The Power of Reinvention

When I was a young Dad, my favourite books to read with our daughter were from the create your own adventures series. Even as a child she had a rapier wit and daring sense of wonder. We would arrive at the parts where the protagonist was presented with options and she would pick one but often we would invent more until we were legless with giggling. Later, I explained that the books were existentialism instruction manuals.

You see, my brow has always furrowed at the notion of Christian providence. After all, if God has a master plan for the universe, and even for me, then is prayer not presumptuous? Why should my puny, clasped-hand demand throw Him off his game? Is His plan that negotiable?

Similarly, I’ve never understood science’s determinist ideas of nature and nurture. If one the other or both are so powerful then why am I the only one of four brothers to attend university, write a book, play an instrument, sing, and live where we grew up. Those things don’t by a long shot make me one whit better than any of them, after all, one brother is tougher, another handier, and the other smarter than I will ever be. But do our differences, and we are all quite different, not dispute the determinism?

Religion says things occur because God makes them happen. Science says things occur because natural laws make them happen. Existentialism says shit happens. I kind of like that. It invites us to write our own adventures. I find that a bold and empowering notion.

I was the first of my extended family who did not work in one of Hamilton’s two steel mills. That decision, again making me no better and in many ways dumber and affording a life less secure, was at its least a declaration of reinvention. In university I thought I’d invent myself as a lawyer. After some research revealed that lawyers spend most of their days doing things far removed from the exciting stuff I’d seen on TV, I scotched that idea and became a teacher.

Teaching was challenging and fun. There is nothing in the world like working with a student and suddenly seeing the light flicker on; not to whatever subject is at hand, subjects are just vehicles, but to suddenly cotton on to the idea that she is smart, and can learn, and that learning is fun.

I was being groomed to become a principal in one county before we moved home and then it happened again. I took neither the bait nor the necessary course. I said no to bosses who encouraged me. I saw some principals doing good work but too many forced to be clerks pushing paper and firefighters addressing the conflagration de jour. Besides, it’s an odd system that increases pay with every step taken away from the reason we’re there – interacting with kids. Reinvention, I guess, demands sincere commitment or its just change.

Instead, I continued to do the best job I possibly could but began reinventing myself as an author. I had written a textbook and had it published by Oxford University Press but that was a fluke. I had no idea what I was doing. So I wrote another. This one dealt with the history of Canadian racism and I was thrilled when Winnipeg’s Shillingford Press published it. It’s ironic that Winnipeg has just been tagged as Canada’s most racist city.

Boyko

Shillingford published my next book too, the one that looked at the right wing attacks on Tommy Douglas and the CCF. For the next one I upped my game. I secured a literary agent; the hard working and marvelous Daphne Hart. She secured my next book, a biography of the misunderstood and under-appreciated Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, with a much bigger publisher – Key Porter Books. I felt like I’d arrived.

However, just as Bennett was building, Key Porter was caught in a whirlwind of reinvention itself and, like many other publishers, went bust. The good people at Goose Lane picked up the paperback edition. My next book was about Canada and the American Civil War and Daphne had it placed with Canada’s biggest house – Random House. I could not have been happier. It did well in Canada and the US and has even been translated into French – I’ve now written a book I can’t read! My next book will be with them too and film rights have already been secured.

I’m out of the classroom now but not really. The shameless book promotion that is now essential for all authors has taken me from coast to coast speaking at events and doing radio and TV. After speaking engagements I am often asked how I can talk for 40 minutes, wandering the room with my lapel mic, and all without a note. I confess that after dealing with a room full of thirty 16 year olds, that being with two hundred adults is easy. It calls for the same skills and tricks: know your stuff, make it fun, tell stories, and sneak learning in the back door when they’re not looking.

The craziest question I’ve ever been asked was by a Calgary interviewer on live radio. “Of all Canada’s prime ministers,” he said, “which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?” No dead air allowed. No time to think. What would you say? Again, the dancing I’d learned in the classroom made it easy.

