Canada: Lines and Skeletons

I have been trying to come up with a phrase for Canada: words that convey its flavour, derivative as that must be for a country so vast. But each trip has a flavour to it, a certain distinctive tanginess to the cities and the people and Canada had been escaping me for a while. On the bus to Tofino, I settled on a word instead: lines. There was something safe about Canada, vast and yet simple (uncomplicated is perhaps a more precise word). Lines seemed to encompass it all. The long yellow lines on the roads that ravage the country, part of this deep-set driving culture (I am appalled by the lack of pavements in certain parts of the country); the figurative line encased in the numerous cautious danger warnings (CAREFUL: this creek can drown you during high tide; CAREFUL: high, dangerous waves on this beach can drown you OR crush you with moving logs; CAREFUL: cars drive fast on this highway); the simplicity of a line seemed to also encompass the ease of the lifestyle here, the mapping out of each corner, the apps one can download to navigate it.

I can’t remember how Mella and I got properly talking, only that she slept on the lower bunk in my hostel room. Already, Tofino is challenging my definition of ‘lines’: the idea sits less well upon its bumpy hills, its cragged beach edges that are like lost or abandoned slivers of paradise. (Although – the path to Tonquin beach is through the jungle and is a boardwalk, with ropes on either side. I laugh, thinking of the equivalent in McLeod Ganj.) Mella has lived four years up north in a First Nation’s community, teaching. She speaks of 24-hour days and 24-hour nights, of small communities where everyone knows you, of the challenges faced by one’s cultural history and the social problems one’s identity can carry. She speaks with love – I have never heard an outsider (or indeed, any of my Canadian family) speak about this land with such reverence or belonging. She would do anything to come live here (she had to leave her job and go back to England after the funds for her position were relocated) and has worked towards a degree to find a way to come here. As being a writer is my goal, this is hers. We talk for hours, a Canada I have never known seeping in through her perspective. She introduces me to Henry Roy Vickers and Coastal First Nation’s art, the red, white and black forms of animals I have seen all over. Even these I had labelled as simplistic: outlines, filled with a single colour. Now she turns to show me the tattoo on her back, an eagle drawn in the Coastal First Nation’s art style, regal and rich in history. She offers me another word to my ‘lines’, used in passing to describe the images to me. Skeletal: art that seeks to pull the bones of the animal and place it on display. I find the word perfect for her perspective. A skeletal Canada, hidden under the muscle and fat of modernity, one you had to dig to reach, and yet responsible for the structure of the whole.

Tofino: Prayers

Someone prayed for me tonight. Her name is Sarah: she’s come to Tofino from Calgary, as short vacation from the business that is her life. She brings her travel guitar with her and she sings ‘Let it Shine’ on the Tonquin beach as Mella, Geraldine and I dance in the sand, a combination of Wicca, boogie moves and exuberance. Her voice is beautiful and touches me in the same way as Lisa Hannigan and Ben Howard have.

Tonight, she asks if we are awake enough for introspective questions. She’s been reading a book, one of those self-help success books and there are four questions that she would like to try out. The questions are simple: they focus on our future, what we want most, what we have to make what we want most happen and what we need to develop and overcome in order to make that future a reality. Mella speaks about teaching and living in Canada – someday, one day. She talks about the confidence she needs, the very real obstacles of immigration and citizenship. I speak about writing but then get derailed to the anxiety that I have carried with me – what these moments are adding up to, what is the value (the ultimate value) of how I am living my life. Talking to them places the dichotomy into sharper focus, and it is Sarah who says: It is like there are two sides to you – one asking you to show down and take it all in, know it to its depth, and another that is anxious about the time that is running away from you.

After the lights are out, she asks if she can pray for us. The request is tentative but comes out of a place of sincerity, like she cannot not ask. She prays out loud. Her words are beautiful: they centre on each of us, our individual wants and obstacles and the kind of person she sees us as. This last part is especially touching: there is a clarity and focus to what she says that sharpens the lines around our bodies, deepening us from the mass of humanity. I am trying to find the words to explain what made the moment so special: the spontaneity of course, but also the intonation, soft at certain parts, stressed at others, carrying the depth of her care.

Tofino: Roy Henry Vickers (First Nation Artist)

I went for a story-telling hour with a First Nation artist, one of the most famous in Tofino. It was incredible, for so many reasons, many of which cannot be put into words. But this is what I wrote down when I came back, in an attempt to get all the impressions as clearly as I could.

