My parents still live on the property I grew up on, a five acre parcel in Saanich, with two houses and many outbuildings on it. They bought it in 1971, from a man who had just purchased close to sixty acres of land that he couldn’t really pay for. In order to make his transaction work, he sold off the five acres that had the old house on it (our property), and sold another 2 acre lot beside that as well. Subdivision back in the day must have been easier than it is now, as this man was able to subdivide property for sale without really owning it somehow. The remaining fifty acres had a road-accessible lot on it that my friend Miranda’s family would move their trailer onto in 1979, but was otherwise left as it was by the man we knew as Mr. Bear (which, it turns out was not his actual name, but left childhood me with the impression of a large bearded woodsman whenever his name came up). As far as I know, he rarely or never came to the land, and I never met him while he was alive.
This sixty-acre block and everything around it had been logged flat to the ground at some earlier point, likely the 1910s or 20s, and two old logging roads formed the main trails we travelled through the woods. No vehicles ever drove on those roads in my lifetime, though the wheel ruts were still in existence when I was young. Way out in the middle of the forest was a concrete pad where a small shop or shed had at one time stood. A place where tools were stored or logging vehicles repaired perhaps. There was quite a bit of metal and glass debris around this spot and as children we mined the ground for small treasures when we went down into the woods. There were other ingresses into the forest also, deer trails that had become foot paths, lesser logging roads that had grown over into track, and places where Miranda’s father had cut the slash back to make room for their ponies to graze in a small meadow that a creek ran through.
At the edge where our family property and the larger acreage meet were two specific zones of interest for me. One was the dump, which sat at the foot of a bluff and was clearly where all refuse was thrown in the days before recycling. Like the former shed site in the woods, this was a trove of glass and metal bits, old bottles and metal cans that seemed like valuable antiques to me and I would make little displays of them in the woods and in the cave – my other spot of interest. This small cave, not far from the refuse site, was formed by a rock outcropping, with a tree that grew up right in front of it so that once you were in the small cavity no one could see you. Over my years as a child and teenager, I often went to that place on my own, imagining that it held some magic or secrets that would be revealed to me if I sat or meditated there.
Despite the fact it was a private forest, Mr. Bear never put up a Private Property or No Trespassing sign, never barred access to the woods in any way, and so the community used the forest as though it was their own. Trails were used and tended, deer trails to a spectacular arbutus grove and the small creek became walking paths, people came to cut foliage for their Christmas wreaths and my family took our Christmas tree off that land every year (which is not the happy memory you think it is – given the chore of dragging a heavy tree through wet trails and the fights that ensued around this annually). This wood connected up several neighbourhoods and was used as a shortcut to visit friends, and when we got older and snuck out to meet up at night we learned to traverse those trails in the dark.
Around the edge of the wood are private properties, many of which I’ve interloped through over the years to get out to a road, or avoid the marshy edge at the bottom of the creek drainage. My parents have always allowed neighbours to pass through their property to access the top end of the trails which connect Mountain and Excelsior Roads and make for a nice circle route through the rural neighbourhoods. Most recently, a new trail has been cut down to the edge of the former golf course on Prospect Lake (now leased by Right to Play) which travels through parts of the forest I never knew as a child.
Like the new trails, life within the forest has continued to expand and I have come to understand that the wood has been healing itself for the past hundred years, nearly forty-nine of those in my lifetime. Owls, once rare, are very common now. Bears and cougars, driven from other developed areas, are active in this wood in a way (we are lucky) they weren’t when we were kids playing out there on our own. The understory is much thicker now in some places, and at least one of the spur roads that once lead to someone’s house (I have a vague memory of going with Mrs. Bothwell, an elderly neighbour, through this part of the wood to visit a friend when I was only four or five) has been completely overtaken by fir saplings and great masses of salal.
About twelve years ago, Mr. Bear died and the future of the forest became uncertain. He had owned many properties in the Victoria area, all undeveloped, and his inheritors were selling them off. Given its rugged profile and watershed status, the 50-acre wood behind our house wasn’t the first property to go, which gave time for people in my family and from the community to open up a dialogue with the people who now owned the wood. While I won’t go into the ins-and-outs of all that transpired over the last decade, I will say that there were many false starts and disappointments along the way. Times when it looked like development was inevitable because the municipality wouldn’t move, and other times when it looked like a single saviour (like the Nature Conservancy) would be the answer. But the people who wanted to save this small patch of second-growth, and my father in particular, were tenacious in their goal over all these years and last week it was announced that in negotiation with the owners who agreed to price that made it attainable, the Habitat Acquisition Trust and the Capital Regional District were able to purchase the Mountain Road Forest for parkland in perpetuity (it will be protected by a covenant that disallows the CRD from changing its use in the future).
