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.