“The old Imperial sun has set,
and I must write a poem to the Emperor.
I shall speak it like the man
I should be, an inhabitant of the frontier,
clad in sweat-darkened wool,
my face stained by wind and smoke.
— John Haines, from “The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky”
“I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”
— Steve McQueen
I’ve been “out,” that is, away from home, for the past sixteen days, most of those days at various places in western and northern Canada, and six nights down in what I used to jokingly call The Excited States of America. That old joke is now wearing a little thin, I’m afraid. As are tempers and discretion and polity and a whole lot of other things, both above and below the forty-ninth parallel. And, nope, I haven’t got an intelligent or enlightening word to offer on that topic here, so I will not try.
Now I’m home. Got home on Monday, touching down in the Bush Hawk on its fat autumn tires, up on the bench of snow-covered sand a mile uphill from our place. I was as tense as usual flying out from Yellowknife, having traded the floats in for tires, yet still aloft over miles of open water, and I was as tense as usual to get the plane down and stopped in the sloping 500-some feet offered by our “airstrip.” As usual, this was not a problem – but if ever I cease getting nervous on short final to a landing up there, that will not be a change for the better. Butterflies and sweat are such wonderful aids to concentration.
Once the plane was tied down and blanketed with fabric covers on its wings and cockpit and cowling, and once the chores were done and the dogs were fed (alas, no stars o’er head that night; sorry, Robert Service) I walked to the lakeshore in the deep dusk. There is a humped granite island that juts right out into the bay a hundred yards south of our waterfront. We still call it “the island,” because back in our early years here it truly was an island, but it has been only a rock peninsula (Latin, almost-island) since about 1993, when the lake level started to drop off. A narrow spit of sand connects it to the shoreline, where decades ago we could paddle through with a canoe between shore and island. Across that spit a wire cable is slung on tripods, carrying current from our thousand-watt windmill. The windmill is mounted on a thirty-foot steel pole on the crest of the “island,” and it is highly praised here in these dark windy days of autumn, long after the solar panels have called it quits for about the next four months.
Sometimes I walk out there to have a look at the guy wires on the windmill, but the other night I walked out there only to lie down. I’d been looking forward to doing so for over a week. Just to stretch out prone on the cold smooth slab of granite there, a few feet from the edge of the lake, and let all that time down south in the frenetic world “outside” begin to wash away. I just needed that place that night; I needed to feel that rock of home right there beneath my spine. It had been quite a time away from everything I love here, and most of the past week of it had not been at all pleasant (think low-end motels, unexpected delays, days at the mercy of schedules not my own, the weather giving some tense moments as I finally flew north, and all of this endured essentially in solitude, which does get old after a while even for a solitary soul like mine.)
I am always happy to come home, but the other night happy to be home does not even come close to what I was feeling.
I lay there for a long while. Quiet sloshing of waves on ice-coated bedrock. Cloud cover thick and the night truly dark. My mind running back over the weeks away, and to the wide world out there, stretching away beyond the horizon to the south…
From a Baffled Admirer
Okay, I’ll come right out and say it.
You have my grudging admiration.
Grudging, I suppose, only because it has never come easy
for me to admire you.
Tonight you have my admiration,
because after two weeks immersed in your world,
I honestly can’t see how you do it.
I wonder whether I could ever live as you do,
and handle it all with such aplomb,
such unruffled patience and resilience.
Lately, more and more, I think not.
So tell me, friends, how do you do it?
How do you cope and juggle and keep it all between the lines?
The lines both real and metaphorical:
those scary white and yellow ones blurring on either side of the car at eighty per,
our three-ton nine-foot ride nipping past a forty-ton ninety-foot semi in the dark on I-94;
and all those other lines, laid out straight as if to define the edges
of all that rush and whirr and whiz bang?
Day after night after morning after evening
you nonchalantly poke at keypads,
step to one side and fire off a text message from the grocery aisle,
like a battle-hardened infantryman calling in air support,
scroll down screens and ask omniscient Siri for answers,
and all to the tune of those incessant
beeps and chimes and dingalings.
And it never seems to faze you!
Likewise the hundred and some channels of blood, gore, and trash
on the motel tee vees,
the grim-faced pat-downs at Security,
Inter-web, hyper-text, Twitter feed,
and Orwell’s dire vision borne out before our very eyes,
34 years past 1984.
You all just carry on, make small talk, and smile.
You’re pleasant. You’re cool, calm, and collected. It’s amazing.
Come right down to it, the answer is: I honestly don’t know how you do it.
And I don’t know if I could ever learn to do it.
This old sled dog just can’t learn all these new tricks.
I am happy to have made it home,
to be lying here looking out
over dark cold water.
Still, happy as I am
on this third-to-last day of October, twenty-eighteen,
I cannot help but wonder
where the rest of you are tonight.
And how it is
that the human race has become so utterly entranced,
so clearly infatuated,
so savvy and adept and calm,
while immersed in that rush and whirr and whiz-bang?
It beats me.
It truly does.