Letter from Ottawa

It’s the middle of January and I’m running through the woods. The snow crunches underfoot and I can see my breath in front of me. I’m completely alone, and I feel like I’m swimming amongst the trees. The once lush, dense, almost claustrophobic woodland is transformed by winter, the season laying bare the trees’ naked bones. The stillness is off-putting. My movement punctuates the muted silence, the kind that’s only possible when the world is blanketed by a thick layer of snow. I hear the tall trees creak and squint upwards to watch them sway in the wind, and I gently slow to a stop to watch a group (a banditry, if you want to know the proper collective noun) of brazen chickadees congregate around some forgotten birdseed on the ground.

In a pandemic, the concept of place feels abstract, untethered. A friend who just moved to a new city texts me that she often has uncanny moments of forgetting where she is—all she knows for sure is that she’s in her apartment. Similarly, while geographically speaking I know I’m in Ottawa, Canada, in practice the answer to the question “where am I?” feels much blurrier. Where I am mostly is in front of my computer screen, speaking to people in a little window, a porthole that cuts through the time-space continuum, or typing into another little window, reading in another, watching in another. Wherever you’re looking—with no disrespect meant to my colleagues—generally these windows don’t offer much in the way of a view.

The place where I run, Mud Lake, is only a ten-minute walk away from my childhood home, but when I was a kid growing up in Ottawa, I barely registered its existence. Ottawa—Canada’s capital, a city whose constituent parts include three rivers, two languages, a smug abundance of federally-funded green spaces, the world’s largest skating rink, and hordes of government workers—is a place I always took for granted, rarely giving it a second thought. It felt like a relationship I didn’t need to tend to because it would always be there. If you were an acquaintance, I would tell you Ottawa seemed like a good place to raise a family, or somewhere to retire, easily one of the most livable cities in Canada. If you were a friend, I might mention that someone I know refers to it as the city that fun forgot.

Growing up here, it was always a given that I would move away. And as soon as my legs were long enough, I did. I became vaguely itinerant, lured by the promise of the new and the novel. I would only return to the city to visit, using it as my center of gravity when I needed to restore my balance. But last fall, my family was flattened by my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. I flew back to Ottawa from Berlin—where I pay rent and where most of my stuff is—to be with my Dad during his last days.

It turned out that Ottawa during a pandemic winter and under lockdown was as good a place as any to turn in on myself: nothing was open, and there was nothing to do but stay inside and stare blankly at a screen or a wall, which suited me fine. During my two-week quarantine I became intimately familiar with the four walls of my mother’s house, and then the four walls of my father’s house, and briefly, the four walls of his hospital room. The tunnel vision of acute grief meant that for weeks I had not the faintest clue what life was like out there.

As time marched forward, though, I began to cast my gaze outwards. Every morning from the living room window, I watched the neighborhood kids trudge out in the deep snow to the bus stop. As I sipped my coffee on the couch, I craned my neck to see which neighborhood dog was coming down the block with which human. I began to find comfort in the repetition, noticing for the first time small details and incremental changes that had gone overlooked.

Then in January, something shifted. One day I went for a walk with a friend, and we stumbled upon Mud Lake. It was hidden from view where I stood on the path, the fence that enclosed it only barely visible to the untrained eye. We ventured in, and almost overnight, I joined the ranks of the people I had been watching from my window. Mud Lake became my gateway drug to the Great Outdoors (or at least, the Domesticated Outdoors) of Ottawa’s parks and trails, a vast network of perfectly manicured, impeccably kept up green spaces. The city seemed to be perpetually gleaming in the sharp sunlight and blinding snow. Had all these trails been here the whole time? I had had no idea. I borrowed a pair of cross-country skis, and in my father’s old car I drove to corners of the city I had never been before. It soon became clear that this was how Canadians survived the winter: Hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, biking, sledding were all fair game for Ottawans, even in freezing temperatures and feet of snow.

I would spend the day skiing out onto the frozen bay to get a closer look at the ice fishing huts dotting the horizon, the snow dashed with footprints and animal tracks. I watched kids play pick-up hockey on the lake, first shoveling huge drifts of snow aside to create a makeshift rink. I joined a modest crowd, the most people I had been around in months, to skate along the Rideau Canal, squinting into the sun. I would stay outside for as long as I could bear it in sub-zero temperatures to tire my body out and fill my lungs with cold air. I reveled in letting the wind burn my nose and cheeks and losing feeling in my fingers.

It became a compulsion for me, equal parts addictive and restorative. I would have loathed the cliché I had fallen prey to (“The Healing Powers of Nature”) if I wasn’t so busy delighting in it.

If too many days passed without an afternoon outside I would notice my jaw clenching and my eyesight flickering, physical reactions akin to bucking against the little set of windows that felt so restrictive. I would sneak away from work and hurtle myself headlong into the cold. A reacquainting was happening as I saw the home I had overlooked and dismissed when I was younger with fresh eyes. I knew I had to go back to Germany at some point, but all lockdowns being equal, I reasoned, why would I trade the four walls of my studio apartment for this feeling of expansiveness? I rebooked my flight once, and then again.

As an antidote to placelessness, Mud Lake is magic. Every day I carve the same path in the snow or sleet or slush, a straight shot down the road of the residential neighborhood where I grew up—once lined with bungalows, now increasingly lined with infills—where I cross a busy street to arrive at the gates of Mud Lake. Often left to my own devices, I don’t so much run as scamper and gambol and romp my way along the winding narrow paths. I greet the birds—sometimes chickadees, sometimes ducks, sometimes a robin or a wild turkey—and I repeat the newly-acquired names of the trees I see to myself. I look up and remember where I am. 

Michaela Cavanagh