Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Gift Not Given

Many, many years ago, I hiked the West Coast Trail. The West Coast Trail, famous among hikers, is a remote, rugged, 75 kilometer trail in the Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, along the Pacific Ocean. There are cliffs that backpackers climb using ladders, rivers and creeks that need to be forded or crossed using a cable car, and sections of headland that can be bypassed by picking your way along the ocean's edge (after consulting tide tables so you don't get trapped by an incoming tide).

To accomplish the trip, my partner and I drove to Port Alberni, the closest community to the north access point of the trail. We left our car and everything but our backpacks there and took the train - the historic E&N Railway - south to Victoria. From Victoria, we hitchhiked along the Sooke highway southwest to Port Renfrew, the small community at the south access point to the trail. (People still hitchhiked in those days.)

We had researched the trip beforehand and purchased a West Coast Trail hiking book. This was thirty years ago, before the days of the world wide web. Our materials told us that the trip typically took seven days in total. We carried dried provisions for eight days, first aid supplies (there are no roads or settlements along the trail), clothing to keep us warm, and rain capes that covered us as well as our backpacks. It can be very rainy and cool on the coast, even in summer, and wet clothing and sleeping bags could make the trip miserable.

If my memory serves me right, on the morning of the third day, we left our camp at Carmanah Point, and headed to the Cheewhat River, which we crossed by cable car. We had already hiked some of the most rugged parts of the trail and I was stiff and sore. As well, my left hip was bothering me, no doubt because I was carrying a pack that was too heavy for my size and weight.

We were headed for the Nitinat Narrows. This is a very short tidal river or narrows that joins Nitinat Lake and the Pacific ocean. It is swift, wide and deep. The only way to get across was to wait for someone from the Nitinat (Ditidaht) First Nation to come by and ferry you across in their boat. Moreover, the crossing can only be made at or close to slack tide, as when the tide is rushing in or out through the narrows, the current is extreme and there are rapids.

After crossing the Cheewhat River, my partner was anxious to make it to the Nitinat Narrows so that we could be ferried across before the tide came in. Although hikers usually stay close their partners, especially in such a remote area, on this occasion he rushed ahead leaving me alone in the forest.

This part of the trail cut inland, away from the ocean. It was heavily treed and the ground was boggy. I was grateful for the long sections of boardwalk that enabled me to not have to walk through the mud. Although it had been raining earlier, the rain had stopped and the forest very quiet. All I could hear was the sound of my feet and my own breathing. My partner was nowhere to be seen.

I was walking along, trying to keep up a good pace but very tired and sore, when suddenly I had the eerie feeling that I was not alone. I stopped and looked around, thinking there might be a bear, but I saw and heard nothing. This is a wild remote area, and there were and still are grizzly bears and cougars in the park. I arranged my rain poncho over my pack to try to look as big as possible, and continued on, whistling and singing to make noise. I walked quickly and with confidence, trying not to limp, even though my hip was aching. If there was a bear nearby, I did not want to surprise it, and if there was a cougar stalking me, I wanted to look big and capable of defending myself (although, in fact, I was short and slight and had nothing to defend myself with except a stick that I had picked up).

I went along, perhaps another kilometer, still feeling as though something was watching me. Then, finally, I came over a ridge and was at the Nitinat Narrows, and rejoined my partner who was waiting there. It was a relief to take off the pack, stow the poncho, and rest, knowing that an animal (if there was one, and not just my imagination working overtime) would be less likely to attack two of us.

A little while later, two Nitinat men came along in their small motor boat. We paid them twenty dollars to ferry us across, and climbed into the boat. They had been out crabbing, and there were two plastic garbage cans, each half full of live crabs. It was no longer slack tide. The tide was starting to rush in and the boat engine roared as it strained against the current as we crossed the river. I sat quietly in the boat, feeling shy and awkward. As we came across into quieter waters, one of the men looked at me and said, "I like that sweater." He paused, then he said again, "Yeah, I like that sweater."