The protection of this forest gives me a feeling of solidity, that there is one place that will forever be known to me. At the same time, its park status will change it from what it has always been to those of us who grew up in it it. The cave might become the playground to more than the children who live on the hill, the hole dug to trap a cougar many decades ago will probably be filled in for safety, trails will be marked and “improved” instead of being the desire paths they are. The place where Miranda’s trailer once stood, where we spent so many of our after school times, will become a parking lot. But like all community parks, it will mainly be used by the people who visit it now, and the covenant should mean that not too much gets done to it over time.
This forest of so many stories was part of what raised my brother and I, and a place to which I return many times a year in all kinds of weather. Writing about it now, I can see it is like a friend in my life, a once and future place I hope to know until the end of my days.
One thing my friend Jill Margo, talks about in her workshops for creatives is tolerations. That is, the small (or large) things we tolerate in our lives rather than fixing them. She asks us to examine the things we are tolerating and ask, is this something I can easily fix right now? What do I need to do to make that happen? And so on. Her point being that we go through life tolerating small, annoying things that could be righted without much effort and yet we put them off for months, or years, at a time. These tolerations are impediments, though we might not recognize it as first. They are what we are always working around, adding time or frustration to our days without being wholly aware of how those small things add up to big distractions.
I recently read an essay in which the author wrote about a broken basement window he “meant to get around to” fixing for twelve years, but only did it when he was preparing to sell his house. Upon repairing the window, he realized that he had been putting off a 20 minute job for all that time and that it had incrementally decreased the efficiency and enjoyment of his home as a result. I have heard similar stories from friends selling homes in the past few years – the rush to paint, install baseboards, fix small dents and holes in the wall in order to market it in a “presentable” fashion. As if it’s not worth making those fixes for ourselves, we only get on it when a potential financial reward appears, righting the small annoyances.
We all have some version of this story in our lives – the cupboards that need decluttering, the lightbulb that went out in the garage, the garbage can that doesn’t fit properly in the space identified for it.
Since we moved into our house on Gabriola just over five years ago, the lighting in my studio has been somewhat of a toleration, though I only recently identified why that was so (and what effect it was having). I am lucky to have a studio with 14-foot ceilings and lots of windows. When I first moved into this space, the layout and the track lighting gave me the impression that the studio was “well-lit”, even though I did notice that the track heads were grouped oddly and pointed to light certain areas of the studio and not others. Besides the track lights, there is one other pendant fixture that gives off almost no light at all and is positioned in a strange and un-aesthetic place. I gave this zero thought when I moved into though, setting up a few task-lights to make up some of the light-deficiency in the dark corners.
As the years have gone on I’ve noticed a tendency to get very involved in my weaving practice in the spring and summer, only to have it drop off come fall and dwindle to non-existent in the winter months. This seemed counter to the natural order of things. Why would I get intently focused on indoor activities come summer? In the fall and winter of 2020/21 this question became more insistent when I bought a new- to-me loom in September and then was completely disinterested in using it until April (so much so that I asked Brian in March if he thought I should sell all my weaving equipment).
It wasn’t until this summer that I started to figure out what was contributing to this dip in textile activity come the winter months. I had noticed that threading my looms went a lot better for me when I had more natural light to work in (threading is the process by which each thread in a warp is passed through a heddle in the correct sequence to form a pattern–painstaking work in which it is very easy to make a mistake). To some degree I thought this was a limitation I would have to learn to live with. After all, my studio was “well-lit” so I reasoned that there wasn’t much I could do to improve it without spending a lot of money on a proper daylight lamp.
