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.