I remember the sweater that I was wearing. It was a heavy wool sweater (these were the days before technical wear and fleece). The main body of the sweater was a light brown colour with black "suspenders" with big blue buttons knitted into the pattern, and black and yellow trim on the arms and at the bottom of the sweater. I had bought it in a secondhand store, where I bought many of my clothes during this poverty-stricken time of my life. I had chosen it for this trip because wool is warm even when wet.

I wanted to give my sweater to the Nitinat man. He liked it, and I knew that he wanted it. I almost did give it to him, but I did not because we still had half of the hike ahead of us, and I did not have another warm sweater to wear.

Looking back, I wish that I had given the sweater to him. Now I understand the important meaning that gifts hold for people from many First Nations cultures. A gift from the heart would have meant much more than that twenty bucks. I was a young white woman and he was a stranger, and yet it would have been the right thing to do to have given him the sweater. As it turned out, the weather became warm and sunny after we left Nitinat Narrows and I did not need to wear the sweater for the rest of the hike.

By the way, when we got back to civilization a few days later, we heard the news that a cougar had come out of the forests near Sooke and attacked a small girl just a week before. The parents had managed to beat off the cougar and rescue the child. This occurred not that many miles away from the section of trail between Cheewhat river and Nitinat River. I have often wondered whether that same cougar had been stalking me.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Symbolic Acts

Today I have been thinking about the different ways in which a person can characterize their life. The narrative one constructs - that is, the story about your life that you tell - not only shapes and gives meaning to the past and presents a certain version of you to the world, but also gives force to the future.

For example, when I look back, my life appears to have distinct periods that have been shaped by two big factors: where I lived, and the job that I had. The geographic place is important because it relates to or stands for so many other things, such as the people in that place that I spent time with, my daily activities, and my interests and leisure pursuits. The affordances of a place allow or constrain what a person does. When I lived in a snowy place with a ski hill nearby, I skied a lot more than when I lived on the prairies. I pursued art more avidly when I lived in towns with a well- developed art community, and I gardened more when I lived in a house with a suitable yard.

Work takes up close to one third of my waking hours. Therefore much of what I actually do each day, my interactions with people, and my goals and accomplishments are deeply embedded in my work. My work is not just what I do for money. It is very much aligned with my life work and my identity. When I think about striving to have a good life, having good work that I care about certainly is an important part, for me.

Another way of thinking about a life, my life, is by life stage, such as early childhood, being a mother of young children, my first marriage, and so on. Yet another way is by thinking of the network of relationships, and how that network has shifted and expanded at various points in time. Every year when I make a valiant and usually only partly successful attempt to send out Christmas cards, I dig out old Christmas card lists from years past. Looking at those lists and flipping through my ancient address book (yes, it's black, and it hasn't yet been completely superseded by electronic contact lists) always makes me feel sad. So many people that I have moved far away from or lost touch with!

There are themes or strands within these broader kinds of life categories. For example, I could think about my various networks of work colleagues over time. Or, recently, I was thinking of the many ways in which my life has been touched by mental illness, whether of family members, friends, work colleagues, or community members.

Tonight, I was especially thinking about symbolic acts that have been highly significant in my life. Perhaps I am unusually introspective, but throughout my life, I always have been alert to key moments of insight, and have ruminated on these "aha" moments and tried to remember the lessons that have come out of them. Similarly, at life turning points, I often have initiated a symbolic act or ceremony to mark the change or decision. Some of these are the ceremonies common to our most of us in this society: those that accompany births, graduations, weddings, and deaths.

As important as these are, it was the smaller but deeply meaningful personal symbolic acts that I was thinking about. Some I only recognized as important afterwards, and others were intentional. As an example, when I was thirteen, I decided that I was no longer a child. As a child I had a favourite climbing tree. I would often stop and climb this tree on my way home from school or my friend's house. I would sit on a branch way up high in the tree and look down an the world and think about things. At age thirteen, I went to the tree and climbed it one last time. I climbed the tree to say good-bye to my childhood, and good-bye to the tree. I told myself that it would be the last time that I would ever climb that tree because I was leaving such childish things behind. I created this symbolic act as a way to mark my transition to adolescence.

