here. Her strange eye narrowed even more. I happen to know they are out of firewood at the park. Won’t have another load until Friday. I’ve got some here, five dollars a bundle. She slapped her palm on the counter as a punctuation mark to this revelation she was imparting on us.

Oh, we said, turning to each other once again. I guess we’d better grab some then.

I’m just happy I could save you some time, she said as she tapped away on the ancient cash register. It’s a long drive back out once you’ve reached the park. About thirty kilometres. Not worth coming back for. Not worth it at all. Not much would make you want to turn back after driving as far as you have. This way you can have yourselves a nice fire tonight!

Thank you, we said, paying her and heading out to the woodshed she had directed us to to grab our wood, the smell of campfire already filling our noses, fingers itching to strum the ukulele while sipping tea and listening to the waves of the great lakes.

Enjoy your trip, she said with a wink, as she began shuffling towards the back of the shop once again, where a television was humming through a doorway.

We were relieved when we finally rolled into the park, and anxious to set up camp and stretch our legs. We had been on the road too long, and needed a rest from the thrum of the highway. Nick waited in the truck while I dashed into the little office to pick up our site pass. Usually I did the talking. He didn’t much like talking to strangers.

There was a bit of a line, campers all flooding to Ontario parks to enjoy the weather and the freedom of summer. I felt at once a part of the collective Canadian consciousness, the one that tastes like beer and smells like campfire and seaweed, which I had been away from for so long, exploring foreign soils. When it was my turn, I gave our information, picked up our pass, and asked where I could get ice for our cooler. It’s in the shed, just around the corner.

I jogged back to the truck, put our pass on the dash and asked Nick to come help me grab a few bags of ice. He switched the truck off and hopped out, following me to the shed. There were two doors, one of which was open with an ice cooler inside. We loaded up with a few bags, and were about to turn to leave when a gust of wind caught the second door. It blew open with a dramatic creak, revealing floor to ceiling piles of firewood, with a little wooden sign.

FIRE WOOD $4 A BUNDLE.

We turned to one another, speechless for a moment before his eyes narrowed and he said, We’ve been bamboozled….

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