A few weeks ago I had an early afternoon off from my day job. I had a few duties to attend to that were government related, phoning about their tax mistakes etc. I also wanted to walk the dog, but I hadn’t really made a plan in which order I would do these things. I knew I had to phone during business hours, and walk my dog before dinner. We had a quick foray down the road when I got home, and then I tackled the administrative stuff. Lines were busy, my patience was running thin. Hugo wanted another outing to play frisbee. I dressed, not warm enough and quickly took him out, where my patience ran as thin as my clothing. It was freezing outside and I hadn’t put on anything for an extended time in the cold. I grumbled. Back in we went. Back to the phone. Back to the busy signals. Back to waiting.
We had one more trip out doors, but still I was distracted, and this time it dawned on me just how distracted I was. Enough to realize that I hadn’t been present at all, to our walks. They were walks of duty, which I am sure Hugo could sense. I was disappointed in myself. This was not at all what life was about. Too late, dinner time, cold fingers, setting sun, biting wind, drafty drawers, numb thumbs, simmering discontent, no one on the other end of the line. And I had missed our chance at a perfectly perfect couple of hours. I had blown it.
The next day I had a client who cancelled an appointment late in the afternoon. I went home, bundled up in parka, snow boots, toque, scarf, heavy gloves, and for Hugo to wear, his much disliked but not so bad once they are on, booties.
From the moment we headed out I thanked everything for giving me this second chance to have mindless wandering with my best friend. I thanked deeply and extensively. Hugo was thrilled, sniffing everything. And everything was beautiful from my cozy vantage tucked into my parka; the snow was slightly sticky, the tree branches creaked. Wind howled. Hugo raced, leapt, bounded and bounced from snowdrift to tuft of grass, burying his face, for scents. I noticed field mice or voles or moles or whatever, poking their noses out of places we had stepped. I realized there was a city of life not far below the surface, made up of tunnels and little grass dens.
Time disappeared. There was no rush, no destination. Distractions were made up of no more than new scents, paw prints, and the odd stumble. We squatted by a tree to stare into the wind that blew from miles away (imagining it starting somewhere in California and flying across the continent) onto the field, to us. I looked at Hugo, smiling into the wind, and he looked at me. This was it. We wandered. And I kept saying thank you, for having a chance to retrieve something I had so carelessly missed the day before. It is all too short and so sacred, so divine. I can’t say thank you enough.
With all my layers of down, wool, cotton and synthetic––not to mention the snow booties for the dog and not much else as he has a thick coat––I attach myself to one end of our life line, the 25 foot leash, and the dog and I head out back. It became apparent that after the recent days of odd weather and temperatures that kept us holed up inside or dodging vast lakes of melted water outside, someone needed to stretch his poodle legs.
I trudge through about a foot of new fallen snow covering some great sheets of ice and paradoxically, a few brooks moving across the fields. I admire the well of energy my dog has; we circle about six huge fields, I’ll guess well over a hundred acres, and other than tip toeing gingerly and quite comedically on ice sheets, he bounds most of the way. I inhale and relish the feelings of racing pulse, freezing toes and stinging cheeks. Perhaps there is no way to understand a beauty that can also be life threatening. Crystals and frozen drops of water adhere to stems of grass. Ice forms on ponds with the same pattern that you would see on the scaled side of a fish. I could lie down in this peace, in a welcoming drift of snow by a decrepit fence, and never get up.
Recently, and again thanks to my dog, I have taken to sitting in the yard I have fenced for him, and while he sniffs the edges for traces of rabbit intrusion, or waits for me to throw the frisbee for the hundredth time, I listen while a silence descends, and envelopes. I wonder how to reconcile this odd beauty that is winter with the sometime discomfort of cold car seats, sodden socks and short painful walks into a brisk north wind.
I feel now, somehow, it is my duty to stop, pull at the seat of my jacket as I sit, so my bum doesn’t freeze, and to stay a bit longer than I am used to. Over my shoulder is the house and beyond is the car and beyond that is the road to town, then a highway, train station and airport. But some silent power says it is my duty to stay in that cold chair, feel the frost burn at my cheeks, squeeze my frozen toes, clutch at my frozen thumbs, and marvel at the sight of my breath.