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So my latest reinvention is now complete; I am an author. I write books, this Monday blog, book reviews, op. ed. columns in newspapers and magazines, and enjoy speaking engagements. I have created my own adventure. I once read that our greatest fear is not that we have no power but that we have all the power we need to do what we wish. For me, and for those who believe in existentialism’s liberation, that is no fear at all. I wonder what I’ll do next?

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others or even consider checking out one of my books at http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/home/search/?keywords=john%20boyko

The Ancient Understanding of Water

Dear Canada,

The intrepid explorers who left Quebec’s relative comfort for God and gold did not scar the land. They didn’t bang and clang along in wagons breaking trees and cutting tracks. No, they slipped through in canoes, in silence, leaving not a trace of their passing.

Voyageur_canoe

It’s perhaps this collective memory, this ancient understanding down deep in our souls that urges us to water. We are born of water. Many of us are baptized with water. Water is our playground where we seek sanctuary and salvation in splashing and skiing and paddling and floating. Blessed is the contentment of long, gentle afternoons in hypnotic contemplation of sparkling waves. We bob at dusk in little tin boats with smelly worms and silly hats and silently wish that a splashing bass will not spoil the tranquility. We work fifty weeks to afford a clean and tidy house and then leave it for two to paddle a canoe and haul it over treacherous rocks and roots, and all to live from a sack, sleep on rocks, and eat food we’d send back in the dingiest diner. And we love it all, because we’re on water.

The Atlantic was your welcome mat and the St. Lawrence your doorway. It invited us in. It was your superhighway to your inland seas – the mighty Great Lakes. Settlements grew to towns and then cities along their shores. Without the lakes there would be no Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and the rest.

The lakes are a line. We’re here and the Americans are over there. They always coveted more and once they crossed the lakes to get it. As blood-soaked armies showed neither mercy nor shame, battleship artillery boomed. It drowned out the cries of the poor drowning men. We burned their capital. They returned the favour and burned ours, but we beat them in the end; we beat them 18 to 12. We then agreed to ban the guns on the lakes and try, one more time, to live a hard and bitter peace.

Another war’s end, a couple of wars later, offered its own kind of boom – prosperity and babies. The navy sold out at garage sale prices and shipping companies soon had plenty to ship in their ships. Supply could not meet demand to fill new houses in new neighbourhoods with new stuff. Europe was still bleeding and Canadian wheat, iron, and wood steamed through the lakes to help with the healing.

The big freighters lumbered like slow-moving monsters. They chugged from plants and mills and lake to great lake and on up the St. Lawrence to the sea. Their choking smoke, like the belching factory stacks, were a sign of good times. The depression and war were over and we yearned for order. There was an old man on parliament hill and a young Elvis on TV, well, from the waist up anyway, and the smoke stacks meant there were jobs for everyone. For most of us, it was a Leave it to Beaver world and folks along the lakes were lulled in their beds each night by the freighters’ mournful horns echoing over still and foggy water.

Edmund Fitzgerald

Edmund Fitzgerald

But just like life was not so serene everywhere, the ships were romantic only to those elsewhere. Life was tough and the men tougher. Ships were too often floating sweatshops. Company men and the politicians they bought winked and nodded as captains ignored the imaginary border drawn somewhere on the waves and rival union goons broke skulls and laws.

There were moments of calm amid the chaos. Peaceful nights on watch with no shore in sight allowed a man to imagine himself at sea. The lake’s gentle roll offered time to recall what drew him to that life in the first place. Then, sudden gales could whip up mountainous waves and transform freighters big as towns to bathtub toys. Everyone knew their jobs but when the running lights and radio went out as another wave crashed over the deck there was nothing to do but pray. Like in a battlefield foxhole, there are no atheists aboard freighters locked in the cold embrace of a Superior storm.

The Great Lakes’ beds are rusting, ramshackle naval museums and holy unmarked graves. Canada, your lakes and the rivers both mighty and small are the blood in your veins. Their waves are the rhythm of your soul.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is one of a collection entitled Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you liked it, please share it through social media and see some of the others at johnboyko.com

The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald               © Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below, Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

Eight Ways To Look At Sir John A. Macdonald

January 11th was Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. As Canada’s first prime minister and key founding father, he deserves to be remembered. Across the country there were cakes, candles, songs, and speeches. Many Canadians will enjoy celebrations of one sort or another all year. Others, however, will not celebrate but castigate. The attacks have begun and some have been viscous.

