This Great Society - Arts

 

Illustration: Mindy Heins

Veronica Collins: The Circling
Illustration: Mindy Heins

 
 

“Hallowed be these frozen fields,
And every single one of us still left in want of mercy,
Take us home.”

- Starlight, The Wailin’ Jennys

We lived in the center. The houses ranged around us in a wobbly circle of sleepy, blinking piles of weathered logs. Then the forest, the fields – the aerial photograph hanging in the main hall showed the greens, golds and dull browns dotted with small pools of blue ponds that lived under the massive dome of sky.

We went about the business of growing up under that dome, played soccer and volleyball in the green lawn at the heart of it all. We learned to bake 18 loaves of bread at a time in the flour-dusty kitchen of the sprawling log hall. We took our lessons by the wood stove in the small log school house, which glowed more than the others because the old thing had been sanded back down to pale yellow, the trim painted an optimistic blue. That made me happy. There might have been bats in the coat closets, but we still had pride of ownership.

“It’s not a commune, it’s a community,” they would stress.

I would later learn – in a “Sociology of Intentional Community” university course – that both words originate from the same source: “cummunire” which in Latin literally means “to wall together.”

***

There are men on the top prong of the new stadium roof, clinging to the scaffolding, throwing sparks into the dark sky. The scream of welding fills the air. I stop on the corner, jingling my keys in my coat pocket, think about a Vancouver poet who wrote about sparks in the night on the eve of a potential nuclear war. “We were here,” he cried. We are here, the metal screams.

Everything here seems angular. Aspirational. The buildings shoot up, jockeying for a view of the ocean. The mountains pull their shoulders in tight. I feel taller than my 5’2” height here. I wear heels. Stand on my bike pedals even when rushing downhill. Put my hand up in class. Raise my voice in meetings.

***

The Elders meetings occurred once a week, in the evenings, after dinner. I never sat in on one; they were rather confidential. But I always imagined the Elders, ranged around the sitting room, pronouncing judgement on this or that. Elders meetings held a sort of dread to us kids, though capital “J” judgement was rarely pronounced. Now and then it was – if a boy and girl sneaked into the woods to steal a kiss, or if an older boy punched a younger one, or if someone disagreed with the way things were.

More often, Elders made small “j” judgements on more mundane matters. If the decision was of a certain weight, they might call the community together to discuss it as a group. I remember finding these more egalitarian happenings rather dull. Thankfully, they occurred rarely. The Elders would emerge confidently from their weekly meetings with news as to whether or not we should sell our hay, where the new dugout should go, what the minimum age should be for the chore of chopping wood.

There were ages for everything. If you were younger than 16, you couldn’t wash dishes. If you were younger than 12, you couldn’t rinse dishes. If you were younger than 10, you couldn’t dry the almost-unbreakable Corelle plates.

Now that I think about it, I don’t know why we were all in such a rush to wash dishes. But we were.

***

Sometimes, when doing something almost heart-breakingly mundane – choosing a pizza, buying a movie ticket, punching a number into an elevator – I find I am observing myself, a bemused bystander. “Look at that, she’s chosen a glass of wine with her dinner.”

We have an overflow of freedom in the Western world, we say. I say it often. I follow newscasts of protests around the world, scan the faces of other women in places with less freedom – and less of generally everything. I question this lifestyle, my choices, the status quo, what I have or – increasingly – what I want to have.

“Can it be good to have so much freedom?” I ask anxiously, pushing my half-sweet-double-latte about in front of me on the table.

It feels fucking amazing. Like rushing downhill standing on your pedals.

***

Sometimes we girls would hole up in our bedrooms to celebrate forbidden things. Watch movies on TVs hidden in closets. Exchange presents in December (Christmas being studiously ignored) under a spindly young pine that my sister had managed to twist off at the base with only her determination and a small knife.

Over time, they all grew more permissive. We eventually secured approval to skip the communal suppertime one evening and attend our own dinner party. The table filled my friend’s room, rare roses from town trembling in the centre of it as teenage girls bumped and bustled their way about the small space with steaming bowls of experimental foods never seen on the main hall’s weekly hand-written menu. Eyes glowing. A sense of possibility in the air.

“Anybody ever tried blue cheese before?”

“What’s in it?”

“I dunno. Mould, I think.”

***

“We are hoping to foster a sense of community in the studio,” my friend explains to me while crossing a city street on a rainy evening, barely looking at the light. “We’re thinking of starting a potluck once a month. Get everyone out.”

I nod enthusiastically, making a mental note to save the date, knowing that I will likely default on this fine plan all too often. My Blackberry’s calendar is full of glowing blue rectangles of over-commitment.

He pushes open the door and I follow his back, climbing the creaking stairs to the fourth floor, flick on the light in the dark hallway. The room emerges from the shadows: a child’s painting tacked to the wall, a plant making its surprisingly robust way towards the window pane from its pot on the floor. Three couches forming a U in the middle of an otherwise empty floor. Facing inwards. Walled together.

***

Even Christmas invaded slowly, though under the guise of “winter” celebrations. The handmade, paper ornaments from our second floor bedrooms gradually infiltrated the stairwell at our house, then the living room at my parents’ encouragement. My dad and his friend strung “winter lights” from the eaves, setting off a friendly competition of glowing lights in the circle of homes. Sparkling lines lit up the cold dark.

They helped us coordinate carolling evenings, shining flashlights on sheet music, stomping feet in the minus 30 air. We’d huddle under the cabins’ front windows, a couple dozen voices rising under the surging northern lights:

“But in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light,
the hopes and fears of all the years,
are met in thee tonight.”

***

Some evening in summer, I light a scrap of paper – a reminder of a wrong long forgotten – and let it fall on the concrete floor of my studio apartment. It crumples quickly, black edges curling.

I open the tall windows and step out on the ledge. I’ve always been afraid of heights; I shouldn’t do this. I get dizzy when I look down. I look up instead and stare at the black lines of the hydro wires – a fuchsia pink plastic change purse in the shape of a heart swings lazily by its chain from the lines. An odd choice of accessory to mark the spot.

Beyond it, the buildings stretch boldly into the dusk, lights flickering on, amber cells of honey amid the concrete. Someone is cooking dinner. Someone is loving a child. Someone is hoping for a good morning tomorrow.

There is the smell of burnt notebook paper, the cool ocean breeze, that sense of freedom.

I mouth the words to a familiar song, lean on the window frame, watch the city flicker.

“Kingdom come, Thy will be done,
Take us home.”

 
 

 

 
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