Monday, March 10, 2008

Remaining Grateful

I made a remark in this post a couple of weeks ago about how I was taken aback at the extent to which my own perspective had changed since being in Yellowknife. The comment was made with regard to a feeling that –23 was a downright balmy afternoon temperature, when it would have felt rather frigid a few weeks previous. Sitting down to write this week’s installment I was reminded again of how my perspective has shifted since being up here. I was stumped at what to write about, thinking that nothing in the previous seven days seemed appropriate to share with my ever-growing readership (up to twelve non-relatives now, I think). Thinking back, though, on just the previous couple of days – let alone seven – I realized that perhaps I was looking at things with a Northern shrug of the shoulders, rather than a more appropriate wide-eyed gaze.

Friday night I walked a few blocks to see some live music. This activity in and of itself wouldn’t be especially noteworthy, however the circumstances under which the band was playing made the evening more than the usual weekend head-bob. Indeed, the venue of choice wasn’t a smoky poolroom or stale bingo hall, rather I watched a Francophone band throw down in the middle of a lake in a multi-room, multi story sprawl built nearly entirely of snow and ice. Picture a band playing in the biggest snow sculpture you’ve ever seen, and you might have some idea. Yellowknife’s annual Snow King festival is in full swing for the duration of March, and the King himself (an eccentric local with a custom-made “Snow King” Ski Doo suit and a beard that looks like Lanny McDonald’s moustache on horse steroids) is holding nightly court in his frozen castle.

Cruising from room-to-room, sitting at the icy tables and climbing the snow-block stairs to the upper reaches of the castle on Friday night made for quite the Yellowknife-specific experience. As for the band, well, they were kind of brutal. And I don’t mean “they sang too loud and forgot the second verse of Brown Eyed Girl” brutal, I mean “two of them did not know how to play their instruments” brutal. And yet that didn’t seem to matter. The novelty of standing in the second-floor loft of a frozen house looking down at a live band in the middle of Great Slave Lake more than made up for music that didn’t exactly go down smooth. What I experienced on Friday night was an exercise in complete sensory immersion, with the result that enjoying the music was entirely secondary to being a part of an especially unique Northern experience. To discuss the musicians as if I were at a bar in Ottawa and they were the sole purveyors of the evening’s atmosphere would be to take an incredibly short-sighted view of a night on the ice.

Friday’s activity lasted many hours and several drinks after the last note was played in the castle. As such, Saturday night proved socially uneventful, though a late-night walk with a four-legged companion provided quite the dose of Northern excitement. I had casually observed the Northern Lights earlier in the evening, cutting a bright white horizontal swath across the sky before taking a prompt vertical nose-dive (think the trajectory of a BASE jumper taking a long run before leaping off a cliff). Pretty, but something that I have sheepishly grown accustomed to and slightly less taken by in the past couple of months. By dog-walking time, however, things had taken a turn for the spectacular.

Walking across an empty residential parking lot I became frozen in my tracks when I glanced upward: the entire night sky was a flurry of greens and whites that seemed intent on outrunning every superlative metaphor I tried to categorize them with. One minute they spread themselves into a domed chapel ceiling under which I felt like I should be giving penance; the next, they separated and played against the sullen evening darkness in a way that recalled the buzz-heightening light shows of the Phish concerts of my (slightly) younger days. As I involuntarily lay down in the snow to watch the show from my back they shifted again: round swirling that looked like a glowing disc (Frisbee) being tossed around a Salt Spring Island campsite, holding that resemblance only for a second before unfurling to look like the concentric rings of icing on a fresh sticky bun. All the while they were shifting by the second – moving at times as quickly as a four year-old’s crayon across the pages of a colouring book.

“Taiga, are you seeing this?” I asked of my walking buddy, looking more for corroboration than companionship. I even tried pointing skyward to get him to appreciate things, but it would seem that the following of trails left behind by previous canine visitors and the smelling of one’s own hind quarters are endeavours more important than Aurora gazing to some local residents.

I lay in the snow, feeling insignificant and awestruck, until the lights started to settle. As the show ended and Taiga and I headed home, I couldn’t help but feel greedy with my occasional glances upward, as if the sky still owed me something after what it had just given me. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some remarkable natural phenomena to this point in my life, but I don’t know that I’ve ever come away from a natural experience feeling so humbled, so grateful to the Creator, as I did on Saturday night. Contrived as that may sound, it’s the truth.

And yet I still wasn’t sure that my experiences of the past week were blog-worthy; apparently, evolving perspective can be both a blessing and a curse. I suppose I can relish in the fact that I’ve become somewhat culturally and naturally acclimatized to life as a (make-believe) Northerner, but experiences as special as those which I had on the weekend aren’t of the ilk that I ever want to take for granted, no matter how long I may live somewhere. I do fear that once I leave the North I’ll realize that I wasn’t fully appreciative of it while I was here (I think there’s a Joni Mitchell quote in there somewhere). And so I must seek to remain engaged and appreciative as I go about the next couple of months up here, and not lose sight of what a blessing this Winter has been, still is and hopefully will continue to be for me. Vancouver Island in the summer will be wonderful on its own merits, but by that point it will be far too late to appreciate first-hand a people and a land that can give you a night with the Snow King and the dancing Aurora.




Dea said...

I remember my Dad calling home in the middle of the night from a freezing hunting cabin somewhere in Saskatchewan to rave about the Aurora he was seeing. Not that we could see it, but he wanted to share him as HE was seeing it. I think reverence is the word.

The northern lights
have seen queer sights
but the queerest they ever did see
Was the night on Great Slave
Where Harty the Brave
looked back up with glee

(may Mr. Service forgive my trespasses)

Your mother said...

I can absolutely see you trying to show Taiga the beauty in the sky. It is something you would do. This was a fabulous entry. Maybe the next time we are together, we can go to Saint Cinnamon and enjoy the concentricity of a fresh sticky bun. This is a great blog, Hart, and I read lots of them so I know a good one when I read one. Dea, I'm sure Robert Service won't mind one bit.

Micah C said...

That's going to be mighty tough to beat. Might as well quit now.

Kudos for analogizing to LED discs on Saltspring and for using the word 'ilk' in a sentence.

cara said...

i have often dreamed of seeing the northern lights. i hope one day when i do i will stop and fall to the ground and appreciate their beauty and thank the creator as you did. beautiful entry, hart. miss you.