From Poets.org, I receive in my email Inbox, every morning, a poem. It’s such a simple thing to subscribe to.
What I know of poets and poetry is scant, and the luxury of these daily deposits is a much greater pleasure than I expected . The poems I receive are sometimes all angles and sharp edges. Some are cryptic and impenetrable to me. Sometimes, they annoy me and I send them to a small, merciless death in my Trash. There are days when a concept or an emotion in one of these poems grabs me by the throat for reasons I cannot explain—perhaps on another day, it would have passed me by—and finds its way into me. Sometimes I know exactly why I do, or don’t, like the poem. In either case, the possibility of such a visceral, immediate response is bracing.
This is the one I was sent this morning. I can share it because it’s part of the public domain. It’s so short! How could it have lifted me so easily? Well, it did.
Perhaps it was the lovely trinity of “time and change and sorrow”: three words to define life itself.
Or the fact that one’s heart is “the entrance-place of wonders”…
It doesn’t matter. It moved me to post it here. Enjoy, and do visit the Poets.org website.
I am glad daylong for the gift of song,
For time and change and sorrow;
For the sunset wings and the world-end things
Which hang on the edge of to-morrow.
I am glad for my heart whose gates apart
Are the entrance-place of wonders,
Where dreams come in from the rush and din
Like sheep from the rains and thunders.
Translation: That’s the [so-called] artist’s life.
I’ve heard this expression interjected into conversations for as long as I can recall, and like so many sayings, its meaning is slippery. In my translation of it, I added “so-called”, tentatively. C’est ça la vie d’artiste isn’t a completely innocent turn of phrase. There can be a little bit of Shakespeare’s salad daysin it: hints of youthful idealism and inexperience minus, alas, the connotation of heyday. Usually though, it falls under the pall of “so-called”: the implication that la vie d’artiste is more pretense, posturing and bohemian conceit than it is an authentic way of life.
I recently stumbled upon Léo Ferre’s “La vie d’artiste”, a sad song about disenchantment and love gone wrong under the pressures of struggling to live when making ends meet is a daily grind, and it occurred to me that I had a bit of all of those elements on my mind when my son Christian arrived home last Thursday night.
Christian’s return sometime after 11 pm capped one hell of a day. Whatever else the artist’s life may be, it isn’t boring. On the program that Thursday, he was booked first at the McGill Simulation Centre, where he’s been working year-round as an actor since early 2016, slipping into the skin of every imaginable patient or person the job requires, and picking up more and more hours. Yesterday, Christian was again playing Pat, a young man with cerebral palsy desperate to maintain an autonomous life. He’s one of Christian’s favourite characters to play.
That work done, he was off immediately, with little time to spare, to an old church in Westmounta bus ride away, where he’s been performing in Antigone for over a week and still has a couple to go. The Greek tragedy is this year’s production by Raise the Stakes Theatre, a classical theatre ensemble with a shoestring budget whose limits are absolutely eclipsed by its passionate approach to up-close-and-personal theatre. But there’s no escaping the hard truth that no one does theatre to get rich. And yet still, it was possible to assemble fifteen actors, four musicians and a production team made up of a half dozen creative and dedicated people, and draw them to rehearsals as often as six times a week, from 6 to 10 pm—the quiet hours in the beautiful old church.
And this they did for a month of rehearsals: out of passion, out of commitment, motivated by a longing to create, collaborate and perform; out of a need that I think I understand, and also, simply, out of personal loyalty to the director, and/or to each other.
But all of those extra hours that punctuate long work days add up, and not long after the play’s opening, Christian mentioned an infection spreading through the ranks (“a plague” was actually what he called it), causing fever, congestion and, worst of all, laryngitis. By Wednesday night, two actors, members of the Greek Chorus, were down for the count, leaving their mates, including Christian, scrambling to divide up their lines, drop some, and reconfigure the blocking of the affected scenes, all within hours of the performance. Then their director was hit with flu symptoms. And it began to feel like they’d all been cast, unwittingly, in a re-enactment of And Then There Were None. Regroup, recover, perform.
