Thursday, July 14, 2011

St. Peter's Abbey, Week Two. Soul Weather June/July

This introduction to Chapter Four occurs about a year after Dirk's wife, Dorothy, has left him and moved to B.C. with their two sons.

While Lee was glazing and firing pottery for Bazaart, and trying to winkle her way into people's daily lives, Dirk was mudding the kitchen. In all his years of renovations, he'd left the walls of the houses more or less intact. So when he decided to open the kitchen to the living area, he'd had a lot of destruction to do, and his inexperience made the process not very pretty. He hasn't figured out how he'll fix the hardwood floor where the studs and footing for the walls had been, but perhaps something clever will occur to him while he puts up Gyprock and begins taping and mudding. This last is a process he likes. He tries to do it with as little energy and mess as possible, as if the carefulness of the physical labour gives it more dignity – moves it closer to craftsmanship. But his inexperience has left him with some spectacular holes in the kitchen walls, so he's filling these in slowly, letting them dry, taping a crack or two, and then going back to add another layer of Polyfilla to the pits and furrows in the kitchen plaster before he returns to mud the cracks and the divots lefts by the screws.

Last year at this time, he'd missed spring. In April and May, life completely went missing as he spent early mornings burrowing around in his basement digs with his eyes closed, like a mole, and then came rushing out into the light, dashed into work, and then buried himself completely and sympathetically in his caseload. Because he wasn't noticing the weather, he was almost grateful for the rain that drowned the fields around Melville and Yorkton, and for the women who flooded into Regina to visit sisters and daughters, needing to talk with someone about their men's despair and helpless fury. In the more worrying cases, daughters and sisters encouraged the wives to call Mobile Crisis Services. Sometimes they simply had difficulties understanding their husbands' ranting and railing: surely crop insurance would get sorted out and it would be tight, but they'd be okay for a year. These calls weren't taxing. Being a guy, Dirk could try to explain what it felt like not to have meaningful work. Income wasn't the only issue for men, whereas a farm wife always had work, and that work counted, whether anybody said it or not. A meal on the table or a clean shirt said it. These were also men whose last emotional words might well have been uttered on their wedding days, so getting the farmer to talk about his feelings was probably impossible if not counterproductive. The urban women's magazine strategies wouldn't help her deal with his moods; probing might completely steal his dignity and self-respect. So Dirk, feeling deeply conflicted, had to talk to women about how to ignore men's moods. Make a quilt. Knit an sweater. Start a reading club or a 'Stick 'n bitch' group – something that gives you pleasure. That would get you and your family through. At the end of the day, he dodged unseeing back through the rain, down into his burrow, and did anything he could to get through to tomorrow. He'd watch crummy TV. Sports and sitcoms required no concentration. He sometimes played with his sons' gameboy. Or he played computer games that allowed him to save the universe.

Then he looked up one day, and found the sky blue and the leaves full-sized. He'd never before in his life lost a season. So this year as he works at remaking the ground floor of his house into a space for the group of undergraduates Lee will organize for him, he has all the windows open, which means he's sometimes cold. But the fresh air keeps Ruby's nose busy when she isn't asleep on the floor in the middle of his workspace; right now her attention is riveted by the fellow who rides his unicycle to work. If it's too cool, he simply pulls on the old sweater with its elbows out that's already got its patina of polyfilla and paint. He turns his Bob Dylan or Bruce Cockburn up loud and gets to work. While people continue to complain about the rain, wondering if cold grey springs are going to be the new normal on the prairies, Dirk is even happy with the rain. Well, not happy exactly, but comforted by weather he can inhabit, comforted by a frame of mind that can haunt something besides itself and its distraction.

So he watches every millimetre of change. At first, the trees seemed untrusting, which he understands. Then their buds, snail-like, crept to the ends of branches, where they looked like the round heads of finishing nails. Then he notices that, in the midst of people's soggy whiny complaints, the leaves on trees and shrubs tended to stretch after a couple of days' rain, though whether this showed enthusiasm and gratitude, or whether they're clutching at sunlight, he doesn't know.

The weather doesn't seem to be moving in a straight line, though it never does on the prairies. The weather gods will give you a tiny taste of sun and warmth and then lapse far back into an earlier season. So that now it is a breezy June day, and he can hear the rustle of leaves, but the sound is dry enough that it could be a fall day rather than a prelude to summer.

He wants to know where he is, meteorologically speaking. He doesn't want to look up to be suddenly enveloped in the grief of last fall: the kids buying supplies, going off to school, meeting new friends, all elsewhere. Hungry wretchedness fills you when your wife tells you that your kids are happy with the new life they're living without dad. You stare out the kitchen window while she tells you this. And afterwards every rainy day when leaves lie in sodden golden puddles under bare branches will carry echoes of this conversation. It's as if seasons – their smells, their whispers on your skin, the particular angle of light – have a clock that turns back at will and can plummet you again into that mood. This vision will forever stand for the fact that there's a whole other world you know nothing about. You aren't living here, among the glorious Regina fall days, but in a world where you have no senses, no touch or sight, and your kids report on home runs and new video games matter-of-factly in your weekly phone call, without any engagement in their voices. Is this because they're as grief-stricken as you are, because their mother is standing right there, or because they've forgotten the smell of you?

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