Friday, March 4, 2016
Cities in Books - A Waste of Words: On Learning That They Are Not
The descriptions of cities in books used to seem like a waste of words to me.
While I skipped school, riding buses and subways around Toronto—uptown, downtown, outskirts of town—voraciously reading book after book, I would approach these descriptions with snobby annoyance. “Tell me what they’re thinking, who these characters are! Tell me why they think what they think! Tell me what they’re going to do and why! I don’t care about the city, I care about who they want to include in their lives and the description of themselves.”
As I tied my school uniform’s burgundy sweater around my waist, feeling it tickle the back of my bare thighs--exposed despite the school rules about the length of our skirts-- I’d change the tape in my Walkman from “Metallica” to “The Pogues” and step off the subway. Smiling at strangers and delighting in the smell and wind of Toronto underground, I would promise myself that one day I’d write equally moving novels as the ones I collected insatiably, but I’d use less wasted words. Describing cities and sunsets was for painters and poets, not novelists.
Adventuring the city in search of quaint or hip or sophisticated coffee shops and book stores I celebrated with my soul the energy around me, stopping often to comfortably and curiously chat with strangers. Asking them with deep interest what they were thinking and why. Who they were and who they wanted to be. Noting without judgement how they reacted to me—my age, my appearance, my school skipping, my beliefs, my reasons for things. Suspending judgement of them and of myself, judgement that I couldn’t ignore or not imagine when I returned to whatever hometown my beautiful single mom of eight was creatively trying to make us feel comfortable and accepted in.
I would switch the tape in my Walkman from “The Pogues” to “Chopin” and walk with characteristic speed down the older streets of the city, imagining myself as so many different kinds of people living in the old stone homes with their promise of drafty rooms and strong wood, sporting grand trees in small yards. I was a single mom of many messy children, a rich woman with a doting husband and two tidy daughters, or living with a group of women whose children would think of each other as cousins.
Later, in the busier parts of the city, busting a move by changing the tape in my Walkman to “Young MC” I would imagine myself as a bossy business woman living in a newly built condominium, or a bartender with eclectic cozy furniture in an apartment above a store, or a writer—anywhere.
Discovering a delightfully warm patch of sun on a deliciously cool day I’d sit beneath a tree and read. Rolling my eyes again at descriptions of cities or towns. Putting away my Walkman and listening to myself.
Eventually, after changing the tape in my Walkman from “Young MC” to “The Smiths” I’d sigh goodbye to Toronto and climb aboard transit headed out of town, heading to my home and the people who loved me.
My people. The people who I would share my reasons with; my thoughts of who I was and why I did things and how they fit into the story of the me I was trying to be. My family.
Soon, though, I’d find myself craving the energy and anonymity I’d grown addicted to in the city.
Toronto is in my story, I know that now. She’s not a waste of words but instead part of why I think what I think, and why I do things I do. She’s someone I include in the description of me.
Reading has helped me become who I am. Not only because of the places it takes me but also because of the narration I hear myself add while I’m in those places.
Was I refusing, mocking even, these descriptions because I didn’t want to risk falling in love with new cities? Was it a misguided unwillingness to risk my loyalty to Toronto? Or was I truly unwilling to see the irony?
Probably. All of that. I was a young girl skipping school and craving stories. Loyalty, moral ambiguity, and blindness to ourselves are elements of the stories I craved.
I haven’t been to Toronto in over fifteen years. Though I love her deeply, and I describe her –the her I once knew, anyway—often. Especially to my children.
My sons, all four of them, are rocking out to “Mariana’s Trench” on their smartphones while writing and living their own stories. Stories that include the energy and descriptions of different towns and cities than mine. Descriptions I would not now consider skimming over, ignoring, or rolling my eyes to.
Descriptions that are not at all a waste of words.
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Author's Note: If you enjoyed this story, I invite you to check out my book Spinning in Circles and Learning from Myself: A Collection of Stories that Slowly Grow up. It's, well, a collection of stories. And, you know, they slowly grow up! Thank-you with all of my heart for taking the time to read things that I write. Honestly and truly, you are a gift. xoxo