I’m not making light of their predicament. I’m flabbergasted. What drives them all? It isn’t the money: there’s none, which is the usual case with small theatre companies. The costs of mounting a production, the time invested, the long rehearsal period and the fact that money only comes in with each performance at the end of a very long cycle of planning and preparation: these test the elasticity of the budget to its limits.
What drives them is something so strong that it interferes with self-preservation.
That’s the thing about theatre: it’s alive. Whether Christian has transformed himself into a patient for some future medical doctor to learn from, repeating his performance as many times as necessary on any given day; or whether he has put himself out there on the altar of an old church on a weekday evening to bring to life ancient Greece with his fellow actors, he is embracing la vie d’artiste, in all of its poorly remunerated, often thankless, electrifying, anxiety-inducing, improvisational, collaborative and soul-expanding glory.
“Most of the truly remarkable experiences I’ve had in theatre have filled me with uncertainty and disorientation.”
― Anne Bogart, A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre
“Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theatre will make you good.”
― Terrence Mann
It included a snow storm and horrible driving conditions;
cold and biting wind;
teaching contracts that have tilted to the bad side of too many;
a constant cough that appears to be caused by allergies to what’s in the air at one of the places where I teach;
sad or worrying news about people I care about;
more sad or worrying news about them;
a heaviness I carry around, which is the weight of what I cannot change or resolve (at this moment in my life, it’s as dense as gold);
and a sense of being trapped in a power crusher, with the walls of time closing in and no way to stop them. No room (not for escape, but for breath and perspective and space to maneuver).
At such times, I walk about with the feeling that I could easily cry (and wouldn’t that feel good?), and that I am inadequate to the task of being a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, a good mother, a good teacher, wife, neighbour, human being …
While I tangled with all of these, the sun rose every morning, and my life–the single miracle from which everything flows—never failed in its task of moving me along.
My sister, hip deep in her own struggles, remembered to enquire about the wellbeing of a friend I worry about;
A son cooked dinner for me to come home to late in the day, once, and then again the next evening. His alchemical actions transformed food into love, meals into sharing, and weariness into wellbeing.
(How do any of us survive loneliness?)
A friend reached out to me and found my hand, though I couldn’t hold hers nearly long enough.
An afternoon and evening spent with my granddaughter and grandson yesterday took me sailing on a true-blue ocean of simple, hopeful joy. It saw their parents off to a Christmas party and the rest of us, my other sons and husband, together, making merry ourselves.
A first son fetched us a meal of fried, roasted and sweet foods that left us all with greasy fingers and feelings of satisfaction. He choreographed the day’s end: stories, baths, bedtime without mama and papa.
As the house went quiet, my sons and I—they with their extraordinary niece and I with my sweet-hearted grandson—lay in the dark next to the small and trusting bodies of these children who are the channels of all of life’s promises and reminders that we cannot fail them, and listened to them breathe in the dark, sometimes moaning softly, sometimes crying out as the day’s tiny storms caught up with them, entering their dreams.
Danielle, Christian, Louise, Simon, Jeremy, Anne, Penelope and Graeme and Sylvain, I love you. Thank you.
4 am wake-up + 2-hour bus-ride to the airstrip + 6-hour flight to Mirabel airport (the forlorn and once beautiful place where The Terminalwas shot) + 45-minute bus ride to Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau airport (Montreal) = HOME
Christian was the luckiest of the hundred people also leaving the mining installation and port to travel with him that day, because he had reached his destination while most still had flights to catch, taking them due West (to British Columbia) and due East (to Newfoundland) —and points in between—for thousands of kilometers more. Such is the vastness of Canada. And such is the pull of home, because almost all of these men (and Geraldine, the only woman on board) will make the same trip in reverse, in two weeks, beginning a new rotation.
The tides of the lives of these men are set by the rotations of a mining installation: two weeks on site, two weeks home. Only the Moon does things with more inevitability. But the gravity of Christian’s life and his Captain’s—the port captain—was governed by the activity at the port: day one of their stay marked its opening for the brief, ice-reduced summer, and their final day was marked by the ice-congested port’s closing. For a hundred days, they stayed put, watching people come and go. The only two to do so.
