by Sharon Nelson
In the lemony light of Indian Summer, we circumnavigate this island, follow the sun as we leave the city core, take the old island road, the way around the shore. Vistas open as we drive west and north; we stop, breathe slightly tangy air, watch the play of light on water, small boats, the occasional fisher, pintails and mallards resting near the shallows. In one of many public parks along the shoreline, we come upon a bank of hardy roses; their canes are visible through thinning foliage, though a few late flowers still open to the sun. We approach, go close, and nose to rose, breathe summer's scent, in this season of plenty and dying.
We snuffle roses, gladdened by their scent; some node in the brain responds as it has since the beginning of Time. We impose that notion, Time, and the organizing principle of grids, straight roads, maps, but no matter how linear our plans and routes, how firm a geometry of time and space we set in place, islands feel round, regardless of their shapes.
Today, the air is soft as melted butter, the sun the yellow of beaten egg yolk, the light hazy and diffuse above the water, almost dense, as if you could cut it into pieces with a knife. But squalls and storms will rock this island as if it were a cradle lying in the river, all our careful lines and grids obscured by weather that blurs the boundaries of land and not-land, all markers made invisible by storms. Imagine a whole city circumnavigable, the shape of insularity defined by bridges that connect to that other world, off-island, land-locked; each span a connection across turbulent water, though today, in this almost honeyed light, when the afternoon sun is lazy and satisfied and the wind is calm, the water looks benign.
Sacred spaces punctuate this journey, mark the whole circumference of this island. Wherever we look, we see churches, crucifixions, the Sacred Heart of Jesus bleeding, statues of the Blessed Virgin, still only a girl, cradling the Child: Love thy neighbour as thy self.
The road that winds around the shore connects diverse communities, each still identifiable, not only by a name on a sign, but by style; each separate town witness to historical process, a particular population, a particular economic status; each house a statement about a particular time, and aspirations. Small, low houses squat in clusters, away from water, as if to shelter from its noise, the brazen winds of winter; and wide-verandahed homes that faced the bay, too costly to keep up or renovate, have given way to new buildings, recognizable as of this time but not of any particular place; they stand in carefully measured ranks, as if on parade; from coast to coast, we see the same design; the same pink brick face appears raw, unfinished, wherever it stands.
After a wet summer, a dry autumn. This year, the leaves stay much longer than we expect, and it's warmer later, though I remember the last year I went trick or treating on Halloween, decked out in my mother's strapless evening gown, it was warm enough to go with shoulders bared, before costumes came ready-made from stores, in days when treats were packed in papers sacks by neighbours we knew, and who knew us, by name. That world's long gone. They say: now even the weather's changed.
The weather was fine this year for early summer fruit: elegant strawberries, fat cherries, luscious apricots. Mid-season, peaches ripened perfectly, with neither spots nor worms. I set them out in careful lines on padded sheets to spare them bruising; the whole house smells of ripening fruit, a summer orchard on a hazy afternoon. Then plums, bursting with juice, and succulent, scent the kitchen with their heady fragrance. And though we breathe the fullness of summer, still, we scent autumn in the air; the smell of apples, crisp, and tart, and sweet, the good keepers that we put in store after the first frost for the season we don't care to think about and, lately, think about too much.
Early this morning, the noise of geese woke us. Half the neighbourhood came out, craning at the sky to see them pass, enthralled by the call of the geese who are flying over early this year. And though the weather is mild (Have we known such warmth so late before?), this early passage of the birds brings a chill to the heart. (What primordial connection binds us, moves us to witness this annual passage, moves us to witness?) We do not know yet what we fear, but we know we fear.
But today it's too hot to think of autumn apples. We want berries and light white wine, to pretend it's summer, though the burnishing leaves deny it, and the fall-blooming plants are dry (best give them water or they'll die), and the sun shines with a warmth the geese know better than to trust, and so do we; but we defy the season, defy reason, drive round with windows open, walk, sleeveless, near water, smile at strangers and invalids taking the air, anyone who can be out in this glorious light that we savour, aware each day may be the last.
"Take a pill and the pain goes away: a miracle!" Who could have imagined? "What pain?" It doesn't matter. You don't want to know the details. Think of a lifespan that reels out like a long line, longer than was ever known before, and what we fish up at the end is mostly pain. Think of these miracles: longevity; tablets.
