Canadian Studies

A not-terribly-widely-known fact about me is that in 2000, I applied to Carleton University in Ottawa to work on a Master’s degree in Canadian Studies.  At the time, I was planning to emigrate within the next few months.  I did receive a visa from the Canadian government, but I wasn’t accepted at Carleton.  Perhaps it was for the best… perhaps.  I was really running on empty at the time, and moving back to Ulster County rather than emigrating to Canada was probably a good decision.  Again – probably.  It is a decision which I revisit and about which I wonder from time to time.

A far more widely known fact about me is that in the decade or so since, my interest in Canada, Canadians, Canadian music, Canadian literature, Canadian history, the Canadian landscape has in no way diminished.  Since making the switch from dial-up to broadband seven or eight years ago, I’ve spent most weekday mornings listening to CBC Radio One, one inadvertent result of which is that I am now far, far more well versed in Canadian politics and cultural happenings than I am with their US counterparts.  Most of the music I listen to is Canadian.  Many of the books I read are written by Canadian authors and/or deal with Canadian topics.  And I often spend my vacation time north of the 48th parallel.  One of the biggest compliments I’ve ever been paid was when I was visiting friends of a friend at a farm in Eastern Ontario, and they asked me after an afternoon’s conversation, “When you’re in the states, how are you able to pass [as an American]?”  I was walking on clouds for the rest of the day.

I was discussing some of this with a friend a few months ago, and he suggested off-hand that I might want to see if there are any universities which offer on-line Master’s programmes in Canadian Studies.  I let the idea percolate for a few weeks, then began doing some hunting on-line.  Unsurprisingly, my search came up empty.  So I will continue as I have; quietly pursuing my studies on my own, with neither the structure nor the distraction of an organised curriculum.  Again, this is probably for the best.  I tend to think of education as a formal, ritualised system, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Related to all of this, I feel obligated to own up to an error I made over the summer.  While on Prince Edward Island, I visited Province House, the birthplace of Canadian confederation.  I overheard some American tourists asking their tour guide how a territory could become a province; she did not know the answer, so I chimed in and told them that I believed it would take an act of Parliament.  I felt very proud of myself, and a little self-conscious.  A few days ago, I finally got around to checking this, and of course my explanation was incorrect.  The creation of a province requires an amendment to the Canadian Constitution.  (The creation of a territory, however, does only require an act of Parliament; so I was close, but didn’t quite hit the mark.)


Prince Edward Island

So… news to roughly no one who reads this blog, I spent a week on Prince Edward Island at the end of July, biking from tip to tip (about 200 miles after factoring in some meandering).  It’s kind of astonishing to me that I didn’t post about PEI at all during the time I was actively planning the trip.  I have been thinking about visiting there since I was 18,when my nose was regularly buried in one or another of L. M. Montgomery’s novels and I was chock full of romanticized ideas about bucolic farm life in eastern Canada circa 1900.  I didn’t start thinking seriously about a visit until a few years ago, and for the past few summers events conspired against a trip (or to put a more Suzy-Sunshine spin on it, conspired in favour of other projects instead).  This year, though, I decided that enough was enough, and it was high time for me to cross this daydream off my (damn you, popular culture, for teaching me this phrase) bucket list.

Well, Prince Edward Island wasn’t anything like the picture that my 18 year old imagination painted for me.  (For better or for worse, I can’t remember how old my brother is or to send my mother a birthday card, but I do have pretty astonishing recall of much of what my imagination has conjured up over the years – I also remembered, to within a few days, which of my journal entries from 1993 contained my first references to PEI.)  My actual experience on the Island was far richer than my imaginings were; one or two destinations on my trip left me wanting, but on the balance it was overwhelmingly beautiful there.

Rather than boring you with a long monologue about the trip (too late!), I’m going to relate two reflections – one disheartening, one more positive.  As per my usual modus operandi, I’ll start with the low end first.

L. M. Montgomery is perhaps Prince Edward Island’s most famous historical figure.  In fact, I’m a Canadian history and culture dork and even I am having a hard time thinking of anyone else from the Island.  So, it’s pretty safe to say she’s at the top of the pile of Island royalty.  She wrote, of course, the Anne of Green Gables novels, as well as a host of other novels, stories, and poems, to say nothing of her very engaging journals.  So it was with some disappointment that when I rode into Cavendish, where LMM spent much of her early life and wrote Anne of Green Gables, I discovered that she and her work are commemorated by theme parks and water slides.  Water slides!  To commemorate a literary icon for whom the natural world was as complex and colourful a character as any of her devising.  Not since I discovered that there is a shopping mall in Long Island named after Walt Whitman have I been so dismayed.

