Sunday, October 02, 2005

Stealing away on a sunny day (and a short piece about Winnipeg)

My mom sent me these bright memories of summer, and aside from the amount of flesh I'm baring, they pleased me--dousing me with joy and a shot of nostalgia. The first is me and my brothers in Gimli, Manitoba. The second is my parents--the cutest picture of them I've seen yet. (They must be high. . . ha ha)

I am looking out at the mountains, backed by an orange sky, listening to CBC radio through my computer, and sending out words to land on familiar laps. I am sitting on a simple red futon in an apartment furnished just enough to take the edge off the echo of voices. A simple paper lamp from Japan. Some used jars full of spices. A table, a chair, and a burlap coffee bag from Nicaragua haning on the wall. I found this quote today, which came out of the 19th c. 'arts and crafts' movement, and it is fitting:

"To live content with small means. To seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion. To be worthy not respectable, and wealthy not rich. To listen to stars and birds and babes and sages with an open heart. To study hard, think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions. Never hurry. In a word, to let the spiritual, the unbidden and the unconscious rise up through the common. This is my symphony."
-- William Henry Channing, 1898

I am fresh off my month of 65 hour work weeks. I do not yet know the full range of effects this has had on me, but I feel well in body and in spirit. I've still managed to find time to seek God, to socialize, to write and move and nourish myself. The anticipation of comparative freedom that the coming week will drop, like a brown paper package on my front stoop, is almost too much to bear. I am not afraid of boredom in the least, however, as there will always be books to read, words to write, people to love and places to merge with.

I attended a concert on Tuesday at the Orpheum theatre in downtown Vancouver that lifted me off this planet. The theatre reminded me of the Vienna operahouse; grandiose in design and plush in atmosphere. I saw Sigur Ros, an Icelandic group who play very dreamy, almost magical, score-like atmospheric rock. I described it to a friend as the music the stars and northern lights would make if they could dance together on a glacier. He said that coming from anyone else he'd be skeptical of such a description! Watching and listening to them, I felt waves of childhood mixed with a grand sense of the order of the universe. It is a rare thing when God's finger reaches down past the skin of our world to show it's maker through the music we think we are creating.

This week contained the urge for home, for various reasons. Why do we feel so limited even when girded with the strength of words? Nothing replaces touch, presence, eyes noses and mouths.

And so, in an act of trying to stretch my heart over two provinces, I wrote this little piece about place. Enjoy. (Oh yes, I've changed my settings so everyone can now comment on my postings, not just "members.")

The View from Not-Here

Newspaper clippings unraveled in envelopes have a firmness that internet links can only cheaply imitate. The other day I received one from my mother, a recent “View from Here” section of the Winnipeg Free Press. I unfolded the square, pleasantly heavy with ink, and read by the light of the evening sun, miles from home, in a city much further west. I read the author’s cheerful praise of my home city ravenously—as if her words were being spoken across a small table at Stella’s cafĂ© on Osborne St. I read stealthily—as if it were some perfect but unappreciated piece of graffiti art scrawled across a forgotten square of exchange-district brick.

The motivation for my mother’s enclosure was threefold: she missed me and wanted me to miss the city I had so recently left. It also spoke of her knowledge of my interest in issues of urban identity; the beautiful, awkward musings of Winnipeggers on why their city is “one great” one, is indeed one of my favourite things. And lastly, I’ve always loved the place. On the back of love there often rides the accompanying inability for love's true expression; why do so many people either want to leave Winnipeg, or find some form of pleasure in poking fun at it? I've always been one of a (perhaps growing) few to trumpet the city’s hidden jewels, as the author of the aforementioned article highlighted in better detail than I could be bothered with. It still angers me when national publications, seeking to provide a written thematic “tour” of Canadian cities, simply skip out on Winnipeg altogether. As was pointed out however, perhaps we should be happy that this is the case.