But then a couple of the track heads stopped working in late summer, which necessitated getting a ladder and switching out the bulbs. That’s when I took a hard look at what was going on in the track lighting department and realized that with a bit of re-positioning the track heads could be better distributed to provide more even overhead light. With just an hour of work, I changed the light profile of my studio 100% for the better. Inspired by this, I set aside my reservations about the cost and took a look at OttLite, which makes daylight lamps specific to craft work. For about $240 (tax included) I could purchase a floor lamp with a flexible head that would fit inside my loom at the right height and angle to support both the warping and weaving process. As much as I didn’t want to spend so much money on a task lamp, I had to answer yes when I asked myself if it worth that amount to be able to warp my loom in the winter, and so I ordered the damned lamp.
Suddenly my studio is evenly lit! I have task-lighting in my weaving and sewing area appropriate to the activities. And yes, it has made a significant difference to my enjoyment of the space. My most recent project on the Berga loom was threaded with no errors at all.
The last thing I need to “un-tolerate” is the pendant light situation. Fortunately the fixture is attached to a long wire stemming from the center of the studio, so repositioning it is as simple as getting a more appropriate fixture and a handy person with a tall ladder to come and install it. It’s a small job, one easily overlooked in the busyness of other projects, but that’s the point after all. Bringing attention to the small things can pay off in big ways.
This morning I woke up thinking about when I was nineteen and how life felt at that age. Like most young lives, things were complicated for me then. Life felt precarious in the way of odd shifts in diners and hotels, the occasional trip to the food bank, and months when rent was hard to make because the paycheque bounced or your services were no longer needed. I hadn’t yet planned to go back to school and lived in an old Victorian house with seven people, three old hippies on the main floor, and four young women upstairs. (There was a rule that the old guys were not allowed in the upper part of the house. Ever.) There were only three bedrooms upstairs, but one of my housemates had nested in a storage space in the wall by the bathroom because she had nowhere else to go.
By this point I had seen enough that I knew what I wanted my future life to look like, but I didn’t know how to get there. I couldn’t draw a line from the place where I was teetering to something more defined. Because if there is one word I might use to describe that my life back then, undefined is the one that comes to mind. I went along, I went around, I consumed a lot of drugs and alcohol, I hung out, I wrote when I felt moved by the muse (almost never), I went to parties, and so on. I don’t mean to imply that I was passive. I felt firmly like myself, had opinions and a strong personality which my old friends could tell you about, I’m sure. But I had no idea that I was still becoming, that this self would continue to emerge over the years and decades to come, and so many inputs would come to shade the outline.
What I was specifically thinking about this morning was the feeling of time and how as much as I struggled at that age, time was not something I wrestled with in the way I do now. Looking back, I must have been busy. I mostly worked full time; I had to walk everywhere because I didn’t want to waste money on bus fare; there were myriad friend and household dramas to attend to. But despite the fact my days were fully occupied, I don’t remember feeling the need to “fit it all in” that I do now. I didn’t have a day-timer or keep a calendar of any kind, and though I must have written my restaurant shifts down somewhere, most of my days happened in the present. I was at home and someone phoned me about a party, so I went. I was walking around the city and ran into some friends and so we went drinking or dropped some acid. I left messes behind me, and my savings account was the glass milk bottle where I put the tip money I hadn’t spent during the week. But as stressful as a chaotic life can be, it wasn’t frantic in the way my days sometimes feel now.
I think what it comes down to is the fact that I didn’t have the notion of the productive self yet. Just as I didn’t know how I would ever get from my life then to my life now (and yes, besides the government job, this is what I wanted it to look like), I didn’t feel defined by what I got done in a day, week, or month. I felt like just keeping on was enough and there was no plan beyond my weekly shift schedule. I also hadn’t come to the realization that life is pretty short, all things considered, and there would come a time when I would worry that about the number of years left in which to do all the things. At nineteen and twenty, time seemed limitless to me, that there was an endless amount of it in which to figure out what to do (as the cliche goes “my whole life stretched out in front of me”).
Back in the early 1990s, no one knew yet that the brains of young adults weren’t fully formed. Neuroscience and neuro-imaging is a pretty young field after all, and our culture told us that eighteen/finishing high school was adulthood, and I believed that. But looking back it seems more true to me that adulthood happened later, closer to my mid-twenties, and a big part of that was this shifted relationship to time and my own future. Granted, by twenty-five I had completed my first degree and started working for the government, those inputs being the starting blocks of my adult shape, but it was somewhere in there that I started to understand future time quite differently. By the age of thirty it was apparent that a lifetime was not limitless. That I had to make choices about what I spent my time doing. Which doesn’t mean I made all the right choices, but that I saw my present as connected to my future in a new way.
