Inside or outside, we ebb and flow along.
Illustration by Leila Kazeminejad (Co-Editor-in-Chief, The Continuist) IG: @kazemoneyjad
By Keiran Gorsky (he/him)
I’ve never gone outside much.
I’ve made certain arguments that it’s not particularly worth it in Kilbride. It’s a little postal region, where like-minded people draw the curtains shut and agree collectively that this is somehow Kilbride and nowhere else. We take pleasure in ignoring boundary lines and planting signs up dutifully, tracking these six or perhaps seven hundred people who draw their curtains shut.
And for the most part, we can pretend it’s true. There are those who make the brave trek to the garage where John Deeres sat in like-minded shade. And they pass Brita Creek which feeds into Bronte at Cedar Springs. It goes out of sight before we have to leave Kilbride, clamping mouths shut on the inevitable, much larger stream that will come from the lake one day, that will see the numbers on the signs climb into four or five digits.
For now, though, it is mostly true when maps aren’t concerned. The map lumps us in with Burlington, and we took solace that at least it wasn’t Milton, who gladly panned in the big streams and saw their houses spring up around those streams like speculators.
I guess Dad respects those maps a little more though, because they showed us the way to the waterfront. Dad spent ten years more than I did in Kilbride, but it never seemed to have the same effect on him. Maybe when you go and live in so many places, they start to average out into some five digit number, so that the subsequent places don’t change so much. Or maybe a couple thousand treks up to the thirty-third floor of the Eaton Centre bring a certain ruggedness out of you —a ruggedness that gets you giddy like a dog cooped up too long or one that paddles you out to Georgian Bay in a big yellow kayak.
I would argue my case to stay behind the curtains on weekends, but I don’t think I ever won. We would settle sometimes and walk along the Bruce Trail. He would remind me on those treks, with a smile, that we could walk all the way to the Falls if we wanted to.
But usually he ruled in his own favour and we followed the map to the waterfront —the decently crowded Burlington Waterfront that felt like another country. There wasn’t so much going on as it might sound. The whole thing is structured like an amusement park trying to convince you it’s an amusement park because every new attraction comes just as you’re tiring of the place. The brick path is charming for a moment and the bicycle lane is a nice touch that leads to the playground, standing over the ever-changing burger joint that stinks of quinoa, streaming out to the little pool for seagulls and RC boats.
We passed these same landmarks on every trek, and I would internalize them as ever increasing percentages of walk behind us. We trudged all the way to the canal lift that should’ve been infinitely fascinating to a little boy, but that struck fear into me more than anything —fear that it would make way for some pompous freighter. The walk back was always more intriguing. There’s a pier on the waterfront that curls into the lake, but for the longest time, it curled to nowhere in particular. It sat under a sprawling crane that had gone and tumbled into the water, hiding in shame from the big tower you can see on clear days.
I think the construction phase left a bad taste in Dad’s mouth because it was the one part of the walk that didn’t seem to interest him. And in fairness, the thing is a hundred metres shorter than it was supposed to be and the beacon at the end still shimmers a little pathetically in contrast to the big tower across the lake.
But it didn’t bother me so much. And when it was finished, I came to like it a little. We would make the brief trek to the end of the thing and on certain days, the clouds were wonderfully prominent in the sky, but the sort that served only to harness overzealous beams of light and not the sort that conspired to expand the lake.
I smiled then, at the black and white ducks paddling in Lake Ontario –the ones with black and orange bills and long streaming tails, moaning when the waves got rough. It occurred to both of us one day that we didn’t know the names of these ducks that were so much more pleasant to look at than the umpteenth mallard. ‘Oldsquaw,’ it turned out, but they went and changed that thankfully enough. They are now, appropriately, called long-tailed ducks.
It struck me as a little odd that these animals had the great lakes to traverse, but that they paddled so closely —always paddled so closely to the brick path and to the pier. And well, they were only here for the winter months. They went and left when the overzealous beams melted everything away.
A lot of beams moved west and a lot of winters passed like this. I grew a little and my arguments grew a little in complexity and papery excuses. But even as I argued my case to stay behind the curtains, I would imagine the long-tailed ducks paddling in the water, moaning a little as they did, but paddling all the same. It gradually became pleasant to stand at the end of the pier; I would look over my shoulder to see that the brick path was still waiting behind me and then I would look back over the lake. When September came around, I knew, at least, that they would be coming soon.
