There are a few people I always want to find again, to know how their lives turned out and if they’re happy and where they live and if they had kids or grandkids.
But two of them have — bizarrely in an age of media saturation — no digital footprints at all. One is a physician, so I guess I could track her down through a medical society but the other…no idea.
The former is someone I knew from our shared years at a Toronto boarding school, where we were both nerdy, although she was much more serious and quiet than I. The latter is a man I knew (and had a huge crush on) through high school, also in Toronto, who was extremely talented as an artist. We were, for a few years, close friends, but lost touch when we graduated.
A third person is a former journalism colleague who became a crusading lawyer, but, to my shock and dismay when I last searched for him on-line, had died prematurely.
They’re like ghosts for me, visions from my childhood, adolescence and 20s I’d like to reconnect with now.
Thanks to social media, some people I’d lost touch with have found me again and reconnected, like a childhood best friend and her two brothers, the eldest of whom took me to my first formal dance — where my cool vintage blue crochet dress split right down the back when the zipper broke halfway through the evening. He was a perfect gentleman and loaned me his jacket. But it was not the elegant impression I’d hoped to leave on him.
One of the reasons I hope to find some people from my past, selfishly, is also to reconnect with our shared memories, those unique to us. And, as someone not close to my family, my friends really are much more the repository of my memories. Too often, they know me much better than my own mother, (whose care I left at 14, for good) and father, (whose care I left at 19, for good.) I have 3 step-siblings, but we never lived together and are not close.
Half my life was spent in Canada and the second half in the United States, making me more eager to seek out those who “knew me when” — when I was young(er) and with whom I share specific memories no American has or could understand.
In London this past summer I met up again with a man I’d traveled with in Spain decades ago for two weeks after we met on a train station platform there. On that journey, I was 22, alone for four months moving across Europe, and already weary of fending off male advances.
I craved companionship and, bluntly, a male foil to keep the rest at bay.
He was smart, funny, good company. He was also handsome, with brilliant blue eyes, a student at Cambridge four years my junior. Much later he became a friend on Facebook, albeit one who never posted anything.
He asked me to go to lunch on this London visit, and I agreed, both curious and a little nervous; we’re both happily married so I knew this was innocent.
Like me, he is long partnered, had traveled widely and had no children.
We went to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum, (which we loved), and our afternoon was easy and comfortable and as though no time at all had passed since we’d seen one another.
It was lovely.
I’m glad we found one another again.
Do you seek out people from your past with whom you’ve lost touch?
The world is such a noisy place. Loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete, and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Strive for excellence. Go big or go home. Have a huge impact in the world. Make your life count.
But what if I just don’t have it in me. What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted? Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?
What if I never really amount to anything when I grow up—beyond mom and sister and wife? But these people in my primary circle of impact know they are loved and I would choose them again, given the choice. Can this be enough?
What if I never build an orphanage in Africa but send bags of groceries to people here and there and support a couple of kids through sponsorship? What if I just offer the small gifts I have to the world and let that be enough?
It was a friend of mine, someone I met in freshman English class at University of Toronto decades ago, who posted it on her Facebook page.
She is often wearied by the insane pace others have set for themselves and keep setting.
A dear friend sent me an e-card for Christmas, filled with birds and flowers and music.
Her message, typically feisty, ended with: “And in 2017 we fight!”
An avowed, life-long progressive — and one of the smartest science writers I know (here’s a link to her terrific book, “Fevered” , about climate change and its effects on health, globally) — she’s full of piss and vinegar as I think we all should be in 2017, and for the next four years.
There has been a shocking and dis-spiriting increase in hate crimes, physical attacks and appalling verbal abuse in the past few months, both in Britain post-Brexit and in the United States, after the election of a President who has vilified women, Muslims, Mexicans and many others.
By “fight” I don’t mean fisticuffs.
I don’t mean screaming abuse back at someone who’s clearly got boundary issues.
Nor do I mean seeking some shouty, nasty draaaaama, if that can be avoided.
But I do mean — stiffen your spine, no matter how scared you are of what might happen if you do. (Clearly, not if you live in an abusive situation, where your life and that of others is at risk.)
