January 27, 2011

What's Your Happy Place?

Admittedly, this time of year I am growing a little restless in anticipation of spring.  By way of a bright spot in the muddy wet coastal January that we both share, a friend recently sent me one of those 'planetbossi' slide shows, this one of a  resort in Bora Bora with swaying palms, water that could only be described, somewhat reduntantly, as aquamarine, and white sand beaches with luxurious guest huts perched on stilts just off shore.  While I enjoyed the colour-drenched photo-tour very much, I had no emotional connection with the place since I have never been there or anywhere like it.  The closest I have been to the equator is Cannon Beach, Oregon and in fact, I'm not one to pine for tropical holidays.  I'm sure I would find plenty to enjoy once I arrived there, but as far as a dream destination goes, the tropics don't actually interest me all that much.  (I'm now covering my ears while you scream, 'WHAT?  ARE YOU CRAZY?')  Perhaps I would think differently if I lived in freezing cold Saskatchewan or blizzard-stricken southern Alberta, but I don't and never have. 

So what do I dream of during the dark days of January?  I dream of places I have been to on holiday, places of summer warmth and beauty where my family and I have spent long, bright days doing precious nothing and everything away from the daily concerns of work and home.  This morning, when I lay awake in the 6 a.m. darkness, thinking about the day to come, I suddenly and inexplicably remembered the week's holiday we once spent in Bamfield on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and I felt a bright glow of happiness.  I am convinced that half of the value of a good holiday is the place it creates in our memory - where the multisensory experience of visiting somewhere removed from our usual routines and pathways provides something almost tangible that we can access at will to spin and weave into a gold, green and blue tapestry to fling over the dull sadness of the late winter landscape.

It was our fourth summer living at Strathcona Park Lodge.  I was sitting on a log with a few other parents, by the beach volleyball court watching the Lodge children play their version of touch football.  There have always been children at the Lodge.  The couple who founded the Lodge in the 1950's, Myrna and Jim Boulding, raised five children there. The eldest, Elizabeth is a marine biology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario.  Every summer, she and her husband and teenaged daughter came home to Vancouver Island.  The opportunities for hands-on marine research being non-existent in the landlocked province of Ontario, the Marine Biology department of the U of Guelph sent several students to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the West Coast of Vancouver Island each summer.  Elizabeth and her family rented a small house - more of a cabin, really - for the four months of each summer and we at the Lodge would be treated to many visits from her husband and daughter who would return often to visit their Lodge family.  Liz' husband, Toby is also a marine scientist in his own right, but he had put his career on the backburner to look after their daughter and to work on various carpentry projects -  he is an incredibly skilled woodworker and had helped build many of the fine wooden buildings at the Lodge.  This fourth summer, Liz was to spend much of her time in Scandanavia doing research on some type of snail and so her husband and daughter chose to spend even more time than usual at the Lodge. 

That day at the beach volleyball court, we had started chatting about summer holidays when Liz and Toby asked me what our plans were.  I was saying, well, we have a few weeks and aren't sure how to spend them all, when Liz offered their cabin in Bamfield during the time she would be in northern Europe.  It took about ten seconds before her offer was accepted. 

Bamfield is on Barkley Sound, is divided by Bamfield Inlet, and populated by Huu-ay-aht of the Nuu-chah-nulth, the local indigenous people. Europeans founded a small fishing community sometime in the late 1800s. In 1902, the Bamfield cable station was constructed as the western terminus of a worldwide undersea telegraph cable called by some the All Red Line as it passed only through countries and territories controlled by the British Empire, which were coloured red on the map. (The cable initially went to Fanning Island, a tiny coral atoll in the mid-Pacific, and from there continued to Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia.) It is the home of the first marine and fisheries lifesaving station, founded in 1907, on the Pacific Coast of Canada. Bamfield is now home to several sport fishing lodges, which pursue primarily salmon and halibut. Bamfield is also the northern terminus of the West Coast Trail, a world-famous hiking trail built in 1907 along the west coast of Vancouver Island to help survivors of the area's many shipwrecks find their way back to civilization. The trail runs many kilometres along extremely rugged terrain.Today Bamfield is primarily a tourist destination, either for the West Coast Trail, ocean kayaking or sport fishing. And as mentioned above, Bamfield also receives many university students who attend semesters at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.*

We had never been to Bamfield but we knew enough having gone to stunningly beautiful Tofino, also on the West Coast of the Island, with my husband on a business trip, to welcome the opportunity of seeing it.  The additional prospect of staying in an accomodation, gratis, and with indoor plumbing and a real bed (instead of camping at a nearby campsite as we did the following year) made the offer even more attractive to me, who was six months pregnant with our youngest child at the time.  We set off late in July and drove the very rough dirt road from Port Alberni in the center of the Island to Bamfield.  We located Liz and Toby's cabin and unpacked our supplies.  The cabin was fairly basic, but unlike our home at the Lodge, it had a small black and white television with four cable channels!  The kids found their room also to discover to their utmost delight, a full set of Tintin and Asterix comics belonging to Liz and Toby's daughter.  'This is the LIFE!', exclaimed my eight year old Ian when watching cartoons on the TV the next morning.

