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Finding Home

A cartoon in the New Yorker many years ago showed two men talking at a cocktail party. One says to the other, “I come from Cincinnati, but that’s not where I’m coming from.”

That’s how I felt about Saskatchewan.

When I was sixteen, I drove my grandmother in her white Studebaker from Saskatoon to Vancouver so she could visit her daughter. Saskatchewan was still entombed in mounds of dirty hard snow; we arrived in British Columbia to, good heavens, green grass. I said to myself: I’m going to live here. Why doesn’t everyone live here? It took me five years to achieve my resolve. I still don’t know the answer to the question, though.

seal-square

Finding home is like going through a series of promising portals. Although Vancouver was the first, I learned there was another more enduring one.

Over a decade ago, sight unseen, a friend made an offer on 10 acres of island property, “subject to inspection.” The realtor arranged for a water taxi to take her to see the land, and she invited me to go along.

The property she’d found was forested waterfront, very lovely. She was going to confirm the offer.

We decided to walk along the shoreline for a while. Putting one foot down, we’d jiggle the rock in front to make sure it would hold, then step on it. Gradually, we rounded a corner where the shoreline descended into a bay.

My boot slipped, my pack flew off, and I fell sideways into shallow, frigid water. As I scrambled back onto the rocks, unhurt, soaked to my waist, the shock of the fall woke me to where I was.

The bay was in the shape of a wishbone. The wind cinched its breath and ribbons of waves urged each other to shore. After the chaos of driftwood on the beach, grey-trunked trees ascended like masts, reaching a crescendo at the top, where a spray of green light firecrackered into the sky. I was claimed by the place.

Although minutes earlier I’d had no desire to own more property, I was now smitten. My friend could see this.

We made our way to the top of the wishbone and into a clearing. The ancient forest floor was dense with moss, so many kinds and colours. I had no names for what I saw.

I better understood my native clients’ views that to own a piece of land was somehow wrong, and a little absurd. Nevertheless, my friend and I bought this part of paradise together.

Later that summer, I decided the next adventure in my romance would be a three-week sleep-over. Although I’m not much of a camper, I had all the gear (an old two-person tent, Coleman stove, large cooler, solar shower bag).

The skipper of the water-taxi took me back to the place where I’d fallen in the water. I stepped out of the boat onto rocks that looked like sleeping sea-lions. After hauling my food and gear to the clearing and setting up the tent, I went exploring.

An opening wound through the woods like smoke. I followed it.

A narrow path was trampled to hardened ground.

deer-square

Ahead was a deer with twin fawns. The fawns were ripping at the bushes with their tiny mouths. With skittish head movements, the doe took in my shape, but as though she couldn’t quite make me out. She smelled rather than saw me. The deer held, tense and still; the babies felt it, stopped eating, looked up. Then ran. I had never seen such a spring-loaded departure; the mother followed.

I had a strange yearning to live at the edge between the wild and the habitable, without lockdown.

As I walked back along the beach, I noticed a bank of exposed earth about five feet high and ten feet long, filled with broken bits of clams. It was a midden, made by natives through hundreds of years. There must be clams in the bay.

I didn’t have a tide book, but concluded that it rose about six inches every hour. I had to pay attention so I would know when I could walk out on the ocean floor and get clams.

Compelled by my newness and the place itself, I began the task of the first Adam and named the body of water in front of me Wishbone Bay.

As the tide continued to climb, a piece of land which had been attached to the shore became an island. I named it Sometimes Island.

A sound catches my attention; I cock my head the way an animal does, listening, discerning, sorting — for safety or danger or intrusion. It’s the wind. And then it’s the cessation of sound I notice, as the wind calms.

I remembered some lines from Middlemarch: If we had a keen vision and feeling, we could hear the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

I heard a rush of sound, not a roar. I felt certain if I stayed here long enough, I would learn to take in the other side of silence.

In the warmth of my sleeping bag that night, I skimmed across the surface of sleep rather than tuck into it. I was roused from that surface by a twig breaking, a branch falling, the wind picking up. Sleep was a figure of speech. In the city, no noise has anything to do with me; here I was connected to every sound.

In the morning, everything bristled, awake. The gulls made their scattered paper display of whirling and settling, whirling and rising up. The sun on the water glistened like money and rolled like tossed fate. The top of a log bobbed, then dove, a seal.

Some sounds were created by very large wings: the raven above me. I was amazed to hear its effort in flying. The bird then landed on a nearby tree and made a knocking sound in his throat. Knock knock, who’s there? Who, indeed.

At about 9 a.m. it started. Wind here wasn’t like the city’s wind. I didn’t feel it as a pressure against my face. Instead it tossed everything around, making me think of where it originated, a cave where the gods were causing a commotion. Still, the place was not set over against me; it was related to me in every way. I didn’t feel lonely, or even frightened.

The wind moved on the surface of the water like a flock of mergansers taking to the air.

I had an intimation of some possible peace within. It seemed to be a beginning, before we had started to wreck the earth.

I watched a bee land on a dandelion, its weight bending the stalk low. The bee drew in nectar, and then flew to the next dandelion, as the flower wanded and was still. I thought of memory being like that: my past bowed and settled into now.

geese-square

I ate six Oreo cookies as the sun made its red way down the sky in quantum leaps, inch by inch.

The night seeped in.

Eventually, I made a fire. Sparks streamed up and burned tiny holes in the black sky, thousands upon thousands of them, letting light in.

I turned on my flashlight and followed the beam down to Wishbone Bay.

In a seated position, I moved gingerly to the end of a log which protruded into the water.

Even as a child I could never understand the desire to name the constellations, but I tried to play the game, as though searching for street-signs in a wilderness. I only recognized the Big and Little Dipper, yet was happy to find their reliable, domestic shapes.

And then a falling star. And another. The stars were being routed from their orbits. I wondered where they would land.