In the past month, after long deliberation and, yes, fearful of the consequences, I finally stood up and fought for myself in three difficult and enervating situations, one within my family (I wrote a long letter, snail mailed); one within my parish (ditto) and one with a client whose disregard for basic courtesy (and abysmal pay) were grim beyond words.
It takes guts to tell someone, (who can just blow you off completely): “Enough!”
It takes trust in your own judgment of what you truly most need.
It also means preparing for the potential consequences, the most frightening bit: loss of income, loss of affection, affiliation, respect, losing your welcome within a community.
But the costs of not fighting for what you know is right can be crippling to your mental, emotional and physical health.
To your self-esteem and confidence.
So, eventually, it must be done.
Ask for help before you do it, from a friend, a therapist, a loving partner, to steady your nerves and make sure you’re not about to self-immolate.
But we’re also living in strange and challenging times, politically.
So, it’s also time to go fight the good fight for social justice and economic progress that doesn’t , once more, simply re-enrich the already wealthy; 95 percent of Americans, according to a recent New York Times report, have seen no rise in their income in seven years.
If all we do is whinge and cringe, nothing will change.
Write to your elected representatives.
Work hard – if you live in the U.S. — to get some Democrats elected in the mid-term elections, only two years away.
Donate your time, energy or money to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and other groups working daily to protect our rights, bodily and civil.
Write letters to the editor, in print; women, especially! Most of those appearing these days are written by men.
On-line, leave civil, smart comments.
If you’re a writer, send out some op-eds, essays and opinion pieces or reported stories to keep issues front and center.
If you see someone being verbally abused in a public setting, stand beside them to signal that you’re an ally. Speak calmly and quietly to them. Do not ignore cruelty; passivity signals assent.
It’s not the time to shrug and look away.
It’s not the time to say “Not my problem.”
It’s not the time to just soak up fake news and comforting lies.
It’s not the time to ignore the news because “it’s too depressing.” It’s our world.
There is never a “time and place” for cruelty. By staying silent, you robbed the little girl of the acknowledgment and the apology to which she was entitled. And you deprived the boy of learning the consequences of nasty behavior. He may not understand how mean he was. But your inaction ensured that his ignorance persists.
The phone rang this morning at 8:30, waking me, waking my husband who got home at 4:30 a.m. after editing photos all night for abcnews.com.
“Come home!” said the caller, a friend of more than three decades, a woman slightly older than we are, who lives in my hometown of Toronto.
The emails started soon after that, from friends in Ontario and British Columbia — and New Jersey and California and many other places asking me…
What just happened?
I stayed up last night only until 12:20 before retreating to bed, as it was already pretty obvious by 10:00 p.m. that Hillary Clinton was going to lose. All day long, there were line-ups at the Rochester, NY grave of Susan B. Anthony, who fought for women’s right to vote, piling flowers at her gravestone and covering it with “I Voted” stickers.
A secret, private Facebook group of millions of men and women, Pantsuit Nation, had sprung up to talk to one another candidly, movingly, about why this mattered so much to all of us; Sec. Clinton even alluded to it in her concession speech.
I watched it live, and , finally, wept.
For every young girl and woman who had spent the day in dizzy, glorious euphoria at voting, finally!, for a woman, her loss was a bitter, bitter defeat.
Yes, of course, someone had to lose.
But watching someone as supremely qualified for the job as she to a man with no political experience?
The idea of a woman at the helm of state was clearly deeply repugnant to many voters, a source, no doubt, of some amusement to those in Britain, Canada, Argentina, Iceland, Germany and many other states and nations with elected female leaders.
Fear of economic chaos and further job loss or stagnation. Fear of the “other” — the woman in hijab or the man with a heavy accent, the child who had to swim into a boat to be rescued in the Mediterranean or fleeing the bombs that killed the rest of her family.
Fear of the unknown, as if anyone sitting in the Oval Office can, magically, make it all better.
The Presidency isn’t a game for amateurs
The President has access to nuclear codes.
The President can enact or veto legislation that affects millions.
The President is the face, literally and figuratively, of the United States; to have someone in the Oval Office soon who has assaulted women (and boasted about it), has lied to and cheated business contacts and who has never borne the tremendous responsibility of holding elected office?
This is the highest office in the land.