I was on the Friday evening train bound for Toronto a couple of weeks ago –– warm inside, cold outside –– enroute to a week in the sun. Surrounded mostly by kids going home before, during or after Christmas exams. My own pre-trip challenges had been stressful in my little world from where to board the dog to how to stuff my flippers and snorkel and all of my camera gear into one bag.
At one of the stops a woman boarded with her two small children and what I thought were a few bags. There was a little commotion getting settled into the seats in front of us, and a certain amount of squealing. Other passengers exchanged glances, some kept their heads down, others, wired to tech, were oblivious. Where were they going a child’s voice asked. To his aunt’s, his mother replied.
From time to time I caught the reflection of the one little boy as he marveled at objects passing outside in the dark –– a truck, another train, lights that went ding –– beyond the window, as well as the fact that he could spy on me via that same reflection.
Not long into the ride, the woman asked the conductor if he could help her with her bags when they disembarked. She was only going a couple of stops, getting off before Toronto. He replied that he had lots of people to help off the train but would try.
I offered to help. She had a dazed look. She was heavyset, not dressed warmly enough for the night, and the younger boy clung to her thigh. We collected up bags and all made our way –– small children in tow –– towards the front of the car.
She pointed to a collection of plastic grocery bags in the storage space. Most of the bags consisted of half opened packages of food that you would find in a refrigerator or cupboard, a half empty 2 litre bottle of cola, boxes of Kraft Dinner, assorted cans, jars and packages, of the kind of food that is not expensive, meals for a dollar a can, spaghetti, stew. It seemed she had cleared out her cupboards and fridge, of what she could carry, along with bags of clothes, and two little boys –– the more curious one, about 3 feet tall, and the other more clingy one about 2 and half feet tall (a three year old and a five year old?).
She still held her ticket in her hand, the kind of ticket they print out at the station, not the kind you print on your printer at home, or have encoded on your cell phone. She wasn’t holding a cell phone. The little boy continued to ask where they were going. His aunt’s, she replied.
When the train stopped, I jokingly told the conductor not to leave without me. I took up as many plastic bags as I could, and the older little boy followed me. I stepped down and he stood at the top of the stairs staring at the vast space between him and the platform below. I took his stiff little body in my free arm and held him against my chest. I swung him and the bags around to the middle of the platform, and lowered him to the ground. I told him not to move, to stay beside the concrete light standard.
I turned back to his mother and the conductor. I recall the conductor assuring her more than once that someone would be along to help her, but I doubted this would happen. The platform was empty. He told the woman that she must keep her children close to her, as it was a busy station, and went back to the train. I told the little boy not to move but stay with his mother because the trains were big. I looked down the platform to see if anyone was approaching to help. I asked her if someone would be meeting them, and she nodded, wide eyed, still dazed. I was torn between my life on the train, and these lives.
I got back on the train and returned to my seat with enough time to glance at the scene on the platform, before the train started moving. With a backdrop of a freight train racing past them now, not more than twenty feet beyond, the mother crouched over the littlest boy who had his face buried in her thighs and the other little boy standing stock still where I had placed him, surrounded by plastic bags. Our train jolted into motion. My heart broke right then.
What should I have done? Gotten off the train? Found them a cab? A safe passage to the doors of the station? I realized I had a five-dollar bill rolled in the bottom of my pocket. Why didn’t I think to give it to them? Why didn’t I carry a business card with my phone number? Why didn’t I carry more money for such emergencies?
The conductor’s face appeared over the seat back to thank me for helping. How could I not help? It was literally the least I could have done.
I rarely use my twitter accounts except some self-promotion but I took my phone and tweeted out two messages with the hope that somewhere in space someone would see and perhaps offer a hand:
“Just helped a poor woman with 2 small boys off #via55 Oshawa. They need an angel,” and added to the second message, “Please God be with them.”
I could do no more. The train slid towards the city where homeless freeze to death on streets paved with gold, and multi-billionaires are called philanthropists.
When we arrived on this land, some eight or so years ago, I was struck by the sense of peace, even as coyotes wailed all around me on the clear night of a full moon. I had no inclination to run.