The spirited debates remind us of history’s importance and of its terrific habit of never shutting up. History is not a warm bath of nostalgia but a mean teacher that forces us to think of things we have not before and, even more importantly, consider things we thought we knew for sure. The conflicted commemoration of our first prime minister is as it should be for there are at least eight ways to see Sir John.

Brady-Handy_John_A_Macdonald_-_cropped

Creator: In the 1860s, Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and threatening an invasion of the British colonies on their northern border. The bitty Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them, needed to save themselves by creating themselves. Canada’s birth had many midwives, but the conferences and subsequent debates that brought it into the world would have failed without Sir John’s charm and political acumen. The Constitution creating the state to house the nation was written largely in his hand.

Saviour: With the Civil War’s end, the United States demanded astronomical reparations from Britain for its role in prolonging the conflict. The Americans offered to trade the cash for Canada. As part of the British delegation in Washington, to negotiate what was called the Alabama claims, Macdonald deftly controlled the agenda. He refused to be bribed by the Brits or bullied by the Americans. He left with generous concessions and the swap swept from the table.

Visionary: Macdonald knew Canada must grow or be gone and the only way was west on rails. Without the railway, British Columbia could join the United States and the United States could, as its Manifest Destiny decreed, take the prairies. The railway idea was ludicrous. It would be the world’s longest railway through the world’s most inhospitable land. The rocks and impenetrable forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rockies would be impossible. Macdonald told British Columbians they’d have the steel line to the Pacific in ten years and the money flowed and hammers rang. His will and conniving saw the impossible done and Canada linked from sea to sea.

Centralist: Macdonald put power in parliament. He saw the prime minister as the servant of the House and provinces like municipalities. Parliament could overturn provincial laws deemed to contradict the national interest and he disallowed many. He interpreted parliament’s purchase of what is now most of the west as its ownership of the land and resources. When premiers met to complain, he refused to attend.

Charlatan: He was not above political trickery to get or keep power. Globe editor and Reform Party leader George Brown learned the hard way when Macdonald tricked him into office and then two days later tricked him right back out again. He used patronage jobs to openly and unapologetically reward friends and punish enemies. He was once scandalized out of power when caught linking political donations to railway contracts.

Rogue: No one knew more stories and jokes than Sir John. No one remembered more names or slapped more backs. He never met a voter with whom he disagreed or an opponent he did not try to woo. He once entered his occupation in a hotel ledger as “cabinet maker”. A hard drinker, he once threw up during a campaign speech but then won the election. He told another audience that Canadians preferred him drunk to George Brown sober – he was right. He was a scoundrel but he was their scoundrel.

Racist: He imported Chinese workers for the worst and most dangerous railway construction jobs. With the task done, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. He did not want Canadians to become what he called a “mongrel race”. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide.

Founding Father: To our American friends, consider this: Sir John was like your Thomas Jefferson in that he provided the philosophical foundation upon which the country was based; he was like your James Madison as he was primary among those who wrote the constitution; he was like your George Washington in that he was Canada’s first chief executive and fully cognizant that everything he said or did set a precedent that would affect the behaviour of every prime minister that followed – so Sir John was your Jefferson, Madison, and Washington rolled into one man.

Sir John's Grave

Sir John’s humble grave site

Sir Christopher Wren, the man who designed St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the most spectacularly graceful and awe-inspiring buildings on the planet, once said that if you wished to see his monument you should look around. Canada is not as perfect as St. Paul’s but no country is. However, while flawed, it is safer, richer, and more democratic than most. Its long and fascinating history bursts with sources of pride and shame as well as progress and redemption. So as the key figure in creating, building, and saving the country, it is fitting and proper that we commemorate Sir John. Without him there would be no Canada. Perhaps we honour him best by acknowledging that he was as complex a man as is the country he left in our care. Perhaps we understand him as we understand Wren, by looking around.

