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October 30, 2007

O'Keeffe Country

For the past two summers I have taken a photography course offered at the 21,000 acre Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

The spirit of the place exists in its looming orange landscapes, in the intimacy that develops quickly between strangers, and a solitude that provides the much needed space to listen better to oneself.

If I close my eyes, I can see the turquoise worn rug on the floor of the Ghost House where the course takes place. I can feel the scratch of the simple Teal-coloured cushions on the wooden, arm-chaired couch, and allow my mind to linger on the exact shade of blue of the woodwork around the windows.

In that cool quiet sitting room I have wondered if perhaps it is the spirit of all the others who have spent time there before me – including the most famous Georgia O’Keeffe - that creates the feeling of sacredness. It’s as if all the conversations that have ever taken place within those thick, white, adobe walls, hang dust-like, in the same way petroglyphs indicate the presence of earlier inhabitants in other sacred places.

O’Keeffe, the artist most known to the public for her macro stylized view of flowers, and her detailed replication of the skulls and bones she’d collect on her desert walks, lived for 98 years. She died in Santa Fe in 1986. The man, 30 years her junior who had cared for her in the last 13 years of her life, Juan Hamilton, was with her. What were they to each other, really? He knows. The rest is speculation.

She was originally married to a famous photographer. Alfred Stieglitz ran one of New York's most avant garde galleries, Gallery 291, in the 20’s. I wondered whether she would have become famous had a friend of hers actually obeyed her and not shown her charcoal drawings to Stieglitz? Had he not been 20 years her senior, and able to withstand her self-righteous intensity, would her personality and her art have become as iconic?

When you step outside into the courtyard of Ghost House you are confronted in the distance by Pedernal, O'Keeffe's beloved, sloping, flat-topped indigo Mountain. It’s a constant reminder of her former presence. Her ashes were scattered at its base and she was well-known for having proclaimed, "God told me that if I painted it enough he would give it to me."

She moved to the Abiquiu area, permanently in 1949, three years after Stieglitz died. He’d never seen the ranch preferring to remain in New York or spend time with his large extended family at Lake George in New York state.
She purchased her house Rancho de los Burros sold to her for a steal by Arthur Pack, the millionaire who owned the ranch and started Nature magazine. In 1955, much to her disagreement, he besqueathed the ranch to the Presbyterian Church so that others would be able to enjoy what he and his wife Phoebe had enjoyed for years. Pack also developed the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tuscon.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe which is the only museum in the United States dedicated entirely to a lone female artist. Events are commemorating its anniversary throughout the summer, each one sure to be on the social calendar of the nouveau riche dripping in turquoise as they enter. They’ve undoubtedly snatched the most desirable tickets including ones to a dinner in late August to be held outside O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home where a live performance of her favourite chamber music will waft through the evening air. The intent is to allow the guests to experience the majesty of a New Mexican sunset in a way that might give them a minor sense of how it might have been possible for O’Keeffe’s artistic concentration to be captivated for decades.

At the ranch, it’s easy to understand through the magnificence of the rocks, the purity of the ever-changing light and the intimacy of a heat that feels supportive not oppressive, how O'Keeffe's attention could have been captivated by this place for decades.

As soon as I arrived, I could feel the warmth sucking the moisture out of my rain-soaked Vancouverite bones. My skin became a human canvas awash with the pastel light shows of the evenings. My mind, so often scattered and not operating in the present, felt clear.

Standing, just after dusk, on a full-mooned night, looking across the alfalfa fields, I could imagine Miss O’Keeffe out and about in her trade-mark black and white. She had on the wide-brimmed black hat. She had on her sensible shoes, scuffed by the dirt of the road from her exploring. She was still surveying the heaven she had found on earth right here at the ranch.

As someone once said, Ghost Ranch is a place where God’s finger pokes through.

I don't know about that but when I'm there, I feel more alive and I feel more acutely aware of my mortality. It’s the kind of place where the natural beauty goes straight to the heart. There's awe and an ache. It's a place where I understand better what the poet Dylan Thomas might have meant when he was moved to write, "... Rage, rage against the dying of the light..."

October 28, 2007


Meeting Destiny in Hedley, BC?

