The Chimera

I’m back at the cottage. The chickadees are here – we call back and forth to one another – so is the rain. But I don’t mind the rain; I’m here to work. The brightly coloured ground is wallpapered with leaves. Inside, the whirl of a heater, a light sucking sound – or is it blowing? Last night, standing outside in the dark, complete silence. This is my definition of a retreat.

I do have a friend, a fury companion. I take him outside for his walk this morning and he refuses to budge from the doorframe. It’s raining, he communicates with his eyes. My pretty, prissy dog. Instead he suggests we play inside, nudging his rope toy into my leg, coyly letting his teeth graze my skin from time to time, just enough to goad me on. I am reminded of the fox from The Little Prince.

“You are pretty,” the prince tells the fox, “who are you?” The fox explains he is a fox and that if the little prince wishes to play with him, the little prince must first tame the fox. Louie is mine, I have tamed him. And now he is unique to me in all the world. But the fox’s words are almost a warning: once you tame me, I will be sad when you leave. The fields of wheat will remind me of your blond hair. We are responsible for that which we tame, and so it is between my vizsla and me. I am here to write, to work, to run a retreat, but I am also responsible for the things I have tamed. We can never completely leave the world behind, can we?

Later, we walk along the driveway and something inside Louie lets go, unclenches. He tears around, digging in the earth, then runs up a storm. Whatever it is that is wild inside of him has broken free. This is who he is, I think, this is instinct. I take him outside to be free, to be who he is. A wild animal. He runs at me full speed, his muscles uncoil as he jumps up at my chest, mouth open, gnawing at my arm.

“NO!” I am firm with him, grab his collar. It’s as though he’s forgotten himself, the dog we’ve tamed him to be. Oh, right. He sits politely, looks at me with those puppy eyes. “Okay,” I tell him, “go play.” Released, he’s off like a shot. Then a minute later attacks me again, playful but rough. Both my pet and a wild animal.

On another day, Louie and I are running together, and something miraculous happens. The moment is like a chimera, an illusion or fabrication of the mind, an unrealized dream, except it comes true.

Louie runs alongside me wearing a black fifteen-foot leash. If I see another dog or human coming, I can easily step on his long rope, or catch up to him and reign him in. I’m teaching him to come back to me when we see other people, but he isn’t perfect at it yet. Remember: taming, wild animal. He’s in training. The leash trails behind him, and bumps and shimmies across the ground like a snake. Louie and I are often close enough during our runs that I have to avoid stepping on his leash, which otherwise causes him to roll and tumble to the ground (sorry, boy). The leash’s movement makes it seem as though it is alive: it’s a trick of the mind and the eyes, and I constantly remind myself it is not so, the leash is an inanimate object being trailed along the ground. One minute I’m running along, the next minute the leash turns into a long black snake, slithering along in the shape of an ‘s’. The chimera becomes real.

I am running along and the end of the leash does turn into a real snake. I have to hop over the reptile to avoid stepping on its long body. The snake was likely sunning itself on the dirt path, when down comes my wild animal, clopping along, barreling full speed along the trail, disturbing the snake from its rest. The snake scurried off in my direction, appearing to materialize out of the end of the black leash the same colour as its body.

“Oh!” was all I could manage as I hopped over the snake the length of my arm.

This has to mean something, I tell myself, jogging along. Leashes don’t just change into snakes for no reason. Maybe it’s what is real isn’t as it seems? Maybe it’s about creating something out of nothing? Maybe it’s about life materializing? Maybe it’s about being at the right place at the right time to witness a miracle, or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it? Maybe the snake carries no meaning at all, the three of us just passersby in the grand scheme of the universe? But I think I know better than that. Maybe it’s about watching where I step, about learning to see what’s in front of me? Literally, what I am almost stepping on. Maybe the snake was a warning, a sign to turn and run, or a gift of the inanimate being made real? Of my worst fear, that of the leash or rope, actually being a real snake? Isn’t that one of those things many of us fear when we’re outdoors. That that stick over there is a snake that might curl around our arm and bite us? It’s funny how the snakes we encounter in Canada really have no interest in doing that, but my dog, the one I’ve tamed, he’s game.

The gift of meaning was in seeing the leash come to life, in beholding the real live snake, and then jumping over it. I did not scream; I did not feel in the least bit inclined to. I’m no longer afraid of snakes, because I’ve taken the time to get to know them a bit better. When we know something, we fear it less. And of course, as I jogged along further, I came to see the snake as representative of my little girl with Down syndrome. The end of the leash could never become real, just like how as a twenty-eight year old woman, I could never give birth to a baby with Down syndrome. That would be my worst fear. Then she was here, and I held her in my arms and saw that fear was only a fear of the unknown. That everything is knowable, and that it is fear that drives us apart. And that my little girl would become unique to me in all the world. She would tame me. It’s not that I wasn’t surprised, that I didn’t jump or that I would act perfectly, as her mother, all the time, but what once seemed scary, no longer held its power over me. I would see the world anew, and I would jog along just fine.

The Real Thing

September’s pace hits you in the belly, takes the breath right out of you. Perhaps the greatest indicator are the sounds coming in through my bedroom window from outside at six in the morning. The squealing breaks of large trucks, engines turning over, wheels pressed against pavement. These are not weekend sounds, rumpled sheets, the hot sizzle of oil in the frying pan or the smell of bacon and maple syrup. Another car drives by this morning. Even the sky is screaming with jet engines. Busy, busy, busy. All going somewhere.

Sometimes I want to turn it all off, make the noise go away. I check my phone and my day begins listening to a video of a friend crying. On a phone call with a friend last night, discussing writing, she reminds me that our brains don’t know the difference between real trauma and trauma we relive through our writing, in terms of the toll trauma takes on our bodies, our wellbeing. We feel trauma at a visceral level when we remember it and we actually reexperience it. Does my brain understand the difference between my friend recording a video of herself crying last night and that my friend is likely sleeping soundly when I watch the video today? Probably not. I feel sad when I watch the video because I see her pain, no longer real, but that once was so and were she to be reminded about it, she might be sad all over again too. But maybe not. Perhaps that was a particularly sensitive moment and she’s moved on. Without being there in person myself, I’ll never know the full context.

