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.