Tag Archives: prose

Keys, Shellfish, and Vikings (A Newfoundland Travelogue)

There was a blur preceding the steering wheel. I had been awake nearly thirty hours, with a toddler no less, and I was in and out of airport terminals and darkened airplane cabins from Alberta’s sunset to Newfoundland’s sunrise.

There isn’t a chance for me to do anything more than just sit in an airplane seat as restfully as my poor posture will allow. I obsess about design changes that could actually help me sleep. But I am in the wrong trade for having any influence on in-flight comfort—and I would probably involve a lot more hammock technology than airplane safety rules would allow.

My echo chamber flight was worsened by the fact that I dreaded our landing. Somewhere between securing my luggage at the drop-off and sitting down in my seat, I had lost the key to the luggage. We would land to about two-thirds of our luggage, held hostage by my idiocy (and the key, which probably fell out of my pocket when I dangled in the playground to amuse my child in the Edmonton airport.

Of course, that meant as soon as we landed, I got to get smashy. The regional airport we landed in, Deer Lake, was meant to get us as close to the kick-off of the itinerary I had planned. There are many benefits to flying into regional airports…their selection of TSA master keys, the codes for which are clearly marked on most commercial luggage locks, are not one of those benefits.

The key that best fit our suitcase was a flat-headed screwdriver.

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Smashing it against an iceberg would have also worked.

I had five hours to forget about the luggage that gaped open in the backseat of our rented minivan (I know: minivans are awful, and awfully practical). Despite my the thirty hour blur that preceded that steering wheel, the next few hours allowed the road to hypnotize me, as it’s done countless times—I was able to lock in, and read the landscape, and not make a chore out of driving but ribbon myself into the route like the gulls threaded in and out of the sea.

The road can do this to me—and Sadhguru put it better in a video published after I returned…I poorly paraphrase his words as my own: essentially, I didn’t need to possess anything to make it mine. (The possessive at the end sounds malicious, but in context, making it mine means capturing it within the boundary of what I consider myself—i.e. oneness. I think I’ve over-explained it now).

The cautious guest

who comes to the table

speaks sparingly.

Listens with ears

learns with eyes.

Such is the seeker of knowledge.

            – Havamal

It took a mere four hours to time travel from bustling industrial Newfoundland, to days-gone-by-b’y coastal coves, to the tundra-esque north where my wife swore she saw an albino moose until we reached service and could definitively say we saw a caribou—then finally to Vinland, on the Northern Peninsula’s tip nub (that’s a geological term, I think).

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Caribou on the Northern Peninsula (Newfoundland, Canada).

That tip nub was long home to the ancestors of the people we now call First Nations. For a brief time, it fooled the Vikings into thinking it was a promised land, all to themselves. For a while after that, the English and French argued in Versailles over it. Now, it’s hard to say who lives there, because the sea ice was thick and within a week of me standing on an ice floe off the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve the Canadian government would announce $5M in support for fisherpeople and other seafolks who were held up or even trapped by atypical ice conditions.

The newcomer

needs fire

his knees are numb.

A man who has made

his way over mountains

needs food and fresh linens.

            – Havamal

The few people I did encounter were the nicest people I could have encountered after too many hours awake and too many kilometers and a hankering for the slimmest chance to lay horizontally and forget about everything. When we reached our cabin in Raleigh, Nanny & Poppy Hedderson were ready to offer us the comforts of home.

Between the drizzling day, the freezing wind that never fucking stopped, and my third or fourth wind that was threatening to stop at any point, I was just giddy to be able to parade on the roads of Raleigh and fall down if I so pleased, without driving my family into a rocky ditch.

So of course, I didn’t even hesitate when Poppy told me that the LIVE LOBSTER sign out front wasn’t even LIVE so much as it was STRAIGHT FROM THE OCEAN, which wasn’t so passive as it sounded. Poppy drove us out to the dock with a Dutch couple so that we could harvest our very own lobster.