Online, even when we aren’t there, we are there. Through video and Zoom, we are everywhere now. I’m not sure if my brain knows the difference: that I am not actually going everywhere, it just feels that way. My body, my mind, have travelled into the city, across the country from one side to the other all in one day, and it’s tiring. We feel exhausted, fatigued. Burnt out.

I do have a remedy for this. My dog is my lifeline. I HAVE to walk him/run him/play with him. He gets me outside. Outside this time of year is the sound of crickets chirping, the hot sun beating on my bare arms, fading colour and fresh air with a whiff of decay. In town, it’s the cries of children in the school yard and the barks of dogs greeting passersby. Out of town, it’s trees and dappled light, stretching shadows, dusty footsteps along a well-trodden path.

My dog, my children, they are in the present moment. They are my real life. There is no such thing as past traumas, only the right-here-right-now of the moment. I am filling in a form for the school before I go back to the email I was in the middle of typing before I had to pick the kids up, before I phone that person back, before I join my next Zoom call, before, before…

“Mommy,” says Penelope, my youngest, “come play hockey with me in the backyard.”

“Okay.” I drop the pen and the form. This time they can wait, my four-year-old can’t. Or rather, she can, but real-life beckons.

While Zoom may take me to far-off places, my children keep me right where I am, right where I am meant to be.

Outside we go and the sun is blazing, the grass needs to be cut. Penelope hacks away at a tennis ball with her plastic stick. I teach her to always keep two hands on your stick, see, like this? the way my dad taught me. She hacks at the ground. Lower, quick, like this – see? She pauses to look at me, her eyes hold me and she smiles, delighted to have her mom all to herself. In the flesh. This connection between us cannot be replicated on any screen, or rather, it can, a scene in a movie perhaps, the mother dropping what she’s doing to make time for her youngest, a heartening scene that evokes emotion. The listener feels something, real emotion, love even, that approximates the real thing. But do not be fooled. My phone doesn’t love me. My computer screen does not love me. Exchanged in that glance was authentic real-life, an in-person exchange that cannot be replicated again. The exchanges of real-life are the fabric of the universe, not what happens on a screen. I’m trying to remember that. To tell my body to slow down, step away, get outside and into the folds of the universe. We pass the tennis ball back and forth between us; she hits it really far and we cheer. Our happy cries ring out and there is no replacing this real thing.

 

The Place We Are In

I’m back at the cottage for a few days. I watched the water current move all summer long almost exclusively to the right, or eastwardly, but now I detect an unmistakeable shift to the left. Fall is here. Something about the current, the way the water is moving, is reminding me of this global pandemic we are in. The water moves swiftly, as temperatures drop lower and lower, until the water temperature becomes untenable, deathly. For the time being, the water is hovering around 60 degrees, and most people wouldn’t go in. I did. With a wetsuit on. But not everybody has a wetsuit, protection. Many people can’t even swim. For many, the simple act of being asked to float would lead to drowning. Right now, people are being asked to float and people are drowning.

I listened to an audio book on the way up to the cottage, Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. What I’ve heard so far is fantastic, but there is one detail she got wrong. She likens depression to drowning, “but at least,” she says, “with drowning there are signs: arms flailing, noisy splashing, cries for help, etc.” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the picture. While I appreciate the metaphor and the point is not lost on me, the notion of drowning being loud is incorrect. I was shocked to come across a pamphlet on drowning when I was researching water safety (as mothers are wont to do) when we bought the cottage. Drowning is known, by those who know – by lifeguards and the aqua-savvy – as a silent killer. Most people who drown never make a sound. They slip away, unnoticed. We are in a pandemic, there are people drowning, and they aren’t making a sound.

It’s fall and I’m in a three-season cottage and it’s cold so I’m trying to light a fire. Again, I have resources. I ball up paper and lay down kindling. Put a few bigger logs on top, one or two, not too many. I’ve been educated by those who know in the art of fire building. I asked my local neighbour who lives in the house he grew up in about wood stoves. After I’ve asked my many questions about indoor fire maintenance, he at one point grows quiet and still.

“Please,” he says, “let me know if you need help anytime.”

My question of, “so I leave the door open and then…?” left him feeling anxious.

“I don’t want you to burn down the cottage.”

Step one, pull the lever to open the flu (door at the top to let air out) all the way. Step two, get the fire going, use kindling and a fire starter as needed. Step three, once the fire’s going, close the door and close the flu three-quarters of the way by pushing in the lever, that will keep the fire from burning too hot, which could lead to a chimney fire. Step four, turn on the built-in fan in the back to disperse heat and temper the flame. Be careful what you burn. Always hard wood (maple, oak), not softwood (pine), which burns too hot and fast and can lead to said chimney fire.

Build your fire and watch the flames burn. Revel in the warmth, enjoy.

And I’m trying. I know all the steps, I’m doing the things, but the fire just won’t catch. Smoke pours out of the chimney, inexplicably flowing to the east, but nothing is catching. I’m flickering, flickering and now the flame’s out. I’m cold. Chilled to the bone. I add a layer of protection, but I’m not moving, not going anywhere and so my temperature drops like the lake outside.

And there’s something about being behind the glass and looking out at a lake I can’t touch that unnerves me – a fire I can’t hold. I want to go swimming in the lake everyday like I did before, but everything is different now. I’ve had to readjust my expectations, my way of being. I’m shifting direction from east to west. I’m going a different way now.

The fire, of course, is not for me to hold. But is it not just like me to want the things I can’t have? The very things that will burn me?

A career in writing is like this. Did I mention I’ve received a few rejections lately? I did not win the CBC Creative Nonfiction Contest, I did not place a particular story in the newspaper, I did not land that coveted agent. Burn, burn, burn. In truth, the agent hurt the most, although there I probably had the lowest odds. But here was the thing: this agent gets 10,000 pitches a year and mine was one of the 400 she asked to read further material. I was not one of the ten or so she chose to sign. And that hurt because the first hurdle felt SO monumental, to have made it so far, like getting our cases down so low, only to fail to complete the job. Those outside of the writing industry will say they’re sorry for my luck, and I thank you, really, I’m fine. Those inside of it will nod their heads in understanding and recognition, congratulate me on the rejections. I collect rejections because it means I am getting my work out there, and at some point, there come acceptances too. At some point, this will all be over. But arguably, we’ll be in a different place by then.