 An edited version of this column appeared as part of Globe and Mail debates in which I was asked to be one of four historians to consider whether Sir John was a “Visionary or Hateful Embarrassment”. You can see what the others wrote and vote for who you think should win at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/sir-john/article22362438/

Five Things I Know About Music

I blame Mike Nesmith. Also at fault are John Lennon, my Godmother, my cousin, and I suppose my grandmother. You see, my grandmother was the glue that kept our large, extended Ukrainian family together. Among my fondest childhood memories are Christmas parties in the big room downstairs that she had built for such occasions. After a meal set for three times the large number assembled, the tables and chairs were pushed aside for everyone to dance. But it was not records for us for my cousin had a band. And that’s where it began.

My cousin played a big red Gretsch guitar and it was about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like every year, I sat close and watched his every move. When I was eight I was intently watching like usual when my Godmother, resting briefly from the dance floor she loved so much, sat beside me and said she had a special gift. If I loved music so much, she said, then I should study the best. She handed me a copy of Elvis Presley’s first album. Blue Suede Shoes was good but Trying to Get to You was art. I had no idea a singer was allowed to do things like that. The notes and words were putty; they were toys.

album_Elvis-Presley-Elvis-Presley

Just as I was wearing the album to dust, The Monkees debuted on television. Yes, they were a made-up band but there they were alongside the TV fluff of the day with their long hair and music and living on their own in a funky beach house and there was Mike Nesmith playing – wait for it – a great big Gretsch. That did it.

I told my father that I had to have a guitar. He promised to pay half if I saved the rest – a good Dad. I stopped buying Hardy Boys books and salted paper route earnings and cut lawns to make more and soon had what I needed. It was not a Gretsch. It was not even close. It was a cheap, guaranteed-not-to-crack Harmony acoustic. I still have it. I walked eight blocks for lessons every Saturday morning but grew frustrated that the teacher had me plunking away at the Mel Bay Guitar Method when all I wanted was to learn Beatle songs. Yes, I had graduated from Monkees to Beatles and from Mike to John. After three months, I quit and set out to learn on my own.

Harmony guitar The Harmony Guitar

My first gig was in Grade 8 when another skinny boy and I stood stiffly on the big school stage and nervously plucked out Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. In high school I partnered with a friend and we played coffee houses and pubs. While dangerously under age we did a month-long gig at a scruffy bar that was a motorcycle gang hang out. Arguments and fights regularly interrupted our country-rock tunes and earnest originals.

Later, an independent record label heard me in a little bar where I was making some extra cash to support my young family and signed to me a contract. We recorded three 45s (Google it if you have to) and they did OK. The second one did best and even made it to #2 in Sweden – damn Willie Nelson and Always on My Mind!

I still play every day. I still play Nesmith, Lennon, and Presley songs and still write new ones that few ever hear. I now even sing and play in a little band with two friends. We enjoy a gig a month at a local pub – music by neighbours for neighbours for nothing at stake but the fun old tunes provide for all.

From my grandmother’s Burlington party room to Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle Pub I have learned five things about music:

  1. Genres are junk. There is so much commonality between what critics, radio stations, music companies, I-Tunes, and the rest say are categories of music that the categories are meaningless. There is good music and bad music. Which is which? It’s up to you – enjoy the power to decide for yourself.
  2. The Best is Not Opinion but Math – Nearly every kind of music was available in every era. Which era was best is a mathematics question. Do the math and determine the years in which you were thirteen to seventeen years old. That era produced the best music ever made.
  3. Commitment Matters – Chickens are involved in breakfast but pigs are committed. It’s the same sliding scale with music. To be involved is to listen and to deepen your involvement is to see music played live. To be committed is to play music yourself and to be fully committed is to play with others where you need to not only play but listen. Watch any band that hits a groove and see the endorphins flow. You will know when it happens by their eye contact and at the end they will laugh. Playing music is fun. That’s why they call it playing.
  4. It’s in the Wires – Our brains are wired to learn, remember, and enjoy. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, has done extensive research and found that music hits all three. Music literally re-wires our neural pathways, enabling us to learn more, remember more, and enjoy more in our lives than if music were absent.
  5. It Never Goes – Those studying Alzheimer’s patients have found that long after sufferers forget everything, they remember music. Know that right now there are old people who cannot recall their names but can still play the piano and sing Sinatra songs. I shudder to think that someday there may be an addled old man in a home somewhere strumming a guitar and warbling I’m a Believer.

