In the shelter of others

In case you missed it, there’s a new feature here at Mother Sugar called, The Salon: What You Know For Sure. Every month we’ll be asking a new question and inviting all of you to respond. Big or small, long or short, send us your memories and we’ll share ours. Today’s post draws on this month’s theme:

When you were 18, what did you imagine your future would look like? How close does your life today come to that vision?

This post started though before we decided to invite you for tea and cake in the Salon.

I live in a mountain town of about 13,000 people. It isn’t far from where I grew up – only about an hour – but the landscape, culture and lifestyle are very different. When I’d moved it had taken me several years to feel truly at home.

On the morning in question, the snow was below the treeline and that first breath of winter was in the air. I knew that this first cold snap would make me feel as if I’d never survive the winter to come. I also knew that it was because I hadn’t yet acclimatized to the weather and by April this will be positively balmy.

I knew that town would be quiet now that the kids were back in school and Thanksgiving was over. I’d made plans to meet a friend for lunch and, as expected, I found a parking spot right on Main Street. I knew I’d have to wear a down vest and a fleece to stay warm, and I knew there would be teenagers and warm-blooded athletes still walking around in thin sweaters. I was right.

The cafe was across the street. I locked the car, skimmed the traffic, and jaywalked across the middle of the block.

Outside the cafe a couple of mittened pedestrians sipped cappuccinos on the sidewalk patio. I wasn’t surprised. Inside the cafe, brown and golden leaves drifted between angled shelves of expensive olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and jars of mysterious condiments made from rose water and lemon rind stacked between Himalayan salt and expensive chocolate. I knew there would be fresh produce at the door – today a basket of tomatoes on the vine – and that there would be a tasting table for olive oil next to it. Unexpectedly a gigantic pumpkin squatted on a table with slips of white paper and an empty pickle jar labelled “Guess my weight”.

I knew there would be tiny tea cakes next to the till – like the ones from Alice in Wonderland. I knew there would be at least three young women in the open kitchen behind the counter. I knew this week’s feature coffee blend would be written in chalk on the board on the adjacent wall. I know the owner of the cafe is the tall, lean, olive-skinned woman with short dark hair, pixie features and pointed mannerisms. She glances at me. She doesn’t smile. But she recognizes me. I know that that she has a daughter who sometimes serves paninis to patrons. I know the woman with the long brown hair and fair complexion is always pleasant. The third woman asks for my order. An Americano and an “ABC panini with…”

“… no cheese,” she replies. I smile. She continues, “Are you with J-?” she points to my friend around the corner. I nod again.

Around the corner, I know my friend will be sitting on a bench, not a chair. I know he’ll be reading the Globe and Mail. I know he’ll have one ankle on the other knee. I know he’ll be carrying a messenger bag and drinking either a black coffee, a water, or a San Pellegrino. I know there will be a small container of flowers on the table and that, at this time of the day, the place would fill quickly. I knew he would be tired because the new job was taking its toll. I know we’ll smile and give each other a hug, and we do.

I ask about the paper. We talk about politics, discuss the news, gossip about local issues, compare notes on shows we’d like to see at an upcoming film festival, sip coffee. He tells me about a visit with a friend. I share stories of my niece’s birthday. He suggests I go to the unveiling of a new piece of public art set to take place on the site of a new recreation complex in town. I didn’t know that was happening. But I’d been watching the construction site for more than a year and remember it when it was nothing more than a big empty field. I tell him I’ll try to make it.

Outside the cafe as we’re saying goodbye we run into a couple we know. I’ve known him for sixteen years, long before he moved to town. I know he’s had trouble finding permanent work here. I know he used to work at my university because he accepted my application to go on exchange when I was a student and he was an employee. I know his sister lives overseas and his father died after a long illness. I know that his girlfriend is working at a cafe, having just moved across the country to be with him, and that she had been working as a cake designer over the summer. I know her sister lives here. I know she has a cat.

We all greet each other with surprise, exclamations are exchanged. “What are you up to? How did that job interview go? Have things slowed down since wedding season ended?” I know it won’t last long because it’s too chilly to talk. I’m right. We start to shiver and say our goodbyes. My friend jumps back on his bike to return to work. I know it will be the grey bike with the leather saddle. He knows I will make an indulgent pit stop at the clothing store next door. I do.

Across the street I stop to buy soap at a local shop whose products I’ve come to appreciate after a bout of mystery allergies almost eight years ago. They’re renovating – a surprise. But they still offer a free sample and even though I have too many at home I take one anyway because it’s my favourite – pumpkin.

Back in the car I head for the recycling stations behind the grocery store. I know they used to be on the other side of the lot before the big box went in. I know the town fought to keep that big box looking like the other mountain buildings around town. I know my neighbour’s daughter loves the underground parking lot because it is the only place she knows of where she can ride an elevator.

I know that the recycling station is the place to meet unusual people. I’d met a kind and articulate First Nations teenager here some months back who had asked for a meal. Another time I’d had a long conversation with a German retiree who told me had had purchased a car with money from the bottles he’d taken in for refund.

After recycling, I go to the grocery store and, in the meat aisle, I run into an acquaintance who is always smiling and warm. I know that he ran for federal office a few years ago, that his wife’s name is J- and that they have two children with unusual and fabulous names on account of their father’s First Nations heritage. I know he is deeply committed to inspiring youth, and that he teaches at the school in the community down the road. I know he can dance, because we attended a mutual friend’s wedding a few years back. We say our goodbyes and I make my way to the till where I know the woman at the self-serve checkout. And I wonder if I’ll see my next door neighbour who leaves for work in a green apron with the grocery store logo.