As a child in the 60s, packed away with my brother in the back seat of the blue Pontiac station wagon on our annual summer vacation, I’d squish my face against the window and dream. Past the boulders of the Hope Princeton slide on Hwy 3, the inside of the car grew eerily silent as if the environment outside demanded reverence. As we’d near the village of Hedley, my dad, in the best imitation of our favourite TV show of the time – The Friendly Giant - would alert us to look up, look WAY UP to the buildings on the side of the mountain.

Stretching my meagre neck to see, the dilapidated buildings represented mystery and adventure presumably like the kind I’d seen in cartoons in which skunks would scream, “There’s gold in them there hills!”

Hedley or Sna-za-ist “place of the striped rock” is squeezed into the base of the mountains near the banks of the Similkameen River. In 1898, gold was discovered at Nickel Plate Mountain with a tram built in 1904 to carry the ore from the mine to the mill below. In 1936 the Mascot Mine opened and remained to 1949. About 30 years later the Nickel Plate Mine became an open pit mine and operated between 1985 and 1995. Together the two mines yielded approximately 2.5 million Troy ounces of gold, 600,000 ounces of silver and 1900 metric tonnes of copper. In 1994 assisted by the Hedley Heritage Museum and then local MLA Bill Barlee, the Mascot Mine buildings were saved from demolition and the site restored by the Similkameen Indian Band.
Fast forward 40 years and this summer I felt compelled to visit Hedley as part of a longer road trip.

I was in another transition. I’d just left my job and was taking a break with only one potential employer crossing my consciousness. Located 10 minutes from my house, they develop exhibits for museums and science centers the world over. I’d applied there to no avail previously and as I left on the trip, I made a mental note for my return: Apply again!

I checked into the Gold Rush B&B, a large colonial house with a clean white wrap around veranda. Simon, a Brit from the Cotswolds and his Canadian wife has owned it for 8 years. I walked around the little village. I wandered through the old fashioned country store across the street and looked at the mural of miners on the side of a building. I visited the Hedley Heritage Museum. The Mascot Mine tour was scheduled for the next morning. It was time for dinner. I chose the Hitching Post in the village. Tanya, the waitress, said, “If you’re set on the seafood pasta ask for extra prawns and hold the mussels.” I did. It was scrumptious!

The next morning, Chuck our driver and Mike our guide loaded us into the bus set to wind 40 minutes up the steep switchbacks to the buildings at the top. It was a small group: me, a family of five, and a couple in their early 60s.

“What brings you on this trip?” asked the man of the couple. I relayed my childhood daydreams.
“Are you a geologist?” I enquired. ``No, I own the company that did the exhibits at the top,” he replied. My wife hasn’t seen them. I looked at him, amazement building.
“Is your company on Georgia Street?” I asked, the name escaping me when I needed it most.
“Yes” he said. “It’s called AldrichPears,” handing me a business card that read Phil Aldrich, Principal. I hesitated for a moment. I couldn’t believe it. “I’ve always wanted to work for your company,” I said and I noticed the expression on his face, perhaps amazed that I even knew his company.

We exchanged chit chat. At the top we stepped carefully down the 598 stairs admiring the dot that was Hedley below. At the bottom, we donned hard hats and headed into the mine shaft. . When Chuck ordered “lights out “so we could concentrate on the audio simulation of miners talking while they worked, Trudy Aldrich said, "Gayle, you can hang on to me if you like." It was sweet of her to think of me. I slipped my arm through hers.

We perused the exhibits. We huffed and puffed back up the 598 stairs. "Don’t worry,” said Mike, "I’ve got a defibrillator” and he tapped his backpack. “Haven’t had to use it yet though!” Phil was first to the top. Back in the parking lot he said, "Keep in touch! Send me a resume!”

I returned to my car, smiling, amazed, wondering at the odds of meeting the president of one of the only companies in Vancouver that currently piques my interest as a future employer, and, in Hedley, BC. Population: 250.

If that isn’t fate, what is?

One August Day

Parade of Lost Souls

October 24, 2007

"My" Park

Usually in the morning, whenever I have been without work, I try to walk around the park even when the monsoons arrive. This morning - grey, wet, rainy - I don my raincoat and my boots, put up my umbrella and as I begin I like to fantasize that the park is actually my own personal backyard.

I'm just on a wee walkabout something which is a cross between what the Scots and the Aussies do; one high up on the bonnie Glen between the heather and the other in the dusty outback. I'm just surveying how things are on "my" palatial property.

