The Friendly Town and Paradise Found

Editor’s Note: I am pleased to share this eloquent essay from Avalyne Diotte describing how a long journey finally brought her back home. It is lengthy but well worth a careful read.


by Avalyne Diotte

I grew up in this town and fast-tracked my way through adolescence to escape past its reach.
Photo by Caroline Hayes

Like every kid here, I knew the history of the invention of basketball and the importance humble beginnings can have on the world of sport, culture and innovation. I swam in the Mississippi River on hot summer nights, frolicked in my dad’s gardens, made forts in trees, went to parties in forests and found hidden gems under railway bridges. I grew up knowing and respecting my friends’ parents and learned to be kind to people no matter who they were or where they came from. I learned about how art heals and sport connects. I learned the value—and importance—of being a good human here. And without being fully aware of it in my youth, the things I learned in this town carried me through life.

The sheer number of times I’ve driven by that sign that blasts in your face the very foundation of this community is amazing. The friendly town, it says. It’s a ridiculous slogan, really. I never thought about it much, but if I did I certainly didn’t know its true essence. The very statement is a bold bit-of-impossible; a huge generalization of a community with varying types and existences. I kept coming back, as we all do, because family was here and a few close friends remained too. As years turned into more than a decade the sign faded into the landscape and autopilot kicked in as I soared into the vortex of the KOA.

We joke that this place is the centre of the universe. Say those words to anyone who grew up here and they’ll fiercely nod and laugh; because it’s goddam true. Funmonte, some claim. Hashtag: destination Almonte. There are hats for every hamlet and village in the area for-Gods-sake! And we, the post-hipster-cusp-of-millenial-generation wear them like a badge of honour. I’ve travelled around the globe a few times over and I promise I’ve found myself (more times that I care to admit) on the other side of the planet in a conversation about a connection to this town. “Oh you’re from Almonte?! I looooooove that place.” The details of what follows barely matter because you’re instantly in a safe-place and fast-friends with anyone who shares a space in their heart for the valley.

After you move past the annoying part of wanting to escape your roots it’s the most beautiful thing to feel the strong hold and depth they have. You ditch your ego, grow out of your teens and 20’s and embrace the glory of having a connection to come back to. To the outside world, it’s this lovely town where community comes first and family values matter and there is a magnetic force for inspired people to convene in this old mill-town with waterfalls streaming through the centre. People write about it, gush about it and yes, sometimes complain about it but mostly keep being pulled back; and for good reason.

I spent years counting country-points like it was part of my identity, ensuring I experienced so many obscure and sought-after places around the world and finding treasures in each. “People often belittle the place they were born”, according to Mitch Albom in The Five People you Meet in Heaven. Then we spend our lives endlessly searching to find community and true connection, often discounting the roots of our upbringing. But desire is desire no matter where you go; we can’t escape our own demons. If you’re lucky enough you’ll get to stand in your own life with eyes wide open and be able to get out of your own way and your own head and appreciate what is right there in front of you. The real-life ah-ha moment!

While I never travelled to escape, there is certainly a sense of freedom that comes when you’re away from the things and places you know. I look at this place like a tourist now and imagine all the little European villages or nooks of Asian communities or farm-towns of New Zealand and think: I could be anywhere in the world and adore the simplicity of this place. I could comment on the clean air and proximity to nature and abundance of fresh beautiful water. I could love it because it is foreign or stand here in awe and love it because it is truly amazing.

When you find yourself in a place you never imagined being, you start to lose the rose-coloured glasses and see with a wildly crisp-vision you never imagined having. The thing about clarity is so ironic—you don’t know you didn’t have it until you do. It’s funny how we do that in life, discount the things and places and people we’re closest to; the ones who will always catch us when we fall. Until you find yourself face-planting into their arms and wake up seeing a sunrise of kaleidoscope-Technicolor on the horizon. This place—this townit’s incredible.

I didn’t imagine moving back. My identity was somehow bound to the idea that leaving was superior. In every way I’m grateful for the magnitude of experience I had through escaping my hometown. With all the adventures you have packed into your memory-banks, you enter the friendly town with a clear-blue vision of both yourself and your surroundings and realize what is real and stunning in a way you couldn’t possibly have appreciated before.