And that’s what drives me now, creating the pressure on my days. I vied for a more stressful job because the pay increase will positively impact my pension. I go to the gym because I see that fitness in middle age is tied to a healthier old age. I write and weave whenever I can because otherwise how will I say or make all the things I want to in this lifetime? And lately, I have started to prioritize phone calls and visits with my parents more often because I can see with a terrible clarity that they will not be around forever. The future is finite and makes our present that much more precious.
When I was nineteen I washed my clothes in a clawfoot bathtub because the laundromat was too far to walk to and there was no money for a cab. I ran the tub full of tepid water, put in the laundry and soap, and used my feet to agitate the clothes until the water turned grey. From there I went through the laborious process of wringing out each item, leaning over the high wall of the bathtub on my knees, before hanging them on the line in our garden (or in the bathroom in the winter months). Just doing laundry took me an unbelievable amount of time back then, but I never felt pressed for it. Cleaning the clothes in this way was just another thing to do, and I didn’t understand it as taking me away from something else.
But although my activities were more present-focused at that age, my life wasn’t easeful. My sense of time and how to spend it was different, but I was bound by an inability to plan and focus my life in a positive direction. And I think I overstate it now when I say that my actions in the present are only guided by future reward. One phase of a life compared to another has the danger of becoming a caricature as we pluck moments for examination while leaving behind others. But still, I am lost in it a bit today, thinking about the nineteen year old who didn’t know how to get here in this life, and realizing that it happened all the same.
This morning, rather than getting down to writing first thing, I picked up Anne Lamott’s book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope which has been sitting in my library pile for a couple of weeks.
I can order almost anything into my local library from the larger network, but often there are holds on what I want to read, and so I order everything I might otherwise buy on Amazon with some abandon. It’s like a form of shopping that doesn’t cost anything and I think it’s the single best thing about the modern online library system. It also results in occasions where a whole stack of things I’ve ordered arrive at once, and then I have to push my giant to-read pile aside and get down to the stuff that has a time limit. So it is with Lamott’s book. I realized today that I have only a few days to read it and the new Zadie Smith essay collection – and though they are both slim volumes I better get down to it.
On the second page of her introduction, Lamott us about a kind of intrusive thought she has, one where she thinks about jumping when she is in high towers/cliffs/mountaintops, or veering her car into oncoming traffic while driving on a busy highway. She asks/tells us “So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks? We just do. To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.”
This is not all she talks about in the introduction, but this admission of self-harming thoughts unlinked from actual intention hooked me right away because I know exactly what she means. I have these kinds of thoughts too.
Lamott and I diverge in our diagnoses – she has been diagnosed as OCD and has an anxiety disorder, I have had a depression diagnosis *and* more than one suicidal period in my life (both in the distant past now). But we seem to share a similar condition of intrusive thoughts about self-harm, and I suspect we’re not alone. A few years ago I did hear an Invisibilia episode* about violent intrusive thoughts as a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and at the time thought it sounded very much like the kind of thing I experienced. That is, thoughts disconnected from any intention, but tormenting nonetheless because they make you question yourself. If I think these things will I do them? Do these thoughts reveal something about inner desire?
It’s not the kind of thing you can really talk about with people who don’t share this quirk of the brain because it sounds so odd (the fact of these impulses can be truly disturbing to those who care about us). I once brought it up with a therapist who had clearly never heard of such a thing and didn’t believe I had no intention of acting on my thoughts. Her alarm was such that I never went back to see her again.
Lamott’s admission feels bravely honest in the face of this, a kind of relief to me. If she can speak this out loud, commit it to print, perhaps it’s not such a shameful (weird, secretive) thing after all. Perhaps it’s just on the spectrum of human behaviour, linked to anxiety (as I have come to realize mine is – they are worse during periods of high-tension, and for the most part regular meditation practice keeps them at bay), and not indicative of dark desires. Her psychiatrist suggests the best way to address them is to bring the thought into the open, to speak it to whoever she is with – and she dutifully does – but while it dispels some of the anxiety for her, she notes that it often unsettles her companions.
