Monday, August 6, 2018

Lorri Neilsen Glenn's June 21st

Today I walked on the ocean floor. On days when the tide is especially low, the dog and I step down over boulders and layers of shale to reach the basin of the bay. Here the gun metal greys and bright ochres come alive. We cross the spot where a small stream rinses through the rocks and flows in all directions before it’s soaked up by the sand and the seaweed.

Around here, that seaweed is known as rockweed, but to be accurate, its name is ascophyllum nodosum. In the Plains Cree language, it might be asisîy. I’m not sure—I know so little Cree. But do I need a name? As my astonishment at the natural world increases with age, language seems to limit my awareness as much as it expands it.

While I’m playing at philosopher and stepping carefully over the slippery rockweed, the dog is already revelling in its slippery mass, rolling in ecstasy, her small sturdy frame flipping, twisting, writhing, snorting. She’ll smell of the ocean now, which I think is the point. A water dog is a water dog is a water dog and a lame leg won’t stop her.

I bend down to search for tiny periwinkles, most the size of the eraser end of a pencil. Some still have the meat oozing from their opening. A blues howl is how I once described their tiny round bodies in an essay about grief. If today is a day for grieving, though, it’s anticipatory grief– summer is too short, life is too short, I know nothing, everywhere is beauty and I don’t know how to appreciate it all without breaking my heart.

Today is the solstice and, in Canada, it’s also National Indigenous Day. Our country’s brutal and genocidal treatment of Indigenous people, an awareness that was once a drop in the public consciousness, is finally becoming a steady stream. If only the awareness inspired more than politicians’ cheesy-grinned photo-ops and hollow promises. If only.

I’m in post-book phase – that place of limbo when writers feel spent, emptied out, raw, struggling with the tension between the desire to write – to go forward, as the saying goes, as if that’s how we travel – and the wish to retreat into stacks of must-read books, poke through archival material, cull files, spend a morning online and an afternoon in the woods.

Or on the ocean floor. Our bay on the Atlantic is, thankfully, relatively free of old beer cans, lonely flip-flops, ocean-rinsed tee shirts and all the usual detritus from a summer place. A summer place—I still feel an ache whenever I hear the strains of that song. Youth is that ache, I think – and then middle-age so busy the ache is pushed aside. Now that I’m beyond child-raising and caretaking, the ache returns, but it’s different, it’s somewhere between yearning and mourning. It’s I have not done enough. How do I deserve this world? I have senses that can note subtleties in the umbers and greys, salty odours that hit me like a plank, feel the sway of lime green growth that touches my toes as I walk. I’m just getting started in this life.

I laugh. I think there’s an old country song with lyrics along the lines of I can’t miss you because you’re still around. Well, I’m here and I miss this world already. What is it about this day, the day of long light and high sun that’s causing me to be so maudlin?

The dog has poked her cold nose into the back of my knee and now looks up, waiting. We walk past mounds of rockweed to larger shale formations and open water. I throw a stick about fifty feet out, where the water is deeper, and off she goes. She’s back in no time, mouth-breathing and gasping, triumphant.

Late last year, I published a book about six generations of my Ininiwak and Métis grandmothers – a search that took me back in time to 18th Century Hudson Bay in what we now know as Canada. Even my parents weren’t aware of our background. I was overwhelmed with revelation after revelation. What might I have found if I’d started this search 30 years ago? Would I have a clearer idea of who I am?

Of course, none of us can ever know. But learning about these women’s lives and the lives of their contemporaries has given me a footing on the planet I’ve never felt before.

Rest assured: I won’t be searching for my spirit animal any time soon and the world already has enough “pretendians.” I have much too much to un-learn and a wealth of catching up to do. Raised working class, I was part of a typical “single family, two sets of grandparents” nucleus of settler society—the Western world is so good at individualizing, lionizing the singular unit as if it were the norm. As if we aren’t all connected.

This grounding, this stability I feel as a result of writing about the lives of my Red River grandmothers is best described by the poet Linda Hogan. “Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”

15:34:13 – the number of daylight hours in Nova Scotia on this day, June 21, 2018. And now, the turn begins. When the dog and I walk back from the shore through the woods, the sun shreds its light through tree branches, throwing tatters across the green.


Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s most recent book is Following the River: Traces of Red River Women (Wolsak and Wynn), a mixed-genre exploration of the lives of her Ininiwak and Métis grandmothers and their contemporaries. Author and editor of several collections of poetry and nonfiction, Lorri has worked with writers across Canada and in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Greece and Chile. Her award-winning essays have appeared in The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Event, among other journals and anthologies. Former Halifax Poet Laureate, Lorri is a mentor in the University of King’s College MFA program in creative nonfiction. @neilsenglenn.

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