With this now written I will turn from my desk, pick up my Martin and we’ll enjoy an hour or so together. Maybe I’ll sing that old Elvis song and remember my Godmother. She’s doing the best she can these days but I bet that despite all that’s been forgotten, she remembers the words better than I do.

If you liked this, please share it with others and consider a comment and seeing more of my columns at johnboyko.com.

The Power of Coming Home

Dear Canada,

A young soldier had died and was coming home. It was cold. Standing in the kind of wind that mocks wool hats and down coats, our pant legs flapped and eyes narrowed as we affected the Canadian hunch; shoulders up, chins down, and arms crossed. And we waited. Some had flags and the school kids held a small banner. There were more of us atop every highway 401 overpass from Trenton to Toronto; more flags, more kids, and firefighters at attention on their trucks and police officers beside their cars.

highway of heroes

And then he came. We saw the line of vehicles wavering like black teardrops in the distance. As the motorcade neared, we saw vehicles in front and even some approaching in the other lanes, way over the wide median, pull over and stop. It was there but gone so quickly, like the life we had gathered to honour. We turned to see the cars disappear down the Highway of Heroes. Some cried, some waved, and some saluted, but there were no cheers. Nobody clapped. It was solemn. There was nothing said. There was nothing to say. Finally, the teacher mumbled something and the silent teenagers were shuffled away. The rest of us went home.

highway_of_heroes sign

That day, like every day, millions of us went home. Parents came home from workplaces that were as much a mystery to the kids as how the refrigerator magically filled itself with food or their dresser drawers with warm socks. And from Nanaimo to Bonavista, parents sat at dinner tables and asked, as they are obliged to, what the kids did in school that day. And they all received the same one word response; the answer every parent knows: “Nothing”.

But that evening not everyone came home. There are Labrador men in northern Alberta driving trucks bigger than the boats they left high and dry under big gray tarps. The women now run the town. The young men left first. Then it was their fathers who found more money offered for a six-month stint out there than they could make here in five years. The men with less hair and more belly who had earned their wise eyes and sore backs were soon heading west with the rest.

There is a Fredericton nurse in a ramshackle African hospital where medical supplies are currency. The money flows in from the well-meaning West but the young men with guns and old men with Mercedes decide where it goes and it’s mostly to them. And so the young woman with blonde hair tucked under the old blue kerchief, barters for bandages and penicillin. She gets a little bit tougher each time a new grave finds a child who could have been saved.

There is a Saskatoon teacher opening a big box in Haiti. Her parents ran the collection and packed it with love and concern and a long, aching letter. The pencils and notebooks are cheap and common back home, but here they move barely adequate to good. And good is measured in smiles that transcend race, gender, religion, and class and all the other phony lines that divide. The kids are like all kids and hungry to learn. Most here, though, are also just hungry.

Tonight, the nurse and the teacher and men in the fields are not the only ones not coming home. There are also those with no homes. How many bad decisions in a row did it take to put that man in the holey coat and Rough Riders cap on the Regina sidewalk? How many of the bad decisions were his? How many were made by parents who should not have been parents and social workers with hearts gone cold? How many were made by bosses with eyes on bottom lines urging emasculated men to avoid taking it personally. How many of the bad decisions were made by politicians, whose focus groups smiled at “balance the budget”, “tighten our belts”, and “cut the fat”. And now we scurry by and try not to make eye contact. We try not to think that he has a mother somewhere, and that one night was the first night and first time that he sat on the sidewalk and cried.

hi-homeless-852

You are a country of love. Love is easy to find. Go to the park in mid-morning and watch parents watch kids. Go to any airport and see families say bye. Walk down a ways and watch welcomes. There is love.

You are a country of hope. It’s hope that sends teachers and nurses abroad. It’s hope that sends fishermen to oilfields and has grandmothers pursing their lips and stepping up. And there is hope in the baby, powdered and new and safe in her mother’s arms, coming home for the first time to a young family doing its best and doing all right.