The entire week was filled with experiences which drew a similar reaction to Ian's from all of us.  We visited Pachena Bay several times, which is the West Coast Trailhead, and explored the best tidal pools we had ever seen filled with brightly coloured creatures in crystal clear water.  We watched grey whales feeding just off shore.  We took the water taxi across Bamfield Inlet and explored the colourfully painted shops and buildings along the boardwalk, and then hiked to the western side of Bamfield and picnicked on Brady's Beach.  My husband and our boys negotiated the ladders and slippery boardwalks one day and hiked to the first beach on the West Coast Trail while my daughter and I baked a cake in the cabin and had a tea party all to ourselves.  We played rounds and rounds of badminton on the cabin's sloped lawn and visited the Marine Sciences Centre which also houses a length of the original telegraph cable of the All Red Line in a glass case and an accompanying historical display.   When the kids were in bed in the evenings my husband and I watched whichever 1960's James Bond film happened to be playing on the television - one of the channels seemed to be having a bit of a Bond festival, which was right up our alley for light holiday entertainment, and in black and white to boot.

Bamfield Inlet and the dock where we caught the water taxi

That first Bamfield holiday was one of many good holidays we have enjoyed as a family, but thinking about it now and remembering all the details, I think it fair to say it was one of the best.  By the next summer, Liz and Toby had given up their lease of the house - Liz was simply travelling too much for her research to justify hanging onto it.  We went back to Bamfield the following summer and camped at the First Nation campground on Pachena Bay.  Besides it being extremely damp camping in the rainforest (I learned to bring wool sweaters, socks and hats camping after that) and the firewood too green, we had another good holiday.  The mornings were misty but the afternoons were gloriously sunny as I sat thawing on the beach with baby Katie, now nine months old.  My husband had brought kayays this time and he played in the surf with the kids and explored along the west shore of the bay by himself.  It was all great, but the creature-comfort part of me (and it is a big part) thought wistfully of Liz and Toby's cabin with the kitchen where we had made waffles every day, of the comfortable beds and of the little black and white television with four good cable channels, which at that time in our lives, signified decadence indeed!  Some day I hope to return to Bamfield...perhaps to one of those luxurious fishing lodges?  I can dream.

*the information in this paragraph came from here.  The photos came from tourism sites.  If you want to read a great article with further description of Bamfield see this article.

January 20, 2011

The Best Way to Run Away without leaving Home

My homestead has been a flurry of activity for the past two weeks.  What with snow days, girls home with the flu, husband home three weekdays due to a temporarily altered work schedule, and handymen in and out fixing hot water tanks and bathroom vents there hasn't been an awful lot of brainspace for yours truly to collect herself enough to write anything from scratch.  My solace has been to climb into the bath in the late evenings with a book, lately Tony Blair's autobiography A Journey: My Political Life, for a half hour or so.  In this habit I am very much like my dear mom.  A few years ago I began a series of personal essays about wise sayings and attitudes passed down from her, and for this week's post, I include my earliest one:

When I was twelve, my dad took by elder brother Stephen and I to Whiterock, a small seaside town south of Vancouver, to visit my dad's parents whom we called Nana and Grandad.  One afternoon during the visit my Nana and I were discussing baths and showers, most likely brought on by the scolding I had received from her for taking a forty-five minute shower earlier that day (-we didn't have a shower at home). I remember telling her that my mom frequently enjoyed long, hot baths in the evening, and Nana's reaction was such that I began to worry about my mom's safety.  Nana insisted that long hot baths were very bad for the heart and if my mother insisted on taking baths they should be lukewarm at best.  She instructed me to pass on this vital information as soon as I got home, for she was sure my mom must be ignorant about the daily risk she was taking against her health.  When I was finally able to tell my mom about what Nana had said, I expected her to be first, utterly shocked, and second, exceedingly grateful to me for passing on the life-saving information.  It was my turn to be shocked, however, when for the first time ever, my mom let me in on a little secret:  she and Nana did not agree on everything, and Nana should mind her own business.  Reading in the bath was my mother's reward after a full day of doing everything she did for her family and community, and no one was going to take that away from her.  In fact, she frequently encouraged all of us to do the same.