No matter what he was told by those who employed him and the handful of people who had actually been there previously for short stays; no matter what Christian had imagined of Milne Inlet, whatever wild and barren landscape and hardscrabble life he had fashioned in his mind, nothing could have prepared him for the absolute immersive experience he volunteered for.
Latin-infused words best encapsulate Christian’s hundred-day stay at Milne Inlet: deprivation, seclusion, sequestration, isolation, alienation and even, at times, incarceration. All words that Christian and his Captain would agree upon. And also, austerity.
Christian’s daily routine at the mining camp at Milne Inlet consisted of moving between a small room with a bed, a TV, a closet and a shower (and a window covered over in aluminum foil to keep out the perpetual summer sun), to the galley for food, to the truck that he drove to the port, to the trailer box that was the office in which he worked days with, for the most part, no discernible beginning or end because he was always required to be available. He certainly wasn’t the most important person at the port—his Captain, the stevedores and many other people did work that was critical and shouldered heavy responsibilities, but Christian was the only person at the Inlet who had no backup—not even for a couple of hours. Ever.
Christian is eloquent, and a wonderful, often hilarious writer, and he sent me regular, detailed two-page letters attached to his emails, with meticulous discipline, and which I then shared with friends and family at his request. These opened up his world to us, and allowed us to catch a glimpse of a life so withdrawn from the world—at once so exotic, eccentric and bare-bones—that it felt fictional.
On the day he arrived home, my understanding of his experience changed. It started the moment I saw his face as he stood, eyes locked on me, in the arrivals area at the airport. It was him. Of course it was him. But across his face, which is so distinctive, there was the shadow of loneliness and bone-weariness and also, I think, a mixture of joyous relief and disorientation. And something deeper and more private. Estrangement sickness. Like the astronauts of the international space station, he was experiencing the shock of re-entry.
It was hard for him to absorb the fact that his adventure was done. To believe that it was over. And I realised that he was overwhelmed by the people, the sounds, the colours and the smells of his home.
When astronauts return to Earth after months on the space station, a lot is made of their physical rehab and the effects on the body of their prolonged stay in orbit. The battle to regain as much of their previous physical form as possible is front and centre, and we hear far less about their mental struggles.
Christian has told me that the Arctic Circle is a truly xeno environment: in summer, it appears to be as barren as Mars, with its reddish soil and absence of vegetation and only the odd arctic fox and polar bear moving about. There’s no birdsong. There are only ravens the size of turkeys who lurk in ominous silence. In winter, which lasts three seasons—it was -25 Celsius when Christian left— the Arctic becomes itself, splashing extraordinary hues of white, grey, blue and turquoise over the waters, the sky and the ground. At the Milne Inlet settlement, besides the mechanical noises of trucks and generators, tug boats and the iron ore loader, there is very little natural sound—at least to the ears of visitors. Neither can you witness the aurora borealis; the Inlet is simply too far north. When the sun eventually begins to set again and night falls, it brings a darkness as black as ink; an impenetrable curtain. Christian never saw a single starry sky, and we still don’t understand why.
This past week, I’ve observed many things in Christian. On his first night home, at the end of a long and rewarding day, Christian said to me that he was reluctant to go to bed, that he felt anxious. When I asked him why, he said that he was afraid that he would wake up in Baffinland. I think that Edmond Dantes probably felt the same way after he escaped the Château d’If. This literary reference is meant to make you smile, but the photo below, of the scrap of paper Christian held on to from Day One, and on which he marked the days till his Arctic stay was over, suggests that there’s as much of fact as of fiction in his fluttering feelings.
And then, just five days after his return, he made plans to go downtown to return the company laptop he’d brought back with him. As he prepared to walk to the train station, he told me how uncomfortable and antsy he was, how anxious the thought of going into such a developed, populated place made him feel. The hubbub. The crowds. All of it. And I realised the extent to which Christian’s experience had altered him.