It is the greatest honor to be chosen to speak on behalf of all Americans; I’ve stood in the Oval Office, while Bill Clinton was in office as we knew someone who would allow Jose and I a few moments there.
It is, for many people, a sacred space.
And the person who sits behind that wooden desk? Their moral character matters, and deeply.
It is our job, and that of our bosses and colleagues and publishers, whether of digital, print or broadcast, to know what the hell is going on out there.
Not just what out friends say or what academics with tenure or at think tanks opine, or what so-certain pollsters tell us.
We would only have known some of this by leaving our safe, cozy, warm newsrooms and venturing into places that are physically, emotionally, intellectually and politically deeply uncomfortable for some of us.
My country of origin isn’t just a place to flee to and nor should it be; those with the best shot will be younger than 45, have a job offer in hand and speak fluent English, (and ideally some French as well.)
Irritated even then, I wrote this Salon column back in March when Trump was only starting to look like a more serious threat. (I was born and raised in Canada, and lived there to the age of 30):
If the growing prospect of President Trump scares the shit out of you, Canada might be looking like a nice cozy bolthole right about now. But it’s not just a kinder, gentler U.S. with better hockey and beer.
Hey, it’s close, civilized, a quick flight from the Northeast. They speak English.
But it really is a foreign country.
A nation almost 100 years younger than the U.S., Confederation was in 1867, creating the first four provinces. For all its vaunted socially liberal policies, it’s also a country with its own history of submission and domination – English over French, the 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children forced for decades to attend brutal residential schools, the unresolved murders of 1,200 indigenous women, prompting the recent allocation of $100 million by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to investigate and address the issue.
While Canada recently welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, don’t be too quick to assume there’s an equal welcome for thousands of panicked Americans eager to flee a political scene they find abhorrent.
Despite my pride in my new citizenship, I’m an immigrant first. If I were to wake up one morning forgetting that, by the end of the day I’d surely meet someone who, upon hearing my name or my accent, would say to me, kindly or unkindly, “Where are you from?” to which I might respond with stories about the beauties and complexities of my homeland. Then I’d carry on working toward the goals that brought me here.
In this pursuit, I share a bond with millions of my fellow immigrants — regardless of whether we’re naturalized citizens, green-card holders, visa holders or undocumented; regardless of our race, culture or religion. We all arrived here bearing dreams.
In the upcoming U.S. election, even after decades living here, I won’t be voting. I have a “green card”, am a “resident alien” and still call myself an ex-patriate, even though I’m really more of an immigrant.
Partly, it’s a language issue.
“Immigrant” often seems to connote someone fleeing, desperate, as many are, for a safe haven, a fresh start, place to live without fear of government repression, criminal gang warfare, religious intolerance.
For too many Americans, it also connotes “illegal”.
For many of us, though, it’s a place to spread our wings, to see how, if and how well we fit into this enormous place.
When I crossed that border as a resident-to-be, I felt like a raindrop hitting an ocean.
Could I ever possibly make something of myself here?
I came to the U.S. in 1989, able to do so legally because my mother was born in New York, and thanks to her citizenship, I was allowed access to a green card. (I was born in Vancouver, Canada, as was my father.)
This election cycle has, I think for many of us who left another country, been a difficult and exhausting one. It has for many Americans!
But for those of us who chose the U.S., filled with hope (however naive) that it would offer us a better life…it’s often been a frightening and depressing time.
The 2008 bank crisis was a disaster. Three recessions in 20 years has meant depressed earnings and savings for many of us.
Now, a campaign so ugly and so bitter and so divisive that even my deeply patriotic American husband has been wondering if we should move back to Canada.
I chose the U.S. for several reasons:
— half of my family are American, and successful in business, academia and the diplomatic corps. I wanted to better understand them and how they prospered. Who were they?
— Canadians grow up inundated by American media and politics; something like 85 percent of the publications on our shelves are created by the U.S.
— Canadians can be deeply risk-averse, timid in business and social life. I was tired of that.
— A country of 35 million people is small, and offers limited work opportunities.
And, like everyone who leaves their homeland for a new one, I carried many dreams with me.
I’ve achieved some of them: (home ownership, a happy marriage, a successful career as a writer, some recognition in my highly competitive field.)
