I was ten. I had been living in Vancouver for three months. And that fall when I walked to school, I was struck by the size of the leaves on the trees. They were like fairy tale leaves. Everything was outsized – huge: the trees that rose up into the sky, the leaves that hung from their branches. In the moist fall sunlight I picked a maple leaf one morning and wrapped it around my face. I thought: an elf could use this leaf like a boat.
A few weeks later, coming home from school along the path, part of a flung-out string of kids, Brian Dooley from my class surprised me by running up and saying, “Hey, come on! Lonnie’s gonna eat poo!”
Pleased to be invited but cautious, I followed him through thick bush into an open area by a powerline. The pungent smell of gunpowder hung in the fall air. I could see exploded cylinders of red paper all over the ground, some of them strings of ladyfingers, some of them bombs as thick as my wrist. Lonnie and a small kid with red cheeks sat on the chipped concrete block in which the hydro line was embedded. In his hand Lonnie was holding a piece of brown shit. His eyes were uncertain, like those of a boy getting ready to jump off the high diving board.
Brian said, “Okay, let’s see you eat it.”
Lonnie lifted the piece of shit to his mouth and bit into it.
“Holy cow,” Brian said. The small boy giggled and covered his mouth.
“Is that his poo?” I said.
“Yeah,” Brian said.
We watched him eat it all.
“Okay,” Brian said. “Now let’s see you eat this spit bug.” He pulled a leaf off a bush that had what looked to me like a big gob of saliva on it except that it was purer than spit, white and frothy. And at that moment, standing there watching this, I had a memory of Marathon, where we had lived before we had lived in Hinton. In Marathon, which was on the shores of Lake Superior, the same moist sunlight had fallen at the same slant, a similar smell had filled the air, and I’d worn a zip-up jacket like the one the small boy was wearing. All at once I had a sense of of times gone by, a sudden feeling of growing up I hadn’t had before.
Then one day in November during gym, when we opened the doors and ran outside we entered another universe. Boys disappeared into it. Trees disappeared then loomed up in front of me. And in the fog I could hear seagulls and smell the salt air.
So, a magical place. But a week later I was walking home from school along Mountain Highway, off the path now and trailing a small pack of kids. I heard one of them shout, “Look, a dead bear!”
The kids stepped off the road into the bush. I caught up to them and inched in to look. A boy in jeans and a checked shirt was poking at the bear with a stick.
I looked to where he was poking. Hundreds of little white worms were boiling up around the stick. As I watched the maggots that I now realized filled the bear’s side I shivered with disgust and intense excitement. The bulk and smell of the dead bear, the maggots, the skunk cabbages in which the bear lay and just a few feet into the bush a darkness almost as dark as night – it all gave me a strong sense of the oppressive fecundity and even danger of this new world I was in.
In Hinton it had been different. The bush was open. Sunlight blazed in patches on the forest floor. Strawberries grew in the dry dirt and when you bent to pick them, dropping them into your shiny metal tin, the tin soon grew satisfyingly heavy. You could watch ants run around. In the meadows you could rub buttercups under your chin and say “Butter, butter.” I just had to walk for a few minutes and the gravel streets ended and the forest began. There I could go in any number of directions – to the river, to the forts, to the muskeg where we had our raft, to the gravel pit, to the railroad tracks, or just between the trees to various creeks.
On those long walks, unless I was headed somewhere with Tonio or Nalbert I hardly thought about where I was going. I turned over in my mind my anxieties concerning school or the events in the story I was reading. Occasionally I looked up, having heard the sound of a squirrel. I stared at ladyslippers; I watched the worlds that shaped themselves in the clouds. Whole days were spent like this, and along with the anguish of school, this freedom defined my life outside home.
But that rainy afternoon, walking up Mountain Highway, I realized for the first time that I no longer had that freedom. The bush was impenetrable.
I couldn’t accept this. I walked and walked in the rain, trying to get to the end of the roads and houses. I was following old patterns; half-consciously I aimed for that point where I could step off the hard featureless sidewalk and slip into the forest’s complexity. But no such point came.
Finally I hesitated. Where was I going? I stood there on the sidewalk. As far as I could see the streets lined with lawns and houses continued. Sighing, I turned around and trudged back home.
The next fall I started grade seven in a new, bigger school. All at once the kids seemed much older than I was. The girls wore lipstick. The boys dressed in jeans and snappy striped shirts. But me, I still wore pants with an elastic waist.
I started to stay home after school. In the evening and on weekends I helped my dad build a rock wall in the backyard. When the sun came out I took off my shirt to get a tan. My body was changing; I now wanted to have muscles.
A few weeks into the job in the backyard I started working in a new pair of jeans I’d persuaded my parents to buy me. When I looked in the bathroom mirror at the orange stitching around the little watch pocket I thought I looked tough. Once, coming around from the back dressed like this, I saw a girl who lived across the street looking at me. My heart pounded. I postured before the mirror, clenching my fists and holding my arms up like a muscle man. When I put my hands in my pockets I could feel new muscles in my legs.
But I rarely went out. For days on end I stayed home after school, pacing the halls, looking at my new jeans in the mirror, reading and eating cereal at the kitchen table. Tense as a housebound dog, I yearned for adventure.
Then TV came to my aid. I had become devoted to the programs “Sea Hunt” and “The Aquanauts,” both of which were about scuba diving. Bye and bye I got to know Keith Green, a boy who shared my fascination with scuba tanks. With Keith I learned to ride the buses to a small lake in North Vancouver up above the houses. And as we swam in the muddy water with our face masks on, looking for rocks on the bottom and shiny dimes that had fallen out of people’s swim suits, at least for a while I could forget the constraining world of streets and sidewalks I had to go back to.
