The snow danced this morning, a whirling sparkle of sun-drenched white. The 60km/h wind whipped the loose flakes off the ground and into the air meters high, transforming the town below and the bay beyond into a frozen Sahara, turning tundra into dunes.
And the sun, the sun, the glorious sun, shone.
I’ve been here twice now, at opposite times of the year, when either the day or the night lasts just 4 hours. Whether the slanting light is around for many hours or just a few, it is never, never taken for granted.
In a place with no trees, there is so much sky. And you begin to resent the houses getting in the way of your view. The city seems like such an intrusion upon the great, vast land. The Land. (Which is always capitalized in my head, requiring reverence.) Until the wind picks up. And suddenly, the houses become something else. Warmth. Shelter. Safety. Tonight, the wind gusts and rumbles, and the houses and people in them tremble. Outside is fierceness. And you are suddenly grateful that there aren’t any trees to be tossed about.
Tomorrow we’ll be home. Home to seat belts and car seats and strollers. Home to sharp knives and good cutting boards and counter space. Home to Costco. Home to walking trails and indoor malls and gyms and aquafit. Home to things-to-do. Home to routine. Home to not worrying about using too many paper towels, and tissues, and toilet paper that are too expensive and won’t be replaced until the July barge order comes in. Home to fresh herbs and fresh bread and affordable nuts and shelf items that aren’t expired. Home to milk and bread being available at all at the store each and every time you go, no matter the cost or expiry. Home to gelato and lattes. Home to Netflix. We’ll bring the usual mess and noise and chaos with us, of course, but it will be our mess and noise and chaos. Choking hazards will stay out of reach when they’re put there. Naps might last more than 30 minutes. Hibou won’t know what to do with all the peace and quiet, but I will. Oh, I will.
On the plane, Iqaluit is nothing more than a few unwavering lights. A half hour into the flight and already the sky is brighter. We are heading toward a strip of light, with afternoon on the other side of it rather than night.
There is a blizzard coming to Iqaluit tomorrow, with roof-ripping winds of more than 120km/h anticipated. Ottawa promises freezing rain instead – a trade which I’m happy to make. After 3 days of fever and 5 of migraine, with Bonhomme, Hibou and Dearest starting just as I’m ending, we’re all chafing to have this Christmas over and done. Hibou’s bringing home 2 new teeth, 3 new signs, 4 items of clothing that no longer fit, and 5 new words; Bonhomme stories of spear-throwing and igloo-making and playing outside without any adults at all. Dearest’s stories are of frozen pipes and grocery prices, socioeconomic policy challenges and old family baggage. I am coming home with a sense of the vastness of Canada, the value of baby-proofing, and the pleasure of routine.
Outside the airplane window the clouds mirror the hills beneath them, long rolling ridges of dusty blue. The sun outlines the far-off edges of the cloudbank and the sunset lasts all the way home.
Sitting in my livingroom drinking coffee, it is light out a full 2 hours earlier than I’m used to. Traffic and dirty grey slush surround, instead of mountains. The snow in Iqaluit had never been anything but pure white, and blown into drifts. Here it is grey and brown and speckled, and shoveled and plowed into mounds. I stare at a guy standing still at the corner, texting with his bare hands. Dearest and I laughed at the “life-threatening” windchill warning while Bonhomme whined about the need for snowpants.
Christmas is over at long last, and I find myself glad to be a Southener.
Happy adventurous New Year to you.
Sleep is a battle here, just as it is in Ottawa, with her fussing herself to sleep way too late and him fussing himself awake way too early. It’s made worse, of course, from being so very much off routine – there’s no school bus to get ready for, no extra door between us and a crying baby, no regular anything, really. Everyone (except Bonhomme) sleeps in later though, thank goodness – the dark mornings certainly contributing. Hooray, and hooray, for tablets.
Outside my window, as I cuddle with Hibou in hopes of a nap, beyond the tiny strip of town lies Frobisher Bay. An arctic tip of Atlantic Ocean, licking along Baffin Island. They tell me that Iqaluit is not very far north, as such things go – certainly for Nunavut, Iqaluit is considered southern. It reminds me of a fishing village more than anything; what I imagine Newfoundland might be like (without forests). A frozen fishing village. Apparently folks go icefishing, using auger extensions to drill down deep enough to get through the ice.
In the black and white of winter, the mountain ridge of worn-down Canadian Shield across the bay doesn’t look very different from Gatineau, as seen from the top of Blair Road in Beaconhill North in Ottawa. Except for the utter lack of lights. The complete, and total, lack of lights. The city stretches out a kilometer, perhaps two, in haphazard blips of lightbulbs, and then the human intrusion is no more.
Saturday afternoon at the library, I’m swarmed by half a dozen unknown children as I make paper airplanes and read stories with Bonhomme and my nieces. They peer over my shoulder, cuddle my knees, and peek ahead at the next page’s pictures. No shyness here. We come home with an orange to eat, since some kind stranger’s little brother is allergic – and I couldn’t think how to say no.
The in-laws argue politics in the living room between commercials, and then turn to dissecting home reno shows on the TV while Hibou plans her escape to the kitchen between the couch cushions.
Saturday night poker, and I manage to not be the first one out – just. Losing’s a good way to learn, apparently. To be honest, the lost sleep means more to me than the lost cash, with two small early risers awaiting me in the morning.
A dozen black enormous ravens feast by the roadside on a leftover seal carcass the next-door neighbours brought back from a hunt. They scatter, begrudgingly, as we cross the street, watching us from the rooftops to make sure we don’t make off with the goods. I’ve never seen so many bird tracks imprinted in the snow.
