Coming full circle

And the seasons, they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came

And go round and round and round in the circle game
— Joni Mitchell

Do you ever circle back to the places of your past?

Sometimes I do it on purpose. Sometimes it happens by accident.

The first major magazine story I sold, to a Buffalo newspaper when I was a college sophomore, was about radon gas leaks in a town near Toronto, from the decayed radium left over from watchmaking and its luminous dials.

Now my Dad lives there and it’s where I come to visit for a respite from writing for a living; that first story, insanely complicated and one for which I missed a lot of classes, created a career still sustaining me, one now allows me — thanks to laptop and wi-fi — to work from anywhere.

Like, back where I started.

I go back to my old Toronto high school sometimes to lecture about journalism and book-writing. I arrived there halfway through Grade 10, pimply and completely ill at ease around boys after years of all-girl schools and summer camps. It was a very rough few years of being daily bullied by a small group of boys before, finally, I was accepted and welcome — and even chosen as prom queen at our senior prom.

So when I go back now, as a published writer, it’s with relief and pride. I spoke there on Monday. The list in the photo is of Ontario Scholars the year I graduated; you needed an 80 average.

As I was climbing the stairs to give my lecture, I passed a man I couldn’t believe still roamed those halls. “Nick! You cannot still be alive!” I said. (He’s British, devilish and always let us call him Nick.) “I’m 68,” he said proudly. (He was then an English teacher, now a part-time athletic coach.) What a hoot to run into him!

On the weekend I went for drinks to the rooftop bar of the Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking the University of Toronto campus, still one of the city’s most elegant and intimate spots for a cocktail. I’ve been savoring it since I skipped my U of T classes 30 years ago to have a drink there. I went to meet an old summer camp friend, a woman I hadn’t seen since we were 16 and who found me (of course!) on Facebook.

I took the ferry across Toronto harbor to Centre Island to attend service at the tiny church where I was married last fall. I love the ferry and its feeling of freedom, the very best way to spend $7 I can imagine. The island, lush and green in late fall sunshine, is so lovely, its gardens carefully manicured, swans and ducks and geese flapping by. I’ve been going to the Islands since I was little. They’re sometimes what I miss most about the city — wild, beautiful, unchanged.

It was odd but very pleasant to walk the paths alone where I last walked as a newlywed. (The husband is home working.)

Our wedding church, St. Andrew by The Lake.

On this visit north, I’m enjoying sitting in my father’s house, surrounded by the art and objects I’ve known since early childhood. They’re images I’ve known and loved for a long time; in a life with plenty of upheaval, (a life lived in five countries, divorce, job losses), things and places that remain fixed and lovely are securisant. They soothe me.

It also feels good to finally have an open home to return to. There were many long, painful decades when I wasn’t very welcome. His second family took precedence and didn’t like me much.

As I drove around Toronto the past few days I’ve passed so much of my past — the white brick house I lived in as a teenager, the pool where I first worked when I was 15, my first apartment building, the Victorian red brick house where my writing career began at the college newspaper.

I like revisiting my past, the good bits anyway. It comforts me.

How about you?

17 thoughts on “Coming full circle

  1. Sounds like a wonderful time away. Three years ago, my husband and I took the entire family back to my childhood home, a small town down on the East Coast of New Zealand. Funnily enough, my husband’s family is from there, so we spent some time with his uncles and aunt and their families. I thoroughly enjoyed showing my children my old house; the schools I went to; the beach near where we lived which was the setting for the movie “Whale Rider” and the primary school I attended. The beach was the same, but the school looked different. Much smaller. Much brighter. And I’d completely forgotten there was a swimming pool. It was the same, but different. Almost like revisiting a dream I’d once had.

      1. It was a wonderful place to grow up. Seeing Whale Rider was like going home 🙂 I am a passionate New Zealander and do think it is one of the most beautiful places in the world to live. If you haven’t seen it, you might also enjoy “Boy” – that was a real blast from the ’80s past, also set on the East Coast.

      2. It is! I was only there for 2 weeks (I think, in Auckland and the Coromandel. I loved every minute I spent there and am eager to come back and see much more.

        Thanks for the movie tip. Will def. seek it out!

  2. Several years ago, my mother-in-law moved to the small Ontario town where I lived from ages 3 to 9. Going there to visit her gave me the opportunity to find my old piano teacher, my best friend from kindergarten, the woman for whom I’d been a flower-girl when I was 4, and my best-friend from church who was a “kindred spirit”, in the words of another famous Canadian. I saw the home where I had lived and the woods where I had played. While it was lovely to touch base with so many, it was with my “kindred spirit” that I have remained in contact. All because of going home.

  3. How neat that you found your kindred spirit and reconnected with her. When I went back for my 20th high school reunion (1995) I re-found my best friend, now living in the countryside north of Toronto, and we’ve been in touch since. I’m going to her house for dinner Friday.

    There’s something really powerful in re-visiting one’s past. As our lady in NZ says, it can feel like revisiting a dream.

  4. what a cute little church! Yes, revisiting your past, unearthing memories lain dormant, is definitely a good thing. Necessary, perhaps? Somehow solidifies your sense of self if your life, like that of many of us is constant change, and flux.

    1. That church is so special! The day we married, at 5pm, the wood had warmed during the day, and the smell of sun-warmed wood (I went to camp for many years) was so powerful and emotional for me, far more than some grander stone building. It is set in parkland, with water around it. I realized that I feel most happy when in/around nature, so its setting calms me. The minister is also a very cool guy so the entire experience was lovely.

      I think that grounding is helpful. We do move around so much that we can forget the places and people that shaped us.

  5. My husband and I visited Toronto a few years ago – staying for a week near Kensington Market – we still talk about our trip on the ferry over to the Islands and returning to eat hotdogs from a cart near the pier – we really loved Toronto!

  6. I almost had one of those hot dogs on Sunday! I’m so glad you made the time for that trip. It is something a lot of tourists overlook and it’s such a special place — with amazing views of the city, as you know.

  7. Lovely. When I think of my childhood, it isn’t usually the highlights that come to mind. But every summer, I take Flower Child to the beach of my childhood. It isn’t peaceful or pristine, but there’s something about the place that holds the good bits, the sensory memories…

  8. We’re about to return to the past in the form of our first married home in Papua New Guinea. It will have changed, a lot,but will be interesting to see. As to my original home and suburb, I mainly just want to run away when I visit, yet I didn’t think it was that bad back then!

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