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

Love Letter to a Nation – Winter

Dear Canada,

Summer is easy. What’s not to love about you in summer? Character, however, is only built and revealed in adversity. So anyone wanting to know you, anyone wanting to know us, has to know winter.

The leaves and temperature fall and everyone knows it’s on its way. Summer stuff gets stored, the outside water is shut off, and the sky goes purple-gray and silent as the last of the cowardly birds betray us and go. And then comes the day, snow’s first day, when we stand at the window and watch with a child’s eyes; as for the first time. We marvel as snow too white to be real sparkles diamonds in the sun. It blankets leafless trees standing defiantly brittle amid sagging spruce and pines. And the yard becomes art.

Winter slows us down. There is no such thing as rushing out when having to first don boots and coat and hat and scarf and mitts. Thank goodness for Velcro, but a child’s snow suit still demands patience and time and then more of both when disassembled for the pee that is somehow, again, forgotten. And then there is the path to be shovelled to the car that then needs to be unburied, de-iced, and warmed.

Speed limits are for summer. All but main roads are snow-packed for months and the occasional melts turn them to pock-marked Passchendaele. Streets scoff at the oceans of salt and Sierras of sand so we bounce and creep, especially around corners with their paint-smeared telephone poles reminding us to be patient. The days shrivel. We make our way to and from work in inky darkness smudged with ghostly plumes of exhaust. Snowflakes that would be pretty were we home with a fire and a glass of hearty red are instead headlight-engorged rockets that fire mercilessly into windshields with a hideous hypnosis.

Things do not speed up upon arrival. Three feet inside every public doorway stands a momentary community holding fogged-up glasses and exchanging knowing, blurry glances. Then it’s the slow, walking strip-tease, because everywhere inside in winter is warmer than outside in summer. Work places resemble used shoe stores with wet boots on soppy mats. Everyone’s hair is the shape of their hats. We approach door knobs with dread and sometimes actually see sparks. After a while, every place smells the same – wet wool and cough drops. It isn’t exactly bad and it doesn’t really matter because with the cold we’ve all been fighting for weeks it’s hard to smell anything anyway.

Winter can sometimes stop you altogether. What is more glorious than a snow day? We hear it on the radio and we’re suddenly all children. The radio also brings reports from the city’s “Thank God it’s Monday” crowd who slide and smash into one another to get to the vertical ice cube trays where they are apparently indispensable; unaware that no one’s keeping score. The wind howls hurricanes down concrete canyons that are empty of all of but the intrepid as the city-below-the-city bustles in its high-heeled obviousness. Just a few miles away it’s all quite different.

Township and county plows tend to the main roads but it’s always a long while before they get to most streets, so there’s time for another coffee. Kids who usually fight to stay under covers burst outside with wide smiles and bright eyes and without a screen in sight. Folks are soon in driveways, leaning on shovels and speaking with neighbours who lean on theirs. Why not? Everyone knows the game. We scrape and shovel and throw it high onto piles that seem taller than last year. The plow waits until it senses we’re done and then, only then, it thunders by with three feet of plowcrete. The shovelling army mobilizes again; there’s nothing like a good minus ten-degree sweat.

Climate change’s thaws and freezes have euchred all but the most dedicated backyard rink masters, but the little bay still goes stiff. Nothing’s ever organized but somehow it always gets scraped and there is skating for all. Windswept days between snowfalls sometimes provide the magic of pick-up hockey with nets a ridiculous distance apart. It seems fittingly patriotic to finish a hundred yard breakaway on a frigid sunny afternoon in the world’s only country with a hockey player on its Bill of Rights.

Gravity games rule. What’s not to love about skiing, tobogganing, and sledding. Kids love the snow-mountains that grow beside the school parking lot. Look up every big or little hill and see somebody in a primary-coloured snowsuit sliding down. Evening walks offer the joy of the crisp boot-fall crunch and the smell of woodstoves that stir a deep and primal yearning that’s lovely in its mystery. The stars seem closer and clearer. Lungs burn, breath freezes, cheeks redden, and there is nothing more romantic than holding hands through down-filled mitts.

Muddy April is marvelous but brings fixing and raking and cleaning. The gifts left by months-worth of wandering dogs present themselves along with the recycle stuff that cycloned from blue boxes Tuesday after Tuesday. Purple crocuses pierce the last bits of crystalline snow. The magical, riotous tulips remind us that the world is not black and white after all. There is always that one last storm with snow as pretty as the first but we damn it this time and steal its power by steadfastly refusing to shovel it; there, that will teach it. We convince ourselves that it will melt soon enough, and sure enough, it does. And then there is green, oh green, glorious green.

Winter defines. Winter slows, and winter stops. Winter reminds us that we are not the boss. It ignites a humble admiration for the power and majestic beauty of the true boss. It invites community. Winter says that work can wait and time with family is the only wealth, recognition, or reward we need; everything else is by the by. Winter reminds us that, like those dark nights with gently falling snow or those bold, defiant tulips, nothing lasts forever – nothing. But it’s all good right now, and right now, that’s good enough.

Sincerely,

A friend.

Song For A Winter’s Night ©by Gordon Lightfoot

The lamp is burning low upon my table top
The snow is softly falling
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly calling
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you

The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead
My glass is almost empty
I read again between the lines upon the page
The words of love you sent me
If I could know within my heart
That you were lonely too
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
The shades of night are lifting
The morning light steals across my window pane
Where webs of snow are drifting
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
And to be once again with you
To be once again with you