All of the days and nights in a compound where straying from the makeshift road could mean death at the paws of a polar bear; all of those hours spent filling out prodigious amounts of paperwork, listening to the conversations of mariners; all of that time trapped in a place that didn’t provide enough bandwidth to Facetime or Skype with loved ones; each and every one of those days eating fish, meat and frozen vegetables; the sheer weight and repetitiveness of it all had forced Christian inward, into his deepest reserves.
A week has now passed since his return, and Christian’s skittishness has faded very gradually as all of the life he has here flows back to him, filling the lonely places that had opened up inside him. He has returned to the garden of earthly delights that is so familiar to him; he is back with the people he loves and the life he wants and hopes to live.
I’ll never know just how altered he was by his hundred days at Milne Inlet: perhaps he misses the hyperreal colours of the water and skies, the unique tang of brackish water, and the stories of the men, especially the seamen who arrived with their ships.
It has also struck me and Christian (through whose eyes I’ve come to see so much) how wide is the gap between the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic, theInuit, and everyone else. I think it’s what fascinated Christian the most, observing the coming and going of the Inuit men hired by the mining company and talking with them in the galley at every opportunity. Their experience of the world, their daily life is the product of a matrix so radically different from everyone else’s that in some ways, it’s as though we are from different planets.
And one wonders how the gap between the two worlds can ever be bridged, and whether it should be. To have grown up in a barren, beautiful, unforgiving, extreme habitat of vast spaces and limited sounds, in almost endless cold and opaque darkness at nightfall, where “close by” means a two-day boat ride to the next settlement and time unfolds without increments…These are realities that Christian glimpsed just long enough to understand what many of his Inuit companions must feel when they enter his world, how their suffering must be the reverse of his, and include the pain of immersion, congestion, crowds and clamour; the nonsense and indecipherability of it all ; and the absence of solitude, quiet, immense expanses and kin. Their own estrangement sickness.
“Not for the first time, Peter thought about how much of our lives we spend sequestered inside small patches of electric brightness, blind to everything beyond the reach of those fragile bulbs.” ― Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things
Last evening, I attended a concert in a perfectly renovated hundred-and-fifty-year-old church in my home town. We sat at ninety-degree angles on stiff wood benches, huddled together inside that beautiful and ornate old building listening to a musical group that calls itself LaNef.
The men on stage (on the altar), seven in all, were there to perform sea songs and shanties in the purest tradition of the sailors of the Atlantic (with the exception of the song Rolling Down to Old Maui).
In the evening’s program, I read: “Our goal here tonight is to present these songs, not only as they have always been sung, but also as music to be listened to. It is no small challenge to drag these pieces, tar-stained and tattered, into the concert hall. We hope to give you something new to listen to in these pieces.”
They sure did. Reverberating off the wooden walls and arches of an old church, those songs take possession of you, swirl around inside your head and chest and squeeze your heart. And you find yourself awash in feelings and images from a world of groaning wooden ships and motley crews of men, and the cold, grey, salty sea with waves crashing and rolling, and gales blowing mercilessly, and the men chilled to the bone and hanging on for dear life.
Those seven men up on the stage sang and played their hearts out, and what they sang was beautiful, funny and sometimes tender but of course it was also about the punishing harshness of being at sea and living that life—a thousand years ago, and today. Which is why their songs made me laugh and made me want to cry as they transported me away from my own, comfortable world.
It was easy for me to let go and follow them, because a hidden part of me has been living among large cargo ships and frosty air for months now. First, there’s been my son Jeremy’s life with his new employer: a large ocean-going dry-bulk shipping company, and his frequent travels to board and inspect his company’s fleet. Last July, Jeremy opened an unforeseen door in his brother Christian’s life when he made it possible for Christian to take a three-month contract working as the Boarding Clerk on behalf of the same company, at the port built by its business partner, a corporation that mines iron ore in Milne Inlet, Baffin Island, Canada.
