Most days, I try not to think about the place I grew up—in the placid suburbs of North York although now that I’ve returned after two years, there’s the friction of what I remember and what is. Everything seems off kilter: oaks with ruined branches, expanse of surreal sky, the old, discoloured Catholic school I used to hide behind when emotions boiled and everyone wanted the impossible from each other.
It’s a negotiation between how I grew up and my new eyes that prod gently at the space, as if I’ll fracture the tentative peace between the past and the future.
Mother is tired, but she is free from my Father, and we are free from our expectations of each other. Well, mostly free. I could call her overbearing, but that would feel like a cop-out, give her the archetype of the overbearing Chinese mother, and I know she is more complex than that.
She is not some Freudian figure to be rebelled against.
She is a person with a lot of unfulfilled wishes, whose concepts of the world run against the strident, confusing reality of everyday life, but that’s how we all are, in one way or another.
Now that we don’t live in the same house, we are unstifled by proximity and are able to make room for each other. She promises to listen, though more often than not, our conversations are a negotiation (or a clash) of East and West. Though we were born in the same country, we grew up in different ones, and neither of us solely belong to one place. This is okay, because on good days we are able to accept the present, and let beauty arrive to us in different forms.
On bad days, I read Eichmann in Jerusalem and can only think of my father. Every word that comes out of his mouth scatters before they have reached me. He thinks in binaries, and I find moral superiority sickening. His political involvement is a shroud of that which must not be named that has wrapped around my family for seventeen years, and my mother and I need to tear it away from ourselves, leaving him cocooned in an eternal, shriveled chrysalis.
I am torn in becoming: aware of my fallibilities after a lifetime of not being good enough, attuned to the plea of asking life to mean something, aware of how thought paralyzes, and growing a reverence for how art frees me from paralysis.
I fluctuate between optimism that turns cloying and nauseating on darker days, and moments where I think all hope is illusory, covering up the downward spiral of everything that has ever existed.
I struggle to find a balance between self and world that allows for the kind of beauty that Donna Tartt calls, “That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.”
I find this most often in my studies of literature, mostly because the greatest gift of my unknown, illiterate ancestors are these present years, this time to read and write and think in university. To find out what others think, those that carry a similar blend of tentative hope and constant sense of annihilation.
Encountering those others, however distant in physical proximity we grow, is the most enduring loveliness.
When I read, I carry them with me—voices of professors, classmates, and friends dwelling in the lines we share together, even when these four years of my undergraduate degree pass, even as when I gaze, terrified at the looming future.
For the moment, I dwell here in this sun-stricken summer, in the impossible imperative to open up the space between what I preconceive and what is, to make room for the moments of quiet surprise, elation, the tenderness of ideas and people that run through me.
– isabelle z.