Month: December 2014

My year in Canoe

year in review

This year feels like 3 years, at least. Somewhere near the beginning I set out to deconstruct my life and turn it into something now. And now it’s…well, it is something, though I’m not sure what to call it. It’s like looking back on a long canoe trip. The retelling depends on my current mood, the audience, and the ever-rotating whirlpool of memory.

I could just make a list of big moments and life markers, but drawing a map in retrospect is much less of an adventure. Let’s say, for the sake of narrative, that my life over this last year was a canoe.

If I said I spent a year in a canoe to someone who isn’t fond of backwoods travel, or who’s never been in a canoe, they might recoil and horror and exclaim, “Oh, that must have been so horrible and stressful!”. And then, of course, the most strenuous of memories would come to the forefront, and I’d regale this poor city-slicker with tales of long portages, of being eaten alive by mosquitoes, of paddling through the night, never sure of when rest might come.

I’d try to describe the feeling of my fingers slipping on mossy rock as I flailed about in the rapids, watching that purple canoe (if my life is a canoe, it’s definitely purple, ok?) being tossed about and trashed downstream from me. Of finding it covered in cracks, irreparable maybe, and spending days going over it, trying to pull it back together with a pocket knife and some duct tape (who am I kidding? I ran out of duct tape long ago. That canoe, among many other things, is held together with green painter’s tape. Don’t underestimate the resiliency of that green painter’s tape. It’s hardier than it looks).
I’d pull my trusted friend aside and tell them of how, under the cold, indifferent moon, I lay awake and wondered how I’d ever be able to get back on the river the next day.

But I would get back on the river. I’d paddle sluggishly through marshes, canoe overfull and sinking. How did I pack so much into this tiny boat? I wondered, but it all seemed to be stuck together, piled in like a Tetris master, except with no layers magically disappearing to make room for more. My back hurt. My neck hurt. I think at one point I leaned forward and touched my toes, but then they stretched out far in front of me again, as if they were four femurs away. Damn those unattainable toes.

If I was telling this story to someone who’d spent a year or more in a similar canoe, it would sound much different. We’d lock eyes and share a hidden smile, both knowing the delight of steering your own way in the water.

I wouldn’t have to explain how it felt to make a slight adjustment to the tilt of my paddle and see the path change before me, to have the freedom to go at my speed, lackadaisical in the morning and big hustle at dusk. To know that I was neither holding myself back for another paddler to catch up, nor holding anyone else up.

With these quiet moments unspoken, we’d jump right into the brilliant, crashing moments of pure joy. Of scaling a cliff and diving down into deep, clear unknown waters, then floating for a moment on top, held by the river, and climbing out to do it all over again. Of the 21st time the canoe flipped, and I burst out into hysterical laughter because what else was there to do, and then even after I put everything back together again, I still couldn’t stop laughing.

I’d tell them about the nights when I thought I was all alone, pouring my heart out to that same quiet moon, and then looked over to find other canoes pulling up beside me. When I found new friends that had been down this way before and who promised to ring their bells loudly and keep the bears at bay. I swore to ring my bell too, to build a chorus for fellow travellers.

And just when I resigned myself to the idea that I was just going to have to paddle this whole canoe by myself, never handing that paddle over, it seemed to grow a little wider and longer. So I invited some of my friends, new and old, over to paddle with me for a bit. We swapped tips on building campfires and commiserated about the lack of maps. We patched each other’s holes and sang silly limericks to liven up the journey.

I’d never ridden in such a full canoe, but it just seemed to get bigger and bigger, fuller and fuller, yet even with the growing crowd on board, it just got more buoyant. It seemed to be the size of a yacht, though without the same amenities. It wasn’t a yacht, I told myself. This is an aberration, it’ll be just me in a tiny canoe again soon enough. That’s how it’s always been, that’s how it always will be.

But I’m sitting here on the dock now, at trip’s end, and I can’t deny the fact that this boat can no longer be called canoe. It’s some kind of freaky cruise ship, and it’s full to bursting. It’s a really odd shape, as if an architect was tasked with building something called “big ship” with the dismantled pieces of a long-haul rig and no instructions. It’s definitely held together with a lot of green painter’s tape, and mostly serves frozen pizza and soda. Lots of its mail comes on fancy red paper, but it floats.

Perhaps this year sounds less like your typical canoe trip and more like one of those dreams you have after you ate a slightly mouldy muffin, but I swear, it’s the honest truth.


Not Sorry Bus

"Canadian bus crash"

“Canadian bus crash”

Our apologetic buses are kind of a joke. Image and text, a bus front with its route banner blank, reading simply, “SORRY”. More text, added, explaining something about Canadianness in general, politeness, deference.

That one word, sorry, has the potential to hold much deeper meaning. It can be the introduction to considering the impact of one’s actions on others, to feeling some kind of regret, to intending something better for the future. On a bus-face it’s perfunctory. It’s a pre-emptive shield against future rage. How can you be mad at me? howls a cloud of exhaust fading into the distance, I said I was sorry.

It falls out of warm lips inside buses as backpacks swing into faces, bodies wrapped in parkas squeeze together more than they all would like. It’s held out like a torch to part the crowds. Excuse me, sorry, sorry, coming through, sorry.

We speak to each other like a bus marquee. Hello. How are you. I’m good. I’m sorry. Words scroll across our faces, meaning long frozen and faded, a simple redundant sound. We mean oops, we say sorry, then we scuttle off like an empty bus.

There’s a second line not shown in this bus-borne sketch of laughable Canadiana, though, the companion to SORRY. The marquee cleans, and it reads NOT IN SERVICE, then back to SORRY, and on and on as the driver races to the beginning of the route or back to the garage for either home or dead time in the middle of an all-too-common split shift.

Maybe the second line doesn’t suit the meme-makers in its factual abruptness. It’s a sharp ending to a casual tale of apologia. I have nothing to offer you and I’m leaving, says the bus. Not the meme bus, though. Maybe the meme form wasn’t made for second lines, for nuance, for both/and.

Yesterday, as the -40 wind froze my lips, I watched a bus skate by, blaring its usual banner phrase: SORRY. But the side marquee told a different story.

In a frozen half second, a moment tinier than an ice crystal, I saw the line before the second line, before SORRY was cleared and NOT IN SERVICE took its place. Right in front of my frozen eyeballs the bus nonchalantly announced NOT SORRY, and then sped away.

Those who disregard the second line won’t care that it’s now been reclassified as third, won’t care that a middle chapter has now been etched into this mini-synopsis of Canadiana, our symbolic personality edified in photos of buses poached from news sites.

But we of the icy bus stop, of the wiggling toes and dwindling hope, we who squint into the darkness looking for that familiar constellation of lights that we recognize as warmth and mobility, we care about the new second line.

Even if it’s the most short-lived of all bus announcements, it’s the truest message I’ve ever seen transmitted from public service to public.

And so I present to you the modified mantra of the frozen, passengerless, Winnipeg Transit bus: