Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Dragon

New Year's Day. Japan. 3:30 pm. Last night the temple bells rang 108 times to rid everyone of their 108 worldly sins. And now it's the Year of the Dragon. Friends send messages filled with inspirational quotes. The news reminds the Japanese of the plight of the tsunami survivors and warns the elderly of the hazards of mochi eating.

And here in Ohtaki-ku, the temperature lowers just enough to cause the snow to slide from the roof in dozens of mini-avalanches. I jump at each rumble then watch as it hits the already high drifts. Snow falling from roof. Obscuring the view of the volcano.

Maybe it's just snow. Or maybe it's 2011. It buries the ornamental cypress bushes, the clothesline pole, the tree trunks. I watch it pile higher and higher. The move from the cabin in the woods. The cat asleep in the sun. The wine drunk. The drive across three time zones. The books read. The canoe paddled. The forty presents opened. The corn husked. The flight to the other side of the world. The hike to the caldera. It all falls without ceremony in chunks of snow and ice.

And today on this first day of The Dragon, I prefer to let it all roar without me. I stay inside. I press the red button of the oil heater and brew a pot of tea. Tomorrow I will shovel it all away. Or try to. The last walk to White Creek. The first time my niece drove a car. The baby girl asleep on the porch swing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

It's All Japanese

The plane landed quite some time ago but I've simply been too busy to write. I've been busy learning how to drive in the opposite lane and read Japanese road signs. I've been trying to remember to flick on the indicators rather than the windshield wipers. I've been trying to remember that a flick up is left and a flick down is right. You can imagine a busy intersection in Date (pronounced Daté) City when it appears I'm simultaneously confused about the weather and what direction to go. But lately I'm confused the majority of the time. The expression "It's all Japanese to me" has never been so true.

Last week, I unwittingly invited a class of seventeen 8 year-olds and their teacher to Thanksgiving dinner. Luckily, one of the parents knew about us westerners. She called to confirm. Although I was busy hiking up a volcano at the time, she knew enough to cancel the event on my behalf. It's people like her that keep me from offending everyone. People that have managed to learn a new alphabet and writing system and speak our gibberish. They translate this new world for me. They tell me to take my shoes off at every entranceway (public buildings included) and put on a pair of communal slippers. They tell me not to poke my food with chopsticks. They tell me which foods contain squid mouth or chicken rump.

Luckily, my official position here is to teach English. People are very forgiving of the fact that after nearly two months I still can't count to five. They are entertained by my attempts to speak a language consisting of thousands of characters and a "complex system of honorifics."

I'm already so overwhelmed I'm considering remaining in the English bubble of my mind. I realize I've only travelled to countries that share my alphabet. In such places, my eye is lured to road signs, billboards and all other manner of written matter. I don't have a choice; my mind thinks letters are its friends. It wants to figure out what they have to say and be around them all the time. It's always been that way. You know the type--the child who reads the cereal box, the adult with a magazine rack by the toilet.

But, strangely, it's refreshing not to be distracted by words. The world has become mysterious again. I navigate the streets and aisles like a child. I hold up packages at A-COOP grocery store marvelling at texture, colour, scent. Sometimes, my adult English-conversation students catch me in such an act of unbridled curiousity. "I was going to say hello," they say, "but you looked very busy."

I am very busy. I'm busy getting to know a country from the letter up. I had thought Japan would be just like any other place I'd read and conquered. But how happy I am it isn't.

Maybe someday I'll discover what the large wooden sign I pass nearly every day is trying to say to me. It points to a dirt road that crosses a river and heads towards a volcano. I fantasize it's a sacred temple but maybe it's the local dump. My newfound innocence (or ignorance?) surely won't last (or will it?). But for now I wish to thank all those responsible for creating a writing system containing an estimated 50,000 characters. It's all Japanese and it's alright.

Thank you for reading.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Return to Nomadism

What to keep and what to leave behind? Once again, the same objects make the cut: a chef's knife, camping gear, porcelain tea cups. And more. Too much more. For the past twenty years, my parents' house has become the repository of my lives lived. As I undergo the three Rs of this nomadic existence--reorganizing, reevaluating, reducing--I discover a woven bracelet from an orphaned child in Guatemala, a golden locket from my deceased grandmother. Nostalgia prevents me from becoming too ruthless. I had hoped to fit everything into my antique steamer trunk but now I realize my storage dreams were too practical.

The latest set of possessions has driven with me across British Columbia, Alberta, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and a large swath of Ontario. They have left their six-month repose in Lake Cowichan to await sentence in my parents' back shed. Some of them will travel with me on AC 0001 later this month bound for Hokkaido, Japan. Again--what to keep and what to leave behind?

You'd think someone who has moved twenty times in as many years would find this process simple. It isn't. Nothing makes sense anymore when you're dealing with so many years of memories spanning the globe and the heart. A picnic basket from Port Clements. An English mixing bowl. A pile of letters from Sébastien. Everything pleads its case. I can see why some people never move. It would be easier to buy stackable storage units and never look inside.

