Thursday, December 30, 2010

Woman in Blue Bathrobe

The day begins with a cat sitting on my chest. Then a blue fleece bathrobe and slippers. I walk down the stairs to the semi-darkness of the kitchen. I can see my breath. Penelope eats her teaspoon of Fancy Feast. I pull on my rubber boots and walk up the path to the outhouse. I almost slip on the ice. By now Dark Star, my absent neighbour's black Lab, has arrived. Hungry. She watches me pee. Still in my blue bathrobe, we walk to her food bowl. Then I walk to the chicken coop and unlatch the door. First the ducks run out, beating their wings, and then the chickens fly down from their roosts. I break the ice on their bathtub full of rainwater with the heel of my boot.

Still in my blue bathrobe, I spilt kindling. I crumple up balls of newspaper and pray the fire will start easily. I turn the oven on to Broil to take the chill out of the air. I turn on the faucet. No water. Still in my blue bathrobe, I put on my rubber boots. I walk to the water barrel that doesn't seem to freeze as quickly as the others. I plunge a bucket into water floating with ice shards. Soon there will be tea.

Still in my blue bathrobe, I watch the fire spark and crackle and then peter out. For the past week I've been struggling for the roaring flames essential to my warmth. Several people have told me their theories about my firestarting dysfunction: Maybe I'm not grounded enough. Maybe the fire senses my impatience. Maybe the fire knows that I'm leaving soon. Yesterday, a Haida Elder was here while I struggled. She looked at the smouldering fire, then at me, and I awaited her words of wisdom. "That thing needs to be cleaned," Margaret said. For the first time all week, I noticed the embarrassing layer of debris that had accumulated after numerous attempts to fuel the fire with anything remotely combustible. I closed the woodstove door. Margaret laughed.

Yes, I'm leaving. Soon. The Haida have been to bade me farewell. The daily chores have acquired new poignancy. I do them in silence. I've begun to see myself as someone in a documentary. I imagine a camera panning from hatchet to red bucket to spruce crowns. I wonder if I could appear in my blue bathrobe in every scene.

I do my chores, slowly, so the camera can get a good shot. It's important this is well documented. Watch as I sit in a chair and drink Earl Grey. Watch as I walk down the path towards the Pacific. The sky is streaked with winter rose. Dark Star chases after the sandpipers. Do you see Alaska in the distance, mountains covered with freshly fallen snow? Do you see the woman in the blue bathrobe, head bowed against the wind?

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thank you, Mr. Camus

For my bedtime reading, I've been perusing Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus. It was published in 1968 and smells it. But an essay entitled "Love of Life" is anything but musty. It begins in a crowded Spanish café where the author observes: "There is a certain freedom of enjoyment that defines true civilization. And the Spanish are among the few peoples in Europe who are civilized." There is Andalusian music. An overweight dancer. Foot-stamping. The author calmly sips his wine until he answers one of the questions I've been asked so many times I've lost count: Why do you like traveling so much? (or the other version, which parents are quite fond of: Why are you so restless?).

Just this past weekend at The Moon Over Naikoon bakery, a man named Gorden (lighthouse keeper on Langara Island for the past seventeen years) was curious about my travel habit. While grating mozzarella, I told him travel expands my mind. Afterwards, I realized lots of things expand my mind. Looking at the ocean every day. Reading. Meditating. Observing my cat. These are the kinds of things one can do anywhere.

But traveling is different.

I hope you won't mind if I quote a passage from "Love of Life" (and I hope the late Mr. Camus won't mind, either):

"[...] For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat--hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: "What would I do without the office?" or again: "My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow." Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props (one doesn't know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable."

No, I don't have any plans to travel to a foreign land anytime soon. But after reading this passage, I wish I did. It's too easy to hide in the office or plant of our creation. An off-the-grid cabin in the woods (especially on a winter's eve with a blazing fire and a sleeping cat) is a wonderful refuge. But I admit--Mom, Dad, Gorden the lighthouse keeper--I am restless. Restless to live on the surface of myself, restless for indescribable intoxications. Must one travel to satisfy this need? (the wherever-you-go-there-you-are people will inevitably ask) Maybe not. But a foot-stamping Spanish café sounds like a lot more fun, doesn't it? Thank you, Mr. Camus, for reminding me of this.