Some trees were cleared to build our house, but for the most part the rest remained untouched and are close by. As I wandered our acres I became familiar with alcoves and outdoor rooms, which provided privacy and presented peaceful unobstructed views of meadow, sky, and woods.
I half planned a garden, mostly by the pliability of the land. I bought a pick ax to make that pliability more so. Plants went where mother earth, clay and stone yielded. I gathered some planks, used for various stages of house building, to erect four equal rectangular raised planters for a vegetable garden. I measured and cut, and wound up with not four, but five quadrilaterals, not square, not rectangular. Soon these boxes radiated from the corner of an outcropping of trees and, as a friend called it, I had created a “pentagarden.”
Knowing that the number five and the pentagram figures significantly in ancient wisdom, I began to wonder if perhaps the land was instructing me, controlling my actions, creating something which I had very little control over.
I then built a yard for our young dog. It just happened and it is perfect, fun and just right.
After that, when my mother died, I was taken by the obsession to build a pond. I seemed to know where, but realize I had no idea where, I was perhaps a conduit for a greater story, a more massive creator. Perhaps the garden I was building was some kind of ancient power center, responding to lay lines and other-worldly commands.
I met a minister in a nearby town, who was offering a blessing of the animals, and she told me that the boundaries between the profane and the spiritual world were very thin, here, in this part of the world. Then my dog licked her on the nose.
All I can say is that these rare comments and suggestions, mistakes and actions encourage me to wonder. I look out the window now at the trees. They look back at me. I sit on the deck at the end of the day listening to the birds, while the trees bend toward me, to listen too.
We all travel at different speeds, me, the trees, the water in the pond, the beets and lettuce in the “pentagarden.” I want to build something where the planters meet –– a platform perhaps, or a small hut. A place where I can further stall my on-rushing life, and listen and be listened to.
The other evening I sat on our deck surveying the garden. I wanted to describe it, I suppose, in defense of the fact that there were weeds, rotting planter boxes, and untended creeping mint and late harvest raspberries.
It occurred to me in a mild eureka moment, that the garden wasn’t unlike one of my novels, a bit of a work in progress, it was a structure familiar to me, with a topography and a geography and a landscape that I seemed oh so familiar with.
Yes my garden is like one of my novels. There is a buddah by the pond for clarity and respite and contemplation. The gentle tinkle of water runs through an old pump to further enhance the feelings of solitude and to help the mind focus on the moment. There is order –– where an editor built in some structure –– some sturdy planter boxes. Beyond, in part two or three, there is another kind of odd order, where I have built other planter boxes victims of some kind of plan gone wrong. But they work. It all seems to work on the whole. And in my mind, I am quite proud. I cannot second guess people’s reactions, from “what a mess,” to “how lovely.”
There was a beginning, imprinted on my mind –– my mother taking a picture of me standing on some scrub land proud and inflated that I had grown an allium of all things.
Like any novel, the end may not be quite as clear. It may go on. It may melt into the ground, it may be shared with friends as we wander and taste raspberries, tomatoes and pinches of chives, onions or tarragon.
There is a way in and there is a way out, there is time to spend and time to remember.
When I was a kid. When we were very young. Back in the good old days. Anyway yes, way back when, to get to our school we used to have to walk through a forest, which comprised of about eighty percent of our walk. There and back, twice or four times a day, spring, winter, fall, with a bit of summer tacked on at both ends. We were on one side of the forest and our school on the other.
In spring huge puddles would form between groves of trees, to become ponds. And the ponds were filled with life. Early on we got to recognize the clusters of frog eggs, which became tadpoles or pollywogs, which became weird missing link type of frogs with tails which then graduated to dry land. Sometimes we’d fill jars and bring them home to watch this compressed display of evolution, marveling at the tadpoles as they wiggled up and down the inside of the jar.
And some of these ponds were dark, and deep, a surprise, because they didn’t seem that way after the summer heat emptied them of their dark contents. But with water, they seemed bottomless as I recall. Deep enough to fill our galoshes when tested. Deep enough to suck the boots from our feet, to be abandoned to that darkness, or retrieved if someone brave accompanied us. Deep enough to thrill us.
