My sister Gwen paid me the enormous compliment, and gave me the beautiful gift, of coming to see me for my birthday week. Between them, she and Mr HalfSoled Boots sorted out child-minding details, budgets, and travel plans, and she was able to whisk me away to Victoria overnight on my birthday, just the two of us. We left on the morning of the 16th, and checked into a downtown hotel. We walked around the city for a few hours, had a pint, then walked back and got dressed up for dinner at 8. (What a civilized hour for dinner! Family life dictates an earlier mealtime, and in the past 12 years I have missed the elegance of evening dining.)
Dinner was revelatory. Brasserie l'Ecole was everything Yelp told us it would be, and more. We spent three eternal hours there, and talked and drank and ate amazing food, and hugged a complete stranger (sitting behind me; Gwen spotted the candle on her dessert and I introduced myself as another birthday girl - she is exactly one year older than I). We unabashedly told the server our wine budget and asked her to give us something amazing, and she did. We had brandy, coffee, and crème brûlée. (The best we've ever had. And that's saying something.)
Victoria was my home for a little over a decade. Between the ages of 17 and 29 I lived in it, loved it, inhabited it in the best sense of the word. I never took it for granted, always let it amaze me. I kept myself close to the centre of it, 15 minutes' walk from the Inner Harbour downtown, so that I could feel its pulse and avoid falling prey to the negativity that comes from commuting and parking struggles. I knew a lot of people in Victoria who never went downtown just because they didn't like driving among the buses, noise, and crowds of pedestrians. But in a city, when you don't drive, you are like a little bee among a herd of elephants. You just rise gently above, and go your way at your own speed, while they jostle and bump up against each other and sit annoyed, waiting.
I used to spend a lot of time downtown on my own. I would set out from my apartment, and walk all over the place, with no destination and no schedule. I had nowhere I had to go, hardly any money, no watch, and (it was the early 1990s) no cell phone. On one particular afternoon, when I was about 19 or 20 years old, I found a wrought iron gate in the middle of a brick building in Chinatown. Wrought iron gates (full-height, as a regular door) are not unusual in historic districts, but they are generally closed and locked. This one was standing open, affording an alluring glimpse of a narrow, dark alley, at most a meter wide, leading into a sunlit courtyard.
There was no signage, no indication of whether or not this alley was open to the public. But an open door, I reasoned, was an open door, and so I walked through it.
The confined, cool dark of the brick alley was like an otherworldly transition from the noisy street. Just a few steps inside it, the damp age of the bricks muted the traffic noise and the airless, car-exhaust smells. It might have been about 50 feet through the little tunnel, and then I found myself blinking into sunlight in the silence of a court. There were corners and lamp posts, and small iron gates behind which bikes were chained up in little green gardens. Doors, and stairs, and more bricks, and yellow walls and black lamps, and sun filtering through leaves of tall bamboo and red maple. There were no offices, no shops, just these beautiful doors and gates and the wrapping quiet that ran over and around and between everything, and made my solitary moment go on and on.
I stood and watched it all, watched the nothing that was happening over and over, listened to the birds and the rush of distant cars - impossibly distant for how close they really were. I turned around and around, and took the whole place as far into my memory as I could, in those days before everyone had a camera with them at any moment. I stayed as long as I felt like I could stay. The faint sound of a radio, and the quiet clink of spoon in cup, told me that these were private homes, and I didn't want to intrude too long on the perfect, beautiful, zen-like paradise owned by someone else.
Returning to the street, I felt the refreshed, peaceful feeling of having been away from the world. I walked onwards up the street, my back to the harbour gulls, against the tide of tourists clutching pamphlets: their walking shoes tightly laced, their cameras full of film, their heads full of notable landmarks and bus timetables.
I don't know why, but I never found it again. Once or twice I thought I had, but the gate was locked, or the street didn't look quite the same. I had the beautiful memory of the place, but never had the sight of it.
On Wednesday, my birthday, Gwen and I walked and walked. We fell into the kind of quiet, pensive state in which things come to you: realizations, memories, epiphanies. Of course, because we were not looking, and I was not even remembering, we came upon a wrought iron door, standing open to a narrow, brick-lined alley.
I didn't even realize, until we emerged in the courtyard, exactly where we were. Firstly, we had come through the north side -- the court has two alleys, one leading north and one leading south. Twenty years ago I had both come and gone through the south alley, as the north gate was locked. And then, over the years I had subconsciously come to believe that this place was a chimera - my own private Narnia. I had walked hundreds of kilometers on Victoria streets since the day I found it, and no matter how far into the city I went, the wardrobe was always just a wardrobe.
The years have changed this place, as everywhere else, and now there are several businesses installed in the ground floors of the courtyard. The internet, in its mania for information and its boorish, insistent removal of mystery, has given us directories, city plans, maps and even street-views. A few seconds after I tell you the name of this place, you could be standing on the sidewalk outside, peering into the brick alleyway, and moving, virtually, meter by meter along the narrow way. You could view some posh photos, and real estate listings, check the property taxes, and order something from the Victoria Seed Bank.
But walking there again, 20 years or so after the last time, I was given a moment of emotional beauty that Google can't provide. It connected me with my former self. Those few brick-lined steps pushed back the veil that has gradually dropped over the long, free, walking days. That veil is made of family, marriage, children, distance, and money - the getting of it and the giving away - and it obscures everything until all I can see is layer on layer of obligation.
On my birthday, I stood there with my sister, my long life-companion, and remembered myself.
People make jokes about turning forty. For me, turning forty is not funny at all. It's not sad, and it's not comic; although it may turn out to be profound. My sister and I shared a tiny little journey in the midst of the longer, more complicated, joyous and painful one we've been on for 38 years together. It was momentous. It was a watershed week - full of realizations about time and love: the nature of love of all kinds.
It made me see that in many respects, I have some growing up to do. And it's been coming for a while. Parts of my life should be past and aren't - I should release them into the past. Some parts of my life that have been past, deserve to be brought forward again and dusted off. Some habits are not worthy of me and they can cease. Some things, which I know full well I should, I do not. And some I know I should not and yet I do.
Last time I turned over a new decade was significant, but it was subsumed in the newness of family...I had a 2 year old and was expecting a baby. It was hardly time to think of myself. This time, I have another ten years of hard-earned and painful experience which, if I allow it, can guide and inform my direction from this point on.
So I'm drawing myself up to my full height, and facing a new decade with a good set of tools. I'm looking forward to my forties, if not with the crazy self-centered happiness I had planned, at least with the confidence that the changes I need to make on myself, I am well able to make.
Whenever I'm in the garden, looking around at the hundreds of things that need attention, I often say to myself, "What needs money will have to wait, but what can be done with work, will be done." It took me a surprising amount of time to see that this philosophy doesn't only apply to the garden.
Gwen, thank you for the amazing gift. You gave me your time, your attention, and your care, and showed me love in tangible ways I'll never forget. Our birthday present visit ended up being a turning point for me, and I can't think of anyone who could have more perfectly shared the day.
I'd rather be half-done with you, than just starting out with anyone else.