But inside I look, and there it is. The Garfield book, the drawing from my niece, the first poem I ever wrote. A photo of me when I was seven. Had my skin really been so flawless?

The return to nomadism has its price. I must accept that I am that girl of seven, sixteen, twenty-five--that girl who is now a forty-year old woman still storing stuff at her parents' house. She has travelled all over the world, she has experienced great love and great sorrow. Every object tells its tale and she listens. But then she must move on.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The "R" Word

The house sits on a cul-de-sac within hearing distance of the Cowichan River. It's built of the kind of logs that once forested these parts—logs that mean business. Just like Chainsaw Sally means business. She told me to go around the side and it's there I'm greeted by the platinum blonde hairdresser. It's there I enter her basement cum salon and another world. Every town, I've discovered, has its underground. A people who are tattooed with roses and wear zebra-striped platform heels, who paint their walls red and offer you a seat on a caramel-coloured leather couch.

"This isn't what you were expecting, was it?" Chainsaw Sally says. I admire the antique armoire filled with tubes of hair dye, the silver-gilt reception desk, the funky music. The so-unlike-the-rest-of-Lake-Cowichan feel of the place. "Some people in town are afraid to come here because they wonder if I really use a chainsaw," she laughs. I don't tell her I'd wondered the same thing. I sit down as I'm told. She swivels me around, coldly assessing my greying, unstylish do. "You need to go blonde again." I nod, forgetting about my vow to stay natural. "I'm going to sharpen you up."

Soon her apprentice arrives wearing turquoise ankle boots and a black jumpsuit, her chug (a cross between a pug and a chihuahua) Martin in her arms. Two other dogs and a cat run into the room to greet him. "We have an iguana somewhere around here, too," Chainsaw Sally says and opens the armoire.

While she paints chemicals onto my hair, she tells me about her decision to leave the cold winters of Winnipeg for the mild climate of Lake Cowichan. "I didn't really know what to expect when I moved here," she says. "Me neither," I say and she catches my eye in the mirror. With that one look we know I'm a comrade of the underground. But I try my best not to say the "r" word. Or to talk about the dirt-bikers on the Trans Canada trail or the May long weekend logging-truck parade.  "I love the lake here," she says.

I drink two cups of coffee laced with International Delight Coffee Creamer. I talk like you only talk when a hairdresser is backcombing your hair and you're forced to stare at your unflattering image in the mirror. Chainsaw Sally presses squares of foil onto my head and listens as all the best of her trade do. When I am blonde again, she straps on her studded black leather scissor holster and clips away a year of neglect. Customers come and go: a real-estate agent, a waitress from the Riverside Inn. Chainsaw Sally converses like a chameleon, at one snip discussing The Joint Chiefs (headliners for the upcoming Lake Days), then LED light design, then dreams of a tanning bed business.

Finally it's time to pay the bill. Getting sharpened up isn't cheap. But a glimpse into the underground is priceless. Thank you, Chainsaw Sally.

And thank you for reading.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rain Until Friday

Today is Easter Monday in some parts of the world. People are celebrating in various ways. Some eat painted eggs and scallions by the banks of the Nile. Some dunk young Slovak girls in creeks then whip them (gently) with willow switches. Some stand in St. Peter's Square and listen to the "Urbi and Orbi" blessing. Others parade down Fifth Avenue in their Easter bonnet. Meanwhile, on Grants Lake Road, I lie on the couch watching television. I flip up and down the channels looking for something to keep me company. I don't usually watch television. In fact, I never watch it. Friends and family will attest to this. I have gone so far as to tell them it's evil. For over twenty years, I haven't even allowed the electronic beast to enter my house.

But now, in this Grants Lake sublet, a television already exists. It sits in the corner draped in a silk cloth. It comes with three remote controls and Shaw cable. I approach carefully and whisk off the cloth. I arm myself with a remote. I flip up and down, up and down, searching for what seems to entertain the majority of the population. For a couple hours, Patch Adams allows me to enter the world of a do-good doctor. Then I hear about the plight of the Vancouver Canucks. Then about the length of time people are waiting at Horseshoe Bay to ferry them back to the mainland. I am reminded I'm alone while others make their way to loved ones. I wonder if I will always be far from loved ones. I flip the channel. It's twenty degrees in Winnipeg today and sunny. They predict rain on Vancouver Island until Friday.

I flip the channel. A cat jumps onto my lap and we watch a talk show host called Nate advise a nurse to wear stilettos once in awhile. Nothing like stilettos to boost your morale, he says. I flip and flip again. I am filled with the hope that soon, on this Easter Monday, I'll feel a sense of communion with the world at large. Outside, the rain falls and a red-winged blackbird flies past. Hope fades. Five more days of rain. Four more months until my husband returns. Who knows how long until all those friends I've met at the right time in the right place will be beside me again, sharing a glass of wine.