I will continue to swim in the lake as long as possible; hold my head and hands up, and warm them by the fire.

The lake by the shore is still now, motionless. As darkness descends, a flash of light and stone, a memory darts into my mind. One last reminder that I am not safe. Taking my dog out this morning, down a trail and beyond where I’d gone before, past the ‘no trespassing’ sign (I know, I know), into the beyond, in the dirt there lay an animal track. Bigger than my hand. My neighbour warned me of the potential for bears, but I just had to see for myself. And there it was, a sign as clear as day. I had been warned. These tracks were fresh. Except, this wasn’t likely to be a bear track, not based on the shape. The shape was more reminiscent of a wolf’s paw. A very large wolf. I followed the tracks, one, two, three, then stopped, came to my senses, and scrambled back through the brambles, back the way I came, thorns tearing at my pants. Turns out that was not the direction I wanted to be headed. I’m still figuring it out, which way to go.

The fire is lit now, burning steady. And I’m thankful for that because the temperature continues to drop with the sun. I’m warm and cozy inside, tucked away from wolves that hunt and the monsters, mostly men, I conjure in my mind. I am finding my way and this is the place I am in.

 

 

The Last Time

This is probably the truest thing I can share with you right now. It’s a poem I wrote this morning, reflecting on nature, but also, in a roundabout way, it’s about heading home, the changing seasons and the kids going back to school. Endings and new beginnings. I have such a strong desire to be close to nature and I don’t want to forget all the elements that have left me feeling so inspired this summer. Poems can convey, with brevity, emotions I may not capture in a thousand words of trying to explain the complexity here. Suffice it to say, time is up, in so many respects, and so please allow me to be brief.

The Last Time
When was the last time
you paused
to stare at your breath on a cool morning;
you tilted your head up
and let the sun
cover your face like a warm cloth;
you strolled through the woods
and appreciated each tree,
the curve of its trunk,
a slender pointed branch,
noted the toadstools tucked in
at its feet,
down to the dew drops hanging from pine needles
like runny noses?

When did you last observe the clouds
dance, multiply,
like the dust kicked up of a thousand horses or
drift slowly by, on an airless day
the glaciers of the sky

When was the last time
you let the cool waters of the lake lick at your toes
or took the time to kneel –
crouch right down –
to peer inside the hole of the chipmunk’s lair;
admire the beauty
of the undulating hills towering above
reflected in water below in perfect symmetry;
the cattails tinged yellow, their colour
fading, bend and bow
in the gentle breeze?

You stare breathless
Pause
(hopefully not) for the last time.

A Summer Affair

I’m listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The clash of classical instruments banging against the soundtrack of my mind creates a space for focus. The music draws something out of me. From where I’m sitting at my desk, the lake looks like a Monet painting. Not quite real. The colour is off. Ripples of slate, blue, grey and white. A cottony clouded sky.

The temperature has taken a turn in Barry’s Bay. In the coffee shop in town, five minutes away, the locals tell me it’s been a nice August compared to usual.

“A few years ago, the third weekend in August,” a woman tells me, “it snowed at my cousin’s wedding.”  Snow – that dirty word.  Who wants to think of such things mid-summer? Certainly not I.

But as I stood at the end of my dock earlier, there’s no mistaking nature’s reversal – yes, reversal – because that’s what this is. Not really a cycle, more of a reverting back. In June, when we arrived, the same temperature, 17 degrees Celsius, felt warm. The cold was being ushered out, the warmth ushered in. Now the heat is quietly making its exit. First July’s humidity dissipated, but the heat remained, warm and friendly. Now warm air is slipping away, I fear we’ve almost reached the encore of this show, and soon she will exit stage left to make way for winter’s frost. I can feel cool air filling the room, permeating, taking her place, chilling my fingers to a pale yellow, numbing, stripping me of summer’s caress.

Summer here is like a searing, passionate fling – it was never meant to last, it never could last. Too hot to hold.

“Blink and you miss it!” the local woman laughed.

Like an affair, summer here is like a best kept secret, a dance between lovers producing heat that fades with time. As quick as it arrived, it’s over. Only that first kiss lingers. I would do anything for that kiss.

I feel like a scorned lover. “But wait!” I cry, “we’re here until the END of August, can’t summer last until then?”

No, it can’t. No more than the relationship that’s fizzled out can be rekindled. Once the fire’s gone, the flame’s extinguished, that’s it. There is no going back to what was, you have to wait to find it again. The reversal of falling in love is falling out of love – the latter seems to happen much more quickly; the way I’ve blinked, and summer is leaving me.

Come August first, the air told fall’s story, a few weeks earlier than I would normally notice back home. What is beautiful about spending so much time outdoors and taking notice are the cues nature sends to make herself clear. She is not a shy lover. The seasonality of the bugs. First they’re here, now they’re mostly gone. Come August, cue the grasshoppers. Where were they all of July?  I’ve not a clue, but my friend the farmer tells me his chickens love to eat them. One hopped into our van, as we left the farm. The most alert and alive and humongous green cricket I’ve ever seen.  He rode shotgun over Dan’s shoulder all the way home. The next morning, when Dan got back in to drive Louie to a trail for a jog, the cricket was still there, like a devoted pet, waiting for another joy ride.

Then there are the dock spiders. No sooner had I announced to a neighbour that the dock spiders left us, then one faced me down. The dock spider, the size of my palm, one of the largest species in Canada, sat in the middle of the ladder I needed to climb up to get out of the water from my swim. I took the long way around.