The young woman who is supposed to clean my house stands at the kitchen sink in front of the window, looks out with a proprietary air, drinks milky coffee from my favourite cup, gestures as if this space, my home, belongs to her. The house is clean, more or less, though there are mop marks in the corners, and I clean under the radiators myself, baseboards, the layer of dust that forms on the tops of cupboards. Anywhere you have to reach or bend, I clean. I do the heavy work myself. I know: she'll have to go. Another change, another disruption of routine, is harder every year to contemplate, until finally, towards the end, it's quite impossible. That's how things get grimy, and stay that way, surface polished but not cleaned, until "the old woman" goes. Then the house is cleaned and painted, polished, sold. The cycle starts again.
If you believe what mother says, you have to keep a sharp eye; if you're not there to watch, "the help" will take advantage, won't clean over or under, won't clean at all. If you believe what mother says, things disappear. I used to wonder: was she imagining? But in my own house, I've seen pilfering; small things: pens, paper, bus tickets, things you'd think I'd never miss, or put down to absentmindedness, but after a time, you start to watch. The gold cufflinks I gave my husband have gone, and lately, too much of his loose change has disappeared from the basket near the door. One of us might misplace things, but not both of us together, not at this age, not yet. So when mother complains that "the girl" doesn't clean the tub well or wash the woodwork at all, and is lazy and eats too much, and is eyeing the jewellery, think about it before you dismiss these accusations as paranoid delusions.
Loss, I think, is cumulative. Old wounds ache all the more after each fresh injury, repeated assaults that we survive. Oh, . . . but the grief. . . . Each loss is terrible, though we know we will go on living. (What choice is there?) (Is there a choice?) My father followed my mother out of this world within five months. He was lost without her. No one needed him, or needed to lean on him, however frail he may have been himself (frailer each day without the weight of someone else leaning). Go on? What for? Is there a choice? Apparently.
Listen, things wear out: fifteen years of hard use in the kitchen . . . . What do you expect? It's plastic! Mariette, a long year dead, still alive in my head, admonishes me. And my mother, who often said: Nothing lasts forever.
But the birds: loons, the oldest of all living bird species, dive without showing intention, disappear without warning, swim, invisible, at speed under water, in the air, move with the grace of angels, if there were angels. But there are loons, the most beautiful birds we know, eerie-voiced to us, as they speak among themselves, returning each year, each pair to its own particular lake or pond, neighbourly, according to their ways. Now sparrows peck at brick work, try to build another nest although it's autumn. This lingering warmth confuses birds, confuses us.
Whatever our confusions, living on this island binds us: the need for bridges, the roiling storms of winter, the ways the light plays on the water form how we perceive reality, what we perceive reality to be. Whatever our confusions, we repeat this journey; we follow the road that goes around this island, renew attachments, seek connection; and through our senses, we incorporate each sacred space through which we move into our lives. (What primordial connection binds us, moves us to witness?)
Sharon H. Nelson is a Montreal poet and essayist with a theatre and dance background who writes about food, spiritual hunger, and cultural identity. She has written for stage, newspapers, journals, and technical publications, worked as an editor and managing editor, and occasionally has taught writing and editing. Her essays, especially “Bemused, Branded, and Belittled; Women and Writing in Canada,” and her work as a feminist activist in the arts provoked awareness of sexist practices and stimulated change in arts organizations, policies, and programs in Canada. She is the author of many books and chapbooks of poems, and her writing appears in a diversity of anthologies, including Voices Within the Ark; the Modern Jewish Poets, and At Our Core; Women Writing About Power. Her ninth book of poems, This Flesh These Words, addresses how we use language to form and deform as well as to sustain community. She and Peter Grogono have worked together on many projects and are co-authors of Problem Solving and Computer Programming. More of her work can be viewed at www3.sympatico.ca/sharon.nelson/.
Please note: the original version of Sharon Nelson’s Circumnagivation, as it appeared on our old Coracle Press website, included photographs by Peter Grogono; with the site’s new design it was, unfortunately, not possible to include these photographs. I am making every effort to include these photographs on the site at a future time.
Circumnavigation © Sharon H. Nelson 2009