The television informs me Kate and William's wedding will air at 3 a.m. PST and that eighty percent of new car purchases are made by women. As the sky darkens and the flipping continues, my mind begins to blur. My eyes lose focus. I know it's time to turn off the television, but I can't. I leave it on while I go about my business, allowing the voices of strangers to fill the house. While they talk of the Chicago Blackhawks, I wish I were by the Nile eating fresh scallions with a slight breeze tugging at my bonnet.

It's a day of new beginnings and perhaps new beginnings happen best when you find yourself alone in less than desirable circumstances. Only a television could have reminded me of this. I turn it off and know what I must do. Something as ancient as the Nile. I go outside and breathe the scent of wet earth and budding leaves. And I remember I've smelled this scent before. Maybe even for lifetimes. The frogs begin to sing despite the rain. It becomes more and more difficult to feel sorry for myself. And so I start again, from the beginning. Today is Easter Monday in some parts of the world. People are celebrating in various ways.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, April 15, 2011

It Smelled Like Spring

The other day I received a catalogue in the mail with the number 40 predominating its cover. The cartoon numerals were snow-capped. A skier slalomed down the slope of the 4. Below, the year of my birth appeared. A jogger squeezed between the 9 and the 7. For a split second, I wondered—how did they know? How did they know next week was the big Four-Oh? The big Four Oh-No.

But of course this was British Columbia, and the catalogue was none other than Mountain Equipment Co-Op’s (MEC's) anniversary catalogue. The Final Catalogue, it proclaimed. I learned that during the year of my birth not only was MEC incorporated, Jim Morrison was found dead in his bathtub, Pierre Trudeau said "Fuddle Duddle" in The House of Commons, astronauts drove an electric car on the moon and Starbucks opened in Seattle. Apparently it was the year "flower power" began to wilt. I'd just made it, as rock drowned out folk, as wide ties replaced tie-dye.

Today, I do a little research of my own and learn 1971 was also the year Walt Disney World opened and Charles Manson was sentenced to death by gas chamber. It was the year a tsunami killed 10,000 in the Bay of Bengal and a movie ticket cost $1.65. The Microprocessor and floppy disk were invented. The women of Switzerland were granted the right to vote. And a baby girl was born in an Ottawa hospital. She had a club foot. Her mother was twenty-one and broke and had decided to put her up for adoption. Before she left (for Prince Rupert, or Santa Fe, or maybe it was London?), she called her Annette.

Annette became Angela. Ottawa became Oshawa. Four decades later and I am sitting on the other side of the country listening to my Italian husband play scales on his saxophone. Soon, I will turn on the opera to drown out the noise. Soon I will be fifty. Sixty. I will remember this as the year the niece I once pulled around the backyard in a plastic sled posed as The SUNshine Girl wearing black fishnet stockings. The year I laid down my axe and left the archipelago of another, gentler, world. The year Shauna gave birth to Neve. It was the year I looked out the window of a small bedroom and watched mist rise from the mountains. It was 6:09 pm. and had rained all day. It smelled like spring.

At the age of thirty-five, Annie Dillard managed to describe the phenomenon of aging. In her essay "Aces and Eights," she listens as her daughter rides a bicycle uphill. She listens as playing cards slap against the wheel spokes. She writes:

You are young, you are on your way up, when you cannot imagine how you will save yourself from death by boredom until dinner, until bed, until the next day arrives to be outwaited, and then, slow slap, the next. You read in despair all the titles of the books on the bookshelf; you play with your fingers; you revolve in your upholstered chair, slide out of the chair upside down onto your head, hope you will somehow damage your heart by waiting for dinner in that position, and think that life by its mere appalling length is a feat of endurance for which you haven't the strength.
But momentum propels you over the crest. Imperceptibly, you start down. When do the days start to blur and then, breaking your heart, the seasons? The cards click faster in the spokes; you pitch forward. You roll headlong, out of control. The blur of cards makes one long sound like a bomb's whine, the whine of many bombs, and you know your course is fatal.

As winter blurs into spring, I am finally aware that my course is fatal. I only have to look at the cover of the MEC catalogue to remember. The snowcapped peaks of 40 are clearly melting. But there is a stream below, filled with ducks. A salmon jumps. A deer readies to drink. It would be easier to relinquish my hold on time and join the canoeists who paddle towards the bottom of the page. They're smiling. They even wear flowers in their hair.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Rise of the Cut Line

Once I woke to the sound of the ocean. Now, every morning at 5 a.m., I wake to the distant whine of chainsaws. It's taken me a few weeks to discover the source of this disruption. Now I merely look through the picture window in the living room and across the lake to see it clearly. Half the mountain has been shaved of trees. And it seems they won't be stopping there.

At 5 a.m. the spectacle of carnage is illuminated by red floodlights. At that hour, I'm too drowsy to feel anything but annoyance. Later, when I look across to the rising cut line and trees lying haphazardly where once they stood tall, I feel sadness.