My life took a wildly unexpected turn. There’s a TedTalk by Najwa Zebian (which my best friend sent to me) that said: we foolishly make our homes in other people and when those people walk away the homes we’ve filled with love and care and respect walk away with them and we suddenly feel empty because we trusted someone else with the pieces of us.  I came home, homeless. Discovering I had been living in a web of deceit with the person I so truly promised my life to was the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve known.  They say life throws you curve balls, and you think you’re prepared for them—but that fastball never barrels toward you with the angles you train for.

And that, I’m learning, is life in a nutshell. The unexpected. And then—if we’re strong enough—the divine beyond the unexpected. Never have I so strongly known that ignorance is bliss and love is blind. Naïve to the fact that someone else is supposed to hold your heart and keep it safe, I woke up from the illusion of a forever and found myself living in my worst fear. With a one-year-old in tow, a broken heart and a lifetime of dreams that were no longer I came home to regroup and begin piecing it all back together.

In the months before being back (in the 256!) I learned more than I ever imagined about life and strength and people and myself. I learned I am a serial optimist, I look for the positive in everything. I learned that I’m loyal, sometimes to a fault. I learned that despite everything I wasn’t broken and my heart was still open. I learned I was okay with (and even liked) my dark places but still defaulted to happy and a lightness of positivity that carried me through my youth.

I remembered back to being a kid at Naismith School and how I once made a volleyball team for my attitude and positivity. I was half-decent but nowhere near captain or VIP material (when you’re 5’3″ you can be athletic and try all you want but let’s be honest, you are never going to be the star volleyball player!). The coach told me that there are many roles on a team, and that the team needed my energy and motivation as much as anything else. To this day that has stuck with me. There are many ways to succeed and make a difference and influence (or even inspire) a group. Those little moments and those grown-ups who take a chance on celebrating you when you’re young leave a great mark on the rest of your existence.

I left my urban life and stepped out into the crisp country-air with a new perspective and the same openness that graced my youth. I found a community that wrapped their arms around me like a thick blanket of warmth. Although a little wobbly, my soul was miraculously intact. I am nearly certain it’s because of the solid foundation I was given by my nurturing family and the fact that I grew up with strong roots in a place like this.

Setting out to give my son a positive and fun existence as any two-year-old should have, I went to playgroup. It’s a free drop-in (well actually you pay a one-time welcome fee of a toonie which buys you the rights to an open space where you and your child can be free to connect with other parents and caregivers). The compassion and openness of the people who reached out to say hi or began to tell you their stories and circumstances for why they found themselves here raising a family was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve encountered. It’s scary diving into a new place and new life, even if it’s among familiar scenes.

I ran into some people I recognized from my childhood and we all share a smile of pure understanding, knowing that regardless of our stories we’re all back here for a simiar reason; there is a common thread that wipes away any bullshit-social-status that may have existed in youth. I met familiar but completely fresh and new faces that were so clearly my people and we gravitated towards each other like ants finding a drip of honey. We were seemingly very much together on the collective understanding of our shared love of culture and travel and a greater existence and yet pragmatic in our desire for a quality of life that is more possible and accessible in a community like this. My son began to thrive and learned the word “friends” with such vigour I could cry. I was humbled by the grace with which families settled here and opened their homes and existences with us.

With my little side-kick, we began exploring these parts, which by the way are much more sexy and trendy than when I was small. At the farmers market we ran into the infamous Emily of Cheerfully Made, who manifests the heart of the creative spirit and draws people to this town for her notorious Handmade Harvest craft fairs. With welcoming hugs and a mini-conversation about the adorable that Almonte is, I was instantly safe in the arms of the people here. It’s a vulnerable place to stand, amongst the people who knew you as a child; but the kind of comfort and acceptance you feel when you fully let the waves wash over you and sit in this place of embrace is nothing short of blissful and empowering. So I leaned into it swells.

Photo by Caroline Hayes

I went to an arts-collective show at the textile museum and found a creative scene of extraordinarily talented artists, my favourite being that of a childhood family friend, Lily, and was amazed at the humble and graceful juggle she balances being a successful artist while having a newborn and a toddler! A stunning piece of hers is also hanging at the new North Market Café. Her mother is a local potter and one of my mom’s closest lifetime friends and our families have circled around each other for our entire lives but the irony that we both found ourselves in a small town as mothers to our own young boys felt both comforting and adorable.