I survey "my staff" working diligently in the rain, driving their little tractors and trucks clearing away weeds, cutting down trees that may prove to be hazardous. Much to their wimpering protestations, I've left the corgis at home. I wouldn't afterall want them to catch colds.

At 10 am along the seawall there is next to no one else except the requisite Vancouver jogger, the retired man, and a young female tourist from Japan wearing sweats and a baseball cap, raindrops dripping from her hat like water off the eaves. She comes towards me motioning with her camera and I take her photo. I realize the flash needs to be on. I can't figure out how to do that on her camera, so her face isn't even defined in the photo. I try to explain this using bad sign language to no avail. But, as Japanese females are socialized to do from birth she thanks me profusely.

I have a special route I follow. Down under the underpass, past the Vancouver Rowing Club and the Yacht Club, looking down the water towards the city and the building of the new Trade and Convention Centre. The floatplanes fly overhead except on days like today it seems when perhaps it's too socked in with white to fly safely.

Although it has been quite a while since I've attemptd, badly, any watercolour painting, when I'm walking around on these wet days, it's hard not to see the colours and the tones as if they have been dabbed from palette to canvas.

I pass the cricket fields and decide to take a shortcut past the totem poles and back down onto the seawall. I look past the lady in the wetsuit sculpture across to the yellow sulfur piles in North Van.

I notice the leaves under my feet, the ones that are perfectly formed and the difference in sizes as if some are the babies of the others. I wonder why some are red, some are brown others green and gold. I know there's a scientific reason. Another bit of common knowledge I should know and don't.

I always look across at the memorial to Pauline Johnson hidden in the trees as I pass that part of the seawall and I try to imagine what this place was like then. More silent, more green, and I can almost hear the paddle of her canoe in the waters of Lost Lagoon when it actually connected by water to Coal Harbour. This year it seems to me that the colours in the Fall palette are more vibrant. They also just happen to be my personal colours; the ones I'm supposed to wear: Browns, greens of every shade, baby lettuce coloured moss a cloak for the rocks, auburn, mustards, gold.

Maybe because I've been consistently employed during the past five years or so, and therefore my attention did not have the luxury during the day to focus on such minute details, I'm surprised at the vibrancy of colours declaring Fall at the peak of this season. I can't recall the colours being so vivid.

I'm nearing Lumbermen's Arch and pass the kids waterpark. Today it is empty with only the water falling from the sky but I can see the ghosts of little boys screaming and running, energy personified, plotting to attack their friends with the hoses. I can see parents guiding their babies first steps as tiny toes shrink in reflex at the cold water in the puddles; images left over from my summer walks. The top of the Lions Gate Bridge is vanishing behind cloud.

I head up past the concession stand and the Japanese War Memorial and stop in at the free part of the Aquarium where the belugas are floating as if they are asleep. One of them floats towards me, rolls on his side and his jellybean black eye checks me out briefly. I try to stare right into it through the glass as if to communicate with him. He does this a couple of times and then lets out one of those whale sounds; the high pitched squeal. I wish we could have a conversation. One that we could both understand.

I carry on around the corner and a dog barks at the big sea lion in the next tank. I head up the walkway between the Japanese cherry trees. I slip ever so slightly as I cross the wetness of the wooden bridge, water in a small stream rushes underneath.

The Stanley Park Pavilion is just at the top where a photography class is determined to carry on,in spite of the wet, there cameras wrapped in Safeway bags. They position themselves as if they are surveying the land in preparation for a new highway. I try to figure out where some of the lenses are pointed and think of my own photography. What captures our attention? I find that fascinating. We're all looking at something different; something that speaks to us, alone, and if we're lucky says something, on that rare occasion, that is universal.

I wonder about the Dubrulle cooking school and imagine how nice it would be to host a large party inside the Pavilion, maybe a 50th birthday party. I'd like that. The party, not the 50 part! But, even that doesn't seem so bad. It feels good just thinking about it.

Coming up to nearly an hour, I continue down the walkway through the rose garden now lying dormant, with only sad, withered petals, light brown around the edges remaining as hints about what was and what will be again.

Having walked around the park so many times, through so many seasons in the past, especially when things were not good and this place, my own personal backyard was my salvation. It's as if every image has stayed with me: light, colour, shade, texture, and these form a collage of seasons and memories like one of those tole paintings, layer upon layer so that even in sepia Winter, yellow Summers are present, in the Fall, blue Spring is here too.

Stanley Park 365 days a year.

