I’ve been accepted as a contributor an anthology about colonialism in Canada. My experience as a member of The Peel Project certainly brought about my “lightbulb moment”, as editor Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail calls it, an experience that bought aboriginal-settler relations into sharp focus for me. I’m thrilled to get the chance to contribute an essay to this anthology! More details soon.
I have a new book review in the Globe and Mail today, John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children.
As a fellow Vancouverite, I can tell you Vaillant also walks the walk; he was out on Burnaby Mountain in late November protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline. As a matter of fact, when I was introduced to his work, I misread his name as Valiant and thought: Well, that’s appropriate. His work is fearless and full of heart.
I’m not sure anyone really has fun at Christmas, or finds it relaxing or rejuvenating in any way. If you do, I salute you. If, like most of us, you find yourself exhausted, sick, stressed out and bitchy, here’s a little story for you. It’s a little bit soppy, but ’tis the season.
Years ago, when my cushy adult life fell apart for the first time, I had to get a job in a hurry. Since I’d been a huasfrau, with skills that included Stair-mastering, suntanning and mad valium consumption, I wasn’t terribly employable. Despite having been a barista for a million years, being out of the loop for a while mysteriously meant that I was no longer current enough to do a job that is now easier to perform than it was when I started out using the old manual espresso machines in my teens. But I needed to start making money in a hurry, so I took the first job I could get. Handing out Metro newspapers at 22nd Ave station from 6-10am, Monday to Friday.
This job actually pays a little more than minimum wage, and that’s because it has the potential to be absolutely soul-crushing. It’s cold, so incredibly cold to stand in the Vancouver rain for four hours every day, bare-handed because gloves will hinder your efficiency, while drops fall on you from the tracks above your head. At about 8:30, the temperature drops a few more degrees, and the layers you’ve piled on fall short. Shivering makes you look too pathetic, and people will choose to ignore you rather than take a paper, because the last thing they need on the way to their soul-crushing jobs is a guilt trip. You’re not allowed to stand inside the station. There is no bathroom for you to use, which you tell yourself is no big deal. But then one day you mis-calculate how much hot tea you can consume before work, and a full bladder makes your body divert heat away from your extremities, and yowza, cold becomes freezing. And while the cold is bad, it’s not as bad as the feeling that starts to build in you that you’ve been abandoned. That the people who employ you don’t care about your basic human needs. And that’s true, they don’t. They don’t have to.
Since I was about to get a divorce, loneliness was kind of a theme for me around this time. Being a Metro girl was a spectacularly lonely job. Every time the station filled up with people, their lonely commuter energy flooded the place. And there I was, getting in their way, shoving useless news in their faces that would soon line the skytrain floors like a bird cage. I was a part of the problem, part of a useless cycle. They were moving, had somewhere to go. I was standing still. My future was a total question mark, and fear of the unknown is the worst. I’m embarrassed to admit that being alive started to feel like a burden. Self-indulgent, #firstworldproblem, but true. But the only person this mini-implosion mattered to was me. What mattered to my bosses was numbers. Putting papers in peoples hands.
For some reason (endurance of the human spirit? Dumb luck?) the whole “catch more flies with honey then you do with vinegar” thing kicked in. I have a pretty smiley exterior, and I laugh easily, even when I’m unhappy, so for four hours I’d make eye contact and smile at people: the dudes on their way to Annacis island who smelled like sawdust, the giggling girls in scrubs, the women in towering high heels on their way to offices downtown. And goddamn it if it didn’t work. People took papers–they took multiples sometimes if I said I was having a slow day, because they wanted to help me. They wanted to help me. That still kind of blows my mind. I laughed and learned a few people’s names and used them. Soon I was spending my shifts smiling and laughing (not every day, I’m only human) and I realized that there was a feedback loop happening, instead of just pulling energy from an empty well, I was exchanging happiness with people. With strangers! Woah.
Such ridiculously obvious common sense, but when you’re in an emotional hole, common sense doesn’t come easy. It’s hard to be the one to give first. But shit, it’s totally worth it.
This morning, on day five of a seven day work week, exhausted, sick, and maybe a teensy bit lonely, I was looking for pep talks to give myself. And I remembered the Metro. I have a job I love now, but it still involves retail burn out. But, since Christmas isn’t fun for anybody, the people I’m selling books to are in an emotional hole themselves, and I’ll try to keep that in mind today. I’ll try to give as much positivity as I can, and have faith in the feedback loop. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always wine.
