Farewell to Nova Scotia, Part I

This is it—finally.  After nearly four years of off-again and on-again, after dozens of calls to movers and U-Haul companies and hundreds of searches of apartments in places as scattered as West Quebec and Victoria, B.C., you can count on my being out of this city and province by the end of August, unless some utter disaster should transpire between now and then.  By utter disaster, I mean contracting COVID or some other life-threatening illness, or being hit by a bus. At this point, nothing less could keep me here.  I’ve rented a place in the Hull quarter of Gatineau, in West Quebec, just outside of Ottawa.  The moving truck is due to come on Wednesday, August 26.  Two days later, I’ll be driving myself and my most fragile items out of town in my trusty old Camry. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be unloading that Camry at my new home late in the afternoon of Sunday, August 30.

          How can I even think of leaving such a beautiful place?  Don’t think I haven’t asked myself that same question at least a hundred times over the past few years. All the things you’ve heard about the place’s funky charm, its sheer liveability, the presence of all kinds of culture at a fairly reasonable price, and the clean air, ready access to the sea and excellent seafood are absolutely true.  And these are definitely things I’ll miss in my new home, though West Quebec (as well as Ottawa) has plenty of culture of its own available—provided that COVID allows us to access it.

          The short answer to the previous paragraph’s tough question is that, beautiful though Nova Scotia is, I really don’t belong here.  This has been made clear to me, over the past two years in particular, in a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, ranging from total rejection from the one close family member I have living here to a complete inability to find a life partner, despite a decade’s diligent searching both on the Internet and through more personal channels, and taking in numerous rejections from Metro Halifax’s theatre and literary communities along the way.  After years of blaming myself for all these failures and rejections, I concluded that maybe it really wasn’t me, but the place, and that if I wanted to make the most out of my remaining years, I would need to leave the province.

          No one could say I haven’t given Nova Scotia a good, thorough try.  In addition to having become thoroughly acquainted with both Halifax and Dartmouth (much of the latter a mystery even to many life-long Haligonians), I’ve seen a good deal of the rest of the province, ranging from Yarmouth and Annapolis Royal to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck and the Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay, and including even such remote spots as New Ross, dead in the middle of the province.  I don’t think there are all that many residents of Nova Scotia (including lifelong ones) who have seen more of the province than I have.  There remain only two places of note on my Nova Scotia “bucket list,” the military fort at Louisburg, in Cape Breton, and Old Sherbrooke Village.  The latter, at least, I hope to get to see before decamping.

          Necessary though it may be, this change of venue isn’t something I undertake lightly. Moving is a major hassle at the best of times, particularly in old age, when one must sort through the detritus of an entire adult life in preparation for the moving van’s arrival.  There are so many things, big and small, to attend to, from possessions to be packed or discarded to insurance policies to be changed, that the most careful sort of planning is required if one is to avoid being overwhelmed the final week before the move.  Even with such careful planning in place, I’m already beginning to feel occasional moments of panic, three weeks before my scheduled departure date.  The normal stressfulness of the situation has been significantly aggravated by the COVID epidemic and by a sudden flare-up of my longstanding hernia condition, which means that I am physically unable to do much of the packing and loading of the car myself, and must therefore hire people to help me.

          The thought of leaving gives me no joy. As I prune my books and papers and decide which pieces of furniture to keep, I feel the same kind of grief I might expect to feel at the end of a long-term relationship, perhaps even a marriage. 

          There’s a lot of history to get over.  I’ve invested 16 years of my life in this province—six years in my first stint here, during the 1970’s, and now another ten-plus in my second stint, which began at the end of 2009.  Not only did I do my graduate work in English here, I met both my wives here, started writing poetry and doing Yoga and modern dance here (during my first stint) and started doing theatre and singing here (during my second stint).  My older daughter was born here, at the Victoria General (VG) Hospital.  And the place has been a refuge and a haven to me, not once or even twice, but three times.  All of this is hard to give up.

          Nova Scotia in general and Halifax in particular were little short of a promised land to me when I arrived in September of 1970 to take up graduate English at Dalhousie. Before coming here from the U.S., I’d had practically no money, no job and few prospects of one, and no sense of what my future might be.  Those familiar with the late American psychologist A.H. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” will recognize the situation as one involving deficiency with regard to the basic physiological and safety needs at the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.  Failure to satisfy these needs in the U.S. bred in me some pretty extreme anxiety, which resulted in a major panic attack during the spring of 1970 and steady mid-level anxiety throughout much of the summer of that year.  Becoming a graduate student in Dalhousie’s English department satisfied most of those basic needs in one fell swoop, and thus eliminated most of the anxiety I’d had earlier in the year.  I had a job (as an English student and teaching assistant) and would continue to have one, provided I performed well enough, for the next several years.  My fellowship, though modest, was enough to pay tuition, room and board, and even provided me a small amount of spending money each month.  The fact that Canada, unlike the U.S., had public health care available relieved me of any possible concerns on that score. 

           Soon enough I had a fair number of friends, as well as a lover or two, most though not all drawn from the same English program in which I was enrolled.  Though few of us had much money, we all managed to have a pretty lively social life.  In many ways, my first three years at Dalhousie were the happiest of my entire life.  It wasn’t until the later years of my doctoral program, when I began to get close to completing the program and preparing to go out into the academic world in search of a teaching job, that the seamier side of Nova Scotia life would start to reveal itself.

