You're on the phone with your daughter who in her first days of medical school has finally entered a room of cadavers – humans, dead – under wraps, not an ankle showing. And you look up and are halfway into a kind of crime scene, in the middle of the block, fire engines at both ends, police cars, neighbours in pajamas (!?) No one seems too concerned that you’ve wandered onto the stage, as it were, as a newbie stagehand might, and you are allowed to cross through.
No news tonight, your dad says, when you arrive for your regular news’n’nibbles. You’d known something was up because he hadn’t left the door ajar, and there was no tray ready with two beers wrapped in napkins. No beers in sight at all. “The power is down,” he says, opening a drawer beside his bed and pulling out a flashlight, which he turns on and off, which makes you laugh, since it’s still daylight, but mostly because he is so practical, and you are not, so his practicality looks like obedience, but to logic, which is invisible as a god. He is practicing some kind of atheistic fealty, a lifeblood of his, like electricity itself.
“They say the electricity could come back on anywhere between two hours and” -- he pauses for just the wrinkle of time -- “two weeks.” “Well, they sure know how to manage expectations,” I say. “The elevator’s working,” I add. D. answers, “Yes, we believe there’s a generator.” We. He has been out in the hallways, chatting with neighbours. The unifying force of minor calamities. And earlier this afternoon he’d spent an hour trying to get past a call queue to a human.
“What about your meat?” “I’m not hungry.” “No, I mean in your freezer. Thawing.” “Just don’t open it.” “Well, I’d like a beer,” I say. These news’n’nibbles have me trained. “Me also,” he says. “I’ll be quick,” I say. And so we both watch as my right arm pulls the fridge door open and my left arm plunges in, grabs two beers, careful not to select the 0% Iota, knocking over a can but not taking the time to right it – phewph!
We sit at the table and drink our beers, going over what we know of the news of the day, a kind of oral storytelling news-reporting. The headline about 10,000 penguin chicks dying because ice melt forced them into the ocean before they’d grown their waterproof feathers was a bit of a stinker. D cast about for a silver lining, a feather of comfort. I start thinking about D’s supper. “You’ve got a gas stove, so that’s good—” I say. “Yes, we think we can light it with a match,” D says. So the stove’s igniter is electric – no tiny person person with a flint lighter.
D wants to see what’s going on down on the street, especially after I describe the crime scene and interrupted Shakespeare play. We finish our beers, check the thermometer, he grabs a jacket. and we go, risking a ride on the generator-powered elevator. The scene is quite reduced, no fire engines or police cars. “There was police tape across there,” I say, pointing lamely. Still, right at the epicentre of all that transpired, a city worker is wrapping a hunk of electrical pole in warning ribbon. He hops in his truck and drives away.
We approach a physically impressive man watching from across the street. (The playwright?) “What have you figured out?” D asks him. “I don’t know,” the man answers. A moment elapses. “I think a distribution transformer blew.” Phew! We launch in, discussing wheres and whens, pointing at the top of the pole, the chunk left on the street. “I was a general,” the man says, letting a bit of time elapse, “contractor. So I know a bit about this stuff.” But his answers dwindle and contradict. D points this out: “The more we ask, the less you know.” “Yes, it’s true,” the man says. A moment passes. “But at least I’m honest about it.” “Honest?” D ribs, “I thought you were a general contractor." “I went to confession,” the man says, “the day I retired.” D laughs helplessly at his, then he tells a boyhood story about being invited to camp by a neighbour kid. “'Does anyone want to be saved?’ a woman asked at some point. That sounded good. Why not? So I got up there and was saved - for life!” “Can I touch you?” the general contractor asks. D puts out his arm.
Out of the mist a woman in loose Batik pants and a thick cardigan comes towards us pushing a dog in a baby carriage. “So, was it hit by lightning?” she asks. This seems preposterous, what with the over-loaded transformer, worn-out insulators, obstruction by cherry tree -- but of course, it makes perfect sense considering the afternoon's thunderstorm with all the trimmings. We cross the street and wander around the burned telephone pole, one end all charcoal. “Could it have been lightning?” I ask delicately. “Definitely,” the general contractor says.
A 10-year old skips up. I give her a chunk of the blackened wood. "Take this -- it was burned by lightning!” Her eyes light up. “I’ll give it to my dad. He loves lightning. When we were camping in Bobcaygeon, there was a huge storm, and he slept through the whole thing.”
The general contractor wanders off -- "well, that's the end of comedy hour" -- and D heads home to start the stove with a match. I head home too, loving my neighbourhood, and wistful for a pre-digital, pre-phone-queue world. Cutting through Irving Park, I notice the sequoias are turning brown where they are always green, and think about those sinking penguins again.
Later I call D. The electricity is on, and he is not convinced after all that it was lightning that caused the fire. I have the thought that if the medical school cadavers had been uncovered, we would know exactly what happened.
