Tonight, in the car, riding back from Vesuvius Beach with my family, I realized my brother in law listens almost exclusively to 100.3 The Q, The Island’s Rock….which means my nieces can sing the Thrifty Foods jingle on command (The smile’s in the bag for you….at Thrifty Foods!). These same nieces, along with their big teenage American cousin, spent an hour at the beach tonight pushing lumber mill driftwood logs into the water and then wading out to play on the barely buoyant wood, as the sun went down over the perfectly smooth Salish Sea. These kids are literally living the childhood my sister and I shared, a very specific Pacific Northwest existence, in the magical days of summer when the sun just never seems to go down. My sister has somehow managed to move her children back and then give them a way to create memories similar to our best recollections of childhood.
My gratitude for being here, so close to home, is off the scale. I’m so glad my sister actually did decide to move back here. After all, I’ve been Off Island since 1998. That’s more than half my lifetime out in the Wider World. And yet, I still come back consistently to the Salish Sea, and feel something in me release every time I do so. I felt myself breathe more when I drove out to the ferry at Tsawassen today, like something around my heart had loosened a bit. I am out there taking on the world and all its uncertainties every single day, but when I get back to Victoria or the Gulf Islands or the Lower Mainland, it’s still the place I’ve always known. The certainty of being able to come home to BC because my family re-settled out here resonates deeply with me, and the relief of getting here is indescribable.
Even after almost eighteen years in L.A. and NYC, I still respond with this flood of relief when I get to the Pacific Northwest every year. One year, I burst into tears seeing the metal salmon set in the floor of Seattle-Tacoma airport, because I was back in a region where people understand the importance of a salmon stream. This year, I started crying with joy and sheer relief when I got to the end of the Tsawassen causeway and pulled into the ferry lane, knowing I was going to make it onto the next sailing and that I had finally almost completed my journey back to an island.
It isn’t as if I’m fleeing my existence in NYC or Philadelphia exactly though. It’s more that somebody told me this is the place where everything’s better and everything’s safe. When I get to the Northwest, I feel like I have a respite from the fears I have living in the wider world. My son and I are here, safe and loved, in a place I know by heart. Being here means I can put down the mental defenses I have to keep up every day to survive in the Wider World, and just lean into a place where everything feels familiar and comfortable. I’m so grateful to my sister that we get to come back to the home she’s created out here and that my son and nieces are able to experience the best parts of our childhood as a result.
In 2010, the Canadian and US governments made a decision to recognize the “Salish Sea”. This is the network of waterways that meander from the northern end of Vancouver Island to the southern end of Puget Sound. It includes the Strait of Juan Fuca between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula as well as the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland.
I am from a city at the heart of the Salish Sea. Growing up, I thought that Victoria would never change. I thought even Vancouver was reaching the apogee of its change when I left in 2004. Now, I have to say that the cities on its shores are the places I used to know by heart. Not because those maps and vistas and landmarks have faded out of my heart, but because those places have changed. Victoria has moved into its future, and has become a real Canadian city instead of the lost British colony it was for so long. Vancouver has become even glassier and more unattainable for my generation to stay in.
I am growing used to change in my homeland. I am adapting to the idea that these places cannot stay the same as they were in my childhood. And I have never lamented change on the Island so much as I regret that I am home so rarely as to be surprised by it. Even changes a decade old are new to me, like the SkyTrain extensions or the Olympic Village in Vancouver. Vancouver Island has changed less than the Lowe Mainland, as it is is made up of a series of towns built on exploitation of natural resources and indigenous peoples in the 1980s and 1990s. As the exploitation subsides and those industries run out, the Island will change. As Vancouver continues to be more and more expensive and more difficult to live in, more of my peers will take their families over the Straits, and the Island will change.
In order to adapt to change in British Columbia though, I have to actually see it. My family were supposed to be in Victoria a few weeks ago, together. My sister, mother and I were supposed to be bringing everyone to our home. We were supposed to stay four days in our old neighborhood in Victoria, followed by four days in Parksville and one in Vancouver. We wanted to revisit the magical time we had with Ben and his cousins last summer on the shores of the Salish Sea.
Obviously, this trip did not happen for a myriad of COVID-19 related reasons, not least of which was that we did not want to risk bringing COVID-19 onto Vancouver Island. We canceled all the flights and hotels ages ago, accepted the loss as a minimal event in the upheaval of April, and moved on. It would take a lot of entitlement to complain about not going on vacation, especially in the wake of the disaster and mass death that is the spread of the coronavirus. To complain about my inability to travel to a high-end hotel would be a whole new level of self-centered. The only appropriate reason to publicly lament a lost vacation would be to express regret at not being able to spend tourist dollars in an economy that depends on that income.
“Disappointed,” however, is how I might have expressed the sentiment felt at the loss of a trip to any place but BC. “Grief” feels closer, even if it is “grief lite”. It’s sadness, it’s a sort of longing, it’s homesickness. We are lucky in that we are not grieving a loved one, like so many families this year, and we are only grieving the loss of time with our loved ones. It feels like the culmination and the apex of all the longing I’ve had to just be with my family during COVID is represented in the loss of this trip to BC. We had hoped to be together in the place where we are all most at home, where my sister and I are most ourselves, in the place we know by heart. We were supposed to be together, on the shores of the Salish Sea, the place where we scattered our father’s ashes. We were supposed to there with our mother, our husbands and our children, connected to the islands we know by heart.
Instead, we are still separated, and still unable to say when we will be able to return to British Columbia. I am here in Toronto, back in Canada, but still in self-isolation for one more week until Ben and I can actually hug our people. We are still not able to be with our family, and can only wave at them when they kindly stop off to bring us food or games or books to make the quarantine more bearable.
It still feels a little safer here than in the United States, knowing I am home, knowing I am back in a country that places a higher premium on the common good than on demonstrating individual liberties through an absolute lack of compassion. Being in Canada, especially since 2016, always makes me feel at ease, as I slip back into the emotional pajamas of the culture I was raised in. I know Canada isn’t the kind, accepting, cultural mosaic that I always wanted to believe it was, but it’s a kinder, more accepting, and more welcoming place for diversity than the United States. That’s a low bar, but it’s still always comforting to be in Canada.
Right now though, I would give almost anything to be home, in British Columbia, on the shores of the Salish Sea, just to have the solace of being in the place I love the most in all the world, at a time when the world is at its worst. I have never regretted my decision to leave, and to go out into the world, because I belong in a much wider world than the cities of the Salish Sea. I still miss my home though, every day, and losing my time there to COVID-19 has amplified homesickness into a sense of loss that is hard to move past.
Add it to the list, I suppose, the list of the hundreds of cuts that bleed my emotional strength every day. Compared to the fear for my neighbors and for New York City, this should be a minor concern, a small loss. And yet, at a time when every emotional impact lands in a different way, when the world wears on each of us in disparate, yet consistently exhausting ways, I grieve for that lost week on the shores of the Salish Sea in a way that is greater than the loss itself. I physically feel the loss at a higher intensity than I typically feel the low level of homesickness that has dogged me at every step of my journey in the States.
I do not have a path that takes me back to any of the Salish Sea cities, nor do I intend to create one. I only hope that the world rights itself soon, and the movement I took for granted, the roads and ferries back to my homeland, is restored to me and my family.