And just as the greatest things always lend themselves to endings, last month the proverbial “gateway to the West” that is my hometown swung open and newness ran to meet me. It was nothing essentially “Vancouver,” and most definitely not the “un-Winnipeg” that drew me here. In fact as patchwork fields receded in my wake and Manitoba grew thumbnail on the horizon, the Pacific, rolled out on the carpet of the Rockies, seemed to loom like a great and insatiable god.

As soon as I was off the ground the definitions came: Oh the paradox that is Winnipeg; the central outsider, the landlocked wanderer. Like an adolescent trying on life, so we its inhabitants have donned our many, sometimes conflicting understandings of our (urban) selves. One day we are humbly picnicking in Assiniboine Park, the next we are sporting yellow billboards, flaunting our best traits. One day we are complaining about mosquito infestations, the next we are compulsively writing articles about ourselves. We are hybrids: dreamers fed by infinite prairie horizons, realists wrought by the harshest of winds. In the light of Vancouver—a city so more sure of herself—Winnipeg’s fog of self-reflection becomes clear. Surrounded by natural splendour, Vancouver is like a child of wealth lacking in self-awareness, for whom beauty has outgrown its wearer. As Shakespeare wrote, “some are born great, some are made great, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Winnipeg lies somewhere between the first two, bearing the fledgling greatness of blue jeans and back alleys. And I will be the second voice in this newspaper begging it not to grow out of them too quickly.

The recent article, which sought to stir up in us a quiet pride of place, reinforced the conviction I've always had about the city I left on the wheat-washed prairie. It is characterized by a plea to be noticed. I would add now that those happiest in Winnipeg are the ones who direct that desire inwards, to be noticed within itself, and by its own people. The author warned against betraying our secret, asking us to guard River City’s vulnerable turrets of charm from encroaching publicity. Perhaps the modesty running in our muddy waters makes us not want to sully them with brazen recognition. Perhaps we're allright with being the middle child of a nation, never trumping Toronto’s velocity, nor crown Calgary’s raucousness, but always coming out the champion of self celebration. At times we entertain the wish to rise above marginalization by other major Canadian cities. This is the impule that makes us love things like the Pan-Am Games and the Junos. However this is also what makes us dissatisfied, makes us want to give up--and when we do, to say goodbye. I wonder if contentment would mount upon realizing that we matter most where it counts—right here at home. But I suppose then we would be lacking in the disquietude that produces such great poets and lyricists. And worse, we'd have nothing to write about save burger joints on bridges.

If this piece had intent beyond mere musing, it would be that Winnipeg shouldn’t be so sure that obscurity is its national namesake. My experience has led me to quite the opposite conviction: On an unnamed peak in the Rockies I met a European couple who, upon learning where I was from looked at each other incredulously: “You’re from Winnipeg?! That’s an almost mythical place for us.” They were, for some reason, strangely drawn to it. Within days of my arrival in Vancouver I received a suspicious “I thought so” on the news that I had recently arrived from Winnipeg. Why? “Because you’re still friendly.” This seemed a tad extreme, and I scoffed at the ensuing prediction that I would lose my amicability after a good dose of metropolitanism. Days later, another remarked that my disposition clearly revealed a "prairie soul."
Coming from the lips of strangers these observations didn’t carry much weight. They did, however, leave me feeling slightly smug. Sure, some have arrogantly applauded my advancement up the proverbial social ladder of Canadian postal codes. Mostly however, faces brighten to welcome me—if anything endeared by my hometown’s hold on me, and intrigued as to why I wasn’t itching to leave.

Above all, Vancouver and its residents have left me with the deepened conviction that geography matters. If place truly matters—our surroundings, our neighbourhoods, where we live, work and play—so does that which makes up the collective casing that is our city. On this thanksgiving weekend, I want to say thanks Winnipeg, for making me who I am, or for somehow extending what I brought to you as I walked on your concrete, and in your dust and snow and slush and sunshine.

Post Title Courtesy of: Over the Rhine.