I used to play in the laneway behind Clinton and Bloor, in Toronto’s west end. The laneway marked the arteries of my childhood world, directing me to the shops on Bloor, Honest Ed’s and Christie Pits park.
Walking south through the lane I’d hold my nose, close my eyes and push bravely through the thick air of the active neighbourhood slaughterhouse, the scent of feces and blood heavy and penetrating, only releasing the seal when I’d safely passed the area. I’d try not to think of the animals inside; breathing their last breaths before they’d make their way to my dinner plate. Perhaps it was that experience that pushed me towards vegetarianism for a few years before a B12 deficiency pulled me back out.
There were no toys at Nonna’s house, so my cousins and I would content ourselves watching slightly child-inappropriate movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Or making faux wigs out of the arm covers of the sofa. The fascist eagle and portrait of Mussolini that belonged to my grandfather often made their way into our games.
Years later a row of expensive townhouses sits in place of a slaughterhouse and the smell of feces and dying cattle has been replaced by the friendly waft of marijuana, which drifts from the hippy neighbour’s house. Christie Pits, once a green space for crack addicts, is now filled with wiry hipsters, performing yoga flows on the grass.
In 2010, I moved back to Toronto and arranged to live with my Nonna, on the spacious third floor of this house I knew so well in my childhood, now renovated in its re-gentrified space. The colourful stores of Koreatown, the neighbouring Annex, hippies on bikes, cardigans and facial hair remind me that there is more to life than the bump and grind of study, study, study. I felt like I was living in the middle of something fun and exciting, the hum of busy creative minds, people living on the precipice of emerging art and fashion. It was an exciting place to live and balanced me.
What’s more, when I moved in with La Nonna, I had the third floor to myself, a large balcony with a view of West Toronto, a place for my yoga mat and my easel, a large desk where the studying magic happened, a bicycle in the garage and a metro pass. The world was mine.
We must all pay rent of some kind, however. Squatters have to live with the fear of eviction and cold winters with no heat or electricity, the King Street condo elite pay exorbitant amounts of money for their concrete locations and I paid rent too, but an emotional kind of rent. I paid with lack of privacy, daily raids, a slightly OCD attitude towards cleanliness and the requirement to lend an ear to a one-way road of emotional outpourings, a lack of empathy and the feeling that nothing I’ve done, was doing or would ever do would be good enough. I was immersed in a feeling of my very existence not being good enough.
I have heard a few touching grandmother stories in the past few months that starkly contrast the darkness of my own stories: S, who also lives on the third floor of her grandmothers’ house and enjoys a daily tea break where she exchanges stories about her day. E, who has breakfast with her grandmother in her basement apartment of the family home and says “grandmothers are great for your self esteem”. There is my friend, K, who practiced yoga on the beach with her father’s mother and “shared tears, stories and laughter” with her when she visited her in Colombia.
“Grandmothers are good for your self-esteem.” I suppose there is truth to the statement when we consider that body-builders must constantly strain and break weaker muscle fibres in order to allow new, stronger fibres to grow in their place. Stronger fibres have been growing around my sense of self for some time. I believe that Zen monks, in their temples will never reach enlightenment as long as they are in quiet revery, removed from the world and all the stress and pain that it can present. Having to shave your head, climb hundreds of steep stairs carrying heavy barrels of water and sitting for excruciatingly long and uncomfortable periods of time help train the mind against pain and adversity. A true sailor has never really sailed unless he’s met with rough waters. If one can navigate a storm and come through it, he is truly a better seaman, than those who have only been met with calm serenity.
If someone constantly threatens your sense of self worth, there are really two options: believe them or come back with a stronger sense of identity and self worth. The first is not really an option, therefore I work on the second. Staying calm, present and strong while having emotional warfare waged on you is the mark of a true warrior. If the mind can stay unruffled during a severe shaking, then something significant has been cultivated in the realm of mindfulness.
Therefore, despite it all, a part of me thanks the rent I’ve paid, the eviction and the declaration of emotional war, because it teaches that if I can handle it all, I can really handle anything. I imagine that years of this have made even acupuncture exams seem like a trip to the spa.