Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Coyote jubilation


Photo by Gerald Romanchuk
Last night I was out in my yard digging in the garden around dusk when suddenly from the east, sounding very close, a band of coyotes sent up a wild howling, yipping, barking, crescendoing and decrescendoing. It went on for several minutes. My neighbour came out on her step to listen. "Crazy," she said. "They sound so close."
It was thrilling, a bit scary, carrying some primal, irrational sense of threat. When I heard the coyotes' frenzied voices, something rang in me, as it always does when I hear them, or see them loping down the road. The cry of jubilation, victory. Then I wondered if that was right. Maybe it was mourning. Wild grief, not jubilation at all. I have no way of knowing which it was. Probably neither.

How many times in my life have I misinterpreted what I've heard? One recent instance brought home to me how wrong I can be in my perceptions. I was camping at a lake I love, a place I'm comfortable going alone. It was a weekday morning; the campground was quiet. I was drinking my tea, listening to the wind that sometimes moves through the tops of the trees but doesn't touch the lower branches. A trailer pulled into the campsite next to me. We're separated by trees and a pretty good distance, but I'm not the most gregarious camper. I'm not quite on the level on Sartre with his "hell is other people," but I'm close. The way that my mind becomes hijacked by others' impressions, the stress of that processing, is the reason that I go camping alone in the first place. So I always have mixed feelings when others arrive.

After a while I heard a woman's voice come through the trees from their campsite. She carried on an unbroken stream of chatter. Once in a while I heard another voice interrupt. But then she went on. I tried to ignore it. Most people are more sociable than me, I realize. Clearly, she had something to get off her chest. But it started to irritate me. I went down to the lake. When I came back a couple of hours later, I was surprised to hear her still droning on and on. I wondered what she could have so much to talk about. I wondered why she didn't shut up for awhile and let me and the people around her enjoy the peace and quiet.

This went on all day long -- after I went kayaking and stood at the picnic table making my supper; as I built my campfire for the evening. Then the wind changed. I began to hear her voice much more clearly, and another voice, a young girl. I heard the woman say, "Maybe that's enough for today. I can read more tomorrow. We'll be able to start on the other book. Did you bring it?" And I realized that what I'd been irritated by all day long was the sound of a woman reading to her granddaughter.

I doubt I'm the only one who has spent years, literally years, rehashing things that have incredible power over me, the power to make me blush, or the power to make my vision blur, my heart thunder in shame. Shame seems to be one of my most stubborn emotions. But I'm beginning to realize, at the age of fifty-six, that it's just possible that these things I've perceived in certain ways are wrong, that I got them wrong at the time and that I've continued to feed the flames of my wrong perceptions every time I call up the memories. My perceptions are not reality. That's what I'm learning.

The Urban Coyote Project says that coyotes have more than eleven vocalizations whose meanings are complex. One coyote can sound like many more, because of the way they change the pitch. Normally, I don't spend a lot of time wondering what the sound means. I appreciate the mystery. I would like to be able to bring that spirit to my more mundane experiences, too.

This is a beautiful short recording of coyote voices by Rocky Raybell on the Colville Indian Reservation, in Washington State. He calls it Coyote Symphony.





Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Road Past Libau part II

Mary, my grandma, Neil and me
with pump and bunkhouse in background, early 70s.
When we were near the turn that my sister, Mary, and I thought was the road to our old farm, I phoned my brother Neil on my cell phone and asked him to guide us. His memory for the navigational details was better than mine or Mary's. That sounds like it, he said. Turn left. So I'm almost sure we'd found the right place. The road seemed exactly true to my memory; I remembered how when we walked in, there was a sense of mystery about what lay beyond the bend.

But when we drove onto the property where our house and barn and outbuildings had been, everything seemed out of place. Some things were familiar: the thick woods, the soft powdery soil, even the sky, a scrubbed clean blue. But it was as if the rest of it had been bulldozed away. How many years had it been? Forty, we realized with shock. How much could change in forty years? How much could we have remembered wrong?

