Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Girl I Was

Flood of weird, slightly interconnected memories this morning. Mostly related to Carleton.


Back in 1997, back when I was too young to mention -- in high school -- I had the chance to take a week off of school to go to Carleton during the uni's summer had begun, I think. Anyone on the honor roll at our school and a bunch of others -- probably all the high schools in our board -- could sign up for the program and go to these "mini-courses". Was there only one? I recall one of my best friends at the time having one session in the morning and one in the afternoon. Back when we all had promise -- back when all my girlfriends wanted to doctors and lawyers and politicians -- when we believed in Girl Power and didn't give a thought to being child-burdened ever-maternity-leave going teachers. Which most of them are now. The ways in which people will gratefully give up their dreams and identities, hm? But I digress.

Anyways I had a full day course called POE'ET TREE 4*5*DAZE taught by a poet named Peggy Caesar. Sometimes I wonder where she is now and whether she is still a poet. I loved that course -- it took my writing from childish nonsense in the vein of an L.M. Montgomery character to being angst ridden teenage nonsense in the vein of (insert grunge band name here).

My favorite memory of that course was the day we took it outside. Some delicious day in May or June with sun. We sat by the Rideau River and look down it: that vantage point from which you can see a bridge and further along the gold domes of an orthodox church. The aspect was so perfect for the poem that Peggy decided to read to us. It bears reprinting here:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of course. Hooray for the public domain!

The entire scene had such an impression on me that it culminated into something that happened when I went off to go my first degree at Carleton three years later.

It was the end of Frosh Week, 2000. The night before, the Saturday, there had been an enormous outdoor party for the incoming first years. On-campus as I was, off-campus as some of my friends -- all were invited. The mass of 18 and 19-year-olds (back when we had an extra year of high school in Ontario), the rare 25-year-old friend who'd traveled to 'find themselves' first. I think if memory serves it was a Much Music Video Dance Party (do they still do those?) A massive crowd of drunken, dancing youths. A blow-up sheep that has being tossed about like a beach ball in the crowd of an outdoor music festival. But there was something wrong. The entire week I had felt it -- the obnoxious onslaught of busy-ness designed to keep homesickness at bay did not work on the immense sadness I felt over my end-of-high-school abrupt breakup.

I felt empty. The next day I was up fairly early, went to an empty caf to get a brunch and then had nothing to do. Classes had begun but there was no need to get too deep into studies yet. So I decided to take a walk. Early September and still hot and beautiful, I turn towards the Rideau River again to see the view I'd fell in love with. That's when I saw it: the field in which we had partied. Covered in garbage. No one had come to clean it up yet.

So I did. To this day, I've never told anyone this story. Not as far as I can remember, at least. It was Sunday, the buildings of the uni empty, and so nearly no one came by. Everyone who lived on campus were away in the dorms, sleeping off the night before or trading stories. There was a cyclist or two who passed through the path that split the field in half, but when they did I mimed that I was idling on a picnic table bench or what have you. I think I had brought a textbook to peruse by the river side with me, and I'd just sit and read that a second until they moved on.

I gathered every bit of garbage and placed it in the cans scattered here and there. I don't know why. Maybe it was because of the incongruence of my memories of poetry recitals by the river and the junk that they wouldn't bother with until Monday morning. Anyways I did that.

I eventually took another poetry course at Carleton, in my third year. I had to submit work in order to be accepted into the class. This one was less Samuel by the river than it was trying to out-talent students who wrote about being drunk, high, or having sex in weird ways and other yawn-inducing experiences.

It puts me in mine of all the other tiny triumphs that I've had between then and now. How I've always had one foot in the literary world. I have so many dark moments when I think about how I took the wrong path, and I think I wasted my time with learning how to teach, learning how to conform. But in reality I have submitted my work to courses and been accepted. I have submitted my work to journals and been published. It makes me courageous. It makes me persistent. It makes me wonder whether I should put chapters of the current work online for comment and criticism. Goodreads, Wattpad, what do you think? Should I?