Thoughts from the Main Line

An old town on the main line, where the trains still whistle through, even if they don’t stop very often or very long any longer. On a walk through unfamiliar streets, I suddenly reach almost the edge of town just as the brash horn blasts into the stillness of the warm end-of-summer evening. The train roars through, its cars illuminated by the streetlights and the stars above. They’re loaded with shipping containers, double decker, the type you see stacked up on the docks of large harbours. Now they’re strung out in a long, seemingly never-ending line charging across the flat landscape. As they flash by, I can see that many read “China Shipping,” a tantalizing cue to their origins and their possible contents. I wonder what’s in them, where they’re bound, from what sort of factory did their contents originate. Whose were the hands who assembled them, and what sort of life did the work of producing goods for insatiable Western consumers permit? I imagine these containers sitting on the docks in Vancouver, being loaded up, precipitously making their way around and through the Rockies, bursting out into the prairie and making a run for it straight through to the bush and muskeg before being unloaded again…where? Toronto? Montreal? To be unloaded, their contents shuttled here and there, probably some loaded on semi-trailers to be brought back West and delivered to various and sundry merchants, from Dollaramas to Wal-Marts to the local hardware store in this very town.

I missed the start of the train, but bringing up the rear was the familiar red Canadian Pacific engine, along for the ride this time, but soon enough to be taking on the burden of leading the way. Canadian Pacific. A world of meaning in those two words strung together. The CPR, the CP Line, the Banff Springs Hotel, Rogers Pass, blasting through mountains with nitro-glycerine, brand new towns named by CP surveyors, now towns without any train at all, some of them dead or dying, or maybe even thriving. Ribbons of steel, the last spike at Craigellachie, grand dining cars. All of these random and seemingly unrelated images spring to mind – all united by the CPR.

The whole thing can’t last more than two minutes, and yet so many images and thoughts swirl through my mind. How the quiet of the evening, overly punctuated, like too many commas in a run-on sentence, with the discordant whining of vehicles on the Trans-Canada Highway, was so disturbed by the sudden assault of the train. How I enjoyed the onslaught, how I’ve always loved hearing and watching trains go about their work. How it’s rare, since down in my country, in the Gap, there are no trains anymore, just decaying tracks. I think about how many hands have been involved in the common spectacle unfolding in front of my eyes – from the manufacture of the mysterious contents inside those shipping containers, to the containers themselves, to the people who operated the machines to get them on a train in China, to a dockyards somewhere in Asia, to a ship bound across the Pacific, to be unloaded in Vancouver, probably, to load them onto this Canadian train, and so on and so forth. The engineers, too, who are guiding this train, and the men who laid this track all those years ago, some of them perhaps underpaid, undervalued workers from China. Then there are the workers who maintain those tracks now, and the ones operating the schedules to ensure there’s only one train on any one given stretch of track at any one particular time.

I think all of this, and even more, but most of all I am struck by something powerful in its ordinariness.

Why I Cannot Sleep

I believe I will never quite know,

Though I play at the edges of knowing,

truly I know

our part is not knowing.

– Mary Oliver, “Bone,” Why I Wake Early

 

It’s one of the hardest things for us humans to do – to accept that we can never know.

Truly.

Never know what is like to die, and what comes after

Never know what is inside another’s heart, soul, mind

Never know if we made the right choice, or not

Never know if we should speak up or stay silent

Never know if what we have done made any difference at all, to anyone

Never know if things could have been different, if only

Never know if tomorrow’s tomorrow will be better than today

Never know if any of it means anything at all.

And yet, that’s all there is to know. That we can’t know. That there is no real certainty. That life itself is a giant gamble, and we don’t even know the stakes, though the terror that claws at us from within hints that they might be higher than we ever imagined.

Or perhaps the fear is that there are no stakes, never were, and we’re just hurtling around on this planet imagining that we’re here for something other than just to live for a little while, and here we are wasting time wondering if it means anything.

It’s a Sunday night, when that familiar existential dread creeps in, and all the rustling of the desiccated autumn leaves and the golden glimmer of the harvest moon are reminding us of the tenuousness of everything. Soon those drying leaves will fall and even sooner the robust moon will have shrunk away to nothing.

But among these morose thoughts, almost despite my own melancholy leanings, I recognize something else, something that I can know. Whether or not I or anyone I love is here to witness it or not, those fallen leaves will give life to something. And new leaves will grow. And the moon will again appear, first as a delicate curvature of fine silver, and then, without fail, will grow proud and full again, whether the clouds cover her or not.