Days and nights passed in this way, the rush of silence penetrating and reorganizing my sense of self. I had never felt such consciousness in tranquility. Everything mattered here: that I figured out the tides, that I knew where the weather was coming from. The sun came up more or less in the same place every day, but the moon did whatever it wanted, rising here or there and sometimes not showing up at all. None of this was a strain, but rather a sense of cause and effect which paid out my attention, like a forge-linked chain — an essential, unmediated relationship between myself and place.

Three weeks later, I returned to Vancouver. Having a hot shower was a revelation. I decided that people who shower more than twice a week should pay a shower tax.

In the middle of the night, I awoke and sat up in bed. I recognized where I was: in my bedroom, in Kitsilano. Yet I was looking into this room from Hardy Island. In some strange way, I had ingested the geography of the island. I had become it.

When the same thing happened three nights in a row, I called a real estate agent and put my house up for sale. I was going to build a home on Hardy. The confusion of geographies stopped.

Pursuing the Desert Tracking Urge: Part 2

Catch plump stars - 1

Two of the students taking the course on tracking animals in the desert were former members of the LAPD drug squad. I speak to Dennis, the older of the two. He tells me he was an only child in a poor family. They lived in a wooded area far from town. He loved the outdoors, but his father wasn’t a sportsman. “I asked my dad for a certain kind of fishing rod for my birthday. He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. But he saved up. When I finally got it, I went to the trout stream near by. But I never fished. Every day I’d stand in the stream and, wearing goggles, put my head under water, and watch the fish, studying what they did, how they moved, what they went after for food. At the end of the summer, I tied my own lure and cast the rod. I caught my first fish. I still never miss.”
I wonder if this was the beginning of his path to becoming an effective detective. The subtext.
Dennis was intriguing, and very sweet. Perhaps because I liked him, I couldn’t bear to ask how he could possibly make a living looking for lost dogs in L.A.
“Are you going to be writing a story about this weekend?” he asked me. I said I didn’t know. “You kind of talk in riddles,” he said.
“I can’t really disappear desert animals.”
“I know you can’t.”

It turns out I don’t sleep very well in the same room with a stranger named Doris. At 3 a.m. I finally decide to make my way to the washrooms which are 50 yards away. Because the centre is run on solar power, all the lights are switched off at 10 p.m. It doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten my flashlight: the pitch black sky is charged with plump stars throbbing above me, so near I could reach up and haul them down to send them skipping off the lily-pad-pond. The stars, too, are like tracks, left by light rather than animals. Some of the stars might even be burned out by now, their light still travelling although the source is extinguished. This sky puts paid to such a strange, sad idea. Everything is incandescent. In such a place, under such a sky, it seems worthwhile to have the washrooms 50 yards away.
John Updike said there didn’t need to be so many stars in the sky to get us to understand how humble we should be. For some reason, I don’t feel humble. I belong.
Orion, the Hunter, strides mightily overhead, as I return to my room and the sleeping Doris.

Class starts early. Jimmy says “You need to get used to the subtlety of animal tracks; you need to develop your sense of discernment. Figure out an hypothesis about what you are seeing, and then check the evidence. And always consider that the tracks might be of a domestic dog. People take their dogs to weird places.” We are all intense; we are learning.
I crouch over what could be a smudge in the sand and declare “these are the tracks of a grey fox.” My teacher nods. Catch fox stole - 1
I remember as a little girl staring at what my grandmother was wearing. She had a fox around her neck. Down one side of her chest hung its head and down the other was its tail. One of its front and hind paws joined at the space between her bosoms. (That’s what my sister and I called them. We couldn’t call them breasts.) Because my grandmother wasn’t that friendly, I thought she had killed the fox.
And my mother’s astute personal observations were often couched within sayings. (Maybe that’s where my riddling nature came from.). Many sayings involved foxes. Her brother was “shy like a fox”. The neighbour was “clever like a fox.” Our small town was peopled with foxes.
The subtext of my family emerges in this desert place.
And then I remembered Ted Hughes’s poem “The Thought-Fox” and the lines:
“Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.”

Jimmy sets the next task. Each team is assigned a category of animals; we’re to make a track box. It’s not really a box but a location we’ve chosen in the desert because we figure our assigned animals will walk over the square of sand we’ve smoothed and prepared.
My two friends and I are supposed to track predators. The drug squad is assigned rabbits. They seem happy with their assignment. With perfect acuity, Jimmy will have them shift from tracking heroin addicts to tracking rabbits.
Jimmy says, “Some of you might find the tracks of shrews.”
I can only think of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. “What are shrews?” I ask.
Jimmy says, “They are like long-nosed mice, but they aren’t rodents, they’re more like moles. You could put 8 shrews in a package and mail them for 49 cents.”
I have a feeling he’s done that.
“A white-tailed deer, when they run, spread their toes and then the dew claws hit the ground.” He holds up the hoof of a white-tailed deer. It looks like an evening glove. He goes to a green tote bin of hooves and holds up another. “But caribou alway show their dew claws even if they’re not running. And remember, the fox will have its nose to the ground, so its front feet are going to dig in a little deeper… A domestic dog, scuffles. It isn’t moving efficiently. Not like a wolf or a coyote.” I look to make sure Dennis of the drug squad is paying attention. He is.

Hoof of a white-tailed deer

Hoof of a white-tailed deer

We learn about the gates of animals: bounding, diagonal, gallop, lope, pace, trot. We watch a film showing all of these different ways of moving.
The younger member of the drug squad pipes up. “Why don’t people just use dogs to find these animals.”
I laugh out loud. Because, as I’ve learned, these are lessons in looking at the evidence of gods who seem to have disappeared. They are lessons which back up faith, or perhaps show us how to find it in the first place.

I see you’ve been
standing outside my bedroom window
all night long.
But I don’t know who you are.
I wonder why you’ve come.
I want to know.