Only, things were a little different one winter. It came in grade 11, streaming over the ocean. It felt inevitable, even inside. It felt inevitable when headlines peered through the curtains, and suddenly, my face had to be doubly inside. We managed until April, I think. It all seems a little blurry now, when we were waiting to see how many of us would die in the first few weeks. There were little blips between house and car and school when I would have to go outside, and now those were gone.
Perhaps there wasn’t so much change in Kilbride. A few more people locked their doors, maybe. Perhaps there wasn’t so much change for me. I sat on the couch, behind our new curtains without long strings apt for strangling curious kittens.
But the little things suddenly felt a lot bigger.
Little treks to the corner store for chewing gum or potato chips became more hassle than they were worth. Little treks around the neighbourhood, past Brita Creek, felt a little forced. I wanted so much to be like the people in those blog headlines who loved how this had changed them —ordinary people who had turned into morning joggers, helped on by a hopeful sunrise.
But I don’t think I felt anything. Or at least, I didn’t feel anything I would ever admit to. It was lonely I guess - a little more lonely than usual. But it was also wonderful.
School projects don’t take nearly so long away from school. Search engines are more efficient than note taking. Examinations aren’t so stressful without other people around. When your dad makes enough treks to the thirty-third floor of the Eaton Centre, you don’t have to worry much about anything. And that leaves you with a lot of time. A lot of time to do nothing in particular.
We all entertain these hypotheticals where we find a way to retire at 35. We all think we would go and travel, go and volunteer, go and write the great Canadian novel. But the truth is, nothing in particular can mean different things –different, stupid things to different people. It means spending your time doing too much of everything, and not getting particularly good at even the stupid things. Stupid things like clicking shiny headlines and moaning at the fallen state of Kids’ CBC and flying spacehips I purchased with hours of my finite life.
You tell yourself you’ll stop doing stupid things –maybe stop by the end of the week when things don’t feel the way they do. But now I reject the idea that the stupid things are any less fulfilling. I did these stupid things, PM and AM becoming quite interchangeable, and I felt wonderful doing them. And I would put on a frowning face at the state of the world, only to retreat behind the curtains.
When your dad treks to the thirty-third floor of the Eaton Centre every day, you can do bigger, stupid things, like buy a cottage. They bought that cottage before I was born, and we would go there some weekends. But when the situation went and got all concerning, we made the decision to retreat up to Owen Sound. Well, technically not Owen Sound.
Meaford isn’t Owen Sound and, specifically, our cottage is in Annan. Annan has a defiant little sign of its own, standing on Concession A. That road leads right to Sunset Beach, which is actually two roads leading right and left. On the right side is our cottage, triple the size of our home in Kilbride, standing next to a rack of colourful kayaks.
There really is no counter-argument in Annan –there is no reason to go out. There are trees and stones and fiddlehead ferns leading up to Concession A, which is connected to some more concessions. And if you travel far enough, you might find yourself at one in a series of Grey Roads.
It’s as good a reason as any to lose yourself in days of doing nothing in particular. I could look out the windows because there was surely no need for curtains and it was even more comforting to do nothing as the spruce trees waved in the wind.
And we all did that, to some extent. Mom and Dad had work to do and I had some work to do for some months. The rippled curtain in the guest bedroom, which had gradually become my bedroom, sprung down without a squeak. It blotted the outside out with impossible precision.
It started springing down at 2 or 3 AM because the sun would be coming up pretty soon. I had more time now when the sun ducked under the horizon and I wasn’t about to punish myself for making good use of that time!
I would make sure to lift that curtain up when my eyelids lifted up on account of some hungry feline. And I would spread across the couch, occasionally dispersing brunch crumbs between leather cushions, dragging my cursor across shiny headlines, occasionally looking up to acknowledge the spruce trees that were waving in the wind.
I acknowledged the trees less and less until I only really acknowledged them when they weren’t blotting out the sun so well. When the sun overstayed its welcome –when overzealous beams penetrated the window panes, I crawled back into the guest room behind the rippled curtain. But the days in Annan had a way of tying together.
