Journalling Ottawa

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Stubbornly, because I had been planning to for several days, I pushed on out into the pelting rain this morning, walking the streets that stretch away from my immediate neighbourhood, headed toward a little cafe I had heard about not too far away.

I took photographs along the way. This was part of the plan: to wander Ottawa’s Centretown, take photos, and write, on this, my last real day of holidays.

I took photos of the small, aging houses that still characterize much of our downtown core, the brick and coloured clapboard pieces of this town’s early history. I captured the fog rising thick from the quick-melting snow, puddles reflecting signs and roofs and the white-grey sky, quiet city streets. I managed to catch an umbrellaed man emerging toward me from the fog, framed by brick houses.

This is my “ode to home” day.

I have had other themed-days: there was a ski day, a cross-country ski day as well, the skating-to-the-library day, and several (many, if I’m honest) lazy book-and-Netflix days. With the exception of the latter, it generally took a good mental push to get me out the door, but I was always glad once I was moving. Glad, and pleased and relieved.

Relieved to be out, living, experiencing, seeing the things I only half remember exist when I’m stuck at my desk dawn to dusk for months on end.

There is a beauty to this little city. A sort of indie vibe, if you look. And a woodsy, green, outdoorsy vibe (you don’t have to look as hard for that), which is what brought me here originally, 15 years ago pretty much to the day. I had been living in Ireland for 5 years at the time and had decided to return to Canada, though not to my hometown of Toronto. But that’s another story…

My father grew up in Ottawa and left as soon as he could. With the exception of a blip when he tried to live here again a few years ago, he never really looked back, and now he refuses to come. “Boring” is, I think, how he describes it. Or maybe there’s something deeper, some unpleasant memory he’d rather avoid. But again, that’s another story, and it’s not mine to tell.

I never planned to end up here, never thought I’d “move back.” But I couldn’t face Toronto after 5 years in rural Ireland and Ottawa’s proximity to hills, rivers and forests seemed a good next home. So, here I am and, with the exception of my dreams of moving back to Ireland, I don’t really see myself living anywhere else now.

It can be boring, sure, but it isn’t really. If you look, walk, explore, there are little magic places. Small cafes. Vintage shops. Quirky places that can fill up the hours with poking and observing and people-watching.

I feel creative here. And by here, while I mean Ottawa, I also mean the little cafe I have landed in today. It’s quiet. People are dotted here and there, 5 of us in total – all writing, coffees gone cold on the tables beside us – plus two staff-members, a woman behind the counter and a guy who moves between bar stool and behind the counter as well.

I don’t recognize the music they have playing. It’s a sort of singer-songwriter collection that is perfect for rainy day writing in a cafe. Unobtrusive yet interesting. It could even been one of those coffeehouse mixes, but a good one, not the trite type you’d find playing in a Starbucks.

After this, when the feeling strikes, I’ll make my way home, stopping in at several vintage shops along the way. People in Ottawa are friendly for the most part, and all of this will take hours as I stop to chat to the strangers I meet.

And that will be that. My last day off for a while. My last day of poking about Ottawa, re-discovering this home I have made for myself.

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Peace, Ballydavid (Ireland III)

Two friends sit on a wall, sipping their coffees in the silent, grey morning, watching the sea.

It’s early. Before the others stir, I’m walking the flower-draped hills of Ballydavid, or is it Feothanach, or maybe more precisely, it is the space in between these two named points, a place that remains unmarked.

Aside from the wild beauty of this place, it is the forgottenness of it I think I love the most.

I pass a tiny shell-strewn beach where gulls dance and shriek, then follow the road, not much more than a narrow track, as it climbs steeply up, past waterfalls hidden by exotic, garish blossoms — orange and purple — past farms, abandoned holiday homes, and the odd cluster of sheep. Songbirds sing and chirp from every bush.

I’m trying to find a path I’ve been assured will take me up to the peak, to a cliff-top that sweeps up to the sky only to drop off, plummeting to the sea hundreds of feet below.

I can imagine the view – nothing but waves stretching into forever; I remember everything from when I lived here one summer 19 years ago. The memories are crystal clear, but the path remains elusive.

Behind me, Mount Brandon is cloaked in heavy clouds, as always. I smile as I recall laughing with a friend all those years ago, betting each other we’d never get a picture of its crest. I still have the postcard she sent me later that year, triumphantly displaying a Brandon without cloud.

Stretching between the hill I’m climbing and Brandon are the emerald fields of a million songs and tourist brochures, rivers, more sheep, the distant dots of cottages and stone houses, the black winding road with its Irish language signposts. I keep turning to look – this is my heaven, my favourite place on earth. I still can’t believe I’m back here.

