These Boots Were Made For Floating

Mum is now snagged on a health and social care rock: physically well enough to still be alive, to eat and drink and be given enemas; mentally everywhere and nowhere at the same time. An existence cannot be more simplified.

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I am back here in Wem right now, but about to head down to my sister’s again. Only a week ago I was still in the far west of Canada. My immediate awareness of the difference between the UK and Yukon / BC is centred around the sheer density of the population here. It’s not a judgemental thing, just an observation of fact. Instead of inhabiting space people tend to contest space, to consume it like any other commodity.

Robert Macfarlane wrote a whole book (The Wild Places, Granta 2007) based on a quest to see if he could find any places in Britain that could still be called wild. It is part of a growing, and interesting, genre that is reflected in many other countries around the world. He found that there are still a few landscapes and terrains in the UK that can perhaps be called wild, though they are more and more embattled. However, his main conclusion is that we now need to train ourselves to appreciate wild nature in miniature…in the tangled thickets of mini-woodlands, in the small uncultivated and unbuilt on enclaves in both urban and rural settings.

I am all for seeing Heaven in a grain of sand, and for celebrating nature in the minute details of life, but Macfarlane’s conclusion is also a form of desperate acceptance of the unacceptable. Like a boxer dwelling on a good jab he landed before being knocked senseless in the first round. We need both the inward micro-wild and the outward macro-wild. And it is the latter that is the most under threat, and the most removed from many people’s experience.

Anyway, before I left Ashcroft I spent a fine day stravaiging the desert hills and the clay-crumble canyons above the Thompson River. I picked a sackful of the freshest, pastel-purplest, ‘smudgingest’ sage to mail to the Tagish lady who led the rattle-making described in an earlier post. I ended up down beside the fast-flowing water. With my flight brought forward 2 months to leave Vancouver the following day I needed to mark the moment, and to lighten my baggage. I removed my dust-caked and well-worn boots and launched them carefully onto the Thompson. They floated away swiftly, riding the currents and the eddies, and disappeared from sight, riding confidently in mid-stream around a wide bend.

I imagined them bobbing all the many miles down to Lytton, where the even mightier Fraser River assumes control of the watershed. They are maybe snagged up in a fallen tree by the Stein Valley N’lakapamux mountains where they left many cleat marks three years ago. I strode back into Ashcroft in my flip-flops reflecting on the old Mexican proverb: if you want to give God a good laugh, tell Him your plans!

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I have also been reflecting on my Summer Solstice day in Yukon. I went to a fine celebration of the longest day in Carcross (Caribou Crossing) organised by the Tagish / Carcross First Nation.

I joined the almost exclusively First Nations throng at 4.28 a.m., the official dawn, though it had not even become properly dark all night. A wide circle of around 60 people formed around an open fire by the main lake, with the mellow early morning sunlight soothing everyone into wakefulness. Each participant cleansed themselves in a ‘smudging’ ceremony, a sweet-smelling shower in sage smoke. The local Chief and a female Elder welcomed everyone and we all introduced ourselves.

There was a lengthy period for individuals to call out the names of deceased family and friends, to summon them to stand behind us and join in the celebration of light and warmth. There was singing and ritual feeding of the fire. Some of the Elders and visiting guests from other First Nations gave short, impressive speeches. The day ended in the bold midnight sun, again around the fire, with the focal point of the whole event being the dedication of the foundations of a new potlatch house in the village. The outlawing of the potlatch was seen by the conquering Europeans as essential to undermining the social cohesion of the First Nations, so its restoration as a living institution has enormous significance.

The day was filled with eating, talking, music, stories, and a great performance by a Tlingit dance troupe. The whole event was also centred around a link between the local First Nations and the Whitehorse Buddhist group (who are very strong in the relatively small town). The Buddhists were hosting a visit from a rimpoche (leading priest) from Bhutan and four of his associates. The rimpoche arrived mid-morning and spoke at length about Buddhism, the desirability of links with other cultures, and the philosophy of the ‘Medicine Buddha’. This was part of a speaking tour based around links with a Buddhist grouping in California.

I have always felt a level of attraction towards Buddhism, particularly the Zen path, with its poetic concentration and fine balance of seriousness and humour. Some of this attraction also stems from the fact that Buddhists seem to have indulged in infinitely fewer bloody wars and abusive power games than the other major world religions. I know you shouldn’t necessarily judge faiths and ideologies by the humans who practice them, but as century upon century mounts up the violent evidence, you have to question whether the horrors are somehow a product of deep flaws within the faiths and ideologies themselves.

