When you get to be fifty-six you’re old enough to have collected a whole scrapbook of memories. One of the nice things about being this age is flipping through those pages every now and then. Some of them are dimmer than others. Some of them glimmer. Some of them shine. All of them inform me of the amazing journey this life has been and those strolls down memory lane alternate between educational and just plain fun.
But they sometimes take wild turns. You’d think a guy would want to sit back and bask in nothing but warm recollections. You know, the old sunny days, sunny skies kind of memories when the weather was fair, the young girls beautiful and youthful energy was endless, boundless and headed to the horizon with the foot to the floor. But the truth is that one of my favorite times was in the brutal teeth of a Saskatchewan winter.
I was teaching in Saskatoon in the winter of 1996. I’d been away from the west and the prairies for a couple of years and forgotten how bitterly cold it could get out there where the wind can really get at you. It became a typical Saskatchewan winter. When the real teeth of it snapped closed and the icy breath of it came to settle in my flesh and bones, I remembered how truly frozen feels.
I was there to teach creative writing at what was then called the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. It’s the First Nations University now. I had no real experience with teaching and I arrived doubtful, scared and lonesome. Those were never very good emotions for me to be living in then and I was anxious and couldn’t seem to really get my feet underneath me.
Then friends came along as they almost always do when you need them most. I went to stay with my friends Anne Doucette and Michael Finley. Anne ran a bookstore in downtown Saskatoon and Michael, a lawyer, was a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. They welcomed me into their home with Anne’s mother, brother and grown daughter and son. Each of them went out of their way to make me feel a part of their family. It was a wonderful experience to be close to good friends.
But I’ve always been a loner, always more comfortable in solitude than in company no matter how warm and comforting it might be. I took time out every day to go for long rambling walks along the ridge above the North Saskatchewan River. Even if it was blowing and bitterly cold as it usually was, I went for my daily walks. Out there, alone on the icy buffs above the river, I found a measure of the peace I was looking for.
I had a CD Walkman back then and I was spending time learning to appreciate classical music. One of my favorite discs was Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E Major. It was jubilant, energetic music and I’d put that on and head out the door and I’d be gone sometimes for two or three hours, replaying the music over and over again.
The wind would be blowing, snow would be flying and I would be hunched over against it with wonderful music filling my ears. It never felt cold. The deep drifts never seemed like a struggle. Instead, Dvork’s music became a perfect counterpoint to winter walking. I’d read the history of the music and I allowed it to take me back in time.
Sometimes I’d stand overlooking the frozen river and I would imagine what it must have been like for the voyageurs that first came there long ago. Winters then were brutal. But the Cree people helped them survive, just as my friends were helping me. They were given shelter, food, companionship and time to rest. They were given time to contemplate their own particular idea of home and belonging and community. They were given a doorway glittering in the harsh night of winter.
We’re all voyageurs, really. That’s’ what I learned that winter. We’re all travelers yearning for belonging and we find comfort with our friends. They harbor us, shelter us, give us strength to carry on. Anne and Michael and their family are not Cree people. But they do not need to be. They were just people who recognized a traveler, lonely and cold, in need of shelter. They recognized someone far from home, a little lost maybe, and as bruised as a Saskatchewan sky rife with cloud.
When I look back I remember the chill of a Saskatchewan winter on my face, the feel of history, the teachings in it and I remember the warmth and light of friendship. A serenade for the strings of my heart.