Are we sure Australia was the penal colony?
Photo via. Alexandar Iotzov | Dreamstime.com
Every now and then, someone—either sincerely or ironically, and sometimes, somehow, both—asks me "why does anyone live in Newfoundland?" I often ask this question myself. I am still working on the answer. But I have been living back on the island for nearly a full year now, and here's what I've got so far.
There is graffiti scrawled on the steps near the War Memorial in St. John's that reads "summer is short here don't mess it up." I don't know when it first appeared. It wasn't there when I moved to Alberta in 2012 but it was there when I got home a year ago.
When I first saw it, I found it obnoxious. Growing up here had burned it into my brain that nice days were a precious gift, a gift that I spent much of my youth resenting as I wasted them indoors. The graffiti reminded me of the pressure to enjoy the sunshine, which made it impossible in the same way a good New Year's Eve is impossible. My angsty contrarian melancholy would have no truck with it. This habit of surliness is as deeply ingrained in the culture as all the vernacular chastising it. Yer crooked as sin today, Drew Brown. Come out now and get the smell of the house off ya.
I am less crooked these days. Or I try, anyway—with a greater degree of success. Part of it is probably age; I am perversely excited to turn 30 this year, since I have been told it is the magical moment where you stop giving a fuck and the promise in that siren song is irresistible and energizing. Part of it is also probably the antidepressants, the newlywed afterglow, and the fact that I no longer viscerally hate what I do for a living.
But a big part of it, I think, is that I survived my first Newfoundland winter in more than four years.
It is easy—and gets easier, the further and longer you are away—to fall into the trap of romanticizing the place. It's a cultural duty to put up a good front while you are a member of the diaspora—the secret fraternal order of Newfoundlanders abroad, every one of us an ambassador of our secret nation, every apartment an embassy. Call it the eternal sunshine of the expat mind.
That first year home, though. November comes and quickly reminds you that the only effective game in town is ambivalence. Not a wishy-washy, 'could go either way' ambivalence, either—I mean the full-throated Freudian abyss of feeling, a simultaneously intense love and hate, an emotional ouroboros cannibalizing itself, a drive to burrow yourself ever further into the beloved even as you're straining away from the claustrophobia of it all.
The Newfoundland winter—both literal and figurative—is enough to break a man. It is always worse than you remember and never ends. You cannot prepare for the wet snow, or the endless freeze-thaw that opens fissures in the pavement and destroys the rims on your tires, or the garbage.
The garbage—my God. Piles of trash accumulating across every surface. Garbage on field and in the water and in the woods, the great wave of garbage swelling up from the pit of human horror called George Street, garbage going up in thick, putrid smoke in the endless dumpster fire at Confederation Building, garbage in great endless heaps along the roads stretching from one vulgar North American suburb to another, tossed carelessly from car windows by people who can neither drive nor think 10 seconds into the future, people who make you doubt the Enlightenment project and an orderly universe and a benevolent God. Lord thundering Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, deliver us from evil.
Why indeed, you wonder in the darkness of a February afternoon, did my ancestors decide to overwinter on this blasted rock instead of Halifax or Boston? Are we sure Australia was the penal colony?
As is its way, grace is in the small things. The late night dinner with friends in their old downtown kitchen. An after-hours party and a shared bottle of wine between a random assemblage of strangers that has all of you dying at each other until the first rays of dawn. A peaceful breakfast around the bay with your spouse. Trans-generational games of cards and Dick Surgery drone shows at the Peter E. Date night at Jungle Jim's and sea ice stretching on for miles along the southern shore. The three minute drive from your mass-manufactured house in the centre of the city to a serene and rugged barren at the edge of civilization.
Summer is short here. Short enough that you learn to feel the position of the sun deep in your blood and to know that it is always shining, somewhere, even in the dead of a winter's night.
That first day after May Two-Four, when you finally allow yourself to believe summer is really coming, and you step outside into a sun so bright that it casts a long shadow across blazing green grass that takes you to another world—the fleeting sense of stepping back into your childhood, of really going home, that crashes up over you and then rolls out again like the tide. The space that opens up before you in a flash of fragile eternity before snapping shut, just long enough to crack wise the old joke that you can tell the Newfoundlanders in Heaven because they're the ones who'd still rather go home and slip out quietly onto the still water of a warm August evening.
Summer is short here. Short enough that you learn to feel the position of the sun deep in your blood and to know that it is always shining, somewhere, even in the dead of a winter's night. It took me 30 years to learn that rhythm but not even the gales of November can take it from me now.
That, I suppose, is a good enough reason to stick around for now. The reminder is worth keeping posted up along the walls downtown.
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