August 18, 2014
The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…they are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until reaching Rivière-des-Prairies.
This is the one about how I end up crying on a park bench – with friends, family and drugstore cashiers benefitting as a result.
Yesterday’s walk concluded with my arriving in the Town of Mount Royal, the upper-middle-class neighbourhood in which I grew up. I hadn’t set foot here in twenty-five years, and was quickly dizzy with disorientation – old streets, new condos, memories crashing into the unrecognizable, mediated by the semi-familiar.
“How could I have needed a street sign to tell me this is Graham Boulevard? I must have walked this stretch hundreds of times. That’s the train station? When did it become a gourmet pizza place? When did they put up safety fences to keep jumpers from going off the bridge?”
I met an Iranian man, an immigrant living on the West Island, who had just given himself a tour. “So beautiful,” he said, his face serene. For billions around the world, this would be paradise. Quiet, leafy streets, big houses, wide green lawns, even unobstructed views of the sky thanks to power lines having been sunk below ground.
But I didn’t want to come here yesterday, nor do I want to be here now.
Perhaps my instincts said to walk west, because I might otherwise have avoided this. No other place subjects me to such a potent mix of nostalgia and wistfulness. Even as a teen, I was wistful here, and the closer I’ve come the last couple of days, the harder I’ve had to work to subdue a voice saying “This is the life that got away. The life you let get away.”
So when the guy in the vintage convertible pulls up alongside, seeming to want me to look at him with envy, I am unable to accommodate him, because my mind is focused on a high school classmate who has gone on to enjoy a successful public life, and who I am now wishing private ennui. Just as, a few minutes earlier, seeing a man not much older than me, his back hunched, his face worn and puffy, I told myself this was the price he was paying for choosing to acquire the means to live here. I am not proud of myself, but this pettiness, this envy and judgement, are my most ready responses to the voice, however ineffectual.
I try detachment. With my notebook in hand, I think of myself as an anthropologist studying suburban wonderlands.
I seek out points of ease. A black kid glides by on a scooter, clearly at home. When I was growing up here, he would have been a spectacle. I smile, glad his father settled down here instead of me. I feel warmth towards the old woman getting around with a walker, and wave a friendly thank you to the driver of a loud Porsche who’s been patiently waiting for me to realize he’s giving me right of way.
All the while, my stomach is in knots.
I had committed to sitting for thirty minutes when I got to the hour-and-a-half mark of the walk. When that time comes, it’s at a small park where I am stung with the memory of a beautiful girl who became a beautiful woman, and I wonder what might just have been had I not backed away from the opening she gave me in our post-high school years. Feeling the way this strengthens the voice, I try to remind myself of the independence in which I often delight, the ways in which I’ve lived on my own terms, while still giving ease to others. But the voice won’t have it, and it starts pummelling. “You let this get away. You could have been married. You could have had children. You took too many wrong turns, ran yourself into too many dead ends. You’ve squandered your talents and wasted precious time chasing something you can’t even name.”
I sit on a bench, and do the only thing possible. I go to pieces, crying with stomach heaving, streams of tears, full-bodied, decidedly unmanly. It feels like it could go on for hours.
It lasts five minutes. Maybe eight. And then the tears are done.
I feel my brow soften, my teeth unclench. I feel my breath. The breath that’s always there, no matter what. I do a blessing practice, silently wishing peace, joy, loving kindness and compassion to passersby – the pony-tailed teenage girls jogging around the park; the driver cruising by, lazily hanging his arm out the window; the cyclist with the lime green shorts, a hoodie over his helmet. And myself. I offer these blessings to myself because, right now, I can use them too.* The world grows bigger as I tune into the sounds of trucks on the nearby highway and the engines of descending planes. I sit at ease with the not knowing. Who can say? Maybe I would have been happier with a family, greater achievement, a house (though not in this neighbourhood, where I would surely feel like an imposter). Maybe not. I don’t know. I can’t know. The only thing about which I can be certain is that, at this moment, I’m not nearly as interested in the life that didn’t happen as I am in the one before me.
And there’s something else I know. I have subdued the voice – not by restraining it, but rather, by letting it spend its energy. It hasn’t lost its power entirely, but it’s so depleted, I almost feel sorry for it. I needn’t, I suppose. It’s pretty resilient, and we’re bound to have another bout – or at least an animated conversation or two – in the future. But in the meantime, its hold over me is that much more diminished, and I am that much more liberated from unnecessary resentments and judgements, of myself and others, and that much better able to bring attentiveness, patience and good-heartedness to the people in my life. And to begin exchanges with drugstore cashiers by taking a moment to look at them, and ask “How are you?”
As for that thing I can’t quite name, it seems I’m getting closer all the time.
*For those unfamiliar with blessing or Buddhist metta (loving friendliness) practices, they are likely to seem absurd. What could be the point of extending good wishes to complete strangers? This is the kind of scepticism I brought to the practice when I started it about two years ago. It’s hard to remain sceptical, though, when it turns out to have been transformative. I don’t say such things lightly, but the practice makes me that much more open-hearted, patient with myself, and patient with others. As one of my teachers put it, “You may not be changing others, but you’re changing yourself.” Which, in turn, makes for happier others.