awe, humility, hope and a few other things I might notice

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Somewhere along the Trans Canadian Highway

Rural Saskatchewan

Rural Saskatchewan

On the Trans Canadian Highway we do not travel the same way that we do when we travel in the U.S. Actually, the traveling is different almost everywhere we have gone on Canadian highways outside of the greater Toronto area. In short, this is not your typical interstate highway system at all, despite the fact that we are almost always within 100 miles of the U.S. border and traveling on the major highway that runs east to west across more than 7,500 km of the second largest country in the world.

We drive beyond the truck stop chains and the creature comforts they offer with fill-up deals of free coffee and clean updated showers, 24hr services and (usually) large parking lots. We drive beyond the cottages and beyond the places where even the bathroom may no longer be free or working, onto the road where there may be nothing at all, not even a gravel spot to pull-over, where NIGHT DANGER MOOSE signs or images of prancing deer and dashing elk prevail. The passing lanes dwindle to rarer sightings but luckily our fellow travelers, even trucks, dramatically decrease at a similar rate. Rather than Hail Hail to Tim Horton’s individual washrooms, I say Hail Hail to the man who pumped out and hosed down the outhouse on the Coquihalla highway at a brake check area just as we were pulling into it. As we drive further and further out I begin to think that many of the billboards for hotels with free internet and free breakfast are like sirens song. I then realized even the mile markers (km in Canada of course) and exit numbers in the U.S. are a statement about population density and luxury akin to remote control devices or rose garden sightings.

The TCH is not the Yukon or as far out as Yellow Knife nor lawless nor unpaved. However, we do travel through small towns that pass as quickly as we can pronounce their names; Vermillion Bay, Moosomin, and the more challenging names like Assiniboine and Ochiichagwebabigoining (ok, we didn’t pass that last town, but very near to it). There are countless villages with a single trading post/gas station/convenience/gift store with populations that statistically hover around 1000 but appear more like 10 to a few hundred at most. We don’t see the best of these towns. We don’t buy live bait or leaches that are so prolifically for sale, or get out on the lake and trawl along the grassy edges of lake Superior or the hundreds of other pristine lakes I wish I could just dive into straight from the truck window. We can’t take the time to climb the mountains to their foggy and stony peaks. We don’t see the rodeo or the local artists. We don’t learn anything more about First Nations people except that they seem to hug the wilderness to them and with that the beauty of Canada. We just barely enjoy the fresh smell of black spruce forests and spot hawks holding court on the tops of hay bails and we occasionally squint at the tiny ducks swimming with even tinnier baby ducks in salt marshes.

The highlight of the trip, much as it was in crossing the U.S. was the expanse of protected and undeveloped land that even southern Canada can boast about. Although I advocate for the conservation of open space and often long for silence from other human beings, what strikes me as we drive along these struggling small towns is that the shame is on the same principle. I look out across the thousands of kilometers of mostly hay fields and I have to believe that the world can do better, and by better I mean, can’t we share more of this.

Why are we planting acres and acres of hay for cows we don’t need to feed the wealthy of the world, while hundreds of millions of people die for lack of some potatoes, green vegetables, and a few humble carrots? Why are people so crowded up the hills of human waste in mega cities, sprawling along coveted ocean sides for water views in million dollar bungalows, and elbowing each other off of trains and buses from Boston to Mumbai? Now dear reader I understand that city does not have to equal misery and that the efficiency and lower ecological footprint of multi-story housing are strikes against my ideas of rural transplantation, but I want to suggest here a radically naïve and idealistic notion to voluntarily transplant people from urban congestion and suburban super-sprawl to rural towns; not as laborers or based upon some kind of imperialist or racist scheme, but to develop self-sufficient rural living. I will further admit my bias is that I am more entertained by the “Moose on the Loose” signs than by any Tony award winning theater and that my desire to plant a large vegetable garden borders on obsession.

