New Feelings Reality Disappointment

The difference between seeing something onscreen and seeing it in person is more elusive than we fantasize it to be

Full-text audio version of this essay.

NEW FEELINGS is a column devoted to the desires, moods, pathologies, and identifications that rarely had names before digital media. Read the other installments here

This summer I went back to Toronto, the city where I grew up, for the first time since Covid started. Over two years in various states of lockdown I’d tended a fantasy of “home” made up of cellphone detritus, Instagram posts, Street View tours, and repeated viewings of The Silent Partner, starring Elliott Gould as an Eaton Centre employee circa 1978. Toronto, a city that normally wraps around me like cashmere in July, had become someplace mythological.

Like most people I knew, I was feeling estranged from myself. My idea of home — the seat of all that’s “authentic” to “me” — had merged with my concept of a “normal” on the other side of Covid, which was merging with the cultural concept, debunked over and over again and yet somehow emotionally convenient, of a “real world” beyond the screen. To sustain these fantasies one needs to bracket the understanding that “our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and the offline,” as Nathan Jurgenson has put it; and that “home” has been subject to the same recent history as everywhere else.

The effort to “be present” was strenuous, an attempt to wriggle out into the world as if from a narrow drainpipe

After an early flight, my dad picked me up at the airport. We were happy to see each other, but a little stilted, caught between the significance of the reunion and the urge to just be the way we missed being with one another. Plus, we were holding up traffic. Driving along the highway I anticipated beautiful views of the city coming to life, the sun glinting over the lake. But my sightline was occupied mainly by thickets of new condo towers, which sprout up year after year.

My parents had sold the house they’d lived in since my teens and gotten rid of much of their belongings, moving into a furnished rental that was nearly identical but filled with somebody else’s stuff. A series of black-and-white photographs of Toronto’s downtown core — the sort of decorative touch characteristic of short-term rentals — seemed redundant for a couple who’d been living here half a century, and made me a bit self-conscious about my own idealizations from afar.

They were glad I was back, but they’d spent the past two years locked down together and had developed their own routine, in which I was ultimately a guest. Hugging my mom after longing to for so long, it seemed like there should have been fanfare. I’d been terrified of never seeing her again, then sheepish about feeling terrified. Millions of people never did see their parents again. I tried to summon up an appropriate sensation of gratitude, but my emotions were bottlenecked.

I’d been hoping for some electrifying collision of reality and ideal, from which “normal” would reemerge — some auratic resetting that would align the present with the pre-pandemic past. I didn’t know how to conjure that; it was easier to eat, then sleep, work, drink, and on along the conveyor belt of activities that typify any trip home.

My idea of “home” had merged with my concept of “normal,” which was merging with the cultural concept of a “real world” beyond the screen

The next day I unlocked my bike and headed for the one place I’d missed more than anywhere else. Leslie Street Spit is a landfill site stretching like a skeletal hand into Lake Ontario, formed out of construction waste produced during the city’s growth spurt in the mid-to-late 20th century. It was designed for “port-related facilities,” ahead of a shipping boom that never arrived. Nature has since reclaimed it, and much of it is now a public park.

Riding through on your bike, the Spit feels by turns like a quiet country road; a private island, with panoramic views of the skyline; and a post-apocalyptic idyll. You might find beavers, cottontails, muskrat, snakes (careful not to squish them under your wheels), and more than 300 species of birds. You’ll also discover fields of gnarled, rusted rebar jutting from mounds of rubble, which visitors continually repurpose into sculpture gardens. It’s my favorite place in the world, and symbolic to me of Toronto itself, a city whose fumbling official attempts at self-creation usually miss its most vital assets.

There is probably no place on earth I’ve documented more than this garbage peninsula. My hard drive is crammed with hundreds of pretty much the same photographs of pretty much the same vistas, over the course of many rides through. I took these pictures without intending to look at them again; they were silly little attempts to preserve the moment.