In the rocky cliffs near home base, my team decides this is where a bobcat would go to raise her young. We prepare the box on a path leading to the cliffs. We also create another box near a mesquite grove, where foxes might like to sleep.
The next morning we go to the locations where the teams have set their boxes. Doris and her friend walked five kilometres from our base camp to set their box. We drive there.
We are in the scrub desert, barren, full of hidden life, each of us walking slowly, looking, scorched under our hats by the hot, dry sun. “It’s somewhere around here,” Doris says. I’m hoping for her, yet it seems quite difficult to find where Doris’s team went the previous day.
Finally she finds it. “Here, this is where we set the box. We were aiming to get kangaroo rats.”
There are paw marks in the sand.
Jimmy falls on all fours to examine what’s there. “Yes, there were kangaroo rats here. And a coyote.”
We all cheer.
When we get to my team’s boxes, the tracks have an evanescent quality, as though they’ve come up from beneath the sand. There are the marks of a coyote, but not a bobcat. At the mesquite grove, there were foxes. It’s like being found by these animals, rather than finding them.
Back in the classroom, we are given various plaster casts of footprints and asked to identify them. As I stare at one, the teacher comes over and says, “There’s something very special about this print. If you don’t see it, you aren’t paying attention. The track will tell you.”
I think back to the subtext of my declaration at the beginning of the weekend, that I want to see things but they disappear on me. My statement was blind. I thought we were going to track the animals to find them. This is a different kind of engagement. We’re not looking at the tracks in order to find something in the present. We’re looking at the tracks in order to know something about the past, and, perhaps, a promise for the future.
Most important for me, I have the sense that there is a presence in the world which has not disappeared. It’s not even invisible; it’s there for me to know.

Miro "Person under the sun"

Miro “Person under the sun”

The urge to track animals in the desert

Catch Desert 1 - 1Catch Desert 2 - 1Catch Desert 4 - 1

Two friends invited me to go to the Mojave Desert in California, to take a weekend course on tracking animals. I said yes right away, even though it seemed a little harebrained to want to acquire such a skill. My cottage is in the midst of the rainforest. Despite my going there for the last ten summers, I don’t ever remember seeing the tracks of animals. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention.
But the idea of being able to notice things currently invisible to me was appealing. I did hope, however, that the tracks we found were of fairly small, friendly animals.
I have no idea what pleases a tracker, what infuriates a tracker, or what keeps her awake at night. What does a tracker do?
I was going to find out.
We drove east from Los Angeles on a hectic freeway with six lanes of traffic going our direction. As the landscape became rougher, the lanes reduced and the traffic thinned. After three hours, we turned off into the bleak and barren beauty of the desert. We travelled for a few miles along a newly paved one lane highway, black like a robber’s glove, when suddenly the road was broken up and the gouged asphalt overtaken by sand.
The indomitable weather, which seemed so still, was moving in hidden sheets of effort, reclaiming the road.
For some reason it pleased me, this patch of taken-back ground. It seemed to reveal the truth about all our endeavours.
Even in the desert, water grinds stone, drop by drop. To prevail, it only requires time.
On the distant horizon, sunlight reflected off the watery surface of a vast lake. How curious its presence was in the midst of the desert. My friend said, “Wait. You don’t know what you’re seeing.”
As we got closer, the lake became what it was: a dried up bed of white salts.
Starting in the 1880’s, and for decades, mule teams, comprised of twenty animals each, hauled out this borax. Fortunes were made in places named for the difficulty of the endeavour: Death Valley, Funeral Mountain, Furnace Creek, Badwater..…

We eventually arrived at a place of sturdy, ambiguous mystery. It could have been an isolated munitions base. Some signs said “keep out” and others said “keep right.” I didn’t know if we belonged or if we were intruders. The history of the Desert Studies Centre was present in all its layers.
We kept right.
In front of low scattered buildings was what appeared to be a small pond. Having just been tutored by the empty soda lake, I was wary. Yet as we got closer, I saw lily pads.
A few miles back was a salt bed which had been a lake. In front of me, now, a lake which would become a salt bed. It was like a running gag, this dried up lake business; and a great joy, because I think I’m never going to see the same thing twice. Of course, I might be wrong about that.
We pulled in to the parking lot and got out.
A man wearing green army fatigues, the same colour as his jeep, drives up. He consults his clipboard, tells us our room numbers, and informs me that my roommate’s name is Doris. I don’t know Doris.Catch Desert Tracks - 1

There are two small beds in my spartan accommodation. I don’t want to sleep in the same room as Doris. I want to be in a fancy hotel and order room service and drink from the mini-bar.
We don’t have plumbing, and by that I mean no sink, toilet, or shower. Nor pictures on the whitewashed walls.
An inner voice says “My dear, your roommate’s name is Doris. And this is where you’ll be, for three days. Think of Pioneer Ranch Camp when you were fourteen. You survived Pioneer Ranch Camp.”
Barely. God help me.
Inside the entrance to our classroom, a table is set with vegetables and dip, water and juice. My fellow students arrive. Everyone wears a hat.
There are twelve of us in the class: four women (myself, my two friends and I assume that’s Doris slouched in a chair in the corner) and eight men. The men, except for one, look like thugs: broad shouldered, beefy, tanned. They scare me. The different one is soft and fleshy; I could touch his cheek and it would keep the mark.
Our teacher, Jimmy, stands at the front of the room. He’s elfin: fine featured, size 5 ½ shoes, short greying hair. He’s the kind of guy who would put his pen in the pocket of his new shirt, with the cap off, and ruin it. And be forgiven by his partner.
As we introduce ourselves, I learn that two of the men had been members of the Los Angeles Police Department drug squad. The older man has a craggy face, deeply lined, as if someone had taken a sculpting knife and done their worst. The younger man is heading to the same facial destiny. They now run a business looking for owners’ lost pets.
The soft-fleshed man, dressed in desert gear purchased from Value Village, is a retired pastor.
Doris teaches autistic children.
I identify myself as a novelist. The drug squad looks alarmed. I add that if a friend points at a rare species of bird in the nearby tree, when I look the bird disappears. “So, there might not be many animals around us this weekend.” What I say is true, but I’m just trying to be clever. And because this seems also to be a course in subtext, I realize I’m saying I have power but it’s a gimped kind of power. I want to see things, and they disappear on me.
In one way or another, everyone has come here because they want something new in their lives.
Our teacher hands each of us a bright yellow 6” ruler, and a sheet of paper with paw marks. I’m particularly fond of the ruler.
Jimmy tells us we will learn a methodology for understanding which animals have been in our environment. “All of this is knowable, as long as you learn it and apply it — as long as you are aware and have focus.” “You have to learn how an animal moves. A coyote never moves like a bobcat.” As I try to picture these animals, I drift off into imagining I’ll be able to tell someone: “there was a red fox right outside your bedroom window all night long.”