Still, as the hours go by and by and by, and my one arm hides from the burning sun and my husband’s other arm turns as brown as the waters of an Ontario creek all I see is a sprinkling of mobile homes and a remarkably small number of ranch houses and even fewer farm houses. I can’t help but imagine that there are a lot of people in the world that would cry for the injustice of a land so poorly used. I can’t help but imagine that there are hundreds of thousands who could benefit from a combination of entrepreneurial creativity, the values of self-sufficiency, and green living ecology. Skilled people, doctors and engineers, ecological scientists, vegetable farmers, and artists from all over the world could create and build on a more subsistence, self-sustaining way of life in rural Canada and the U.S. What more do we need than local food, a small health center, school, hardware store, library and a mechanic, and some solar and wind power? The number of settlements that lacked these basics were too numerous to count. The exceptions in towns like Opasitika remain quaint and precious.

Maybe it has something to do with the nature of politics, the corruption that causes mayors and many others to resign in shame, or maybe it has something to do with the 17 or more bridges that I counted (sleep periods excepted) that were under construction just between Kenora and North Bay. Or maybe it is related to the disintegration of the Canadian multicultural charter, or fanatic post 9/11 fear easing its way into deeper xenophobia and cultural protectionism. Or maybe it’s the simple lack of a critical mass of people willing to take the risk in the great white north, but I don’t think so. I think it is a greater lack of willingness to stop competing with the Jones’ or the Sohdi’s for that matter, and to more honestly recruit and provide institutional support for a true immigrant dream of a farm, a home, a way of life under a democracy and in the pursuit of happiness through a more balanced relationship with our environment and with our community.

Yes, strengthening and populating rural communities would mean living in a place where you can’t find a store to buy the newest biggest TV, or fashionable clothes and it would be colder and snowier, but compared to the compaction and stress of urban life, the poverty and the hunger of life within many North American and international communities, wouldn’t it be better. And how can we compare the shiny (and I would say useless) wealth of city buildings and perfectly landscaped yards to the priceless resources of the land, clean water and abundant fresh air and a neighbor who knows your name in a rural town.

I think it is unreasonable to remain unquestioning while working 50 or more hours a week, commuting 2 hours a day and working until we are 70 years old just to get the house, the car and the pool and put the kids through college. Furthermore, who dreams of coming to Canada to be a truck driver or a Tim Horton’s barista? Who dreams of being a farm laborer for so many years that it is only the next generation that can dream of running a farm? I don’t mean to discount the fact that any job, though commonly exploited and dangerous is better than no job. However, I think that we settle for truck driving and similar jobs because it is possible and easily reached while we hold our greater callings and dreams at bay, keeping them close like memory stones in our pockets. I would not like to wait until we are 70, or even 50 to live that more integrated life. But for now we practice our patience, we labor, we look out the window. We are stuck in the system that drives us and keeps us in the cities. We hang on and we hope to slowly negotiate our way out of debt and out of the suburbs until we can safely launch ourselves into the great white north, someday, somewhere along the Trans Canadian Highway when we won’t have to look back anymore.

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Passing of storms

Is it resilience in the trees when

yesterday the leaves were grey and upside down

even the branches went limp, tossed from the storm as if desperate for water

in spite of the pouring rain.

Today the leaves are shining green with the sun

like a friend in a nearby lounge chair whose hands dangle over the sides.


I have had the privilege of time,

of grassy lawns, even if they are not my own,

of silence seeking and finding

and passing storms.

I have forgotten the words you said and the fear like clothes I used to wear

and I wonder if this is forgiveness.

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Generations 3

At dinner

Tires on a gravel driveway, every time, like plucking guitar strings as he slowed down. Full stop. Children’s ears turned to listen. Water taps twisted off, slowly. Hunger flamed up. Even the stains on the ceiling loosened a little.

“Hey honey.” Gristly side hug. He smelled like wood shavings and sparks. He put his hand gently on her back and they walked together into the house. A blast of hot air still needed to escape the hallway, it spooned itself around the screen door and hung there for a moment before travelling on towards the garden out back. A gentle kiss in her hair pressed curls and sweat and sand that still sat there from her afternoon dip.

“I’ll go upstairs and shower, will you wait for me.”

“Of course, I’m going to take care of some of that wood, so save me some hot water.”

“Hot water, whatever.”
With her dad they didn’t need words. With her mother she didn’t want them.

He strode towards his wife, curled his arm around her waist and smiled into her neck.

“Nice dress.”

“Nice day?”

“Hmm. Yours?”

“Fine, fine now.” She kissed his forehead, what she could reach and tasted his skin.