So I contradict myself, or perhaps return to prove the point. I know so little that it’s almost nothing, but what I do know is enough to recognize what is precious.

 

 

 

Here

When I consider…the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here?

– Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Standing on a hill with the land tumbling down before me and the immense sky seeming fit to swallow everything whole, it’s impossible not to feel small. But, in being alone here save for a few deer grazing nearby and an unidentifiable bird wheeling high above, I can’t help but feel large, too. I don’t know if it’s just the prairies that can make a person feel both infinitesimal and grandiose at the same time. I think of all the billions of people who are not here, never will be here, have never heard of here, and even if they had, likely would take no great pains to get themselves here. And I wonder, like Pascal and countless others since have, “who put me here?”

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to find a ghost

Andy — today I went looking for your ghost in Wood Mountain. Rounding the last curve on Highway 18 heading east, it appears suddenly. But without three elevators, without even one to announce itself, it must be content with an oversized sign.  A grand introduction, as if to challenge the assumptions of the uninitiated that this tiny place might be unimportant.

Wood Mountain – the overlarge sign proclaims, hinting at a grandeur not immediately obvious. But, with only a smidgen of curiosity, hints of its grandiosity can be found.

First – the land itself. It was one of those days, Andy, when the sky is weighted with scattered, puffy clouds, and the wind is strong enough (stronger than enough) to send them scudding hither and thither, so that their shadows sweep up and down the hills.         It’s the time of year when the grass is maturing, ripening into yellow. Even with the abundance of rain this year, the hills mellow to burnished gold. And on them the cattle work at their eternal grazing, as tatanka once did.

The town itself is quiet and I do not linger overlong. I find nothing of you there, except echoes of bits of remembered lines. The closed up Trail’s End with the tree growing right where people used to lounge and smoke and fistfight. The tree is big enough to suggest how long it’s been since a rye and Coke or a Pilsner were last served behind the wall it now leans against.

But just south, where the land drops down into heavily bushed coulee, revealing why the place is named what it is, there is more life, and more whispers that contain your name.     The park, with its boughs of browning poplar piled atop the stands – green a few weeks ago when they shaded spectators of the Sports. Yes, Andy, the rodeo continues, when so much else does not.

People are camping in their big trailers tucked awkwardly into niches carved out of the trees. There is a brand new swimming pool, its chlorinated water a startling blue contrast to the yellowing hills and dusty green trees surrounding it. I wonder idly at the volume of water contained within its concrete walls – such a precious thing that people paddle around in. Its newness, and the money it took to build it, seem boastful compared to the aging museum beside it.

That is where I finally find you, Andy. In the Rodeo Ranch Museum. They have some of your poems in stock this time – a glossy reprint with a stylized Sitting Bull on the cover. I’m very glad to see it, though I do prefer my own dogeared copy, the one I tracked down with some effort, a retired library book sold online. The Sitting Bull on my copy is faded, like an old photograph. It seems more fitting, somehow. But if people are going to discover your poetry behind a slick, updated cover, there’s no harm in that.

I find you in a few other places, too. But more poignantly, I find the folks who peopled your poems scattered throughout the place, their names as familiar as old friends. Like Vasile Tonita, and some of the other Romanians. I find intimate details about them, like their dates of birth and the number of children they had.

And outside the wind blew through the grass and for all that has changed, I guess that one thing at least has remained the same. I did not find your ghost in Wood Mountain today, Andy.

But I was only passing through. Perhaps if I stayed awhile, let the place seep into me and I into it for a time, I would find your ghost, or it would find me. Or maybe your ghost haunts some other place, Wood Mountain too full of restless spirits already to accommodate another one, even that of a poet.

 

 

 

Bill the Fiddler

Hot lunch hour on Scarth Street and I sat on the same quad of benches as the old  man fiddling. He played the same four tunes again and again. I wondered how long he’d been playing and how he learned. So I asked.

79 years, he’s been playing, since he was 4 years old. Where’s he from? Grand View Manitoba, just over the border from Yorkton. His  mother was born there, grandparents came in 1869. I asked from where, though I could guess the answer from his accent: Kyiv, Ukraine, he said proudly.

His grandfather worked for 12 cents an hour on the railroad. When he’d saved enough, he bought a homestead for 12 dollars: “it was all boosh, that country.”

His grandmother taught him to play, she played in the Symphony Orchestra back in Ukraine. He still has her violin, a Strad, he says, though he doesn’t bring that to Scarth Street of course. He brings the violin he bought at the junk shop, though it’s old, from 1604, he says.