The road at the curve.
Mary and I remember painting the bunkhouse one weekend. We leaned the ladder up on one side of the bunkhouse and climbed onto the roof to paint the trim. It was morning, coolish. By noon the sun was high, and the side of the roof with the ladder was too hot to walk on. The other side was too far down to jump. We were stranded up there.

We looked for that bunkhouse. There were buildings like it, but none had the attic trapdoor in exactly the same place, the door we'd unhooked so that we could swing down off the roof and lower ourselves to the ground.

You begin to wonder if it's the actual place that's wrong, or the memory of it. How many times have I told an old familiar family story, only to have one of my sisters, or my brother, say, "That wasn't you, that was me." The place now, the farm, the outbuildings and the way it felt at night when the quiet was so deep my own heart beating was the loudest thing in my ears, have taken on new shapes in my memory, as they've become the setting for my new novel, The Burned House (originally Sing a Worried Song).

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Coffee Italian style

Coffee machine in a gas station on the way to Marco Polo airport
Although I'm not normally a coffee drinker, I've been longing for the caffe macchiato I had in Italy. I recently read an article about why we should start drinking coffee like Italians do. Instead of filling 16 or 20 ounce paper cups, carting them out to our cars or bus stops or shopping malls or desks and sucking on them mindlessly for half an hour, the article suggests North Americans try drinking coffee Italian-style: from a small white ceramic cup, standing up at a counter and downed in a few quick sips. While at first glance, it might seem like the ritual of this quick hit of coffee is a bit like swallowing a couple of aspirin, I've come to believe that it actually results in much more of a break than the North American style Starbucks march (or the Canadian Tim Hortons drive-through routine.)

When I was drinking coffee in Italy, I stood at a usually crowded counter with my tiny, perfectly brewed caffe macchiato (which I learned means "stained coffee," which is why in Italy I was told to make sure I said caffe first, not just "macchiato") and I drank coffee. I didn't check my email or negotiate traffic, walk down the street or teach a class, or anything else, really, except maybe to exchange a few words with the person I was standing with. Drinking the creamy, smooth, laced with slight bitterness coffee gave me this precious inward moment. Then I moved on. The day went on. But during my brief time in Italy, I looked forward to having that moment each afternoon.

When we were leaving Italy, our hosts stopped at a gas station on the way to the airport to get a coffee. Used to gas station coffee in North America, a watery brown and tasteless liquid warmed in a plastic carafe and dispensed into a styrofoam cup, then stirred with a plastic stick, I was surprised to see the gleaming espresso machine behind the counter, kept running by beleaguered baristas in uniforms who shoved the little ceramic cups across the counter to people in a hurry, like in gas stations everywhere. They did have disposal cups in this gas station. Because we were on the way to the airport, I took my caffe macchiato to go.

I realized my mistake immediately. First of all, I was embarrassed by how pointless and wasteful it was to take a paper cup to drink a coffee that would be gone in about three sips. But also, the moment I'd had standing and savouring my little coffee was missing.

From https://oliveonblonde.wordpress.com/tag/plastic/
Somehow the waste of the paper cup and the waste of the experience are linked in my mind. Why are we North Americans so good at taking a good thing and "improving" it to the point of ruining it? Why do we take a three or four ounce cup and turn it into twenty? And why do we always seem to lead the way in wastefulness? In Italy, I never saw the overflowing garbage bins outside of cafes that are such a common daily sight in communities across Canada and the US. An event like the Festivaletteratura that I was part of in Mantua didn't result, as it would in Canada, in streams of barely used, discarded paper and plastic food containers trailing down the sidewalks.

You might think that borrowing this Italian idea of coffee drinking, and at the same time eliminating mountains of waste, would be a no-brainer. Sadly, instead, there's a new ban on bans in Michigan, prohibiting local governments from banning or regulating the use of plastic containers.