I’ve been down in both places, especially in February, when the air is bone-crackingly cold and I feel sure that spring won’t appear until May. But more things are untouched up there, in rurality. Ancient, enduring particles — whatever makes the wine taste the way it does, claylike and rosy — work their way into my skin. Within a summer day my skin is populated with freckles. I don’t look, or feel, down and out the way I can here, in the city, veins screaming with caffeine and skin sapped of vitamin D. In summer, the city’s looming buildings guard me against the sun.
Up there we drink domestic beer and overly sweet wine in liter-sized bottles, not as crass as Carlo Rossi, but close. It just doesn’t matter, flavor and “notes.” We are too stimulated by other things to care.
Last summer, we tried to find the swimming hole known as Three Pools, but failed, because there were too many trees everywhere, too many identical dirt roads with identically angulated bends.
Here, we try to participate in a cultural event and get turned away because there is already a thousand-person waiting list for the event. Lines snake around entire blocks. It’s fun in theory.
There, my father jokes, who would want to set foot in The Anvil, one of the few bars in town, but most days I would far rather set foot in the Anvil than a packed place full of too-perfect people down here, where Ray-Bans persist, shirt armholes sagging to reveal most of a bra, men seemingly dressed for a photoshoot on a sailboat. Clothes usually are not “saying things” up there. Just mouths are saying things — usually nice things. Even in the dead of winter. Sentences seem to contain trills, high notes in the middle of sentences to convey enthusiasm, in case enthusiasm was not already picked up in the words themselves.
As children, finding the mouth of the river that fed into Three Pools was easy. It wasn’t the mouth of the river so much as a rushing dam. We started there and slid down the river on inner tubes. The hardest part of our day was trying not to get caught on rocks early on in the glide down, when the tide was still coming in. Someone else took care of us: found the spot, drove us there, didn’t ever seem to mind spending their days this way, collecting us after an hour at the “bottom” — a couple of miles downstream, that is — of the river. Now we’re old enough to take care of ourselves — old enough to bear children. But we can’t seem to find Three Pools.
The previous generations of my family built boats and cottages with their bare hands. The least I can do, I think, if I can’t live up to the resilience and resourcefulness of my forebears, is to hold fast to their deeds, to eventually claim ownership of some of the things that were once theirs, not pass them on to faceless non-relatives in exchange for slippery money. In the meantime, in the crux of this irresponsible period between youth and not-youth, I meditate every afternoon for a minute or so on the image of my grandfather sitting in his chair by the east-facing window of his living room, reading or trying to read. He is still here. I’m awestruck by his endurance.
When he was first trying to make it decades ago in one small town, then another in a neighboring province, once or twice my grandfather had to take out significant loans from the bank and hope that, by selling some of his work, he could pay it all back by the end of the year. What is the modern-day equivalent of this? Citibank takes the interest it collects on my credit card debt, which I have no hope of paying back by the end of the year, partly because I live in New York City, and uses it to finance incessant credit card offers to me and millions of others — and a bike share program in New York City, among other things. That bike share program is an odd but also happy phenomenon. After work one night I watch a financial district type balancing on one pedal of a Citi Bike in work shirt, suit pants and Adidas sneakers, rolling slowly down the sidewalk, eventually hoisting one leg over to the opposite pedal. He looked so carefree, so pleased with his Citi Bike membership. But just the name “Citi Bike” seems like a DeLillo or Wallace invention come to life. This would never happen in Canada, I feel certain.
I try to live by a simpler code down here, in a place where seemingly nothing is simple except the spending of money. I do the same every day for the same amount of time. The longer I immerse myself in this routine, the less I care about what everyone else is doing — the millions of other elses — the less confused I become about the things I care about and the things that interest me. I still wish it was possible to not know what anyone but a select few people in this world were up to in their creative lives at any given point, but I have found it’s possible to un-know much of what is uselessly knowable if you make an effort.
The world that my great-grandparents and grandparents created and fostered in Canada is a modestly sized capsule of tranquility and assurance. It’s a place where it feels right to only know and care about a handful of things on any given day. You can walk from one side of their dwelling to the other in under ten seconds. I say that the ocean will sooner swallow all the dwellings on this beach whole than we’ll pass ours off to someone else, but having no money to speak of, I have no real way of guaranteeing this. And the likelihood of the ocean toppling the community seems to have increased over the past decade or so. Still, it all endures, as my grandfather endures.
If there is one way to differentiate there and here — hot, smelly, exuberant city vs. small valley town by the sea — it has to do with seriousness. The city is serious; the town is unserious. Or rather, its people are each. Exuberance can be exhausting, as it turns out, and tranquility can be life-giving. Life in New York City tends to be memoiristic; in Canada life faces outward. My mom likes to remind (or maybe warn) me that I only appreciate the one in contrast to the other — that I couldn’t survive on just one. I won’t deny that. My own assurance, that quality my grandparents seemed so easily to trade in, was probably created in Canada: they inspired and encouraged me more than anyone. But now New York seems to be the only thing that keeps the assurance alive. The city stands on the sidelines, cheering me on. Without it I tend to forget what I’m trying to gain. That I’m trying to gain anything. Up there, the purpose of my life is the sea, the sun and other people, and while I’m there I wish, as most of us do, that this was all life was about, all the time, everywhere. But in the back of my mind I hear a cab honking.
In both places I conceal my fears inside books. There, I try to remember each remarkable detail of each day and find a way to replicate the appreciation when I come back here, to the futuristic upside-down place called home. As the author Rebecca Lee has written, New York doesn’t know what you want so it tries to give you everything. I keep that personification of the city foremost in my mind now. The city is a doting parent trying to placate a colicky child. I want to say that if you don’t want “it all,” there is no point to being here. It is so expensive that we seem to be paying to have “it all.” But I think what we’re paying for is just for the exuberance to get under our skin and keep us running. The city is the place where my inspiration, planted long ago and elsewhere, gets spun into work, into something usable.