Outside at night

Eventually I got over my long lingering childhood fear of darkness. Even became a nightwalker, though years ago on the backroads of northwestern Ontario, the old phantom could still crawl into a thought. Ripple out from under some bed or slip through a crack in the curtains. Appear in solitary headlights, twig snap or a scurried rustle in the underbrush. Then, with a brisker step I encouraged it. Quietly dared. Drew it up. Pushed it down. Growled and led the curious dance until I was home.

Light from an upstairs window falls just beyond where I’m sitting. Contemplating. Considering the past among the delicately twisted silhouettes of potted plants. Morning Glory and Blacked Eyed Susan. Grape vines climb onto exposed rafters. Spiders spin their webs and a white rock with a hole in it hangs from a wire.

Quarry Brook runs loud. It rained all day, torrential at times. Now a warm wind bends and tosses the trees. Fades and returns. Keeps the mosquitos down. The swing’s rusty chain could use some oil.

Something far off keeps banging and making the dog bark. It could be thunder but it’s not. More like a big steel door but its not that either. She wants to go inside. Has no patience for me sitting here, staring into the night.

One hand cupped behind an ear, better to hear the wind.

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Lovestruck

Sitting in the studio figuring out the schedule for a new package design project, I notice the date and holler downstairs to Agnes. June 20th. Is it someone’s birthday? It’s our anniversary, she shouts back. We laugh. Not a day I usually forget, but we both do sometimes. We never pay much attention, though this evening we think it might be nice if we did.

•  •  •

This is what I remember. It was the long weekend in July. I had just gotten back from the Teepee Creek Rodeo where the neighbour and I had decided that next year we would enter the Wild Horse Race. That spring and summer I became a cowboy. My horse’s name was Moon and I lived with a couple of Irish Setters. Cowboy and Eli. J & B were in the Yukon looking for gold and I stayed behind shovelling cement in Grande Prairie. We had moved into a larger cabin. Actually more shack than cabin. A long-abandoned, two room, depression era farmhouse at the end of a grass lane in the shadow of a monolithic grey barn. I used to climb and perch on the peak of the barn. Weathervane in a jean jacket surrounded by yellow canola fields and the astonishing Alberta sky.

Shortly after I arrived, G showed up at the sad excuse for a screen door. After a flight from Germany and combination of hitchhiking and Greyhound bus rides she and her best friend had made it! I don’t remember whether or not we expected them. Clearly not at that point or J wouldn’t have been in Dawson City. When we met the year before G had spoken often of her friend. For some reason I had always pictured her with thick blonde braids, one of those lace-up leather vests and maybe a tray of tall, overflowing beer steins.

We had moved since G lived with us the previous summer. She knew we were regulars at the hotel bar and found someone there to take her out to the homestead. We were joyfully reunited, jumped in the truck and headed back into town. The friend had remained behind with their backpacks. And the cowboys. And her little yellow Deutsch-Englisch dictionary.

The Sexsmith Hotel had a big barroom. There was a dance floor for two-stepping Saturday nights and a pool table that inspired fist fights. It was mostly locals and by then we were counted among them. We had made friends, partied and drank together. The crazy hippies who wintered in Badger’s cabin then moved to Baduik’s in the spring. No power, water or amenities. Nothing really. Except perhaps a strange, foreign kind of freedom.

The German women were both Massage, Hydro-Electro Therapists. They worked in hospitals, took long vacations and had just finished a gruelling, specialized course on lymphatic massage. Their reward for enduring the program was a three month vacation and each had a different idea. The friend pulled the short straw and they came to Canada instead of touring Europe on motorcycles.

I was a long haired labourer with a chipped front tooth, calloused hands and a cowboy hat that was at least one size too big.

•  •  •

The barroom was dark. You were sitting at a corner table with a couple of fellows I knew. You wore a black top, the kind a ballerina might wear and a long black skirt with a pattern of tiny white dots or flowers. It was like the two guys had never seen a woman with short hair before. There was a lot of noise around that for some reason. You spoke hardly any English, had a mole on your forehead and your eyes were blue grey. I wonder if for a millisecond I felt engulfed in silence, adrift somewhere in deep space. Slow swirl, drawn into the gentle whirlpool of fate.

The next day everyone went to the rodeo. We were already in love whether we knew it or not. Our orbits merged with a primal certainty and knowledge of place. The language barrier was irrelevant. We found ways beyond words. That said, I told you a million things you didn’t understand. My life as an artist. You showed me your famous one arm stretch trick and others. Later in the evening you tucked in tight when violence threatened and my unpredictable neighbour wrapped a leather belt around his fist. You would never like him. Day two in the wild west.

•  •  •

You know those mini-documentary moments where beautiful things happen really fast? A seed falls onto the black earth, roots like white veins push and part the soil, the seed cracks and a sprout emerges. Tiny leaves unfold into larger ones as a stem uncurls skyward. Flower petals unfurl like flags that take your breath away.

Tender was our first summer together. You would often say, “it’s a pity” when referring to our language limitations. There was so much to learn and say, but we found our ways.