In the spring, when we arrived, the dock spiders ran amuck, in and out of their crevasses, all over the dock, which had become their kingdom. We sat shyly on our towels, double checked chairs, regarded our shoes and shook out every garment and linen with vigour. As summer progressed, as it did so quickly – too quickly – the dock spiders seemed to cower away from our cries of joy and splashing cannonballs off the dock and visitors trampling down their lane. They left us be, golden sun creatures that we are, preferring the gallows below, I imagine. A reversal of habitat. But come August, if you’ve read the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, you may have an inkling of what the water spider I came face-to-face with on the ladder of our dock intended. A large sac of eggs, soon-to-be spiderlings, now rests itself wedged between ladder and dock and momma spider sits astride it, proud. I am loathe to remove that sac and its spider, even if it means I need to swim the long way around, through the lily pads.

There was a time I would have crushed any and all spiders that crossed my path, such was my right, or so I thought. But through another form of reversal, I feel differently now, quite differently. When I find a spider or rogue moth or ant in the cottage, I mostly fold the creature into a napkin gently and take them back outside, where they would prefer to be anyway. I do what I can to avoid killing, I think it’s gentler on my soul this way.

As the cold floods in, won’t enough creatures die anyway? That spider astride her sac, won’t she perish short of seeing her newborns? Or is that just a story we tell little children?

Dock spiders belong to the family Pisauridae, closely related to wolf spiders. They do not bite. They lay their eggs in a silken egg sac, which can then be carried around by the female until it’s time for the young to hatch. She holds the egg sac in her fangs like a wad of cotton. The female dock spiders, pisaurids, build a silken, tent-like nursery for their spiderlings, and so they are known as ‘nursery-web’ spiders. This glorious tent is what I can see between my ladder and dock. When you start to think of the spider as building a nursery, she becomes harder to kill, does she not?

As they typically start nesting in the spring, this is likely our spider’s third egg sack, her third cycle of spiderlings. Each sac can yield 1,000 spiderlings. I check on those babies every day. Dan thought maybe a fish would come and eat them, nab the sac, but apparently, dock spiders are the ones who will eat minnows, sticking their two front legs in the water, awaiting the right water vibration. The perfect kill. A reversal of expectations.

“I feel like the end of a long day,” says Charlotte the spider, at the end of E.B White’s Charlotte’s Web. And can’t we all relate – especially lately?

A summer passed by too quickly; a pandemic that’s arrived and decided to stay. The leaving of school and the coming back. A reversal of fortunes.

I will embrace the cold the best I can. Pull out my tough jeans and hooded sweatshirts that I’ve had tucked away, tucked away but not forgotten. Instead of dressing down, I will layer up. I will throw a few logs on the fire, the trunks of trees that once grew strong.

I will hit play on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and write my way to the end, with images of Monet’s hayfields and summer days tucked into the back of my mind, for when the heat returns, I will be ready.

Until then, winter is coming.

The Curious Incident of the Frog in the Night

I’m a sentimentalist, it’s true.  I am guilty of romanticizing life at the cottage, both to myself and to others. I tend to focus on the good feelings and not so much on the bad experiences. And there’s merit to this, to being an optimist, to seeing the glass half-full, to finding the positives and looking on the bright side. To letting one’s self get swept up in the moment. But we all know that darkness lurks somewhere in the shadows.  I can’t remain clouded to what is difficult and unseemly to write about or I risk only telling half the story – that which is saccharine, sickly sweet. (See Leslie Jamison’s essay, In Defense of Saccharin(e) from The Empathy Exams for a further examination of this topic).

There’s the fairy tale version of our summer stay and the darker elements – the truth of our existence here lies somewhere in between.

Let me tell you a sinister story, reminiscent of brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time there was a princess named Penelope who loved to pick up frogs and toads. All day long, she caught the frogs, watched the toads and cradled them in her hands. At four years old, the little princess was not the best at washing her hands.

Her parents, the king and queen, were very busy running the cottage kingdom, managing three children during a pandemic and working full time. Life in the palace was not always a bed of roses. They argued over responsibilities and often left the children to their own devices. Princess Penelope spent her days down by the shoreline with her frogs.

Now, if this were brothers Grimm, the little princess would likely drown at this point in the story, but stay with me here.

One night, after the royal family hosted visitors for the weekend, the little princess began to vomit. The queen panicked. Was this the dreaded Covid plague?  Her poor baby! What had they done! How could they have been so foolish as to allow others to enter the protective bubble of their cottage kingdom?

Mysteriously, the next morning, after having vomited all night, the little princess recovered. She seemed absolutely fine – better than fine. Life returned to normal with princess Penelope catching her frogs down by the shore. The king and queen stopped worrying about the little princess and fell back into their work.

A week later, the vomiting happened again. This time, there had been no visitors. Was this some sort of evil spell?  No – poison.

The king happened to remember something he once read in a book of potions about toads excreting toxins.

Little princesses aren’t very good at washing their hands. 

Busy monarchs seldom have the time to enforce proper hand washing after every single held toad.

When a toad is squeezed, they excrete a milky poison from their eyes toxic to their enemies. In addition, many water frogs also have bacteria and can carry salmonella, which can lead to some serious intestinal upset. Through further research, the king and queen also discovered that the substance coating certain frogs and toads can be hallucinogenic.  So the story of the princess kissing the frog who turned into a prince – who knows?  Maybe that’s what she thought she saw, high as a kite.

Furthermore, because a frog’s skin is so porous and takes in its environment so readily, holding it in your hand is akin to having someone hold onto your lung. That cannot feel comfortable, and so, perhaps it is best to leave the frogs and toads be.

Now that the case of the curious night vomiting has been solved, his and her majesty have gently, but firmly, instructed the young princess to limit the number of frogs and toads she holds and to wash her hands after handling every single one. Every single time.

According to latest reports, “I’m holding a toad in my hands!”, not much has changed.

And so this story – and her nausea – may continue unhappily ever after.

But, honestly – what can you do?  She’s a kid. Kids are disgusting. And to those who would judge: if you think your kid hand-washes after doing something as dirty as wiping their own ass, check next time, use a magic mirror or whatever you have to do. And when you watch them walk out, hands dry, wipe their nose and pass you by with a grin, maybe then the frog vomiting won’t seem so bad.

