Category Archives: Journeys

Stillness, Motion

I was born under a mutable sign, meaning that I am comfortable with motion, that I can “go with the flow,” that I am mercurial, adaptable, changeable. I know it’s true, but I long for the will to tolerate stillness. I wish I could just stay where I am and be content with it. Going, moving elsewhere is an exhausting thought. I dread it every time, even when it’s just for an overnight. Because it always disturbs the little nest, the cocoon I’ve built myself over the course of hours, days, weeks. Every time I leave, it’s like I’ve never lived anywhere but in the limbo between here and there. It upsets equilibrium, it tires me out, it makes me feel alive. It’s always going to be who I am. If it’s not, something is wrong. Because it’s in the motion that I find my inner stillness. But sometimes I think I prefer the inner turmoil and chaos of just staying still in one place. It never lasts long. Our natures will have their way, whether we fight or not.

What’s Lost

shugmanitou/a humble prayer to you for strength and light/to illuminate the dark faces of the lost gods among these southern hills

– Andrew Suknaski, “Sandia Man”

They never tell you about what you’re going to lose when you go away, when you get educated, when you go beyond the horizon that’s sheltered your entire life. They talk about what you will gain, what you will learn, how much you will grow. And it’s all true. But they never talk about loss, about what you can never get back once you’ve left it behind.

They never say, “once you leave this place, you will come back and know it better than ever before. But you will never wholly belong to it the way you once did. You will never feel completely at ease here again. You will never quite fit in, you will never be able to unlearn what you’ve learned, you’ll never reclaim the innocence that sheltered and protected you.”

Would I take it back? Never. Of course not. It’s better that I didn’t know what I would lose, for that knowledge would have overwhelmed the bits of courage that propelled me. I had enough inklings and fears as it was.

The more I learn, the less I know. But this I do know for sure: everything costs.

leaving home and shugmanitou/ the cry of the hounds/ drawing nearer

– Suknaski, “Leaving Home”

 

 

 

 

 

Mastery, and Truth

For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.

                                                                          – Victor E. Frankl

I’ll never forget sitting in that crowded, humid pub on Water Street in St. John’s, open mic, a Friday probably, wintertime, and a young man done up dapper in a brown suit stepped up, opened his mouth, and sang.

Shamus leaned over to me and said, “that’s a real singer” with the conviction that only a folklorist of Gaelic lineage who grew up in the post-industrial world of Nova Scotia can have. I was new in town, new to the island, to folklore, to this pub, felt like I was new to everything, and I barely knew Shamus, a fellow folklorist who just happened to be sitting next to me.

And I remember how the hair stood up on my arms, not only because of the pure voice of the singer proving Shamus right, but because of the truth in Shamus’ statement, and his recognition of the mastery possessed by that singer. I remember the statement more than the song – like so many things ephemeral, the song rushed into me, filled me up, then departed, leaving me with only the memory of having experienced something grand, no memory of the thing itself. But I remember Shamus’ words, and the way he said them, and the expression on his face as he said that true thing.

Now I use that term when I read something so true, so full of mastery, so perfectly written, that it hurts the heart. I say it or think it to myself when I read and re-read clumps of certain words strung together by the likes of Alistair MacLeod or Richard Yates or Sharon Butala or Irène Némirovsky. That’s a real writer.

When I see a rancher settle himself in the saddle with practised and unconscious ease – that’s a real cowboy. When I see my dad duck his hand into the stream of grain flowing from the back of a truck to catch a sample – that’s a real farmer. When I see my friend lean over a tiny piece of stone with some fine-pointed tool and his eyes squint and glaze over and throw sparks altogether at once – that’s a real artist.

There are lots of good singers, lots of good farmers, lots of people good at things, but not all of them are “real” in the way Shamus meant it that night. You can perfect a craft, be a brilliant writer,  a competent artist, a skilled artisan, an experienced farmer, rancher, coal miner, professor, tailor, sailor, butcher, baker or candlestick maker, but still not reach the one step further to mastery, which comes only once you’ve managed to tap in to the vein of truth, the depth of knowing that goes beyond the immediately knowable. It only comes once you’ve realised the power in submitting to something greater than yourself. The knowing that no matter how much you practise, or try to perfect, that there’s something beyond you, out of reach, that you must submit to. Trust in and submit to.

The truth.