My mom's benevolence regarding baths extended beyond the family to include overnight guests.  If someone we were hosting appeared tired, dirty, and unstrung from travel, she would offer them the bathtub.  The summer I was eighteen I met a traveling German boy, just a little older than myself.  He frequently came into the somewhat fancy outdoor adventure supply shop (which my dad liked to call 'The Yuppie Surplus') where I worked and finally asked me out to a movie.  We became good friends and I invited him home on occasion.  He had been staying with a family at their camp quite far out of town, helping them to build a log home, and frequently went without a bath or shower for several days in a row.  My mom liked him and would often invite him to eat or have tea with us, but she would always ask a few times during his visit as his 'natural' body odour filled the room, " Patrick, wouldn't you like a nice, hot bath?" I would watch her pained face as he would smilingly refuse, completely unaware of the malodorous discomfort he was creating.  When she pressed again, he would finally agree, and my relief would almost equal hers.

I have often heard women complain about mothers who think a hot bath and a cup of tea are the answer to all life's problems.  I do not think for a moment my mom in naive enough to believe that, but she firmly holds (and I agree with her) that both tea and hot baths are great restoratives to the world-weary soul.  Ours was a family of six children, who grew up in a smallish century-old house with one bathroom. Reading far into the night was the way my mom made time and space for herself.  Many times I would arrive home late at night after a dance or a night out at a club, and there would be mom reading in the old claw-foot tub, her chest covered with facecloths, her toes skillfully manipulating the taps to add more hot water.  Without looking up from War and Peace or Brideshead Revisited she would say, "Oh hello sweetie, did you have a good time?  What time is it?  Really?  That late!  I'll get out and you can get in and have a nice, hot bath..."

And I would.

January 12, 2011

We Interrupt our Regular Programming to Bring You the Following...

I started another deep and serious post yesterday when the cold wind was blowing the heck out of the freezer-burnt landscape outside and the happy post-Christmas thoughts from my brain, but was unable to complete it due to two meetings I had to attend and a large pot of chicken soup that needed making.  At ten p.m. last night, the forecasted snowfall began and did not let up until eight a.m. this morning when forty centimeters of snow blanketed everything in sight, including any thoughts I had for my intended post.  By six-thirty a.m., when my boys must be up to get to their band class on time, I had heard on the radio that the schools would be closed for the day.  Good news - I would now have plenty of help with shovelling the driveway before the rain turned the snow into west coast cement. 

Once the driveway was clear my girls surprised me by asking if they could get out some of our cross-country skis.  The plows had yet to clear the streets around our house and passing trucks had made ski-able tracks, so I said yes it might be safe to do so, and located some suitable skis and poles while they sorted through the boots to find some that fit.  It has been a few years since we have visited any formal ski trails, and unfortunately the boys outgrew their equipment long ago.  Emma gave Katie a few pointers and before long they were making their way up and down the street:

After they tired of skiing, Emma gave me the equipment and after a few runs up and down the block in front of our house:


Off I went for a half-hour ski around the neighbourhood:

As I settled into a balanced position over the center of my skis and fell into my accustomed stride, I realized what a good warmup it had been to shovel the driveway. I skiid to the end of the road and crossed the untracked snow of the park.  I made my way down a block full of people clearing their driveways while their children made snow angels and snow forts, never worrying they might run out of building material.  Most of my neighbours greeted me as I floated past, although some looked at me like I might have something missing in my upper storey.  When I rounded the last corner before our block I began to feel tired and a bit shakey.  It had been a morning full of exercise and so was time to put the skis away and go inside for a hearty lunch.  After I had hung up my wet clothes - the rain had soaked my thin jacket thoroughly - I sat down on the sofa with a cup of hot chocolate.  I could not stop smiling.  It was so wonderful to feel again that unique kind of fatigue born of the graceful, rhythmic, repetitive swing of arms and legs that is cross-country skiing. All the snow scented fresh air, which I have heard described as 'distilled crystal cleanliness' filling my lungs hadn't done me any harm either.

And if it stops raining we're going to go out again!


Regular programming will resume...at some point.