By the same manner, the lakes in the Canadian Shield, just to the north of us, held the same mystery and terror and seeds to stir the imagination; they were said to be bottomless. Had anyone ever tried to go to the bottom? Had anyone drowned? Were they still down there? Where exactly was there? Was it like Journey to the Centre of the Earth, with James Mason, which had thrilled us at Saturday afternoon matineés? We were guarded as we walked the narrow trails around these lakes, fearing that not only would we fall, but that we would be sucked towards the bottomless bottom.
And there was a groundhog hole in a narrow passage between two garages in our neighbourhood. As kids we’d leap across the hole, telling one another that it led down to hell. This was actually a kind of activity, if one were to describe or recall the day’s events, leaping over the hole counted as much as collecting tadpoles, building airplanes or hiding in half built homes.
But in spring, back then, what was only a momentary coming-forth of life, flowers, birds, was less a growing season, than part of a cycle. I’d pick dogtooth violets, lilies of the valley––never a trillium, it was against the law––and other as-yet-to-be-identified purple flowers, and make daily bouquets for my mother. It seemed eternal, rather than a fraction of my life.
But it’s larger now isn’t it? Perhaps not even a cycle, nor a season, nor a series of seasons, as much as it might be waves washing the shore. Perhaps a rise and fall, but never the same spring twice.
It’s the end of February and the snow has melted already, though that’s not to say more snow is not on its way. There is the odd mound left in a bit of shade under a tree. Today it is definitely cold enough to snow and I have seen the odd wave of flakes race past the window looking for a ledge or a corner pocket to collect into. With the snow gone, the grass is a dry light brown, hard to imagine it will –– climate change willing –– be green once again. I noticed yesterday in the early hours, after the dark had lifted and before the day had risen into view, that the meadow was glowing dark orange, as if it held its own light, contrasted by a grey sky and independent of the unenthusiastic green backdrop of junipers.
Was this the golden hour? I have no idea and it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. I would not have mentioned if but for the fact that at the end of the day as a gentleness crept in, and the light weakened, the golden phenomenon appeared once more. It was indeed the golden hour. I had a witness. My eyes were not deceiving me. There was something about whatever makes brown grass brown and yellow grass yellow, that operates independently of prevailing light. It is one of the miracles of nature, a small miracle, but a miracle that reminds us that light can shine on it’s own, with no coaxing, just as life can exist miles below the ocean surface. While dreams may not come true, and our paths take u-turns when least expected, the miracle of kindness can be that spontaneous light, that independent glow that gives meaning to life.
For any tears of pain or denial there are also the tears of defiant laughter at our own private Babel. The absurdity. The frustration. The array of accents, colours and cultures.
Although I teach English as part of a settlement program for recent immigrants, I have come to realize it may not be just language we are here for.
As an ice-breaker, I encourage my new students to draw a “timeline” of their lives, marking major events; then, in pairs, explain them, using whatever grammar they are comfortable with.
Harjit, a student from Calcutta who comes to school full-time now, since her children started their own schooling, stared blankly at her paper until I asked if she understood the task. After an awkward moment of silence, she looked up at me and pointed to a notched scar about six inches long across the front of her throat, eerily similar in form to the timeline I had asked her to draw. She looked at me blankly and shrugged.
Sometimes I have them write their stories. Olga from Croatia wrote what her family no longer wants to hear. When working as a nurse in her homeland, a boy came into the hospital hysterical and holding his mother’s leg, asking her to put his mother back together. She held the boy close to her and comforted him with an unopened 20-year-old package of rationed crackers.
My students are from lands where the mundane can quickly flip into a life-or-death situation, but given better circumstances they would return home.
For Hussein, my Iraqi lawyer, newspaper photos of his burned-out dream home and of dying children are probably what has caused a crippling ulcer beneath his million-dollar smile. “I love my country,” he says. And, despite dreams of practising law in Canada, he knows it will be easier to become certified as a barber than a lawyer — a sad reality for professionals who come here.
There are personalities but very few egos to deal with and rarely any walls to scale. What we can’t say with words, we say with looks, glances, expressions, a hand on a shoulder or a reassuring pat on the forearm. And for any tears of pain or denial there are the tears of defiant laughter at our own private Babel. The absurdity. The frustration. The array of accents, colours and cultures.
