The Brightness of Remembered Love

The story opens with a little girl about 9 years old running out of her house to play hide and seek. The little girl was me, of course. Of all the memories I have in my collection, I keep the cherished ones in a jewel encrusted, hand carved wooden box that sits just up and to the left of my heart. My children’s birth, my marriage, my Father’s death. All of these are contained within that small box. I only open it on special occasions to shake off layers of dust and admire again, the brightness of remembered love.

This is one of those memories.

Playing hide and seek may sound a little mundane but it wasn’t. All together, there were about 50 kids who ran around the subsidized housing complex that summer. And we all played the game. During the day we kept to our own small group of friends. But when night fell, we returned to our roots, crawling out of the primordial soup on wobbly legs, learning to walk, splitting into species, gaining the power of thought, dancing raucously around a fire, eating roast beast, painting our bodies, and running around naked under the stars. Well, maybe not that so much, but we did play hide and seek.

It was curious that we all played together at night when we didn’t during the day. After nightfall, any child was welcome to the game. The big kids, big enough to smoke cigarettes and steal from their parent’s liquor cabinet. And young kids, young enough to need someone to hold their hands when they crossed the street. A truce fell over the legions of the young on those nights. Youthful energy came together in a frenzy when darkness wrapped its wings over the sky.

And I was a master of the game. Somehow, I knew instinctively that if I turned my eyes away from my captor, they wouldn’t see me. I knew that looking at them would draw their eyes to me so I kept my eyes trained at the ground and froze my body like I was fixed in death. Stillness came to me out of some glimmer of innate knowledge that I didn’t understand. Most nights, I was the last one hiding. The big kids didn’t know my name but they called me “that girl.” As in “Did you see where that girl went?” And I might be only a few feet away from them but they couldn’t find me. I was a ninja in a child’s game, a game that did nothing to further the cause of humanity but brought us all together under the stars.

One memorable night, a night that I keep in that little wooden box next to my heart, I saw those glorious northern lights. I was crouched beside a wooden fence, the one that separated Mrs. Lee’s house from the strip mall parking lot. And I happened to look up and notice the lights. Anyone who has ever seen them will never will never forget their splendor. Looking up, sky black as coal, colors streaming across the heavens like the fine silk hair of a Goddess draped over the cosmos and crackling like twigs on a fire.

I sat by the fence and noticed that the shouting of the game had stopped.

Around the side of the house, I saw everyone abandoning their hiding places. We stood in the street with our heads held back, looking up at the sky. We watched the lights streak across the stars. The hide and seek game was finished for the night and we all knew it, and none of us cared.

“Mum. Mum. Come see the lights.” I shouted to her when the northern lights were so brilliant that even the most boorish of the bullies had to stop and admire them.

“I’ve seen northern lights before.” Her voice tired, annoyed. But we’re from the Yukon so I imagine that was true. I had probably seen them as well though I didn’t remember.

“No Mum, come see.” I insisted.

She came to the door, warm light glowing from the inside like a lantern. She walked outside without looking down, her eyes trained on the sky like mine. She let go of the door absently and it squealed shut. And I saw the look of astonishment on her face and I smiled. She wasn’t a cheerful woman when we were young, often tired, often angry, often bitter. But on that night she shared something with me that was only communicated with a look. We smiled at each other and I felt like I gave her the most precious of gifts. Like I had magicked up the lights just for her, just to give her a break in her narrow life.

I remember thinking it was odd on those summer nights that my mother let us play so late into the night. And I’m surprised to realize, with adult clarity, that it was a moment of kindness. I can imagine the ghost of my mother wandering to the door to call us in on a warm July night. But when she saw us playing with all the kids in the neighborhood, she let us continue. Sometimes the games went on until past midnight. And she was happy to let us play. I wasn’t grateful then, but I look back now and see that I should have been.

I took this memory of my youth and many others and slipped them into that box near my heart as if I knew, even as a child, that I would need them. I collected them as people collect salt and pepper shakers or commemorative spoons. I carry my collection inside of me because one day I will no longer be here. And I don’t want to feel like my journey will disappear into the air like smoke although that’s exactly what will happen.

That night with the lights, I belonged to everyone else as much as they belonged to me. All of us, tiny dots on the surface of a rock flying through the chasm of space, an almost invisible streak over the black that means nothing to any force in the universe save us. At that moment, we were one. We were happy to be insignificant, to be the small ants on an anthill together. All the tiny ways we try to best one another, try to exert our independence, argue, bicker, fighting our way to the top to some unknown end. This all disappeared under the lights. We weren’t adversaries anymore. We were all just creatures standing together and it lasted as long as the lights glowed. And it lasted the span of my life. The next day the bullies would be bullies again, the fraidy-cats would be fraidy-cats. We would all resume our place on the totem pole of child seniority. My mother would once again be a tired, angry woman with four ungrateful children. But on that summer night, we each wore one another’s skin and felt the warm trickle of companionship that takes away our differences.

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A Place of Moose and Muskeg

northern-lights-low-res-watermark

“Art is not what you see but what you make others see” Edgar Degas

Northern Alberta, the land of rolling hills covered with the stubble of aspen and spruce. Spiky branches pressed up against the blue sky. Landscape thick with wild rose and saskatoon shrubs. Standing water crowded near the edge with thousands of pale, green blades. Miles of disheveled terrain laced with dirt roads. A place where, if you get stranded by an unreliable vehicle, you might have the minor inconvenience of hitch hiking back to town or the major inconvenience of fighting off a bear. A place of moose and muskeg, of bald eagles and wolf calls. A place where the trees remind us what it’s like to be wild.

I lived in Northern Alberta for a short time just after the birth of my first son. My husband took a remote teaching job and we moved, towing all our meager belongings in a poorly maintained red Capri to a place where I knew no one. And what is a lonely woman to do but draw pictures of her surroundings?

This painting was originally drawn when we lived on John D’or Prairie Indian Reserve. Even though it was a June night, the air was crisp enough to send my breath upwards in frosty plumes of vapor. And I could still see the sparkle of frost on every surface.

That’s when I saw the northern lights streaming across the sky.

I tucked my infant son into a baby carrier, wrapped a warm jacket around us both, and headed into the chilly night.

The lights were so unbelievably beautiful. Some things in life are beyond the confines of language. I sat in awe beneath them, so grateful to be its witness. My son wrinkled his forehead as he peered upwards. Not yet able to smile, he leaned his head back to study the crackling lights, looking, for all the world, like he was analyzing them.

We sat there in the cold, watching the lights as our breath disappeared into the air as silently and heart breakingly as the days pass away, as the years and even our lives pass. All of them drifting upwards and melting into nothing. I held my son and knew that nothing could replace that time with him and that those moments are the glue and mortar that make up our lives. All we can do is appreciate those moments, to own them. As I looked down on my son’s beautiful face, I felt that ownership. And that’s why I paint, so that I can own those times that I love. He has such a lovely face and he will endure hardship because we all do. But at that moment, we owned the time together under the northern lights.

Time is our most precious resource, nothing can replace it or bring it back or buy us more. We can only sit and enjoy the majesty of the world and be grateful for the gift of sight. That is our reward.

That’s where I drew this picture. Sitting on a mound of dried grass, holding my son with one hand while I drew with the other.  Only my baby and I, in the darkness, sitting silently and breathing air just cold enough to make us feel alive.

The finished drawing and painting can be downloaded at dalegreenearts.bigcartel.com and the video below shows the creation of the coloring page.