Bonnie’s Ditch

“Come on, I have to show you something!” Bonnie grabs my arm and steers me down her driveway. My childhood friend has traveled Europe and sailed the Caribbean, she has lived in the tundra, prairies, and mountains. Now she is here; showing me around her scrubby acreage surrounded by huge tracts of farmland and swamp. I scan the property but can’t see anything promising. Maybe there’s a hidden gully nearby. Or perhaps a steep ravine with an icy brook?

We walk to the end of her lane, cross the highway, and reach the edge of the shoulder when she stops. I wait to see which direction she’ll take me next. Then she announces, “This is it!”

I look down the length of road in both directions and finally back at her. We are standing in a ditch, and not a very wide or especially deep one.

“You wouldn’t believe how many frogs and crayfish we find after the snow melts and how tall the grass grows in summer.” Bonnie takes a few steps toward the fenced pasture on the other side of the ditch and continues, “Just the other day I cross-country skied from here all the way to my neighbors.” She breathes deep and then asks, “Isn’t it great?”

I am not sure how to respond. I realize I was expecting something more; something not so, well, ditch-like.

“Yeah, your kids must love it,” I say, hoping I sound sincere.

“My kids?” She laughs. “I love it!”

Her enthusiasm baffles me at first. Alpine vistas and ocean shorelines are one thing, but a snowy ditch? Ditches are as banal as my back alley, yet she speaks like an explorer reporting on a thrilling discovery and the way she honours the ground we stand on, instead of pining for distant places, makes me wonder what I might discover in the margins of my own every-day environment. We turn around and head inside, but not before I glance back at Bonnie’s inspiration; a dip of land between pavement and frozen pasture.

*I wrote a longer essay, with the above story nested inside it, several years ago. Last fall, after reading a call for submissions for flash non-fiction pieces under 350 words, I slashed, chopped, and whittled away at my original essay until I found what I am sharing here. This flash non-fiction piece first appeared in Geez Magazine (41), Spring 2016, The Watershed Issue. Click here to find out more about Geez.

Issue 41

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On a different note, look who is coming to Wonderscape!

Head chef of The Backyard, Mariana Brito hails from Tijuana, Mexico, where she attended the Escuela de Arte Culinario before training in Spain, New York, and South Carolina, under chefs of Michelin starred restaurants. Joining her global background with a passion for organic food and her strong relationships with local producers, Mariana centres the flavours of modern Mexican cuisine in the landscape of the Canadian prairie. Every ingredient is fresh, ethically sourced, and organic whenever possible.

Where Life is Easy

“Life is easy here,” the Pakistan-born cab-driver tells us. “No traffic, no snow, no problem.” Shoulder-checking then changing lanes he asks Stan, “Where did you fly from, sir?” When he learns we came from Regina he offers his apologies. “I’m very sorry, sir, but that is a terrible place. I was there once. Stayed in a hotel that was 700, no, maybe 800, years old.” At this point Stan interrupts to say Regina didn’t exist 700 years ago, but the driver shrugs it off as a minor detail. “I’m telling you, it was terrible. I got out of there as soon as I could and I didn’t look back, sir.”

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I laugh while looking out the window trying to absorb every green leaf, blossom, and blade of grass. Minutes earlier, when we walked past the airport’s sliding doors and stepped into spring, Belén and Susanna asked if they could dash across the street to touch the grass in the median. At first I told them no, but then reconsidered. Even I know the pleasure of cartwheeling in green grass outweighs the risk of running across the road.

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The next morning Vivi wakes up at dawn and Stan walks with her for miles, exploring  the streets of Victoria and checking out places we’ll return to later as a family. The second time around it takes us the whole day to cover the same ground; we stop to meet up with friends, take pictures of dandelions, feed seals, eat fish and chips, smell hyacinths, throw down pop-gun firecrackers in Chinatown, and pose in front of sailboats. Amazement sinks in as we realize people actually live here. They wake up to the ocean and cherry blossoms and snow-capped mountains every day and call it home. Our friend Matt is also impressed. “Yep, I could live here,” he says, verbalizing what we’re all thinking. Apparently we’re not the only ones; when I talk to the guy beside me in a cafe and find out he’s a teacher I ask him about the job market. He tells me most teachers put ten years of subbing in before they land a position. I remember then what our taxi driver said and wonder what makes life easier. Getting a job? Or never shoveling snow? I finish eating my gluten-free pastry–something every restaurant seems to offer out here–and decide I haven’t made up my mind yet.