Accompanying every bit of life, every piece of beauty, there’s a darker side.

“Oh, I just love the loons!” I told one neighbour,

“Yes, well, they’re not as great as you might think.”  The loons eat the native ducks’ eggs, effectively almost abolishing them from our lake. And the ducks that do survive, another neighbour informed me,

“The ducklings – the snapping turtles pull them under by the legs, one by one.”  One webbed foot at a time.

Nature is murderous, cruel, relentless, toxic. Leeches that suck your blood, wasps that sting beneath the eye. Toads that poison little princesses like a blood-red apple.

At the end of the summer, I’ll hold a picture in my mind of our sweet four-year in a pink tutu bent over the toad in her hand. All eyelashes and a mop of curls. The remnants of salmonella on her small hands.

I’ll try not to get all sentimental over that picture, over the notion of a tiny girl cuddling with her toads, enjoying her warm summer days, the sparkle of the sun reflected in the water, dazzling, under a bright blue sky, the apple of the frog’s eye.  That kind of romanticizing, especially in writing, is enough to make you sick.

 

Blog Post: On Observing Humans

We learn in a multitude of ways.  Directly, from others.  Directly, from ourselves, from the front row seat of the skins we inhabit, with our bodies, our five senses.

I’m standing at the end of our dock in my underwear.  I have de-clothed after a forty-minute run in an attempt to convince myself I should jump into the lake.  The air feels cool, it’s fifteen degrees Celsius and there’s a breeze.  The lake temp is in the seventies – that’s not bad.  Already, here, up North in the Madawaska Valley, fall is sidling in.  A smattering of trees are painted in hues of warm colours.

My toes hang over the edge of the dock, and I’m wrestling with myself over going in when a large white orb torpedoes by under the water right before my eyes.  My first thought is baby sea turtle!  But of course, there are no sea turtles in our lake.  The creature seems too big and moves too quickly to be a snapping turtle.

I don’t have to guess for long.

The beautiful loon crests a few meters to my right.

Wow, I think, surprised a loon can move that fast under water.  To have read the fact would not have sufficed; experiencing the loon move with such streamlined speed and grace is now forever etched in my mind.

I jump in off the dock and feel the water against my skin, warm and not unpleasant as expected.

Recently, we had my sister-in-law and her family visit us at our cottage.  My brother-in-law is a trained and practising ecologist, an environmental consulting expert.  I ask if he’d like to join me on a grueling hike, in the rain; the ascent goes skyward, but the lookout at the summit is dazzling and worth the exertion.  He agrees.

The hike has become a right of passage, an initiation of sorts, to life at the cottage and an introduction to the stark and startling beauty of the area.  On certain days, the climb involves blazing heat and humidity that leaves your neck and t-shirt soaked and bugs sticking to you like Velcro.  On other days, as was the case when my brother-in-law agreed to hike with me, the rain renders the path muddy, the rocks that protrude slick.  On the way down, my foot gives way beneath me.  I catch myself, elbows in the mud on either side of the rock that would have bruised my spine.

“You okay?” my brother-in-law asks.

“Yep.  Close call.” It’s all part of the climb.

I can tell a lot about a person by the way they make it up the mountain.

I power through the path, half at a run pace, treating the hike as sport, legs strong, hopping off rocks with vigour.  Sometimes I pretend I’m flying, while keeping a solid pace.

Dan, my husband, keeps pace with mine, never pulling ahead of me or falling behind.  He knows I like to take the lead and that I expect him to keep up.  We talk amicably, easily, on the way up and congratulate ourselves for exploring and for breathing heavy when we arrive at the top.

“Good exercise!”  We both agree, cheerily enough.

He empathizes over my attire; I would not have chosen to wear a summer dress had I planned this unexpected detour.  He understands my need to plan.  He takes my picture at the summit when I’m not watching.  He offers me a sip of his water, even though I have my own.  He pets our dog and does most of the caring for him.  He poses in pictures with me, even though I know he doesn’t particularly like to do so.  He kisses me, a quick peck, back at the van.  We’re both sweaty.

My brother, my little brother as I call him, sets off up the trail ahead of me, head down, and at a fast pace.  We take turns chasing one another up the mountain.  I think that we are racing and having fun.  We sweat equally hard.  We discourage the dog from biting at our fast heels, equally.  He really appreciates the view at the top, as do I.  At one point, he worries about the dog being too close to the edge.  I agree and we rein him in.  We are both parents.  He is okay with me snapping a few pictures of us, but even having owned a photography business, he takes few to no pictures himself.  I think it’s because he has owned the photography business.  We talk little on the way up, neither one of us can much breathe, but we engage in friendly chit-chat on the way back down.  Afterwards, we chug back water and he thanks me for taking him there.

My friend, a woman my age, approaches the hill with wonder and excitement.  She asked to do it once I mentioned it.  I feel the urge to check back on her as we make our way up, but she shoos me ahead, insisting she’s fine.  She never complains, though her ankles give her trouble.  She is excited about the view before we even get to the top.  She takes many pictures.  She snaps my picture from behind – an action shot – and I pause to take a few of her, too.  I hold the dog and keep him moving ahead so that he won’t bite at my friend or knock her off the edge of the mountain.  The dog is incredibly strong.  At the top, she orchestrates a photo shoot and I oblige.  She admires the view fondly, fully.  She expresses some regret – guilt? – that her husband is not also enjoying this activity, the climb and the view.  She worries about him.  We pick our way back down the trail slowly.  She tells me I remind her of a spry woman in her sixties she sometimes hikes with who blazes along the path, while she often trails behind.

“I want to be fit like her when I’m that age,” she says.

We talk about fitness, how my friend has lost weight – and she has, noticeably – but that she doesn’t weigh herself.

“That’s just a number,” she says.  She goes by how she feels.  I completely agree, though I know my number, more or less.  I know best by the way I feel, too.

At one point near the end, I spot a harmless house fly against her neon green tank top and calmly reach to flick it off.  My friend’s happy and calm demeanor changes, her face drains.

“Is there a BUG on me?”