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“Would you care to sit in my parlour?”  – My Dinner Lobster

The tourist theatrics were so regular for Poppy that my ego wasn’t stroked when he asked me to help him haul the lobster cage out of the water. But it was hella fun. After the cage was opened, we fished through for the right lobster for each person, like we were fishing Valentine heart candies out of a bowl.

The lobster went straight from the ocean to a pot, and eventually to my plate with the oft-encountered pairing of garlic bread and Caesar salad. A little cod tongue to start, and some Iceberg beer to wash it down, and this is a recipe for making one sleep-deprived dude enter a semi-conscious state.

When I came to the next morning, we ate oatmeal and oranges and tea with a little cannabis honey before heading out to the Viking encampment beside a black beach. More formally, the camp is a National Historic Site. It was just above freezing, with ice stretching out to the horizon. It was surprisingly busy, but then again, national park sites like L’Anse-Aux-Meadows were free for Canadians to celebrate the sesquicentennial [Note: There were more international tourists than Canadians].

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The bay which the Viking settlement overlooked at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

On a given June day around 1000 CE, there were alien settlers on those shores. They built angular buildings with vented roofs and forged bog iron. Although tundra now, there’s understood to have been a historically warmer climate, so Leif Erikson and his crew would have found a peninsula rich with timber.

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A cozy tundra stroll to the seaside settlement, L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

They had already found an endless stretch of precious wood further north, and an endless beach which would later appear in Norse epics. These were men from societies who were spiralling into what we might call intellect—budding into pursuits like cartography, astronomy, literature, architecture, and metallurgy.

None of this was necessary for survival, which was proven by the people the Vikings encountered when they made the first European contact with North America. From Viking sagas we know that there were Native people who visited the Norse Vinland encampment. Trade ensued, although Leif refused to trade their weapons.

When passing

a door-post,

watch as you walk on,

inspect as you enter.

It is uncertain

where enemies lurk

or crouch in a dark corner.

            – Havamal

This is obviously where some sort of rift ensued—or at least, that was what the dramatic video at the National Historic Site insinuated. It’s not understood exactly why the Vikings built buildings, had a couple smelts (100-200 boat nails?), stayed for less than a decade, then burnt it all down and sailed into the sunrise.

My guess is that people lie. Leif had an accident in the rough waters off the North Atlantic and had to post up for a bit to make some nails and rebuild his boat. But the place was bountiful and they had enough grapes to make a lot of wine.

You have a friend

you hardly trust

in whom you cannot confide,

with fair smiles

and false words

repay cunning in kind.

            – Havamal

But then again, there were already people here. It was the same problem Christopher Columbus would face. Except he came from a more brutal time and a more brutal place. In the fifteenth century Christianity was reaching its most logical conclusion, the Inquisition, and it probably didn’t seem odd to anyone that there were some things that looked like people but were clearly beasts or demons and could be done away with or used to expand the empire.

Be your friend’s

true friend.

Return gift for gift.

Repay laughter

with laughter again

but betrayal with treachery.

            – Havamal

It is odd that the Vikings, otherwise known for slaughters and looting, bowed out from Vinland. The people of Christ who came later did not seem to have the same restraint. [I later learned that the Saga of Erik the Red describes Leif Erikson’s Vinland discovery as an accident while en route to introduce Christianity to Greenland.]

I never cared for the Viking stereotype, because like Mongolians or Berbers there are always exaggerations, no different than more recognizable stigmatization following more modern wars. The tales from the time do tell about violent clashes between the Kavdlunait (Inuit word for foreigner) and the Skraelings (Norse word for savage). Recognizing that a stable community cannot be built while under constant attack, the sagas tell us the Norse simply left.

The Vikings may have had some direction from their Norse philosophers—maybe even Odin himself, contrary to Leif’s new found messiah…or just good common sense, like the complimentary proverbs on respectively cultivating and preserving a friendship:

A true friend

whom you trust well

and wish for his good will:

go to him often

exchange gifts

and keep him company.

            – Havamal

 

Go you must.

No guest shall stay

in one place forever.

Love will be lost

if you sit too long

at a friend’s fire.