One day, those beams would be prowling behind the screen and the next, they were stranded behind the clouds. It wasn’t like schoolwork suddenly became challenging under the warmth of bedsheets, as I sunk into the mattress. The shiny headlines ran over a dozen concessions, ducking the forest to reach us here. It reached me here in the guest room just the same.
The curtain that telepathized me though, seemed to draw Dad in the other direction. For some reason I will never understand, the road to the cottage affects him so much more dramatically than those that coast to the Eaton Centre. Working beside the windows where the spruce trees wave in the wind was quite like placing a chew toy next to the dog crate.
The dog crate, mind you, often caged a curly rascal. That rascal pawed on the glass in time with Dad. Sterling is a standard poodle who wins too many compliments to count and is who we brought home after a decade-long discovery process and legions of battered felines who surely could not have withstood such a rascal.
They would drive to Harrison Park after long days of exploring different sorts of reasonable limits. And Sterling would stick out like a beautiful sore thumb in Owen Sound. They would walk by the increasingly mini golf course, (usually it was the grandfather clock that was broken) strutting along the Sydenham River that runs to the fish ladder, bursting with salmon and trout.
The river runs to Georgian Bay and, more specifically, what Owen Sound calls a harbour. It was quite ambitious once apparently, but quite underwhelming now. Decidedly un-pompous, Algoma rustbuckets hibernate there in the winter I suppose, but the harbour is mostly decorated with catamarans and motorboats towed to the parking lot.
I was still dragged out to Harrison and to the waterfront more than I would like to admit. Even as my arguments increased in complexity, I felt as silly as ever making them –especially when they happened at particularly cheerful times on the outside. Birds were chirpin, and the waves were swaying on the wind and Dad would say something like:
“Isn’t it nice out here?”
And I would say:
“I guess,” so as not to sound totally unreasonable as I forced my eyes to roll.
“I was reading a study,” he would say, as if he had read it recently and hadn’t brought it
to my attention a dozen or so times, “And being outside in and of itself does wonders for
your mental health.”
“Can’t I just sit on the deck?” I would respond.
The compromise, in Annan, as opposed to the Bruce Trail, was the walk on Concession A. I will even concede that there was a difference –that walks past driveways and occasional agricultural license plates whizzing by were somewhat less pleasant. But it saved precious hours of flexible time, and we settled on that half the time even if it meant trudging up Sunset Beach.
Sunset Beach, mind you, is a road and a beach. We would conclude our walks on the lovelier beach portion, for Sterling’s sake, since Dad insisted he did not enjoy this walk as much as others.
We strode down the boardwalk –another argument I had lost –until I dropped a plank on Dad’s fingers. We strode down, and peered over Georgian Bay. It was always frustratingly, undeniably pleasant to look at on quiet summer days which consisted of nearly every day in Annan.
On the quietest days, where even the spruces were quite still, Dad would bring his big yellow kayak to the shoreline. He carried it over from the rack of cracked kayaks that also held a much smaller kayak, infested with cellar spiders and snail shells, and that paddleboard that tipped on even the quietest days.
I lingered on the end of that boardwalk that peeked through the woods and popped up on that shoreline. I found myself looking across the bay at gentle waves that reached to Griffith Island –the island and the old lighthouse you could see on particularly clear days.
I was standing next to the deck that Dad had built and the gazebo that Dad had also built which the winds of Georgian Bay had blessed with a half-missing roof. And I smirked a little because the thought occurred to me that he would be so happy if I offered to go kayaking today –to paddle across the bay to the lighthouse on Griffith Island.
I smirked though because it was a stupid idea. I had never kayaked that far and though my arms were a little bigger now, the sort of thing that compels you to paddle across Georgian Bay had spilled out of my blood.
My eyes wandered a little so I couldn’t consider it very thoroughly –wandering to the waves in the middle of the bay. They fixated on something in the water –paddling in the water and disappearing behind the waves in little spurts. It had the black and white of a common loon whose common call would send shivers down my spine from the guest room. But looking a little closer, I could see the orange decorating his bill and the long tail that streamed over his back.
I hadn’t seen them in Georgian Bay before. I hadn’t seen them anywhere before not so long ago, and now they were painting over the great lakes. He was paddling –paddling with others, and they had all traversed far from the shoreline. And they lingered there, disappearing in little spurts behind the little waves and occasionally, under the bay’s surface.
