Never Settle

We sat on his single bed, side-by-side and talked about what we would be doing that summer. Rectangles of light cut through the blinds and across his cheek, his pale green eyes glinting as he described his summer job, out on the lake, weaving between islands, eating lunch on the jagged brush and needle-covered rocks.
“Will your parents be there?” I asked.
“Only on the weekends,” he replied. “My dad wishes he could retire already and just move up there for good.”
“Doesn’t he like his job?”
He shrugged. “I guess he doesn’t hate it.”

I lay on my back on the cream-coloured shag carpet as Kate sunk ball after ball. They had a pool table in their basement right beside her dad’s home office, the door ajar, shelves filled with thick black binders.
“What does your dad do?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. He says he spends his days pushing paper around.”
I frowned and tried to imagine what that could mean. “What company does he work for?”

Two conversations I vividly remember having with close friends about how bored their parents were. I could never reconcile the idea of choosing to live in a comfortable house in the suburbs of Canada, with the childhood that I’d lived, and the person I wanted to become. I suppose I still haven’t, which is why I’m so terrified of settling.

My dad is a property developer. We moved multiple times during my childhood because (a) my parents believed that we could have a better life in Canada than in South Africa, (b) when there was a recession in the early 90’s in Canada, South Africa seemed like a better prospect, but (c) life in Canada really is better so we’d ultimately end up here one day, regardless of how hard things would be, how many times dad would get knocked sideways workwise, how many times he’d have to build up from scratch again. He always did. And he loves what he does. I don’t think he’ll ever retire.

My mom is a teacher. She is also the best teacher. She’s taught everything. Her students love her. She’s tough but fair. She says it like it is. She’s very much the boss, and somehow she gets the little shitheads (of which there seem to be many) to produce good work. She understands them and helps them to shine. She’s also the rock upon which our family unit is built, or maybe the giant turtle. Without my mother, there would be no stability. But our kind of stability has legs.

I suppose it’s not very difficult to see why I’m not willing to settle down. With a childhood spent moving around with a lot of reading and daydreaming mixed in, I’ve cultivated a belief that life should always be exciting. Growing up in Cape Town is like living in a novel. There are mountains thronging the city, where baboons dwell when they’re not forming raiding parties to loot houses on the higher streets. Crazy-looking plants that grow nowhere else in the world cover the mountainsides and creep their way through the city, which, summer and winter, is always green and rolling and smells sweet and earthy and salty and damp. You can go to beaches where penguins leap in the foam between massive boulders, and dolphins surf in the glinting waves. You can stand and watch seals in the harbour (and I often did), barking and flapping their flippers, or sunbathing and reeking of fish.

On weekends we would drive out into the winelands to our very own piece of river where we’d play between round white sunbaked rocks, tipping over bigger ones, hunting for lizards and scorpions, stabbing at termite mounds with big sticks, kicking down the burnt up hakea trees and other Australian invader plants that my dad despised. We’d chase after little gemsbok or shriek and run away upon the discovery of a snake, before splashing back across the shallow iron-stained water to where the adults sat, submerged: sunhats and wineglasses bobbing above the cool, clear water.

Canada always felt boring in contrast. While the suburbs to the north of Toronto are ravine-filled and really quite a nice place to grow up, it always felt like there was nothing to do. It took a while for me to get used to living in a flat, urban landscape, to feel that adventures were possible for a teenager in Toronto. But there were new adventures to be had: freedom to rove unlike anything I’d experienced in the danger and crime-ridden pre-and newly post-apartheid South Africa. Weekend days were spent downtown, searching through dollar bins at thrift stores in Kensington Market, sneaking into changing rooms where the most daring would layer on clothes and then attempt to look nonchalant as they casually walked out of the store. We’d hang out in malls, eating in food courts and trying on clothes we could never hope to afford. We spent afternoons and many weekends rehearsing for productions, going to lessons, enriching ourselves, and striving to be the best. Because that’s what you do. If you want to make it, you need to be the best. Or that’s what I thought, at least.

I made my school vacations count. While I applied myself academically, I spent my free time scheming and coming up with ways to journey to magical lands. I was convinced that excelling at school would enable me to go wherever I dreamed, and in a way, it did. When I was sixteen, I started saving money to spend a summer abroad – there was a school that offered classes all over the world. I had a glossy pamphlet, blue with bright, vivid photographs of smiling teenagers in front of ruins and churches. The trip that caught my eye was a biology course in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

That was the beginning of a decade of travelling. I worked extra shifts so that I could go on adventures. I didn’t drink a lot or buy my own cigarettes because that was money I could put toward trips (and as a girl in Montreal who worked in night clubs, why would I ever buy my own drinks?). While I will never be Canadian in the sense of embracing the winters and loving the snow, five solid months of cold have given me good reason to leave for warmer climates. And that energy – the sense of something unknown coming into focus, the unexpected romance, the awe of a natural vista, the impromptu interaction with a stranger, the new smell or taste – became an addiction. It’s the one that I can’t seem to shake.

I travelled at every opportunity, whether during summer vacation, on exchange, backpacking after graduation, or filming a documentary. I met a wonderful man who’s “glad to be along for the ride.” We worked hard, had a baby, travelled, worked some more, had another baby, travelled some more. And then suddenly, our elder daughter was in kindergarten. Josh went back to school here in Montreal, and now I find myself, a grown up, the breadwinner, and tethered to a life I never expected.

This winter was a challenge. Endless days of cold. Darkness. Cabin fever. I took on too much work, and suffered for it. I felt stifled, overwhelmed. I worked all day, parented until 9pm and then worked some more. I cried a lot.

And then the sun came out. It touched my skin and I breathed in the warmth, the life, felt the light return. I started writing again, remembered that I can say no to extra work, and that my favourite things – writing and reading – will be there for me no matter where I am. I daydream about moving to California. And maybe one day we will. For now, I sit, the house darkened, children sighing gently in their dreams, and know that settling only happens when you give up. And I love dreaming far too much to ever do that.

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