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Another year is drawing to a close, and with it, another chance to reflect on past accomplishments. I’ve already written about my yearly goal-setting tradition, so this year’s ending post is something a bit different: What words does Alyssa live by?
In the late capitalist hellscape of our age, it is common for people to lament that there isn’t enough work. People string together menial part-time jobs, run themselves ragged on gig-economy schemes that are tailor-made to not deliver an actual living, and linger in overqualified underemployment for years on end because there just isn’t work. Immigrants get demonized because they “take” work from born citizens, providing a pretext for legalized racism. Economists and politicians fret about how little work there is and how it forces them into no-win decisions, trying to guard and cultivate work for a restive populace.
It is all lies.
Ottawa has a reputation for being boring, unimaginative, and cautious. It is one of many planned capitals in the world, splitting the difference between more prominent economic centers (Montreal and Toronto) on either side of it, and this sense of being both deliberate and an afterthought suffuses the very air of this place. One does not get the sense that the people of Ottawa love or hate this place the way the people of Montreal and Toronto can love or hate their home. Rather, the pervasive sentiment of Ottawa is that we ended up here and, well, it’s nice enough, I suppose. This lackadaisical sort of affection synergizes unhelpfully with Ottawa’s status as an instinctively cautious but rapidly growing government town, preventing the kind of vision that gave Montreal, Toronto, and various world capitals such as Washington and Moscow their impressive passenger rail networks.
But what if Ottawa had such a vision?
Mantises are some of the most distinctive insects, with their elongated bodies and grasping claws. They are big, a bit clumsy, and curiously human, with their large eyes and partially erect posture. They’re famous for a much-exaggerated quirk of their mating behavior, in which females eat males after mating, and also for the multitude of highly camouflaged versions found among them, looking like grass, flowers, leave, and more.
The thing is, mantises are not alone.
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Baking is, famously, a different beast entirely from other kinds of cooking. Particularly for bread, it depends on careful ratios and a fair bit of luck and isn’t as amenable to mid-stream course corrections as most other techniques. It’s easy to end up with loaf after loaf of grimly tolerable bread or overly dry cake and not know what to do with it. I decided to challenge myself recently with a foray into one of the easier kinds of baking, with a twist to make it fit within my dietary restrictions.
Immigrants are always homesick. This is the core of our story. Even those of us who flee horrific circumstances have at least one thing we remember fondly, or that becomes fond when it is gone. To emigrate is to surround oneself with the unfamiliar, and to live in the echoing absence of what was once everywhere. There are days when those echoes are a deafening cacophony, laying down the impossible demand of that incoherent word, home.
Ottawa’s yearly Latin festival puts the many feelings of that word into focus. This gathering of my people in the plaza before Ottawa City Hall is a riot of sensation. Live music invites listeners to come close, and an uproar of food smells permeates the area. Hand-written signs advertise our regional specialties with words I rarely see even on our restaurant menus, and every spoonful of yellow rice and chunk of slow-roasted pork is a portal to a world I left long ago. Even the less familiar offerings, Peruvian noodles that take notes from South America’s Chinese community and Colombian pastries I’ve never tried, come with our unmistakable aroma and style.
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“This is what it means to be a girl, isn’t it? To never feel like enough.”
I wrote these words as one of the sadder moments in “The Prom Pine,” a short story whose fanfiction version you can read here. (The non-fanfiction version, an extended narrative meditation on dissociation and its uses, will appear in a future edition of Spoon Knife.) It’s true that this world imposes that pressure on women in general, with every ad for makeup, diet, clothing, exercise, and more promising relief from that anhedonic treadmill, but trans women face a special pressure here. The outside world doles out validation in proportion to our efforts to conform to cisfeminine expectations, and we often start from difficult positions, testosterone poisoning setting us back before we even begin. It takes eons of soul-searching to find the lines between gender dysphoria, social conditioning, and everything else. I’ve found a whole other line, and it weighs on me now.