People here choose a lifestyle above all else that is good for family, for children and ultimately for the soul. In typical spirit of rejuvenation, my mother bought me a facial for my birthday and of course there is the most lovely boutique spa, Blush & Black, which uses one of my fave organic-skincare brands and Laura helped nourish my skin back to life. I skipped across the street (yes, actually!) and went shopping at Doree’s, found all the gifts I needed at my longtime favourite Tin Barn Market and felt a sense of pride in supporting local small business.

As the weeks went by I settled into this being my reality and decided to host my toddler’s birthday at Equator Coffee Roasters. They were amazing to let an eclectic group of grown-ups and munchkins run around, enjoy coffee, eat pizza (and cake!) and drink great craft beer (from the local brewery across the parking lot). I’ve always been very decisive about my polar loves— equally adoring the concrete of the city and urban energy and the freedom of the wilderness and rejuvenation nature brings. If I’m not by the ocean or mountains, I need to live among the trees; but in a perfect world, also have access to good food and a fantastic coffee shop. In this moment when I held my baby boy (now a proper two-year-old!) in my arms my worlds collided: it’s all here —the peace of nature and access to all the quality stuff you need.

My dad and I would find ourselves having a pint on the Postino patio or sharing tacos at the Heirloom Cafe and while a stones throw from home we were able to talk about life and family and dreams like we were vacationing abroad. I rediscovered the beauty of the Mill of Kintail where I ran trails and sweated out any toxins left in my pores. There’s a freedom to having space to be yourself. And I began to learn through a serendipitous connection with an old classmate (from G.L Comba nonetheless!) that the single most important thing we can offer another human is to feel safe in their presence.

What started to happen to my life as I settled into this place was that through feeling safe in the arms of this space, I began to feel more and more free to do what I needed to do. I found a different type of creativity in writing and pushed forward on my dreams and my career while holding tight to a mantra I’ll cherish for the rest of my life: validation is for parking. Seriously. True, right?! Looking for validation has got to be the single most destructive thing we do to ourselves. While a completely natural thing humans do, looking for approval creates more disappointment than satisfaction. If we can live true to ourselves and others and are simply decent human beings, it becomes more and more easy to march forward with purpose and happiness. The more you stop caring what people think of your decisions the more you’ll love the decisions you make.

I reached out to people I hadn’t seen in years and took my son to as many fun community activities as I could. Walking down the main street with a long time mutual friend, we met Laura from Thread Work (arguably the most lust-worthy shop in town!). Her buoyant personality makes you feel like you’ve known each other for a lifetime. She joked about recruiting people to this town, and if I wasn’t already almost sold, I would have packed up and moved here on her exuberance and embrace alone.

Apparently some have. I checked out Green Mill, the local food truck (no not chip-truck, food truck! Yep, we have one of those too.) and took an unusual moment to sit by the water, I went to the Library for story-time, ran into women of all generations at the grocery store—women who’d known me in grade-school who unknowingly offered stories of strength and experience that helped me find a power I didn’t know I’d have to muster up.

At the post office, at the hardware store, at the health-food store, and the childrens’ consignment store, I found a quality of  human most people don’t get to experience in a lifetime of encounters. My neighbours arrived with open arms and soup (literally!) and my friends’ homes were open to pop into at the drop of a hat. This place has changed tenfold. I barely recognize it and I see more people I don’t know than people I do but it feels like your favourite sweater, warm and comfortable and well-warn in all the right places.

The access to the water in the heat of the summer, the music and cultural happenings in the parks, the fresh air, the galaxy of stars you can see at night when you gaze up—it’s these tiny moments that make a life. And though it’s only little, it has a mighty grip this place. The K0A we began to refer to it like a slice of pop-culture that only those lucky enough to have roots here can say. I still yearned for the world, but I was happy. And that was sign enough to take a deep breath and dive in.

I was alone but truly and undeniably, not lonely.

The vortex, they call it. They said I was being sucked in and wouldn’t be able to leave. With each little friendly smile I laughed it off; and then turned my head and smirked in pleasant disbelief.

They’re probably right.