Catch Desert Palms - 1Eventually we follow our teacher outside and across the road to the rilled sand-waves in front of a grove of palm trees. Suddenly, Jimmy is no where to be seen. I look for him. He has fallen to the ground, and, on all fours, his head is inches from an animal track. He pulls the yellow ruler out of his pocket, and begins to measure.
The first time this happened it was so endearing I decided I did want to stay for the weekend. I promised myself I would be a gracious roommate for Doris.

“It’s a coyote,” our teacher says. We gather around and stare at what appears to be a smudge mark in the sand. “A track is a window into an otherwise invisible world,” Jimmy says. “You can see how the animal is walking, its mood, its posture, its personality, whether the animal feels safe. Where is it coming from? Where is it going to? I’ll teach you how to assess the age of a track. That’s important. I once found the tracks of a bobcat. They were very fresh. When I looked up, he was staring at me from about 30 feet away.”
When class concluded that first night, I decided to approach the older member of the drug squad, so I wouldn’t be afraid of him.

Milo's White Glove

Miro’s The White Glove

[To be continued 🐎🐎🐗]

Bye Bye Brazil

T. has come down with the flu.

Trouper takes me to a fairly remote area quite far from where we are living. He stays back as I walk the long beach.

No one is around; no tables with umbrellas and someone serving coconut juice, a straw stuck into the shell; no one to roast cheese skewered on a stick. Just the vast, empty sand stretching for miles, and the ocean’s relentless pounding.

Catch The Lightbulb 2 - 1

I watch, mesmerized, as the waves come in; I could watch them for hours. Their action, their beauty, replaces thought — puts in its place something else, some yearning, without effort, to grasp this material world, in its supreme forcefulness and power. It has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with me. It created us.

It’s not that I feel humble, or anything of the sort. I’m not even sure I have a sense of awe. It’s like watching something godlike from a safe distance, wondering how it is that I can possibly be safe.

And yet it also has a correlative in me, something I know and almost understand. I distract myself by judging which wave will come and cover my feet, or come up to my knees, or perhaps pull me down and out. As the monumental volumes of water advance towards shore, there’s a kind of stillness above the turmoil of the grey blue ocean — and then the waves break. But it’s like one wave, stretching for a mile, breaking in one piece that curls and rolls with such release of power.

It’s the forcefulness of it, the strength that could tear me to pieces, that could rip my arms off and shred my skin. The wave rolls and rolls towards me, and I am perched on its lips, almost in its mouth, watching, waiting, and it spills itself forward and dissipates and spreads on the sand, and withdraws, to be hit by another coming at its back.

There’s some fingering in all of this of my place on Hardy Island, so far away in British Columbia; but how calm the ocean is there.

Mainly, I am looking out. When I look down, I see a brown bottle being tossed on shore, and then it’s pulled back to drowning. I watch its movement. I lean forward, and I get it.

It looks like a large medicine bottle, with a metal cap. It’s empty; there’s no message. How is it that, wherever it came from, it came to me, unbroken and undamaged?

I walk along the shore, carrying the bottle, amused at this blatant offering in the midst of my bewildered thoughts.

Catch The Ocean - 1

About 300 feet further on, bouncing in the foam boiled up by the waves, is something round. I do the same as with the bottle: I wait, watch the thing go out – is it a jelly fish? – watch it come back to me – I pick it up. It’s a lightbulb. A lightbulb has been tossed up by this crushing forbidding ocean whose time depth is the beginning of the world. Its being, its presence, the way it works and looks, has not changed since then. The next land mass I would find, if I could follow my gaze, would be Africa. The water which touches me, touches Africa, unhindered. The ocean offers, unbroken, a lightbulb at my feet, delivered by, or from, this force which is so great and grand, yet responsive enough to answer to the pull of the moon. This pulverizing element, which changes rock into minute grains of sand, holds up a lightbulb and delivers it at my feet.

There is some joke here. I don’t get it, but it seems to be a divine joke.

I’m returning home with a medicine bottle and a lightbulb, and wondering what this waking dream is all about.

Brazil Interrupted by Robins

As I’m about to post the final catch about Brazil, I am interrupted by robins. 

In the midst of my habit of looking down, I look up.

On the second storey of my cottage, resting against the gutters, is a nest.

I climb out my bedroom window to the roof. There are three eggs. Their readiness presses the air.Hardy Nest - 1

The next day, on the rough ground outside my back door, there’s the jagged half shell of an empty blue egg. So, it’s happened.

I go to the roof again. They’ve hatched. To my surprise, they’ve survived.

The birds, if I could even call them that, don’t have an outside but only a bloody transparency. Are they ready for life, with their huge black and unseeing eyes?

And the following day they have skin and a skiff of feathers. How beginning they are. And are there only two? And if two, where’s the other?

The birds’ eyes make up most of their unwieldy heads. And they seem to open their entire selves to gasp the air in search of food.

These new things stabbed their shells, kicked them off, determined to get out. And they did. Their heads are cleft figs. The mother looks around, furtive, and then pierces the food into their mouths. She is feeding a beating heart.