And thank you for reading.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Looking for the Forest

Some couples have make-up sex. Others bake. The other night, my husband asked if I'd like to bake some coconut "macaronis." It was 8:30 p.m. I was already in bed and had been there for three hours trying to pretend I was sleeping when really I was fuming. "Macaronis?" I asked. Giuseppe held the Joy of Cooking to the light. For the first time that day, I smiled. "We're just missing a couple of ingredients," he said with his charming Italian accent. It turned out we were missing two out of the four ingredients that go into making coconut macaroons. Like most angry people, I didn't really want to be angry. The "macaronis" were a perfect excuse to get out of bed. "Let's go to the bakery," I suggested.

Luckily, we live within a few minutes' walk from The Moon Over Naikoon Bakery (which, incidentally, has opened again for the winter: Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 5). The bakery and I have a tacit agreement. When it needs ground ginger or an onion, I retrieve them from our cabin. When I need a teaspoon of vanilla or an egg white, its sliding glass doors magically open and all is well.

The moon truly shone over Naikoon as we navigated our way along the dark forest path. At the top of the small hill leading down to the bakery, Giuseppe shone his flashlight up into the trees. I stopped: "Wait." I craned my neck to see the tops of the spruce crowns, but they soared higher than the beam could reach. All around us tall dark forms reached up into the night, branches touching stars. In that moment, I remembered we live in a forest. A magnificent forest.

It seems I've turned into one of those people who can't see the forest for the trees. This is especially disconcerting since we live in a 179, 500 acre forest. You'd think a place of such grand dimensions would inspire one to embrace the bigger picture. But what if you have no idea anymore what the bigger picture is? What if the forest melds into the dark mass of night? Then you bake macaroons.

The macaroons wouldn't stick together at first. But we managed to plop them onto the baking tray and they managed to come out looking somewhat edible. Of course, it didn't matter. We were laughing again. At nothing. At everything. And the next day, and the day after that, I looked for the forest beyond the trees. I'm still looking. I know it must be there. Somewhere. Everywhere.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, November 19, 2010

This Thing Called Community

This is the first time in my life thus far that I am not, officially speaking, a transient. Or, as my mother once called me, "her little gypsy." I have a P.O. Box and a bank account at the local branch. The cashiers at Delma's Co-op know my name. I possess the kinds of things people who live somewhere awhile possess: waxed paper, three sets of sheets, a hot water bottle. I arrived here with a backpack and now my possessions would easily fill the Toyota Corolla--and more. But it's more than that. I have friends. Friends I've grown to love and depend upon. And I have this thing called a community--people that will change a flat tire for me, or come to hear me read poetry (even if they don't like poetry).

For years while traveling alone in the kinds of places I've never told my mother about, my life often depended upon the kindness of strangers. Now it depends upon this community. I think of all the things that could go wrong while living off-grid 16.5 kilometres from town, and who I could call for help. The list is long. In fact, I know I could call anyone with a phone number and they would come to my aid. This fact comforts me. Who do I thank for the gift of such a comfort on such a remote and windswept archipelago?

And who do I thank for the continuum of small gestures that make a gypsy feel at home? Thank you for buying my poetry book, for the gift of blackcurrant jelly, for the loan of your truck. Thank you for stacking my firewood and picking up my library books. Thank you for saying you wish I could stay whenever I think it's time to go.

Last night, an older and wiser friend advised that it's these types of gestures that create community. Not potlucks and loonie auctions and clothing swaps. It's not about being somewhere you think you should be. It's about doing something. Something small. As she turned to cream butter and sugar, I realized, as usual, she was right.

Today I wonder if community could mean a place of common humanity rather than common residence, if we need a place to call home to create it. As the north wind continues to blow and the water barrels freeze, I wonder if community could fit into my backpack. For when I leave, as all gypsies must, I hope you'll travel with me this time. You, the one who left a bottle of salal wine on the kitchen table, who changed my oil free of charge, who always remembers my name.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Creature of Light, Warmth, and Company

"Grab two sleeping bags and go to Colin's place," our landlady commanded above the cell-phone static, "You're blocked in. Trees are down. This wind is strange, and it's making me nervous."

