The other day I took a bath. Well, not a proper bath. I didn’t turn on the hot and cold taps in my bathroom and let them fill up a tub into which I had poured some sort of healing salts or calming bath oil. When I say that I took a bath, I actually filled up my daughter’s baby bath with five kettles of boiling water (yes, that took some time especially with our water pressure and electrical voltage problem), added some cold water to touch, took off my cloths, stood in the shower area, and doused myself repeatedly with the water from a plastic jug. I should have really collected some wood from outside, chopped it and put it in bottom of the small boiler that sits in the entrance to the bathroom which serves to heat the water, so that I could have a proper shower. A shower like normal people, where the water comes out of the showerhead and pours down over you whilst you do your thing. I thought in this manner as I was washing my hair. I wondered what ‘normal people’ were and then I realised that I was ‘normal people’ doing something abnormal, at least abnormal compared to what was my past norm. The norm that I grew up with and continued even though I moved to London in my thirties and then to Turkey after that. In our last house I had a shower like ‘normal people’ but not now.
My showering situation became very poignant to me as I stood there feeling the hot water on my body and then the cold surround of the shower space. Hot, cold, hot, cold, hot, cold. Like my baby bath and bucket system personified, I seem to be caught between two extremes, not really being anywhere solid. I have wandered far from what I was used to as a child growing up in Canada. I have been away from Canada, except for a handful of vacations, for almost 10 years now. I grew up in a middle class home in Canada. I went to school with children from all different backgrounds. I had piano lessons. I sung in the Church choir (much to the chagrin of its director). I skied in the winter and rode my bike in the summer. I rebelled in high school and studied hard in university (okay, fine, not hard enough). I got a job in the corporate world and tried to live a normal life, but the truth is I couldn’t settle. I think deep down I didn’t want to accept that this was it. Working for the corporate world, maybe meeting a man, getting married and having a family. Us both working regular hours, our children in daycare and then in school. Weekends were for doing bulk shops at Costo, barbequing in the backyard, shoveling snow. Summer vacations spent camping or cabining. Winter vacations spent in Mexico or Cuba. The children growing up, us growing old. The children going off to university and then starting their lives. Us retiring and then dying. Living the Canadian dream. I missed the fine print that it was what you did with the moments in the timeline rather than the timeline itself. I didn’t know that then, although I do now. Perhaps I had to leave Canada and my, by worldwide standards, very comfortable existence to understand but in doing so I seem to have lost my Canadianess.
Recently, a friend mentioned that I could go back and live in Canada if needed. I had a surprising reaction to her comment. I just couldn’t imagine it. Mentally, I feel totally different from my past peers. Maybe it is having to build a fire for hot water, or petting a goat and then eating said goat a few hours later. Maybe it is the fact I got fleas from my first, rat infested flat in London. London is another world from Calgary, Alberta. I have so many memories from my life there. Walking casually down the early morning street past government men wearing combat gear and holding machine guns. Taking the Tube with millions of other commuters; jaded, disgruntled people who wouldn’t even offer me a seat when I was 8 months pregnant. Drinking in pubs that were older than my great, great, great, great, great grandmother would be if she were still alive. Going to museums that had ancient Egyptian artifacts in them; just standing there like time has stood still. For me time hasn’t stood still, as it has gone on I have gotten farther away from that little baby born in Winnipeg, raised in Calgary, university educated (among other things) in Edmonton. Standing in that shower, I did not know how Canadian I was anymore.
When I was in university, I went tree planting in northern BC. For about 8 weeks we lived and worked in the bush. Work was putting sapling after sapling in the ground at breakneck speed and life was living in a tent in a camp with about 50 other tree-planting souls. Every week we would go into town for our one night and day off. The entire camp would scramble into the foreman vehicles and race to one of the few hotels that allowed tree planters. Lots for showers would be pulled with those going first being the luckiest. Able to wash off a week’s worth of grime in a hot, steamy shower, emerging after a few minutes an entirely new person. I actually had crewmates walk by me in the street not recognizing a clean versus a dirty Natalie. The longest time we went along with our dirt encrusted selves was 24 days without a break. We needed to finish a certain block for contractual reasons and as that particular piece of land was a motley mess, almost impossible to plant, we were very behind. The owner of the company ordered us there until completion. Not only were we stuck working without a break but it rained constantly. Not always buckets pouring from the sky, but the occasional outburst in a constant Mother Nature spitting contest. Everything we had was wet. Everyone in the camp was wet. We were a wet, smelly, gang of exhausted tree planters by the time we reached town and man, did we clean up well before we went on a drinking, partying rampage. No wonder most hotels in town wouldn’t let us stay. Young people, mostly university students, without a party for over three weeks is like a sea without a tide, completely impossible and unnatural. After a long 24 day stretch our tide had finally come in and we were swimming in seas of Jack Daniels and Jägermeister. A couple of weeks after that momentous stretch we finished the season and went back to our homes. A funny thing happened when we got back. As crazy as we could be on our nights off, as boisterous and maniacal, the ‘real’ world was too much. It was too busy, too loud, too full of ‘civvies’ doing strange things like showering every day. We were experiencing culture shock in a place where a few weeks before we were happily existing. It took some time before we remembered who we were before the tree planting season and settled back in, allowing the collective memory of normalcy to take its place in the forefront of our minds. I guess this is how I feel when I go back to Canada. I have culture shock in the place from where my culture comes. So what is my culture now? Who am I if not Canadian and why does my identity have so much to do with showering?
A day after my existential bathing crisis, I heard the news about Gord Downie the lead singer of The Tragically Hip having been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Like all Canadians I was shocked. I didn’t want to mourn a poet and singer who had defined a generation. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that most Canadians of my generation and some on either side, attended a Tragically Hip concert. I remember it like it was yesterday even though I cannot tell you the venue, city or year. I can tell you about the cacophony of instruments coming out of the side speakers to be combined into one thing by a manically moving frontman on the stage. By the end of the night I had the impression that Gord Downie was a shaman. A magic man who upon hearing the music to his words was moved into a state of ecstasy as he moved the crowed into a similar frenzy. Now that man is in danger of taking his magic with him to those otherworldly realms and leaving behind a country in mourning. Because this is the thing about that magic: it has become part of our national identity, it helps define what Canada and what being Canadian is about. It helps define what I am about, because in the moment when I read about the news, looked for more information on social media, shared something of my own about the saddness, I realised who I was.
Being Canadian, or French or South African or Chinese or whatever is not about where or how you live, it is about your memory. The memory of your childhood, your country, your life in the country of your birth. It is about remembering Terry Fox’s attempt to run across Canada. It is about remembering the Stanley Cup division final series of 1988 between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames. It is about remembering the shooting at the Polytechnique de Montréal. It is about having shared memories with a group of people, some who you know and some who you don’t, that makes you a citizen of one country or another. Admittedly, since 2007, I stopped sharing in the memories of my previous place, but then a magic man is diagnosed with a killer disease and I am allowed, because of a mind cast backwards, to mourn with others. I am allowed to feel Canadian again. I do not have to follow the Canadian Dream timeline. I do not have to shower like a ‘normal person’. I do not have to live each day in Canada, I just have to remember how it is to live there. I just have to remember being a young girl at a concert watching magic happen and be a middle aged woman feeling sad that magic might soon fade away. Magic that is part of the Canadian identity and part of me. I am Canadian.