October 21, 2007


Went to the 20th Bill Duthie Memorial lecture tonight as part of the Writer's Festival. It was Eleanor Wachtel, the host of CBC's Writers & Company speaking about the late great canadian fiction writer Carol Shields. Her writing. Her way of being. Her kindness. Their friendship.

I don't know about you but whenever I go anywhere, there's usually at least one thing that stands out for me, that I take away, and tonight it was the way Wachtel spoke about Carol Shields' emphasis on the meaning of the word home. How do we know when we're home? What does it feel like? Is it possible to feel at home regardless of where you are geographically? What does that call upon inside? Effortless, at peace, contented, engaged. Comfortable.

For Shields, home was whenever she was writing. Nothing brought her more satisfaction. It was her salvation during her battle with breast cancer when the illness forced her to be overly self absorbed. It was her refuge. It's her legacy.

I do not feel like I am home. I have lived here my entire life and I have never felt like it's quite right, especially between October and March. Every year when the monsoons hit, it feels less and less like I want this to remain my home during those 6 months.

In so many ways it is the right place: multicultural, incredible ethnic restaurants, festivals, cultural activities, relatively safe, naturally beautiful, friendships. But, psychologically it has never felt right.

I contrast the way I feel here, with the way I feel in New Mexico and I feel like I'm in the wrong place.

The closest I can come to describing the difference is the feeling of relief I have been aware of when I've stepped off the plane for the past 2 summers in New Mexico. I notice the sense of relief. I feel relieved there. I feel like the sunshine soothes me. Makes everything feel better. More hopeful. Vancouver doesn't feel like that to me. Vancouver feels sad to me. Is it because I feel like it's time to shed the entire first half of my life - including all the sadness associated with it?

But at the same time, I'm extremely aware of the reality behind the saying, Wherever you go, there you are!

October 20, 2007

Stupid, stupid Vancouverites

Maybe it's Water on the BRAIN!

Actual statement from some guy who contacted me off one of those internet dating sites...

Him: "I'm going to one of those rotate-a-date things tommorrow night. Maybe after I'm finished there if it doesn't work out, if you're spontaneous, we could get together then...

Me: Uh, NO! Don't think so!

Him: Didn't think so, but hey, I thought I'd put it out there. I'm an open book.

Me thinking: Put it out there somewhere else sweetheart! Not a book I need to read!

Only a Stupid Blonde could...
Blonde walking a really big rottweiler, off leash, along very busy Pacific St. Stupid blonde tosses one of those dog toys called Kongs way up in the air. It never occurs to her bleached-out brain that dogs actually chase those which it did, right in front of our car. F&*k I swear at her through the window but itsy bitsy brained blonde can't see me because she is crouched down with her hands covering her spaced out head like chicken little waiting to hear the thud of fat assed rottweiler against our car. We just sat there, incredulous as she grabbed kong and dragged fat assed rottweiler off the middle of the road mouthing SORRY to us!

October 17, 2007


A Stranger's Insights

I've become a lot better at paying attention to chance meetings. One of those occurred in June. I was settling in on a plane flying back from New Mexico with a stop in Dallas Fort Worth. A woman in her early 50s excused herself, moved past me on the aisle seat and wedged herself into the middle seat. A cute, young guy, dark hair, dark eyes and a pea cap was quietly staring out the window in our row to complete our threesome of strangers. He was quiet and mysterious and so cute he made me feel like the cougar that I would be for thinking the thoughts I was thinking.

The woman and I struck up a conversation immediately and it was one of those connections that was instantaneous, easy, meandering and interesting. Three hours passed in no time at all even with an unexpected landing in Wichita Falls Texas (yes, not Kansas) when Dallas, Fort Worth was temporarily closed due to heavy rains. I remember that made me laugh when the pilot announced that. Heavy rains I thought. What do they know about heavy rains in Texas? And, I smile, somewhat sadly, as I listen to that familiar sound outside as the monsoons have already set in now.

Her name is Nancy. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. I remember that we were chatting and I couldn't help but notice that the cute guy was listening intently in the way you know when someone is hanging on every word of a conversation. Finally, I engaged him in some way. And then, that was all it took. I can't recall exactly the way it unfolded but Nancy was no slouch at doing the tag team interview and she discovered that he had been visiting his parents in Santa Fe but he lived in New York. His parents wanted him in Santa Fe but he was captivated by life in New York and he seemed very mysterious. In fact, he worked in a restaurant in New York which she wrote down because she seemed to be an avid traveller and she thought she might have an opportunity to check it out. She was just returning from a road trip through Colorado with a college girlfriend.