Six days later, as I climb back inside the window, my foot catches on the sill. I am smashed down against a chair. Breathless with pain, I can’t raise my left arm.

I fell into my house, a nest. I damaged my arm, a wing.

I have to go back to the city for a few days. When I return, walking to the cottage, I see what I didn’t want to see: the desiccated body of a baby robin in front of me on the path. I have more sorrow than sight. I cannot imagine what happened. The bird couldn’t have tried to fly, because it had only bones for wings. It wasn’t eaten by a predator. It must have fallen from the nest.

I am confined by belief and disbelief. I believe when I look in the nest again, the remaining birds will be dead. I disbelieve that there is a through-line of life between then and now.

Off the path there is a large stone within the salal and ferns. I dig a hole and place the bird’s body in it, and cover it with earth. The first dead bird has a headstone.

Reluctantly, I go back out through the window to the roof.

But two of them are there. My shadow over the nest makes the birds think I am its winged mother. Their mouths are the gape of an open crocus, gold-vermillion, gashed.Hardy Birds are Hungry - 1

Three days later, the nest is empty. It’s coming apart now, strewing and slurring down the side of the house.

My friend, who is far away, tells me that today a robin sat on her windowsill, pecking at the glass, as though wanting to build a nest within.

Hope takes wing.

There’s No One to Take You Home

In my last post, I was in Salvador, Brazil, watching the entrancing spirit-possession ceremony called the candomblé. I continue watching.

Candomblé dancer

Candomblé dancer

A somewhat pasty-faced man dances in the circle closest to the centre. He is tall, wearing an off-white cotton top and pants. His curly grey hair could be a wig. He looks a little like a newly frocked monk, soft and pliant, or perhaps the clerk in a bank. Or, because of the wig, a grandmother. He’s singing the songs – each song is to a different god – and I watch his small mouth sound out the words.
Although he is by no means attractive, wherever I look, my eyes eventually come back to him. He is dutifully circling in the dance, self-contained, singing.
A dancer passes in front of me whom I believe is a woman, because her wrists and arms are tiny. I can’t see her face because she’s wearing the traditional candomblé costume with the straw headdress covering her eyes and obscuring her face.
There are older woman, in all-white long dresses, moving their arms out from their bodies and back. It’s almost a rowing action. They look old and vulnerable.
As the music changes tempo, everyone bows, touching the floor and then putting their hands to their faces, as though blessing themselves. Then they straighten and continue to circle in the dance.
A man passes by. He probably weighs 250 pounds. He is wearing a sleeveless top which reveals his broad shoulders and tight muscled arms. In one hand he holds a silver vanity mirror which he presses against his chest. Below his midriff are the voluminous skirts with acres of cloth all bloused out and uplifted by crinolines. His eyes look closed. As with the others, he has a kind of bracelet, thick, silver, which grips his forearms high up, near his shoulders.
His face is round, like a cherub’s; his cheeks puff out as if blowing on a cornet.
What a contrast to the anemic banker circling closer to the centre. The banker and the large-skirted man are like planets in vastly different orbits.
There are now about 150 people crammed into the room, all standing. Some of them are singing.
Another man goes by, dressed similarly to the large man, but instead of a mirror he holds a stylized red sabre which he directs to his heart.
Weaving between the circles is a middle-aged woman carrying a towel. She puts the towel on a dancer’s back, drying the sweat. She clears the face of another dancer. She lifts strands of the straw headdress, and helps the frail woman inside. Then she tosses the towel over her shoulder, the way you would if you had just patted down a horse.
And that’s the description given by Ruth Landes in 1939: that sometimes the god descends into the dancer’s head “and rides her” as if she is his horse. “Then through her body he talks and dances.”
It’s hot in the room. I can feel the sweat gathering on my forehead; it drips down my face. I don’t know why I don’t mind. Lisa asks me if I want to go outside – it’s a rougher conversation than that, because we don’t speak the same language, but I seem to understand her question. In any event, I say no.

Dancers

Dancers

Three little girls are in front of me, sitting on the bench behind which I am now standing. They aren’t watching the dancing, they are watching me. One of them, bright faced and eager, starts to talk to me. Lisa explains to her that I don’t understand Portuguese. At least I hear the word “Portuguese” and she shakes her head. The little girl seems to find this somewhat astonishing. She continues to chatter away to me. I look at her, listen, and shake my head just as Lisa did. Then Lisa says something like, “She wants you to talk to her in English.” So I say, “Hello,” and I put out my hand, “I am happy to meet you. My name is Leslie. What is your name?” Lisa gets enough of the sense of this to be able to translate. She is Sophie, and Sophie continues to talk to me in Portuguese. Lisa explains, “She wants you to say what it’s like to fly in a plane,” or something like that. I use my hand to imitate a plane, then sign out 24 with my fingers, trying to tell her how long it took me to get here from Canada. On we go in this way. But I want to watch the dancing. I leave her to Lisa. Yet it’s not easy to ignore a young, engaging child. She talks to me, then pulls on my sleeve. I lower my head. She whispers loudly in my ear something in Portuguese. She thinks my problem is with hearing, not with understanding. I try to share the real difficulty by whispering in her ear, “But you see, I don’t understand you. And it’s just like this. You don’t understand me.” The girl is delighted by my gibberish.
I look up again, watching the dancing, as Sophie watches me. Sophie says something to Lisa, who translates. “You are beautiful.”
Ah, linda, I say, and don’t get the pronunciation quite right. I point to her. Linda.
And I abandon her, once again, to Lisa.

