My 2-year Kenora Retreat

Almost exactly 2 years ago now, I accepted a job offer that would relocate me to the small Northwestern Ontario town of Kenora. The Michèle that left, a short 4 weeks later, is not the same Michèle that returned to Ottawa at the end of 2021.

I remember the precise moment I decided I would move to Kenora. I lay on the bed of my hotel room in Kenora, looking out on beautiful Lake of The Woods, having just returned from a dinner with my potential future nurse practitioner colleagues. It was a moment of profound presence and awareness. I think what also made this moment memorable was how novel everything felt, given that a mere 7 days earlier, I had no idea where Kenora was, let alone that it even existed (and embarrassingly I need to add that I also had no appreciation of just how massive Ontario is).

It was the end of 2019, a year marked by chaos and confusion. As I lay on that bed, feeling myself come to the conclusion that this job offer and this move was what I wanted and needed, I struggled to wrap my head around my new reality. Never could I have predicted that I’d end up there. Better still, I could never have predicted how healing my time in Kenora would be.

A short 6 weeks or so after I drove 22 hours across Ontario, having relocated my life by means of my little civic packed to the brim with all my belongings (and my dedicated mother), the world came to an abrupt stop as we grappled with the news that the novel covid-19 virus had spread across the globe; we were in a pandemic.

I remember not being entirely bothered by this news, not that I wasn’t worried about our future (being a healthcare professional and fully grasping the implications of a pandemic), but I think that unconsciously my decision to move to Kenora came from this unacknowledged need I had to retreat.

To retreat into myself, into nature, into simplicity. And maybe even to retreat away from family, friends, the pressures of the city.

Although my time in Kenora was definitely challenging and lonely for good chunks of time, it was mostly a welcomed pause and [forced] opportunity to re-connect to myself. Not unlike my 2 years in Kingston, I spent an inordinate amount of time alone. This time, though, it was intentional, much more conscious and I was equipped with new tools, awareness, supports and motivation.

I have honestly survived these last 2 years by retreating inwards, something I could not have done without the global situation nor with the stillness and serenity of Kenora. As I have written about previously, I really resonate with the concept that we, as a whole species, are a traumatized culture. The pace and pressure of every day life is such that, in order to keep up with it, and with our peers, we disconnect from ourselves, from each other and from nature.

I had a vague sense that I was growing more self connected during my time in Kenora. Yet it was really only when I relocated to Ottawa, at the end of November 2021, that I was hit with the contrast needed to fully appreciate the transformation I had undergone while in Kenora.

Returning to Ottawa (amd especially to the house and neighborhood where I grew up and experienced some of my most challenging years) was bound to be an interesting experience. Ahh, the naivety I held when my therapist asked me how I was preparing to cope with all the triggers I’d face upon my return to Ottawa.

I realize now that, in a way, my 2 years in Kenora were themselves the preparation for triggers I would later face in Ottawa. And maybe even more broadly in life.

Since my return to Ottawa, friends and family have asked me how it felt to be back. What I described as first as a weird and maybe even difficult transition, I am now starting to view as a sign post of just how much I have changed.

Being in Ottawa has felt like returning to a mold, the shape of it determined by my past in Ottawa. It literally feels like slipping into an old piece of clothing, only to realize that your body has changed and things just don’t fit and feel the way they used to. Or am I romantacizing the past? Regardless, this awareness of feeling misfit is uncomfortable. And if I have learned one thing during my retreat, it’s that discomfort is not inherently bad. In fact, discomfort is often a beautiful and great opportunity to pause, notice and grow.

If there is another thing I have learned, it’s that I (and I assume many others out there too) really struggle with discomfort. We aren’t particularly well equipped to deal with discomfort, let alone engage with it. Most of us avoid, numb, distract, dissociate.

I know, I know. I am like a broken record – always returning to this idea that a lot of the things we “do” or “chase” in life are actually just ways we avoid being present. But I see it more as just being natural, now, this pattern I have (we all have) of repeating patterns, returning to the same lessons, again and again. Life is cyclical. And I believe less and less that this is wrong or bad.

Sometimes, we need to return to experiences or old ways because, with each new attempt, we learn a little bit more. We become a little bit more conscious. We grow in the tiniest of ways. And that’s enough.

Back in December, I was on a walk with a dear friend, lamenting this feeling I was having that the mere fact of being in Ottawa was making me “slip back into old ways”. She reminded me that, sometimes, we return to old ways or we repeat patterns, and that it’s actually really helpful to return to similar situations but with a whole new level of awareness and skills. How those moments are invitations to practice what we have learned and to continue to grow.

As much as I credit her for this thought, it seems I had to experience a bit of a struggle to really integrate that notion. I drafted this article around Christmas, but it just didn’t feel complete then. So I didn’t publish. And the following few weeks have felt very tumultuous and difficult – so much so that I really did slip into old patterns to cope. Endless phone scrolling, seeking comfort in food, anything to keep me distracted enough to avoid feeling this discomfort.

And finally, yesterday, seemingly out of nowhere, the fog lifted. It may be that I got my period, that I decided to delete a few social media apps from my phone, that I have had 2 weeks of more alone time, or that I finally got around to checking things off my procrastination list. Whatever it was, something shifted, and I feel more self connected again.

This ability to return to myself with compassion, again and again, come what may, I believe is one of the biggest perks of my 2 year retreat in Kenora.

It’s hard to appreciate change when it happens so gradually. And I do sometimes go back in my writing and notice the difference between then and now. But typically, I notice evolution in the quality of my writing and the content of it. Admittedly, I often notice this with a bit of judgment and cringe at my old self. But a few weeks ago, as I read an old blog post aloud to a friend, I found myself surprised at the harshness with which I had written about myself in that January 2020 blog post. Wow, I said to him, I would say and write that so differently now. I really don’t feel that way anymore. I hold myself with so much more compassion and appreciation now.

Sigh 🥲.

I am so proud of myself right now. I am so grateful for my strength, for my sensitivity, my perseverance, my courage and my stubbornness. This 2 years in Kenora has really allowed me to get to know myself, without any pre-conceived pressures or expectations. And returning to Ottawa has allowed me to appreciate just how much I have changed. I am both excited and terrified for the next leg of my journey. But thanks to my time in Kenora, I now have a level of self trust and confidence that will be essential to building this next phase of my life.

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