I was supposed to be working, but fled the over-warm house with no plan, ending up, as I often do, at Sahsimi, meaning harpoon, named for the large erratic on the shore – an unwitting forever seal god or “boss of seals” that in Songhees memory Hayls the Transformer made of a disrespectful seal hunter. The place is also named Harling Point, for a dentist (!) who died of the excitement of a dramatic ocean rescue in 1934.
And it is where the oldest Chinese cemetery in Canada lies, the place chosen for its feng shui (wind water) – “a mystical combination of Chinese philosophical, religious, astrological, cosmological, mathematical, and geographical concepts,” Chinese Canadian scholar David Lai writes, “originating in fear of…forces of nature which the ancient Chinese could not explain,” and perhaps in admiration of how nature’s “agents of erosion, wind and water, carve out lofty mountains and hills.”
The souls of the dead hover over their tombs, Lai explains; good feng shui gives them comfort. Sahsimi has topnotch cemetery feng shui: smooth treeless surroundings; no straight lines, which might point at and disturb the dead (the paths wander so naturally, following them is like floating); a water view; a sheltering border of low ridges and mountain ranges; a well-drained slope to the south, which equals life (north, not so much).
The tide was high, a relief after last weekend’s dizzying visit to Botanical Beach (where, facing FOMO panic as tourists oohed across the beach, I’d taken myself by the shoulders: their tidal pool is no more amazing as yours). With that beauty covered up, I could make tracks or, in pedometerist parlance, get my steps in. I hurried along the “complexly folded seafloor volcanic rocks overlain by marine mudstone,”* -- clinging vertically at times, loathe to yield shore rights to the bully mansions.
Finally, my yeah-yeahs out, I slung my backpack onto a rock ledge, and sat. A single crow pecked expertly at tiny somethings I could not see. I even wondered if she was faking it, out of pride or for an excuse to hang out. She was oddly unperturbed by me. Did she know that I feed two crows daily? Had they draped me with some magnetic veil, the way travellers mark a generous house? Or had I learned crowy ways of negotiating space, glancing dartingly to camouflage acute awareness?
A dragonfly tilted and zoomed on the air. The fastest flying insect, a 2021 study also found dragonflies to be the “most agile”, with “exquisite control” over their flight, separate muscles directing their four wings independently. To track their motion, the researchers “dressed” them with tiny magnets.
A Pacific harbour seal raised its blubbery head amid some bull kelp – the fastest-growing plant in the world (neck and neck with bamboo).
The barnacles by my feet were likely chthamalus dalli Pilsbury, which live higher in the intertidal zone than any other barnacle, able to go without water the longest. Barnacles also have the largest penis of all creatures (relatively speaking). The tide had ebbed a little, and I spied a limpet in a pool. Designed to scrape algae from rock for 20 years, the limpet’s tongue is the strongest natural material – stronger than spider silk. The limpet would have wandered grazing during high tide, then followed its mucus trail back to this home spot, where it won’t dry out during low tide. Its shell’s sharp edges have possibly worn in the rock a path to help get her home – called a homescar.
This was a boomerang walk, not a loop, but on the way home, I cut straight a few times, across my undulating path outward, the way a river will remove a meander (and sometimes create an oxbow lake). I thought about superlatives – most, only, -est – and how they help us realize that here too, are the farthest reaches.
But isn’t everything a superlative? My kids laugh at the claim that the totem pole in Beacon Hill Park is the tallest in the world, when they’re only made along our coast. Aren’t you the greatest person right now, at your intersection of longitude and latitude? Can’t we honour each unremarkable blade of grass and dull stone…
Philosophical quibbling is becoming luxury. Heat records, highest ocean temperatures, are being set monthly. It has been said that what we are calling the hottest temperatures today will in 100 years be the coolest temperatures in the past century.
Soon, we won’t have time for a day’s casual amazements, the cricket that seemed to fly but was actually being carried off by a moth, or the preponderance of late-season blackberries, which I ate greedily, having skipped lunch and run out of water. Or, back in “civilization”, the older man exiting Thrifty’s with three large bags of grapes in each hand. I chased after him to get a photo, but he turned too quickly into a dentist’s office. Later, I saw him walking down the street, no sign of the grapes -- instead, he was pushing a baby carriage.
David Lai, A Feng Shui Model as a Location Index
Victoria’s Waterfront Geology: Part 1; Bud Harwick and Gerri McEwen
Lyndsay Dagg, The Influence of Feng Shui on Cemetery Design: A Spatial Analysis of the Chinese Cemetery in Victoria, BC, 2021; UVic thesis
The Haunted House of Harling Point
"No walk is ever wasted,” Mathew Beaumont writes in The Walker: Losing and Finding Yourself in the Modern City. It’s the kind of book I resist, superstitiously, afraid that its dissection of a beautiful thing will, well, kill it.