There is hardly a break between songs, barely a seam of silence separating one from the next. Ruth Landes refers to a singer “pulling the songs for the drummers to take up.” Without the verb “pulled” I wouldn’t have understood as clearly as I do what I am experiencing. Amidst the dancers, I am able to pick out the voice of the singer who stands near the central edifice. He is the one who starts the songs, and stops them. He is the one who pulls the songs for the drummers.
I am drawn back to the anemic banker. He’s moved out of the inner most circle and is on the outside, close to me. Suddenly, his head goes back and his knees buckle, his body like a table collapsing. The woman with the towel is there to catch him and hold him up. She must have been watching out for him, she’s so close at hand. An older man is there, too. They don’t let the dancer go. He stands and starts to move again around the circle. They follow him; they watch him; they take care of him. I have a sense that they want him to be able to carry this god who has come into him, without crumbling from its force. And he does. As he dances again, in the outer circle now, he is changed. His face is chiseled, angular, hardened. He doesn’t mouth the words of the song. He is taken to an inner dance.
I yield to the temptation to close my eyes so that I can hear these rhythms without sight. My head becomes a drum, vibrating with this music. Around and around. I am emptied out, except for this. The pounding pulverizes my anxiety, my fears, my obsessions. It even vanishes my fatigue.
When I open my eyes again, the woman with the straw headdress is whirling in fast circles on the floor, and then strides forward — more like a speed-skater, than a horse — stops and turns again. It’s a ferocious, muscular movement which seems to press into her and spin her like a top. Suddenly, she is propelled through the curtained doorway and disappears. The two helpers follow her.
“Where has she gone?” I ask Lisa, but she frowns and shrugs.
Luke taps me on the shoulder and I jump, as though he’s touched me with an electric charge. “We have to go now,” he says.
“Really?”
“Lisa and I are going to a concert. You can come if you’d like.”
“Can I stay here?”
“No, not by yourself, and anyway, there’s no one to take you home.”

From Tough to Inspiring – Dancing in Honour of the Gods

The streets of Salvador, Brazil, are narrow and difficult to negotiate at the best of times (often it involves facing an on-coming car and backing up for a few blocks). On Saturday night it’s worse. There are people everywhere, carrying glasses of beer in plastic cups, herding about on the sidewalks, on the roads, unconfined by any bar or restaurant. They’ve taken over the streets.
Luke picks me up to go to the ceremony. He is wearing ordinary street clothes, a sweatshirt and kaki pants. Around his neck is a long string of large beads which declare his status as a member of the candomblé.
Candomblé means “a dance in honour of the gods.” He explains that the religion originated in Africa and was developed in Brazil in the 1500’s, when thousands of slaves were brought to work in the sugar industry. For years, the candomblé was exclusively practiced by women, and men were not allowed to participate. The basis of the religion is spirit possession. Remarkably, concepts of good and evil have no part in the beliefs; rather, each person has their own destiny to fulfil. And, as Ruth Landes notes, “their gods love a certain amount of trouble.”*
Fittingly, Luke says, “I’m attracted to all religions. I can’t help it. I just wish they wouldn’t fight.”
We pick up Lisa in front of the catholic church.Building in Bahia

Our route takes us away from the crowds and into dark and serpentine streets. We park in a cul-de-sac, walk half a block, and then descend between cinder block buildings. A plastic bag is animated by the wind and flutters ahead of us.

Along the steep alley-way, children are leaning out between the bars of tall iron fences. They are looking at us and they are looking down towards the bottom of the street.
In one enclosure there’s a doll, four feet high, with chocolate dark skin and bulging eyes, as though frightened by what it is seeing. The doll is dressed as a candomblé dancer, its skirts billowed by crinolines.
We’re entering an underworld.
I think of Rilke’s “Orpheus, Euridice and Hermes”: “That was the deep uncanny mine of souls… Like veins of silver ore, they silently moved through its massive darkness.”
Except we are not silent. Lisa is in the lead, occasionally erupting in inexplicable laughter.
For me, superimposed on the sight of Lisa is the presence of that room which is her home. [See previous Catch]
More children peer out from between iron bars as we descend. They live along this alley-way, the avenue to a place where the gods can enter a dancer’s body.
Finally we are at the bottom. In an open courtyard people are sitting on chairs, drinking beer and smoking. Women are cooking food over charcoal grills.
Although we are two hours late, Luke speaks to someone and then tells me that the ceremony hasn’t started yet. Spirit is always late, I think.
We pass through a corridor of people standing on either side of a doorway, and enter the terreiro, the cult centre. It’s a large rectangular room, perhaps 35’ x 40’. There are wooden benches around the periphery of the space, the women on the right, the men on the left. All the places are occupied by people sitting still, quietly waiting. At the centre of the room is a round structure, almost like a small bandstand, decorated with large shimmering swaths of blue and yellow fabric fashioned into a bow at the top and then flowing down to the ground. The cloth half covers two large dolls, both with bulging terrified eyes. In a corner there is another array of offerings on a stand: more dolls, a bottle of champagne, I don’t know what all.
Against one of the walls are three drums of different sizes.Candomblé drums
Luke says he is going to sit with the men, and directs me to the women’s side of the room. Lisa has found a small space on a bench for me, and, somewhat reluctantly, I sit down. She stands behind me. I’m the only gringa in the room.
A man comes through the cloth covering a doorway on the wall opposite me. He is wearing what might be, if you were to design such a thing, pyjamas for a prison inmate. They are square and baggy with wide blue and white stripes. His body is large and egg-shaped; he’s perhaps thirty-five years old, and he has a mincing swish in the way he walks, in the way he kisses the hands of the men and women he greets. He is the queen. We are his subjects.
Then another man is there, in pyjamas of the same cut but with a floral design. He is even taller and larger than the inmate, and has similar Truman Capote affectations, although slightly grander.
This is a liminal space at the entrance to many worlds. Ambiguities of all sorts find a purchase here.
A procession now comes into the room, men and woman dressed mostly in white. People clap, just a little, and everyone stands. The drums start, and the dancers form into two circles, an inner one and an outer one, moving around the central stand. They strike me as being on a divine merry go round, each dressed so differently, because they are dressed for their gods. And there are many gods.
As I look at the feet of the dancers, I am conscious of my own. I am wearing red shoes, like desert boots; my toes are curled inside, as though I am gripping onto a branch.
In the next Catch, I’ll describe what happened when I let go of that tentative grip.

