The Rebuilding of a Life
“Maman, tu est formidable,” says my eight-year-old daughter as I struggle to push my queen-sized mattress up the third floor. This queen sized mattress, and my daughters’ art work is all that I have taken from my previous Mile-End home and eleven-year marriage. I am a part-time yoga teacher and a full-time University student and I can’t even afford this shithole that I will be sharing with a friend and her two daughters. My family is in Hungary and Australia and there is little they can do from there apart from being outraged. “I don’t understand why it is you that has to move out,” says my mother. “Well, you have really fucked this up,” says my father. None of this is very comforting, so here I go, once again, j’enfile mon pantalon and put on a brave face for my girls. It is harder for them. Not only am I moving them to this shithole, but I am “breaking up the family.” And I almost manage it – to look semi victorious – but the mattress is heavy and I am tired; so, so tired of cleaning, painting, working and studying. I am tired of being that Wonder-Woman, “la femme à tout faire.” I am afraid that soon I will crack and the tears would erupt out of me and my daughters will see me for the loser that I really am.
But Celeste is standing at the top of the stairs, smiling, and tells me that I am ‘great.’ Formidable, just when I feel like breaking. And she doesn’t know the power of her words that fuel the last push and the mattress makes it to the third floor. I make it too, without breaking.
A week later Celeste buys me a pot of salad to plant in our new balcony. After a month of rigorous cleaning, painting, caulking and repairing things we have finally settled in our new home and feel a little less broken. Friends who came to help us paint note that our ‘shithole’ is now a ‘château’ that welcomes them when they pass by unannounced, sometimes just for a hug, sometimes for a meal. I am grateful to be living here; grateful for this modest château that has become the sanctuary not only for my family, but also for friends in need.
With the new renovation skills that I have now acquired I take on painting and cleaning gigs during the summer and the girls sell lemonade in front of our house. I pay the rent and bills, am awarded a life-saving grant that allows me to stay at university, and we even manage to get ourselves to Australia to visit my brother in the winter.
That is what my daughter says I am capable of doing when I show her a picture of the ruin in the south of Italy that I am dreaming of turning into a writing/yoga centre. It is missing a roof and has plants growing in between its (three) stone walls, but no biggie. “I can see you doing your magic, mum. But this place will require a lot of magic.” Her confidence in me is infectious and I begin to believe that I’m some kind of a sorcerous, or a fairy, and nothing can stand in my way.
I used to have this (somewhat naïve, somewhat reckless) confidence in my twenties, when I boarded a plane to New Zealand with the first draft of my screenplay in the hope to find a producer for it (and I did). I had this confidence when I moved to New York City a week before 9/11 and three years later, when I moved to Madrid to learn Spanish. It was with this same confidence that I travelled to India to complete a yoga teacher training. How did I ever lose this (somewhat naïve, somewhat reckless) confidence, and my tendency to see life as magical, and my belief in being able to do magic? And who would have thought that I would find this confidence again in a pot of paint and spackle and my daughter’s eyes, who looked at my exhausted self, covered in sweat and paint and saw a formidable maman?
619 Bloomfield Avenue was the first shithole I renovated. Two years later I have to do it all over again on Avenue Van Horne. I am no longer intimidated. I know the magic I can do with a pot of paint, a few wooden shelves and plants. We don’t need much, but what we have is beautiful. And space – to move around, to do yoga, to dance – is also important. I have always been a minimalist, but books are my weakness. Although I enjoy listening to audiobooks when I walk, nothing compares to reading a book first thing in the morning and taking notes on the margins of the printed page. There are some traditions that are hard to let go of. Books make me feel at home, and feeling at home, no matter how small that home is, is important to me. Maybe because a sense of homelessness dominated much of my twenties and was also a central theme in my writing, especially in my play Someplace Else.
The home we live in is not ours; it is a rental. Temporary. Transitionary. I continue to dream about that run-down villa in Italy that I want to transform into a real château that would welcome artists and friends. In the meanwhile, every once in a while, my daughter reminds me to “look around.” I play the innocent and ask, “yes?”
“You did that,” she says. “Look at the beautiful place we have.” And she smiles (knowing that she has the best room in the house).
“We did that, together. And we can do it again,” I say, and I mean it.