Goodbye to All That

Wednesday 6 July 2011
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.”
- Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That

There is no piece of writing that punches me in the gut like Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That. Though I have never had the chance to fall in love with New York City as Didion did in her twenties, I did fall in love with another city — one that seemed only mine to discover as a 19-year-old transplant.

I can only assume that Ottawa is not nearly as glamorous or exciting as New York City, but for me, it was my own — a new world with new friends and experiences that was difficult to leave behind. Like Didion, I know exactly when my life there began: I was an optimistic journalism student, having just packed up my most important belongings into my parent’s Ford Taurus wagon, and leaving many other things, including a new relationship, behind.

The end is far more ambiguous. I know for certain it didn’t end four and a half years later when I once again packed my life into boxes, this time moving from Ottawa back to my hometown. It may have ended months earlier, when questions began spiralling in my head: Should I stay? Should I go?

More likely, it ended months, maybe even a year later, when I finally finished struggling with the idea that maybe I made a mistake by leaving. That maybe it didn’t matter that my job prospects and relationship prospects (I stayed with the boy from the new relationship mentioned above, and I’m still with him today) were far better in Hamilton, because I so dreadfully missed my friends, part-time job, and freedoms of being a student equipped with a hefty loan and all the time in the world to accomplish all the things that need accomplishing.

“ ... one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” - JD

For awhile, I felt defined by that time of my life — the sun coming up over the Rideau Canal as a slight hangover began to take hold; reading on the shore of the Ottawa River; my first taste of political activity on the lawn of Parliament Hill; attending lectures on campus, even those that weren’t mandatory. In my twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three-year-old head, these experiences couldn’t be recreated anywhere else with anyone else.

"Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about."

"You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there. In my imagination I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May." -JD

Those days did come to an end, and when I return to Ottawa now, it is as a visitor who sometimes feels unfamiliar with the city —a Shopper's Drug Mart has sprung up beside the old movie theatre where I would catch double features when I should have been studying; new bartenders at my favourite pub don't know my order (bruschetta and a Caesar); and students ten years younger than I am now take summer classes and work part-time jobs, unsure of what lies ahead. 

Some things seem exactly the same — the smell of an elevator or lying on my stomach with a book on Parliament Hill can send me right back, as though I never left at all. This most recent trip was no exception, a mix of  unfamiliarity and comfort that you can only experience in a city you once loved, but had to leave behind.

I walked from my temporary home in Carleton's residences to an old favourite, Octopus Books, only to find it closed for the long weekend. My heart sunk a little. 

 So I headed to Parliament Hill, snapping this photo of the Parliamentary library. It is the only part of the original buildings that was not destroyed by fire.

My book of choice was An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorjan. 

My heart sunk for the second time of the day, this time when I realized my beloved Book Market on Dalhousie was closed for good. 

The obvious cure was a Caesar (well ... two) at my favourite pub, just steps from the empty Book Market called The Highlander. The staff has changed, but the Caesars are just as good as I remember.


  1. This is so beautiful. And so apt, as I am even now waiting to board a plane to Edinburgh, where I too will be looking back on a life once lived.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Thanks so much, Amanda! Enjoy your trip! I can't wait to read your posts about it.

    - Jessica


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