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The City That Raised Me - What Fort McMurray Taught A Vagabond Heart

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The theme of this particular issue of YMM is ‘Growing Local.’  As someone who has always had one hand on the plow in McMurray while the other was booking a ticket to explore the world, I felt conflicted on how true my commitment to our city actually was.  If I love other places so much, and spend much of the money I earn in Fort McMurray elsewhere, am I not a bit of a hypocrite?  A traitor to the cause of growing local?

In my high school scrapbook on a page titled ‘Someday I will…’ I cut and paste travel scenes of every scope and style.  The deep jungles of Brazil split by the veins of the Amazon river—I wanted to hike there. The dusty Pyramids in Egypt, towering testaments to life before me—I felt I needed to touch them.  From the Arctic ice caps in their tectonic, blue majesty to the Parthenon in Greece, balanced precipitously on the edge of the rocky Acropolis; I had to see it all with my own eyes.  Life seemed to be everywhere but here, on my tired Beacon Hill.  My boring high school in a boring pinprick on the map lost somewhere in the middle of the Boreal forest.

Almost 15 years later, I’ve been to almost all of those place on my travel bucket list.  The seven wonders of the world? Check. Dining underneath the Eiffel tower?  Yep.  Volunteering in a place with desperate need?  Been there.  Kiss a pretty girl on the Nile?  That too.  Make a religious pilgrimage? Meditate on top of a mountain? Yes, sir.

And yet, here I am, back in a coffee shop on Franklin Avenue writing these words.  Back in that speck on the map.  Gargantuan fluffy snowflakes are floating past the window as I sip on heaven from a mug.  It’s pretty here.

Fort McMurray has changed my perspective on voyaging.  It has forced me to explore an interior landscape, which taught me to stop trying to treat life like a checklist.  Happiness isn’t around the next corner, over the next hill or at the next world destination. Trust me, I’ve been to them.  It’s not in the next job, the next stage of life, the next partner.  Adventure is not a destination, it is a state of mind.

If you need the rolling beaches of the Rio Coco to feel content, you’ll never find the brilliance right under your nose.  You’ll never allow yourself to let go and fall into the beauty of the here.  The depth of the everlasting now.  How little of your life will you actually be happy if the conditions for our happiness are a million miles away?

“Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of the mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”

—St. Augustine

Why is it that small towns almost always seem to produce big dreamers?  Riddle me that Paul Brandt.  Even as a kid growing up in Beacon Hill I wanted to do huge things.  Make a blockbuster movie.  Write a book that changed the world.  Dominate the business world with grace and ease.  I saw Fort McMurray as a ball and chain.  I couldn’t wait to shake off the dust of this crummy little town and take New York, L.A. and London by storm.  Big ol’ me.

Part of me is happy things didn’t work out for me that way.  That I was saved from that kind of success.  I’ve traded the bright lights for a peace in my soul.  One that’s been nurtured by failures and intentional soul surgery. A peace that grew in this sleepy, overworked town.  I’ve been forced to confront the very things that attracted me to the bright lights in the first place.  And THAT feels like progress. 

This is not a silent resignation, a dismissal of what I wanted out of life.  It’s admitting that my compass needle was off.  A fessing that big things don’t always bring the peace and contentment we’re looking for.  But also, I learned that I can have a global perspective with a local focus.  I can take the adventure, the wonder, the zeal that all that travel taught me and use it to build happiness right here.  In these snowflakes.  This cup of magic.  In my relationships.

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

—Mother Teresa

I’ve been put HERE for a reason.  There are people in my life that need me.  I have my own vices to struggle against.  A different location or accomplishment won’t change that.  I can build both exterior business and interior character right here, where I am.  In this little speck on the map.