This is not a blog post, because I have neither time nor words to make it such. These are only impressions. What do you recall of him? The calmness, a centred figure that carried within it an idea of knowing. His voice: “boom like”, Melanie said but it wasn’t at all – it wasn’t soft or loud, merely clear and calm, an even reel that drew you in. I noticed how he never varied his volume, not for the hushes cabin walls or for the persistent toddler that tried to talk over him. His voice remained, untouched by the external, and you tweaked your hearing to hear better or softer. I remember the story: Ben, the sea lion they saved from starvation and raised as a pet, before they let him go. The way he said at the end: ‘That’s a true story. Or most of it anyway.’ How simple the whole story was – a sea lion is gained and a sea lion is lost – and yet rich in detail, unanxious about its own importance, content in the knowledge that it was rich in importance to him. The details – the revelling in the miniscule – the size of the sea lion’s teeth, the dogs as they circled him, their planning, their eyes. Sound. The rapping of his knuckles against the desk he sits on, breaking into the air and making us jump: his cousin, knocking on the door in the early morning to say that Ben had come back, that he had found his way home. The faces he made, his body. The craning of the neck to show Ben, lifting his head; the slow titling of his torso to show how Ben hugged; the hands, showing Ben’s flippers as he pulled himself along the sand.

He says in the beginning that he hates public speaking. When people asked him to talk, he would say: “Look at my paintings. A picture is worth a thousand words.” And yet later, he says, he realised that storytelling is worth a million pictures, painting in each listener’s mind, all the more beautiful because they belong only to the person and the speaker cannot see them. “Human beings have the art of seeing with their eyes closed. We call that art visions.”

At the end, he teaches us a song in his original language. As the head of his clan, he has the right to give us this song, and having learnt it, it now belong to us, free to sing whenever we like. It’s the canoe song, sung to align the rowing of the oars, to ensure everyone moves as one – is one. He has brought a skin drum with him and he beats it to the rhythm. There is something soothing about hearing our voices embalm the air. After we’re done, he requests that we don’t clap, to not disturb the feeling we have created. “In my culture,” he says, “we say: I raise my hands to you.” Together we lift our hands to our shoulders. They automatically curve; perhaps our bodies feel the need to create beauty out of our gestures. It is a First Nation’s sign of gratitude, but also a universal sign for asking, and, in the cradle they form, for giving.

Takuminarti (Inuit Art)

I went to the Montreal Museum of the arts today. Like all glorious days, time had run away from me and I felt frustrated with the amount I wanted to do, write and see. I come to the Takuminarti art collection – wandering down staircases and up elevators – and am startled by the depth of feeling evoked in me by the tiny sculptures. Stones move, breathing into emotion caricature of figures: men carved as seals; shamen pulling fish out of oceans; two stags, antlers in the air, kissing. There is perspective here that drags the living out of the inanimate – a rawness of emotion to features that are recognisable and yet mysterious, as if the artist found only the strange, twisted and magical in us worthy of representation. I read that Inuit art is fascinated with the relationship between man and animal: the moment when the man takes the shape of an animal or the animal within him revealed (I think of a man, arched back, as a wolf breaks out of him). I wonder how they create the impression they do – that smoothness of bone as a face, sitting upon a porous antler body, offering a yellow otter and I cannot look away, ensnared by the detail that is both ordinary and extraordinary. How the pieces fit together just so, how they create a whole that is larger than the sum of the parts. It is essentially the battle I have been fighting all morning with my characters in the novel, as they flap around the page, flat, and turn back into stone.

I read the placard on the floor that says ‘Takuminarti’ is a new word coined for Inuit art. It is  derived from several dialects of different tribes, mainly the Nuvalik dialect. It means works of art so beautiful, you cannot look away.

Flowerwoman

She runs a 24-hour flower shop in some lane in Montreal; it has a narrow entrance, but is long within. It is 2am and the light from her shop creates a luminous section of pavement, white and glaring. We pass it earlier in the night and Nik pokes his head in to see if she is there. I saw bent shoulders and a broom. That’s her daughter, he said. She not here now – but we’ll bring you back to meet her. She’s a bit of a legend around here. Her shop burnt down last year and the neighbour raised money to re-build it. That’s how much she means around here.