I drop by the hardware store before the big unveil at the construction site next door. I know the white-haired man behind the counter. I know if I stay too long I’ll buy things in the kitchen aisle I don’t need. I notice they’re still renovating and I know it’s because they are trying to compete with the big box next to the recycling station. I know there is a cat that lives in the store and that while it always looks like it’s about to have kittens it’s actually just fat.

Just in time, I make my way to the public plaza in front of the large new building under construction. I know it will house the local pool, library, art gallery and a climbing wall. I know that the old library used to be a liquor store and that there is a community process underway to decide what to do with the old pool location. There are spotting scopes set up in the bustling plaza and I know it is because there are golden eagles migrating now, using the thermals above the mountains like a giant conveyor belt to warmer climes. I know the Birds of Prey Centre will be here and sure enough, there are leather gauntleted handlers milling through the crowd with patient owls and a hawk. There is even a blind eagle, rescued from certain death, who is fond of stretching his wings at opportune moments for photos with children. I know they’ve named him Spirit.

A small tow-headed child tests her balance by jumping over the river rocks between the slabs of new pavement. Parents sit and chat with elderly neighbours. Everywhere I turn I see someone else I know. A local band is playing jazz and country and their singer, though bundled up, is keeping the crowds cheerful and entertained.

I stop to talk to a couple who has known my parents for decades. I know he had a stroke last year and speaks more slowly that he used to. I know they have a home in France, where she is from, and I am glad to hear they spent the summer there and enjoyed a long overdue family reunion.

I scan the crowd and see our MLA, the Mayor, the planning manager, and two members of council. I know one of them because I used to volunteer with her and she asked me during a farewell party at a crowded bar some years ago if she should run. I know the other is a realtor who rides his bicycle in the Canada Day parade every year to make an environmental statement. Three years ago I stopped to visit him at an open house. He gave me a tip and two weeks later I’d put a deposit down on my first home. His son lives in the same building. He sees me, smiles and says hello, and tells me he’s decided not to run in the next election. He knows I volunteered for a communications committee in town, that I participated in two visioning processes, and sat on another committee to monitor the town’s progress in that regard.  “There’ll be a seat! You should run!” he tells me. He’s been telling me this for years and while I find the very thought of it exhausting, I am always flattered.

We part ways because the speeches are about to begin and before long a large, yellow construction crane pulls a sheet from a 30-foot obelisk featuring flying eagles, a base of local stone complete with fossils and petrified wood, and a middle section of bronze stamped with local artefacts that you can identify if you walk up and have a look. I don’t know the artist, and I don’t know the work, but I know that years from now when I cross the plaza to go to the library or the pool or maybe the climbing wall, that I’ll remember this moment and it will have become part of the landscape of my life.

So what does this have to do with where I thought, at 18, I would be much later in life?

Well, when I was 18 I expected that the landscape of my life would be made up almost entirely of family, friends and career. I assumed, among many assumptions, that I would meet someone and would want to marry and have children. I assumed that I and my partner would have parents and siblings, that there would be Christmases and Easters and family barbeques with both families. I assumed I would be in a position of influence or leadership at work, and that my work would both fulfill me and define me.

What struck me about that day in town, beginning at the cafe and ending in front of the obelisk, was the importance of all those other relationships – strangers and acquaintances that I may not socialize with frequently, or at all, but who would become touchstones of familiarity. I did not expect to feel so grateful to those people for the things they bring to my life just by expressing themselves through theirs – a cafe, a bar of soap, a turn of phrase, a funky hairstyle, a love of bicycles. I did not expect that community would be the mortar between the bricks of my life.

There is an Irish proverb that says, “We all live in the shelter of others.” At eighteen, I imagined that this shelter would be my family, my partner, and my closest friends. At 36, I am surprised to discover that there are many people in between and that they too – however inadvertently – hold me together and make me feel at home.

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7 thoughts on “In the shelter of others

  1. I like where this comes out. It’s true, when we’re younger we think of only what our arms can reach, we’re selfish in that way. And then the world sometimes gives us something more. We’ve talked about community a fair bit here, the village, the way strangers can touch you in a moment, and how that moment can sometimes mean more than anything else in the world. I know you debate with yourself whether you should stay or go from your special community, but I think what you have here is really totally worth embracing.

    This said, a part of me wondered about all those 18 year old assumptions you had- how you look back on those, whether they have been fulfilled as you expected or also surprised you in the way they’ve come to pass. Those were some great comforts to accept in life at 18! I never had any of those assumptions for myself, In fact, I had a lot of fear I’d be deprived of all that.

  2. I agree with BeZ– the sense of familiarity, of community and place you have depicted here seems to me to be totally worth embracing. I say that mostly because of the tender and reverential way you write about all of it. The observation of snow below the tree line and the flavor of your favorite locally-made soap, and even the basic sense of being visible, really known and accounted for by the other people in your town — all of these things seem to carry so much power for you. So glad you are able to notice and celebrate them, and thanks for sharing here. Just lovely.

  3. Pingback: Join the Conversation: November Edition | Mother Sugar

  4. Hi! I know this is kinda off topic but I’d figured I’d ask.
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