The past visits us.
Each time we look back on a chapter of our lives, we look back with different eyes, kind of like noticing a piece of an old photograph you’d overlooked before. When I was younger, I looked back on my teenage self with disdain, retroactively critiquing all the ways that I was a giant jerk face. Now that my son is entering the teen years, and the children of my close friends are moving into their final years of high school, I can better understand how vulnerable that age is, and forgive myself for sometimes being overly exuberant. It helped to have coffee with a high school friend who reminded me that even if I was a little loud sometimes, I was also funny and energetic.
My son moves up to Bantam in hockey this year, and I signed him up for some spring hockey to get him used to playing with the bigger kids. Some teenage girls stood next to me (I moved several times and they were always within ear-shot), wearing belly-revealing shirts that were way too flimsy for the cold arena and no coats, giggling over the boys. Puck bunnies? Already? Didn’t they notice the tall girl on the ice with something to prove, knocking the boys over and drawing penalties? They were like a sign-post letting me know what is just around the corner. One in particular was loud and irritating to my grumpy ears, but her friend found her hilarious. I am sufficiently self-aware to know that I was that kid for many adults.
It’s funny that in the exact moment when my future is starting to take shape, I’ve been gifted with several opportunities to think about the past. Last week, I attended a service for my friend’s grandmother, an absolute peach of a woman who lived to be 98 and died deeply loved by all those who knew her. Since I like to gather up stories of other people’s well-lived lives like little burrs on my pant legs, I loved hearing about her life; a tough early start, lots of grit and getting by, loyalty, grace and humour. She’d had troubles, and they were part of her story, but they didn’t define who she was. The stuff that people remembered her by was so much bigger and brighter than the moments when the sun was behind the clouds.
She was the sort of person who made everyone else in the room feel better. There are basically only two types of people in the world: those who make others feel negative, and those who make others feel positive. You can’t be one or the other all the time. We all have bad days and good days, and sometimes a bad day can stretch into a year, but you can do a whole lot worse in life than to try most of the time to be the latter. I was lucky to meet my friend’s grandma a few times. If I had to assign her a colour that matched her personality, I’d give her the bright, sunny yellow of lemon meringue pie.
We talked before about the words that we choose. After I wrote that post, I visited New Orleans where I spent a day touring old graveyards. I was really struck by the practicality of those late Victorians and their ability to distill a whole life down to heartbreaking bare essentials. Beloved. Missed. Cherished. One weathered stone to tell a one-sentence story in absentia, “I was here. I was loved.”
And also, this awesome individual who knew how to keep things to herself.
In his wonderful book, “Callings,” Gregg Levoy talks about the importance of consulting one’s own death from time to time.
For similar effect, I also visit ruins whenever I can, for they, too, are skeletons of a sort. When I travel, I prefer going to places where they abound: the crumbling walls of stone fortresses…the broken rim of a volcano whose eruption destroyed an entire civilization–anything to remind me that every castle, like the sun, goes down…Ruins…have to remind you that all your greatest efforts, all the greatest efforts of even hundreds of generations of men and women, thousands of years of human history, will yield nothing absolute, nothing that will last, and that the great thing, the real accomplishment, is building your house in full view of the volcano. (Levoy, p. 32)
On his advice, I keep memento mori in my home office; Levoy’s is an x-ray of his own battered skeleton after an accident. I have a model of a dinosaur skeleton, and a trilobite fossil. I also have my own baby picture, to remind me that the idea of “me” to which I’m so attached is also quite fluid.
A few weeks back, when spring was struggling to break through, the whole province was wrapped in a collective blanket of befuddlement when results of a nation-wide survey listed the people of Sudbury, Ontario as the nation’s happiest.
I’ll let you in on a secret. People in Sudbury love it there. They don’t live there because it hasn’t occurred to them yet to relocate to Ottawa or Toronto, as many in those cities assume. They know that they’re free to leave, they just choose not to.
I grew up in Sudbury and still visit several times a year. My family and my husband’s family live there. It’s a great place to grow up. While Sudbury’s reputation as an ashy ruin of mining was once deserved, there are lots of hidden gems.
Sudburians are insanely outdoorsy types, and the northern landscape is a total playground. Instead of swim lessons, my aunt taught all of us how to swim in Rock lake, starting with trips to the neighbour’s raft and working our way up to the island. We picked blueberries for breakfast and were allowed to fish in the smaller boats, unsupervised. In the winter, we skated in the yard, rode the trails on the snow machine or quad, climbed trees equipped with our pocket knives, or built epic forts. We were almost never inside. As a young adult, I got up very early in the summer to row in Lake Ramsey. If we forgot our water bottles, we could just nip a drink from the lake. Everyone in Sudbury either owns a cottage (called a camp if you’re from there) or knows someone who does.
I badly wish that I could whisk all of today’s helicopter parents back in time for one day in my childhood so they could see how awesome it was to grow up like that, but that’s a topic for another day.
I love the north for its ability to show my kids what my own childhood was like. They love visiting their grandparents at their lake house and getting muddy on the quads with their grandpa or just heading out to fish whenever they feel like it.
We also take our kids to Manitoulin Island every year. If anyone wants to time-travel back to 1975, I recommend the Cup and Saucer trail. A few years ago, we took our Niagara friends and their kids for the first of what is now an annual hike. Their teenage daughter peered at the battered sign at the trail-head warning people not to hike during hunting season. “When is hunting season?” she asked me with wide eyes. “Don’t worry,” I reassured her, “It’s not now.” “But how do you know?” “Because I’m from here.” “How is anyone supposed to know that if they’re not from here?” she argued. Fair point. “I’m not sure, but I know we’re good.”
Should I be alarmed that Google offered up “cup and saucer deaths” as the second most-popular search?
We then proceeded to scale the same ladder up the rock face that was there when I was a kid, just as slippery with moss and with rung spacing not compliant with any building code in the world. We directed the kids away from the crevasses, stationed adults at the cliff edge, and left with seven exhilarated children in need of ice cream.
I can’t wait to return this summer, especially now that the past has breezed past my ears a few times to call me back. I’m coming home soon Sudbury,