I don’t ever regret choosing the United States over Canada. I’ve been lucky enough to retain deep friendships at home (I still call it that!) and we go north about once or twice a year as well.
But, after so many years here, I also feel a deep loyalty to so many progressive Americans’ best hopes — for social justice, for racial equality, for decently-paid work for everyone.
Like millions of others, I want the best for this place.
It’s a wonder, really, that so many of us are able to survive, even thrive!
As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto I studied Spanish and, for a while, volunteered to do interpreting work with Chilean refugees who came to Toronto fleeing the repression, abduction and torture of the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
As some of you know, it’s exhausting to confide your worst moments ever to a total stranger, to relive them over and over to prove how much you’ve suffered. For a man of Latino heritage, having to do so to a young Canadian girl, me, must have been so difficult.
I won’t share here what they told me, but it was terrifying and I will never forget it, no matter how much I’d like to.
I vividly recall my first protest. Various organizations and individuals came together in outrage over a subpar sentencing recommendation for a convicted rapist. Armed with a sign demanding our justice system take rape seriously, I marched in front of the court alongside veteran activists, and every time I tried to join in the chants (“If you do the crime, you must do the time!”), I choked up.
That lump in my throat wasn’t borne out of sadness, but from an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and pride. I was incredibly proud to be part of a movement that dedicated itself to protecting and promoting women’s rights, one that fearlessly advocated for sexual assault victims.
Feeling of awe aside, I remained unconvinced of what end result, if any, our action would have that day. As it turns out, our protest and an online petition made a difference; the judge handed down the maximum sentence.
That triumph—my first real taste of feminist activism—taught me a powerful lesson I’ll never forget: that speaking up can make a tangible difference. And not just in one’s own healing journey, but in the lives of others. I loved playing a part, no matter how small, in that process.
It’s a perpetual dilemma when, if and how much to reveal to someone new to you, to peel back the onion and trust them with something deeply difficult.
I had two friends who were abused as young women, one by a relative, who took many years to finally share that with me. One always wore layers and layers of clothing and scarves, and I wondered why.
Then I knew and understood.
Only when I took the chance, here, and blogged about dealing with my mother’s mental illness did another person who reads Broadside open up about her own experiences with it, sparking a deeper intimacy and growing friendship as a result of taking that risk.
I’m now reading a small, slim book by a man who knows a great deal about survival — Sebastian Junger. The book is Tribe, and he examines the social dislocation so many of us now feel in an era of constant “connection” but often very shallow links to others.
What he focuses on is how we all float around, working, marrying, (or not), having children (or not), but how some of us long, very deeply, for a profound sense of belonging.
He writes of a young woman who lived through the war in Bosnia and who misses the powerful camaraderie it produced then.
Junger’s book talks about how a true tribe requires some sort of initiation, and a very deep sense of shared values.
For decades, journalism, has been the tribe I’ve been proud to join and belong to.
No matter how much some people viciously deride “the media” and call us “presstitutes” I’m still happy this has been my choice.
I chose Tarrytown on a recon trip for some of these reasons: it’s very diverse for a suburban New York town; its gorgeous location; its history and architecture and scale; easy access to Manhattan (40 minutes by car or train.)
It’s now become home to all the hipsters fleeing crazy-expensive Brooklyn!
I grew up and spent 25 years in Toronto, a large city that often makes lists of best places to live.
I didn’t hate Toronto, and usually return once or twice a year to see old friends there, but it has many ugly areas, a brutally expensive cost of housing, (and very poor quality below $1m), for purchase, crappy quality rentals and a long, grim winter.
More than anything, it held a limited set of professional opportunities — I know people still in the same jobs or workplace as when I left, decades ago.
As we hope to retire in a few years, deciding where to live and why becomes more and more a conscious decision, not just dominated by the proximity to enough decent jobs in our field.
I’ve long planned to spend some of that time living in France, some in the U.S. and some in Canada, with a lot of travel, as long as our health and finances allow.
The United States Capitol. Policies and laws enacted here affect everyone, rarely equally.
There’s an expression I hear a lot in the U.S. — to put your thumb on the scale — i.e. to tilt a result in your favor.
I live near New York City, in a county rife with stunning wealth, (and the not-so-wealthy!) so we have a front-row seat to this constant jockeying for power.
I believe in its opposite — the level playing field.
As some of us watch the Olympics this week, fair competition is front and center.
The Muslim-American fencer Ibithaj Muhammad I just blogged about got to Rio thanks to a playing field, (in this case, piste!), leveled by the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a 15-year-old non-profit in New York City founded by a former bronze medalist who is African-American. The program has worked with 4,000 lower-income children, offering them opportunities to learn this elegant, historic and fantastic sport, and one all too often seen as impossibly elitist.
Then there’s this. From an explainer in The Economist:
A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report into Russian doping by a Canadian lawyer, Richard McLaren, was published only on July 18th—18 days before the opening ceremony. Furthermore, the contents of Mr McLaren’s report were appalling. Beginning in 2011 the Russian ministry of sport set up a comprehensive programme to circumvent anti-doping laws. It reported false negatives to WADA, created a steroid cocktail to boost performance (the name it was given, “Duchess”, is worthy of Ian Fleming), worked with the FSB, the state security service, to evade independent testing, and tampered with drugs tests while hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The world is, for many of us, a highly competitive place. The more ambitious you are — socially, financially, professionally — the greasier the pole.
Harvard, already hell to get into, also has private on-campus clubs so exclusive that people weep on their doorsteps when refused admission.
Because what’s the point of privilege — unless you guard it ferociously?
The Fly is one of six remaining all-male final clubs. They are, if not the hub, the apex of social life at Harvard — upscale surrogates for those classic centers of college merriment, sororities and fraternities…
Entree can feel like belonging, rejection like a scarlet F…
But to many students on the outside, the clubs are laden with a legacy of upper-crust snobbishness. As the writer Kenneth Auchincloss referred to them in a 1958 dispatch in The Harvard Crimson: Final clubs are gathering places of the “St. Grottlesex crop,” an amalgamation of the names of several elite East Coast boarding schools, who “look to the Clubs as centers for privacy and ‘good-fellowship,’ cut off from the hectic University by their locked front doors, their aura of secrecy, and a generally shared feeling of superiority.”
…The elaborate courtship of the desirable can begin with an engraved invitation slipped under a dorm room door to “punch” — a selection process that continues with a series of outings and culminates in a black-tie dinner feting the few who make it through.
My husband Jose works part-time as a photo editor at abcnews.com, owned by Disney; this week they handed out brand-new backpacks, asking employees to fill them with donated school supplies.
We don’t have kids, so the whole back-to-school routine is something we don’t do. We had a blast running around Staples, and discovered that it cost $50 to buy everything on the list.
That’s still a significant sum in our family — and an impossibly high one for a family with a lower income and/or multiple children to shop for.
We hope the recipient enjoys it!
Here’s a sobering piece from The Atlantic:
In dealing with the persistence of intergenerational wealth, the changes that would be most effective are also the most sweeping: Taking private money out of political campaigns would give more of a voice to people who’d benefit from stronger social policies. Bolstering housing-voucher programs would let poorer families move into better neighborhoods. Increasing taxes at the uppermost end of the income spectrum would redistribute perpetuated wealth. Finding ways to get lower- and middle-income workers to put more money into savings would help them improve their lots.
So, the lesson from this report: Take whatever extreme, politically unfeasible changes everyone thought were necessary to increase economic mobility and make them more extreme and more unfeasible—that might be enough.
For refugees, fleeing Syria, it’s a hunger for basic dignity, as Mohammed Ali, 26, told Cnet:
“I just want beginning,” he says. “I just want to be at level zero, because here we are before level zero…I feel nothing change. Like, I was in Syria a number and here I am still a number. I have to be a person.”
It’s become something of a new anthem in itself…”I’m moving to Canada!” if Trump (or whichever Presidential candidate most terrifies/disgusts/depresses you) wins the nomination, or Presidency.
Not so fast!
I left Canada, where I was born (in Vancouver) and raised (in Toronto and Montreal) in 1988 to take a temporary editing job in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
Why there? I was madly in love with an American, a physician doing his medical residency at Dartmouth College after studying at McGill; we met when he was in Montreal. We later married — and divorced.