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A day in Victoria with Bonnie and her family

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Bonnie’s daughter, Mary, in the middle

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Chinatown in Victoria–we had to see it after reading aloud a novel in the “Dear Canada” series

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floating houseboats in the wharf

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A day later we drive up the eastern side of the island, past vineyards and organic farms, logging towns and artsy hamlets, to Kent and Shalain’s house. Having relocated from Saskatchewan themselves they know exactly what our prairie family wants to do: eat seafood, beach-comb, and hike. The kids seem to be happy with all these options but it occurs to me they might be just as content in a parking lot as long as they had their skipping ropes and frontal lobes with them. At Saratoga beach they race in the sand, at Rebecca Spit they tumble out of the car and set up a fort before we strike the first match for our fire. When we tell them we want to go to the other side of the spit they resist. They don’t want to leave the “best skipping rocks” for anything else. Then, after we walk the 200 meters to the other side and they make the “best fort in the world” out of driftwood, they balk at driving to the lighthouse. When we get to the lighthouse they explode from the vehicle to restart their play, making a swing out of scavenged rope. The way they settle into the world around them–the driftwood, rocks, and trees–in 3 seconds or less reminds me of pop-up tents that poof out in the air; their play is as immediate as the tent that only needs a quick toss. While they carry on, we spot some seal lions lollygagging offshore with their flippers in the air and I tell Stan I wish I were lazing around in the water with them. Never shy about pointing out impracticalities he asks, “So you want to be cold and trying to find a way to stay warm?” It’s true these mammals thermoregulate by sunning their dark fins, but I prefer to think of it as their way of relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. As if even they think life is easy out here.

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Someone may have beat her dad in a race…

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Crab night at Kent and Shalain’s

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Watching the sea lions and our contented children against the backdrop of the lush Discovery Islands I wonder why we live where we do. I think of my family and the course of history. Why did my grandparents get off the train? After sailing across the Atlantic and traveling through eastern Canada, why did they settle before checking out what was ahead in the West? And more to the point, why don’t we all move here for the easy life?

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Lake chillin’ out in his fort

When we return home I talk about all we saw, smell, heard, touched and tasted, and the overwhelming beauty. Someone reminds me that’s why all the best musicians come from Winnipeg–where the harsh realities of weather and landscape create deeper artistry. Another local friend comments on the incomparable rush of spring and seasonal change. Yet another tells of her homecoming after years in the West: of being hemmed in by family instead of mountains, the relief of wide open spaces, of hot summers and growing tomatoes, of snow and sunny skies. While I don’t mention the name Emily Carr (the West didn’t seem to hamper her art) or that we might can salmon instead of salsa, I know they are right. There is more than one way to look at things; more than one way to respond to a pod of sea lions and more than one way to figure out what makes home home, regardless of what any taxi driver might tell you. Especially if we immerse ourselves in our surroundings, be it grassland, desert, forest, or a mountain ridge, like a couple of eight-year-olds I know.

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This could be… Saskatchewan

Do you ever compare where you are to another place? I do it all the time; maybe because it lends appeal to where I happen to be. It makes the ordinary more exotic. For example, I love the month of June in the valley where I grew up. Every year in early summer the rolling fields are carpeted with green shoots of wheat, as if God tips a jar of paint over, letting it drip off the poplars and pool on the land before cleaning it up with July’s dry sun. “It’s just like Ireland,” I’d sigh when I was a teenager, feeling very lucky to live in place so similar to the Emerald Isle. The fact I’d never been to Ireland never dampened my enthusiasm for the comparison.

Now, years later, I still haven’t dropped the habit. When I go to our nearest beach and watch the kids tumble down sand dunes or spot them diving into the waves, I’m reminded of the coast of Maine–not that I’ve ever visited the shore there, of course. None the less, I like to remind whoever I’m with that we could be on the coast. And that despite the logistics (we’re more than 2,000 miles inland), the way we feel when we scrunch the sand between our toes would be no different if we actually were on the Eastern seaboard.

European destinations are among my favourites to bring up; any cafe with outdoor seating qualifies for a mention of France or Italy, and skiing on our local golf course conjures up visions of Norwegian fjords. Suggesting these faraway places enhances the whole experience as long as I don’t bother with the nitty-gritty details of the similes. It’s kind of like adding accessories to a plain black dress; geographical name-dropping adds flair to our outings.

This past Saturday, while checking out a trap-line, I was tempted to do it again: Hey, we could be in the Russian taiga! (Have you watched Happy People on Netflix?) But I decided not to. The snow was falling softly, a buck and several doe sailed through a field nearby, Vivian fell asleep to the hum of the snowmobile–sandwiched between her mom and dad, the big girls were yelping and shrieking in the toboggan we pulled behind us, dry spruce tinder set our bonfire ablaze, and the wind stung our faces out in the open stretches. We were definitely in Saskatchewan…

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Our friends, Shelly and Jason, took us to another friend’s place to run his trap-line with him. He didn’t get anything that day but we got to see how he set his traps, and have some fun in the bush.

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Susanna learned how to drive Ainsly’s skidoo. Here she is with instructor Shelly.

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Belén and Vivi at a bonfire pit-stop.

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And it was right where I wanted to be.

Tricia