He comes 2 or 3 times a week to Scarth Street, for it’s something to do, he says, since he’s been alone these 39 years and there’s no one to talk to at home but the walls, and they don’t answer.

Finally I asked his name: Bill. Shook his hand and tossed a loonie in his case, it bounced twice before settling into the worn velveteen beside a couple toonies, another loonie, and some scattered small change. It was all I had.

I don’t know if Bill’s tales were true or not, and it doesn’t matter. I hope he keeps on playing there on Scarth Street.

 

 

To a Wood Mountain Poet

Suknaski –

or can I call you Andy?

Not Andrew, but Andy as they still

call you back in Wood Mountain where

I first heard of you at the Ranch Rodeo Museum

But I could not buy your poetry there –

out of print.

Andy —

You were already a year dead by that time

though I didn’t know that of course,

knew nothing about you at all.

Just a name that I remembered.

It was still some time before I actually read your poems

and found I had known them all along, somehow.

Andy —

You were closer to all this history than I was,

could speak to them at the Trail’s End

where the blue smoke hung heavy and the

stream of bullshit flowed smooth.

But sprinkled in bullshit there is always truth

spoken outright, or to be gleaned.

Andy —

You could speak to Soparlo and Lecaine,

and the Rumanians with the Old Country still

on their tongues, and the Lakota who remembered

Sitting Bull as if they’d starved next to him themselves

that winter in 1879-80, when they had to eat the horses

and still starved anyway.

Suknaski —

 You could tell the stories of people and places

in a way I never can, for it was closer then, more immediate.

Now it recedes, further and further.

Wood Mountain is deader than you remember

though alive still.

I am left only with ghosts, summoned from your stanzas,

their whispers more faint with each passing year.

Your ghost knows I am poor, as I know it.

It takes nothing to forget

It was her birthday yesterday, she would have been 57. It’s hard to imagine that, since she wasn’t yet 40 when she died.

We used to go to the cemetery on her birthday, take flowers, sometimes roses from the farm since this is when they bloom.

But we didn’t this year. Busy with other things and to be honest I forgot until the day was nearly over. A day passes quickly these days.

And that’s just how easy it is to forget. As easy as remembering used to be. It takes something to remember. It takes nothing to forget.

The things that can break your heart

The things that can split your heart wide open.

Like the young man across from me on an airplane, headed west. Overheard snippets of conversation. The man, my age or a bit younger, being asked if he’s from Regina – the polite chit chat of a middle aged couple establishing roots with their seatmate (this happens more often on flights out west, I’ve noticed).

No, the young man is not from Regina. He’s from Cape Breton, and this he says with quiet conviction. And as he continues explaining why he’s out west (work, of course), the proof of his declaration is borne out in his accent, the rolling vowels, the touches of Gaelic which remain in the pronunciation, whether he speaks a word of it or not.

Time passes, the cabin quiets down. Snacks have been munched, drinks sipped, garbage collected, and at one point I glance over and notice that the young man from Cape Breton has fallen asleep, head against the window, hands clasped neatly on the seat tray in front of him. Something about it catches me, enough to write about it. The thought of how homesick he must be right now, how it was revealed in the quick and proud way he placed himself as not from somewhere, from somewhere else. How much he must dread chasing the sunset at 30,000 feet, knowing it takes him away. That perhaps his gently clasped hands would rather be put to work back home, on Cape Breton Island.

How different it feels to be going home. How much you can tell about someone, just from the way they fall asleep on an airplane, quietly taking no more space than needed, hands one on top of the other, as if in prayer. He must be polite, respectful. And what am I, the one sneaking furtive glances from across the aisle in my own chronic wakefulness? Writing on an airplane. But I find the image so striking I can’t help but look again.

Maybe I’m just channeling Alistair MacLeod. Or maybe I recognised something of myself in him, when I used to fly back east, away from home.

Whatever it is, it breaks my heart somehow.

 

 

The Gap is Treaty 4 Land

When I was a kid, we learned about Louis Riel. We learned that there used to be a lot of bison everywhere and that First Nations people from various groups hunted them using bows and arrows and buffalo jumps and buffalo pounds, and that they made use of every part of the animal, down to the sinew. We were taught that a lot of place names in Saskatchewan, including that of the province itself, came from First Nations words, though besides place names, I knew no words in any aboriginal language. We learned that they had signed treaties back a long time ago which meant that the white people got most of the land. We learned that some bad things had happened, like residential schools. I attended maybe one powwow somewhere at one point in my life. This is not to cast aspersions on my teachers, who were good teachers. They were doing their jobs, teaching what was required of them from the curriculum. So we had to learn about some aboriginal stuff, but we also had to learn about a bunch of other stuff, and that was just the way it was and I didn’t question it. Always a good student and a thoughtful person, I figured I was pretty well-informed. I even went through two university degrees and by the end of it all I thought I was pretty smart, I knew a lot of stuff, I was no dummy, and I was certainly not ignorant.