On the other hand, there was a moment on my fifth and last day of cycling that was simply lovely.  Day five dawned rainy, cold, and grey, and stayed that way throughout.  After pedalling the last 40 kilometres or so of the Confederation Trail, I emerged back on to pavement in Elmira and was immediately struck by the sight of wind turbines quietly spinning in the distance.  I’d started my trip beneath the wind turbines at North Cape, and now, nearing the end of my journey, I found myself looking up at them once again.  I was early to meet up with my ride back to Charlottetown, so I stopped for lunch in North Lake.  Pedalling in to town, I passed by fishing shacks, a packing plant, a harbour flush with fishing boats.  The one restaurant in town was the last building on the road.  The parking lot was empty, and I remember feeling a lot of trepidation about stopping there.  I did stop, though, and had a wonderful meal of chowder and mushroom caps stuffed with lobster.  Over a cup of hot tea afterwards, I remember looking out the windows of the restaurant at the rust red shoreline, the grey sky, the harbour, and a dozen or so of the wind turbines.  When I think of all the trifles, distractions, and dangers that we use our advanced technologies to construct I feel by turns frustrated, disgusted, or numb.  And then I think of wind turbines.  And bicycles.  Technologies so simple that anyone over the age of ten can completely understand how they work.  They don’t pollute, they don’t isolate people, they don’t promise flash and glamour; they simply and quietly get the work done.  I was thankful to finish the biking portion of my trip that way, under the comfort and familiarity of damp grey skies.

Jesus Camp

A few nights ago, I watched the most terrifying horror movie ever made. It’s a documentary called Jesus Camp. I felt so bad for the kids in that movie. Their parents, their pastors, their entire culture tells them that the physical world is rife with sin, that physical pleasure is evil. The scene in which the ten year old girl says that dancing for the holy spirit is okay, but dancing for “the flesh” is wrong, is horrifying. How are these kids going to deal with puberty in a few years? Their bodies are going to be giving them signals that their indoctrinated minds refuse to accept, and no one around them is going to have any sympathy. Something’s going to have to give. You can’t internalize that much hatred and fear without doing some serious damage.

I am a big fan of Philip Pullman’s books. Jesus Camp helped me to understand why Evangelical Christians are so afraid of him; his philosophy is completely antithetical to theirs. This is how I summarized Pullman’s message in a recent email: “What the books argue in favour of is existence itself – the here and now. The beauty and the wonder of that which is right in front of us, and within us. The books are distinctly against relying on a superhuman power (whether a god or an unaccountable organization) to dictate morality.” No wonder there was a call to boycott the Golden Compass movie (which stunk out loud, incidentally, but the books are great). Hell, most of the kids in Jesus Camp weren’t even allowed to watch or read Harry Potter, and that’s practically a paean to Christian values.

I try not to get too obsessed with other people’s beliefs. I don’t burden people with my belief system unless they ask, and I expect the same courtesy from them. Worship whatever you want to, just leave me the hell out of it. But when you’re fucking up your kids with your idiotic and dangerous beliefs? That’s not acceptable.

Totally unrelated: my yoga teacher training program runs through June, and I’ve been thinking that as a reward to myself for finishing the program (assuming I finish the program), it’d be nice to go to Prince Edward Island for a week or two, rent a bicycle, and ride from one end of the island to the other. I’ve never been there before, and I’d like to cross it off the list of provinces I have yet to visit. I don’t know if I’m in good enough shape to do that much riding, and I’ve been having knee issues lately, so those are issues I’ll have to address before I decide whether to go. I have this vision in my head of PEI the way it must have been a hundred years ago, when L. M. Montgomery was writing. I know it’s certainly not the same now, but maybe I could still get a sense of the history of the place.

Finally, a wonderful, wonderful passage from Barry Lopez’s new book: “Whatever their styles and emphases, many American poets and novelists have recognized that something emotive abides in the land, and that it can be recognized and evoked even if it cannot be thoroughly plumbed. It is inaccessible to the analytic researcher, invisible to the ironist. To hear the unembodied call of a place, that numinous voice, one has to wait for it to speak through the harmony of its features – the soughing of the wind across it, its upward reach against a clear night sky, its fragrance after a rain. One must wait for the moment when the thing – the hill, the tarn, the lunette, the kiss tank, the caliche flat, the bajada – ceases to be a thing and becomes something that knows we are there.” Those last few words especially are haunting to me. I’ve never read anything else quite so well written about what it feels like and what it means to find oneself merging with a landscape; for the land to become not just something out there, but something to which one is intimately, vitally connected. No longer other. Kindred. Family. I have that sense here, in the Hudson Valley; I have had it in south eastern Ontario as well, where I spent healthy chunks of my youth. I did NOT have it when I lived in Maryland for a few years, and that is a large part of why I never liked it there.

(Note: I pieced together much of this entry from recent emails, which may explain its slightly disjointed character. Guess if I posted more frequently I wouldn’t feel as obligated to cram so much in to a single post.)