You are a country of redemption. There is no shame in trying and failing. Opportunity knocks over and over again for those who see stumbles as lessons well learned. Like a five year old’s band-aids that steal pain and dry tears, “I’m Sorry” hugs and faith from the loved are the power of salvation and the strength to get up and try again.

As it is for us, it is for you. Like you we have scars and memories of bad choices but like you we’re still here and still trying. We understood as we stood on that over pass, shivering but not leaving, and waiting to deliver our silent salute. We understood that you are the home to which we return and that love, hope, and redemption are the gifts you have ready and wrapped and there by the door.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

Home From The Forest   by Gordon Lightfoot

Oh the neon lights were flashin’
And the icy wind did blow
The water seeped into his shoes
And the drizzle turned to snow
His eyes were red, his hopes were dead
And the wine was runnin’ low
And the old man came home
From the forest

His tears fell on the sidewalk
As he stumbled in the street
A dozen faces stopped to stare
But no one stopped to speak
For his castle was a hallway
And the bottle was his friend
And the old man stumbled in
From the forest

Up a dark and dingy staircase
The old man made his way
His ragged coat around him
As upon his cot he lay
And he wondered how it happened
That he ended up this way
Getting lost like a fool
In the forest

And as he lay there sleeping
A vision did appear
Upon his mantle shining
A face of one so dear
Who had loved him in the springtime
Of a long-forgotten year
When the wildflowers did bloom
In the forest

She touched his grizzled fingers
And she called him by his name
And then he heard the joyful sound
Of children at their games
In an old house on a hillside
In some forgotten town
Where the river runs down
From the forest

With a mighty roar the big jets soar
Above the canyon streets
And the con men con but life goes on
For the city never sleeps
And to an old forgotten soldier
The dawn will come no more
For the old man has come home
From the forest

This is the latest in a series entitled Dear Canada: Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the song of Gordon Lightfoot. If you like it, please share through your social media of choice and check out the others at johnboyko.com

The Land of Water – Dear Canada

Dear Canada,

You are a land of water. It’s right there in your motto: A Mari Usque Ad Mare (From Sea to Sea). It’s from the Bible: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth”. In your case, of course, it should read from sea to sea to sea, because your rivers rush to die in not two oceans but three.

The Arctic Ocean is furthest from most Canadians and for decades it never crossed their minds. It was just as well. Its beauty is more than southerners can fathom. At the sight of a 360-degree horizon beneath a sky bigger than wonder itself, folks used to living in concrete, seeing the world through a windshield or screen, or whose vista ends at the backyard fence, would risk having their heads explode.

sunset arctic

Then came oil; black gold, Alaskan tea. The problem was not how to get the gunky goo out of the rock but how to ship it south through water with the irksome habit of turning to ice. The problem changed when the climate changed. The big melt came quicker than anyone expected, especially those who claimed there was no such thing as climate change but now rushed to exploit its effects. Your northern ocean was suddenly everyone’s friend. Men in silk ties beneath brand new parkas lined up with candy, flowers, and dewy-eyed concern for sovereignty.

The Pacific is Canada’s gateway to Asia. Back when Vancouver was nothing but a fort and a dream, people plied the vast blue water east from the East and helped shape your west. They came for the gold that created the province and then the railway jobs that built the nation. Then, sadly, came the disgrace of discriminatory laws and race riots and the shame of wartime internments. Sometimes apologies are not enough.

Pacific Ocean coastline, Morseby Island, British Columbia, Canada

The Pacific invites jealousy. The North Pacific Current flows through the Hawaiian Islands and turns to kiss the coast before sluicing on to California. It is the ocean, therefore, that offers TV pictures of Victoria daffodils to those suffering another 20 below Edmonton morning. But then, later, when folks at Portage and Main are swatting mosquitoes the size of Buicks, they try not to be smug when the radio reports rain in Vancouver. It’s said that British Columbians don’t age; they rust.

The Atlantic invited adventurous Europeans. They came for the fish, oil, and wood. Pines too straight and tall to be real became masts on British ships that built an empire. The oil was not drilled but was whale blubber boiled and barrelled. It was poured into lamps on sitting-room tables and poles along cobblestone streets. Canadian whales lit up Europe.