          As had been the case in 1970, when I first learned I was going to be moving back to Halifax, at the end of 2009, my feeling was one of great relief.  At the Ottawa head office of my employer, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), I was in senior management’s bad books for having, in my capacity as union-side health and safety representative, strictly enforced the health and safety law.  It had been made abundantly clear to me by senior management that they would make my life hell for me for this capital offense, at least as long as I stayed in Ottawa.  In the case of my union-side colleague and dear friend, Denise Giroux, who unlike me was not in a position to leave the area, they made such a hell of her life that she was forced to take stress leave.  Being unattached, and not owning a house in or around Ottawa, I was able to leave. I figured there would be a lot less management interference in my life if managers had to board a plane and fly for two hours to see me than if they simply had to walk down two flights of stairs, as had been the case in Ottawa.  And I was absolutely correct.  I was never again bugged by senior management once I arrived here.  Workwise, the place was everything I could have wished for.  I had what strikes me in retrospect as the best of all possible arrangements for my two final years of doing the always difficult, conflict-ridden job of being a labour relations officer for a union.

          Outside of work, however, it was quite a different story.  During my first stint in Halifax, I’d had, as noted above, many friends and an active, even lively social life.  Before my first marriage, I’d even been a bit of a lothario, sowing my wild oats fairly freely in a graduate program where there were plenty of bright, attractive women available.  On my return, 31 years after my departure to take an out-of-province teaching job, I found that many of my old friends had left, some no longer wished to see me, and a couple had died.  I did have a few friends left from my time in Ottawa, when I would often spend summer vacations in Nova Scotia, and I made one more friendship on the tennis courts.  But people were busier now, and (aside from my one tennis friend and a work colleague who became a friend), I’d be lucky to see any of them even as often as once a month.  Far more nights than was good for either my physical or mental health were spent alone, listening to music and drinking single malt Scotch.

          If my quest for a lively social life proved difficult, my quest for a relationship proved downright futile.  An arduous search on several different dating sites yielded little but rejections—mostly polite but occasionally downright rude.  More than once I had great correspondences with women, and sometimes even great telephone relationships, only to find the women in question fleeing me as soon as they decently could once we’d met in the flesh.  Except for one six-month out of town relationship, with a woman from North Carolina I’d met through the E-Harmony dating service, no other relationship I had between 2010 and 2014 lasted more than six dates, with most being of considerably shorter duration than that.  Two platonic relationships, between 2014-5 and 2015-6, did last longer, but since 2017, I haven’t made it past three dates with any woman from Nova Scotia.  It’s all part of a now-familiar pattern:  As I’ve kept growing in knowledge and understanding, and improving in physical health as well, I’ve had a harder and harder time being accepted. For years I tried to riddle out how this could be, before finally giving up on the attempt last year.

          It may or may not have been coincidental that starting in late February of 2010, just a couple of months after I’d moved back to Halifax, I was hit by what I now realize was a moderate-level depression.  Had I been more in touch with my feelings, I might well have recognized such a depression as a symptom of the things I was lacking in my new-old city: love, affection, close friendships, and literary fellowship chief among them.  Not until the summer, when I was playing lots of tennis and doing plenty of swimming at the Waegwoltic Club and looking forward to an epic cross-country trip in August, did the depression finally lift.  After it had lifted, and I had taken that epic trip (much of it by train), I was hit by a number of other health problems ranging from a large boil on my rear end to high blood pressure and the beginnings of prostate cancer—afflictions which may or may not have been connected to that earlier bout of depression.

          The province’s literary community would come to be a major source of disappointment.  Although I received Writers’ Council (professional membership) status in the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia around 2011, this did not for many years parlay itself into any workshop or teaching gigs.  Every year I would apply to be a Writer in the Schools, and every year I was turned down, until finally, in 2018, after I had just about given up hope, I landed a 1 ½-day gig in a middle school in Kingston, in the Annapolis Valley.  My attempts to land other workshop gigs were equally unavailing.  As for any sort of fellowship resulting from my membership in WFNS—forget it.  Here there was nothing like the monthly talks and/or readings we’d always had at Ottawa Independent Writers (OIW), sessions often followed by lively conversation over beer and munchies at a nearby pub.  Most of my time here, I’ve felt like one writing in a vacuum, just as I would if I didn’t belong to WFNS or any local writers’ organization at all.        

          The Nova Scotia Seniors’ College and community theatre seemed, at first, to offer more promise.  Having, to my amazement, discovered that one of my old Dalhousie English professors, Harry Whittier, was teaching for the Seniors’ College in 2010, I decided to give it a shot myself.  So at the end of 2012, after I’d retired, I applied, and was accepted to teach a course on “Getting Started with Writing.”  My approach to teaching writing, which featured minimal lecturing on my part and the maximum possible amount of student participation, at first proved popular, and over the next couple of years, I would teach a sequence of three writing courses as well as an introduction to poetry course, generating considerable repeat business along the way.  But the writing sequence would be nowhere near as popular the second time around, and by the middle of 2017, by which time I had taught half a dozen courses, my star was no longer in the ascendancy. I would never again be given a course to teach in Metro Halifax, though I did manage to get three to teach in Truro, an hour’s drive away, between 2018 and 2020  thanks to the understanding of the course coordinator there, Phil Warman.

Part II will appear tomorrow.

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