Absence and return

Looking out over the Rocky Mountains in 2016

Canada has been on my mind a lot recently. Partially because of international media coverage after the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. Partially because Prime Minister Trudeau got weird amounts of attention for his poufy hair and fancy socks at the G7 in Cornwall. But mostly because I haven’t been on Canadian soil for a year and a half.

That’s a long absence for me.

As more people are fully vaccinated (in Switzerland and Canada) and COVID-19 infection rates are going down in both countries, travel is starting to re-open. But plotting a trip ‘home’ has been complicated by quarantine requirements, lack of flights, previous commitments, and, above all, so much uncertainty.

On my mind

It’s no surprise that when a task for my creative writing course required considering “someone revisiting a location they used to know well that has since changed,” I immediately thought of Vancouver.

I wrote about the landscape of the city changing with development; the ocean and the mountains remaining constant (or nearly so). It’s been nearly three years since I last flew into YVR, but the city coming into view through an airplane window remains a powerful memory.

An exclusionary writing challenge

The first pass at writing about revisiting a location was unrestrained; 500 or so words done free-write style. The next step was re-writing the piece without a few commonly used words—I excluded the, and, it, and was.

It took some mental acrobatics. Getting rid of ‘the’ in particular required a lot of mulling over word choice.

Most surprisingly, the tone dramatically changed without those four little words. The voice shifted to something more contemplative. A little more detached. A little more judgemental.

I’m not certain the final piece (below) accurately reflects how I feel about Vancouver, but that’s the beauty of writing fiction. As Who’s Line Is It Anyway puts it: “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”

Everything shimmers

Mountains rise as our descent begins. As they always do, skyscrapers supplant green fields. Their presence urgent, a harsh line of urban life overtaking what used to be agricultural land preserve. Sunlight forces my eyes into a squint as I identify that familiar boundary where ocean meets forest. Jagged coastline protects clusters of nearly old-growth trees, which in turn guard one of my country’s largest universities—where I once studied, but maybe didn’t learn.

Vancouver from the air—what a show-off!

Brightness glints off towers of glass. Waves reflect clear blue skies. Snow-dusted mountains stand behind a downtown that would be ethereal if architecturally bland buildings could resist being so obnoxious.

My hometown is showing off. How dare this place be so beautiful? So harsh. So pushy.

From above, everything shimmers with impossible West Coast allure. A mirage camouflaging a city filled with peril. Casual racism, impossibly low wages, outrageous homelessness, greed-fueled super cars. But people continue to flock here—shoehorning more tax payers, more weekend warriors, more bad drivers into an overflowing grid.

Rezoning applications can’t move high, sharp cliffs or a vast ocean, but nearly every square metre within city boundaries is built up. Streets run where streams used to. Grasslands have been manicured into playgrounds. Spindly birches stand in for forests that were clear-cut to make way for progress. Empty lots are heresy.

Wheels touch tarmac, passengers begin unclipping their seatbelts. I notice my eyes are wet.

Original text by Laura Matheson © 2021


Image of Vancouver adapted from a photo by Brayden Law — thanks for making it available on Unsplash!

2 thoughts on “Absence and return”

  1. Yes Vancouver has it’s problems but there are so many wonderful things about the city. The bike paths have expanded since you were here; it is still possible to be in the wilderness of the North Shore Mountains after a short drive; and the number of delicious restaurants & food trucks continues to grow. Hope you land at YVR soon!

  2. I totally miss the food scene in Vancouver—especially the sushi!

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never cried flying *into* YVR (flying out is a totally different story), but the character that spoke to me when editing the piece certainly has some negative feelings about the city. Getting to explore these kinds of complexities through fiction is a wonderful aspect of this creative writing course 🙂

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