Keith opened the door. After that I made friends. And just before we moved again I started to spend time with Sherman Leigh who lived three houses over. He was in my class at school, a lanky, thoughtful boy who would sit on the floor with the bottom half of his legs turned out to the side.
One day in January we were sitting in his room tracing from a record jacket onto sheets of paper the Olde English letters of the word “Camelot.” Both of us had become obsessed with the musical; now we had decided to make books that had the words of all the songs in them.
Sherman looked up.
“Can you ski?”
“Do you want to go skiing with us?”
My heart sang.
“Where’re you going?”
I skiied well. In Hinton I could ski by the time I was six. But I didn’t have the clothes that North Vancouver kids wore when they skiied. In particular, I didn’t have the stretch pants that were an essential part of the look.
That evening, keyed up, I asked my parents if they could buy me a pair.
“No!” My dad was angry. “We don’t have the money for you to buy a pair of stretch ski pants for one trip to Mount Baker. Don’t even think about it.”
Furious at him, I went to my room. Then I remembered: my mom had stretch pants, black ones, with elastic straps that went under the foot so I could pull them up tight and give them the right look.
That night I tried them on. They came up to my chest.
“They’re maybe a bit too big,” my mom said.
“Can you fix them?”
“Fix them how?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you could pin them or something. Or put a belt around them. Or something. I don’t know!”
My mom set to work. Eventually, pulled up tight, folded in, pinned with safety pins to my shirt, and with a belt around them, they came up almost to my neck. But with my heaviest sweater over them, none of this showed.
The next day I clumped over to the Leigh’s house in my old ski boots that almost didn’t fit me any more. I was carrying my old poles and my brown wooden skis with their old-fashioned bindings. I pressed the doorbell; I heard it bong in the hallway. It was raining hard, and my parka was wet. I could see how scratched and old my skis were. But none of this mattered. I was wearing black stretch pants pulled tight, and with my parka over my thick blue sweater I looked passable.
Still, I worried. I was afraid I would overheat. So in the backseat of the car where I sat beside Sherman I kept the window open a bit and didn’t move.
At Baker we skiied; and when it started to rain we went inside a restaurant to get hot chocolate.
Warm from our exertions, we took off our parkas. I still had my heavy sweater on, though, and the black stretch ski pants that came up to my neck.
We sat and drank the chocolate. Sherman’s dad kept looking at me. Finally he said, “Bruce, maybe you should take off your sweater. You’re dripping with sweat.”
“Are you sure?”
I smiled down at the table. As I did so, embarrassment at the sweat running down my forehead made my neck and the sides of my face flush. The heat of my embarrassment joined with my body heat. Staring at the table, a doglike grin on my face, I glowed red.
Then Sherman did something that wasn’t like him. He smiled and reached over and took hold of my sweater.
“Leave it alone!”
Glaring at him, I pulled the sweater down. I could feel the sweat run down my forehead and cheeks, feel it slide down my sides from my armpits. I was exquisitely aware of my mom’s pants that encased me, with their folds, their safety pins, the belt cinched around their waist – pants like a kind of lurid feminine skin nearly covering me.
Sherman reached for me again.
“Leave me alone!” I shouted.
Tears pooled in my eyes. To my horror I realized I was behaving like a child. How little I had changed! I was still too hectic and solitary, too much the country boy, to make use of what later would stand out for me: the comedy of the situation.
The things we know as children, the places where we played, the flowers we looked at, the stones we kicked with our runners as we walked along, worrying and thinking – when I was a small boy all these had carried an image of what I wanted to be that engrossed me because it was malleable, the way a doll is for a child when he plays with it, constantly changing as he develops its story. I was someone brave, someone with stern eyes who’d be gentle to the poor and treat the rich as they deserved, someone who’d love a beautiful girl like Ellie in The Water Babies and who’d fight to protect the weak and helpless. From moment to moment I could see the gauntlets, the boots with straps on the sides, the jacket – the sword in my hand, the rifle slung round my chest.
How ardent I was then, jumping into the air and thrusting out an arm! Yet I was brittle, too, lacking the urban kid’s skill in bending before the force of others. My sense of the world had developed in solitude – for instance, following a creek that in spring was like a black crack in the wet snow, with new growth on the spruce and the balmy air full of smells, with my back sweating in my parka while my feet froze in the gumboots with the tops turned down that I was wearing for the first time in months. Following that creek, smelling the air, an overwhelming excitement would take hold of me: I knew I was on the verge of discovering something wonderful, not realizing that that wonderful thing was only my awakened senses responding to the awakened world around me.
Many years later, when I started to write essays and reviews, I tried to be sophisticated. I wrote like Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes. I wore their prose, you might say, like I had worn my mom’s ski pants. I tried to be something different than what I was. But always that country boy looked out from my eyes; always it was he who read the books that I wrote about, he who had the thoughts and emotions that led me to write.
A provincial’s cosmopolitanism only comes when he accepts who he is. I believe, in fact, that the largest part of becoming a writer lies in precisely this: accepting the background given you, accepting that this background is your writer’s capital, the most precious thing you have.
One becomes educated, of course. One learns style. Yet always you have to go back; and for someone like me, a rural boy who for years found no image anywhere of the world he had grown up in, that going back can be hard. But you have to do it. I haven’t been able to discover any substitute for doing it. It remains the hardest and biggest step.
July 21, 2004