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.