I came to the U.S. on an H1-B, a visa that’s difficult to get — the employer must advertise the position and be demonstrably unable to fill it with a qualified American. I initially came for three months, but had long wanted to come permanently, able to do so thanks to my mother’s American citizenship, which allowed me to obtain a “green card”, and become (o’ infelicitous phrase!) a “resident alien.”
I’ve lived in New York, in a suburban town near Manhattan, since 1989. It stuns me sometimes to realize it’s been so long, but I’m still here.
Like many Canadians, blessed with a terrific university education, (and zero debt upon graduation, thanks to low tuition costs), I felt, and was, able to compete with sharp-elbowed Americans all grasping for the various brass rings of publishing and journalism.
I craved a larger place to test out my skills. (It’s not easy!)
My maternal grandmother and her antecedents were all American, as are many cousins, some of them highly accomplished, one an ambassador, another an archaeologist. I was curious to know more about the culture that had shaped them.
Canadians are deluged by American media so it’s not as though we don’t hear about the place, all the time.
I was also tired of constantly being mistaken for an American, a very odd experience from fellow Canadians, where being openly ambitious is a no-no.
Not in New York!
Canada is usually routinely invisible to American news outlets. We’re used to it.
But now that the 2016 Presidential election campaign has become a bizarre and frightening circus, many Americans are wondering if that nation to the North — the one they typically ignore in quieter times — is a better option.
While Canada recently welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, don’t be too quick to assume there’s an equal welcome for thousands of panicked Americans eager to flee a political scene they find abhorrent.
Read the Canadian government website for potential immigrants and you’ll find a list of exclusions, from health and financial problems to a DUI conviction. Yes, some of you will be able to obtain work visas, but many Canadian jobs pay less than you’re used to – and taxes are higher. You’ll also wait longer for access to some medical care.
Before assuming Canada is a default lifetsyle option, read its newspapers and listen to the CBC. Read our history and some of our authors, not just the ones you know, like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Talk to people who live there. In other words, before you reassure yourself that if it comes to a Trump inauguration, you can pack your bags and head to Vancouver (maybe not Vancouver – CRAZY expensive to live there), you might want to take a minute to acquaint yourself with some specific attributes of that country to the north
I wrote the piece from a place of mixed emotions.
In some ways I miss Canada terribly — my oldest and dearest friends, my personal history, a political climate that doesn’t demonize women for wanting reproductive freedom or gays for wanting to marry.
I miss a shared culture and its references.
Not to mention Justin Trudeau, our new 44-year-old Prime Minister.
But I also left for reasons.
This is the challenge of every ex-patriate and immigrant; we leave a place we know well and possibly love, throwing our fresh hopes onto a new land and its values, political and economic.
For the first time since moving here, I’ve wondered about moving back, even for a year. My American husband loves Canada and has portable skills. We’ll see.
How about you?
Is moving to Canada an option you would ever consider?
Have you seen the new film “Brooklyn”? From the excellent novel by U.S.-based Irish writer Colm Toibin.
I saw it this week and was once more struck by the question of what’s home for those of us who have chosen to leave behind the country of our birth.
We didn’t flee in terror, so we’re not refugees who simply can’t stay in our country of origin, and leave knowing that we might never be able to return.
If we’re really lucky, we arrive in our new country with health, some savings, a good post-secondary education and skills, speaking the new language and with friends, relatives and/or a decent job awaiting.
In the film “Brooklyn”, young Eilis, the heroine, leaves the small Irish town of Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, with a job as a sales clerk in a department store arranged for her. A local priest also pays for her night classes in accounting.
It’s a lovely film, and one I enjoyed — but it is a golden story, and a much smoother arrival than many face.
I left my native Canada in 1988 to move from Montreal to small town New Hampshire, legally allowed to do so because of my mother’s American citizenship, which gave me access to a “green card”, the coveted right to live and work legally in the U.S.
I arrived in New York in 1989 with the man I would later marry — and soon be divorced from — with no job or contacts or advanced degree, which I would discover most my competitors in journalism possessed.
