The 5:00 a.m. wake up call, a dull punch on the right side, doesn’t piss me off as much as it used to, but I’d like to get rid of it. It comes from the inside, like a creature is thrashing its way out. I parry the second blow with determined words: “Settle down” I say. “I’m happy which means you’re happy, so lighten up.” I employ my lifelong philosophy with the creature: Fake it ‘til you make it.
I wish it would take a break when I’m on holiday and let me sleep in but it was more insistent than usual on the last vacation when I visited my old home town on Vancouver Island. I wanted to free the nagging creature in my gut who I blame for memories that are irrelevant but which continue to make me uneasy – memories of living with an alcoholic father and an enabling mother. This vacation, I decided the best way to banish the parasite was to confront the memories in the place where they were born.
Early one morning I tied it – the creature – to a rock, and sent it skittering across the waves of the incoming tide. It sunk, leaving a tiny ring that died faster than a spawning salmon. My feet settled in the tidal muck as I watched the sky lighten. I walked home, worried that the tide would roll it back in. I imagined it sitting there waiting for a new victim. Could my anxieties be water-borne like beaver fever?
I had returned to the valley of my youth for understanding but instead I got a blank stare. I couldn’t tie my memories to anything I saw. The glacier – once the dominant landmark – is shriveled and pallid; the village is now a town overflowing with seniors; there are logging scars on the mountains; the rivers are reduced to trickles. The dense forest, now mapped with trails to the beach, has a corporate name and every tiny stream is a protected habitat. The sand dunes I used to climb and tumble down gathering sand between every strand of hair – sand that fell into the cracked pages of my books for days afterwards – are cosseted domains, walled and out of reach of adventurous feet. Predatory deer seeking fresh greens to chew, roam the sidewalks and gardens alongside senior citizens – both significantly outnumber residents under 30. When I was a kid, youngsters were as plentiful as pebbles on the beach.
My hometown is a tangled garden crowded with vicious blackberry brambles and wild broom, rampant twin reminders of invasive species that quickly crowd into open spaces, eager to restore the land to natural chaos. One is tolerated for it’s fruit while the other reviled for it’s dollar-store beauty. Sprinkled here and there are feral fruit trees, remains of once prosperous orchards created by pioneers who hacked through towers of Douglas Fir trees thicker than all the church spires in Dublin.
Wilderness tempered. Like my memories.
While I reflected on the past, my kids reveled in the moment. The eldest daughter, a YouTube junkie, was lifted out of her hockey video habit and became nature girl. On a day-long kayak trip through the Discovery Islands, she dug into the waves, excited and strong. No doubt the routine sighting of seals and porpoises, eagles and otters, pushed her forward. Our guide, a transplanted eastern Canadian Maritimer, plucked sea urchins and starfish and droopy sea cucumbers from the rocks at the water’s edge for our inspection as we threaded through dozens of islets.
Stopping for lunch in a hidden bay littered with thousands of split and broken shell corpses, we beach-combed and stared into layers of blue – sky, islands, and mountains. I asked our guide what he did when the tourists went home. He told me he takes a couple of months off and travels. Last year he spent two months in the Amazon; the year before that he was in Nepal; before that he explored Peru. In the winter he heads to the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia to work as a heli-ski guide.
The youngest daughter listened to us chatting and afterwards asked me “Can someone make a good living like this?” I liked that qualifier “good”. Discussion ensued. “Good” was acquiring a new definition, one that didn’t necessarily mean lots of money, a big house, and designer clothes.
It occurs to me that while I talked to ghosts and argued with anxieties, my family acquired nice memories of my hometown. This makes me feel better about the sad ghosts of the past. Now I look at my hometown with their eyes and see that it is good, albeit flawed. I’m relieved that my anxieties haven’t infected them. While I still don’t understand the chronic knot in my gut, many ghosts have lost their edge with the roiling years of tides. And if I keep using morning talk therapy with that punching bastard in my belly, I’ve got a feeling I will prevail. In fact, on the whole, I’m good.