There are mornings where the sky turns orange and then pink and the ocean becomes so still it appears that it is the stable force and the sky is the tumultuous one.
On these mornings, I am drawn like a sleepwalker, only awake, out the door and into the ocean. I stop for shoes. Rocks and oysters and barnacles will wake a person up from their dream life faster than coffee and far uglier.
"I had lived in places where we were the poor, mixed and broken family, and in places where we were the rich ones who leave their shoes outside to be stolen. All these moves taught me a secret not everybody learns."
In the summer, the light shines through my window just after 5 a.m. I have watched it now for nearly two years as it does its wild swing from winter solstice — where it comes up over the ridge at the far south of our land — to the summer solstice where it rises over the distant hills and pours forth into the ocean. I am obsessed with the light these days. In the summer, at this latitude, we never really have black-out night, just this deep blue twilight. The daylight lasts over 16 hours. It is relentless and endless. It drives us to work hard, swim, stay up all night. Nobody can sleep without herbs or melatonin. But with so much light, who needs to sleep?
Then there is the winter where we have only eight or so hours of daylight and the sun is never really overhead but stretches its long fingers to make eerie shadows. On these days I rise in the dark and cold, and my daughter and I watch the sunrise as we walk the kilometre down (and up and up and down) the dirt road to meet her school bus. With so much dark, I wonder why we humans insist on school and work deadlines and waking. Why have we forsaken what the trees and animals all seem to know: hibernation is good for the soul. Plus, it would save on firewood and food and all the sweeping and dishes that go with it.
In my new life I want to know the names for things. Starting with the sun and the moon and the things they govern: seasons, tides, the way I feel as I walk my daughter to the school bus. What is that tree? What is this berry? Why are those rocks pink and these grey? What is this place? Who are these people? What are their stories? Who am I? What is my story?
In my life before, I felt that each day I grew slightly more anemic... not from a lack of iron, but from a lack of joie de vivre. It wasn’t immediately fatal, but every time I drove across the highway bridge that spanned our home from my kids’ school, every time my cellphone rang just as I got to the playground and I became yet another parent pushing their kid on the swing, and negotiating what was for dinner on their mobile, and every Saturday morning as I biked across the nearby field and watched the kids parsed into soccer teams and the parents under umbrellas watching from the sidelines, I felt something essential being slowly siphoned off.
I wanted to wring out the magic from the mundane moments of my life. I wanted to give my children a sense that behind the work that is involved in the everyday, there is something more. Children learn from what we do, they model our behaviours. And what was my behaviour? Did the collection of all those little moments reflect my commitment to something greater — spirit, community, family — or did it appear as if we just rushed headlong from event to event. Some of the events are great: a morning spent in the embrace of a warm Waldorf classroom. Some of the events were not so great: a morning spent in the stuffy interior of a noisy car stuck on the highway.
A year ago my daughter sat down and made a board game. She was six. It was pretty dreadful. Every move ended with the player stuck to the side, or moving backward, or missing a turn. She called it 'Hurry.'
One day I drove on the highway in Vancouver, sitting in traffic to cross the bridge to my children’s Waldorf school and I just knew I was done. A person can do everything “right” in this life: eat the best foods, research the heck out of everything, write the books they set out to write, get well-known in their work, volunteer for organizations in which they believe, send cards on their mother's birthdays, marry the man of their dreams, and have children they love and adore and still life is composed of millions of tiny moments. What did I want from my tiny moments?
Making a new story
This island was first home to at least three Indigenous communities. When the scrappy and poor European pioneers came, many were women, some living on the island alone. The stories I’ve heard include the woman whose husband set her up with their eight children and some goats on an island that was little more than a rock nearby. The story goes that she lived with the kids on this barren rock for years as her husband earned money, likely hiring on the crews to log, fish or mine. Or there is Gillian Douglas, born to a wealthy family in Toronto in 1900 and found herself four-times divorced, living on a house that clung to the edge of a cliff nearly as far west as one can go in this country. She is known now for her photography and writing as well as her deep love of the land, her pioneering spirit, and her strong feminism. There are numerous other women who made this land their own in the early days: learned to sail and hunt, birth their own babies, raise their own crops, and make their own entertainment. Many of them did so for months — or years — without the help of men who would leave to earn cash money. In nearer times, there are the women who raised three kids (always with cloth diapers, of course) in cabins with no running water and no electricity or the ones who would swim across the inky lake at night, naked, after a party and then hike through the star-lit night to their homes with the sounds of the wolves as their only company.
Things have changed a lot and also not at all. When we moved here two years ago my husband kept his job in the city — nine hours away and three ferries from our new home. Our city friends thought we were crazy, or divorcing. They called me up to say things like: "You are so hard core," and, "I’m in total awe." Yet, I’ve never swum across a lake in the dark and my toilets flush (most of the time). Here, I am just another parent whose partner has to work off-island because where land is cheap(er) and the living wild(er), jobs are scarce. These families have one partner who leaves to plant trees, fish, or run businesses that take them away for days, weeks or months at a time. Or one of the parents leaves so their child or children can go to high school, as there is none on the island or within a commutable distance.