A glass of water sat on the blue counter, cooler for the wishing of it. He drank the water and sat down to a small cushioned chair and unconsciously threw back a whole handful of roasted cashews into his mouth. When he finished chewing he asked, “how ‘bout a cup of coffee, then I’m going to split that pile.”

“Not the whole thing?”

“I’ll see how far I get with it.” Swallowed hard. “How was painting today.”

Three breaths and a glance up the stairs.

“She was testing me.”
“She was not testing you.”

She looked for words on the simple patterned linoleum and in the sink drain.

“You’re right.” She won’t go under, even if I ask her to. She’s tougher than I was.  “She’s asking about light, but I wouldn’t tell her. These days I don’t know. Sometimes the rules don’t work anymore. What if I tell her and it’s wrong?” A question.

“What if there’s a hurricane and we all go out to sea, it will all look different then.” A reach for her hand. “I didn’t mean that.”

Lowering her long lashes, “You know I don’t like swimming as much as I used to.”

“I know.”

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Generations 2

In the afternoon

“So where’s the rest of it?”

“What do you mean, it’s a painting?”

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“I’m not finished yet.”

“I can see that.”

She wanted to scream and tear into the canvas with her nails. She had a short temper these days. Maybe it was that awful tea at breakfast. She just opened her mouth, slack jawed and breathed. Swallowed hard.

“Wash it out. Or just go Jackson Pollock all over it.”

“Jackson who?”

Needle stare.

Needle stare back. Another swallow. “Right, I didn’t put the background in first.”

“You didn’t put anything in first.”

“Yes, I …” Lips pursed fish like. She could just go.  “Who, or how ah…”

“I didn’t put the background in yet.”

“Right.” She glanced over her right shoulder, deeply. Squinting, just a little.

“Ok. Keep working. Today, get it in today.”

“I will.” What’s the use of raising my chin if in raising it I bite my lip? The colors weren’t right, the light changed every millisecond and I’m sweating sheets. Lucky not to get the canvas wet. I should move closer to the ocean.

“Who’s coming tonight?” Her mother was already walking away, yellow dress, unwrinkled, tight bun of mossy hair. “Mom, is Dad coming for dinner?”

Leather spinning on sand, crunching sounds. Drifting dust. “Yes, I think so.”

Water passed between them. The temperature dropped two degrees and the crunching sound grew more pleasant and nostalgic. Breathing happened.

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After Breakfast
“How do we know the difference in a picture between sunrise and sunset?”

How do we believe that California is still golden and New England is still sweet?
“Look at the leaves”,  she said.
Are they transparent like your skin or throbbing and aching with the last rites?

“And what about the birds?”she asked.

“The birds don’t sing in you. Your eyes are not wings. Don’t.”   Silence.  She put her fingers to her chin, couldn’t stop it.
“Your eyes will not take you there. Your lashes are too short.”

She snorted a recognition and bent her short lashes. Waited.

“Learn to swim first. That’s my advice.”

Arms still at her sides she could only twitch her shoulder a little, in fear. She hated cold water.

Goddamit this one could swim and pull herself out and still not be wet.
She controlled her wish to pound the desk in jealous rage. More frustration.
Ahem, let me cover my lips with my hands and tell you that you should swim a long long time, that I pray the weeds don’t catch your feet and little fish don’t nibble at your toes in jest or in hunger.
Out loud at last she said, “Ask yourself if the leaves are rising or falling, then you’ll know.”
Go down with the ship and drown a little, then you’ll understand. Too uncharitable.
“Learn to swim child, by god I don’t know how else you go forward.”

She nudged her insolent chin to the left. She knew this woman didn’t have the answer. Nobody did, the answers weren’t written anymore. Clocks no longer ticked and everybody had reams of black lines in their heads but nobody knew the answers. Fuck you. “I’d rather drown in black eyeliner and chemical soup.”

“No you wouldn’t.”

“I know.”

“Now you’re swimming.”

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I walk across the wood parquet floor and notice warm spots and small warped puddles. This warm smoothness conjures a powerful memory of the sandy floor of the lake where the summer sun cast through water and waves to make little golden spotlights and floating sand shone like shimmering mystical fish scales. Sitting on the couch is bathwater, its grey cover resembling unreflected stillness when clouds and wind breathed in relief. The only sounds are the hush of light breezes from the window fan and the remarkably close twittering of urban birds. My eyes set on the card my mother sent about a year ago of bending red tulips still closed and lithe and floating in their white 3×5 vase.

