Committed to the Imagination

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March 15, 2011

There are so many ways to assess ourselves, the choices we have made, the way in which we have put them into effect, or bypassed the opportunity to, or moved on to other options that looked more intriguing or achievable.

A few days back I found myself reading over letters my father had saved, kept from his files after his death a few years back, and some sent to me from Japan by Ricki Ferguson, a dear friend memorialize in the song bearing her name, and some sent to her at that time that she must have returned to me as she tidied up her affairs in the months before her death.

There are some wonderful, spirited, cleanly written letters from my daughter to their grandfather and one of particular interest from my youngest daughter to Ricki. She regretfully filled a page recounting my ongoing battles with depression and her mother’s with arthritis. It was, altogether, something of a tale of woe. I was left a little breathless by the tone of it, a little hurt, but mostly astonished that my child’s recollection of her years growing up and of Aus and I during those years could be so contrary to my own.

Then I turned the page over to see “Ha! Ha! JUST KIDDING”, followed by a list of all the sweet and engaging things that were happening in her life and ours. It was very well done.

The letters I had written to my father were not, particularly. I’m accounted by some to be a pretty decent writer now, so I found myself surprised to find that at eighteen there were such gaping holes in my skills: A certain brittleness in the style and much more a recounting of the stresses of just getting around the planet than of the sights and flavors to which I was being exposed. I have never quite wanted to believe that simply completing the circumnavigation was, in and of itself, my prime objective, but of course it was: I was eighteen and making the trip solo.

The other thing the surprised me was the assurance with which I laid out for my parents my imminent plans, because so few of them came to fruition and I have no recollection of ever having made them. But I guess that’s the nature of undertaking such a journey with no itinerary. The whole experience is one of making it up as you go along. As opportunities or possibilities present themselves. My process appears to have been to fully to commit psychologically to those I imagined but, of course, actualize only what circumstance accommodated.

Looking back I see that whether or not I took adequate advantage of the opportunities the journey offered, I did accomplish my main objective, subconscious as it might have been, which was to learn about myself. There is not a great deal about growing up middle class that teaches that.

I found immediately, for instance, on the train from Saskatoon to Montreal, from where I would embark for England, that I had new choices as to how and who I might be. All it took was to find myself responding to the genuine curiosity of a stranger far more thoughtfully than I would likely have in the environment in which I had grown up, where I felt required to sustain almost reflexively a whole range of preconceptions.

I subsequently found myself fundamentally altered, irreversibly, simply from observing far more joy in folks gathering barefoot at a wellside in India than I had ever seen where I was raised, and more generally by seeing that there were many ways in which to make this life-journey of ours, most of those I saw at the time seeming innately legitimate.

But the works of man, grand and bold, I tended to see as generally having been constructed at far too great a cost in human suffering, to serve the foolishness of human egotism. Terrain interested me more, and finding that I could be comfortable across a range of it: A preference, if you like, for raw creation.

Seeing the way in which I projected myself into what I imagined might unfold, as I read these letters, put me in mind of an instructive experience that I had of myself when I was perhaps only eight years old and still new to Canada.

I was walking with a friend by the name of Ian Logie along the lovely open sidewalks of North Battleford, responding at considerable length to his questions about my experiences in England. I was very much enjoying the telling of my tale, and at some length. Finally Ian broke the narrative, genuinely curious, not unkind or as a challenge, to ask how I could have have done all the things when I was only eight. Only then did it occur to me that I couldn’t have.

Was it the length of time that I was attributing to each element that was off? Or was I simply elaborating on each theme in my as I imagined it to have evolved.? I wasn’t lying, you see. There was nothing in the tone of Ian’s interjection that suggested he thought I was, not in any deliberate way at least.

I realize now that in the absence of much experience of peers to that age I had always spend a lot of time imagining, and that the reality I created that way was, for me, real. As problematic as that might have been or could have become, it is unlikely that I would have lived the life I have, one for which I am most grateful, had I not been able to imagine, in general terms, the possibility of it.

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