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 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
Today I saw a woman that I’d known a little when our children were young. She was a serious woman, even though she rode a bicycle. But that was a European thing, embedded in her upbringing. She was the kind of person you slowly realize won’t break through whatever shell they’re in, and that maybe there was nothing on the other side anyway, nothing to be patient for—so you edge away until, over a few years, you can even let the hellos-in-passing fade away.
But maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe you don’t know the strange equation of pettiness, meanness, anger--why did we even meet, it’s not MY fault she’s a bore, she never asks about me, etc.—and liberation that complicates what should be simple chemistry, those elements that don’t form bonds, the noble gases.
Anyway, I hadn’t seen her in a number of years, and there she was, on her bike, paused at a Stop sign at an empty intersection, thinner than she’d ever been. Ten years had passed, and she was thinner.
I can’t remember much about her child, a girl with bangs and short, straight hair—who I genuinely hope is happy somewhere, across the country maybe, a lightness in her, the yeast of generosity. If so, I imagine she’d struggle with one of those—rare--the reports are exaggerated, an act of sexism—complicated mother-daughter relationships. It would be worth it.
There was a seriousness in all our exchanges that never lifted, and even felt dangerous, like quicksand. She was the type of person who would have been on top of her compost—whose turnips, if she grew them, would have been in perfectly straight rows. Though honestly, I don’t think she would have had the imagination to grow turnips. Certainly not in Canada.
Ultimately, I decided she was impenetrable. That her spirit lacked the desire to breach. Though of course no one is truly impenetrable. Still, you can only spend so long offering flowers--maybe she’s a rose person not a cosmos person--or throwing pebbles, waiting for something to crack.
This is the blessing and the curse of living in a city for so long, that you witness, right on the sidewalk, or in grocery store aisles, people move through life, marriage(s), work, fashion—and also learn that some friendships have a limited number of seasons.
She was thinner, yes, but also aged beyond her years—into another generation, even. I felt equal parts sorry and vindicated.
I have chosen vindicated.