There is nothing synthetic about these feelings. Indoors is outdoors, not just blending, but interchangeable. In South American homes with courtyards or the meandering ladders of roof patios in India the indoor and outdoor experiences merge. Courtyards become mazes of potted plants, kitchen gardens, and stone-base cooking stoves. Drying clothes are strung on wires and in the shelter of shade from a cuticle of cement overhang sleep babies and stray cats. In India beds (manji) are brought out, serve as hammocks for mid-day naps, dining tables, and royal thrones for guests. There are no beaches, no lakeshore, no ease at riverbanks, but the courtyards and roofs are cottage retreats nonetheless. So too is my aerie with fluttering curtains and spider’s webs in ceiling corners. Ticking clocks and refrigerator gurgles replace the metronome of ocean waves and the distant settling of seawater through ancient rock tunnels. I can feel the scratchy surface of barnacles on weathered stones and test slimy seaweed ledges with tender toes. I smell the salt in the air and the splash of humidity is spray from the waves crashing.

I am at the sea, the lake, the cottage, alone amongst thousands but immersed in the fullness of the heart. The timeless ageless echoes are in the present because imagination encircles the synthetic with memory in high-speed orbits to reveal only essence in a peaceful mind.



If there were a hypothesis, and I am suggesting one right here in this sentence, of the existence of a writing gene I think our family, at least the women in our family, would be the case subjects in the clinical trial. Not only a writing gene, but there is also a case monograph here of a writing tone gene. What part of our upbringing, what aspect of our environments though 2,000 and 3,000 or more miles apart can account for the uncanny similarities of the writing style of my mother, my (female) cousin and my aunt (mother’s sister)? How many more are we? If I were to find her again would my cousin on my father’s side carry the gene? She too was brought up, at least in part, more than 1,000 or more miles from each of us. It is as if the universe created geographical bookends to separate us, just enough to rule out too many confounders. You are quite unaware perhaps of the layers of lengthening lines between us. We were all separated by angry parents and still hidden secrets. That much, or that little, you know.  Yet, those seeds once planted grew into long vines and the untangling at our middle ages seems too much trouble for delayed interventions.

Is it what you described as our “white trash” upbringing that ties us together? I never knew, for I assumed or was taught that your side of the ocean brought gold onto its sandy beaches. Does the range of defianteness quite judicially parsed out on a scale of silent to screaming of our mothers and aunts serve as our baseline? I know there are the obvious genes that relate us through maternal lines of depression which underlie the faculties of so many writers and then there is also the common factor of temporary insanity via subservience to men. But I never knew your mother, just stories re-told of the upset but acceptable and far off histories. Our common grandmother was a distant half-smiling figure. It was our grandfather that encouraged us to write, although he never really wanted grandchildren, more simply a student at a desk to be corrected. My other aunts, well, perhaps they are key links more than any other factor, those sixties thinkers who allowed art and argument to shape their futures.

Do you have another female cousin? Another one of us? If she exists, my most distant figment of a sister, finding her would be like observing the missing protein sequence. She could prove the rule or rule us all as the outliers in America that we feel ourselves to be. Is this mere convenience sampling so tenuous that it shows what I fear; that we have no bonds at all? I have hope though, that in discovering you I see a part of myself that I never would have expected, but in some long ago fantasy always wanted to be true.

Family. Family. The word distorts in its repetition. In its very meaning absurd, broken, stretched far beyond the resilience point like the near 40 year-old flesh on my hips. It is mine but I do not own it.  How could you be there, so pronounced? A star or more appropriately, a moon in our universe. I thought you were buried a little under the dust of so much casting off. Or have we reached a point where we have cast ourselves so much that the trailing dust is coalescing? It is something still unshared, this universe of forming proto-stars and cells.

These examining slides are still all a jumble. I don’t want to know if you like science fiction, or if your husband is gentle and kind because you knew how to choose the first time. But I am curious if underneath our skin there are threads that bind us, pirouetting familiars.