            – Havamal

It was warm inside the re-created halls that Leif and crew burned to the ground a thousand years ago. The site itself is on the tippliest nub of the tip nub—the very northern edge of Newfoundland. The wind carried the cold of the sea ice, and five-foot deep snowpack remained as a reminder of winter. It was near freezing outside, but within the six-foot thick sod walls, we were welcomed and warmed.

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Sounding in the fog at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

Because admission was free and I have made a point of proselytizing why that’s stupid, I wanted to make a point to pay my way and ensure a place like this doesn’t become a red line item in the budget that might as well be cut. Politicians use these sites the way they use anything else in their self-proclaimed jurisdiction. The Norse would have used Leif’s leap of faith to Vinland as a testament to their courage and knowledge of the world—the Trudeau government is using L’Anse-Aux-Meadows National Historic Site as a golden carrot. In two more years, six more years, ten more years (or however the election cycle shifts)…who knows where this tip nub falls.

Anyway, that’s all to say that I bought some shit. And I came away with a treasure: the Havamal, or The Words of the High One (the book itself was titled The Sayings of the Vikings).

If you are a collector of sacred books, or of written wisdom, or of eclectic ancient poetry, this may be the book you are missing. I hadn’t heard of the Havamal, but it has the reputation of being a northern compliment to the Tao Te Ching or the Vedas—so much so that it’s considered the ‘Wisdom of the North’.

That titled could be respectfully matched by the wisdom of the Dene, Inuit, or Sami. I wished I could have found more about the deeper history of the island’s first peoples, but it was sparse and usually more about conflict following contact rather than the ongoing lives of everyday people.

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An inukshuk in the Tablelands, probably left unceremoniously by tourists for a selfie (Newfoundland, Canada)

The Vikings made a point to be remembered. I guess that’s why they burned shit down. You know, for posterity.

There is something in the Havamal that goes beyond ethnicity—the blunt, pragmatic proverbs speak to a philosophy coloured by self-reliance, exploration, and presence. It is a philosophy that I may as well have heard from a rig hand in some remote northern camp. The Icelandic literary critic Matthias Vidar Saemundsson summarizes it better than I can:

“The ethics of the Havamal are above all rooted in belief in the value of the individual, who is nonetheless not alone in the world but tied by inextricable bonds to nature and society; to adherents of such a philosophy, the cycle of life was single and indivisible, the living world in all its manifestations formed a harmonious whole. Infringement upon nature struck at the root of a man’s own existence. In the old philosophy of the North, each individual was responsible for his own life, shaped his own fortune or misfortune, and created a life for himself from his own resources.”

This is not to say that Vikings were self-sustaining saints. They were brutal in their expansion efforts and enslaved people and generally made use of Europe’s most outstanding gift to humanity, their institutional inability to give a fuck, as long as they were getting what they felt entitled to. But the weather is brutal too. At these northern climates, it’s a challenge for naked apes. We all bow to the wind.

As I continued exploring Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, I was reminded of the philosophy of the North that Saemundsson refers to. I’ve seen it across Canada…progressively more pronounced as you get away from the southern centres that measure their success by looking further southward.

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Old fishing dock in Raleigh (Newfoundland, Canada)

Nanny & Poppy Hedderson knew that philosophy without ever having to crack open a book. It’s writ in the way the wind cuts through you. Or in the way that no one hears you scream out at sea. Or in the way that snow doesn’t care what you consider driveway or ditch. Or the way a stomach growls if the roads are closed and the grocery truck can’t visit your hamlet.

I am no Viking. I am native to nowhere. I can’t smelt bog iron and I can’t skin a caribou with nothing more than a sliver of rock. We are in a blessed time when so many of our survival needs are taken care of. We live in comfort, and as a result, we have time to quibble about identity politics. Which is fine on certain levels—however, the North reminds me that identity in itself is useless. You have to simply be capable and present. Anything else is a luxury.

The only luxury item I had was the broken suitcase in the van’s back seat. Not even realizing it until later, we approached this minor setback with the same fundamental approach used to get on when life was hard by the Natives, and the Vikings, and seemingly everyone before the most recent generations.