I hung up the phone and another gust rocked our little cedar-log cabin. Thunder rumbled. Lightning struck. Rain pelted the tin roof with no mercy. I thought of how just yesterday, I was admiring the persimmon tree in my father-in-law's garden. The blue Italian sky against the flaming orange fruit. "Giuseppe!" I called as another gust hit. The wind turbine made the noise it makes when wind speeds are higher than usual. Imagine a giant bed sheet made of metal hung on a clothesline snapping in the wind. But tonight it sounded as though the bed sheet were as big as the sky itself. Now I was nervous, too. "Do you think we're safe here?" I asked. Giuseppe didn't hesitate. "Of course," he answered. And for some reason,I believed him. Maybe because I was simply too jet-lagged to believe otherwise, to consider dragging two sleeping bags to Colin's cold, empty cabin in the dunes and sleeping on the floor.

Or maybe I believed him because I'd weathered many storms in this little cabin. I'd arrived here alone on May 7, 2008 with a broken heart and this cabin was my refuge. I learned how to split wood here, to tend a fire. I learned that every drop of water I used to bathe, cook, and wash dishes fell from the sky. It was during these moments I forgot about things like broken hearts. But when I remembered, when I'd sit by the fire at night and see my whole life go up in flames, the eighty cedar logs surrounding me stood firm. And I knew I was safe in their embrace.

I've spent more than a year alone in this cabin. Many times I've cried myself to sleep--especially on dark, winter nights when the wood was damp and I couldn't get a fire going. Or when we'd run out of power and I had one candle left--forced to decide whether to use it to read, or to illuminate the dark morning when I woke to make tea. I've spent weeks listening to wind--southeast, northwest and all directions between--blowing through the chinks. I've watched hundred foot trees bend like blades of grass. Coldness, darkness, the relentless cry of the wind--these are the things that have tried my spirit. When there is no central heating, unlimited power source, or insulation--one is forced to confront the reality of the elements--and how alone they can make us feel. Again and again, I've been humbled into realizing that I am a creature of light, of warmth. Of company.

I spent my wedding night in this cabin. I've hosted dinner parties with the types of friends one can only hope to meet at the end of the road on the tip of an island. I've read countless books--meeting opera singers in Central America, novelists living on Capri. I've watched Penelope (the cat) sleeping on the bed in a pool of sunlight. And I've touched the cedar logs, every single day, wondering what life still courses through them. There is reason to believe their embrace isn't just imagined. There is reason to believe that even during a hurricane, we are safe.

Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Love You Too

The journey starts at Masset airport where the daily flight departs at 11:20 and the locals check in at 11:00. Security checks haven't made it to these parts. The only precaution is to close the door leading to the tarmac. Airport staff is more vigilant about things like wayward deer than terrorists. Just a few weeks ago, an incoming flight hit a doe on the runway. The accident made the front page of The Observer, rallying the community to cull anything four-legged in the vicinity.

Two juice boxes and one packet of Dad's cookies later and I'm in Vancouver. In a mere two hours, I've gone from heating rainwater on the woodstove for my morning bath to eating a French eclair at Fratelli's. I walk down Commercial Drive. I celebrate Thanksgiving with an eclectic group of friends including an architect, a plastic activist (of the live-without-plastic-for-a-year kind), and a carpenter. Close to midnight, we begin a mandolin singsong.

I walk down Commercial Drive. I am reunited with my Italian-jazz-musician husband after six months apart. We board a flight bound for Milan. In London-Gatwick, we wait eight hours for the final leg of the journey. We eat edamame-watercress salad and drink pomegranate spritzers from Marks and Spencer's. We watch the world stream out of Arrivals.

After an airport shuttle, subway, and train, we walk towards Via Scapardini 9 where my inlaws await. It's always during these jet-lagged, hazy moments that things become clearer. A week has passed since I left my off-the-grid refuge, and I am drawn to the profusion of surrounding electrons like a moth to the light. The Italians, especially, seem charged to the hilt. Women clip down the cobblestones on stilettos. Voices rise around me like flocks of chattering birds. I am drawn to the lit windows of pasticcerie piled high with extravagant creations of flour and sugar. I am drawn to the caffes, to the sparkle of glasses against mirrored walls.

We walk, the wheels of our luggage trolley joining in the cacophony. As we reach the Chiesa della Madonna del Carmine and I gaze up at the floodlit statue of the Madonna with her arms upraised to the night, I realize, even though I haven't slept for twenty-four hours, how alive I feel.

The feeling continues. It continues through meal after meal of dishes curated by an Italian housewife. The sharpest pecorinos. The ripest persimmons. "Mangia! Mangia!" my father-in-law insists. And I do. I eat. And I eat some more. I fill myself with the energy of an entire country fuelled by the quest for La Dolce Vita.