*Landes (1908-1991) was in Salvador, Brazil, in the late 1930s, studying the candomblé. Her work was eventually published as The City of Women. She was mentored by Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas, her teachers.

More From Brazil: Beneath Appearances

IMG_0616The water problem has been solved to the extent that we have water coming into the first floor. Cold water, but no one is complaining. The bar lowers.
We go to the beach. A young boy comes along selling cheese on skewers. He carries a small metal container on a chain which has burning coals in it. We buy three skewers, which he roasts over the coals. The cheese is delicious. T. says, “This is what Luke was doing when I met him twenty-five years ago. He was nine years old, supporting his entire family by selling things on the beach.”
T. has an extraordinary ability to identify, and support, the potential in others.
Now, at 34, Luke runs a business employing people to make high-end purses and bags out of the tabs from pop and beer cans. He was recently featured in Vogue Magazine. He’s gay, part of the candomblé religion and entirely charming. Luke was one of the people T. helped when she ran the charitable organization to assist women and children to get housing and schooling; she’s still in contact with many of the people she helped; they are her friends.
One of them is Lisa. She comes every day to cook and clean for us. She is twenty-five years old, with three children. She is always stylishly dressed, generally with dangling earrings, and pearl jewelry around her neck. We have a small lap pool at our casa; one day she brings her older son to swim. Like his mother, he is well dressed, sparklingly clean, and loving.
T. asked if I would like to walk Lisa home, to see where she lives.
We make our way through the narrowing streets of the barrio. We stop for a short visit with Mike and Anna. They’ve just finished building their house. Mike is a writer, originally from New York, and Anna is a social worker from Brazil. Mike says pleasantly, without any complaint in his voice, “We have five phones. Most of them don’t work. I think we’re down to one now. Because of the salt. And sometimes the phone doesn’t work if it rains.”
When we arrive at Lisa’s, her drunken mother, now physically deformed from being beaten so often, is just stepping into the street. T. told me that the mother goes to the beach and trades sex for food from the fishermen.
Lisa unlocks the door. Across the barred gate there appears a small barking dog. A man comes out, Lisa’s partner; he’ll take the dog for a walk, because otherwise there won’t be room for all of us. Still there isn’t enough room.
How and where Lisa lives with her partner and her three children is burned into my brain. It’s a room no larger than the bedroom I have in the rented house: maybe 8’ x 12’, with a bathroom behind a curtain. In the room there’s a stove, fridge, bunkbed, and a dresser with a television set on it.
It’s hard not to avoid the thought that whatever they have, including their poverty, is somehow, through no fault of their own, contagion.

Mural in the barrio

Mural in the barrio

When Lisa isn’t there, or her sister isn’t babysitting, the children are locked in that room, otherwise Lisa is afraid they’ll be abused or killed. In the afternoons, after school, and sometimes all day long, they sit in the semi-dark, hunched over because to see the television they crouch on the bottom bunk, and the cross bar is low and hits their heads. Gradually they will diminish, in one way or another.
I had no idea. I saw Lisa every day, always well-dressed like a fashionable 25 year old, with her pearl jewelry. The oldest child spent the day with us. I had no idea they came from this place.

So you think you want to go to Brazil, lassie?

Recently I went on a month long vacation to Salvador, Brazil. What happened was not at all what I had expected. In the next five Catches I’ll describe some of the things which we encountered on our trip. First, the question of water.

Digging for water

Digging for water

After travelling for about 24 hours from Vancouver, my friend and I get to Salvador, on the northeast coast of Brazil. We’ve rented a lovely casa in a working class neighbourhood; however, when we arrive, we discover that the house has no water. Well, maybe a dribble. No casa is that lovely without water.
Because my friend, T., spent twenty-five years running a charitable organization in Salvador, she not only speaks Portuguese, but she knows a lot of people who can help. They arrive.
The possibilities canvassed as to the cause of the water problem are: the landlord hasn’t paid his bill; he doesn’t have water tanks on the roof; he’s illegally hooked into the city’s water supply and so doesn’t have enough water to get to the tanks on the roof, if there are tanks on the roof; the pipes are blocked/corroded/have air pockets…
So we decide to call the landlord, who lives in New York. The difficulty is that the phone doesn’t work. We call him on my ipad using Skype. He doesn’t have a clue what could be wrong.
As a result of the call, more people go off in all directions.
It’s very hot and I’m grimy from the trip. I stand under the shower as water drips from the faucet. I might as well be standing under a broken eavestrough after a rainstorm.
We set about finding a new place to live. T. can’t read Portuguese as well as she can speak it, so we don’t quite know what the internet ads say. We look at the pictures. T.’s friend, nicknamed Trouper, helps with the responses, but his eyes are weak and he can’t see what he’s typing. So he writes out the message to put on these websites, and I type it in; but I can’t read his handwriting.
This becomes the template for handling all our subsequent problems in Brazil.
As we are looking for a new place, workers arrive to do something about the water; someone comes to fix the phone. And I discover I’ve forgotten half my power cord for my computer. With a traveler’s early ignorance and confidence, I’m certain we can find a replacement cord.
Trouper falls in with my plan. Although we don’t speak the same language, we set out in his car. Along the main highway into town there are malls. We go from one to another, looking for Apple products and the power cord. The malls glisten with high end stores, oh so many pairs of shoes, and purses. Such incongruity with our neighbourhood. In one of the streets where we are staying, what looks like a speed bump on the road ahead is actually the pile up of garbage. The beaches have been fouled. The poverty is gagging. And we are currently in a mall choked with toys for the rich. Something is deeply wrong here.
Travelling in maniacal traffic, heading for yet another mall, I put the orphan half of my computer cord around my neck, so Trouper will understand I’m going to hang myself unless we stop this search, and go back to our desert casa. Which we do.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, which is Sunday, the house is crawling with men, each of whom is carrying a tool box. I say to T., “This looks promising.”
She says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