Another example of a symbolic act occurred after the death of my first husband. We had a long rectangular dining room table that we used when guests came over. Typically, he would sit at the head of the table, and I would sit on his left, near the door to the kitchen. For some time, I left that seat at one end of the table empty and continued to sit in my usual spot. And then, at some point in time, I moved into that seat at the head of the table. I did so consciously. I thought: "I am the head of my family, and this is my family, and we will have a good life as a family." It was an act of agency. It shaped my future and my way of thinking about myself and my role as a parent.

As I sat in the crowded airport under dingy fluorescent lights tonight waiting for my flight, I pulled out a pencil and piece of paper and made a list of personal symbolic acts. I looked at my list and thought of the meaning represented by each act, and could see certain themes that crossed over time. The list of symbolic acts represents another kind of framework that characterizes my life.

By the way, I went back to that tree once more when I was visiting my home town in my mid-twenties and climbed it again. I climbed it to say to my thirteen-year-old self: "No, you don't have to give up your childhood passions. Hold on to them. You are never too old for life."

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Coming Home

We have just returned from travelling. We made a car trip to visit friends and family for Christmas and New Years. We put 4000 kilometers on the odometer and drove over mountains and through snow storms (well, only a couple of little ones). We braved minus twenty C. temperatures.

It was a wonderful vacation. We feasted, skied (both alpine and cross-country), partied, shopped, watched movies, soaked in the hot tub, played crib, and read novels. We crossed two provinces and visited in four different cities/towns. However, the thing that made the trip wonderful was seeing our dear friends and our children, grandchildren, and other dearly loved family members. It was so good to spend time visiting people we care about and yet who live so far away. My only regret is that we didn't manage to see everyone, but there is only so much that you can pack into a two-week road trip. (Next time...)

We returned home this evening just as it was getting dark. Today's leg of the journey was 650 kilometers, and we drove it essentially nonstop, only pausing briefly for bathroom breaks and to get gas. Our bodies were vibrating and our ears buzzing as we pulled into the driveway after two days of driving from the home of our friends.

As we were driving back, I was already missing everyone, and thinking nostalgically of the fun that we had had, and how the days had zipped by so fast. It didn't seem all that great to be going home, and that the holiday was over. I was thinking grumpily that it was a bad idea to be living so far away from the people we care about. And yet, boy oh boy, when we pulled in and stepped through the door, home sure looked good.

We like our home and our city. We are happy to be together and we have a happy life here. Tomorrow we will pick up our pets from pet jail (the kennel) and home will seem even better.

What is the first thing that you do when you arrive home after a longish absence? Unpack the car, read the mail, do the laundry, buy groceries? Well yes, I do those things too. But usually the very first thing I do is walk around the house and yard, looking at my home. "I'm back, house." Back home, back to my life and usual pattern of activities. Back in this place.

Next, I typically read the mail, listen to the phone messages, unpack the car, put on a load of laundry, and then make a home-cooked meal out of whatever I can scratch together from the bare cupboards and freezer. After two weeks of delicious holiday meals, it is still very satisfying to cook a dinner and sit down together to eat it. (For the record, tonight I made made king mackerel with a korma sauce, baked yams, baby potatoes, and broccoli.)

The other rather strange thing I often do upon returning home is clean the fridge. The refrigerator is never so empty as when we have been away for a few weeks, and grubbiness is more apparent when the shelves are bare. Coming home, I see everything with fresh eyes, and am more apt to notice things that are messy or dirty. Although I am not a terrific housekeeper, on returning home after being away I am always seized with a zest to clean and tidy things (which unfortunately doesn't last long). And in any case, it just seems to make sense to clean the fridge before going out and buying a bunch of groceries to fill it up. So after dinner tonight, that is what I did. Tomorrow, we'll go get the pets, and I will tackle the laundry, the bills, and buying groceries.

Then, hi ho, hi ho, it's back to work I go.