And I find la dolce vita in reflections cast upon Venetian canals. People who think Venice is all tourist and no substance should go there in late October and sit in the Sestiere San Polo. A courtyard. A fountain. Houses fitting into one another. Geraniums spilling down thousand-year-old walls. A woman opening green-painted shutters to tilt her face towards the sun.

If that's not enough, get lost crossing tiny arched bridges and ducking through porticos. Drink a cappuccino beside a floating produce market. Realize you haven't touched a computer for a week and you don't care. All along, you could have been doing this instead. You could have been hanging your laundry across a canal yelling "Buongiorno!" to your neighbour.

For a few glorious days, I covet the Venetian life. An off-the-grid cabin in the woods on a remote archipelago seems as wrong as serving the espresso before the dessert. How could I ever have lived anywhere without marble tiles and frescoes? I realize the Venetians managed all this splendour long before any sort of electrical grid existed. Why is it I haven't even managed to sew a pair of curtains?

Such a question lingers all the way back to Milan. It arises over and over while vineyards, and the place where Romeo met Juliette flash past the windows of the train. In this frame of mind, even the graffiti inspires me--Ti amo tanto(I love you so much)scrawled in black across white stucco. I love you too, I feel like calling across the tracks.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bush Girl Meets Milan

When traveling off-island, my neighbour never bothers to change out of her Haida Gwaii bush wear for the sake of the masses. She unhooks her Leatherman from her belt loop to make it through customs, but that's her sole concession. When she visits her brother in L.A., donning worn out blue jeans, scuffed Blundstones, and windswept hair they tell her she's got the "distressed" look down. If only they could meet the rest of us out here.

I'm thinking of these things because lately I'm having difficulties dressing in anything but rubber boots, stretchy pants, and baggy sweaters. My hair is beyond windswept. I'm wondering what I'm going to wear in Milan when I go to visit my in-laws next month. I fear my mother-in-law may not be aware the distressed look is in on the streets of L.A. The last time I lived there, she often spot-checked my shoes with a scratch of her pinky nail to ensure they were real leather. She examined the slightest of frays and tears, demanding I remove any offending garment while she mended it. My mother-in-law is a fashion drop-out's worst nightmare. Not only is she Italian--born with the blood of Prada and Gucci coursing through her veins--she's a seamstress. Clothes are her business.

One could view my fashion worries as a form of vanity. I see them as an opportunity for a more pleasant visit with my in-laws. This morning, I examined my wardrobe hanging along a piece of driftwood. Most items have yet to be worn on Haida Gwaii. Blouses, skirts, a blazer or two--I started dusting them when I found a spider web forming on the collar of a linen dress. These are the items I've decided to keep because they seemed like good quality, like something my mother-in-law would approve of. Now, after scanning the Milano Fall 2010 fashions, I realize every single thing I own will simply emphasize the rubber-boot donning bush girl I've become.

I realize that one of the greatest joys of living here is to abandon any pretext of fashion. Eventually, you find your uniform--something comfortable and adaptable--an outfit you can wear while splitting wood, walking on the beach, collecting eggs in the chicken coop. A colour that hides stains well. A fabric that breathes. It helps that no one seems to notice what others are wearing around here (unless for some reason you put on something like a white blouse, which would elicit a "Hey, you're all dressed up!"). People around here tend to look into one another's eyes instead of looking you up and down.

When I go to the city--any city--cities I formerly thought of as dowdy--I get nervous. It's just like highschool all over again. I unpack my bag and sift through my wrinkly, wood-smoky clothes and panic. I can never find anything to wear. I long for my Haida Gwaii uniform. I long to look like my hip friends who dress as effortlessly as Italians. Whatever I manage to put together looks all wrong the moment I step on the street and stand in front of a full-length shop window filled with--guess what?--trendy rubber boots.

I know these worries are all in my mind. Someone once told me that self-confidence is one's biggest fashion statement. But could it be the other way around? Could the absence of fashion be the biggest statement of self-confidence? Could not looking in a mirror every day signal self-awareness rather than self-neglect? Will Milan embrace the fashion of non-fashion when I arrive next month? Not likely. But this time, I'm packing my uniform.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wanted: Full-Time Biophiliac

Would that the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments.