Let me make this clear--I am not a tree-hugging hippy. I buy Clingwrap and paper towels and Italian leather handbags. Sometimes I print manuscripts on Multiuse Bright White Paper rather than FSC Certified-Eco Responsible-Multiuse Paper simply because I think it looks more professional. I know when I complain about logging I become a hypocrite. So be it. I am a tree-loving hypocrite. While I often buy products to reflect my love for trees, since I've moved to the heart of a logging town I've begun to wonder if a 12-pack of recycled toilet tissue is the solution.

Here's a little story:
A newcomer to Lake Cowichan goes to the Community Centre for her shift as a volunteer receptionist. During tea break, she says: "I've been wondering why they've chosen to clear cut so close to town. It would be so much nicer to look up at tree-clad mountains instead of bare patches."

Employment Counsellor #1 (EC1): "Clear cuts are good things. They're much more efficient than any other method."
EC2: "When I was a little girl, all of the mountains surrounding the town were completely bare. Now there are lots of trees in comparison.
EC1: "Our grand-daddies planted those trees you see now. It's about time to harvest them."

Harvest. I look up at the mountains, imagining them planted with corn or wheat. The trees are simply ripe crops ready for consumption. But I don't feel depressed when I pass a freshly plowed field or a combine harvester. Why does the sight of a grapple skidder make me want to weep?

This town is built on the reaping of such a harvest. Just take a walk down Cottonwood, Alder, or Pine. Smoke rises happily from the chimneys. Well-kept houses stand proud. I always think of the first stanza of a poem by David Day (ex-Cowichan logger):

Timbers of this tall
house remember how it is
to sway in the wind

It seems we humans have a knack for taking what isn't ours. Perhaps that's why I mourn the rising of the cut line. For awhile we gave the forest back (albeit a poor facsimile of what formerly stood), but now we're claiming it again. And again. Trees aren't harvested, they're stolen. Will the theft stop when everyone buys eco-responsible paper and reclaimed ("antique") timber products? What if you can't afford such things (like 80% of the world's population) or don't even know they exist?

For over a hundred and fifty years the loggers of Lake Cowichan have picked up their saws. Will they stop now just because a tree-loving hypocrite feels sad? Friends wonder why I don't just pack my bags and return to the cabin in the woods where the sound of the ocean wakes me. I wonder, too. Maybe this is the reason. Maybe I need to feel a little front-line sadness. Maybe emotion will trump buying recycled toilet tissue in the end. We are supposed to be human, after all. In a town where going green is the same as going crazy, should I just go human? Could the world be saved one teardrop at a time?

Thank you for reading.

Monday, March 14, 2011

All My Heart and Stroke

My father gave us a Heart and Stroke Lottery Calendar for Christmas. There's a daily prize of $5,000. There are also bonus draws: $10,000 every Friday and $100,000 on the last day of the month. Special occasions merit special jackpots, such as this Thursday's $30,000 St. Patrick's Day lucky chance. At first I thought this was an odd sort of Christmas present (sorry, Dad). But I confess I check the Prize Calendar Site daily. Sometimes more than once. Now every day seems filled with possibility. When I wonder how I'm going to pay the Visa bill, or when I'm dreaming of swaying palms, I simply check the Winners' Wall. Never one to buy lottery tickets or go to the casino, I wonder at all the years I've been living without such a simple solution to hopelessness (financial hopelessness, that is).

This is how I can tell that I'm at a "career" crossroads. These are some of the paths to choose from: 1. Remain a starving writer (well, that's a bit of an exaggeration as I have an Italian husband who likes food so much he's willing to work on cruise ships and feed us). 2. Return to school and learn a "hard" skill rather than another "soft" skill. Apparently artsy things like writing are soft skills (translation: difficult to observe, quantify and measure (in order to pay writers fairly, or at all)) 3. Believe that the Winners' Wall will soon display our names (preferably on the last day of the month or a jackpot day). Am I wrong to choose option 3? To believe and believe with all my Heart and Stroke? They have won in Yarker and Beamsville and South Porcupine--doesn't Cowichan Lake deserve to grace the Winners' Wall?

If it doesn't, I fear for the worst. Now that I'm a volunteer receptionist at Cowichan Lake Community Services and Employment Centre where I have learned to send faxes, sell bus tickets, and loan out commodes--I have access to the latest job opportunities in the region. Unfortunately, I lack the hard skills required to become an air duct cleaning assistant (no ventilation system or boiler experience). I also lack experience as an Industrious Water Blaster Operator, and do not possess a Workplace Hazardous Materials Information (WHMIS) Certificate. These are the types of jobs that pay over $10 an hour. For less, I could promote credit cards at Thrifty's, deliver pizza, or sell cars. It seems I am qualified to do these things. Did I mention my Bachelor of Arts degree from The University of British Columbia? My list of publications? Did you know I've spent twenty years living all over the world and speak the travel lingo of several languages?

You can see why I'm praying with all my Heart and Stroke. My horoscope said this will be the month I realize all my hopes and dreams. There are seventeen days left. One Jackpot. Two Friday bonuses. One chance for a hundred thousand. I used to think money didn't matter. That was before I was on the brink of turning forty with an ailing Toyota Corolla and a set of teeth that need cleaning. I'm not saying it matters now--as soon as I'm on the Winners' Wall it won't. For the reality is that anything you worry about every day begins to matter whether you like it or not. So maybe I should simply worry about something else. Like AIDS orphans in Africa or the earthquake in Japan.

Maybe these money worries are simply a symptom of self-absorption. Maybe I should just buck up and get a full-time job. Any job. The majority of the world does it--why shouldn't I? Nothing held me back before. I started working at the tender age of twelve making pizza at Square Boys. I went on to bake doughnuts, wash dishes, clean houses, waitress, plant trees, tutor, survey caves. I've even been a telemarketer. This was all before I qualified (in the eyes of The Canada Council for the Arts) as a professional writer. Perhaps I've simply become a snob with credit cards. Just like The Heart and Stroke Calendar, my credit cards provide me with the illusion of imaginary wealth. They also provide me with a daily activity--the counting of accrued interest.

It's ironic that the calendar was a gift from a man who once said: "I don't care if you shovel shit. Just get a job." I come from a family with a strong work ethic. They're not the type to sit around and watch The Winners' Wall. I'm certain my father didn't realize he was, to borrow a social-worker term, enabling me to dream of a change in circumstance rather than take action. But please don't take away my calendar. Is it so bad to dream just a little while longer before I learn about Class D2 Poisonous and Infectious Materials (including carcinogens, sensitizers, and embroyotoxins) or how to scour a boiler? Is it so bad to dream with all my Heart and Stroke?

Thank you for reading.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Power Wimps

The gust swept across the deck and blew the wind chimes sideways. It was a wind worthy of Haida Gwaii status, strong enough to bend trees like grass blades. But this time I stood in a house that withstood its force. A house built upon concrete foundations rather than four rounds of cedar. It felt surreal to stand firm while the surrounding landscape was whipped into a frenzy. Another gust hit. The power went out.

It was 10 a.m. I looked at the list of chores to do in town. "Maybe the power's still on there," Giuseppe suggested. It wasn't. We neared the dark library expecting to use the drop off box. But inside, it was business as usual. "Thank you so much for coming," the librarian said. She piled my returns on a trolley. "I'll take care of them later, don't worry." She turned to chat with the other patrons, all of them oblivious to the darkness. "Thank you so much for coming," she said again as we left.

We noted the "Open" sign in the Lake Bakery window. I looked at the grocery list. "You don't suppose The Country Grocer is open, too?" Giuseppe drove in its direction. Sure enough, the parking lot was nearly full. An elderly man, bent against the wind and the first pellets of hail, exited with an armload of bags. Magically, the sliding glass doors slid open. We wandered up and down the dark aisles as giddy as school children on a field trip. If it weren't for the red and white packing tape fencing off the freezer section, you never would have guessed The Country Grocer usually operated fully lit. The baker iced a cake. The café bustled with seniors. At the checkout, our cashier stood in her winter coat ready to scan.

At home, we unpacked our groceries. Suddenly we remembered what a power outage meant when you lived on the grid. It meant your electric stove wouldn't work. We laid out fare for a picnic, still giddy from our adventure in town. But then we started to feel cold. So cold we decided the best place to wait it out was under a down duvet. "This isn't so bad," I said, snuggling up to Giuseppe. But even that couldn't warm us for very long.

I remembered the Great Ice Storm of 1998 when I was living in Montréal. In the cold of January, millions were without power from days to weeks. A state of emergency was declared. People burned their furniture to stay warm. Pedestrians dodged falling blocks of ice. I realized this was nothing in comparison. It was only Hour Six of No Power and already we'd begun to whine. It became clear that in the less than two months since we'd left our off-the-grid cabin in the woods, we'd become power-dependent wimps.

As darkness approached, I got out of bed and filled the oil lamps. I rummaged around for some flashlights. Then I remembered to fill some jugs with water. In our cabin, such provisions had been part of daily life. Light. Water. Fire. Never for a moment did we forget to tend to such elements. No one had to remind us to keep candles in stock and our rain barrel full. There was always a reserve tank of propane for the stove and wood split for the fire. Such small attentions were all that was required to stay warm, hydrated, illuminated, fed.

By Hour Ten of No Power, our new house revealed itself for what it really was—a cold, dark shell reliant on the powers-that-be to make it a home. We huddled again under the duvet. Our festive spirit waned. We began to focus our energies on the BC Hydro gods. Despite the wind, hail, and snow, we prayed they were out there doing whatever necessary to restore our comforts.

Our prayers were instantly answered. The room flooded with light. The fridge began its merry hum. Giuseppe rushed towards the kettle. I rushed towards the thermostat. But within seconds, everything died. Three times everything came to life, then died. Three times we re-enacted our parody, laughing at the creatures of the grid we'd become.

But it wasn't really funny. With power finally restored, I soaked in the tub trying to remember that every drop had once fallen from the sky. I thought about the oil in the furnace, and the endless wires snaking across hills and valleys, trying to trace them to their source. I realized this may seem like a world of turning on taps and flicking on switches, but it's much more than that. And much simpler. It's a world of elements. And I am a creature of the elements. Thank you, power outage, for reminding me of this.

And thank you, fellow creatures, for reading.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Big Dogs, Shotguns, and CBC

The first thing I unpacked was my portable radio. I searched up and down the dial and finally arrived at a voice I recognized, then settled in for morning tea and toast. But the familiar voice disappeared. It was replaced by static and then a high-pitched buzz. The cats' ears twitched. No problem. I moved the radio from the top of the fridge to the windowsill, then to the counter top. I extended the antenna to its full length. When that didn't work, I changed the batteries. I searched the airwaves—up and down and back again. The voice was gone. My tea was cold. It couldn't be possible, could it? No CBC? No Dispatches or Quirks and Quarks? No As It Happens?

I checked the CBC web site and confirmed the sad truth. "But you can listen to it online," a friend tried to console. But it's not the same. How could it possibly be the same for those of us without wireless or high-tech computer speakers? Radio was meant to be consumed with cups of Earl Grey whilst curled up on a wicker chair looking out at snow-covered hills. It was meant to filter through the room like sunlight, illuminating your mind here and there, filling you with the warmth of knowing you were part of something much larger than yourself. How could this be done while sitting at a desk on the second floor while staring at a screen?

But more importantly, how could a community survive without CBC? I know I was a latecomer to the world of The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I grew up listening to Toronto pop-rock stations, and when my brothers were around, the more hard-core Q107. I wasn't introduced to CBC until I was 20. It became the soundtrack of my six seasons as a treeplanter. We listened religiously in the early morning hours while driving in pick-up trucks to the cutblocks where we'd spend our days. We could avoid talking to one another that way. And later, when alone on an endless clearcut, our minds could linger on what we'd heard rather than on the thousands of times we bent and dug and planted, or the sound of an approaching plague of mosquitoes.

CBC became the soundtrack of anywhere too north, or too remote to receive any other signal—the kinds of places where the vegetarian option was a grilled-cheese sandwich and an iceberg lettuce salad. The kinds of places where people had big dogs and shotguns but listened to Writers and Company every Sunday afternoon. They were the places where you'd stoke the fire in the woodstove and then cozy up with a hand-knitted afghan and listen to Ideas. Sometimes you'd shed a tear. Sometimes you'd laugh. Other times, you'd dance, alone, across the plywood.

It was in one such place I heard that Obama had won. The new president said what I'd always hoped but never been able to voice: "And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world—our stories are singular, but out destiny is shared..." The small radio sat innocently in the corner, transforming a dark autumn night into something infused with promise.

Hope, company, laughter. A lesson in trapping antimatter atoms, or in how bilingualism can reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s. For twenty years, whether in a pick-up truck, cabin in the woods, or apartment block, CBC has followed. Whether in Montréal or Vancouver, cities where a new language or a new neighbourhood full of yoga wear could cause loneliness, I knew I could search the airwaves and find comfort. Whether returning from six months travelling in India, or two years working on a windswept Irish isle, I knew that with the adjustment of a tiny dial, something as reassuring and Canadian as a Timbit could soon fill the room.

But now every morning as I stir milk and sugar into my tea and look out at the snow-covered hills, I do so in silence. It's not a comfortable silence. It's the silence of the absence of a much older and wiser friend. Who wouldn't mourn such a loss? And I mourn for an entire community, searching the airwaves for something beyond our singular stories, for something of our shared destiny, only to find non-stop classic country.

On this last day of a cold February, I shall push down the antenna rod of my loyal portable radio and finally accept my new CBC-less existence. So, good-bye, Q and In the Field. C'est La Vie. It's time to open The Next Chapter.

Thank you for reading.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Uncommon Primula

"The year started with the commonest of the primulas."
--John Richmond, Gardener, U.K.

Last week, primulas were on sale for sixty-seven cents at The Country Grocer. Twice I passed them by until I could no longer resist. I chose creamy yellow blossoms, the same colour as the wild ones on the Aran Islands where they call them by a more poetic name: primroses.

The first time I noticed the primroses, I was walking across a field of limestone towards the cliffs. Everything, including my mood, was grey. Then I saw the primroses. I was 27 and freshly heart-broken. I'd been wondering if I'd have the nerve to jump off the cliffs and into the churning Atlantic. But the moment I saw the tiny yellow flowers growing in a field of stone something shifted. If they can do it, I thought, so can I.

