Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Scavenger I

You don't have to look far on the prairies to find a pile of weathered stones, overtaken by colonies of lichen. Wherever there are grainfields, farmers have regularly combed the surface to remove anything that might damage machinery.

We were probably the only family ever who regularly raided these stone piles. While every other farmer quarantined the geological pests in sloughs or between adjacent fields, we hauled our field stones back to the home quarter and lined the banks of the dugout to protect against erosion. Years later, when dad carved the nearby slough deeper to build his own little lake, he reinforced the steep east bank with stones as well, and built a little island in the centre fully encircled by stones, choosing and hand-placing each rock with the care of an artist. To fuel the project, we scavenged rocks from a variety of stonepiles inherited from earlier custodians of our fields, some of them so large that they could only be lifted with the front-end loader.

Aside from these artistic ventures, we went rock-picking in the fields as a necessary fieldwork task. In the sunny post-harvest days of autumn, I sat in the passenger seat of the little brown truck with dad at the steering wheel, our windows rolled down and our eyes peeled for both stones and wildlife. It was as much an exploratory safari as a stone-picking trip.

In some of my memories, we used the tractor and front-end loader on these trips. I'd sit in the bucket with my legs dangling, hopping off whenever the tractor slowed and looking for the conspicuous stone that had prompted the stop. If it looked too heavy, dad would hop out of the cab and I would sprint around the area for anything pickworthy before we moved on. I'd sit in the bucket along with the stones until it became too full, then perch on the hitch in back or climb into the cab.

My eldest brother would ramble around the fields in his ancient Datsun—more a hull than a vehicle—and load the back with stones. He'd visit all the spots that he had marked earlier with his GPS, a whole memory-full, all the sites he had noted while doing fieldwork. The driver-side door did not close—did not even have a latch—and was held shut with a tarp strap hooked one end in the door, one end between the front seats. The back door still latched, though, and at the end of his foray he would park at a steep tilt on the edge of the dugout, opening the door for gravity to tumble the stones out of the car.

My earliest collection consisted of stones. Dad would bring home interesting ones he had found, teaching me about basalt and mica, orthoclase and quartz, limestone full of fossils. He had a collection of hammerheads out in the barn, and flinty arrowheads on the livingroom chiffonier, relics of another age. On vacations, I scoured beaches for tide-smoothed stones in shades of green that we didn't have back home. We'd visit rock shops and come home with souvenirs: cavernous crystalline geodes, overgrown cubes of hematite, petrified wood, brilliant polished cross-section slices, animal figures carved from jade. A large ponderous globe, its water of lapis lazuli and the countries in a variety of gemstones.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


The playhouse was luxurious, as far as playhouses go. It was insulated, wired for electricity, contained an antique stove that young me half-suspected was hooked up and functional (it wasn't), a rack of old Owl magazines, a few pieces of castoff furniture. The thick wooden door had a small hook on the inside to keep the building shut against inclement weather while in use, and the outside latch couldn't be accessed from inside. For many years, one of the panes in the kitchen window was missing, leaving an opening the size of a sheet of paper.

Close to the backside of the building was a high wooden corral fence. If you climbed the fence, careful to avoid splinters, you could step onto one of the posts, tall and broad, and leap onto the playhouse roof. Up on the shingles under the full sun, I set trays of mud to dry into cakes, which I then stored in the little kitchen inside. Who knows why.

Sometimes cats would hide their clutches of kittens inside and pass through the missing window at will. Or, the kittens would grow up in the space beneath the building between the skids, gamboling in the warm grass in front of the door and retreating underneath at anyone's approach.

Over time, the wooden walls weathered, and one of the slats fell off entirely after I picked out the underlining with some irrational faith that it would grow back. A hive of bees took over the hollow wall using the opening I had so obligingly created, and for many years using the playhouse in the summer meant edging cautiously through the door trying to leave the bees unprovoked. The little building has now been tinned over and its interior painted, little resembling the image in my memories.

One summer day, many of my relatives were visiting the farm for some celebration or other. Several of my siblings and I, and perhaps a couple cousins, were gathered in the playhouse at some point. One of the cousins—the same age as my sister and about five years older than me—got upset about something; I didn't know what at the time, and still don't. To our horror, he closed the heavy door and locked us inside, walking off in a huff.

No matter how long you might elect to stay in a confined space, the very instant you're robbed of choice the situation becomes immediately unbearable. Suddenly you're suffocating, your muscles are cramping, the very air is oppressive and you notice you're dehydrated to the brink of death.

The obvious tactic was to shout for help, but nobody was in earshot (except our jailor, rapidly dwindling into the distance). Being the youngest and smallest of the bunch, I was tasked with escaping through the only available route. I'm not sure how old I was at the time, but I was young enough to squirm through the empty windowpane on that occasion. Using my beanpole physique to great advantage, I slithered headfirst through the paper-sized opening, squeezing my shoulders through and stretching my hands toward the ground to break my fall, my siblings helping to maneuver me from inside. Kicking my feet free at last, I ran to unbolt the door.