But I won’t be reading it for reasons more banal than superstition, having worked my way through an excerpt that in only a couple of pages squeezes in references to seventeen great works ––Andre Breton, Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, etc. – and not one of them by a woman. I even wondered if The Paris Review, in printing the excerpt, snickered between the lines and mocked Beaumont, this priceless specimen they’d found in the wild: “Ooh la la! Mr. White Cis Male Canon here, who somehow missed the conversation of the past 20 years, thinks he understands walking – without having read a woman or anyone non-cis!”
The only thing going for my optimism is that it’s the upside of my paranoia.
But Beaumont’s correct about that one thing – no walk is ever wasted. I generally leave the house at the end of the work day frazzled, nothing more than that last nerve everyone is getting on. And within a few blocks, that nerve has healed and recreated and I’m flourishing, a bed of kelp waving with the tide.
Where does it start? I don’t know. But sometimes I doubt it will come. In the first few blocks, I’ll think: am I feeling better? Am I lifting out of the cares and woes of the day, gaining distance on that file named Backlog in that horrible organizing app?
A few blocks later, I check in again: Is this simplest of actions, this rolling hips-as-hinges movement, this traversing of territory in the jalopy of one’s ephemeral scaffolding, redeeming the anxiety and exhaustion wrought by the world’s pain, most of which is needlessly created by the violence of capitalism and patriarchy and colonialism? No. Not yet.
Looking back, it may have been the sports car, painted orange. I’d never seen one like it, and paused to read the letters on the back. MX, it was called. I phoned my son. He said it was a Mazda Miata, and that the flat, dusty paint job I was describing was “matte”. Right. “You should take a picture,” he said. So I did – circled back to do so.
My son has guided me out of a good number of jams over the phone. “It’s dark and I’ve walked too far,” I might say when he picks up. “Can you hang on with me until I get somewhere a little more solid?” It always only takes a few minutes before the lonely place fills with people, or lights come on, and I can say, “Everything’s all right now,” and he never doubts me. In the same way he never doubts me when I call for help.
After taking the photo of the car, an artless document, I cross a short street that is remarkable for being as wide as three streets. Maybe it was once a farm field, or a commons for neighbourhood animals to graze. Maybe some loophole protected it from private developers. There must be some historical reason.
When I get to the coast road, I take a path that sidles off through a field, a shortcut to the sea, worn through natural use, one of those "desire paths". A few steps in, I look back at the coast road, which I’ve never seen before – not from this angle. A steely building rises above it, looking sure and completely of place. As we all do, really.
At the shore, people are milling around, almost loitering. They’re mostly shadows. Ah. I’ve arrived just after sunset, when, I guess, the people who head to the water to watch that daily inevitability, linger a while, for pride’s sake, maybe, or thinking up the next inevitability to wander to.
I didn’t mean to venture out so early in the evening, but I haven’t adjusted my schedule since solstice, and now the vernal equinox is in sight.
In the early days of quarantine, I said to my son, the same one who periodically guides me out of darkness, “Actually, I find it a relief.” He knew just what I meant: For years he has slept during the day and stayed up all night, making music while the city sleeps, in that generous privacy. Of course I was panicked and sad and angry about the unnecessary deaths, and the disproportionate number decided by disenfranchisement and injustice more than the virus. But without that, this forced retreat has been nearly entirely a joy. The pressure is off. Here was a break from fighting social anxiety and the attendant self-loathing with tooth and nail. The truth is, I head outside after dark because after dark I am not seen.
The air was cooling quickly. On the breakwater, a couple walked a rabbit on a leash. Its name was Ms. Bunny. Four divers staggered down the granite block foundation. As they lowered themselves into the water, a very young boy asked, “Were you in the ocean?” The last of the four, still above sea level, looked up and said, “We’re just going in.” Moments later, all there was of them was a green pool of light in the water, moving as they explored together with their headlamps. When the light separated into individual beams, a chill ran through me.
There was a pile of teens at the end of the breakwater, sitting on the rocks, noisy with talk, music out of speakers. It was the beautiful noise of spring. Of spring in the time of the vaccine. Later, when they fall into bed, their skin will smell of salt, and their hair will resist their fingers the way darkness defines itself on its own terms every time you apprehend it.
I stopped for groceries on my way home. Coffee was on sale, so I loaded up. Cat food, eggs, bananas, bread – also all on sale. “I’ll give you five dollars off,” the cashier said, apparently as compensation for my having bought three times as many groceries as would fit in my backpack. Even with the five dollars, my arms soon ached, and partway home, I called my son to meet me and take some of the load. I kept walking, but just knowing he was on his way made it all a little easier. And seeing him walk towards me made the burden lighter still.
It was a difficult hike. The path was rocky and there were very few birds and the weather was not inviting. We never stopped just to take it all in: the natural world, etcetera. And there was so far to go. Even my foresightful friend grumbled as we gazed at the incessant scribble on a posted map: “We haven’t even reached halfway.” I’d looked forward to the walk for weeks, the anticipation pleasurable, but like a round stone in the mouth, ultimately futile. And I knew I’d be glad to have completed it. So the path, narrow and tough, lay between anticipation and triumph, a strip of coarse flint.
