As a person who struggles with mental health at the best of times, winter in small town south western Ontario is especially hard. Coming off the tail end of four months of constant socialization and fun and parties and a two-way roadtrip across the country with some of my besties, lazy beach days in Manitouwadge and Oyama and living life amongst trees and friends and freedom, to a town so small it lacks a place to get a coffee (even Manitouwadge has that!) and horse and buggies at the post office and only the odd night of socialization at the Boot, winter in Clifford is quite trying. My job, as well. It isn’t trying in the sense that it is challenging, but rather in the sense that it is dull. I’m not sure how to take mashed potatoes and hot dogs seriously when I started my cooking career in the weeds, learning to make boudin blanc and gorgeous clear dashi, creme fraiche sat under cheesecloth on top of the bar fridge and poring fervently over copies of Lucky Peach. I spend most of my days daydreaming and resenting my current situation, struggling with my brief attempts at pragmatism.
It is a strange feeling to be becoming the person you always wanted to be. I am not the petty, shallow and insecure sad sack of crap I have behaved like previously (although I can be all three, petty, shallow and insecure. And sad.) The feeling of being so sad and hopeless that you have given up on even striving for what you believe in, the feeling of abject misery that fades into the feeling of nothing at all- the worst kind of sadness, where you are so unhappy and so without hope that you sabotage everything around you. I don’t want to dwell on this aspect too much, simply mention it, as it is important. As an idealistic teenager, I had globetrotting dreams and vagrant tendencies. Sometime in my first trying year in Toronto, I began to put those to bed, heeding the urges of “Success! Money! Success! Education!” that I heard. That, obviously, was not for me, so when treeplant happened and my alter-ego Bex came sprang forth in full form like Athena from the forehead of Zues, I was overjoyed. It was some sort of weird manifestation of self and identity and truth that I won’t dwell on too much either, let’s just say, I found and/or manifested myself into the person I am today. And being home, here, unbuilds it a little bit, piece by piece over the winter, until I’m wondering how I was the person who peed out the window of a moving bus or fell off a bus the first party night or, in fact, won “Sexiest Tree Planter 2016”.
I come home to a waiting message. “I can’t wait to be drunk enough to plant trees on the dancefloor,” and flashback vividly. My real life- the only bar in town, a rookie shitfaced enough to be on the tiny 12 by 10 dancefloor, planting trees as if it were a dance move. Standing by a fire while sparks fly in the air and locals ask us, “Parlez vous Francaise?” and we say, “Non,” and stare at how the sparks dissipate into the starlit night. When I’m doing a distasteful task at work like mixing powdered cheese into simmering milk to make cheese sauce, I remember that once, in a crowded mess tent, I picked out “Move, Bitch” as my song and put on my planting bags and danced, smashing a beer bottle with my planting shovel about thirty seconds in, wearing my friend’s size 13 safety boots. Another planter sits on the sideline- he’s just severed a tendon in his foot before the safety boots rule was implemented. I take my top off and throw it into the crowd, leaving the impromptu dancefloor and laughing hysterically.
Treeplanters on a night out in Toronto ransack downtown, bar hopping and terrorizing. Seven of us sleep on a friend’s floor, cooking apology quesadillas for his unforgiving roomate. When we think the night is done, we climb into the pool at Dunbat, naked, leaving our clothes on the other side of the fence. It must be twelve feet tall. For a few becalmed and wonderful minutes we swim, the sweet chlorine smell in our nostrils and pores. Traffic goes by on Dundas. I used to live in a basement bachelor called the Batcave a two minute walk away. It is all coming full circle as I swim laps, calm, zen. A security guard interrupts our reverie and we depart so hastily that the Aussie planter steps on a broken beer bottle during her descent from the fence, slashing open her foot so badly that she gets seventeen stitches in it the next day. Her girlfriend follows, falling and cracking open her skull, getting six staples to close it. The Quebecois lumberjack and I shrug and rent bikes while they sit in the emergency room, and we roll around Kensington and Chinatown and the waterfront trail where I once got in such a bad bike accident on Canada Day that my ex had to buy two shots of vodka for me before super gluing my finger back together. The next time we descend upon Toronto, I lead us on a pubcrawl ranging around my favorite dives and a walk through Little Portugal in Christmastime, taking a time-out to selfie with a nativity scene Baby Jesus. We go to Korean Karaoke in Christie Pitts, where the forest fairy punches a hole in the ceiling during a rousing rendition of “Part of Your World,” and we eat bugolgi across the road at Owl of Minerva at four in the morning.
Remember your real life and whatever manifestation of self or crazy alter-ego is yours, sleep through the long, dark winter and come back full force in the spring, looking for new ways to raise the bar.