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

I often think of this quote while living on Haida Gwaii. Yesterday afternoon, a friend arrived at my doorstep--her garments smelling of salt air and sunshine. This is the kind of place where you can visit your friends by walking down the beach, or along a path in the forest. Soon we settled into the dunes and perched ourselves on a log. Soon our garments were smelling of gin and tonic. During momentary lapses of conversation, we'd look up to see Alaskan glaciers in the distance, or flocks of sandpipers rise and fall in shimmers. We'd lift our glasses, brushing sand from their bases, and continue talking about things like conflict resolution, turning forty, and the fine line between contentedness and low-grade depression. And then the sun began to set. It was one of those moments when all is right with the world.

Strangely, I've been having lots of those moments lately. Last week-end, it was on the same log with different friends. The sky was hot pink that evening and we drank something rich and heady, tasting of plump, dark berries and a place called Cowichan. Then it was atop an ancient lava flow scanning the Pacific for breaching whales. The taste of elderflower-huckleberry wine lingered as sky and ocean fused.

I'm beginning to wonder if someone is playing a trick on me. I thought it was time to stoke the fire and watch the days shorten into nothingness. If my habitual writer's angst doesn't return soon, I'll have to become a full-time biophiliac--a lover of living systems. It's a term I first heard a couple of weeks ago on CBC when David Suzuki was interviewing several scientists about the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.

In a world of disorders, there's a new one to add to the list: nature-deficit disorder. It seems that things like trees and flowers aren't just pretty--they're functional. In fact, one scientist argued they're as important as vitamins. Apparently, heart rates go down nine units when surrounded by nature. Our brains go on vacation. Could that be what's happening to me? Have I been hanging out with nature for too long? I wonder how much one's heart rate goes down when surrounded by ocean and forest for two and a half years. Have I mistaken my inertia for a state of deep relaxation? Is that why I'm having so many "moments" lately?

I've booked a ticket to Vancouver in October to find out. I'll visit friends by gliding on SkyTrains and treading upon pavement. I'll come with the fragrance of fossil-fuel emissions on my garments. Let's see if my heart rate quickens at the sight of a parking lot. Let's see what souvenirs my brain brings back from vacation.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Staying Sane with Spanish Saffron

The bakery has closed for the season and I am officially unemployed. No more kneading or dish washing. No more coffee or cinnamon buns. Now I can dedicate myself full-time to "being a writer." Yesterday, to celebrate, I made jam. After an hour of preparation, of crushing huckleberries and measuring Certo, I ladled the ruby-red liquid into their jars. Two of them. It seems berries shrink when boiled down. Nevertheless, I held my two perfectly sterilized jars to the light and admired their ruby glow.

I thought of the day I picked those huckleberries in the fields beside what the locals call "Ops" or "The Elephant Cage"--a giant steel apparatus constructed by the Canadian military during the Cold War. No one has been able to tell me for certain what they do there. The odd rental car comes and goes at odd hours, rattling across the cattle guard. But the huckleberries grow well there--"the size of peas!"--my friend Charley--Londoner turned such a lover of huckleberries she can never return--proclaims.

Since I'm a full-time writer again, I'm trying to reacquaint myself with living in poverty. It's not easy. I failed on my last foray into town--unable to resist the organic baby spinach and a half-pint of dark-chocolate raspberry Haagen Dazs. My mother once made the mistake of telling me to skimp on anything else but food. She never could have foreseen my addiction to foodstuffs. Maybe I don't have refrigeration, running water, or a flush toilet--but I have cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and Spanish saffron. Some may call this off-the-grid chic. Some may call it gluttonous.

Perhaps that's why when applying for writer's grants and fellowships this week, I've been grossly underestimating my subsistence costs. How can I be held accountable to the Canadian public for my love of sparkling mineral water (Italian)? But after reading several applications that use phrases such as "this criterion considers the achievability of the project" and "merit-based, independent adjudication is the primary method of evaluation," I was reaching for the San Pellegrino.

When I read that applicants must allow authorized assessors "reasonable access to view the applicants' facilities, work, program, or project funded," I began to laugh. I imagined one of the assessors in my cedar-log cabin, viewing the shelves lined with gourmet foodstuffs, and then glancing towards the Nabob coffee tins holding up the bookshelf. I realized my mother was right. Maybe the Spanish saffron is actually saving me from losing it. In a world where writers must essentially beg the government for money, one woman's gluttony may be another's self-preservation. I can live without a new pair of shoes, or a car manufactured after 1990, but please don't take away my oak-aged balsamic.