We got lost three times. Modestly. We’d simply deviated from the path. So we’d bushwhacked – modestly – to meet the path again (we did not retrace our steps, that last resort -- no, we would get through this humbling journey with our pride intact). Maybe we stepped away from the obvious trail because we were lost in our impulsive, roaming conversation, but more, I think, our bodies took example from it. A number of my stories were uninspired and rambling, bearing no fruit of wisdom, not even a raisin. But true friendship forgives the droughts, waits them out. In the same way, we made time for each other’s gnawing, recent injuries, neither of which had a clear explanation. A knee. A calf. As if we were becoming old women! As if.
The rigor of the hike was such that I could hear myself speaking – I couldn’t forget myself; it was a mental version of clenching one’s teeth. A third of the way in (after two hours of conversation), I noticed that I had used the word “trauma” several times. Was there something I wanted to say? I scanned my organs, physical and metaphysical: no. In fact, my traumas are finally all tucked in. I know exactly where they are and I do not fear them. They are bundles now, that I managed to pin down and bind with rope spun of reckoning, forgiving materials. For their own sake as well as for mine – for them to have a bit of a life, dormant as they may be, amid the greens and browns, the lapping shores, the swooping seabirds, the selfless, swollen mosses that in six months, at the height of the drought of summer, will sustain entire forests, letting go as unconsciously as they now hold on.
Not long ago, my daughter, now in her early twenties, was thinking about a life other than hers. She was thinking of mine. “That must have been so hard,” she said, referring to a particular time, the cherry on top of a long, devastating period. And I could not travel back to that time, not even to say, Yes, yes it was. Healing did mean a kind of erasure. But at the same time, that period is woven into every swatch of me, a thread alongside the others, warp as much as weft. I won’t say they are darker threads, and I won’t say they blaze, either. It’s the difference between bodies in the yard: whether they are hidden, or marked and prayed over. It’s the difference between murder and death, between live electrical wires and the strings of an instrument.
How strange that my daughter was seeing my trauma now that I had put it to bed. That she was witnessing it and expressing empathy, which was comforting, actually, but no matter how insightful it was – how on the pulse – it was not going to breathe life into it. I do not mean to be impenetrable to my daughter – and children often feel their parents are, of course, intentionally opaque, that they have secrets, keep their suffering to themselves. Perhaps I was not ready, or was not brave enough, and now I’m lying about having put it to bed, or having absorbed it. In the balance is that I do not want her to be contaminated by it. But neither do I want to give the impression that I could cut it out from my past and show it to her, isolate it, because it was too large for that, too powerful, the way she is large and powerful – and I am shot through with her, with every changing instant of her being – all of the swath of me that I define as self. The full entirety of who I am.
My friend and I stopped once during our difficult hike, to eat. My hunger was sharp and clean, unequivocal, which was oddly pleasurable. I’d made the sandwiches, hoping to redeem the mushy, day-old ones I’d bought for our previous hike. They satisfied the definition perfectly: ham, cheese, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, two slices of bread. Unfortunately, so I learned there and then, good sandwiches break from definition. We ate my cloying sandwiches on a bench sixty feet above a rough cove. At one point, a flock of dark cormorants rose and swooped over our heads like shards of a tossed plate. Then, in the dark water, a shadowy darkness appeared – a rounded oblong shape. A seal, the largest I have ever seen. Lone and calm, in no hurry to breach, hovering just beneath the surface, satisfying no expectation. It moved through the water and eventually away, belonging, sublimely.
It’s a few days after the riots at the Capitol and a jacked-up, camo-painted Dodge Ram drives past me on my evening walk. It’s the kind of truck where you’d expect the driver to be a card-carrying member of the NRA. I feel vulnerable, anxious. But this isn’t the U.S., I remind myself, and a decal on the truck indicates a landscaping business—which I don’t immediately believe.
It’s a wet, wet night, following a series of wet, wet days, the sound from every direction of water running, down drainpipes, gutters, storm drains underground. The sidewalk is little more than a dock. It isn’t really rain when it’s like this on the West Coast—not the sudden, quantifiable rain of books and movies. It’s more a kind of drapery. It’s as if the clouds have ruptured and will never empty; they’re inconsolable. The rain falls so constantly it doesn’t really meet the ground, only merges into the current.
No one’s on the breakwater on nights like this. They’ll show up on stormy, vivid nights, to get a kind of charge, standing their ground as the wind launches at them and waves burst over the guard rail. People want that invigorating sting of salt, but they don’t want this relentless, colourless constancy.
