The story of the well

and, on going home again.

Perhaps I could tell you, just as I have told it — a story that is. It is the story of how I came to go home, again. Home, at least one version of it. Which is Hamilton, Ontario, Canada via Reykjavik, Iceland. 

Which really added to the strangeness of it all, the Iceland part. On board Icelandair the sick bags are so well-designed they are, I kid you not, called aeronautical memorabilia. They serve pizza, accompanied by a selection of evoo oils (chilli or basil). All the flight attendants appear to have walked off the set of a Nordic Sound of Music. Everyone is in love. Someone emptied a filing cabinet into my brain and set it on fire; I’m making these pathetic, muffled screams but no one can hear because they’re too busy sharing oil-coated pizzas and being in love. I could tell you the story as I’ve told it before, but it wouldn’t be right, and no longer feels true. For what really happened is this: the floorboards finally rotted through, and I went pummelling into the well beneath them. 

Here’s the thing: I had known all about the well. I’d quietly been tending to it for months. Yes, at the very least it was a wasted use of my energy; at the very most an environmental hazard. I knew all about the well, and I knew that if it was discovered — by friends, family, landlord, the city council — I’d be swamped by scrutiny and dragged right through the front door. It would be for my own good, after all. 

Having become aware of the well’s existence, I felt responsible for it. I warmed to its depth; the sense of belonging we shared, cohabitating in my dusty flat. I’d place my head on floor to feel closer to its stillness. When the water began to rise, pooling under my feet, I bought a carpet. I returned one morning to find the carpet soaked, so I piled towels on top and tried to forget it. 

I had it all under control. I’d spend my days wading through muddy waters; I’d open my windows every evening and watch it slowly drain. It had been quiet, that morning. The well gurgled, happily; its ascent had calmed and the future seemed, for the most part, dry. 

Then, as the story goes, the floorboards snapped. 

And down I fell. 

••

Hamilton, Ontario is the 9th largest city in Canada. It is located an equidistance of 45-something minutes from both Toronto and Niagara Falls, traffic-dependent. The city is divided by the Niagara Escarpment, which Hamiltonians call The Mountain, even though it is not a mountain at all. 

It is home to more than 100 waterfalls. Also the first Tim Horton’s, which opened in 1964. Its streets have been the setting — as faux-New York, faux-dystopia — for hundreds of films and TV shows, including, most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s often referred to as ‘The Hammer’ or ‘Steeltown’, but also: ‘the armpit of Ontario’ (gross, rude), ‘the ambitious city’ (imo, also gross?) and ‘the Brooklyn of Toronto’ (grossest!). 

Hamilton is also the city where I was born. It is the home of heartbreak 1.0, high school and all that accompanied my early 2000’s teendom (a Nokia cellphone; pink penguin-patterned Vans; a retrospectively shallow but performative sadness; Hunter S. Thompson and other white, male beat writers; drinking daytime water bottle vodka in the mall). Back then, my recommended city hangs would include backyards, basements, Pizza Pizzas and parks. A few years later, and it would be a place called Absinthe, and something like 5 other bars and/or clubs, because I was 19 and taking shots to the song Shots was, regretfully, one of my favourite things to do. 

Hamilton, like everywhere else via the passing of time, has changed. There are many coffee shops and many artisan donut shops and artisan everything shops. A homage to the city’s industrial heritage, but also gentrification, is a very thriving craft brewery scene. There’s a lot of brunch going on. A lot of art going on. The mall now has a Sephora AND a Forever XXI. My parents now wear much cooler glasses. 

When I went back to Hamilton, via Reykjavik, it was mostly unintentional. What I mean to say, is that I could not have predicted flying on a one-way ticket to Canada wearing a pair of Timberlands I had previously reserved for ‘going to the One Stop’. I was not prepared to go home again. I was not prepared to wear emergency Reeboks. The whole falling-six-feet-underneath-my-floorboards experience had been surreal enough. Now, I was calling my parents to let them know what time I’d be home. Now, I was staring at the (painfully basic) teenage angst I had once Sharpie’d all over my bedroom walls.

What they don’t tell you about leaving home is that you can never go back. This is a truth my mom will vehemently deny. She’ll read this, and say: you can come back, of course you can come back. What have I done that makes you think you can’t come back? 

And yes, in a literal sense, I can come back. I can stand in my childhood bedroom and stare at the walls. I can lie on the couch and watch Gilmore Girls with my sister and my family’s Jack Russell Terrier will step on my face en route to a comfier spot. I can eat Tim Horton’s bagels, entire bags of sour cream and onion chips and every other delicious Canadian carbohydrate. If I close my eyes, it can all feel the same. But the couch has been upgraded; Rory Gilmore got pregnant; our dog has aged well beyond his years; my metabolism has gone to shit. I stare at my walls and I know that I can never come back; that the person who scrawled this Great Gatsby quote has been replaced, several times over, by a whole new set of cells. 

What they don’t tell you is that when you leave, whether that’s to England or down the block, that one day the you that you knew will seem as real as a familiar stranger in a dream. That sometimes, you’ll feel the ghostly coolness of an old personality pass on through you. That the places you once haunted will be replaced by artisan donut shops and a more stylish crew of spectres. What they don’t tell you is that, like it or not, you can not return to the you that you once were, or escape the you that you will be. And maybe she will be wearing emergency Reeboks, with no idea of what to say.

••

Sometimes, when I was fed up of watching whatever shit movie a high school teacher decided to distract us with that day (in a creative writing course, lol) I would skip class and go downtown. I have always loved cities, and Hamilton was the first. A favourite activity of mine — when I wasn’t hanging out in bubble tea shops and watching my friends smoke tiny, flavoured cigars (partook like once or so, soz dad) — was to walk around alone and just straight up absorb all the wonderful absurdity. Just a bunch of human strangers all bumping into one another trying to get where they’re going or be where they are. 

I’d drink takeout coffee, because it made me feel so very adult (still does), and visit the stores along King St. East that sold rock t-shirts and bongs and shoes made specifically for pole dancing. Everything seemed so strange and immense and alive. I’d dream about my future apartment on James St. North. Which wasn’t a dream about a living space but instead, an aspirational version of life in my 20’s that involved more coffee, many books, much wine and boho-indie everything — including, probably, a boho-indie boyfriend. 

Sometimes, when I skipped class, I’d walk along King St. East to the Art Gallery of Hamilton so I could stare at a painting of a horse running towards an oncoming train. This painting, I’ve have recently learned, is by an artist called Alex Colville and is called: Horse and Train. The painting was bought by the gallery in 1957; in a letter written to the Director of AGH, Colville expressed his delight at its purchase. 

“I have always thought it was quite good,” Colville wrote.“But realised that few individuals would buy it for hanging in a house (most people seem to consider it exceedingly morbid) .” Critics have interpreted Horse in Train in several ways; they talk about the influence of existentialist philosophy on Colville’s work and his service in the second World War. Of his ability to capture moments “perpetually on the edge of change and the unknown”.

Had I planned to write this story, the one I have told - in one way or another - over and over again, I might have thought to visit that painting. It might have seemed poetic, that kind of circularity. I could end on some note about the edge of change; on standing with your old self to face something new. On the surrealness of it all; the days I spent rearranging the filing cabinet in my brain so that I could make sense of what had happened, and why. 

This story could have ended with me, staring at the painting, like I had done with my walls, and recognising some kind of continuity in it all. I could have described some feeling of hopefulness, or wellness, or wholeness, or whateverness.

Instead, I ate a nacho salad with my dad and we laughed and we talked about life like we were long-lost friends; in a way we’d never had before, but knew we would again. That is the best ending for a story of the well that I’d never wanted to write, in Reeboks I’d never expected to wear. And it is the exact moment where I’d begin again.

an epilogue 

It makes me feel v. sad that in every epilogue of this newsletter, I need to confirm that yes, it is still a newsletter and that there will be more newsletterness soon. But I fell into an f-ing metaphorical well, so hopefully you can understand the silent inbox interim.

The future is now, pals. We got this. I got this. Okay.

Here are your *bonus* recs for this week:

  • Every book by Canadian author Miriam Toews. Especially: All My Puny Sorrows. Which I absorbed in like, two days while in psychological purgatory. It is a book that will get its claws around your heart and lock it in a bloody squeeze and you will be so, so thankful for it.

  • The awardsforgoodboys Instagram account. Which makes me lol on a regular basis and should be followed by just, like, everyone.

  • Lays Sour Cream & Onion chips (crisps 4 my British readers). Bad for health; amaze for taste. Would 10/10 recommend (unless you plan on getting real close to another human’s face. In that case, it’s a strong no from me).

Sweet. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! 

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xo,

j