New Year, Same Air in the Lungs

The day that I fly out of Richmond, it snows so much that it takes me an hour just to walk around Hazelbridge and Sexsmith because not all of the sidewalks have been cleared. I’m wearing hiking shoes and feel the wet get through the tops of my socks. I know this is somehow record-breaking and Google it to find out what records have been broken, but all I can find is that an arctic outflow has swooped down into the Lower Mainland like a creature swirling its cape. My parents, previously ensconced in Commercial Drive for over decade, moved to Richmond 3 years ago after my dad successfully applied to live in a condo building with units for artists who make under a certain amount a year. Thank God he did because their 1-bedroom on Adanac had been climbing in rent to the point where it ate up more of than half their monthly pension. They both live on less than what I make per month in Toronto. I am happy to contribute earnings towards CPP. It goes towards my parents’ meagre needs, fresh fish, bus passes, my mom’s cell phone reload cards.

Feeling appalled at Richmond’s building spree feels too easy. It’s hard not to feel stunned, though, at the billboards proclaiming a new “Master Planned Community” and re-zoning applications. The few remaining Vancouver-style bungalows hunch down, protectively, but with a sense of doom, knowing what is coming. I go out with my little Olympus Pen camera and take as many photos as I can for purposes I don’t yet understand. I know that the landscape is changing, will have changed beyond recognition the next time I come back. I know that I have a particular affiliation towards construction sites, waste sites, and brown fields, having grown up next to Lebreton Flats and the Ottawa river. I think in another life I might’ve made installation art. There is still time enough to do this, possibly. At the Richmond Art Gallery I come across the work of Greg Girald, who also has taken photographs of a vanishing Richmond and the fascinating juxtapositions the landscape offers here, construction cranes hovering above old Hong Kong food courts.

During my first trip to BC since COVID-19, my mom and I manage to get out to Tofino and Ucluelet, walk around snowy parks in Richmond, and rather than Steveston where we go every time we visit, we take the bus out to No.1 road to the Terra Nova Rural park. We walk for about half an hour before it occurs to me how offensive the name is, and my mom agrees. This is Musqueam land, Coast Salish land. Everywhere proclaims it, the marshes remember their fishing traps. We see a bald eagle, a blue heron sleeping among the reeds, hundreds and thousands of snowgeese, and we feel these sightings are a gift in some way. Airplanes lift off from the island, and small children tumble over the snow. We walk until my mom is too cold to continue, and instead of going home with her I go to the library to find a quiet place to think. I know she understands my need for solitude, even if during the past few weeks I have felt dreadfully guilty about it. I’m crafty in my pretexts for solitude, claiming a need to be in the condo pool, to go out with my camera, to aid digestion with walking, to get another coffee. When in fact I only want an hour of two of silence and reflection, because that is when the best ideas come.

2021 saw me become progressively busier and busier, until faced with my endless lists of tasks I would have mini-panic attacks. Moving to Fredericton in September, I initially tricked myself into thinking I had less to do, but someone signed myself for more projects. I’m trying to find the root cause of this chronic overcommitment, I promise I am. Every request feels so worthwhile, and the kind of work which I specialize in, which is not quite teaching but a kind of close attention and feedback, takes much longer than I give credit to. At the same time I want all the work to be done well and with care. Added to that is that I have been saving for my own independence and I see my savings grow faster with each work project. Even over the few weeks with my parents, I couldn’t quite close my laptop for longer than a few days. It might’ve well been chained to my wrists.

I have an overnight flight back to Fredericton, stopping in Montreal. On the plane I can’t sleep and am extremely hungry because I’m still awake, and if I could fall asleep I wouldn’t have to eat. I’m hungry despite eating fish, bok choy, tofu and rice for dinner, which is one of my favourite meals. It’s a Cantonese dish of steamed rock bass covered in ginger, scallions and soy sauce that I can’t make myself because I don’t have a steamer big enough. I could happily eat fish and rice for the rest of my days. My body was built to run on it. But my parents like to eat early and my flight is at 11pm and I’m hungry again. I’m afraid to eat because it’s a full plane and someone might be asymptomatic. I might be asymptomatic. I wait for the beverage service to over before taking my mask long enough to eat a sandwich. Because of the snow, we spend 30 mins being de-iced. Yellow trucks with cranes come alongside the plane and spray us down with pinkish liquid. Because I’m still awake, I see the first rainbow glimmers of light over the horizon. We have been chasing the sun on this flight. The beauty feels like something I shouldn’t be allowed to see. I have a one hour layover to make my connection to NB and become one of those people when we land, impatiently tapping their boots, and weaving my way at a half-jog through couples walking side-by-side. I vow never to be one of those couples who block everyone’s way though this is likely inevitable. I’m wearing heeled Frye boots which makes jogging more difficult and of course the gates where the Maritime flights are are at the other end of the Dorval airport. But I get there in time, relishing the sound of Québecois accents in the hallways, swearing to myself in French so I don’t lose my accent.

Hovering over the rich pine forests of New Brunswick I see sparse patches and can’t tell what has been clear-cut and what’s just thinning trees. This province has its own anthroposcenes. I bought Burtynsky’s book for my Mom while at the AGO earlier in December. For five days I felt like a visitor in my own city, a city that has moved on without me. My friends and I occupied tables in restaurants we hadn’t frequented in years, eating good French meals and soon tofu, drinking cocktails with sprigs of thyme and egg whites, and that is all we mean to the city, really, a table that full of laughter for a brief time and that needs to be cleared when we’re gone.

Nothing else feels like Fredericton than finding out my taxi driver lives two blocks from me, than the old, tiny half-filled plane they use for our flight, than a trip to Sobey’s for groceries on New Year’s Eve, than the older guy on the trail wishing me a happy new year. I come home to an empty apartment now that my landlady has flown south. I unpack, eat pasta, take a bath and sleep for 10 hours. It is already past midnight when I wake again, to take up all the work still left undone. I vow this year, this 2022, I will not let it bury me. I will carve spaces in my weekly schedule, my Outlook calendar and my bullet journal to come up for breaths of achingly fresh air. The kind of air that is like a handful of feathers, sacred, healing.

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