Nanaimo at night
Nanaimo at night. Photo: Rae Kenny-Rife

Layers of green-backed mountains muscle their way through bruised-blue ocean. Hovering always beside us, they serve as our constant reminder to look this way, west, when lost (an hourly occurrence with me at the wheel). The air is grey, merging as one with the sky that frames it. Those, like us, whose weather experience is unyielding, unnecessarily hot, desert sun, often boast of the abundance of light. But, unlike the pushy, insistent sunlight of eastern Washington, the light here is complex, nuanced, shy and non-committal, like a teenage girl not quite ready for a boyfriend’s advances. Colors and textures are more discernible; faces, buildings, and backgrounds more sophisticated, not blanched and obvious from the brash directness of a boastful sun. This light is earned and, as such, even more deeply appreciated for its whimsical scarcity.

Rain here is currency, making this a rich place indeed. Its presence is more than just expected. Its certainty brings with it a comfort akin to the smug knowledge that umbrellas bring in clearly delineating tourists from townies. It’s dotage, over-eager but well-meaning, comes like a cleansing of the palette as it were for the hardened but friendly inhabitants who call this home. Anything more than about a ten percent chance of rain means, well, rain. Whatever ‘showers’ means elsewhere, in this place it is code for, Build ark and prepare thyself for an unforgiving shitload of vertical water and avoid umbrellas at all costs.

Tucked beneath the busy sky, layered mountains, and hungry sea lives a population reminiscent of a suburban Woodstock. Hippy loggers. Polite revolutionaries. Sidewalk artist news-junkies. Bag-ladies and street-dwellers with decent grammar. All of the above and us, the lone, traitorous Canadians living in Washington State trying to stumble our way around. That, with downtown streets twisting in corkscrew fashion in and out of side streets that double as alleyways that double as thoroughfares that smirk at our lostness. The roads, having been laid by drunken blind men in oneupmanship sprawl out like some wild, yet picturesque, game of snakes and ladders. Where the hell are those mountains anyway?

downtown-nanaimo-from-roberts-roost02Those Canadians, famed for politeness, are the same ones who, upon noticing our Washington State license plate, find every way possible to angrily tailgate us into next week, regardless of our fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit. A worthwhile risk, apparently, to he who must teach a valuable lesson to these wayward American ne’er-do-wells. “But wait,” I inwardly screech, “I’m one of you.” To no avail. This is what Canadian “aggression” looks like. I meet the same guy at a red light and he’s all smiles and waves. Here in Canada, polite is but shorthand for passive-aggressive, a set-up for the inevitable near-clash of non-words.

The reason for this ascent into the murky badlands of Vancouver Island rainforest otherwise known as Nanaimo? To deposit (or abandon, depending on your perspective) our youngest son into the fray where he will begin Jazz Studies at Vancouver Island University (not an oxymoron, I assure you) and a new life figuring out the politics of labyrinthine Canadian niceties. He may have been born in Vancouver but he has spent fourteen of his eighteen years in America’s Pacific Northwest. He is the most American of anyone in our family, a family more Canadian than most Canadians.

The long love we’ve harbored (yes, I went there) for screeching gulls alighting on fishing boats, grumpy clouds bobbing over bouncing buoys, and a permanent smell of pulp laden damp help us navigate the darker waters of parentalisms. Small comfort indeed in the face of driving hundreds of miles away, the face of one’s youngest in the rearview mirror. Good thing I’m given neither to melodrama nor self-pity or I might find myself writing about it.

God forbid.

Photo found here


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