Then there were the fish. Cartier wrote of his men dangling buckets into the sea and seconds later withdrawing them to marvel at their flapping bounty. The fish brought rugged people to rough and tumble outports and little towns hugging the rocky coast. Men braved morning’s chill to beat dawn to their boats and then vanish into haunting mists. Everything from canning factories to shipyards depended on the fish and the fish never let them down. There was enough for everyone and forever. To believe something deeply enough and long enough is to erase the thin line between opinion and truth. Meanwhile, even Lunenburg’s mighty Bluenose, immortalized on the dime, when not beating all comers with its lightening speed and daring crew, was a fishing boat.

Like the men working Cape Breton coal mines, those on the tiny boats that disappeared each day into the ocean’s enormity traded risk for livelihood. Their fathers and grandfathers understood as well as them that at any moment, and without reason, the earth or ocean could shrug and swallow them whole. There are too many stones over empty graves.

Fisherman’s wives were as hearty and brave. They raised the kids who seemed to keep coming, and the kept the house, and watched laundry on the line flap hard and horizontal. They sang their party pieces with gusto around kitchen tables where hot fiddles and cold beer linked all in tears, fears, and dreams of better days.

And there was the woman, like so many before, who when the boat was late, put the kids to bed, pulled on a thin cardigan, and walked to the hill atop the town. Pulling the sweater tight around her waist she gazed out into the icy, purple world, out to the point where the sky melts to sea. Walking along the green, moss-covered silver stone she hummed the tune they sang together and loved so well. She was there the next night too, and the next, and the next after that. And then, finally, came a night when the sweater stayed on the hook.

hill top atlantic images

Yes, Canada, you are a land of water. Like all of nature’s magic, your oceans are powerful beyond measure. What we see is a fraction of what they are and more than our meager minds can comprehend. They teem with life and can snatch it away without comment, remorse, or judgement. Like you, the oceans were there long before we arrived and their waves will pound your shores long after we’re gone. And that reality, when allowed to rise to our consciousness for a startling moment, like a great blue off the bow, is a humbling reminder of our responsibility to you and each other.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

 This is the third of a series Dear Canada: Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you enjoyed this, please share it with others and consider checking out the first two at johnboyko.com

Bitter Green   by Gordon Lightfoot

Upon the Bitter Green she walked the hills above the town, echoed to her footsteps as soft as eiderdown
Waiting for her master to kiss away her tears, waiting through the years

Bitter Green they called her walking in the sun loving everyone that she met. Bitter Green they called her waiting in the sun, waiting for someone to take her home

Some say he was a sailor who died away at sea, some say he was a prisoner who never was set free
Lost upon the ocean he died there in the mist, dreaming of a kiss

But now the Bitter Green is gone the hills have turned to rust, there comes a weary stranger whose tears fall in the dust
Kneeling by the churchyard in the autumn mist, dreaming of a kiss

Heroes Flawed and Fake

Dear Canada,

She stands alone in her Grand Prė garden. With a look of sad longing, Evangeline gazes over her shoulder toward heaven. She has her back to the church, the Church that turned its back on her. The tragic news arrived on her wedding day and tore her from her one true love. Her people were victims of a war that saw you become British, and her people uprooted because they were French. Their homes and villages were burned.

The deported Acadians fluttered as maple keys, some lighting as far away as Louisiana. It’s why New Orleans has Cajun music and a French Quarter. Evangeline devoted the rest of her life to searching for her beloved Gabriel, finding him years later, and only in time to have him die in her arms. Today, hundreds of years later, there stands Evangeline in her national park – a UNESCO World Heritage site, no less – a vision in bronze. She is a symbol of loss and for all that’s unfair. She expresses the power of love amid the hatred of war.

Evangeline_Grand_Pre

Meanwhile, over in Prince Edward Island, a long line is snaking its way from a rambling white farmhouse with stunning green gables. It’s Anne’s house. We know Anne Shirley through books, movies, and TV. She’s loved around the world and, since being placed on their school curriculum in the 1950s, a Japanese icon. Anne is what many of us first learn about us. She is honest, loyal, feisty, fun-loving and adventurous, with unbreakable bonds to the land and people she loves.