Thank you for reading.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Making Peace with Inter-Tidal Doughnuts

Yesterday I read an article in The Sun Magazine about "acoustic ecology." Who has ever heard of such a thing? I suspect it will become the next trend, alongside "elf-tear" dish soap and organic plastic (and off-the-grid authors). Anyway, Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist. He travels the world recording "soundscapes." He claims: "Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything." He claims that there are less than a dozen places in the United States where one can sit for twenty minutes without hearing noise from some human activity.

Immediately I thought of inviting Gordon Hempton off-the-grid to Haida Gwaii to listen to our silence. Before sending out the invite, however, I thought I'd do a little test. I went to the beach for my daily walk. Immediately, a jet flew overhead emitting a distant rumbling. Next, someone in the vicinity of Rapid Richie's Rustic Rentals Reasonable Rates (RRRRR!) started up a chainsaw. Okay, I thought, two flukes--now let the natural soundscape begin.

Just as I was beginning to enjoy the gentle lap of ocean, I heard the distant whine of a dirt bike. Then another. The grating noise grew louder and louder until they were upon me, waving merrily, as though they'd never heard of acoustic ecology, either. I tried not to wave back and to put my fingers in my ears (as Gordon Hempton suggests doing when confronted by such unbearable assaults), but finally I rose one hand at half-mast, hoping they'd get the hint. They didn't. A few inter-tidal ripping doughnuts later, and they were back, waving even more merrily. I pretended to look at shells even though I was committing a Haida Gwaii sin by not participating in even the faintest semblance of a wave.

No sooner had that roar died down than I spotted the dreaded All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV). It was coming from the direction of the setting sun and I made a run for the dunes before I started pelting the happy driver with rotting seaweed. I began to wonder if our Haida Gwaii acoustic ecology was endangered. I began to wonder if it was always this noisy and I just hadn't noticed until now.This explains everything, I thought: no wonder I'm having troubles writing. Now I can add noise pollution to my procrastination repertoire. I'll add it to my top-ten list that includes kindling splitting, filling the ducks' water containers, outhouse cleaning, petting my cat.

Fellow writers may understand this phenomenon of shaping reality to fit our need to procrastinate. Perhaps a beautiful sunset on the last Sunday of the last week of summer simply attracts humans, and I should just pick up my pen and write despite the state of the acoustic ecology. Perhaps I should write about the soundscape of this Monday night. For the past hour, I've heard nothing but the ebb of the tide, the call of a loon, the gentle fall of raindrops on leaves. Or, as Gordon Hempton would tell me, I've heard everything...

Thank you for reading.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Slime, Guts, and Blood Welcome

Yesterday I went to Old Masset's new laundromat. We've been without one for almost a year now. It closed down because the machines were costly to maintain. This probably happens when treeplanters, fishermen, and people who live off-the-grid load them to the brim with the kind of dirty things the makers of such machines weren't expecting. Moss, sand, fish guts, poopy cloth diapers, twigs. These are just a few of the things that had been causing the owner distress for years.

So I was shocked to meet the husband and wife team of the new laundromat (which, by the way, is one washing machine and one dryer in a private home) and hear them exclaim: "Slime, guts, blood--don't be shy--we've seen it all!" They told me how the nurses always forget dirty band-aids in their pockets--"So, don't worry--we check pockets!" They introduced me to their five cats and showed me the restaurant in their kitchen with hand-written menus and crocheted placemats. I wasn't sure I'd eat there, but they assured me, "We've just finished our training!"

I didn't know whether to be alarmed or enchanted by their enthusiasm for my dirty laundry. They assured me they would wash, dry and fold the mammoth pile for five dollars a load in four hours. "Could you pay us now?" the wife asked. "You know how it is around here." I kind of knew how it was around Old Masset--some of the neighbours' houses had smashed-in windows and vehicles rusting on their lawns. I knew some of them housed drug addicts and sad characters I'd heard stories about during my years working at the transition house a few kilometres away. But I'd learned to overlook all that in favour of looking into people's eyes. I looked into the laundrywoman's eyes and peeled off three fives.

When I returned at the specified time, they were waiting for me. They insisted on carrying my clean laundry to the car and from a distance I could see the perfectly folded dishtowels. "Are you sure I don't owe you more?" I asked. "No honey, not a penny." They were all smiles. Suddenly I felt ashamed for ever doubting them. I wanted to find more dirty laundry to entrust them with. I wanted to attend the loonie auction and ham dinner fundraiser next week they were hosting to fix their collapsing roof.