Digging for water at night

Digging for water at night

They climb on the roof. They take off the roof tiles. They take apart the taps. They decide there’s air in the pipes. They use a bicycle pump to pump out the lines. This seems to be what T. described as jeito: the good-willed energy and ability to repair stranded cars with two wires and a pocket knife, or, in this instance, climb onto a high roof with neither rope nor ladder. To my surprise, the bike pump clears the air in the lines, but it doesn’t much help.
The only way I manage to cope with the frustrations which beset us is to think: actually, I’m in India. I was there once, and I quickly learned that you cannot control any situation, or exert your will, in India; one must surrender. So eventually I do. I smile a lopsided smile as my laptop dies.
One thing about being in India is that, after a while, events take on an absorbing teeter-totter quality. Whenever anyone says “good news!” I adopt T.’s mantra: “maybe yes, maybe no.”
Sharing a computer, even with a very dear friend, is tricky business, especially if neither of you has had shower. T. is generous; I am nervous.
And even though I thought I’d been paying attention, I don’t quite know how a decision was made (note the passive voice) that the real problem (not corroded pipes or an unpaid water bill) the real problem is that the water pipe belonging to the house is too small. So on Monday we have to hurry back from the beach because more, and different, men are coming. Using picks and shovels, they are going to dig up the street. Without getting permission from anyone.
The road in front of our house is wide enough for one parked car and one moving car; the position of the hole is almost half way across. In other words, it’s smack in the centre of traffic. After five hours, the diggers quit work to come back the next day. And the next. Eventually we learn they can’t actually find where the pipe emerges from under the sidewalk to connect to the city’s water line. There are as many holes in the road as days which had passed: four.
We’re not able to find another place to rent. We’re staying. Trouper holds the garden hose as we “bathe” outside, in the walled-in front of the house.
While we’re in the market today, we get a phone message that they found the water connection. “What good news,” we say. Maybe yes, maybe no. When we get home it’s maybe no. After replacing the connection, we have only slightly more than a dribble of water into the house.
But gradually — no doubt because I have become Mother Theresa — I feel lighter.
I’ll close now, wishing you well, from Salvador, India.

Light from a Bic

Comet-ISONA comet sits at the edge of our solar system, left out of the creation of planets. It’s been there for 4.5 billion years.

So loosely is it committed to its dark nothingness, it barely moves.
It doesn’t even know it’s going around the sun.

Then something perturbs it, maybe the gravity of a passing star. And the comet starts to fall.

Just a rock — I’ve stubbed my toe on one — it has bent the propeller on my boat — a rock, a billion miles away, this thing which began almost with time itself, is falling into the sun.

Time, measured by waking and sleeping, light and dark, tracks the comet’s descent from morn to noon, from noon until evening, its day a hundred years.*

What once flung it away now urges it back in. It is pulled by the sun.

The comet emerges from the dark.

We’ve never seen this part of the solar system before.

Disturbed from its vast sleep, the comet is on the move. It becomes a growing source of light.

The mile long rock sweeps back a tail which grows until it is a million miles long. From less than a plod, it’s now traveling 50,000 miles an hour.

I lose sentience, trying to keep in mind all these fabulous facts.

What can help me understand any of these numbers, help me count them out when once, using my ten fingers, I understood how old I was? I was five, then six, as my age danced on my hand. At eleven there was some kind of abyss.

How can my fingers help me now?

Once we blasted a hole in its side, to find out its composition, to learn more about the formation of our solar system. A crater answered with a shower of rubies.

And maybe there were also emeralds and sapphires.

This solid, inert, annoyingly rocky thing, with no brain or heart or any way of caring — despite my projections — this thing, which sat in darkness, comes closer, begins to feel the heat of the sun from millions of miles away.

I’m on my deck. Above me, the clouds shift to reveal the sun. I feel a little warmer.

IMG_0726We kitchenize these ideas which blow beyond the range of our minds. On November 11, 2014, a spacecraft, the size of a car, dropped a probe, the size of a fridge, onto comet 67P. Although its landing sounded like something falling out of a cupboard, it was as chancy as a bullet hitting a bullet.**

Some say the comet is like a hill going 50 times the speed of shot from a rifle. Its surface starts to sizzle and crack; it’s losing mass; it’s shrinking. Its orbit changes. It tumbles. Maybe it will be a sungrazer, compelled to hurl itself into the central fire and boil away.

Or maybe not.

Instead, it flings itself around the sun; it’s on its way back, gradually quieter, a ball of ice and dust, its geography rearranged, becoming, again, what it once was.

Perhaps it’s my intractable habit of seeing myself everywhere, even in a comet, but the solid science of its story connects me to it even more. We are all bound in birth to the instant when nothing became something, and the universe began.

Will we be able to remember all these numerical thoughts as we slowly wither from our atmosphere having no substance, being strafed and shredded until it’s as thin as cotton candy? Still, you have to admire us a little, as we hurtle into the sun. Maybe we can save ourselves even yet.

A friend, as though in another orbit, disturbs my dark and lonely space. I start to move. We are in one another’s arms.

And still, I long for the hubris of an earlier day, when we believed that although we could not make our sun stand still, we would make him run.***

Now I begin to know too much about comets. Too much to even say the sun is ours.

I suddenly see myself as a flicker of light, not even from a candle, but a flicker from a Bic lighter, and that’s all. And you, the same. Still, I see you for an instant. Let it be enough.

 

* This is an intentional chiming with Paradise Lost when the dark angel is thrown from heaven and drops like a falling star.
** A comment made by one of my Tuesday night “understanding the universe” friends.
*** This is taken from Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress.”