And they're back again. This time, they're called primulas. This time, I must drive across a field of asphalt to a strip mall to see them. Befitting of all things North American, they come in every shade of one's desire. I bought potting soil. I found terra cotta pots lying abandoned in the garden and scrubbed them clean. Soon the primulas were on the steps of the front porch, ready to greet visitors, I told myself. But now I know they are there for me.

A few days ago, the weather shifted. I awoke to find the yellow blossoms heavy with snow. But they were still alive. I brought them inside and put them near the electric fire. Every day I tend to their blossoms, deadheading the old and watching the new get ready to bloom.

Sometimes I forget my 27 year-old self was wiser than I thought. And so I will say this: The year has started with the commonest of primulas. But there is nothing common about them. Once, they taught a young woman never to underestimate a field of stone. Limestone. Asphalt. A broken heart. Anything can grow between the cracks.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, February 4, 2011

In the Jaws of a Grapple Skidder

You may have noticed I don't talk about my husband very often. It's just that he's not around much. He's an Italian-jazz- musician-Buddhist. He visits between gigs on cruise ships and retreats at monasteries. Also, I've promised to stop writing about him. He doesn't understand how tempting all three of his titles (especially when combined) are for any writer to exploit. Thousands have read about him in The Globe and Mail and other national publications (beware of marrying a writer). In general, Giuseppe has been a good sport. Until now. But now I'm going to have to break my promise.

"I love Canada," Giuseppe said as we rounded the bend on Grants Lake Rd. At that same moment, I was thinking how it was time to move to Italy. "Look at this place," he said. And I did. I looked at the old barn and the horses out to pasture. I looked at the houses with their aluminum siding painted in unobtrusive colours. There were the tall cedars, pine, spruce. There was the glimmer of the lake. Mists rose from the surrounding hills. I could see why he was so enchanted. I could see why someone who'd spent the majority of their life in a cobble-stoned town an hour from Milan might love this place.

But then the mists rose high enough to reveal the clearcuts. "They're beautiful," said Giuseppe as I pointed out the bald patches of deforestation. He thought he was seeing a natural land formation. A large meadow, perhaps. Until I told him otherwise. "Clearcut?" he asked. My explanation was muffled by a half-ton truck roaring past. "They're just evil," I blurted. Suddenly I knew I was failing in my role as Giuseppe's (a recent landed immigrant or "permanent resident") knowledge portal to all things Canadian. I endeavoured to provide unbiased explanations of this new culture we found ourselves in. I'd already explained the terms redneck, logger, and dirt-biker today. Giuseppe had listened patiently. "Those aren't very nice things to call people," he'd concluded.

When I first arrived in our new home, alone, the hills had been snow covered. The air had smelled fresh. The forest had been quiet. It would take a week or so for the snow to melt, for the smell of the pulp mill to waft through the valley, for me to walk downtown and see the logging trucks drive by, piled high with freshly felled trees. The trucks looked as surreal as parade floats and I stopped to watch them pass, a little surprised no one else was doing the same.

I know a little bit about logging and clearcuts from my six seasons as a tree planter. I've stood in clearcuts you can see from outer space. I know that most of British Columbia has been logged at some point. The evidence is never far away. Even pristine Haida Gwaii bears scars. But it's been awhile since I've been on the front lines.

Now I'm on the front lines. Once the snow had fully melted, I realized that the centre of the roundabout leading to Grants Lake Rd. wasn't decorated with the fountain I'd envisioned. It was the jaws of a grapple skidder. Throughout the town, the trend to decorate with logging machinery continued. Logging was indeed alive and well in this town. Even celebrated as an art form. Was this simply the way of The West? How could I explain this to a newcomer to our land?

When I drove Giuseppe to Departure Bay ferry terminal the other morning at 5 am, the empty logging trucks were already heading towards town. Truck after truck. Their headlights blinded us on the dark, twisty road. I didn't have to explain where they were going. "They start early," Giuseppe said, his voice a little flatter than usual. Or maybe it was just the early hour.

It's difficult, though, to get angry about such things when everyone in this town is just so nice. I've mentioned my standing invitation for pie at the Seniors Centre. But there's also the librarian who gave me a tour of the facilities, who wanted to know everything about Haida Gwaii. There's the clerk at Island Savings Credit Union who said without a trace of falseness: "Welcome to the area. We're so happy to have you here." There's the counsellor at the Employment Centre who looked at my resume and told me I must be one of the smartest people in town. There's the people that say hello on the street and the cars that always stop to let you cross the road. Which one of these nice people is destroying the forest? Which redneck, logger, dirt-biker?

We all are, I've concluded.