I drove away, heading back to off-the-grid to ponder this adventure, to realize I'd just fallen in love with this place all over again.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Making the World a Little Homier

Forget about book tours or reading engagements. Forget about "branding" yourself and promoting your work to the unseen masses. Just get a job at your local bakery and bring along a pile of books. Here you will meet a photographer from New York City, a cellist from Scotland, a local fisherman. And all of them will buy your book. While the coffee percolates, they will ask you what your book is about and you will tell them stories about hitchhiking to Mexico with the French Canadian you met while treeplanting, about your thatch cottage on a rocky isle in Ireland. You will talk until interrupted by the next in line asking about the daily soup, or "What kind of muffins are those?"

You will cream butter and sugar, and then you will listen. You'll hear about serving in Vietnam, about guarding a Buddhist monastery carved into stone, a spiral staircase descending into the centre of the Earth. "The monks would go down there for weeks to meditate," they'll tell you. The family from Washington State building a house down the road will tell you about travelling on business to India, Bangladesh, China--about countrysides filled with factories, and entire towns unable to breathe.

The dough will finish its first rising, and when you punch it down for its second, the blue-eyed man who works for the Ministry of Agriculture will peruse the books for sale and notice Susan Musgrave's name. "She just lives down the road," you'll say. "I love this cover," he'll say of a deer lying dead in the snow, of the title When the World is Not Our Home. So do I, you'll agree. And you'll look at one another then, understanding something. And he'll buy your book, too.

After this sale you'll realize you're doing what you've always wanted to do. For a few moments, you're entering the life of another. More importantly, they're allowing you to do so--they're even paying you for it. You'll stand there greasing loaf pans while they read about the little boy tortured in Guatemala, your friend dying of cancer, your heart breaking again and again. After a few minutes, they'll look at you differently. They'll thank you.

And you will want to thank them for much more than their $18.95. You'll want to thank them for making poetry--for what else could this exchange be called? This chance encounter transformed into a moment of shared humanity? You'll want to thank them for making you realize it's possible to feel a little more at home in this world. But they'll leave before you can tell them all this. They'll see you're busy, that there are people waiting in line.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Baring All to Resident Squirrel

Big news--the wind is changing direction, causing havoc in the canopy. I'll have to consult my neighbour (self-taught expert on all Things That Matter (air, water, fire, and more)) which direction it's blowing now. The sun is also shining. Earlier, I spread out a Mexican blanket in the small meadow beside the cabin and felt the heat penetrate my bones to their very marrow.

Today was also shower day. No small feat during a water shortage. The water comes all the way from the municipal tap in Masset--16.5 km. down Tow Hill Rd. I've been hauling it home in a variety of plastic containers as our rain barrels have been dry for weeks.

An Off-the-Grid Shower:

1. Heat hauled water on wood-stove until perfect temperature
2. Pour water into coffee pot, funnel into Stearns Sun Shower (a heavy-duty plastic bag with nozzle and 9-Litre capacity)
3. Stand on chair and hang shower bag on nail jutting out from cedar log on south-side of cabin
4. Retrieve towel and undress
5. Walk outdoors to bare all to Sitka spruce, salal, huckleberry (sometimes the resident squirrel)
6. Unscrew nozzle. Feel wind on wet skin. Watch all manner of green, green leaf shimmer in the sunlight
7. If necessary to wash hair twice (and it's always necessary)--ensure to save enough water to rinse out conditioner
8. Stoke fire in woodstove. Stand in front while drying off. Enjoy smelling clean for ten minutes (the amount of time it takes to smell like woodsmoke again)

Writing news? Well, I put together a submission for the Malahat Review creative non-fiction contest. I've done a little research for a non-fiction piece set in Kalimpong, West Bengal. I've sent out another article (again) to several newspapers. It's called "Heroes of the Hills" and is about my friend Dr. Laura Louie and a volunteer project she runs in another town in West Bengal--Kurseong. This article is desperately seeking a home as there are many people in need who could potentially benefit from its publication. If anyone out there has any ideas where I could send it, your help would be much appreciated.
(update: this article has found a home--it will appear in Kyoto Journal (Spring 2011))
Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Charge Party

A north-westerly still blows and there is so much power, we can throw caution to the wind out here. I can charge my Dustbuster, cell phone, laptop. I can turn on my two lamps at once and even the string of faerie lights. But I'm starting to feel the effects of all these electrons.

