Other Wordless Friends—
I was googling the title to see if there were already a hundred things called this and it seems there are not. In the process I found a short film made by an actor posing as one Hans Freeberling, an artist installing a show about nothing. The gallery is empty. People come. They think it’s real, that the artist is real, and so they try not to scratch their wee wannabecultured noggins until, eventually, they make up Their Own Point for the point of the nothingness. Because there must be one, right??
As a satire, it’s gorgeous. Says so much about us. Most of which is questionable, but there’s this too: that faced with a blank canvas, real or metaphoric, we can choose to impose our own thoughts. This is a kind of art form in itself. Getting People To Think From Ground Zero, we might call it.
The lack of ‘something’ might also be compared to a one word poem. Or a single toilet cemented to a wall. I mean, we can have real discussions about these things. (I recently had a strangely satisfying time discussing the ‘poem’ balloon. One word. Discussion went along the lines of who says it has to have only two L’s and where’s the law about the emphasis remaining on the second syllable… and so on.)
There’s always the chance these chats will lead to… oh, something interesting or important even. Possibilities are always endless where conversation is concerned and, really, anything at all can be a prompt.
But because something serves as a prompt, or because it causes us to think in possibly new ways… is it art? And who gets to say?
And what isn’t art?
And who gets to say?
I’m not looking for a definition. Or even an answer. Is there even an answer? Tons of opinions. And all manner of conversation and argument and (most sadly of all) very little light-heartedness about things, including toilets, so I’ve decided to stop asking. In fact this whole ramble is a digression.
What I meant to write about is nothing, the art of it.
Which leads me directly to my dad, a chap who would not have called himself an artist though he played with paint, on both canvas and walls. He built our first house then spent decades renovating the second. The garden too. Rockeries and rose beds. Our hedge was almost a topiary. If he wanted a fence, he’d go down to the beach, find some driftwood and make one. Then he’d make a driftwood coffee table, an end table, a floor lamp. He made bookshelves. A fireplace, a BBQ and a bird bath out of stone and in the rec room he painted a wall to wall, floor to ceiling mural of a favourite spot under a tree on a beach in Barbados. He included my mother’s striped beach bag hanging from a branch. (The people who bought the house after my parents died, said the mural was a selling point.) He built two patios and a car port, refashioned our front door, and the back one too, to look more Spanish, a style he liked. And then he began making the inside look more Spanish too. To his mind anyway.
He did all this after his day job, and on weekends. Mostly in Hawaiian shirts, paint splattered pants and shoes with no laces.
This was his thing, this making.
I used to wonder how he thought up all this stuff. How could a wall that looked perfectly fine to me in its bareness or with a few holiday pennants hammered on, to him scream: paint a beach scene!!! don’t forget the bag.
He did a lot of sitting in-between the making. This was all before busy-ness was invented, when people really were busy, doing real things without an abundance of appliances and before nannies and dog-walkers. These ancient busy people, it seems, made time to sit, have a coffee, light a pipe, and if you were to join them, say, at the picnic table on the handmade patio, they wouldn’t talk about being busy, they would say something about squirrels or sedimentary rocks or have you noticed how many buds are on the apricot tree this year? You might be wearing pedal pushers and drinking Koolaid when you ask if there’s such as thing as UFOs and they might draw a few times on their pipe, think for a minute, let the smoke out nice and slow as they say could be, who the hell knows…
My dad would be surprised to learn that the most important thing he taught me was not to make sure the vice on my workbench was closed at night or how properly to wash a car, but how to love what you do, to do it as well as you can and, most importantly, to take time for the nothing. In fact, he’d be surprised to know he even did it.
Some of my favourite moments, those nothing ones. Still are. I realize in my own nothings that that’s where we re-fuel, where we find our next mural.
A whole different kind of art.
I have a labyrinth.I made it out of snow.It runs past all the stuff I didn’t cut down because the birds like the Rudbeckia seeds… and I didn’t get around to the tall grasses or the hydrangea.A trained eye will see that it’s technically more “snowy paths in my yard”… but it works exactly the way a labyrinth does.That is, you walk and walk and walk in a more or less circular way, turning left or right without thinking because the goal is not to think — once you begin thinking you’re toast. At that point it becomes less meditative labyrinth walking and more I wonder if the neighbours are frightened yet walking.If you’re doing it right, you’re not thinking a single thing except maybe about the crunch, crunch, crunch of the snow under your steps. The zen of crunch.It’s occurred to me to wonder how many steps long the labyrinth is but I’ve never paced it out. There are angles to be considered and the whole process would require a certain amount of addition.