Where I grew up, you can see the rain coming from miles away. It passes over you, exactly as a cloud does. You can wait it out under an awning, with strangers, the same feeling as an elevator ride. When I lived in a rainforest in Central America, I learned that “rainy season” was less a season made of rain than a few weeks where rain arrives daily, late afternoon, ten sudden minutes, each drop full and heavy, one unto itself—like a bowl of pebbles being emptied onto the sheet-metal roof. The village would be changed in its wake--duck pools refreshed, a singing network of galloping rivulets—but the rain had fallen—past perfect tense. Comparatively, the rain here has no tenses. In fact, calling it rain puts semantics on the table.
Semantics has to do with meaning. It was a favourite subject of mine until I discovered hermeneutics, which is about interpretation. Hermeneutics is the game when you re-read a book you loved in your twenties and now it is more layered, or funnier, sexier. Recently, my friend and her family watched the Steve Martin movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It had not aged well, she said, describing an early scene where a woman gets drunk on a date and falls asleep. When she wakes up, the man has his hands on her breasts. Ha ha. They had to turn the movie off—her daughters, 21 and 23, could see no humour in it. The question is: is it still funny? Hermeneutics would say no: it isn’t just that we see things differently, the text (or movie) has changed, absolutely.
The jacked-up truck wasn’t the first time I’d been startled by a vehicle in the wake of violence. It was deep summer when I left that Central American village where the rain fell heavily each afternoon for three weeks, and where the military was a real and present threat that would not move into the past, which in any case it had defiled irreparably. As a human rights witness, my system had been on high alert for months. When I buckled myself into my airplane seat, and the seatbelt clicked, an ocean of tension gushed away. Back in Winnipeg, I slept a few hours in my childhood bedroom, which was like a theatre set, then ventured out into the heat, to Winnipeg’s Little Italy, which was noisy with jubilant crowds: Italy had won the World Cup quarter-final. A spontaneous parade moved down Corydon Avenue—people spilling out of convertibles, drivers honking their horns. Then an army jeep appeared, filled with men, all in sunglasses, some seated high on the roll bar and shouting, and some at ease, watchful. I was petrified, and confused, as if this vehicle had pierced the space-time continuum to infect the summer afternoon with terror. I talked myself out of it, identifying details of celebration not violence, of consumerism (the family Jeep) not militarism, of sport not war.
Lately I read a fairy tale every evening, from an old book I loved to shreds as a child. It’s amazing how well I remember the stories, sometimes down to the sentence, the pattern of the words falling one after another. Tonight’s story is about a traveling merchant who needs a room for the night. The innkeeper hates to tell his regular customer, a kind man, that the inn is full. He says there is one unused room, but it’s haunted. The merchant says give it to me, I’m too tired to worry about ghosts. Soon after he falls asleep, there’s a knock at the door, and a small man enters the room. With a key, he opens the door to a safe and takes out a razor, soap, and shaving-brush. He offers the merchant a chair, then lathers and shaves his face until there is “not a single hair left.” As the man heads to the door, his work done, the merchant calls him back and returns the favour, shaving the little man’s face until there is “not a single hair left.” The little man is happy, and before leaving gives the merchant the key to the safe. When the merchant opens the safe, he finds "immense treasure.”
But the story only reminds me of the rioters who, to avoid detection, shaved off the beards they’d grown in anticipation of the day. It’s a laughably futile tactic, to hide by revealing one’s face. Downstairs, my son turns off the shower and the bathroom door opens. Steam will be billowing out, and my son’s tall, lean self will be wrapped in a white towel. I hear his girlfriend giggle. Then she coos, “Ooh, perfectly smooth. Like a baby.” Then she adds, “You know, the way they space the blades now, the razor removes the top layer of skin.”
“I’ll be back in a few hours,” I tell my teen son as I leave the house, “with eggs.” He is 6’1” and lean as a knife. He works out daily, so four eggs is nothing. I had thought I’d stop somewhere for eggs on the way home, but when I call in at my friend’s, five hens are scratching exuberantly in the yard after days of being cooped up—literally. My friend hands me two eggs straight from the nest box. The eggs are remarkably different one from the other, in size and colour, and thickness of the shell, something you get a better sense for from the outside, the longer you live.
My friend and I decide to walk to what is called the Chinese cemetery. On the way, we pass Ross Bay Cemetery, named for Isabella Ross, a Métis woman from near Winnipeg who in the 1850s became both B.C.’s first female and first Indigenous “registered landowner” (that’s the unassuming term that city historians use). Isabella Ross’s interesting feat is usually explained away by the fact she was married to a Scottish chief trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company. But he died years before she bought the land, offed by appendicitis while she was pregnant with their tenth child.
Isabella Ross’s hundred-acre parcel faced what we now call the Salish Sea, and was so filled with waterfowl—ducks and geese and grebes, presumably—she named it Fowl Bay Farm. Eventually, after Ross had sold off parcels to stay afloat, the city bought the rest for a cemetery, where Isabella is now buried alongside James Douglas and Emily Carr and Billy Barker.