It was strange to see them at this time of year –stranger still to see the ones that were not so plainly black and white. They ought to be somewhere else right now like the books and the maps said. But they were here, instead, paddling on Georgian Bay, far-removed from stray scraps of food that often floated on the Burlington waterfront.In the moment when I forced my eyes to wander elsewhere, I realized that Dad and Sterling had gone back the other way over the boardwalk.
It wasn’t long before he was making trips back to the thirty-third floor of the Eaton Centre. At first he would disappear to Kilbride for days at a time if only to spend one on the thirty-third floor. And gradually, he let Georgian Bay and Harrison Park and the harbour slip away so he could make the trek up the elevator every day.
So often, I found myself by myself at the cottage. They would leave the poodle with me, I think, so that I would not fall over my increasingly quiet edge. And I would take him for the shortest walk I could manage –the one that cuts through the forest to the more populated side of Sunset Beach.
I would linger behind the curtain with mixed success. For one, Sterling has an affinity for Kleenex and his shenanigans would force me out where I could see the spruce trees waving on the wind. For two, when I ran out of headlines and spaceships to fly, I would occasionally find myself stepping outside and going down to the boardwalk, in the hopes that I would see more than just cackling seagulls.
Things are a little different now. I’m in Toronto now, which is, of course, quite the opposite of Annan and Kilbride. There are things outside and people outside, and people inside who don’t stay behind the curtains.
I can walk outside for the first time in my life, walk into some coffee shop bleating at me with a neon headline. I can get to school for the first time in my life by foot. I can walk under the shade of certain buildings and under the bright light that others reflect on me, going back and forth to Queen’s Quay.
I'm still with Mom and Dad, who rent and stay with me at Queen’s Quay because of those treks Dad makes to the thirty-third floor of the Eaton Centre. And Dad prefers walking there, which he too has never been able to do.
The curtain in my bedroom is controlled electronically, which, for whatever reason, seemed like the most interesting thing in the world to me. It was interesting, at least, until the curtain actually fell down over the window, and I immediately realized that it would not blot out the sun reflecting off the next building.
Now that school has resumed for what we hope is the last time it will have to “resume,” I am waking up a lot earlier than I would like. On certain days, I have to trek over to Gould at hours I hate seeing with open eyes. On other days, overzealous beams of light penetrate the buzzing curtain, and they don’t let me go back to sleep.
When I bask in light from my computer screen, I do not have so much time to wander where my fingers wander on the keyboard. Projects and assignments seem stupid sometimes, but a little less stupid than the stupid things.
I am not walking in the woods or through a quiet park, but everyday I am walking somewhere. I am walking somewhere where faces are beginning to become a little familiar and where the road ahead is beginning to become a little clearer. And in the mornings, sometimes, when Mom is back in Kilbride and when Dad is at the Eaton Centre, I find myself by myself with Sterling.
He has to go out in the morning, though I am infinitely thankful that he can last as long as he does. We take the elevator down thirty-five floors and cross the intersection at Queen’s Quay and York. We walk through the grassy area that condo dogs have collectively claimed and where Sterling receives too many compliments to count.
This morning, my first class is not until the afternoon. My eyes wander over to the waterfront, which I can see from out the window, but does not seem quite like a waterfront. That water is best known for the moving walkway ducking under it, shipping folks to that strange little airport on the island where six or perhaps seven hundred people find a way to dominate city council. It is grey this morning, in that gentle way suited for gentle mornings. It is gentle enough to give a chance.
I walk past the Tall Ship Kajama and the little skating rink and the little waves that crawl into the distance. I find my eyes wandering across those waves into the distance which crawl nowhere in particular. And I sit down on the ledge as Sterling watches people jog by on the jogging track.
I can see the big tower on my side of the water. You can always sort of see it in the corner of your eye. As far as I can tell, from this position, I could jump into Lake Ontario and I could swim and keep swimming and arrive nowhere in particular.
But I see something else in another corner of my eye. And I can see something bobbing up and down in the little waves. I can see them –all of them –all so black and white with their tails streaming over their backs.
It strikes me that some of them are still quite far from the boardwalk, bobbing nowhere in particular. But some of them are a lot closer. And they moan at the little ice chips floating in the water.
And I wonder, if someone asked me to, if I could argue that it is a little nice out here.