 

 

All of a Sudden, This. (Wroxton)

Driving on an unfamiliar road far from the Gap, yet still very much in Saskatchewan (though drifting close to Manitoba). Different landscape, different cultures who call it home, different cues to those cultures. A rich, gently undulating landscape. The land had a feeling of weight to it. Farms nestled in stands of natural aspen and birch. An abundance of water in creeks, sloughs, full-fledged rivers (the Swan and the Assiniboine) And then all of a sudden, this. A church in a community that looks to be in its death throes. But I know better than to think all tiny towns are dying. They are as full of life as the people who choose to live there still. And yet this church, this church, as well as the grain elevator peeping over its shoulder, might be nearing the end. It stands straight now, but what is its future?

Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.

Away and Back

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus…

– T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

The Going

It is in airplanes that I have had some of the most profound moments of my life. Up in the ether, suspended in time and space and yet hurtling through it, it is like I barely exist. The ultimate in-between, far removed from the groundedness of my usual humanity. Lost hours, breathing false air, merely existing in the gap between Heaven and Earth. It is an uneasy place to be. And yet in this strangeness I have had moments of intense clarity. When we burst through the clouds and seem to almost touch the sun, so pure is its light that tears rise unbidden. It is a feeling almost of immortality, as if humanity has been left far below and only the soul resides up here. Inevitably, a baby begins to fuss at these moments and my irritation reminds me I am only too human. Any shudders, any bits of turbulence throw my mortality into sharp focus – I am at the mercy of things I cannot control. Up here in this in-between space, a vulnerable vessel of blood and bone, dependent upon the whims of mechanics and human hands in a mysterious cockpit and the will of the gods, up here untethered in this space and yet firmly buckled in by order of the seatbelt sign, my soul seems to find its way.

The Waiting

Pearson International Airport, as far from the prairies as one can get, is as familiar to me as the streets of an oft-visited city. I drink a pot of tea, which I will regret once I am airborne, and I think, and suddenly, I write.

Like lovers need absence to sustain their love longtermm, sometimes/always my relationship to my home land is reinvigorated by sojourns abroad. In my everyday life, I never forget my love of the land, but I can take its grandeur for granted, I can become complacent in my worship of it. Many moons have passed (I’ve watched them all) since I have seriously written anything. Once my thesis was wrested from me, I felt depleted totally. I had many thoughts, many ideas, but felt no complusion, from within or from without, to write anything beyond what was required of me.

Then I packed my bags and got on a plane and within hours of leaving the prairies behind, letting the plains fall away, after just a few pages of a stimulating book (The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane), I felt it. The urge. My hand, out-of-practice, could hardly keep up to my mind as I scribbled.

it is the leaving that does it, and the anticipation of the return. Saskatchewan was never so beautiful, never so romantic, as it was in m imagination during the long months of self-imposed exile in Newfoundland. And here I am, on my way back to the Atlantic coast, and suddenly I can write again.

The Coming Back

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

As the plane makes its final, blessed descent to the waiting prairie below, I can tell that it has not rained. There is a certain dullness to the green grass, the blocks of fields should be further advanced. I can tell by the quality of the great plumes of dust following vehicles down gravel roads. There’s a thickness to it I can see even from hundreds of feet above. It is dry. I am home.

So happy to be home, and yet already daydreaming about my next sojourn “away”, about the destinations I hope to visit. Both dreading and desperately anticipating it, I plan my next arc through the skies. For as earthy as I am, the ground cannot hold me.

And so I go and go again and always return, never the same as when I left. But once returned, it is like I get to rediscover this place all over again. Even as the other place still clings to my skin, still sits prominently in my memory, the prairie wind starts to slough it away. Its insistence reminds me that this is where I belong, that I go away only so that I can come back.

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

                                          – T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

Voyagers

Away and Back

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus…

                         – T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

The Going

It is in airplanes that I have had some of the most profound moments of my life. Up in the ether, suspended in time and space and yet hurtling through it, it is like I barely exist. The ultimate in-between, far removed from the groundedness of my usual humanity. Lost hours, breathing false air, merely existing in the gap between Heaven and Earth. It is an uneasy place to be. And yet in this strangeness I have had moments of intense clarity. When we burst through the clouds and seem to almost touch the sun, so pure is its light that tears rise unbidden. It is a feeling almost of immortality, as if humanity has been left far below and only the soul resides up here. Inevitably, a baby begins to fuss at these moments and my irritation reminds me I am only too human. Any shudders, any bits of turbulence throw my mortality into sharp focus – I am at the mercy of things I cannot control. Up here in this in-between space, a vulnerable vessel of blood and bone, dependent upon the whims of mechanics and human hands in a mysterious cockpit and the will of the gods, up here untethered in this space and yet firmly buckled in by order of the seatbelt sign, my soul seems to find its way.