Back in Deer Lake the night before our flight, I made a trip to a hardware store to buy nylon rope and Gorilla tape. Like the Viking smelter who sat over the bog fire in Vinland, I sweated over my suitcase, reviewing my bondage knots and generously applying the tape like a cast.

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The note read, “The clasps on this suitcase are BROKEN. If you need to open for security purposes, *please* secure it closed again.”

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. At the luggage carousel upon our return, as others impatiently huffed and begrudgingly hoisted their luggage off the conveyor, I jumped in joy that my suitcase emerged in one piece. It was the smallest, most privileged victory for self-reliance. No one else cared.

He is truly wise

who’s travelled far

and knows the ways of the world.

He who has travelled

can tell what spirit

governs the man he meets.

            – Havamal

Truth, Fiction, and Nostalgia

I am unfashionably late to shamelessly self-promote some new prose that has come out earlier this month in Literary Orphans. As you will see in the table of contents, pieces are listed with approximate read times…so don’t be a dick and spend two fucking minutes reading something I humbly proffer two minutes of my writing to you, dear Reader, for entertainment, for ponderment, and for didacticism.

The appearance of fiction in truth and truth in fiction is as elusive as the elctron—physicists now know that the atom isn’t an organized ball-and-orbit construct, that electrons are not like planets circling their proton/nutron sun. Instead, electrons are vibrations that exist in proximity to the components of the nucleus and can exist anywhere at any time. Their position can only be defined, in a particular space at a particular time, by observation—so that the electron is only in the ‘one-o’clock position’ (for lack of a better term) only for the split second that you are observing it there. When you are not observing it, the electron can be at any other position, and is impossible to predict.

 Truth and fiction have this same kind of quality. It is impossible to say whether something is truth or fiction, even if the storyteller insists on one or the other. Even the wildest science fiction stories are rooted in some fundamental truths we know about our lives, our society, or our physical universe. And even the truest of stories can be distorted by the nature of memory, or the perceptive filter through which humans perceive the world. What a wonderful paradigm.

 All of this is to say that there is truth in my fiction, and I won’t spoil it for you, besides to say that I do indeed have a first generation digital camera. It is big and bulky and takes terrible photos. Worst part is that I can’t even transfer photos off of it because the chip is old technology and would require hardware I no longer have. There are photos trapped on that camera…photos of a special time and a special place, and special people who are there, pixelated on a one-inch screen.

 The photos are trapped, but the memories are captured. It’s tragic and joyous at the same time, and damnit if it doesn’t so happen that every now and then when I’m alone and drunk I will pull out the camera, reload the AA batteries and flip through those photos. I am terribly nostalgic like that.

 And hence: “Moments of Momentos”, which appears in Issue 11 (the Lennon issue) of Literary Orphans.

Reach Out

He’s reaching out as far as his virtual arms will go. Every social media platform, dock, station and page, every identity that personifies the man, the complex organ that touches a glass screen and makes huge worlds inside his own head. He is far from home, he is far from himself, he is distant from friends. There is no easy way out.

 

But he looks

For every nook

Every tranny moment

Goes both ways

Sucks and spits

Bursts into a torrent

A drenching storm

And electrocutes him

With little winces

In the glass screen glow.

 

The music cuts in The music cuts out

The speakers are broke

The piggy bank’s broke

The banks are broke

The government is broke—

 

The landscape is too flat It stretches away from him—

It makes him nervous—

That he might—

Fall off the curve of the earth and disappear into space—

For now

there is enough space.

There are enough kilometres

to build three european countries

with their own crooked economies

and their country songs

and nationalist dreams

and jobs and money.

 

For now he is here for the income,

here for the step away from the city cesspools, where his soul shimmered in murky back alley puddles,

and held its breath in tunnels, rode the rails with nowhere to go, overpaying for a coffee for the sheer novelty of sitting amongst brokers whose butchered latte machiato crème supreme will ruin the stockmarket for another day.

 

Commodities will fall, the crops will be worthless,

farmers will eat their hats and fill newspapers, and the crisis will see

paranoid herds selling out their local grocery store in fear.