Merry Christmas, chumps. We’re going to be okay.
I reviewed John Ralston Saul’s latest book, The Comeback, for the Globe and Mail.
John Ralston Saul is a mighty thinker and a goddamn national treasure (imagine me saying that with a cigar between my teeth and a scotch in my fist). But if a national treasure pontificates, and the defensive public won’t listen, has he still made a sound?
If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t spoken much about the environmental or cultural implications of my trip, it’s because I don’t completely understand what they are yet. I was not an environmental warrior before I paddled the Peel. I was in denial. In the introduction to her latest book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein outlines the different cognitive strategies used by those of us who have been ignoring climate change. She nailed my approach, for sure. Maybe yours, too.
“Or we look but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving–but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that’s too much “bad energy” and will never work. And at first it may appear as if we are looking, because many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.”
PREACH. And although I saw incredible things and endured some hardship on the trip, I’m not suddenly an expert on the Peel or the people who make the Peel their home. I was a tourist, albeit a well-intentioned one, and that was obvious every single day of the trip. I’ve done this ass-backwards, dragged myself through a part of the world I was ambivalent about beforehand, hoping to connect with a culture I knew very little about, though perhaps more than my travel-mates. So now, as I write down memories, I’m adding the layers required to tell this story properly. And that can only be achieved by shutting up my opinion hole and doing some reading. I should also add that the environmental and cultural implications of my trip are inextricably linked, since the Nacho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and Tetlit Gwich’in people are connected to the Peel. The people and the river are not two separate entities.
So, in my latest research, I’ve been surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to learn how the FIrst Nations’ connection to their environment has been exploited by the neocolonialist narrative–that is, the social narrative that claims “hey, colonialism happened and really guys, it was for the best.” For this discovery, I can thank my travel-mates, and an unintentional gaffe that was made on the trip. It has to do with Disney, which should be no surprise to anyone. So read on, and keep in mind that this post is meant more as a sorting of ideas and impressions than a definitive voice. I am much obliged to Derek T. Buescher and Ken A. Ono for their article Civilized Colonialism: Pocahontas as Neocolonial Rhetoric. And I suggest you read it, since I am paraphrasing their work in this post.
Hoping to find myself in the landscape was naive. I realized that quickly, and now I feel like an idiot. Looking for myself in the canyon walls, emaciated black spruce, pock-marked beach stones–that was stupid. I’ve been here the whole time, inside my body. My poor broken body, with toes I can no longer feel, fingers that threaten to break off every time I stuff that fucking sleeping bag into its sack. I haven’t taken a shit in seven days, I just dig a hole and cry a little every morning. Twist and turn, stand up, walk around a little with three layers of pants around my ankles. Squat again. My body can’t even do the things it’s built for out here. “Squatting is the most natural way to go,” people keep telling me, solemn faced. God, I want to punch them when they say that. If you’ve grown up taking a shit on a porcelain throne in a Windexed, climate controlled room, then that’s the most natural way to go, right? Nature < Nurture.
So then, maybe I’m here not find myself, but to further define some fuzzy parts. Specifically, my Métis self, since that had been my original intention. But as the days pass it’s obvious that isn’t happening either, not the defining part. Doubt is happening though. Lots of doubt, mostly about whether I have the right to be here, using this trip for creative fuel, whether my puny voice will really convince anyone that they should save the Peel, and whether I have the right to consider my voice a Métis voice at all. Whether I’m mining the aboriginal niche market to try and convince anyone who might read the story that my blood line somehow makes me more of an authority on Canadian identity. I suspect Calder is counting on that–with the best of intentions of course–as my Métis-ness got brought up a lot in the film promo. Look at me, with my long, braided black hair and my tanned skin! And part Icelandic, too, truly a wild woman looking for a place to happen. What a joke. Forget finding a connection to the northern landscape. I can’t even relieve myself on it.