An Italian immigrant looks up at the mist-covered hills: "I love Canada," he says. On days like these, I wish I could say the same.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Faux-Logs and Chainsaw Sally's

The first night, a policeman came to the door. "Is Patrick Smith here?" he asked. I looked puzzled. "Is this 338 Grants Lake Rd.?" Thankfully, it wasn't. 338 doesn't exist. "This is the last house on the street," I told him. He looked younger and more frightened than I was to be in this town. This wasn't reassuring later that night when I couldn't sleep thinking of the mysterious Patrick Smith somewhere out there. What was his crime? Why did he give a false address?

As I lay still listening for signs of his approach, I discovered I couldn't hear anything at all. The house was as quiet as a tomb. That's when I realized that after nearly three years off the grid I'd developed animal-like senses. I couldn't hear beyond the triple-glazed windows or rolls of insulation and that bothered me. I couldn't hear the rustle of trees, the sound of the wind. I couldn't even hear that it was raining. My ears strained for a hint of nature but there was nothing but vacuum-sealed silence punctuated by the hum of the fridge. I kept telling myself that someday I would find this peaceful. But for now it felt all wrong. Even dangerous. How would I hear the crack of dead branch, the footfall on damp earth, that would signal the approach of Patrick Smith? How would I know when to pounce?

The next morning (alive and well), I realized I'd developed other off-the-grid instincts. The need to burn things, for example. Beneath the sink, a recycling container awaited my mixed paper products and newspaper. But I was reluctant to part with such perfect combustibles. I piled them in a separate corner for the fire of my future. During the past two weeks, I've caught myself on several occasions with paper in hand turning to open the woodstove door. Then I look at the merry gas fireplace, its tiny licks of flame soundlessly rising above the faux-logs. I try to remember the constant struggle of splitting wood and tending fire. But suddenly I miss the satisfying thud of hitting the grain, the smell of cedar, the crackling as welcoming as the voice of a friend.

Yes, two weeks have passed and life on the grid is already losing its veneer. But we knew this would happen, didn't we? Luckily there are hot baths and frozen peas to soothe a girl's longings for the wilds. There is the invitation from an elderly gentleman for a piece of banana-cream pie and a cup of coffee at the Seniors Centre. There is the hair salon called "Chainsaw Sally's." There is hope that somewhere out there a cabin in the woods awaits my return like Spring awaits the swallow. This is just another season of migration, I remind myself. Another place to nest.

Thank you for reading.

Monday, January 17, 2011

From Off the Grid to On

For those of you who may not know me, I feel an explanation is in order.

Yes, it's true, after two years and eight months, I left the off-the-grid cabin in the woods on Haida Gwaii. Now, I find myself in a small community in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.

My decision to leave the cabin in the woods was difficult. To live sustainably you must also be able to sustain yourself. For a long time, I was fortunate to be able to sustain my lifestyle through a series of odd jobs and earnings from writing. But things change.

So, here I am. On the grid. A little heartbroken. A little lost. I plan to continue writing this blog from a different perspective, to write of this journey from cabin in the woods to house in the town. Perhaps off the grid can also be a metaphor for a way of being? I hope so.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chime On

The mini wind chimes on the door remind me every time I open it that this is a glorious invention. I've organized my groceries along its sleek white shelves so that everything has a place in the spotlight. Not like the overcrowded Coleman's cooler outside my former cabin's door. The cooler I'd visited countless times in countless weather conditions. Each time donning rubber boots, each time lifting the sodden raccoon-proofing log from atop its lid. Liberating worms that had penetrated its hairline cracks, and various types of winged creatures that had likely been incubating within its moist interior for weeks.

In the summer months, I'd battled to retain food-safe temperatures. Friends with power learned to expect the question: "Would you mind if I stick this ice-pack in the freezer while we eat?" I'd also bought bags of ice and watched them disappear within hours, fishing lettuce leaves from the meltwater. I'd learned to buy hardy items: cabbage, carrots, apples, potatoes. I'd learned that things like cucumbers, fresh basil, tofu, and mushrooms are too delicate for cooler life. I'd learned cream lasts longer than milk and cottage cheese longer than anything. I'd learned to avoid entire sections of the grocery store for fear of pining. I'd removed all freezer items from my foodie-consciousness: ice cream, baby sweet peas, out-of-season berries.

So you can imagine how I felt the other day at The Country Grocer knowing I had a fridge to go home to. Mechanically, I walked towards the potatoes until I remembered. I filled the cart with delicate perishables. I strode down the freezer aisle dreaming of a future of Haagen-Dazs.

The fridge has come to symbolize life back on the grid. The electricity-guzzling, noise-making, space-consuming General Electric mammoth. I know it's wrong, but I can't help but love it. Nothing gives me more pleasure--not the fire that lights at the flick of a switch, the scalding water gushing from taps, the heavy-duty washer-dryer combo--than the tinkling of those darling little chimes as I open the perfectly-suctioned door, warm and barefoot and in my pyjamas, and reach inside for a cold bottle of San Pellegrino. Maybe this love affair will not endure. But for now, chime on--oh glorious fridge--chime on.