From Creature of the Shade, October 11, 2005
If you allow yourself to fantasize about your ideal country, I bet you’ll think of one that’s defended by nature. Perhaps you’ll think of a mountain valley walled off from invaders and influence: Switzerland or Bhutan or the Shangri-la of legend. Or maybe you’ll think of an island-state, like the England of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt:
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
— Richard II, ii.1
Today some of us dream of Iceland or New Zealand in search of the same security, that sense (however illusory) that in such a place, the complexity and danger of the world is far away.
Secure in such boundaries, whether mountain or water, you can spin out the culture and values of your ideal country with ease. Culture will change, of course, but slowly enough, and around-the-edges enough, that it will still be your ideal country’s culture.
But what if you didn’t have natural boundaries? What if your country was a few people spread across a vast distance? What if your border was a long, straight imaginary line, so that your people lived closer to foreigners than to each other? Then, inventing your ideal country would be like trying to paint on a surface where paint turns to droplets and rolls away, while droplets from other paintings are rolling in. You couldn’t even begin.
Such is the challenge of imagining Canada. It’s hopeless, but Canada is here, unimagined. And because the harvest is earlier here, today is Canada’s Thanksgiving.
Thanks for the worst kind of border, impossible to defend, easier to cross than to work within. Thanks for the 49th Parallel, a mathematical thread stretched east-west where everything else — mountains, rivers, energy infrastructure — runs north-south. Thanks for the 141st Meridian, between the Yukon and Alaska, which runs north-south where everything else runs east-west. Thanks for a border that is not only unnatural, but perpendicular to nature.
Thanks, as a result, for the odd sensation that the two sides of the border are the same place in every way that matters: the same high valley, the same alpine plateau, the same cliff-face, the same coastal boglands, the same rainforest, the same Point Roberts peninsula. And the same culture: the same dying prairie towns, the same wild west, the same rainy urban cappucinos, even the same Mormon polygamists. Thanks for a border that you can hike across by accident, high in the mountains, often without a sign.
Thanks for the arctic pressure that compresses the population against the border, so that the nation is the border, as arbitrary as the border itself. Thanks for the national intellectuals who worry about this for us, e.g. for John Ralston Saul, who can begin a chapter with the words: “The natural flow of Canada is east-west.” Thanks for the perfect emptiness of the word “natural” in this sentence, the creative archeology of it, as though we are picking out geologic strata as glimpsed through a waterfall.
Thanks, back east, for the cradle of Canada, the one place where cities can get back from the border and invent unbordered selves. Thanks that this center is also the center of the great division, the “two solitudes” of French and English. Thanks that however often a political leader declares that “the time of the two solitudes … is past,” the twoness will linger as long as there are two languages, and will multiply as Punjabi and Cantonese and many others find new and honored homes. Thanks for a century of practice at truly multilingual democracy, long before it was the fashion.
Thanks, still, for the special status of the French language even in the furthest corners of Canada. Thanks that a friend of mine is paid to produce French translations of the laws of the Yukon Territory. Thanks that when Japanese- and Chinese-language focus groups were asked what languages other than English should be on the signs in Vancouver’s new subway, French was their top priority.
A special thanks for South Asia’s superpower status among immigrant cultures. Thanks to people who left home countries whose low-temperatures exceed Vancouver’s highs, and who brought food and color that erupt against the prevailing northern grays. Thanks for elegant women wearing saris whose color and texture seem like windows to another planet. Thanks for the fact that conversations in the halls of power often occur in Punjabi, and that nobody minds. Thanks for the clearwater simplicity of Sikh ethics, among the many spiritual traditions arriving on this wave. Thanks for the fact that any national politician must not only speak at least two languages fluently, but must also look not-too-silly in the simple head-covering one wears to Sikh events.
Thanks for the Arctic, the otherness that presses Canadians into the border, a frontier that a century of global warming will not close. Thanks for the world’s highest per-capita supply of barren arctic islands. Thanks, as a result, for the almost tongue-in-cheek attitude that prevails over Hans Island, a rock near Greenland that is claimed by both Canada and Denmark. Thanks for the Swiftian absurdity of this dispute, plainly evident to most Canadians. Thanks for the polite editorials on both sides, suffused with such equanimity that the whole matter will probably be resolved with a game of chess, or the flip of a coin.
