Totems

totem_carr

All day the sky has been grey, and the wind has whipped the trees through to and fro. It seems like it wants to rain, but it hasn’t yet, and maybe it won’t.

On my way to meet Lisa after work the wind was a physical barrier. I pushed my bike through as if I were riding through cotton. It got a little better on the other side of Christie, when my bike was sheltered from the wind by the trees and the little houses.

Every minute one expects the clouds to break, and the ground to be savaged with fierce, fat droplets.

I took a nap after lunch, and my first dream involved racing to the windows to close them against the deluge, as water sprayed through the screen and stung the palm of my hand. When I woke up I thought it had actually happened.

Just now I cross Dupont, lightly, with my hands in my pockets. The large grocery store on the other side of the street, moored in its massive parking lot, looks like it is submerged under water. With the cold wind it feels like it, too. All of us walking towards it feel conspicuous and naked. Wind picks up the ends of our jackets and shirts.

I am reading “Klee Wyck” by Emily Carr. People know Carr as a painter, but she first came to prominence as a writer, writing about her experiences with the Haida people on the west coast. Her prose is exact and elegant. There is nothing decorous about it. The Haida people and the forest with them are rendered so powerfully and simply that the book feels transcendant.

A story I have read involves an Indian washer-woman who came every Monday to do the laundry for Carr’s mother. The Carrs had many children, and once a week seemed like too little to me, until I realised that the Carrs must have just had less clothing, or worn less, than we are used to wearing today.

“One can make do with less, if one only gets used to it.” I think of this again as I cross into the grocery store, the doors glowing yellow in the gloomy blue light. Inside the aisles are filled with food. The buns that weren’t sold that day are packed together in bags, and the fruit and vegetables that are near their expiry dates are wrapped with clear plastic and placed in styrofoam containers. We rarely buy this nearly rotting food.

On the weekend we went to a wedding, a very nice one. There was more food than we thought there would be. Without thinking, I went for seconds, but realised I was full by the time I’d brought the plate back to the table. I ate it anyway because I didn’t want it to go “to waste”. At some point Lisa says “We have too much food in the West”.

The grocery store is an easy symbol of our opulence. When foreigners from countries where food is scarce visit the West, it is our grocery stores they find the most affecting. They can move grown men and women to tears. We barely notice them, pushing our carts through quickly, with irate expressions on our faces. In Carr’s book the Haida abandon their old towns and totem poles for new towns with Indian Agents and grocery stores. Instead of having to hunt for their food, now they can just buy it, which is much easier. The totems stand deserted, and lonely, in the tall grasses; quickly overtaken by the forest, which wishes to devour them.

I pick out the bar of chocolate and purchase it. On my way out of the parking lot cars move in every direction, their rears glowing red fire-pits in the gloomy light. In the face of the weather, the grocery store, the parking lot, and especially my bar of chocolate, feel absurd, like abandoned totems. The streets are totally deserted. Everyone is shut-up inside, because they are expecting rain.

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