Or so I thought. Last year I applied for a job with a cultural organization, and during the interview I was asked how much experience I had working with aboriginal people. I knew the question was coming, and I was honest in my answer –  “none so far, but I’m interested in working with aboriginal communities.” It was the “right” thing to say, and it was also true. But I didn’t admit that I felt intimidated by the process, that maybe, it was easier to just go on mostly ignoring my aboriginal neighbours as I had done all my life to that point. It was pretty easy to do. There were no reserves within a couple hours of my home, I didn’t live in a city, and so I could go about my life without coming in contact with very many aboriginal people.

I got the job, and not long after I started, I attended a cultural event where I was supposed to talk about my role and the organization I worked for. I was supposed to talk about culture. It was the first time in my life that I was the only white person in a group, a fact of which I was acutely conscious. I was nervous that I would say something stupid, offend someone unwittingly, nervous that I would be regarded as the White Girl sashaying in with all my materials and my ready offers of “help.” I was smart enough to realize as soon as I arrived that I was not there to teach anyone anything. I was there to listen. And to learn.

I fell back on the comfortable, old “where are you from?” icebreaker to start connecting with people. I got answers like Beardy’s, Gordon’s, Standing Buffalo. I knew enough to know they were referring to reserves. But I had no idea where any of them were, and I didn’t ask. I realized, with that squirmy, embarrassed feeling – in fact, a burning-faced, ashamed feeling, that I had just stumbled into my own ignorance.

The map of Saskatchewan is “easy to draw, hard to pronounce!” as kitschy t-shirts proclaim with glee. It’s also hard to understand, just looking at it. Road maps are different from geological maps are different from the maps we carry around in our own heads. I realized in that moment that the Saskatchewan I knew was just one version of it, and a highly skewed version at that. I couldn’t place any reserves except for a few. They had no meaning in my map of Saskatchewan, and yet they meant everything. Their existence enabled my great-grandfathers to claim quarter-sections of land as their own. My home and everything connected with it, every single emotion tied to this particular patch of earth, owes its existence to those reserves and the treaties which had created them. And I knew so little, I this well-educated, self-aware, proudly intellectual person. I knew nothing at all.

That was the day I began my real education, the one I did not have access to in elementary and high school, the one I did not go looking for in university because at the time, it didn’t “interest” me. A year after my lesson in ignorance, I know that I have lessened it. I know better, I know more. I have faced uncomfortable truths and difficult realities. I have been welcomed, I have been taught. There is no going back, and I wouldn’t want to even if I could. There is only going forward, and this journey has only just begun.

treaty_map
Photo Credit: Office of the Treaty Commissioner

 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls to Action

Understanding Treaty Four

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things that Last

I believe only in things lasting forever.

– Andrew Suknaski

It’s like he knew me when he wrote that, me and all the others with that particular kind of restlessness that resists itself. I don’t want to be restless, changeable, mutable. I want to sit tight, burrow in, become part of something permanent. But my very nature rebels against it, especially when I try my hardest to make it so.

What holds me here? Is there anything that anchors me, anything beyond my own will, my own deep-seated conviction that here is where I must be? Even when I do not feel as “here” as I want to, as I used to.

Of course, fickle beings we are, and me as fickle as the rest, can change our minds, can get caught up in flights of fancy which soon depart, borne away by practical words carried on west winds. Or, our fancies are dulled by the routine of getting by, of doing what’s got to be done, or so we’re told, tell ourselves, believe in lieu of the alternative(s).

This land, steady and knowing beneath me, this blanket of blackest night hanging over me, hold a wisdom I want to learn, but they do not give it up easily. I ask what I should I do, where I should go, if I should stay. Not even the omnipresent wind stirs in reply.

Perhaps it’s not the wind’s job, nor the stars, nor the land’s itself to direct my course. Maybe I am not a sparrow in a stormy night, batted about and at the mercy of some force greater than myself. It is a thought both liberating and terrifying.

And what if some energy from some distant place is stirring within me, calling for me?  To heed it, or not?

Is it enough to be tethered, rather than anchored?

For me, nothing is ever enough.

 I’m still here and what has not changed is
my inability to change
move on
though I’m forever moving on.

– Andrew Suknaski

Dead tree
kristin catherwood|fromthegap.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding places in between