The landforms feel deeply familiar, soothing in a way that suggests a connection, a belonging I can’t quite explain by simply saying I lived here once, briefly. Ancestral perhaps, though my ancestors came from somewhere else.

Looking at the peaks of the Three Sisters further down the coast, the slumbering giant of the Blaskets, Sybil Head, Brandon, I feel finally calm, finally at home. As though in the intervening years since I was last here I was just stumbling from place to place, task to task, lost.

I stand for a while looking down the coast as it tumbles, rock-strewn and jagged, until it turns inward and jags out of sight. I smell the briny salt of the cold sea, the dampness of the low clouds, the earthiness and sweet grass of this land. I breathe it in, trying to hold on to it, knowing a time will come when this all feels like a dream.

I never do find the path, but I do find something I had lost, something I hope I can carry with me now forever. That missing piece of me.

I pass the two people on the wall again as I pick my way back toward breakfast. They are still sitting on there, looking out to sea, talking. I wonder what they are talking about, and I think of the friends I have here, in Ireland, friends I could sit on a wall with and talk to until our own coffees went cold. And I wonder, what if I’d never left? What would my life be like now if I’d stayed? Can I ever come back?

I will always live with this tension, the pull of this place, the pull of my other home.

Ireland.

Canada.

I’m not sure where I will end up, whether I will ever move back to Ireland, if it would be the right choice, or if I will stay put for the million reasons I can drum up in a pinch. I dream of living in so many places, and I fear never living in any of them.

But I think no matter where I am, I will always feel torn, I will always wonder about this place, the place of my dreams, this quiet, tucked away corner at the Western tip of Ireland.

Everything

You may recall

in years to come

this feeling, this place –

home, yes,

(we all think of home)

but I mean home right now,

today;

at some vague, future time

something like these sweet smells,

brandy-soaked fruit (Christmas cakes)

and the lingering memory of breakfast’s bacon,

might bring you back to now,

you might hear the comforting melancholy

of winter jazz playing quietly on a radio,

and recall the way the winter sun infused everything

as it slanted through a filter of snow-clouds and bare branches,

you might feel the deep warmth of home,

of us, here, together.

*

Oh, right now

I know it’s just another day

a regular, lazy Sunday

a day of idle movies

of someone somewhere cooking –

peripheral,

hardly worth noting.

*

But if ever you ask me then

whether I remember now,

I will smile slightly and say

I remember, and

it was everything.

Autumn commute (but also, Ireland II.)

Even at this early hour, the deep, jewel-blue of evening is already fading to night’s darker hues beyond the buildings. Still in the city’s small heart, though, the sky glows and refracts between windows, brightened by the lights from inside, the street-lamps outside.

There is a quickening, an energy as commuters move away from the centre, a flow that pulls us all along for a block or two until the shift to calm that comes with the transition to neighbourhoods.

Then it is dark, night descends quickly, a blanket sprinkled with the twinkling of porch lights. The cold wind refreshes, blows nostalgia at me through a small park; the scent of fallen leaves.

This is home. It is familiar. Canadian.

I love this about where I live – the familiarity, the nostalgia, the ease of moving around here, of knowing what to expect, season after season.

And yet, the other half of my heart continues to tug me, as it always has, toward Ireland.

Ireland I.

It was momentous for me – going back. In the months and weeks leading up to the trip, I had been so busy with work and life that I hadn’t really considered how it would feel to be there again. At some point, I had actually thought I didn’t want to go, though I suspect now that was some form of self-preservation. Steeling myself against the onslaught of emotion.

It wasn’t until we were on the plane that I allowed the excitement and anticipation and meaning of it all to cascade over me. I smiled, my heart tripped over itself, my eyes filled with tears.

And now, on the other side, it is all just a memory. Ephemeral. Wisps of not-quite-real.

*

We all have our personal myths, our stories that make up who we are, gathered and guarded, told and re-told to ourselves, to anyone who might listen.

Mine has always been Ireland.

First it was Ireland The Dream. That began when, at the age of 2, I had the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem as my imaginary friends. This dream followed me through school – my room a deep green and adorned with a map of Ireland – and an undergraduate degree in Celtic Studies, when I was also President of the university’s Celtic Society.

Next, I moved to Ireland and my myth grew and spread. I was the one who stayed. The one who moved there.

I never wanted to leave. It was a whim, really. I followed a boy back from Ireland to Canada. At first, I pined for my memories, my life there, my dream. My pining turned to bitterness when the relationship fell apart. I gave up all thoughts of going back.

Until this year. It was my mother’s 75th birthday and I suggested we do a trip to mark the 20th anniversary of the first time we had gone, bringing my son along on the adventure.

*

And so there I was. On the plane. The full significance of it all just dawning.