Shiu is one of my stalwarts. He always shows up, a couple of teeth shining for a smile and sun-blinded-cataract eyes squinting out of a face that looks like he has just emerged from a coal mine. Now he walks with a phantom load still attached a body crooked from a lifetime harvesting sugar cane in Fiji, starting at 2 a.m. and working until the heat was unbearable.
Others’ attendance isn’t as regular: Alan has to work extra shifts in a restaurant with overtime pay questionable, and Jian and Harpaul doze from backbreaking days working on a local mushroom farm and tomato greenhouse. And his week, Katarina can’t come to school because she was hit by a car — “not badly,” I am told.
These past years of teaching immigrants have been the most rewarding in my life, and although I presumed myself a portal to these people’s Canadian experience, it is they who have taught me just what it means to be a Canadian.
Our neighbours on the bus, in the grocery store, at the post office and in the park, they move anonymously among us, many driving cabs, cleaning office buildings late at night, washing dishes or working in sweat shops.
Despite my words of encouragement, they know it will be a difficult, if not impossible climb, something for which they may not have the energy (after leaving a violent past they’d prefer to forget): Finding a home and some mind-numbing work in a sewer or as a security guard in Canada; saving to pay the rent, buy a pair of comfortable work shoes or eventually go to a community college.
Approximately 250,000 come to our country each year and in spite of perceived freedoms, this new world has its own set of psychoses.
Over Christmas, an older Iranian couple I teach were thrilled that they were going to see all of their family at a wedding in Minneapolis. Relatives from all over North America were to attend this event.
For Christmas they gave me two beautiful cushions made in Shiraz and hugged me, thanking me for being their teacher.
In January, when I asked them how their trip had been, they told me, blinking back tears, that they had been denied visas.
Later that day I tried in vain to comfort one of my Acehnese refugees who had lost all the female members of his family in the tsunami, because they could not swim.
Recently, Harjit brought in two CDs she had recorded in India when she was a singer. Her photo was on the front of the CD cover with two other stunning Bollywood-esque beauties.
Amid her classmates’ fawning attention she touched her throat and whispered to me that she could no longer sing.
Again I became the student and this moment, coupled with the smiles contrasting adversity, has now left a permanent place on my own timeline.
Years –– I mean decades –– ago I lived in Kingston Ontario (kind of the upper right hand area of your map of North America, at the east end of Lake Ontario) where I attended a couple of years of university before setting out on my own, taking a u-turn on my path, and choosing the road less traveled.
I had a comfortable room in Kingston, in a solid lime stone house with many halls a couple of stairways and lots of walls. At night I would drift off to sleep by listening to some radio station from miles away to the south, across the US border. I recall how I would then imagine where the station was, what it was like there. This led to a kind of home made meditation in which I would see the broad expanse of lake and I would take flight, southwest, over the great lakes, across the plains, foothills, mountains, as far as the coast and a little beyond, where I would meet sleep.
In those days I didn’t think of the cities really, I thought more of the land, and not much about the people who inhabited or had come from or to that land so many years before. I just saw land.
In retrospect, was that twilit dream my future, a blank slate of places yet to be seen, visited, not conquered? It was a world of adventure, of untold stories. But for the topography, my future was something I couldn’t quite imagine.
I never thought I would live anywhere near Kingston again, and yet I am within an hour’s drive to the limestone city.
But now, my views to that horizon are taken through the filter of what I am told, on the news mostly, as I keep my head, and my view, to the grindstone. I was out walking this morning and looking southwest, remembering how I had felt almost four decades (yikes) ago. Why –– I wondered –– can’t I hold my head up? Why can’t I let in the same airborne magic that was mine back then. Why can’t I look beyond the trees and be filled with the awe of a grey, not blue, day? What keeps me from imagining that slate still lake and the lands beyond. The beauty and power of a grey January day. Have I listened too frequently to the stories of man-made foibles, to be able to lift my view, open my heart and feel the immensity of possibility? Why can’t I own my feeling of connection to the land, however imagined it may be, it is my feeling and no one else’s. Am I ossifying? Becoming jaded?
It is a simple act, to grow mighty wings as you close your eyes and lay your head on your pillow at night. Another simple act to soar, to let go, swoop however fast you wish.