I am not talking about this to confess my own strange turns of thought, but as a reflection on the power that sharing our stories, idiosyncracies, shadow sides, and enlightened ideas has on others. Lamott’s words are powerful and interesting because they form part of a truth she is willing to share with us. Her words beg the question of the writer-me, “what is the truest thing you can say?”, her work a demonstration of how a crafted truth brings the messiness of the human condition to light, and forms a bridge between isolated experience and shared understanding.
Something I know from my own writing life, which I have been publicly at since I started a ‘zine in the 1990s, is the truer the thing I share, the more connective response it gets. Private messages, blog comments, and more than once I’ve had a total stranger tell me that one of those more honest pieces was helpful to them in the way of feeling not so alone. A primary purpose of art is connection after all, and the more we get to the heart of what we are feeling, thinking, and experiencing – the greater the chance we reach others where it counts. This is what I want to do in my work: stare down the hard truth, the difficult stuff, and find a way to craft and share it to connect with others. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for lightness and textiles – but that I’m going to work harder at getting into the heart of things in my writing here and elsewhere. We’ll see how it goes!
* The episode of Invisibilia – “The Secret History of Thoughts” contains a recounting of violent thoughts, quite different from what Lamott is relating or what I experience, though they both fall into the category of “intrusive thoughts” which can be a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
We had a house concert at Birdsong last weekend, our first one inside the house since the start of the pandemic. It required checking vaccination passports and that everyone be masked in the concert space; both things made me uncomfortable for different reasons, but it was worth it to be able to present live music in the cooler days of fall.
All summer we had concerts outside, seven of them over nine weeks, and were lucky for the warmer weather that held for every one of them. In our yard we can fit 65 people comfortably, and each our shows was sold out. After a winter and spring of deep isolation, the audiences for our shows were emotional, and deeply appreciative (if a bit weirded out) to be in company again. After the first couple of shows in particular, people effused praise, teary from the impact. Through the summer I was moved over and over again by the courage of musical performance, the generosity on display from the stage as musicians gave themselves wholly to their audiences for a few hours.
I had forgotten until this summer, about the magic of live performance, the unpredictable gaffes, the funny ones, the tiny crisis of a broken string or lost guitar pick. Not to mention the moments when it seems as though the performer is singing directly to your own experience, playing music reminiscent of a lost time, sharing glimpses of a world that could be through the clarity of their lyric buoyed by just the right run of notes. We can forge such a strong connection in those moments which pass between performer and audience. I think I had buried this yearning to connect during the months we turned inward, pushing them off rather than acknowledging the loss I felt.
During the flurry of cancellations in March 2020, one of the tickets I was most disappointed about giving up was for a Vancouver Opera production of Another Brick in The Wall (based on lyrics by Roger Waters). We had planned to make a weekend in the city with friends and see the Sunday matinee of the production, but as with everything else that spring we stayed home instead. I was disappointed but thought perhaps by fall we would be able to rebook those tickets. As we know, that’s not how the story turned out and here we are 18 months later, still unsure about being indoors with others.
The other night, with Shari Ulrich (a very well-known/much loved west coast performer) at the front of our dining room/parlour that passes for a concert space, I stood at the back of the at-capacity room (25 seats) and watched the assembled audience. All of them willing to take the risk of being inside together in order to participate in the intimacy, the rarity, of this opportunity. They leaned in, laughed at Shari’s stories, passed around the box of tissues after she sang her her adoption song. While live performance is always a blessing, a small audience in a small space is something else again. The concentration of energy, the directed focus – there is an electricity generated between participants that is palpable when you tune into it.
I found myself teary on Saturday night, with the performance itself, but more than that I felt the fragility of each of us in our need to be threaded through by shared experience and a culture we recognize from “before”. It is still a risk to be together like this, though lessened by the vaccine, but I wonder about the risks of not coming together during another long winter. More years without music, theatre, dance? More years without the exchange of energy between creatives? I don’t think we can do it and survive. For as long as we have been humans, we have made and shared art. We have sung together and danced around fires. We have told stories to pass the time on deep winter nights. Have travelled between towns and homes, sharing the latest news through lyric. And we have been audiences holding each other and the performer up as the glittering treasure that we are together. This is central, and it continues to feel like a threat at the same time. I’m not sure how to reconcile this exactly, except to be open to the small risks that might keep our fires alive as we head into winter.