Sunday, May 30, 2010

Saint Denis at night

Early evening. Warm weather, short sleeves, open air cafes.

A cloud of delicious food smells. Whiffs of garbage and marijuana. Cigarette smoke, like jet trails, follows the gesturing hands. Cigar smoke too.

A hubbub of mostly French conversation -- some of it transparent, some opaque. A few words separate themselves from the general din, entering my ears with complete clarity: pas mal... quel tendresse!... que choissisons-nous?

We stop by a stone wall. While my companion bandages her blistered heel, I gaze upward at the very old stone buildings. A few new plain ones seem uncomfortable, ill-suited to the place.

Going with the flow, we negotiate the eddies in the river of humanity, trying not to appear too obviously anglo.

Rue Saint Denis, in the midst of Vieux Montreal on a summer's night.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Long Fields, Long Shadows

We fly by night, a full round orange moon lighting the cotton batting layer of gray cloud below. The plane is quiet, with most passengers asleep. I close my eyes, and when I open them, a blot of brilliant light bathes the dark head of a sleeping passenger in the row ahead. As the sun clears the horizon, other splotches of light evade closed blinds to dance through the cabin.

This bright flash is a shaft of sunlight on the upturned wingtip. The plane banks, jet engines shimmering below the shaded wing.

Full daylight now. The green sunlit morning illuminates slender trees that cast long shadows over lush meadows. Unlike the foursquare prairie spreads, fields along the St. Lawrence are long and thin.

This shape reflects their history. Not so very long ago, this river provided access to the outside world, with each long narrow farm fronting the river and stretching far to the back. So much land is cultivated now, but this was not always so. With backbreaking labour, the early settlers transformed forested wilderness into farms only a handful of generations ago.

History also casts long shadows. The way we are is so much a reflection of how we used to be. Consciously or unconsciously, we can all say with the Quebecois, Je me souviens.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Window in the Pool

I woke up this morning with a dual image: two swimming pools, widely separated in time and space. The first was Sam Lindsay Memorial Pool in Kitimat, where I lived in my early twenties, and the other was at the Villa Vera resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Each had a window in the side, allowing an observer to look in. Yet how different were my associations of the two.

Through the first window, I was observed by my swimming instructor. With patient encouragement, Jeff Clark made a careful assessment of my technique and showed me how to improve. He also helped me overcome my fear of water. In his class, I developed a strong breaststroke that would last a lifetime and carry me countless miles through pools, lakes and oceans.

In the Kitimat winter, the pool window symbolized the shame and frustration of being so slow to relax, develop body awareness and coordinate legs and arms. But my persistence and Jeff's help paid off and I learned to swim. Once I crossed the barrier, a mile was as easy as a length. I knew then that I could learn anything.

The Mexican pool was also tiled in blue, but there the similarity ended. I stood with my husband and daughter, barefoot on the sunny deck, and looked in. To our surprise and delight, beautiful pictures had been worked into the mosaic: realistic whales, sea turtles and other creatures of the deep seemed to swim before our eyes.

In one pool, I was the struggling subject, observed and found wanting. In the other, I was the observer, standing with my loved ones in a sun-warmed tropical garden among the miracles of nature, looking through thick tinted glass at one small miracle of human creativity.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fluff Season

Late spring. The lilacs are fading, turning brown and losing their lovely scent. Time for fluff to take over. At first glance, the cottonwood fluff looks like snow. It is so light that each tiny breeze provides a distraction for the winged seeds to follow. Unimpressed by gravity, they seem to fall sideways rather than down.

Driving along the beach yesterday, I opened the windows wide to catch the wonderful scents of the season. Fluff drifted in and out of the moving car. The road left the beach and passed a pond where a heron waited knee deep in patient stillness, undistracted by fluff flying slowly past his head to land and float on the pond around him.

Back at home, I looked at the deck where we've put the patio furniture, ready for outdoor sitting. Fluff drifted lazily across the pebbled glass table top, adorned cobwebs in the corner of the porch.

Soon the fluff will be everywhere. On the porches and lawns, it will drift along and pile up in small clumps where it hits obstacles. It will accumulate between the doors and windows and their screens, and sneak inside when one or the other is opened. Each time we look through a window, it will be drifting lazily by.

In our area, the arrival of fluff season is a sure sign that spring is already waning. Fluff is a harbinger of lazy summer heat.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Going against the flow

After I long day, I climbed aboard and rode, reading and dozing by turns. At the end of the line, like a sleepwalker, I followed the crowd off the train.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man disembark beside me, separating himself from the river of people that flowed as one toward the wide cement stairs and began to descend.

He was tanned, his head was completely shaven, and he wore work clothes and boots, all marked with a patina of white that looked like concrete dust or paint.

The other thing that made him different was a frenetic energy that seemed to vibrate off him in the midst of the somnolent crowd of homing commuters.

Quickly, decisively, he moved to the top of the up escalator and looked down. It was completely clear of people, and so was the platform below.

He backed up, bounded forward and suddenly he was airborne. I watched his head bob and heard seven rhythmic bounces as he leapt down against the current, barely touching the ascending risers. Then he was gone.

Witnessing this dramatic descent of an up escalator answered a question that I have wondered about off and on since I first rode the escalator in Woodward's in Edmonton at the age of five.

Is it possible go down the up escalator? Now I know it is.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Careless in Red, by Elizabeth George

I've just finished reading Careless in Red (HarperLuxe, 2008). Elizabeth George is a brilliant writer at the top of her game.

Having begun by watching the Inspector Lynley BBC Mystery series, and then gone on to read many of George's novels featuring Tommy Lynley and Barbara Havers, the same inimitable pair of mismatched sleuths, I am eager to get my hands on the next book.

George's chosen genre of fiction is often considered to be "mere" escape literature, but her work is much more than that. The characters and conflicts are deeply developed, and the themes are easily accessible to any reader: family secrets, reluctance to forgive, regret for past errors.

Remarkably, Elizabeth George is an American, writing in a time-honoured British genre which she has further refined. Her works are painstakingly researched, and, to my Canadian ear at least, completely authentic in every detail.

Indeed, George says that she never sets a scene in a location that she has not personally walked over. I would add that she has an excellent ear for the local speech of favoured settings like East London.

This novel is set in Cornwall and dedicated to the memory of a murder victim whose killers are known but have "gone unpunished." Though fortunately this situation is not part of most people's everyday lives, the characters are all-too-evocative of real people and certain memorable lines have wider application.

Some of these are philosophical: "She considered the ways in which 'getting even' was merely a questionable euphemism for 'learning nothing' (755)." And the question, "If one person's truth is an unbearable blow to another person and simultaneously unnecessary for him to know, need one speak it? (849)."

And more poignantly, for one tragic character, "[life's]...demands were for compromise and change...which required the ability to switch courses when necessary, to modify behaviours, and to alter dreams so that they could meet the realities that they came up against. But he'd never been able to do any of that, so he'd been crushed, and life had rolled over his shattered body (577)."

Other lines are wryly funny -- "the sort of woman who did not believe a man's ego had to be preserved by allowing him moments of specious supremacy over her (360)", and "...enough brands of junk food to keep morbid obesity going on for several generations (562)."

With the realism of George's writing, and a plot that revolves around the murder of an eighteen-year-old, the story is not easy. Yet George manages to keep faith with the reader of fiction by holding to her part of the writer-reader bargain: her story does deliver moral solace in the end, though not in the expected way. That is its genius.

Hats off to you, Elizabeth George! Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and other intellectual ancestors in who wrote in the British mystery genre would be proud.

Finally, Dear Reader, do not be alarmed by the page numbers. They refer to the large print edition.