Before leaving for his hundred-day stint at the “sixth northernmost community on Earth” (his words), Christian spent a day with Jeremy, inspecting a ship berthed here in Quebec, meeting the mostly Indian crew, and slowly catching the scent of the distinctive culture and language of the life of mariners. This hundred-day Arctic contract was an opportunity to make some serious money—the life of a young actor and writer is precarious—and seemed like it would be a hell of an adventure.
Christian left for Milne Inlet on July 19th, and arrived at his temporary new home —well within the Arctic Circle and separated from Greenland on its northern side by Baffin Bay—on the 20th. Nothing he had done previously to get himself ready (buying lots of extra warm clothes, a pair of indestructible-waterproof-extreme-cold-resistant-protective-steel-capped-boots, a good camera, and several pairs of sunglasses for the days of endless sunlight) made any kind of dent in the reality of living in an Arctic mining camp.
None of it made Christian a sailor. He’s spent these last three months of his life at the mining port, working alongside his superior, Captain P, a veteran seaman, hardened by years of often thankless and even dangerous work and crushing responsibility; alpha down to his bone marrow and surefooted whatever the conditions, both inside and outside the port’s office.
Christian won’t have become a sailor, because the extent of his travel upon the surface of the water was the distance between the tugboats he sailed almost daily and the ships at anchor further off in the Inlet that he had to board in order to begin the endless amounts of paperwork that were his responsibility.
But he will have smelled the brackish water of the inlet daily, and grown fond of it. He’ll have discovered that he’s as steady as any member of any deck crew when it comes to climbing the gangway to board a cargo ship, and looked forward to each and every visit. On the worst, choppy, heavy, restless days at Milne Inlet, he’ll have found his sea legs aboard the tossing and tilting tugboat, and been proud of it. And he will have grown to admire the mariners he had the honour of meeting with every boarding.
When he finally does arrive back home after a hundred days of endless work and ruined circadian rhythms, having lived with miners and truckers, cooks, cleaners and stevedores, engineers and technicians—all male and all constantly counting off the days till their two-week rotations ended and they could head home for an equal number of days off— Christian, standing by and watching them come and go while he stayed put, will have peered, as through a porthole, into the lives of the men on each and every ship that entered Milne Inlet, duty bound to fill her holds with iron ore, their destinies linked to their ship’s, all of them a long, long way from home, and perhaps only a few weeks into a six or ten-month round-trip.
He may feel a kinship with the Russian, Indian, Finnish and Filipino seamen whose lives intersected with his at the frigid top of the world.
I think if Christian had been with me at the concert last night, he, perhaps more than anyone else in the church, would have been moved by the tar-stained and tattered sea songs and shanties of his brothers in spirit.
I sit before my computer screen in the dark of morning, and read the scurrilous wordsof an American president—they are always, always so—whose aim today, as every day, is to set the world on fire, hoping, perhaps, to see his own red, angry image dancing above it all in the flames.
No. No. No.
And then a piece about a housing development in Japan in which the aged are left, each in turn, to a lonely death, disappearing in the choppy wake of filial responsibility.
No, no, no.
While my Inbox fills up, like a boat taking on water, with December entreaties TO GIVE, PLEASE GIVE, PLEASE GIVE. Letters, words and symbols: UNHRC, JDRF, Share the Warmth, Welcome Hall Mission, Amnesty International, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Leucan, Evidence for Democracy, Wikipedia, UNICEF, Movember…their impact obscured by Black Friday, Black Saturday, Cyber Monday. Their voices almost lost in the clamour. There are so many of them.
NO, NO, NO. The sounds inside my head—pain and the refusal of pain.
This morning, I no longer remember why, I looked up John Cage, who said:
“You can feel an emotion, just don’t think that it’s so important.”
And right now, this sounds especially true. What good is empathy in times like these if it leads, inevitably, to system overload?
This is how I feel this morning. Uneasy with my conscience. Feeling, feeling, feeling that I must make radical changes to my life in order to save my human environment. I apologize, John Cage. But you also said:
“Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”