But doubt is useless–harmful really–and a trip like this doesn’t allow me much time or energy for useless pursuits. So when I finally catch my stride about ten days into the trip, I try to re-shape my anxieties into questions. Questions about concrete concerns, like, if I’m not aboriginal enough to call myself Métis, why does it make me so angry when my travel-mates sing songs from Disney’s Pocahontas over and over and over again? I’m sure they’re not riffing off the colonial implications of the film, not intentionally, anyway. But hang on a second here, do I understand the colonial implications of the film? Not really. Not enough to make an intelligent argument to my travel-mates about why I wished they would shut the fuck up. This is fine, me being out here, beating myself up for the cause, but without a proper education, I’m just some earnest schmuck using physical hardship and a tenuous blood link to position myself as a voice of authority on First Nations culture. What I needed… was the internet.
But I didn’t have the internet, and wouldn’t for another ten days, so I held my tongue on the whole “just around the riverbend” debacle. Wrote “Google colonial implications of Disney’s Pocahontas” in my journal.
What I love most about rivers is:
You can’t step in the same river twice
The water’s always changing, always flowing
But people, I guess, can’t live like that
We all must pay a price
To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
What’s around the riverbend
Waiting just around the riverbend
So I guess we know what was actually waiting just around the riverbend for North American indigenous people. War. Assimilation. Genocide. It does make these words seem hideously insensitive, whether or not the Disney version of this (already hopelessly unreliable) story was meant to be historically accurate. As Buescher and Ono point out, Pocahontas was the first time Disney had adapted a historical narrative into a movie.
Call it artistic licence or effective marketing, but Disney turned the 10- to 15-year-old Native American girl … Pocahontas, into a woman; turned the middle-aged man, John Smith, into a young man and their “supposed” meeting into a romance.
A romance between who, exactly? The buxom and forward-thinking Pocahontas, oppressed by her traditional father’s ideas about arranged marriage, chooses Smith–the kinder, gentler and even heroic version of colonial domination by the Europeans. The evil, selfish, destructive colonial was of course played by Governor Ratcliffe. This is kind of like Don Draper giving two advertising options options to a client, one shitty, and one better than shitty, but still not great.
Part 2 next week!
I spent most of the summer alternating between getting really pissed and running long distances. I can run a long way with a hangover. Seriously. Both endeavours were effective ways to escape reality. I was scared of what was to come on the Peel trip, and I was afraid of my new single life. I’d get so annoyed when people told me it was good for me to be single, how could anyone enjoy being alone? That sounded like such bullshit. Though I hadn’t particularly enjoyed being a wife, or a girlfriend-wife. So, uh, what else was there?
I’d just started to get it before we left for the Peel. Started to feel the crazy happiness of a night spent playing D&D and eating deep-fried stuff with new friends. Spending time with dudes I had no intention of sleeping with and really enjoying myself. Going out with girlfriends. I’d done these things before, of course, but now I felt more present, more me. Just me. And the bunny, of course. My heart. Besides her, I didn’t have to answer to anyone.
Then it was time to leave for the Peel. I packed up my room completely, since I was going to be moving to an upstairs room when I got home. So that precarious space I’d established for myself was disassembled. Not that I’d really bonded with it much anyway. I was so happy to have the kind of life that allowed me to pull up stakes and go on an adventure like this: no car, no mortgage, no kids. Keep it light enough to travel. That’s me.
Last night, my room finally felt like home, for about thirty seconds. I looked around at my stuff and thought, “this is where I live, just me,” and it was a nice concept. It was also such a foreign feeling, it staggered me a little and I had the sensation of seeing my room as if for the first time. As if I’d never been there (here) before. Then it started to feel like it was someone else’s room, but a nice room, somewhere I wanted to be. So I had to pull myself back, no, this is my space. This is where I live.
I think having a real bed helped bring on this feeling of homey-ness, that tiny futon I’ve been sleeping on is just ridiculous. Nobody past twelve looks at a single bed and thinks “home.” But I also have a real bookshelf now, with a small percentage of my books unpacked and on display. I have lamps, and side tables. And as soon as I can lug it up the stairs, I’ll have my desk here, too, a beautiful heavy old beast that Betsy Warland gave me. So yeah, I have some stuff. And a place to put it in. I pulled out some sage I’d been saving and smudged the room, cleared out the space for myself and tried to feel my feet on the ground. It’s obvious that really feeling home is going to be a process.
