The Power of Place

The suitcases are stacked in a pile in the corner of our youngest daughter’s bedroom. A beam of sunshine streams through a sliver of space between the threadbare curtain and barred window illuminating the obvious of which I’m trying to ignore. They stare at me with mocking pretention daring me to finish what I started just three short weeks ago. A late night conversation between husband and wife that had been ongoing for weeks, a discussion that would often end in tears and a decision that would propel us towards a separation – not from each other but for each other. “I’m leaving because I love you,” I said, trying to convince even myself. We made the decision together. And together we must follow through on our promise to put family first. 

There are three large suitcases and three carry-ons – the usual combination when we travel together as a family of four. This will be their final journey together because soon they and we will be divided - three of us in Canada and one in the Philippines. This scenario wakes me up at night, causing me to catch my breath in a panic. I reach over to check that my husband is lying there next to me in the bed. I quickly cozy up, breathing in the smell of him. His back and neck, a warm refuge for my fitful thoughts. He too is awake, staring sleepily into his phone, desperately trying to confirm some form of logistics back in Canada that will ensure his “girls” will be okay without him. It’s only five months I tell myself. But the number doesn’t dissolve the ever-present panic that is stuck somewhere between my heart and my ribcage. The spot that has felt tied up in knots for far too long; the part of me that pangs and questions my ability to solo parent for an extended stretch of time; the part of me that knows that my daughters and I are unwell; that a return to Canada is not a choice but a requirement.

Friends and family tell me that I’m stronger than I think. I’m not convinced of this fact, however, I need to start believing it because believing will take me halfway there. Never underestimate the power of place. Physical, emotional, the health of your home, your daily commute, the people you surround yourself with – place plays a pivotal part in who we are, how we feel and how we move thru the world. It can have an intoxicating or toxic affect. I can only share my version – the one that has played a profound part in the transition to my current place and state of mind. 

“If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” 

-      Mo Willems, Creator of children’s books

These words of wisdom came to me at the most opportune time – in the form of a Facebook post that popped up on my feed. The brilliant and inspiring writer Rania Naim wrote a poignant piece for Thought Catalogue inspired by Willems’ quote titled “You’re Allowed to Leave.”I clicked on the link and was swept up in a detailed descriptive of my life. First came the tears. Then frustration. And finally the light. It’s as if she were speaking directly to me. We could be best friends sitting in a coffee shop sipping our lattes and having one of those soul-replenishing talks about life, love and the Universe. Naim had put into words every emotion I was feeling. Every thought that had passed thru my messy mind in the last 17 months. She also saved my family from permanently breaking apart. 

“You’re allowed to leave a city that has dimmed your light instead of making you shine brighter.” 

We moved to Manila in July 2016 after four years back in Canada. I’ve spent more time outside of my homeland than in it. In my twenties and thirties I embraced the adventure of exploring new countries and cultures. When the offer came up at my husband’s job to move our young family to the Philippines I was both excited and nervous. Excited at the opportunities and experiences that awaited us in Southeast Asia and nervous about the numerous vaccines booked on the calendar, graphs of pollution levels and rumors of horrific traffic that often overtook the capital city. I was also for the first time feeling rooted and was sad to say goodbye to my friends and the country I had learned to love again after so many years away. 

The idea of moving to the Philippines sounds exotic. The islands and countryside are a wealth of emerald green and white sandy beaches surrounded by pristine blue waters. Manila is not this. Manila is traffic. Manila is pollution. Blaring horns. Bus wars. It’s a mishmash of concrete and glass. Manila is a city confused by its own chaos. The traffic can quickly become all consuming – dictating and directing us to a schedule that allows no wiggle room for play dates or a ballet class across town or even grocery shopping. Forget leaving the house if it starts to rain, is 3pm on a Friday or the 15thor 30thof the month (pay day.) My day-to-day life was decided by traffic. 