Now the birdcages glow, reminding me of quaint shops in England. There is another pair of shoulders in there; they look the same to me, but Nik says that this is her, hair cropped short, face young (40 maximum? Not old enough to have 14 children. She shows me the pictures of the daughter she just married), eyes troubled and roving. She talks for a while about people complaining about her flowers on the pavement; the complaints wears heavy on her and she unburdens to Nik and Nihal like they are old friends. Nihal introduces me as the friend from India, and she peers at me from in between the gap they create; I smile, and say hello, and tell her I have heard much about her.

She tells me, in her broken English, that I must make my mother proud; work hard, maybe find a job in Montreal, but never forget all that she’s done for me, and where I come from. Then she guides me in, a short leading twitch of her fingers, and pulls out a small beaten red box. This is for you, she says. I open it; it’s a small twisted Chinese dragon sculpture. It bring strength and luck, she says. Use.

I offer money, but she smiles and shakes her head, patient. Money like toilet paper. You need, but too much – what you do? You throw away. On the way out, she pulls out two tigerlillies, and hands them to me, also for free. They are remarkably resilient, and last for a week after. She tells me to come back, and I say I will, I am here for two weeks. No, she says abruptly, working her way around her limited English. Not now. You come back a year later. You go be stronger. Better. Beautiful. Go find yourself.

I wrote to someone recently how writing gives everything purpose. But I forgot to add the flipside of this – taking what feels exceptional and kind and writing it into something that seems common and usual, part of all the literature you’ve read and clichés you’ve encountered. Perhaps both effects come from the same skill – the universality of a language. I read back on this and can see it as far more ordinary than I felt in the moment. Then it felt serendipitous, a stranger reaching out from the circle of her world to touch mine. Here, the magic dies in words, live as it might in memory.

Thunderstorms

Yesterday, I wrote a scathing note in my journal on how nice Montreal was. Everyone seemed happy: the pink-pigtailed girl with her pink bike, learning to ride beside her father; the eight year old who ran yelping down Mont Royal viewpoint as her father chased behind her, giddy, trying to fly a kite; the old man who met my eyes while crossing the street and smiled; the lady with the baby who turned back to make sure she answered my accident smile at the child. Nothing difficult happens. There are no corners to snag your heart on, no spaces to push your limits with.

Today, the heavens open and it pours – Indian-rain style. Rumbles of thunder crack across the sky. The sky turns a coal grey. My phone (still connected to the museum WiFi) goes crazy, flashing warning after warning. SEVERE THUNDERSTORM ALERT. MAKE SURE ALL YOUR APPLIANCES ARE UNPLUGGED. MCGILL GRADUATION TENT BEING EVACUATED. FLASH FLOODING EXPECTED. I turn and walk straight back to the bus stop, hiding my bag (with my precious laptop in it), under my coat. I get soaked. I figure if there is to be flooding, it is smarter to make my way back to Candiac before the buses stop. I wonder what kind of flooding? Indian flooding? The kind that needs canoes? If I was stranded, was there somewhere I could spend the night?

Half an hour later, it clears. I watch from the bus, incredulous, as the sky turns porcelain blue; the only indication there has been any rain at all is me and the sopping wet stranger at the front of the bus. When I tell Jocelyn aunty this later that night – my visions of Mount Royal high water, evacuation canoes hid in bus stop shelters – she laughs.

‘Oh no, couquette,’ she says. ‘Now when they say snow storm – that’s when you go home.’ 

Tofino – Lighthouse Keeper

It is 7am in the morning here, and the view outside the large bay windows is a deep and steady grey. A blue oyster house sits perched at the end of the boardwalk, the sea still. Now I cannot see the mountains, but I know they are there – blue and misty, and on particularly perfect days, touched with snow.

Vancouver Island is paradise – lush, wild, more untamed than any part of Canada I have so far encountered. On the drive up, our bus driver – a bearded man with a slight drawl and a beaded necklace, the kind you find on surfers – says: Welcome to the Tofino Express, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t care what they say; I still find that name funny. His sense of humour is acerbic but easy (I once met a strange man on this bus. He was very serious when he said he was both Buddha and Jimi Hendrix in his past lives. Pretty impressive for a kid from Milwaukee. But who I am to judge? I could be wrong – it has certainly been known to happen.). Tofino is much like that: small, touristy and laid back, but with depth beneath its veneer, if even that depth is only offered by its sheer natural beauty.

