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Living Big

It’s hard to be a spontaneous person without a sense of belonging. The other day a Croatian-American friend, who’s lived in Canada for the past five years, asked me, “Why don’t Canadians, who have this big, rich land, live big?” He meant like Americans, or Russians. The answer I gave him is that most of us Canadians still live as colonials: anxious and self-conscious, fearful of not measuring up to an imagined reality somewhere else. A few years ago I was telling an Edmonton friend about my childhood disappointment that the woods and fields of Southern Ontario where I played were not as lush and orderly as the woods and fields in my English picture books. He shrugged and said, “That’s called being a colonial.”

My father never knew it, because his father didn’t, or never mentioned it, but his ancestors had been in America since the 17th century and in Canada since late in the 18th. My mother is Scottish and came here as a child. When I was young, it was just the three of us, and we lived inside a bubble of jokes and routines, a private language of belonging. But while my father was fully at home in small-town Ontario, my mother never was. Meanwhile, I clung hard to what we had, and the prospect of having to go out into the world was terrifying to me. I could not imagine how our private language could ever translate, how I could make myself visible to, or understood by, strangers.  

A major source of bitterness for my mother was having been forced by her parents’ poverty to leave school in Grade 10, when she turned sixteen, because her three older brothers had also been forced to leave at sixteen. She vowed that her own children would be educated if she had to scrub floors, and this is why I ended up at a private day school in the city. I didn’t belong and I wasn’t happy. But I was at an age when it seemed important to do the hard thing. Why was I an altar boy when I hated going to church? Why had I taken elocution lessons if not because standing up and speaking in front of people was my greatest fear? Looking back, I see my life as a series of choices made on the assumption—and with the guarantee—that I would not belong: that Toronto high school, five years of graduate school in England, thirty years in academia. I have lived my life as that anxious, self-conscious colonial child afraid of not measuring up. I have not lived it big.

But this story has a happy and not, I think, a sentimental ending. Last year I came home to an unanticipated sense of belonging. The small town I grew up in has been subsumed by Toronto, where I now live, downtown, where strangers—and I don’t mean only white people of a certain generation—are familiar to me in the thousand subtle ways that strangers haven’t been familiar to me in fifty years. Here I can be spontaneous, because people who don’t know me get me: the hesitations, the omissions, the left turns, the humour. I know this because I also get them, or feel I do, perfectly. Intimately. I’m talking about returning to a particular locus and flavour of Canadian culture that is like home to me, that is thriving, and more than this, is in the process of having its colonial brakes removed, that is no longer embarrassed about itself. Here I can be spontaneous and not worry about it. This is because this is home but home like it never was, because this city, which is on a multiple-ethnicity tear that is unravelling its colonized mindset, has stopped worrying about it.

Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to live for extended periods in various big cities—London, Edmonton, Montreal, Paris—and visited others, mostly New York, and of them all, only London and New York have anything like the positive, inclusive energy of Toronto today. I’m comparing again, but now it’s New York and London that need to measure up. I can’t tell you what a delight it’s been to rediscover a sense of belonging that, on the first day of high school, I thought I’d walked away from forever.