January 6, 2011

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

He was her first love, the first boy to crack her well formed shell.  Her mom could tell she was in love by the change in the way she played the piano.  They did not live in the same town but they spent every day at the college together and often weekends at each others houses where her parents had a couch for him and his parents had a spare room for her.  His parents were British ex-pats and made the strongest tea she had ever drunk.
"Do you drink tea?" they'd asked. 
"Oh yes, I'm a big tea drinker,"  she'd claimed. 
They made their Yorkshire tea in a small metal pot, and it was steeped as dark as varnished mahogany. He put six, count 'em, SIX teaspoons of sugar in his tea and then stirred it in such a way she could never manage to copy - very fast and very noisily.  She put in her one teaspoon of sugar and her dose of milk and after one cup of that brew she was totally wired for sound, but her pride made her drink another cup; she was not about to look like a tea wuss in front of his mom.  His parents were lovely to her; his dad had a dry sense of humour and they liked the same type of movie, and his mom was very kind, smart, and a great cook.  She remembered staying for dinner and sitting down with the family to baked ham and potatoes, salad and a beautiful trifle for dessert.  Her boyfriend saw what was for dinner and turned his nose up at it.  He made himself an omelette with canned potatoes instead.

They were friends first. They met at their college early in the fall of her second year. He was in one of her classes and they had mutual friends.  They all used to sit together in the common room, and she would remark on the fact that every day he would buy a packet of salt and vinegar chips, put them in his ham sandwich and then squish the two halves together. He liked the way she dressed. And the way she smiled.  Before long they found themselves sitting together and talking whenever they had a break in the school day and sometimes he would rest his head on her shoulder.  Gradually, their friends began to wonder what was up with them and so they took the hint and started going out together as a couple.  Perhaps they only did what they thought was expected of them.  Their relationship, starting off very strongly and growing to the state of 'I love you' by mid-winter, was by summer waning like the phases of the moon, only much less pretty.  They, philosophically, had found they were like the proverbial two ships passing in the night, a circumstance manageable by friends who know how to argue and remain friends, but hardly by two hot-headed, opinionated beings who were each trying to change the other's personality into something they could live with.  By the following September they went their separate ways. He went off travelling and she began working at a cafe for a ski pass and taking night classes.

When they broke up she cried every night for three weeks and if Feist's song 'Let it Die' had been around back then I'm sure it would have been her soundtrack:

The saddest part of a broken heart, isn't the ending so much as the start.
The tragedy starts with the very first spark, losing your mind for the sake of your heart.

She looks back now and thinks her tears were part heartbreak and part relief. The last few months of their relationship had been so difficult, and the worst part was, it seemed they could not even be friends after what they had put each other through. That was the real heartbreak for her because she found she missed him (and his parents).  A good friendship had been ruined by love's toxic side-effects.

After he returned from his eight month tour of northern Africa he hitchhiked over to visit her.  He looked strange with a beard and she had to look into his eyes to recognize him completely.  She also saw herself differently in his presence.  She was stronger and more experienced now and even though she still did not know what she wanted in life, she knew what she didn't want.  He stayed for a bit and then she drove him home to his house where they ate spaghetti at his parent's table and he wondered if she'd noticed he ate tomatoes now - after travelling and living in a developing nation for eight months and eating what was available or go hungry, he now was proud to say he truly appreciated any and all foods. His mom asked her if she was going to stay over, but she said no, she had to go. The question that had hung in the air since he'd called from London of getting back together was answered, and the answer was no. They saw each other a small handful of times before she went off to university, in situations awkward and strained, and then never again. That was over twenty-one years ago, but she remembers it all vividly. A few years went by for her of marriage and kids, jobs and moving with jobs, and she was home for a visit. Her mom told her she ran into a mutual acquaintance of theirs, and that this person had been asked to say hello to her from him. She said to say hello back.

She had been thinking about him lately, and thought she might see if he was on Facebook - it had been amazing how many people she had reconnected with on the site, which allowed people to reach out to people from their past without giving too much away -  so she Googled his name.  What she found was a website with lots of writing and photographs. Photographs of paintings for sale that he and his wife had done, and of his two little girls.  It was a strange feeling to see his face after all these years, to read about what he had been up to; it seemed a little like spying.  She was tempted to 'fess up and e-mail the address on the site just to say she had found it and had liked what she had seen - the paintings, the family who looked very happy, the work and involvement in his community, etc. - but she was also hesitant.  An email out of the blue might not be welcome from an old girlfriend, even a well-intentioned one, and perhaps it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.  She decided to sleep on it.  The next day, she knew she would just let it be for now.  She had found what she was looking for, she had found him happy and industrious, and by the looks of it, an affectionate husband and father. She had always wondered what he would become and had hoped for the best. 

A year after they had broken up, she met the man who was now her husband.  She knew that this time the love was the marrying kind because being with him warmed that 'secret spot of loneliness'* in her, that longing for someone who would love her for exactly who she was, allowing her to love him fully and generously in return.  She was very glad to know that her old friend had found that too.

*from A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge