Your breathing is shallow, your back already clammy with sweat, and your face muscles are tight as though to gird the eyes from the threat of contact with another subway warrior. You struggle to lock your feet to your hard-won space, numbly counting the passing stations, begging that nothing mechanical or electrical goes awry, and hoping to God that you avoid catching whatever microbe is passing from pole to pole in that moving petri dish. And this is a good day on the TTC’s subway.
Okay, full disclosure: Prior to my pivotal 2015 decision to leave Toronto, I was no longer doing the daily grind of the crushing crowds, baffling signal problems, and infuriating mechanical malfunctions that probably continue to plague the city. Nor was I white-knuckling and jaw-clenching through traffic that would make some Kelowna heads spin at the realization that congestion on Harvey is quaint by comparison. Yes, in years past I had endured such ordeals but hadn’t had to do so for many years. In fact, I could walk to work. I imagine some of you are groaning right now. I know: so what was the problem?
First World angst always requires some detailed explaining. So here goes…
Over the years I had slowly come to see that Toronto was no longer my city. Sure, I was born in a hospital on University Avenue, had grown up singing “A place to stand and a place to grow, we call this land Ontario….,” and had lived most of my adult life there. But the escalating cost of living, the chronic transit challenges, and the crumbling infrastructure (the overhaul of which seemed chronically mired in indecision) made Canada’s biggest city feel less like an economic engine and more like a coal furnace on a ship steered by weary and exhausted passengers.
The bustle and surge that had once charged my battery now drew it down, leaving me delirious and dreaming of escape. I had everything around me but neither the energy nor the money to enjoy it all. Life in the city worked more in theory than in reality, much like the Twilight Zone episode from the 1960s where a hapless human is held captive by aliens in an environment constructed to resemble life on earth except for the one thing necessary for happiness — a sense of home.
Then there was my work life. Here you’ll get the abridged version of the story. Let me be clear. I worked for a good and growing company in the financial sector. The people, the culture, and the benefits were all considered pretty darned good by many in the industry. The firm’s performance represented, in my mind, the reason why many take on the strain of big city life: to work hard and make money. And while I liked my coworkers, the environment was just not one where I could bring my best talents and nature to bear. I felt like an NHL player in the NBA, with skills no one would ever see. As the unrelenting pace mounted and my efforts began to far outweigh my efficacy, burnout blindsided me and sent me stumbling to a quiet room where you take your shoes off (or leave them on), listen to Zen-like music, and chat with a kindly professional in order to put language to the primal scream echoing around in your head.
Flippant tone aside, I can say this was one of the most challenging and worrisome periods in my life. Fortunately, stress therapy was among the many company benefits, so I can thank the bank for my breakthrough, because it led to a breakout, reminding me that sometimes it’s simply time to go. But there was a third “break” on the horizon — the breakup — that would make me walk away for good.
In spring of 2015, a long relationship came to an end. I won’t go into the details. We’ve all been there. The second breakup is the real story. Toronto and I sat down, looked at each other, and decided we needed more space, and for me there was lots of it out west. To quote from the song “An End Has a Start” by the Editors:
You came on your own
That’s how you’ll leave
With hope in your hands
And air to breathe
My lungs and I were ready for Kelowna, where good friends from Ontario had moved and for a year had been encouraging me to visit. So, with a quick hello on Facebook and a few clicks on the Westjet site, I took the flight that would change my life and my conception of home. That part was easy.
Let’s jump ahead to September 2015, when I listed my condo to sell and market forces made me think a sale would not happen and I might be stopped at St. Clair Avenue forever, and not just on a stalled subway train!
Fear can either immobilize or it can motivate. That autumn, 600 square feet and I went to war with circumstance….