I remember little from that incident; but the images of the closed door, the uncertainty of my siblings, the back of our cousin as he walked away, and the scrape of the window's pastel-blue edge as I wrenched myself through—these are perfect images in my inner photo album.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

iam iam lapsura cadentique

People occasionally ask me what my tattoo says. If they ask me what it means, I say "it's a long story." And it is. There's a lot of meaning behind it, much of it highly personal, and almost without exception people don't want an actual story. If I'm feeling ungenerous, I'll probably say something like "don't worry about it" or "it's in Latin" or "it says ask me about my tattoo." If I'm feeling literal: "It says iam iam lapsura cadentique."

The meaning is both more complicated than I can easily relate, and more personal than the average person deserves to know. What better day to tell the story behind these words than Whan That Aprille Day?

1. The Origin

Back in undergrad when the world was bright and coursework fascinated me, I eagerly devoured all the Latin classes available at my university. There were four classes listed in the academic calendar, and over two years I progressed through all of them as the class sizes shriveled from 40 in the first class down to just me in the final class. For that solo directed reading, I worked through translating Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid, meeting weekly with my inspiring professor to read the translations I had prepared, do a little on the fly, and linger over the language.

Book VI recounts Aeneas' trip to the underworld, where he glimpses all kinds of eternal punishments. It's there that Sisyphus pushes his boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down and have to start all over. It's there that Tityos is splayed open over nine acres while a vulture picks at his liver, which regenerates overnight for the next day's torment. And it's there that the Lapith kings Ixion and Pirithous cower beneath an overhanging boulder that has just begun to slip and fall—forever.
Quid memorem Lapithas, Ixiona Pirithoumque?
quos super atra silex iam iam lapsura cadentique
imminet adsimilis.
I might not have given a second though to the passage, had my professor not stopped and lingered over the semantic beauty of the double iam, imprinting the phrase in my memory. What doesn't quite translate is that the rock is not merely teetering, which would imply that there's a chance it won't fall. Rather, it describes that slow-motiony moment just beyond teetering, when disaster is certain, when equilibrium is irrevocably destabilized, when all you can do is watch helplessly as the thing happens before your very eyes. By its very nature, this kind of moment is fleeting in reality. But here, in the Underworld, the horrible doom of that moment renews itself every second of eternity.

 2. The Moniker

The second key element is perhaps the most obvious one: my internet handle, Lapsura, is derived from the phrase. On its own, lapsura is the nominative feminine singular form of the future active participle of labor ("to slip"). Just as they occasionally are in English, participles in Latin can be standalone nouns. All this is to say that lapsura means "she who is about to slip." It seemed the perfect alias for a Latin enthusiast whose inner self consisted only of self-doubt and a phobic obsession with time.

The thing about internet handles is that it's hard to be unique. Almost anything you might want to call yourself has probably already been taken, somewhere, by someone. But as far as I can tell, Lapsura is still all mine. When a name is all your own, you can attach more character to it, and eventually it begins to accumulate its own.

 3. The Situation

Finally, there are the circumstances around the day I got the tattoo itself. I had been toying with the idea of a tattoo for years, but couldn't think of anything.

Then suddenly one melancholy autumn, I determined to do something spontaneous and planned a trip to Las Vegas to meet up with some people I had only ever interacted with online. It was the sort of adventurous thing that I had never done before. Although I was all set—I had plane tickets, vacation booked, and had started packing—I ultimately did not go, which I was certain at the time would be one of the biggest regrets of my life (and would have been, had the opportunity never arisen again).

So there I was, lying in my cold apartment staring at the ceiling for a week, angry at myself and completely dejected, sunk into a deeper depression than the one I had been trying to shake. Midweek, I randomly got off the bus at a beach, where I sat and watched the bleak waves that seemed to match my mood so well. I sat there thinking that I may have missed my only chance to meet somebody who had changed my life. I wondered if this malingering black ship would ever sail out of the harbour, if I would ever find joy in life again.

Sitting there, I decided quite suddenly to salvage what I could from the failed vacation and go get a tattoo. I knew exactly where I wanted it to go and, without it ever occurring to me before that moment, I knew the perfect phrase: iam iam lapsura cadentique. It was already full of meaning to me, and it also described that moment perfectly: I was in a fragile state, and I could see myself standing on the edge of a maelstrom about to be sucked under. I still do, sometimes. I took the bus straight downtown, strolled into the tattoo parlour—itself a bold act back in my days of severe anxiety—and made an appointment. Two days later, the phrase had become mine in the most tangible sense yet.

So there you have it. There are a lot of things I could say when people ask me what it means. It transports me back to the more carefree days of my undergraduate degree. It evokes the gentle voice of my Latin professor and the enthusiasm she inspired in me for the language. It's my Vegas tattoo—marking the absence of Vegas rather than its presence. It's a reminder of hard times. It's an untranslatable moment of pure linguistic beauty. It's an accumulation of years in digital space. It's years of excessive emotions etched into my skin. It's a reminder of the debilitating numbness of depression. It's an anchor, that pulls me both to that fragile time and away from the brink it represents. It's inextricably bound up to the soundtrack of that phase of my life. It's a photographic image of cold Pacific waves. It's a symbol of my own defiant triumph.

But if you were to stop me on the sidewalk and say "What does your tattoo say?" I couldn't do justice to its myriad meanings. And so I would simply say: "It's a long story."