Then I weathered three recessions and an industry that has lost 40 percent of its workforce since 2008. Reinvention once is challenging enough. Post-secondary education in the U.S. is often extremely costly, and student loans are the only debt you can never discharge through declaring bankruptcy; I recently interviewed a young woman who owes more than $200,000 — for an undergraduate degree at a non-Ivy League school, a choice she now bitterly regrets.
I’ve been back to Canada many times since then, sometimes as often as four to six times a year. I’m not super-homesick, but it’s an easy drive for us, and I still have very close friends back in Ontario.
Every visit leaves me with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret for leaving friendships of a depth I’ve never found here and a kind of social capital impossible to achieve in a nation with 10 times the population of Canada.
But also relief for the option of another place to be, to try new things — like becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer and studying interior design — the freedom to create a new identity. I know I’ve done things while living in the States I’d never have ventured at home.
(I’ve also lived in England, France and Mexico, albeit for shorter periods of time.)
The oddest moment for me is when I head north by train, because as it’s crossing the bridge high above the Niagara River we’re briefly suspended between the United States and Canada, their respective flags visible as well as the clouds of mist rising from Niagara Falls.
What better metaphor?
In the film, Eilis is initially wracked with homesickness; small-town Ireland, though, is so much more different from Brooklyn than big-city Toronto, where I grew up. It was no huge shock for me to arrive in New York, having visited many times before.
It was a shock for me to adjust to some American ways of behaving, from the relentless pressure to be real friendlyall the time (exhausting!) to the omnipresence of privately-owned guns, (the subject of my first book.)
I still have difficult processing, (which I now pronounce as prawh-cess, not the Canadian pro-cess), the values of a country where everyone, everywhere, exhorts one another to “Have a good day!” — while millions of people own guns and many people now fear teaching in any classroom (thanks to so many college campus shooting massacres and that in Newtown, CT) or going to the movies (ditto) or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.p
And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.
Watching a movie about immigration to the U.S., (my favorite of the few on that subject is the 2009 indie film, Amreeka), suddenly brought up a host of feelings I usually keep under wraps; when you move to another country, you’re expected to fit in, to adopt its ways, to salute its flag and (in the U.S.) recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I still don’t know or do.
In “Brooklyn” Eilis flees a tiny, gossipy town with few job prospects — the same reason I left Toronto, a city of 2.6 million now.
I recently had lunch there with a young friend, 32, who is super-smart and has a fantastic work history in his field. Yet he echoed what I keep hearing from people decades younger than I there, a deep aversion to taking risks. As one friend, also in her 30s, reminded me, if you misjudge the size or enthusiasm of the Canadian marketplace for your idea, there’s nowhere to hide your failure. With only a few major cities, where to go next?
And failing, getting fired, losing market share — these remain shameful in Canada for many people. That, in itself, discourages innovation, let alone the social and financial capital it takes to move ahead.
In the States?
Hah! People like Martha Stewart go to prison and come out unscathed, returning to their wealth and social circles. It can create a culture of lying and deception, (see: New York Legislature and its parade of felony convictions for corruption), but also encourages risk taking.
If dozens, if not hundreds, of people hadn’t been willing to take chances on me here, I’d have nothing to show for my own risk in coming here. I’m always grateful for that, and to them.
When you leave your home country behind, you also lose — especially in pre-Internet, social media days — the intimacy of your friends and family’s lives, all those births and christenings and showers and weddings you probably can’t afford the time or money to celebrate in person.
When I married for the second time, I chose to do so on a small island in the harbor of Toronto, a place filled with happy memories and the people I still feel closest to, even decades later.
I’ve made some friends in New York, but few, and several friendships here I thought would — as my Canadian relationships have — last for decades ended abruptly, three of them within a few years. That’s a cultural divide I’ve never accepted or been able to successfully breach.
In Toronto on our last visit, I sat with a friend from university and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d first met as a bump in her mother’s belly at my first wedding and only once more when she was 13. Now she’s an accomplished actress.
There are some immigrants whose lives explode into massive wealth and success when they choose the U.S. Others find the grinding lack of social safety nets and ever-shaky job market, (zero job security, few unions, low wages, extraordinary competition), simply too much and return ‘home” once more.
If you have changed countries for a new one — especially the U.S. — how does/did that feel?