“Yah, but it’s just…”

She’s flailing her body, shaking her head and hands.

“A fly.”

The offending beast is gone, close call.  We share a little laugh.

My brother-in-law is happy to tag along behind me up the mountain, and I enjoy looking back over my shoulder at the scientist at work.  He is completely lost studying the local flora and fauna.  The ecologist in him shines.  He reminds me of my toddler, always lagging behind on our family hikes, bent over a branch to examine this leaf, or that blade of grass.  His childish nature is glorious to witness.  Simultaneously, there is a meta-analysis happening: the ecologist observing plants in their natural habitat, the writer observing the ecologist observing the plants; the writer taking a snapshot of the scene in her mind; the ecologist collecting samples, “I’ve never seen this before,” he later exclaims, photographing a generic-looking stem he’s collected.  His very words become the evidence of the writer who is the documenter of human behaviour.

I frequently stop climbing and wait for him to catch up.  His eyes never leave the side of the trail, his hands are busy delicately grazing this or that greenery.  We ascend mostly in silence.  He seems unbothered by any physical discomfort the climb is costing him; he’s too busy observing.

Predictably, I reach the lookout before him.  I double back with the dog to make sure he’s okay.  When he arrives, he exclaims, “I want you to show me where this is on a map so I can take (my wife) and kids.”  Also, so that he may document the plant species he has discovered, single samples of which he grasps like a bouquet.  I admire his passion, understand it, recognize it in myself.

“That was great,” he says when we’re done the hike.

I ask my brother-in-law to identify tree species on my property.  I learn that a hemlock, an evergreen wispy tree with droopy limbs and numerous short needles, is one of my niece’s favourites, and where the forest of red pines is at the top of our drive, and how to tell the difference between the white and the red pine anyway: the white pine needles are long and in bunches of five, whereas the red pine have a reddish trunk and long needles that gather in clusters of two.

My favourite new piece of knowledge from hanging out with my brother-in-law the ecologist pertains to the beech tree.  This is where the writer and the ecologist collide.

“They say the trunks of beech trees look like the feet of elephants,” my brother-in-law tells me.  The feet of elephants.  Somehow this line reminds me of a piece I wrote about the souls of dinosaurs.

I have a look at the beech for myself and I have to agree.

 

The Absence of Something

Do you give yourself time to be creative in the way that you need?

A storm blows in.  I’m sitting beside an open sliding door and there’s the smell and warmth of fresh rain in the summertime wafting in, and the pitter patter of water droplets hitting leaves and branches creating a cascading effect all the way down to the forest floor.  The sound of the waves lapping the shore is overshadowed by booming skies, crackling thunder.

With overcast skies, the lake’s the colour of a silver coin.  The sun wants to push through.

Bright, hot, and sunny this morning, cloudy and thunderous this afternoon; the day’s as undecided as I am.  With the children visiting their grandparents, the pressure to enjoy the absence of something becomes too great.  One minute I tell Dan I’m going to focus on writing, use the time to get some work done, the next we’re packing up the car to take our dog Louie for another hike.  We hiked sixteen kilometers total the day before, but yet, somehow in the absence of something, more was not enough.

So we hike again, then after the hike I plan to visit the dock.  I pack my tote bag full of books, notebooks and pens, silicone earplugs and oversized black sunglasses.  I slide my pink flip flops on then get sidetracked writing a poem.  The poem complete, more or less, I scoop up the handles of my tote just as the rain comes pouring down.

Dan and I spend more time talking about what we’re going to do next then actually doing anything.  We talk some more, and we talk some more beyond that because in the absence of something the space must be filled with everything else.  An onslaught of words and ideas rushes forth.  We could talk for years.

Dan has committed to running a few errands.  He waivers, attempts to tell me one more story about his conversation with a local dog trainer before heading out the door, but my mind is already elsewhere, onto the thing it is I will be doing in the thunderstorm in the absence of something.  I wish to fill the space perfectly, deliberately, with an activity of my choosing – not of necessity.

“Do you want to hear about the dog trainer?”

My husband has caught me tuning out, moving into the space and sphere of my own consciousness.  Did I reply, “not really,” or “how about you tell me later,” or plain “go ahead,” I can’t recall, but what I do remember specifying is my desire for him to be in charge of that project.  I’ll take part, do my duty, but it’s not my show.

A hummingbird suspends itself in front of my window, hovering long enough to have a good look.  Its wings beat so fast I can’t see them, and I think, yes, that is the speed I travel in the presence of everything. I beat my wings fast and hard so that I too may look in on the writer.

I shoo Dan out the door and turn to my pen – or should I type on my laptop?

At Algonquin Park, where we hiked, I picked up two books from the visitor centre.   One titled Braided Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and the other a lovely illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.  In lieu of picking up my pen, I sit down on the couch with the latter, open the front cover and notice the author’s name written on the page.  I decide I should follow him on social media and so I sit back down at my desk to pick up my cell phone.

But instead, I reach for my pen and fill my life with the presence of words, the absence of regret.  Time well spent.

I squint looking outside, the day is now bright.

The storm has passed.  The water’s calm and the skies are clear.

I hear a few measly drops, the soft hum of the fridge.  A truck passing by in the distance.

A lone moth flutters by, otherwise the world is still and silent.  Not even the birds sing.

The sun peaks out.

I think I’ll go back down to the dock, but who knows.

A single bird breaks the silence with its melodic trill.

An echo beating in the sky, the sound of base drums, reverberates in the distance.  This isn’t over yet.

A Rustling

I’m lying in bed.  My mind is swimming with thoughts about circumstance and what I’ve been writing, keeping me awake.  Never a good thing when you’re planning to get up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning.  And how did that go, the getting up at 5:00 a.m.?  This morning – it didn’t.  I sat down at my computer close to seven.

Time to take stock.

I smell like campfire.  My hair, pulled back in a messy ponytail, is falling loose and I have an itchy bug bite on the skin over my left ribcage.  I can’t re-read that sentence without wanting to scratch the bite.  I touched it again, just now.  My face, which has grown darker in colour these past few weeks, feels a bit oily (I haven’t washed it) and I’m groggy with sleep.  It’s colder outside, yesterday and today, a surprising yet also obvious factor of living further North; the cold seeps up through the floorboards as we sleep.  We are not insulated here, though we’re nice and cozy in our beds under down comforters.