In my case, this long distance affair has the added irony that my husband works in city government. Indeed we are both city lovers. I’ve nearly always lived in cities, did my honours thesis on city living, and my favourite places in the world are big cities: Chicago, Istanbul, Barcelona, London, Edinburgh, Sydney. My husband, literally, wrote the book on greening cities.
Where does a story begin?
What made Gillian Douglas leave her wealthy Toronto life and decide to carve a life, often alone, out of the wilderness? What made Ma and Pa pack little Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie into their wagon to leave behind everything and everyone they knew to take a gamble on wilderness? What made me leave behind a relatively privileged and easy life in one of the “most livable” cities in the world to play at mock-frontier-woman?
I don’t know. Perhaps we all heard the same call to adventure that was carried in the wind to those middle America locations where we had our common origins. Or, perhaps, it was faith: in the human spirit, in the universe, or in that magic that is hiding there just behind the laundry hanging on the line, the wood pile forever needing tending, the garden always wanting cultivation.
Perhaps every one of us hears the call at some point, but it is just not possible for us all to answer. Or not right now. There were certainly more good reasons to NOT: give up our affordable-for-Vancouver rental apartment; move nine hours from my husband’s work; uproot our children — including one with learning differences — from their school; and say goodbye to our friends.
Yet, I have moved between homes, cities, and even nations, every couple of years for my entire life. I had lived in places where we were the poor, mixed and broken family, and in places where we were the rich ones who leave their shoes outside to be stolen. All these moves taught me a secret not everybody learns: it’s easy to count the reasons why not to do something. It is much harder to imagine the rewards of doing them.
I also learned something more fundamental to life: happiness is a sinister muse. Or, perhaps it would be more clear to say it is a modern, first-world construct. Everywhere I lived, the people with the least amount of time (or money or privilege) to think about happiness, were the most content. They might not have been happy, but they definitely weren’t unhappy.
Which is just to say that one doesn’t need to give it all up and move to an island to find a more meaningful life. It’s just to say that while doing so will be every bit as hard as you think it will be, it might also be a whole lot better too.
Where is the magic in all this practical living?
Now I live on this tiny island. It takes me two different ferries and many hours to get to the closest town centre. For most of the year, there are no restaurants, no clothing stores, no hardware stores or drug stores. There are fewer than 1,000 people here year-round. There are no recreation centres or daycares or hospitals. There are no streetlights or sidewalks. Our big entertainment twice a year is when we dress up and lip sync, and the entire island lines up to get tickets and laugh and sing together. That’s our culture. We have an art gallery, too, that's open for three months of the summer, weekends only.
Is this what I wanted? I ask myself when I wake in the dark to haul wood into the cold house and light the fire, during those days when we lose power and I have to boil water for my tea (slowly) on the wood-burning fireplace, and every Saturday night as I make and clean up from the 21st meal of the week.
I asked it for the eight days we had no power or running water, and that long dirt road was impassable in our first winter. I ask it every time I awake early with that beautiful sun reaching toward me and my children screaming at me for abandoning them when I was really just trying to make breakfast and bring in firewood and ignore the call of the ocean. Or on the days when we head to town to buy all those luxuries one can’t get on an island — like underwear — and come back in the cold and dark, hungry, and the kids are mad, oh, so mad, because it’s exhausting to be in transit for more than five hours, all so we can visit the vet and get new underwear, and why, oh why, isn’t there another parent around right now?
Is this what I wanted? I wonder as I struggle to homeschool one child and be an active school parent with the other; as I try to avoid eye contact with the guy who just clearcut that section of old-growth forest for his grow op; and I try and making a writing deadline, and suddenly the water doesn't run — why doesn't the water run? — and I must begin the process of following all the pipes to the well and looking at fuse boxes and calling so-and-so, friends with so-and-so, who might come one day and look at it too. And then the septic field tank starts beeping. What is that smell? Oh, and great, the power has just gone out again. Did I save that last draft of my article?
When I have to get away from it all, there is no bar or swanky restaurant or even a real coffee shop to which I can escape. Instead, I am left to walk into the forest or down to the beach or up the nearby point. From there, I can see snowcapped mountains, the ocean on almost all sides, and sometimes, whales playing. Maybe these things are distractions, but they seem to be reminders that there is more in this moment than the buzzing of my daughter yelling at me, the garden devastated by deer, the burned rice.
There is a great myth in how most people view the practical life, or, as some say, the simple life. It isn’t so simple. There are simply fewer distractions from who I am: the good and the bad. Fewer distractions is only a good thing if you want to see what’s behind it all. It’s a great place to be if you are wiling to sit with yourself/spirit/whatever-you-call-it — or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, anything other than “sit.” So here I am, rocking a sick child, toiling over a reluctant garden, and making and cleaning up from the twenty-first meal in a week, and here also are all those dark bits of my soul — my discomfort, pettiness and shame — and here, too, is the glory of another spectacular moonrise and the magic hovering around the edges of it all.
This story was first published in Ecoparent magazine.