About eight weeks after you arrived we set out on a road trip. Christopher Cross singing “Sailing” on the radio. It was night and we were lying in the back of my pickup truck somewhere in Manitoba, on our way to Thunder Bay. I struggled to tell you what I was thinking.

Our realities were worlds apart. A life together seemed unimaginable. Your life was in Germany, you were happy and had no thought or desire for change. I was from wherever I happened to be in Canada. A free spirit with nothing, whose plans changed as quickly as I could think of the next one. That was how I began. It’s crazy I know, but I am madly in love with you. Where can this possibly go?

Happy 31st Anniversary my Love

Connection

I catch my reflection in the car window. Sometimes the face staring back surprises me. I couldn’t tell you how I picture myself, but it’s not this guy with the ball cap and goatee pumping gas.

The blonde woman behind the counter is new. In her late fifties, early sixties. While standing in the short line, I wonder for a moment how she got here. She’s alone and a little overwhelmed.

Good to be busy, I say. She smiles and rolls her eyes. Laughs. That’s what the boss says. For a moment we connect. She’s wearing a pin-striped shirt emblazoned with an Ultramar logo, asks if I want a ticket for tonight’s lottery and tells me that milk is on special. She has it down.

I pay for the gas. Notice her take a breath before saying hello to the next person. He nods and hands her his card without a word.

Day’s end

It’s hard to believe that after all the years, books and time spent poking silence and mindfulness, I still think I can stop the world. Manage it. Shape it to my desire. As though I have control over more than this moment.

This is what I think while washing my face at the end of another day. Water running over cupped hands. At least I smile at myself in the mirror. Tomorrow I’ll try again.

 

A Short History of Dancing on Frozen Beaver Ponds

In 1975 I went to college to study graphic design and 3 years later graduated with a major in sculpture instead. Despite my success as an art student and one of those most likely to succeed, it wasn’t long before I returned to Thunder Bay and started full-time at the paper mill.

I remember a colleague breaking his finger with a hammer so he could get time off. Another who drove a Corvette, sold drugs and had a handgun. There was a disturbingly quiet guy and more than one novelist. I made friends, worked Sundays on Ernie’s Crew for extra money, bought a truck and moved into a musty basement apartment. On Ernie’s Crew we crawled inside the machines, pressure sprayed and scrubbed them down with caustic cleaners. You were considered lucky to be there.

In the apartment, fishing line was stretched between floor and ceiling to isolate and define space. Sculpture. A rusty tricycle was suspended in the kitchen and large rocks were piled everywhere. Beer cases were stacked and smoke hung in the air. I would drive to Lake Superior after night shifts, walk up the shoreline and pile rocks. Mark the landscape. Scratch it. Lay down and doze off. Tell myself over and over that I was an artist and this was my path. I was lost. Biding time. Surviving the shock between school and the rest of my life.

In the summer of 79 a series of serendipitous meetings saw me quickly pack up in Thunder Bay and head to Yellowknife with my older cousin. J who saved me. Took me under his crow black wing. We didn’t stay long in the Territories and by the fall were living in an abandoned log cabin in northern Alberta. We found work as labourers and on the weekend I taught imagination workshops to kids in the back room of an art supply store. Friday night showers at the tavern. Minus 40 winter nights and a tin airtight, stoked and glowing cherry red. Starting the truck mornings with a tiger torch and length of stovepipe shoved under the oil pan. Breakfast at the Husky station. Playing chess by candlelight. Ram Dass and Alan Watts. B arrived before long in his blue Ford Custom with Brautigan and Tom Robbins.

Behind the cabin was a chain of beaver dams and ponds. At night I often walked over the hard packed snow and across the dams. When I stopped in the middle of a frozen pond, looked up and around, I would be overwhelmed with the urge to express myself. A breathing young man, would-be artist alone in a winter landscape. All silence. River of stars and Northern Lights shimmering. One foot lifted, touching the next step.

 

On the patio

It’s just warm enough. After a week of cloud and rain, I hesitate but opt for lunch on the patio. I’m not alone. A man and woman, old friends are discussing family, life and business. I’m not trying to listen but its hard not to pick things up. Wind across the parking lot is bending tall grass that’s gone wild along the fence.

My beer, veggie burger and fries arrive so I put aside the notebook. He would like to do business with her. They go back a long way. A possibility occurs and I pick the pencil back up. I’m working on a tagline for a campaign that has to be presented on Monday. It’s all coming together except those few simple words.

In a corner, neglected hosta are struggling through bark mulch and there’s a dwarf hedge close to death. It wasn’t like you and I, he says, ordering another beer. Their food arrives. You’re obviously very smart. Not really, she laughs. We’ve done alright.

I get caught up wondering about the difference between their words, bending grass and the sweep of clouds across the sun.

A couple of women arrive. One complains about the parking lot view. The conversation moves to her children. He’s ordered another beer and says something that startles me. Something about shining stars falling through the cracks. It sounds like a lyric or line of poetry. You were always so… he says as I’m leaving.