There’s a giant pot of water standing on the stove that Dan boiled before bed, which I used to rinse off the Ontario strawberries and blueberries for my cereal this morning.  Our water comes from the lake and it’s unsafe to drink.  We’re having our mail forwarded here, to our cottage address this summer, and when the mailman came out to assess whether we could have a rural mailbox or not, he reported back that it would not be safe to do so along the stretch of road above us.  And so we will fetch our mail from a communal location, much farther away, the same as we did at home, only different.  Only the UPS guy is crazy enough/forced to drive his big truck down our laneway.  Our internet hub arrived this way, in the middle of the day, seemingly out of nowhere.  A young uniform-clad man in sunglasses delivered our package with a knowing smile, bent down to pet our puppy, then made four attempts to peel back up the steep incline of our laneway.  He made it out on the fourth attempt and for that I was glad.

The previous paragraph is not entirely true.  The septic system guy also made his way down our laneway, but having experience with such properties as ours, he parked at the top and walked down to assess the situation.  The mark of a pro.  Then, in a human feat – and with a driving ability I never hope to master – he reversed his large truck down our laneway (backwards!) and made it out no problem.  For those who plan to visit, don’t worry, managing the driveway isn’t as hard as I’m making it sound.  You will arrive safe and sound.  You just won’t want to leave.

Wildlife surrounds us.  Wolves come here in the winter, bears abound (though we’re unlikely to see any), moose – so we’re told – and deer, definitely deer.  I’ve seen several deer already.  And a miraculous thing:  when we arrived to look at our cottage late spring, I noticed the ring of trees around the lake all sat neatly trimmed at their bottoms.  Somewhere along the line, I made an assumption that treelines around lakes looked the way they do because of rising and falling water levels, the way rock is eroded by water over time.

“No, no.  It’s mother nature’s hedge clippers,” our real estate agent informed me.  The deer trim the trees by eating them.  That’s as high as they can reach, craning their necks, while standing on the ice.

The people who owned the cottage before us put out birdseed on the balcony to feed the blue jays, and so we do so now as well.  They left nuts they used to hand feed a chipmunk, and while we’ve been dallying, getting our bearings around here, the chipmunk runs around twittering and swearing at us; I imagine something along the lines of “Give me some F*%$ing nuts!”  Ariel is keenly working on repairing that relationship and building the trust that has been broken back up.

I will probably do laundry today.  We have an old washer here, a top loader – a luxury for a cottage – that can process small loads.  There has never been anything light about our laundry loads before, and so we adapt, we do less laundry more frequently.  We re-wear the same clothes like they’re going out of style.  And we check the weather.  Thunderstorms coming.  Better get the laundry washed and hung up now.  It’s a windy day, loads of time for our clothes to dry.

And yes, there are bugs you must prepare for.  The blackflies are particularly pesky as the sun is setting.  Those little vampire bugs are relentless.  Our children’s’ necks and behind their ears are mottled with scars, entry wounds that itch, but they don’t seem to mind too much.  Bug spray helps, so does a windy day like today.  Overcast days with clouds make the bugs all too happy and so we lean toward the sun.

On the day of their arrival, I took the kids to the dock with the sun shining down.  They dipped their toes into the mushy sand of the beach.  Penelope was the first to dive forward and swim with Ariel close behind her off the dock into dark waters.  Elyse came in once with me, dangling her legs off the water mat we bought for them, but proclaimed the water to be too cold.  They’d just spent a few days enjoying the luxury of my parent’s pool and I sensed Elyse’s reticence involved more than just the temperature.

Cottage life involves a rugged wildness, an embracing of nature in all its glory and horrors.  On the day Dan and I arrived here, I had been walking through the muck of our beach, picking up sticks and leaves, clearing the sandy path and then swam out into the deep.  I felt a tingling between my big toe and as I treaded water on my back, I held out my foot to take a look.  There was a slimy black thing.  At first, I thought it was a leaf, but then, as it shimmied to the bottom of my foot, I could see it was no such thing and I proceeded to remove it, which I did with some difficulty.  If you ever happen to get a leech on your foot, for future reference, look for the small end of its body – that’s where its mouth and main sucker is located – then gently use your finger to lift the sucker to the side, thereby ensuring its tiny jaws do not remain lodged into your flesh.  I had no such issues but was certainly put off by the incident.  I asked our new neighbours on both sides, “Hey, have you noticed leeches around here?”  Both sets were surprised.

“I’ve been coming here my whole life,” said a woman with grown children, “and I’ve maybe ever had two.”

“Nope! None over here.  I guess it’s just at your leech beach!” another man teased me.

Well, I’m glad I got my leech experience out of the way, and even if there’s more, now I know what to do.

But what can I see right now, as I write this.  I see my children catching fish with their father, one right after the other, off the end of our dock.  Just beyond, the two loons, the true owners of this lake, are gliding, diving down for their breakfast.  I see an entire glass window filled with waves; their lapping seems almost to reach my feet from where I’m perched above.  The waves stretch far across to the shore on the other side where they are greeted by trees lining the shoreline and thick up over the hilly terrain that reminds me of a roller coaster ride.  Even on an overcast day, brightness lights up the periphery of my workspace.  On days when the skies and the water are clear, it’s hard to tell the lake from the sky, the reflection a heavenly mirage.  Frogs croak, the loons croon – their eerie calls echoing into the night – blue herons fly overhead while the crows caw out in their raspy voices.  The air around here is thick with dew and I often think this is what fresh smells like.

Someone’s fish just got away.

The pines and the birch branches on our piece of land are blowing, swaying in the wind, the leaves high above rustling, irrespective of whether I’m here or not.  But bearing witness to this all, it’s quite something.