And who needs the math…
On the subject of labyrinths…
I have a thing for North. I suppose this is very Canadian. Or maybe it’s just me and Glenn Gould. We who have this tendency of leaning northward are secret admirers of storms and falling temperatures; we wear a certain pride in the misery of it all and envy provinces whose kitchens smell of snow cakes on days when they’re unable to open their back doors. Mine is not a land of nail-biting where cold weather is concerned, but rather, the idea of North beckons with a kind of curious wonder at just how Canadian are we… How much North have we seen? How much can we take?
And so it was with great anticipation that I opened Boundless, Kathleen Winter’s account of finding herself in the North. (Double entendre intended.) Not only does she find herself there when, on something close to a whim, she accepts an invitation to participate in a voyage through the Northwest Passage but, in the course of things, she finds bits of herself in the landscape of icebergs and tundra as well as in memories of an English childhood, travels through Europe, arrival in Canada via Newfoundland where she lived for many years, and then to Montreal, the city she now calls home.
While home feels like something of a theme, Winter confides that a sense of belonging to this place or that, has always eluded her. Maybe this is why she’s so good at noticing the details that make a life.
Part of the book’s magic is how she weaves recollections of fresh English cream with food banks and cockroach ‘vendettas’, third floor flats and hundred year old lilacs grazing windows; with British rain vs Newfoundland rain, Vita Sackville West’s white garden, Mexican itinerants and whistling boys in Corner Brook; with ‘marmalados’ and fig trees in Montreal, fish markets in Greenland, junk food and wild food in Pond Inlet; with the purchase of a handmade doll… and the sight of a polar bear that changes everything.
Among the passengers on this voyage is Nathan Rogers, son of Stan Rogers. His father’s song, and the phrase, ‘tracing one warm line’, is a powerful soundtrack that fades in and out of the reading. In fact, sound may be another theme. The absence of it as Winter explores the land—“I’d been given the key to enter, to lie down and listen, to breathe its exhalations and hear it speak…” —and then the shock of its re-appearance when the PA system announces a tour to see a rock formation or go in search of whales or birds. Winter ignores each call, prefers to let the land show her what’s hers to see. “… if a narwhal or other astonishing creature wanted to reveal something to me, it would do so when we were both ready.”
It occurs to her there is a need to “understand…mind and body in a new way.” And how to receive, to become more tree-like.
“Somehow everything I’d learned about life pointed to an idea that to receive something you had to earn it. I’d never thought of myself as a tree, a graceful being visited by songbird, starlight, and rain, and which people love for itself, not for what it does or how smart it is, or how indispensable. I was used to making myself indispensable in one arena or another…”
The narrative moves forward, backward and sideways through time, like shifting ice, memory bumping up against the present and creating yet another dimension (in one instance, as the ship is forced to take an alternate route, Winter first considers Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing off in their wooden shoe, then ties this in with past explorers who “might have spied a whole gleaming mountain range that didn’t exist…”).
Some of my favourite passages reflect on the happy discovery of muskox fur caught among the vegetation, which she gathers with reverence for weaving into various projects. This parallel of wool and weaving feels like a turning point as she tells us she comes “…from a long line of sheep stealers,” and we sense her pride, this instinct she has inherited to collect, connect, create.
A sense of belonging emerges…
“I wove another muskox tuft into my work and felt excited that tomorrow, when we landed at Paisley Bay, I could search the terrain for more fragments of that one warm line.”
It’s a strangely wild yet contemplative ride she takes us on as the landscape and the people slowly work themselves into her psyche. She tells us that, initially, she couldn’t find the words to describe the experience, and that only two years later, after looking at her own sketches, was she able to begin writing the book.
“I was finding, in the North, that words are secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.”
In some ways it feels a very private account, musings and observations as if written for self, as if the author might lift her head at any moment and be surprised to see us there reading.
Ultimately though, Boundless is about discovery. Of history, land, self, of connection to others, of hearing and seeing in new ways, and of questioning what actually matters. It’s about the power and beauty of North. Not exactly a book about the North… but more because of it.