When I was married, I spent most of my time focused on home. Decorating, cleaning, baking bread from scratch, gardening, throwing dinner parties, painstakingly arranging kitchen table centrepieces. My kitchen table centrepieces were cray. Inuksuit made from tiny crab shells hot glued to beach glass and flat stones. Tealights and gerbera daisies and bottles of sand from the gobi desert. I had piles of treasures ready to be combined any way I chose: chunks of melted solder I rescued from somebody’s workshop, driftwood from Wickaninnish beach, jade frogs. And once the centrepiece was crafted, I would pull out the dishes to set and re-set the table. Try different combinations of bowls and salad plates, the bamboo placemats vs. the jute. I actually wove my own placemats, with a simple hand loom my dad made for me. Once I’d found a table setting I liked, I’d look through my cookbooks and decide on what kind of food would look good on the table. Then I’d think about who we should invite over. On the day of the dinner party, I would clean the house so throughly, I’d usually be exhausted by the time the guests arrived. Spend hours on hors d’oeuvres and dessert. This is how you adult, I thought. I had a teapot collection. A TEAPOT COLLECTION.
If this sounds like a Carleigh you can’t possibly fathom, don’t worry, I can’t fathom her, either. When I separated from my husband, and walked away with a few backpacks worth of stuff, I abandoned all concept of home, of being a homemaker. I left the jute placemats. I stopped preparing any meals that weren’t basically going to be eaten out of one bowl. I took one mug, and I’m drinking my coffee out of it right now. Although I did find a cozy bedroom in a house with some ladies with mad homemaking skillz, I usually felt more like their wayward cousin than a woman who had at one point spent hours cramming cumin-avocado foam into hollowed-out cherry tomatoes. The room had a built-in kind of bunkbed, which meant I could hold off a little longer on buying that one piece of furniture that kind of suggests settling. That, and my immediate transition into a relationship with a much younger guy pretty much cemented my status as an adult-in-denial for a few more years.
Before he and I moved in together, the bf and I went to Thailand for five months to live like nomads. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to move in with him when we returned, not because he wasn’t lovely, but because my faith in committed relationships was so shaken. But we tried it on for size. And although I pulled out the handprinted blankets and paper lanterns I’d salvaged from my past life and hung them up, begged and salvaged couches and dishes and cutlery and started cooking multi-pot meals, we never really settled down. We sublet a place for a few months, kind of a purgatory, then moved in to a basement suite with some crazy landlords upstairs, with a pitbull and an alarm system. This was around the time I agreed to do the Peel project. I wondered how I would ever live without him for a whole month! And then we ended things and I moved out, taking a small fraction of the stuff we had amassed. The tiny futon was the lightest and easiest to portage bed-like item we had, so I took that. After a few weeks of couch surfing, one carload of stuff took me to my new place, a spacious room in a rundown house in a sweet location. For the first time since I was twenty-one, I was single.
To be continued!
A little context here: The working title for the memoir is All These Imperfect Emotions. The visceral experience of being on the Peel defined this trip for me. I felt my way though, stomped and swore, and sometimes wept my way through this journey, and sometimes I laughed and sang, too. And that’s a big part of what I want to write about. One thing I find about admitting to someone that I had a less than pristine response to a situation, is that they tend to want to council me out of these feelings, or make sure I’m not beating myself up for having them. But mindfulness, real mindfulness, means accepting all the feels. And in order to write this book properly, I need to do just that. Come clean about when I was angry, and selfish, and petty. I forgive myself! You’re damn right I forgive myself, the Buddha himself would have had some choice words to describe this trip. It was hard. So in these blog posts, I’m going to explore the feels, for better or for worse, since talking with people about them seems to make me frustrated, but bottling them up is harmful. If a post is angry, then yes, I’m reliving some anger, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way I will ever view a memory. If the post is melodramatic and self-indulgent, then yeah. There was no shortage of self-pity on this trip. I need to relive it as well. And if it’s happy, well, enjoy. I hope you enjoy all the posts, because they all make up who I am. All these imperfect emotions.
Turns out it’s hard to come back from twenty days on the river, away from everything except eleven near strangers who became my friends. Family even, since, like family, we were stuck with each other and had to find ways around conflict. There was no avoiding text messages or using facebook statuses as a substitute for face to face contact, as I have been doing since I got home. After my friends had come around to have a look at me, to see if my journey had changed anything, many of them dropped out of the picture all together. As unlikely as it sounds, I have changed. I’ve lost some weight, built up strong arms and shoulders and a six pack, and I can’t feel my toes. Inside, I’m different, too. I still feel the difference, a potent cocktail of clarity and confidence, though the fog of city bullshit is seeping in, numbing me a little. Urban life is ridiculous. The number of things we do every day that don’t contribute in any way to our survival is staggering. And it’s pissing me off.
Two days after my return, I passed a woman on the street and I could smell her makeup. It wasn’t that she had a lot on, just your usual urban spackle. That’s how sharp my senses were, how unused to chemical smells I had become. As days passed on the river with minimal hygiene, people joked about how bad we smelled. On the contrary, I was amazed at how positively neutral we smelled, how that deep, skunky armpit stench just wasn’t present in my merino long johns, and my socks never got to that Gorgonzola stank. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. My hair achieved a certain level of oily-ness, and then seemed to recover. I’ve never been a germaphobe, but besides wishing I could have kept my hands (dirt mittens) a little cleaner, and maybe indulged in an occasional leg exfoliation, I didn’t mind being grubby. And then there was clothing, the concept of how I looked in it utterly removed, now used only for warmth. Its original intention!
And then there was food, only one item on the menu every meal, that I was so ravenously hungry for, it tasted crazy good. Sugar was an explosively delicious treat, not an addiction I sated at intervals, because I happened to be passing a Starbucks. Water gave life, directly. Drink water, keep functioning. The beautiful simplicity of this transaction I observed several times a day. I probably formed an emotional connection to my water bottle long before I could perceive any kind of oneness with the Peel. The Peel scared me, it was too big, too powerful, too indifferent. Drinking water was manageable, and the rewards were immediate.
And how about having a finite amount of stuff to worry about, every day. One pack’s worth. Yes, it encourages a kind of obsessive attachment to the stuff you do have, that a Buddhist monk might caution you against. But a person can only be so enlightened at times like that. One day early on, when the weather was still crisp and clear and very sunny, I shoved my awesome, mirrored cop sunglasses in my bag and broke them. Oh the horror. The thought of fifteen more days spent squinting into the sun, the additional drain on my comfort levels, already so very, very low. I joke now, but at the time, only exhaustion kept me from bursting into tears. There was this unwritten law that you didn’t lean on any of your travel-mates emotionally if you could avoid it, but I showed my sad sunglasses to everyone around me, hungry for empathy. Look at them! Broken!
“I can fix those,” Jordon said. “Let me get my tools.”
“Really?” I said. “REALLY?”
And just like that, he took my sunglasses away while I went to do an interview with Calder, which early in the trip felt basically like me saying stupid things with a serious face, and laughing sometimes. When the interview was done, Jordon returned my glasses, good as new except for a little rubber sleeve around one of the arms, and with one of those neck straps so they don’t fall off.
“I had an extra one,” he said.
Can I even express how happy I was? No. If you ever get so happy that you try to push your emotions through your body into another person because words are breathless and inadequate and frankly, a little tacky in a situation so sacred, that is how happy I was. I hugged him, and tried to push the happiness into him. I hope he felt it. It was a moment, a wonderful moment, centred around a thing, but beautiful because of an action. Jordon’s action.
And if I’d broken my glasses in the city? I’d have bought a new pair. There’s simplicity there, for sure. No beauty.
Beautiful simplicity is a concept I buy into. I aim for beautiful simplicity in my writing, and I live pretty simply, partly because I choose to, and partly because I’m broke. But the simplicity of being on the river brought me so many beautiful moments: drinking cold water, putting on dry socks, the feeling of sun on my flaky, flaky arms. And now that I’m back, every day is filled with so many distractions, I get further and further away from that happiness. I’m lucky that I get to write about the trip, that I get to relive these moments, that is a small consolation. But honestly, the constant shit storm we’re subjected to via urban living, so many things we can’t change but are encouraged to spend hours and hours thinking and worrying about, and then, because we’re stressed, so many ways to escape the worry. Things like pedicures, and facebook statuses, and alcohol. Fuck these things. I’m angry at them right now. I’m angry at the whole stupid cycle.