The tourists tour with reverence. Grownups steal a moment to peer at the rolling Cavendish countryside out Anne’s bedroom window. It’s the view that inspired her thoughts, and that the ten-year old then understood with the certainty of a ten-year old’s truth. They treasure the moment. They are warmed by embers of memory sunk deep in their hearts but now flickering from down where a child’s dreams are kept safe from adulthood’s flimsy facade. Then, as is always the case with such things, everyone exits through the gift shop. Japanese parents buy Chinese trinkets to celebrate a Canadian girl. Smiling children emerge beneath straw skimmer hats with long red pigtails, just like Anne’s.

Anne of Green Gables1

Anne and Evangeline share a secret. They never existed. Evangeline was the protagonist in a Longfellow poem, written nearly a century after the Acadian diaspora. The lines are lyrical but many of its facts are wrong. Anne Shirley sprang from the imagination of Canadian novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery. Visiting Anne’s actual green-gabled house is akin to visiting Batman’s actual cave.

But these facts rob neither Evangeline nor Anne of their importance. That is the nature, gift, and mystery of heroes and icons.

Consider the very real Emily Murphy. She was enraged that women were regularly and nonchalantly denied justice within the bastion of our male-dominated society. From her home in Edmonton, she organized a movement that pressured the Alberta government to enact a law allowing women to inherit their husband’s estates. Then, upset that women were unfairly treated in the courts, she exerted pressure until earning an appointment as Canada’s first female police magistrate; the first, in fact, in the whole British Empire.

When told by an uppity male lawyer that her gender disqualified her from the bench, she and four friends, later dubbed the Famous Five, fought back. They fought rusty old beliefs disguised as facts, politicians with their eyes on polls and feet in clay, and, finally, they fought the courts all the way over the pond to Westminster. Their efforts led to women being declared Persons; no longer just the property of Dads then husbands, but Persons with rights equal to men. Women could now be judges and senators and, well, anything they wanted to be. It was a spectacular achievement. Murphy had demonstrated intelligence, determination, and a burning sense of what should be.

murphystatue

However, under the guise of Janey Canuck, Murphy also wrote magazine articles and a novel espousing beliefs that we now recognize as racist. She was clearly on both the right and wrong side of rights. Does the racist rant erase the feminist achievement and so should Murphy’s statue be taken from parliament hill?

The heroes we venerate are players in a grand story we tell to ourselves about ourselves. Their triumphs and characters represent the best of us for the rest of us and the complexity within all of us. They challenge us to look beyond ourselves to become our best possible selves. Flawed or even fake, they inspire us to improve ourselves, our families, communities and, ultimately, to be worthy of you.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

Don Quixote   by © Gordon Lightfoot

Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek
Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a battered book into his hand
Standing like a prophet bold
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

I have come o’er moor and mountain
Like the hawk upon the wing
I was once a shining knight
Who was the guardian of a king
I have searched the whole world over
Looking for a place to sleep
I have seen the strong survive
And I have seen the lean grown weak

See the children of the earth
Who wake to find the table bare
See the gentry in the country
Riding off to take the air

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a rusty sword into his hand
Then striking up a knightly pose
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

See the jailor with his key
Who locks away all trace of sin
See the judge upon the bench
Who tries the case as best he can
See the wise and wicked ones
Who feed upon life’s sacred fire
See the soldier with his gun
Who must be dead to be admired

See the man who tips the needle
See the man who buys and sells
See the man who puts the collar
On the ones who dare not tell
See the drunkard in the tavern
Stemming gold to make ends meet
See the youth in ghetto black
Condemned to life upon the street

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a tarnished cross into his hand
Then standing like a preacher now
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Then in a blaze of tangled hooves
He gallops off across the dusty plain
In vain to search again
Where no one will hear
Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek

 This is the second of a series of Letter to Canada, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you like it, please share it on your social media of choice and see the first one, and more of my weekly columns, at johnboyko.c