I wait for calm to prevail, for the ocean to stop churning and throwing refuse on the beach. For the dunes to stop shifting. Once upon a time, I thought wind was romantic and listened to the sound of it like music. But try listening to the same piece of music for one week solid. I can't escape the sound within these cabin walls. Well--walls may not be the right word to describe eighty cedar logs chinked with moss, newspaper, and, in many cases, nothing. But don't think I'm complaining. I just need to visit a friend with insulation.

Meanwhile, I continue the against-the-wind battle of the writer's life. The other day I received a kind rejection letter from Douglas & McIntyre. My collection of essays about India isn't very marketable, apparently. But the writing is "quite nice." I think that may be a compliment. Regardless, it is so rare to receive a personalized rejection letter that I felt downright joyful after reading it.

My Anne Patchett marathon stopped with Run. After Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars, I don't know why I expected yet another masterpiece. I should have been content. Now I'm looking for a new author to take me away from this wind. Ideas anyone?

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Return of Smokin' Joe

Last night, Smokin' Joe arrived with a load of firewood. It was cause for celebration. I'd been waiting a month and a half and had resorted to burning driftwood. Some of you may wonder why anyone would need a fire to keep warm in mid-July. Well, maybe you've never been to Haida Gwaii. Last week we had two hot days (24 degrees) and the grocery store ran out of ice. People were complaining about the heat. But today we're back to cold, grey, and windy. Just the way I like it. Sunshine has never been conducive to writing; I get too distracted by my Vitamin D deficiency.

But cold, grey, and windy doesn't seem to be conducive to writing today, either. I thought I'd clean the bathroom but that only took five minutes. There's only so much one can do to clean an outhouse. Throw sawdust in the pit. Sweep up the bits of bark and twigs. Squirt the seat with cleaner.

I could go on about my day because I'm pretty sure no one will ever read this blog. But if they do, they probably won't want to hear about how I hauled enough water to fill the pot that sits on the woodstove, and the drinking water jug. Then there was the kindling splitting, and the soup making.

And now it may finally be time to open that bottle of Beaujolais that will help me dream of France.

Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Creatures of the Grid

Today I received this month's National Geographic. An article called "The 21st Century Grid" caught my attention. Some of you may wonder what all this grid business is about. I know I'm still learning. If you're interested, here's the link:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Poetry and Cinnamon Buns

A north-westerly blows and the ocean churns up piles of kelp and the odd plastic bottle. We have lots of power. I've spent this week working on various projects from a story about my Italian in-laws to an essay about my recent journey from Vancouver to Toronto on Via Rail. After a long hiatus--I even started a new poem.

Today I visited The Moon Over Naikoon Bakery--an off-the-grid gem about a minute from my cabin. I work there once a week. I like standing behind the counter kneading dough while tourists browse through the poetry book I have for sale on the hand-made shelves. I never tell them I'm the author unless they recognize the photo. When that happens, they usually buy the book--perhaps out of pity for the flour-covered author. Perhaps because of the novelty of buying poems and cinnamon buns created by the same hands. Whatever the reason, I'm grateful for the kindness of such strangers.

This week has also been a week of reading novels--two of them--Half of a Yellow Sun (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) and The Patron Saint of Liars (by Ann Patchett). Excellent books. One set in Africa, the other in Kentucky. One about the Nigerian civil war of the 60s, the other about a home for unwed mothers in the 50s. All week I've felt immersed in contrasts. It takes me awhile in the mornings (after I stay up reading until 3 a.m.) to remember where I am.

The sun has already started to set and the Sitka spruce surrounding the cabin are awash in golden light. It happens every evening, but every evening I stop whatever I'm doing to admire them. I just can't help it.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sunday in Naikoon

This is my first blog. I've been told (repeatedly) that it would be a good idea to enter the modern world of social media. So here I am. I'm a writer living off-the-grid in a cedar-log cabin on Haida Gwaii. I collect rainwater and fuel a laptop, printer, and high-speed internet connection with wind power. I didn't set out to become a "green" writer--but it seems that's what I've become. Welcome to my blog. Depending on how strong the wind blows, I'll visit this space as often as possible.

Thank you for reading.