 

Everything becomes processed, everything mechanized,

every last morsel is sanitized.

Bleached so it strips our intestine and burns our blood

and we too become sanitized from the face of Gaia.

Gone so Gaia’s face can heal

and meet the middle of the sun

with a bare stone.

So that no life suffers through

atomic annihilation.

 

All of this comes into his head, sitting on a quiet wood deck, the giant prairie cloud panorama wrapping around his head, playing out evaporated and condensed epics. Giants in the sky. Giants in the mind. They’re tiny on the glass screen, but they are all there.

 

He can reach out and touch them. There. There. There.

Pre-Drinking Over-Thinking

Sometimes, when I’m frustrated with work and feel aimless in career-mode, I fantasize that someday (when I am old enough to grow a salt-and-pepper beard) I will have the balls to shirk my workday—and I will live out my fantasy as a catharsis counsellor.

Because everyone needs catharsis. If you think you don’t, then you’ve either already unwittingly experienced a catharsis recently, or are so fucked that you don’t realize how badly you need it. I, for one, thrive on catharsis (or, perhaps, abreaction). It’s where my pursuit of art began, and it’ll probabaly be the only place it ever ends up. My proverbial emotional testicles just get so bloated with stress sperm that they need to shoot out all over life’s face. 

Before you leave in utter disgust…or to search for free porn…let me cut to the point: 

I just found out one of my stories (more of a prose poem), “Post-teen After-thoughts” made it into the second volume of Apocrypha & Abstractions Literary Journal’s anthology.

I never thought this piece would get picked up anywhere, mostly because I realize—trying as hard as I can to be an outsider reader (impossible, really)—that the story isn’t much of a story in the traditional sense. It’s a pastiche. A flash jumble of images, like threading beach garbage onto a hemp necklace. And you, the poor sober reader who approaches like a serene individual on a sunset stroll along the coast to clear your mind, you come across this fucking fool wearing beach garbage around his neck and wonder if the gusting wind is strong enough to carry your dying screams to the nearest beach house.

Now, if you were me, “Post-teen After-thoughts” is a story (you’re missing out!). The story is a common one. One I’ve made the mistake of repeating too many times: Googling someone you used to know. 

My mistake was ———, the post-punk, pre-indie girl I could never approach, who has since become such a fruitful muse (iterated as Lucy Sparrow, for example, in Onwards & Outwards—so self-referential, aren’t I?). 

It’s terrible. Sartre said, “The Other is hell”, and surely he was a clairvoyant foreseeing the nightmare qualities that come along with Googling someone you haven’t seen in years. There is the dread brought on by the cognitive dissonance between the person you have idealized in your head, and the person in reality. It doesn’t matter that a part of you knows that people self-mythologize themselves on the internet. It doesn’t matter that maybe all those fun party pics on Tumblr are from the only night off that person had in months.

They have changed. They have a mature wardrobe. They’re working a cool job. They have tattoos and funky asymmetrical haircuts. They have that look in their eye that tells you, “I’ve lived so much more than you, you pathetic piece of self-loathing shit.” 

What good does this feeling do? Does this serve an evolutionary function, to have this angst of seeing someone you adored become even better than you thought they were? 

Humanities’ greatest gift and mightiest curse (besides consciousness and humour) is our sociality. We are wholly social creatures. It’s such common knowledge, I won’t even reference that fact. Literally, we breed and grow under the pretense of our social nature. It’s no wonder that the internet’s most recent deluge of advancement has been in ‘social media’. People want to communicate. In my situation, it probably doesn’t help that Google and social media platforms are the major link I have to seeing any of my friends, associates, and other characters of my past due to my self-induced isolation. You may know the feeling: trying to communicate with any profundity over social media platforms (esp. Twitter) is like fucking through a straw.

Jung said, “Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate what seems important to you.” If I could only be so lucky. All I have is my pastiche story; my madness on display for strangers in an internet anthology, under a pseudonym, about a person I used to but never could know now. So it goes.

Anyway, lots of cool stuff in the anthology. And if you happen to read mine, just don’t think about it so goddamn much.