There were few things in Manila that would impart a sense of calm for me. When these things did appear, often in the form of a burning sunset sky or a cool tropical rainfall - it soothed my sensitive soul. I embraced each and every moment that allowed me to experience this Zen-like mindset – a welcome departure from my usual frazzled state. The sound of blaring horns, the layers of traffic, the putrid smells of garbage that permeate the air and the visual pollution that obstructed my ability to breathe deep and believe that this is now where I call home. Manila broke my spirit and dimmed the light that lived inside me – the light, which had first sparked my desire to discover new worlds. 

The fatigue of living in a city that drained me of all energy is what motivated the move back to Canada. That and the fact that our two children were always sick. Pollution and climate affected my ability to enjoy Manila. Toxic air and high humidity worsened an already existing health condition leaving me unable to type this story without wincing in pain. I could no longer avoid the insurmountable pain caused by my surroundings. I could no longer ignore the dark circles that had taken up permanent residence on the beautiful faces of our two children. When back in Canada for short visits, I feel less pain within days of our arrival. The girls stop coughing at night and the dark circles disappear from under their eyes. The skin parasite that resides in their chubby upper arms fades and begins to clear. 

A few months ago my husband was on a work trip when our youngest daughter fell sick with a high fever that wouldn’t break. My first thought was, “How the fuck am I going to get her to the hospital with all this damn traffic?” Did I really want to live in a place where traffic is my biggest obstacle when it comes to my children’s health?

For a tourist on a stopover before flying to one of the exotic islands, Manila is a colourful and chaotic experience; but just that - an experience – not daily life. The everyday struggles are not what I envisioned when we boarded a plane 17 months ago and waved goodbye to the Rocky Mountains and the sparkling shores of the Pacific Ocean. 

Manila in my mind is the place that broke me. But it is also the place that forced me to figure out how to build myself back up. Manila and all its challenges have allowed me to see how the perils of the past and present can shape a newfound sense of purpose and strength. I am inspired and motivated to write (in spite of the pain) more than ever because writing is my out – my escape from the daily drudgery of life in Manila – and most importantly, writing imparts me with intention - to find my light and shine brighter.  

“You’re allowed to look in the mirror and actually likethe person you see.”

The overbearing cityscape of dilapidated buildings and blaring horns is mercifully replaced with swaying palm trees and open fields of glistening green. The sky is clear with not a smidge of smog in site. I immediately feel my internal rhythm return to a slower, calmer and more familiar pace. 

As we drive north along the hot black highway the sun beating down thru the sliver of open sunroof I make a point to take in every small detail of my surroundings. This last drive north on the island that has been our home these past 17 months infuses a bittersweet sense of loss and longing. This is the Philippines I envisioned in my winter weary mind two years ago when my husband came home from work one dark December evening and asked if I thought we should move our family to Southeast Asia. I had travelled extensively throughout the region in my twenties and thirties, both as a single woman and newlywed. After 7 years in North America I felt a small yet persistent nudge pushing me back to this part of the world that had captured my heart two decades ago. The big picture presented us with an increased income and an opportunity to save money. Sandy white beaches were an appealing draw after four winter seasons of stuffing our two young daughters into snowsuits. But the lush green landscape before me was no longer an appealing adventure but a much-needed escape from a city and lifestyle that had literally made us all unwell. 

The girls have drifted off to sleep in the backseat. I pull down the mirror in the passenger side visor and am shocked by my reflection – is that a glimmer of hope I see? The serene surroundings and open stretch of highway have that affect on me. My body and face relax and with that comes a much-needed surge of happiness. Smiles are rare nowadays. I’ve become accustomed to avoiding mirrors. I do not like what I see. Exhaustion. Sadness. Despair. It’s all too much and does not reflect the person I want to be – the person desperate to feel strong and happy again – the person who loves to laugh and smile at strangers – the woman who adores her husband and is in awe of her children. That person has been invisible to me since the physical pain and emotional break overtook every aspect of my being. 