The Chinese community was given Ross Bay Cemetery’s “L Block”, to share with Japanese and Indigenous communities. Their names were not put on their graves, only a cruel noun and a number. L Block lay so close to the shore (this was before the sea wall was built), graves would be washed away in storms. So the Chinese benevolent association bought the site up the road. It is one of my favourite places to visit. No one is buried here anymore, but everyone is remembered. I like to visit the altar, where people leave nuts and buns and sometimes a cigarette. Today the only item is an egg, half lost in the altar’s shadows.
When I boil eggs for my son, I boil them forever. What is it with kids and soft yolks? Sometimes I’ll forget and find the eggs when the water’s nearly boiled away. My mother forgot an egg in this way. When she left her desk to get a cup of tea, there it was, “a little sphere of ash.” The other day I similarly forgot something for a long time. The grey in my hair was looking like pigeon feathers, so I bought some henna—the fake commercial kind. I was supposed to rinse it after 20 minutes, but by the time I remembered, two hours had passed. My hair is now a dark mass, like a bad wig, that rebuffs light. My friends fall into six categories, I’ve learned. Some don’t notice at all. Others notice but don’t say a thing. Others notice and say “Wow, you did your hair.” Some try to say something nice, like “It looks pretty good!” One said, “You can re-colour it, you know” And I’m sure another one would go even further: “Why don’t you come over and I’ll help you re-colour it?” I love and need every single one of my friends.
It reminds me of piece of advice I once got—about advice. I was sorting out a tricky situation—a relationship that was 50 percent deeply joyful and 50 percent deeply miserable: do I stay or do I go? I started asking friends what I should do. One said to me, “Consider which friends you’re going to for advice. That should tell you something about what you want to hear.” I love advice. My sisters do too—we beg each other for advice. It’s terribly maligned, advice. Because of sexism. Women give advice, men dispense wisdom.
I studied philosophy at university in the 1980s and never once studied a woman. I was never taught by a woman either. Or by anyone BIPOC. Philosophy was my major. All these men were going on about this lofty thing called the human condition, and I remember thinking, Well, whatever that is, it is something I’ll never experience. The human condition had nothing to do with me. Some days if I think about it too long, I want to get my tuition back. I can feel the bills being counted into my outstretched hand.
And to think there’d been Hypatia of Alexandra (murdered by a mob of Christians!), Simone de Beauvoir, Joyce Mitchell Cook…. That ten years before I was born, Hannah Arendt had written a book called The Human Condition! Arendt was very interested in totalitarianism, and “identified as the root of tyranny the act of making other human beings irrelevant” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings). In her essay The Eggs Speak Up, Arendt warns against fighting the big evils without fighting the little ones; they are all connected. She discusses how Stalin graduated along his expansively repressive path, from revolution, where “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”—“eggs” being people—to “you can’t break eggs without making an omelette”, where repression is integral to the political machine.
Arendt believed the “antidote” to totalitarianism is “love of the world” (Popova)—and wrote that love’s goal is the kind of fearlessness that exists in the notion of eternal afterlife, where people are safe from dispossession.
I wish I’d learned about Hannah Arendt in my 20s. If I had, I’m sure would have been braver all these years. What I’m trying to do now is be aware when I cross paths with repression and dispossession, omissions and lies, dismissal and diminishment. Sometimes it’s quick, in passing, a little blaze of sun between leaves. Sometimes it’s a lot closer, like heat on a burn. Sometimes I find I’m the one holding the match. I can worry about my hair, be anointed with my friends’ advice, pedal my bike along the shore with eggs in my pocket—have love of the world—but none of that means I’m not on my guard, ready and willing to hear about people’s pain and strength.
Today my friend and I walked near her home, up a hill I hadn’t climbed in many years. After we’d descended, I remembered a second, narrower path up the side, so we climbed the hill again We were talking about fairy tales. I’ve been reading them again lately, and had guessed, with certainty, that my friend had been raised on them as I was. It turns out that just a month ago, she had realized that her moral centre came from reading fairy tales: to help; to set off; to be brave, modestly; to meet others with an entire heart (and deke around the opportunistic ones); to expect good to prevail.
We met over twenty years ago, when our daughters were very young. A long time ago, I considered her a sister, which makes friendship easier—that blood bond. Fairy tales are told in a way that academics are never able to describe. Without earnestness, and only the most salient details.
It’s called Cairn Hill, but we didn’t even look at the cairn once we’d reached the top. We’re more the cauldron types. We’d never think to claim territory, or to try to leave an unmovable mark—we’d laugh at the silliness of it.
Your eye travels far at the top of that hill. The entire city lay at our feet. We found a friend’s house across the bay, and stared a long time at the new bascule bridge that divides the inner harbour and upper harbour, memorising what it looks like when it’s raised. I’m sure we both noticed the man lying on his back on the moss at the top, and that we individually determined what parts of our conversation we could trust him with, and accordingly lowered our voices or set subjects aside for later. A silver spoon lay among the rocks, only its bowl visible, bright as the setting of a brooch. Later when I mentioned it, my friend nodded that she’d seen it too.