I’ve spent most of today in this room, soaking up the pattering skies, and the hardwood floors and rustic furniture. When I first arrived, no one was down, but now I have been joined by an assortment of people; reading books or kindles, writing emails or just staring out at the vast wide sea, cup of tea in hand, taking it in. The effect is calming. I had expected blue skies and hard sun (roasting me as it did in Jericho) but this is as – if not more – beautiful. I feel like a sailor, or a woman given a lighthouse of her own, equipped with everything I need: tea, chocolate, beauty and a crystalline solitude. Perhaps owning a lighthouse is the way forward. 

Objects as Family

I wander into the museum of Anthropology UBC without my notebook, which is sad because ideas (thoughts, impressions, observations, whatever you wish to call it) hit me all at once and then slip away before I can examine them. The sheer enormity of what I see stays with me. In the great hall, large totem poles flank the entrance, once columns to peoples’ homes. Gigantic ‘house dishes’, large enough for a child of eight to sit and play in them, are carved into the shape of seals, eagles, wolves. A long layered ‘speaking stick’ jeers at me, its many faces carved all the way to the base. Beauty and utility is mingled in first people artefacts, to an extent that astounds me. Totem poles were used to hold up homes, a form of making where one lives sacred (I remember a quote in the museum that speaks of the doors of the house as the mouth of the beast, the fire its soul). House dishes were used for Tribal Feasts, and in home usually displayed food items whose land the Chief had claim to. Speaking sticks imbibed the user with the authority to speak to and for the people at meetings.

There is distinct merging of object and person. I think of the large wooden statues, hollowed from the back, that were used at meetings. The face stretches all the way down to the torso, the lips curled into an emphatic ‘O’. Speakers would get up and stand behind the statue; their body disappearing, merging with the object, and only a voice echoing out, as if coming from the ancestor himself.

MOA hosts what I term a room of curiosities: stacked treasures that bleed and sharpen in their contrast – masks, sculptures, bows, arrows, boxes, canoes, paintings on lion seal skin. Within these columns upon columns (a small sneak peak into the thought process of the museum and what they choose to put on display in the main gallery), this is hidden: a small placard describing what a person feels walking through this room and seeing his history encased. It is titled ‘Objects are Family’ and he writes: ‘It is an amalgamation of objects from the past and people and ideas from the present. These object are family.’ Near me, a woman seems disappointed with the collection. It’s not the same, she is telling her friend, a tall white man, to see them in here. It’s the specific history that matters, the memory the object has in the house; where it was placed, how it was used –’

I find the idea beautiful, even if not exactly novel – the inanimate given meaning, imbibed and layered with the animate.

Sandmen

‘I’ve always liked to imagine the human body as if it’s made of sand.’ Shernaz has put her neuroscience conference badge away, and now she unfurls her hands from her milky tea to use them for what she is saying. ‘You always see the outline – the nose, the lips, the shoulder. But the grains themselves – they’re shifting, sliding, travelling, so that what was once a part of the nose has travelled to the shoulder in a matter of seconds.’

 We’ve spent part of the morning talking about her research. She is very good at metaphors, dumbing down the incredible things they’re discovering about the malleability and susceptibility of our body so that I can see the larger picture. I had never seen ourselves like that, encased in the form that is fluid within, changing, moving and re-shaping, physically and chemically affected by the environment around us. Later that night, I find this on Brain Pickings, a perfect exterior complement to the interior picture she has offered me, like wet, caked sand:

 ‘Selves accumulate when one isn’t looking, and they don’t always act wisely or well.’

Canada

There is something about Canada that I cannot quite put my finger on. I see it flashing past me through the window of a car, slim branches sprouting tender leaves, as if almost afraid of the sky they will blossom into. The sky opens up ahead of me and my eyes prick – there is a glaringness here that is diffused, but present. At night, a racoon watched me as I type, lit blue by my computer screen as he preens himself in the shadows. His paw prints turn the light wood dark – the only trace of him when the morning comes.

I have been cocooned in family, both in the time I have spent here, but also in the mental pictures I hold of this place. So many people I know live here that it is hard to step out of their stories or the images you build up over time. Here and there, flashes of the stereotype rise up to meet me. Two blonde women in loose tank tops, hair tied back, canoes strapped to the back of their truck. A relative I haven’t met in years, speaking of going camping over the weekend: a cooler of beer being dragged across mud, until it is placed in a canoe and taken to the next stretch of land. Activities, galore – the Tam Tam in Montreal, the casual way people glance at you and say: ‘And of course, you can just bike around there.’ Canada – or the sliver I have seen – is space: the trees smaller than you would imagine, but the surface rolling out and out, begging to be stepped in.