“Social media have invited users to adopt a sort of documentary vision,” Jurgenson writes, “through which the present is always apprehended as a potential past.” Digital photography is just one method of negotiating the tension between a moment and its memory. Consider the portable music player: those of us who grew up with headphones on have indexed our lives to songs. I’m not a very organized person materially, I can let my surroundings go to pot, but in this area I am very meticulous. Over the course of my lifetime, the proliferation of documentary media has charged a latent impulse. After I got my vaccination, I packed away the filthy N95 I’d been donning for much of the year and the pajama dress I’d been living in most days. Neither evoked anything pleasant, but they were evocative.

My friends were experiencing the same psychic irregularity: random bursts of exhaustion, a desire to connect combined with a weird inability to absorb any good will

This memorializing instinct has produced thousands and thousands of junky snapshots I can’t bring myself to delete. But just as the old T-shirts I should have thrown out years ago came in handy during the early days of mask scarcity, so did all those unremarkable pictures. Together they formed a flip book of “home.” I wanted to dissolve into the landscape they depicted, stripping away all mediation between myself and the “real thing.”

I tried to really be present. The effort was strenuous, an attempt to wriggle out into the world as if from a narrow drainpipe. I squinted at the sky, then I squinted at the trees, decided the sky was more impressive then circled back to ogle a quality patch of sumac. I removed my glasses, thinking glass was additional mediation. I put them back on, realizing I couldn’t see anything, which is dangerous on a bike. What I perceived was a distressing feeling of flatness. I couldn’t seem to locate the difference between seeing it all onscreen and seeing it in person.

The feeling recurred later that week, meeting a friend at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which was mounting an Andy Warhol retrospective. I’d seen those images so many times that paying to see them in person seemed like a novelty unto itself. I leaned in close to examine them for archaeological extras — flaws or age markings that might call up the “aura” — but all I saw was the same floral motif I’d seen on the advertisement, then on the website where I purchased the tickets.

Riding the streetcar back home, walking along Queen Street the following day, I saw that the city had changed, of course, in subtle but significant ways. Shuttered businesses gapped the main streets like missing teeth, and the quiet tension that has always characterized the city’s truly public spaces was hard to sit still in. Just weeks before my visit, over a hundred police officers, city workers and security guards had violently evicted residents of an encampment in the park across from my old apartment. Evidence of the city’s housing crisis was everywhere, an emergency decades in the making that Covid had accelerated. None of this was new, even if it wasn’t exactly the same.

The months before and just after the North American vaccine rollout were marked by hope and excitement for the return of normal, even normal plus. “The promise of a ‘hot vax summer’ quickly devolved into a recognition that ‘vibes are off,’” Lauren Collee wrote recently in an essay about the pandemic’s absence of narrative closure. “More precisely, the vibes are uncertain.” My friends in Toronto were experiencing the same psychic irregularity as my friends in New York: random bursts of exhaustion, a desire to connect combined with a weird inability to absorb any good will. What should have been clear to me from the start was that normalcy was always a figment of pandemic imagination. After so much loss and disruption, to feel “normal” would have been much stranger than whatever it was we felt.

Back at the Spit, I walked off the bike trail through an overgrown brush, and sat on the rocks overlooking the lake. The clouds were silvery and the sun’s rays formed a dome over the water. I fussed with my iPod, trying to decide whether to listen to an old song, to connect this serene moment to other serene moments, or a new song to imprint a new memory. Closer to the water, I spotted a choice-looking chunk of brick, a perfect souvenir, and ambled down to retrieve it. Once I’d picked it up, I saw that I’d almost trudged through a giant mound of hardened animal shit. The souvenir would now call to mind serenity and a giant mound of animal shit. I slipped it into my backpack.

Biking back home, the wind picked up. The temperature had fallen several degrees. I was wet with sweat, and already chilly from sitting around; I hadn’t biked in years, and the muscles involved were underdeveloped. I got home soggy and sore. My father was watching TV, my mother was reading her iPad and I felt that sinking sense of banality that always emerges after a few days at home. It didn’t occur to me at the time that banality might be the true face of what I’d been seeking all along.

A week later, we said goodbye at the airport, and a familiar sadness creeped in. I hugged my mom for too long and let myself tear up. Ready to go, and heartsick to leave, I finally recognized home, and what conjured it in the end was distance.

Alexandra Molotkow is a senior editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt and an editor at the Hairpin. She has written for the Believer, the New York Times Magazine, the Cut and the New Republic.