When we returned to Canada’s wild and windy west coast in the summer of 2017, after 5 weeks back I saw generous glimpses of the woman I once was. My posture was proud, there was energy in my voice and a positive outlook on life in general. I had been working with a naturopath who pinpointed the key issues. There was still a lot of work to do, however, I felt hope for the first time in forever. I went back to Manila with unexpected optimism only to be defeated within two months time. 

The children started coughing and looking unwell. We all started to lose weight again. My pain returned and I avoided looking at my reflection in the mirror because it made me cry. 

“You’re allowed to pick the kind of energy you need in your life.”

Our house in Canada – the family home my husband had renovated in a flurry upon our return from Boston in 2012 with a 15-month old and pregnant wife – was now stripped of all the things that made this house a home. Gone was the photo wall that traced our early beginnings of dating and travel right up to recent photos – my favourite a photo of our two girls sitting on the back porch, arms intertwined around each other with goofy grins – it was now packed away in a box. Gone were the toys and piles of pink and purple tutus. Gone was my bookcase crammed with treasured editions of Voguemagazine and dog-eared copies of classics I’d taught as a high school English teacher. As I stood barefoot in our light filled kitchen, surrounded by only stark white walls and the Brazilian cherry wood floorboards we had picked out in Boston with our first baby strapped to my chest in the carrier, I wondered if we had in fact made the right decision in accepting this posting abroad. 

This home had been the longest place I had lived in since I was 18. We bought and remodeled this house to reflect our aesthetics – lots of light, clean barren walls and a back porch that extended out into the yard where we spent many summer nights eating takeout Thai after the girls had gone to bed. It was a home full of memories. 

The house in Manila was not a home. As hard as we tried to make it such, we could not feel at home. Shoddy design and dark shaded rooms made for a rather unwelcoming introduction. But more importantly, the house was not healthy. After months of feeling unwell and wondering why we finally figured out that the house was infested with mold. It was in the furniture and most shockingly – in all of the A/C units. We had requested a mold check a few months after we moved in when everyone became sick. It took over a year to schedule the appointment. By that time, the girls and I had already moved back to Canada. 

“You’re allowed to leave any story you don’t loveyourself in.”

I put on the prettiest top in my closet. But this does not exonerate me from the crimes I committed yesterday. The tears and raised voices in accusation of a life not fully lived. I yell at my husband, our daughters, and the French tutor who showed up drunk to teach our 4 and 6 year-old. This is not who I want to be. I want to act, not react yet I feel I’m being tested too many times over. It is part environment, part circumstances, part DNA – a lethal combination for me and my loved ones when all three are out of sorts. 

Manila has made me mad. Mad at everyone but mostly mad at myself. As a grownup I am fully aware of what and who and why I’m in this current state. And as a grownup I alone am accountable and know that I need to make a move – a physical, emotional and mental move away from Manila – a move towards a happier and healthier version of me. I envision myself elsewhere – anywhere but here. 

There are no guarantees that life back in Canada will be easy. It won’t. Weeks before our scheduled departure, we will lose my mom to a stroke. The magnitude of this loss will only be heightened upon our return to my hometown, where I’m expected to transition the kids to a new school and live my life, and to carry on all while reminders of the woman who raised me and loved me unconditionally is no longer there. My husband will be on the other side of the world from us and there will be days and weeks where the pain of missing him is physical – a pulling in my chest and tears that won’t stop. Our youngest will repeat to me, “My heart hurts. I miss daddy. I miss his hands.” To which all I can say is, “me too baby girl,” and give her a big hug. The kids will exhaust and test me. But they will also crawl into bed with me on the morning of my mother’s birthday and love me with the soft sweetness only they are capable of. I will do my best to focus on the positive - that move forward I had envisioned while a world away in the Philippines. I will surround myself with positive, sensitive souls who will make this transition a loving and inclusive process. I begin to see glimmers of the person I once was and want to be – hopeful, happy and open to new people and experiences. I will finish a postgraduate certificate and begin looking for work – I will start to slowly rejoin & rejoice in the world around me. I will also learn to love – fully love again –my husband, my kids and most importantly myself. The power of place continues to be a journey of discovery.