The Waiting

Pearson International Airport, as far from the prairies as one can get, is as familiar to me as the streets of an oft-visited city. I drink a pot of tea, which I will regret once I am airborne, and I think, and suddenly, I write.

Like lovers need absence to sustain their love longtermm, sometimes/always my relationship to my home land is reinvigorated by sojourns abroad. In my everyday life, I never forget my love of the land, but I can take its grandeur for granted, I can become complacent in my worship of it. Many moons have passed (I’ve watched them all) since I have seriously written anything. Once my thesis was wrested from me, I felt depleted totally. I had many thoughts, many ideas, but felt no complusion, from within or from without, to write anything beyond what was required of me.

Then I packed my bags and got on a plane and within hours of leaving the prairies behind, letting the plains fall away, after just a few pages of a stimulating book (The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane), I felt it. The urge. My hand, out-of-practice, could hardly keep up to my mind as I scribbled.

it is the leaving that does it, and the anticipation of the return. Saskatchewan was never so beautiful, never so romantic, as it was in m imagination during the long months of self-imposed exile in Newfoundland. And here I am, on my way back to the Atlantic coast, and suddenly I can write again.

The Coming Back

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

As the plane makes its final, blessed descent to the waiting prairie below, I can tell that it has not rained. There is a certain dullness to the green grass, the blocks of fields should be further advanced. I can tell by the quality of the great plumes of dust following vehicles down gravel roads. There’s a thickness to it I can see even from hundreds of feet above. It is dry. I am home.

So happy to be home, and yet already daydreaming about my next sojourn “away”, about the destinations I hope to visit. Both dreading and desperately anticipating it, I plan my next arc through the skies. For as earthy as I am, the ground cannot hold me.

And so I go and go again and always return, never the same as when I left. But once returned, it is like I get to rediscover this place all over again. Even as the other place still clings to my skin, still sits prominently in my memory, the prairie wind starts to slough it away. Its insistence reminds me that this is where I belong, that I go away only so that I can come back.

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

                                          – T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

Prairie Pilgrimage: I

“I began to realize how life for all of us in the West is shaped by Nature in ways we don’t even realize, much less notice consciously.”

– Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning

I had never read anything that had captured the way I felt about the prairie until I read The Perfection of the Morning four years ago. When I read it, I thought, finally, someone who understands.

September 26, 2014.
September 26, 2014.

Sharon Butala had known and captured certain truths of life on the prairie before I was born. But until I was a grown adult and read her work, I had never been able to articulate myself what the prairie meant to me. It’s no exaggeration to say that this blog, and much of what I focus my attention on both personally and academically, would not have come into being without her influence.

I met her briefly a couple years ago. I was so nervous I could barely speak (usually not a problem I have). But it was a moment I won’t ever forget, to meet someone of such wisdom, someone who knew and understood the soul of prairie, and not only that, but could express it.

As soon as I read The Perfection of the Morning, I wanted to visit Old Man on His Back (OMB), a prairie conservation area maintained by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Sharon and her late husband Peter had donated several thousand acres of pristine prairie grassland to the NCC years agoIt`s a remote place, four hours drive from my farm, in the extreme south and west of Saskatchewan. My friend had invited me to spend the weekend at Cypress Hills on the last weekend of Septemeber. I decided to take a circuitous, non-direct route that would allow me to see bits of Saskatchewan I’d never seen before, including OMB.

I arrived in the late afternoon, just as the sun was slanting its last rays across the prairie grass. I had called ahead and the interpreter, a woman who emigrated from England in the 1960s and has called this remote place home ever since, was kind enough to stay late for me.

I only had a short time to spend there, but I still remember vividly the quiet, the stillness, and the goldenness of that late September evening. Once I left, driving west on the grid road, dust behind me as I travelled onwards toward the Cypress Hills, purple in the distance, I knew very well I would come back to this sacred place. There was something magical about the drive to Cypress Hills that evening, through land I had never seen before.  Perhaps because I have read so much of Butala’s work,  I felt as if I knew it already deep in my bones.