Some months ago, she and I walked in an ancient forest for hours. It was the middle of summer, and a pandemic had kept everyone in their houses since the end of winter. We’d never been apart for so long, but we still didn’t embrace on seeing each other again. Still, we felt confident enough that the virus was not aware of us, so we set off together without too many worries. That forest would normally have been moderately busy with people and children and dogs, but it was just us. Everyone was in their houses, keeping safe. What we did see were thousands of small birds, high and low, unafraid of us. Berries were plenty. We were in awe at constellations of tiny white flowers in the thick moss, or how one tree sheltered another, or by three trees that had stood in a kind of circle, within six feet of each other, for at least 400 years. We felt strangely welcome, we said to each other, as if the forest knew we were there. We sat on a rocky knoll in the sun for a small feast of cheese, crackers, and olives, that my friend had brought, because she is smart about these things. I shared half a package of peanuts. My friend told me about the song she was writing, in Roma. She is a musician with a passion for Balkan music. I asked her to sing it to me. As she sang, a young hawk landed on the only tree near to us. When the song finished, it flew away.
Months have passed since that walk in the thick woods, and the pandemic remains. We did not hug today when we said hello, nor when we said goodbye. But I’d brought her a bottle of olive oil and she gave me three dark tomatoes to have with my lunch. And if anything is sure in the world, we will meet again.
With love, for Pam.
It gets you thinking about shelter, these late-night walks this time of year, looking into people’s apartments, cubes of light set in the dark, and inside them, squares of light: television, computer, aquarium. Last night in one apartment building, a movie was being projected—an entire wall writhing with a bright sunny day in the 1950s—while in the room directly above, a teenager brushed her hair in a mirror. The way she moved her body, it was easy tell, even from down in the street, that music was playing.
People often have paintings of landscapes on their apartment walls, of rugged west coast beaches, dark rainforests. If you lived involuntarily on a beach or in the woods, you’d imagine a warm apartment, and if you were brave, these paintings on its walls.
For a few nights in my twenties, I slept under a bridge. I could have done better, but this was during the years that silence enveloped me, and I could find no channels from inside to out. I was assaulted there too, under the bridge—mildly, easier to shrug off since the man did not “love” me.
A wonderful shelter I had, for only one night, was after driving all the way straight from Winnipeg to the outskirts of Gatineau. My passenger, Karl Wendt, and I had met through
a cork bulletin board at the local cafe, as things were done then. I’d advertised for someone to share gas on a drive east. Karl, it turned out, was a poet, with schizophrenia, a brilliant wanderer and old hippie who smoked so much his fingertips were yellow. We lived in the same Nova Scotia neighbourhood for the next three years, and these days, when I have to remember that he is dead, my marrow seizes, and weeps iodine.
Karl was the one who pushed me to drive a couple more hours to the outskirts of Gatineau, because he had acquaintances there, old friends. There’s no story to it: I was all but blind with exhaustion, stumbling into the small, leaning house, and led immediately to a room with a single bed, grey with darkness, where I fell asleep—a kind of coma—to the sounds of voices in the kitchen. Thirty years later, I remember the short, melting chain of seconds during which I feel asleep to those sounds.
Perhaps the sounds are what socked the memory so firmly in my mind. As the youngest of five children, a large family, I often fell asleep to sounds in the kitchen, voices remembering to shush once in a while, tea being poured. Enormous trust. So enormous you do not know that you have it, it is larger than you, larger than the dark, a country, a universe.
But I also remember that night, I’m sure, because I had to gamble—trust strangers, people I’d never even seen through clear eyes. They gave me just what I needed. A bed. Rest. I was a traveller, passing through. I was no one, and everyman.
A few years later, I was living in a small fisherman’s cottage on Nova Scotia’s south shore—the first to live there and not fish for a living. Rent was $150 a month. At about noon on a Sunday in the middle of January, I ran out of wood for the stove. I was so young and stupid, I must not have taken note of the dwindling pile. The house was cold within two hours, as if it had never been heated, ever. I darted desperately into the spindly Nova Scotia forest outside the door looking for wood. There was nothing. Buddy finally arrived at dusk with the cord of dry, split logs. I’d found him in the slim local phone book under “firewood”. He stood inside the door, his truck backed up along the never-used, icy driveway, engine running, and said he did not take cheques. I considered offering him something else. Maybe I did offer—because what I remember is him taking the cheque, LOL.
Back on the west coast, years later, shelter was my lover’s arms, open for me when I was still ten feet from the bed. The same lover who in the cabin on the Gulf Island could not get the generator going, and night was coming, and we were still soaked from our foolhardy hijinks on the ferry deck in the winter rain. As the cabin—the word is grand here—sank into a deeper chill, I eyed my lover hungrily—a man of girth, formidably hirsute. A natural furnace. It makes sense to me now that he was the one who decided we boot it out of there and run through the dark forest back to the dock to catch the day’s last ferry; at 125 pounds, I didn’t have much to offer.