 

 

French River: Pools of Glass

I’m writing this in the car travelling home from French River, a cottage locale situated as far north as Manitoulin Island and almost as far north as Sudbury. On our way up North, Dan and I stopped in Orillia, the birth town of The Group of Seven artist Frank Carmichael. Closer to our final destination, The Lodge at Pine Cove, we stopped at the French River Trading Post, and I picked up a copy of David P. Silcox’s lovely illustrated text The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Through its pages, I learned artist Tom Thomson died tragically by drowning before The Group of Seven was officially formed, but the group insisted he was very much a part of the movement and so he’s remained. This famous Group of Canadian artists defined Canada to the rest of the world through their sketches and paintings portraying Canada “the North” with images of nature, both dense and desolate; landscapes now synonymous with this country. I have at least one thing in common with Frank Carmichael, the Orillia native I mentioned earlier, which I will get to shortly.

On our four and a half hour drive from Peterborough – where we dropped the girls – on our way to French River, we skirted around Georgian Bay, past the Muskokas and along paved highway that cut through pink granite, the rocky face of Ontario’s North, bedrock better known as the Canadian Shield.

“Under the Canadian Shield is where they bury nuclear waste,” Dan informed me at some point during our 4.5 hour long conversation. “They dig deep, way down. It’s one of the safest places to put it.” I hated to think of this beautiful landscape as a dumping ground, but props to Dan for keeping the interesting facts coming on our lengthy drive.

On our way home, we stopped in Parry Sound for a quick Subway bite. My first trip to the area was at twelve years old for a gymnastics competition. I was in awe of the rock lining our passageway and the notion of workers having to blast through it to build the roads. Later, at a friend’s cottage, I slid off rocky slopes into smooth dark waters, and fully appreciated the region’s beauty. There is nothing quite like Northern Ontario.

While the magnitude and scope of the rock is impressive, what I’ve truly fallen in love with are the waterways. The bodies of fresh water.

From the beach of our cottage resort we launched our kayaks and let the river current pull us down stream along the shore line. Not far into our paddle, we came across a tiny inlet, the water level so low we could barely gain access. Our oblong boats glided across a narrow channel of rocks laying just below the surface, when around the bend, the pond came into view.

The pond was a wide, full circle dotted with lily pads and white flowers and lined by an audience of pines like spectators in an arena. As an island of rock blocked off the pond, separating it from the main flowing river, we found ourselves in a quiet, perfectly still sphere, save for the one startled fish who made a jump for it upon our arrival. Dan and I intuitively set down our paddles and floated together in silence, taking in the beauty around us. The pond was smooth as glass, and though I could spot the bottom if I tried, it was the surface reflecting the blue sky and onlooker trees like a mirror that caught my eye. With the sky above and the sky below me, was I in heaven? Yes.

This is where my sights and those of Frank Carmicheal aligned, our imaginations similarly captivated. Before I had a chance to properly read through The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson book I picked up, I titled this post Pools of Glass after the lasting impression of the pond lingering in my mind’s eye. Only later, in leafing through the pages, did I come across Carmichael’s famous painting, Mirror Lake, 1929 that exactly explores the quality of the water I so admired. Mirror Lake is a real place in the Muskokas, but the title of the painting was about more than a place. Carmichael and I each took notice of the northern water as glass reflecting the landscape like a mirror.

Frank Carmichael Mirror Lake 1929

I don’t know if Carmichael felt the same way, but it wasn’t enough for me to look at the water, I needed to experience it.

In the mornings, I set out for my swims. I sliced through the deeper water off the dock, one, two, three, breathe right; one, two, three, breathe left. Swimming in fresh water is an act of meditation.

Dan kindly paced alongside me in his kayak, my protector from potential boats coming through. And snakes. I was weary of water snakes, though I shouldn’t have been.

Before we left on our trip, Dan’s sister lovingly sent us a picture of a three-foot long water snake her friend had just caught in French River. I asked the owner of the Lodge about water snakes upon our arrival, and he just shrugged with a laugh, “No, no. The snakes are my friends.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but I took it as a sign not to be worried. I saw one cute baby snake scurry out of my path while hiking in the woods, but beyond that, nothing but plump loons and the occasional jumping fish in the water, in addition to a few toads and a muskrat while kayaking.

“The dogs on the property help to keep the black bears away,” the owner also informed Dan. Black bears. Who said anything about black bears?

During our stay in French River, our girls’ piano teacher happened to be visiting family in French River as well. She posted on Facebook about a close encounter with a water snake. I’m not crazy about the idea of encountering a snake in the water, but I can tell you last summer when we spent a week in the Bruce Peninsula region of Tobermory, with its crystal clear, frigid turquoise waters, the first thing I did at our cottage was swim across a small cove of water over to a large rock. I climbed up onto that rock, triumphant, saw a large snake, and immediately got back in the water and crossed the cove back to shore. As it turns out, that rock was the snake’s home and we later saw him zig-zagging through the water. Ariel and a friend were the first ones to spot him in the cove, while I was coming back in from a swim out into the depths of Lake Huron. The snake and I crossed paths, but he went the other way. That snake wanted nothing to do with me (the feeling was and is mutual). My point being: I’ve already experienced my first water snake, you’d think I’d be over it.

The first time Dan and I got in the water together at French River, he swam up behind me and playfully grabbed my toes (not funny). I reminded him that snakes usually swim on top of the water, they glide their bellies across it half immersed. Or so I thought. I later found this on the Ontario Nature site, “The northern watersnake eats fish and amphibians, hunting for its prey along the water’s edge or underwater. It is an excellent swimmer and can be found up to three metres below the surface of the water and several kilometres from shore.” Huh.

The idea of snakes gliding across the water’s surface grossed Dan out, as he had imagined the snakes resting at the bottom of the dark murky river, far down below in the fathoms we can’t see, which I think is infinitely worse. In general, I recommend not worrying about snakes when you’re swimming down a river. They’re certainly not worrying about you.

I wish I could pack a northern lake into my back pocket and take it home with me, snakes and all, but alas, I’m but a mere mortal, stranded and surrounded by dry ground. If I could swim in a lake every day, I would. Maybe one day I will.

I hope I come back as a water snake. I can see myself now, gliding serenely through pools of glass.