Boundless, passionate thanks for the dying leaf, for the permanent autumn of Canadian patriotism. Thanks for the way the flag, rippling in uneven breeze, can fold to suggest the shapes of a leaf further gone toward mulch, the leaf already part-decayed or stepped on. Thanks for the red leaf painted on faces — whether at hockey games or on Canada Day in midsummer — a symbolic gesture of pride that is also a literal welcoming of decay: the Fourth of July and Ash Wednesday rolled into one. Thanks for all of the insecurity, mortification, and anxiety that can be spun from this image. Thanks for the serenity that lives these contradictions.
Thanks for a country that didn’t need the Buddhists to explain the “wisdom of insecurity,” because it has known nothing else.
Finally, thanks for the big noisy neighbors, so big and so noisy that Canada is all but invisible to them. When national identity becomes too shaky, Canadians can always complain about the neighbors. They can even say rude things about them, confident the neighbors will never hear. Saying rude things is good exercise sometimes; perhaps it should be a holiday tradition.
From Canada, and to Canada, happy Thanksgiving.
by Jarrett Walker
Finally, she rose by her tall orchestral harp. Freshmen rustled like aspen in the pews.
In the rushing tedium of Stanford’s Western Culture requirement, this had been a special day: we were off to Memorial Church to hear a harpist and singer perform someone’s idea of ancient Greek music, somber and eerie. Shafts of sunlight fell through clerestory windows from the hot afternoon. It was October, the month when all freshmen are immortal.
But now she was done. The freshmen’s rustle rose slowly to become dull applause. She stood. Her hawklike face assembled a reaperish smile.
Applause died back to rustle. Up popped the professor, beaming. Any questions?
Dust turned in the shafts of sun.
OK, then! We exhaled, clapped again, rose, turned to go, and froze.
The church was giggling.
But I project. It was I who heard the giggle, I who froze. Others felt other things, reacted otherwise. The prof looked startled, shouting with the sound off. The hawk woman plunged into a crouch. A matronly colleague walked sternly up the aisle, feet firm on the roiling floor, off to give the captain a piece of her mind.
Mouths were open, but all I heard was the giggle.
Later, I’d piece it together. Stanford is made of sandstone – a substance that somehow coheres into bricks but is still, to the touch and eye, unmistakably sand. This lightest of stones, what would it sound like if it rattled? If ten thousand bricks rattled together? Of course, it would be pure soprano, a tinkle, a giggle. It would sound like a heavenly event, not an earthly one. Only sensible people would run from a building at such a sound. No wonder I was the only one left, rapt, listening.
Then the bright popping sounds began. I looked: things were falling through clouds of dust. How did I finally arrive at “earthquake?” The sight of things falling? Specks of fast sand peppering my skin? A wooziness that might have been caused by the floor moving, six long feet below my floating brain?
Then I had the word — earthquake — and time came unstuck. Stand in a doorway! OK, there’s a 30-foot-high transept arch over there, so at once there I am, back to one wall, watching the great stones of the arch line-dancing above me. What’s that clatter? It’s those mosaics from the dome, now zillions of falling daggers slicing through the pews. Bright light! A dark stained-glass window has shattered, dropping a new sunshaft through the dust. The sudden bolt of light sweeps past me to anoint the topmost corner of the harp. I gaze dumbly at the harp on its swath of red carpet, now glowing like an apparition through the rain of dust and tile.
I do not think: “Cecil B. DeMille,” “fall of Rome,” “Ten Commandments,” or “cliché.” It seems I would rather die in dumbness than in irony.
For a glimpse of the Buddhist idea of enlightenment, consider the sudden cessation of sound: the barking dogs, screaming baby, partying neighbors who lull you to sleep and then wake you by falling silent. Surprise without noise: that, if you could stay there, is what enlightenment would feel like.
Perhaps death feels that way too. And indeed, in that moment, a door appeared in the clouds of dust, and (still not thinking ironically) I stepped through, out. No, not heaven, not bardo. The Quad.
Blasting heat. The prof and the matron were pallid, staring. Freshman women embraced and wept, but the young men giggled and tittered, immortally. The whiz-kid from Kansas walked up to me:
“That –” He puffed his chest out, constructed a snicker. “That was just a little one, right?”
“No, Bill, that was a big one. And for the rest of your life, there’ll be sandstone in your bones. Giggling.”
Written by Jarrett Walker of Creature of the Shade.