But that man could make no promises. Which may be why I loved him helplessly at an age I should have known better. He had absolute ease in the world, basted with arrogance. I fell in love on our second date, with the way he tossed his keys on the restaurant table. The thing is, he had a problem with object permanence. He’d be tagged on social media in photos where he’d have his arm around a woman at a play, or eating supper with an ex-girlfriend and her aging father. The thing is, he never mentioned these outings to me. Once, when I asked about one of the women in the photos, he said, “Oh yeah. It’s funny. She’s always in a relationship when I’m not, and then she’s not, when I am.” He never did anything with the women, I guess, but once I asked, “What if she called you up and said, ‘Hey, come on over.’ What would you do?” He answered, “I don’t know.” I finally had to decide that the shelter he offered was not reliable enough. I got tired of standing out in the cold.
Shelter keeps the wind off. It insulates, but you’ve got to question it. Last night there was a terrible storm, and everyone was having a strange day because of it. My young friend said, “The wind was so bad, we couldn’t get any fresh air because we had to close our window.” This makes me laugh, being from Winnipeg, and it being December.
The world belonged to the birds today. Late November, west coast, the air incubating warmth under a thick fleece of grey cloud, light rain in leisurely bursts, the earth soft and cellular—subtle. Chocolate mousse. Not pudding, not mud. By the busy, feathery look of things, it yielded up its seeds and grubs.
Outside of town, my friend and I passed a field thick with Canada geese, among them trotting a single fawn, more rectangular, but not much bigger. We were on our way to swim in the ocean. Maybe putting it off, we stopped at a farm stand that sold eggs, only—organic, free range, cartons in a cooler. A sign listed the prices and indicated the cash box, and alternatively offered an email address for e-transfers. You could pay an extra dollar for washed eggs. They were beautiful either way, each egg uniquely obedient in its row. As my friend sent off an e-transfer, I stared at the leafless hawthorn nearby, filled with juncos, an unmistakeable bird both made beautiful and cursed—gentle monks or executioners—by their dark hoods. I counted a dozen.
We drove on, past a marsh strung with webs so thick that we first assumed it was snow. Finally, we parked and walked through a forest, the trees furred with lichen, a stream cascading beside us, toward the bight.
It did bite. We were quicker than we’ve ever been. Like baptisms, our dips in saltwater. Our skin, the sac that holds us, our shell, renewed to alertness. Usually I swim until the cold seeps into my heart, but we were too far from home--my friend’s electric car offers heat at the expense of mileage.
On the walk back to the road where we’d parked, we passed beneath a bald eagle, whistling in its nest. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a bald eagle, which delighted my friend--who doesn’t want to witness our friends’ firsts? Especially at this age? We saw a Northern Flicker moments later, and watched it in silence, each of us sighing once, “I love Northern Flickers.” There’s not more to say than that—a Northern Flicker is so exacting in its oddness, anyone who loves it loves it in the same way.
The Canada geese had flown on. The fawn was gone too. I imagined it sprouting wings, but my friend pictured the geese carrying it, sharing the flightless load. This explanation was rational, and even plausible; depending on my mood, which shifts moment to moment, I prefer it.
When I got home, my young son was at the stove, abashed—one of the three eggs he was boiling for his breakfast had cracked, white inelegantly burbling through the ragged seam—as if it was his fault. “Eggs crack all the time,” I said. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
Moments later, there was a big bang. I’d swear the collision shook the house. A bird had struck the window. A dear towhee, curled up in the grass below, glazed black eyes open. I picked her up in one hand as I dialed my friend with the other. It had been ten minutes since we’d said goodbye, so we were still attached, plus her reasonableness. “Make sure the cat isn’t around,” she said. “No. Don’t bring it into the house. If it hasn’t broken its neck, it’s just shocked. It will stay still for while. It’s its way of mending, of healing. Then it will just leap back to life, and if it’s in the house, you’ll really have a problem.” “It’s so soft,” I said. "it's sooo soft." The breeze ruffled its feathers, parting them, revealing smaller feathers, then fine down, like snow, spiders’ webs, smoke.
I wanted to put it on a blanket, but we decided to lay her in the vegetable bed. Her eyes lost their lustre, and as I laid her in the dirt, her head fell, incurably. “She’s gone,” I said. Then: “My windows are dirty.” I keep them dirty on purpose. But it obviously wasn't enough. Maybe she was being chased, or lost in thought. How to make room for that?
I carried her to the backyard, stopped in my tracks at the gate: a Northern Flicker was in the mushrooms, its bill deep in the wet soil, in heaven. It didn’t even notice me, though I’d approached with some noise, using the shovel as a kind of walking cane. I stood very still, watching the flicker love the earth for a long time, while the bird grew cold in my hand, despite its million feathers.
--for Amanda and Kelsey, with love