I remember that for some reason I was a really nervous flyer this time and every time we landed my hand would reach out for her arm in an inadvertent way. Her calmness calmed me. In fact, I remember I thought, because I was having such thoughts, that if anything was to happen to this plane, I wouldn't mind exiting the planet with these two by my side, and how we could all hold hands as it was going down.

We have kept in touch in an ad hoc way before events in my summer derailed me from keeping up the correspondence and just tonight I sent her an e-mail.

I hadn't written her since early August when I had told her about someone from my past who had contacted me. When she heard the story, she had said just four words in an e-mail: Make Him History Now! I remember thinking that was pretty harsh and judgmental and forward coming from a stranger who didn't even know me. Or him. Didn't know the circumstances. Didn't know anything about him.

I had sent her an e-mail saying, Why are you saying this? I'm not being sarcastic, I just really want to know. Are you psychic? She said, no, just a feeling, just a knowing. "You, Ms. Gayle, have a better life ahead of you." I remember she said that with such conviction in an e-mail, like someone who knew me way better than she did and I remember being taken aback.

Tonight she wrote me back, telling me to send her my phone number so we could talk in person. And then she said something that I think is just a wonderful premise for a story. She said that the three of us - her, me and Carlos - the young guy - will be forever connected in her mind. She is about to head off to New York with her college roommates and she's thinking of checking out the restaurant where he works.

She says that in her mind she has a fantasy that we three all meet in New York and "finish the story". "I'd love to hear the rest of it," she says. But, you can't I think ...it's a work in progress: Our lives.

Then she adds, "Isn't it weird how small life circumstances can grow to gigantic proportions in our minds" and I lingered on that statement thinking how I knew what she meant in more ways than she would ever know.

October 13, 2007


I visited my parents this afternoon. It's harder and harder to do that because my mother is slowly leaving us. Most of the time, when I enter their apartment she is in bed, lying there, resting, covered by that crocheted blanket that used to be on the couch in the den.

She is 83, two years into dialysis and just getting through the days. Three years ago, she was still driving, and swimming three times a week. Now, she shuffles from the living room to the bedroom spending more time sleeping than waking.

In a complete role reversal, my father looks after her. He is 89. He drives her to dialysis 3 times a week. He comes home and does the dishes. He does the laundry. He gets her water, he reminds her, he is frustrated by her, he has the patience of a saint, he tells us that she is still good lookin', and it has become his reason for existence to tend to her every need.

I see him looking at her with agape love in his eyes. She is lucky because he loves her more. He has always loved her more it would seem. His eyes teared up today when I said that it seemed as if she was really going down hill. It's a strange expression that - "going down hill" as if you're preparing to go skiing. And, her movement in that direction - the final goodbye - is also showing in his thinness, in his face, his eyes, the slope of his shoulders.

I've always been keenly aware of juxtaposition - in events, in the diversity of people's life circumstances.

In my own life, a visitor from the past and the eruption of ridiculous, unwarranted attachment as if 26 years hadn't happened; attachment that makes no sense at all and unleashing the behaviour of some monstrous stranger that I'm ashamed to have reside in me. This afternoon, it was the juxtaposition of that recent crazymaking belittled against the authenticity of real love, not romantic love, no false understanding, no illusions, not one-sided, the competition of wills long since dropped, just being there in silent understanding. Heartbreak warranted for all the right reasons.

I can't explain the heartfelt emotion that enables me to express love for a relative stranger - him - contrasted against a family history in which the words - I love you - didn't exist. Not being able to say those three words to the two people who created me, whom, I've always felt like a stranger to, set against the intensity of feeling that he evokes in me is a juxtaposition for which I have no explanation and for which I am a little bit ashamed. I recognize the absurdity at the same time I know the emotion is real.

There is an undeniable connection for me that I'm convinced began before either of us entered this lifetime which would explain why, inevitably, our interactions always end, it would seem, replicating in words and intensity the dualing swords that we surely crossed in the last one.

In sharp contrast to this immaturity is the agape love shown by my father to my mother; the kind of love in which the word "duty" towards another person, unconditional and voluntary duty, isn't experienced as a burden but as an honour.