At the same time, I have often felt alienated by the forms of Buddhism that stick to rituals and texts that were designed for an earlier time and a very different culture. I have found more relevance in the form of Sufi practice that tries to adapt spiritual life (there’s the ‘s’ word again) to the contemporary world, particularly through the use of storytelling. And I have to say that on Solstice day in Carcross I found that the rimpoche’s words and the exaggerated air of holy reverence left me feeling that the rhetoric and the ritual were far greater than the connective substance. I bow to the rimpoche’s vast learning and have full respect for the culture and traditions of Bhutan. But there is a strong vein of Buddhism in the west that is in danger of becoming a lifestyle accessory, a bolt-on array of flags and clothing and mini-shrines that give a comfortable gloss to lives of rampant materialism. Take a good look at magazines such as Shambala Sun for the full capitalism-compatible package of shiny happy (expensive) meditation retreats and plush sects, all with their own authentic, well-dentured, beatific leaders.

For me there was a clash between the flawed, honest, questing, elementally connected First Nations presence, and the smoothly detached charm of the Buddhist presence. I was probably missing something (my mind snagged on an octagon pattern in the dancers’ costume) but it was a fascinating, absorbing occasion and I felt  very awake, attuned and aware of the various currents. For an excellent, stimulating look at the original meaning and modern day relevance of the Buddha, try Pankaj Mishra’s An End To Suffering (Picador 2004).

Meanwhile, all best wishes to the Tagish / Carcross potlatch house, and to the sense of resurgence amongst many of Canada’s First Nations communities. The social problems are obvious and can’t be ignored and will not go away without lots of work, but there is growing evidence that these are communities that can value and honour their traditional culture whilst also integrating fully into the world as it is lived now.

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And now I am having to get used to the sun going down and darkness falling by 10 p.m…..so what are the good things about being back in England?

  • Closeness to Jack (my son), to sister Carol, and to the good Friends here who have been reading this blog and have been in touch.
  • Being here for the start of Oxford United’s new season in the mighty League Two of the Football League.
  • Witnessing my father beginning to experience some relief from the caring role he has devoted himself to for decades.
  • Listening to my loved music, and dancing to it.
  • Seeing the good things in my humble Wem nest with fresh eyes. And also the life-laundering that needs doing.
  • Appreciating the joys of those 2 months in Yukon, Ashcroft, Gabriola and Vancouver…and beginning to collate the experiences and thoughts and feelings for renewed energy in writing.
  • Great curries.
  • Fantasising about the next journey to BC / Yukon / Alaska !

I need to find some paid work. My sector is being shredded by spending cuts and I feel torn between looking for a renewed professional role (better pay) and going for work with no responsibility and minimal emotional commitment (and therefore low pay). I am waiting to hear from one publisher in particular about Pick Up the Pieces, but I do need to pick up the pace, never mind the pieces, of trying to get it ‘out there’.

My other writing projects are: a sequel to PUP (the book only covers half of my lengthy travels  in 2007); a novel based on a lottery round I used to do as a young teenager; and a comic-erotic spoof translation of a fictitious Renaissance epic of courtly love.

Hmmmm…what would it look like if I rolled them into one…?

Ted xox

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9 comments

  1. I hope the fish and fauna haven’t been decimated down river from the toxic waste you flung into the Thompson!

    Your Summer Solstice day sounds incredible, I had to read a bit about potlatching on Wikipedia as I hadn’t heard the term before. That combined with the real McCoy (not the wishy-washy capitalist version) Buddhist experience must make for some terrific memories xx

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    1. Thank you, P the PP.
      I think that the angelic essence from the far end of my legs will actually enhance the bio-diversity and richness of the Pacific North-West.
      Yes, the solstice day was great. And I’m still finding it hard to re-attune to dark nights…there’s something quite addictive about the approaching solstice up there, sensing and experiencing the rapid extension of the daylight hours.
      Ted x

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    1. Thanks, Liz. The posts take me a deceptively long time to write. I’m sure they can be happily sped-read, but I value the careful reading that I know you bring to it…
      Ted xx

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  2. Glad to see you can find positives in the end of your planned trip, I must take a leaf out of your book and becaome a glass half full kind of person x

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    1. Yes, I guess optimism is best. Mind you, if things are really bad it doesn’t help to be falsely optimistic. There’s a nice line in that recent Twitter-based book Shit My Dad Says: “At some point the world shits on everybody. Pretending it ain’t shit makes you an idiot, not an optimist!”
      Ted x

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