Today, the big outing will be some family hot chocolate, since it’s a balmy -16C, warm enough for walking to the coffee shop.
This is Christmas in Iqaluit.
Sometimes it feels so much like a city here. Traffic slowdowns at the stop signs (with only two four-ways in the whole of Iqaluit), no parking spots at the NorthMart, porchlights shining in and breaking up the night. And then, between the houses, you see tundra, and rocks, snow and mountains, pack ice, and sky and sky and sky. And you know, in the depth of your bones, that it is thus – The Land – all the way to Ottawa. Where the houses stop, they stop, and there aren’t any more. There is just The Land.
It seems as if the sun sets horizontally in Iqaluit. Long layers of light, uncurling.
I went for a walk, Hibou tucked into the sling. We didn’t make a block, Hibou thrilled with the outdoors but not with the -42C windchill.
Yesterday, the kids built an igloo in the backyard, sawing snow into blocks. “Quick, let’s get out there while we’ve still got some daylight left!” At 1:30 in the afternoon, that was a real threat. Darkness is total by 3pm.
The winter solstice lasted 19 and a half or so hours. Now, each day will see noticeable seconds more of sunlight, until by the time we leave in a couple of weeks, the days will last minutes longer.
The sun actually rising and setting here isn’t what’s important – it’s how long the sky emits light. A raven silhouetted against the indigo sky, waves of dark and darker clouds punctuating, is a wonder.
Imagine the morning sky in Ottawa, before 7am, when the shadows cross the street and sun barely peeks around the corner of buildings, and then multiply those fifteen minutes by about ten. At the end of that will be about the time the sun will then begin to set here, for another couple of hours.
Walking again today, solo this time, I stopped at a street corner and saw a rocky cairn of tundra at one end, and vastly rolling mountains of it at the other. Until my glasses fogged up – and then froze over. All the way back home I saw nothing but a Christmas ball of sun, refracting through the frost. I knew it was time to go in based on how much of my legs I could no longer feel.
I saw the Northern Lights last night, for my very first time. They weren’t at all like I was expecting. A large green smoky ghost curling all along the Big Dipper. I stared, and stared, and then shivered back into the house, wishing I could see them from inside the warmth, wrapped in a cozy blanket.
Christmas baking later, with two babies, three in-laws, a husband, and three kids all hopped-up on almost-but-not-yet-present-opening-time in the kitchen.
This is Christmas in Iqaluit.
The cold took my breath away.
Two steps onto the tarmac and I was frozen.
It had been pretty chilly in Ottawa in the morning, branches covered in a frosty coating, the river steaming.
But here in Iqaluit, on the edge of Frobisher Bay, the edge of the Arctic Circle, it’s a different kind of cold.
It’s the kind where you put a boiling pot of water out onto the back porch to cool for making baby formula with, and you have to wear oven mitts to protect your hands from the frozen metal handle when you pick it up again just minutes later.
It’s the little things that tell me I’m not in Ottawa anymore. Like my nieces waving “See ya later!” as they clomp outside to wait for the school bus, on their own. “Where are they gonna go?” their mom asks me calmly. “Besides, the speed limit’s 30km – and that’s mostly on the straight, paved stretches.”
Or it’s throwing everything in the garbage – there’s no recycling here, let alone composting (not that the permafrost allows for vegetable gardens, anyway).
Or the way none of the dishes, or cutlery, or linens match – form always follows function here. And then there’s the shipping costs to think of.
The smell of exhaust greets you outside, since everyone warms the car up for fifteen minutes before leaving the house. A remote starter’s more a necessity than a luxury when it’s 40C below for months on end.
The winter solstice is in two days, after which the days will get visibly longer every single day. The moment the sky begins to lighten in the morning is like the release of a pent-up breath, a sigh of relief. The moon rises higher than the sun does. But there is light, more than I expected. But evening strikes quickly – it is nighttime dark by 3pm.
Windows are crucial. Beyond the short stretch of city lights, there is nothing but view.
Great rolling hills of snow, undulating and barely distinguishable from sea or sky.
A couple of days in, and I’m getting used to the cold. Hats and mitts go on before turning the door handle. Snowpants are a fashion statement. Snow squeaks underfoot, and tires rumble and shush.
Inside is warmth, and family, and cooking. Outside is logistics of getting to the next inside.
The sky through the window this morning is every shade of white.
This is Christmas in Iqaluit.
I caught myself feeling a sharp pang of jealousy yesterday – at a young woman getting off of a bus.
She was alone. Intent on her errand, her destination. Independently. No children to bring along to the store with her, none to drop off at daycare before work, no enormous shopping cart filled with diapers and milk to maneuver through the snow to her car, and especially, especially, no whining, crying, or interruptions. She had earphones in her ears, a small fashionable purse on her shoulder, and a purpose in her stride as she stepped off the bus, head up. She wasn’t looking for and counting heads, holding mittened hands, or speaking a constant stream of instructions, reminders and chastisement. She was quiet. Calm. Happy. She was on her way to somewhere, or someone. Alone.
I told myself that she might be off to do a dull and underpaid shift at a dead-end job, with an empty apartment the only thing waiting at the end of it, wishing for all the world for the lovely family and home and life that I have.
It didn’t help. I was overwhelmingly, shockingly, endlessly jealous. Oh, to have a day to myself! To be able to pop in to a store, to meander, to browse! Oh, to not have a baby on my back, or a diaper bag on my shoulder, or a pattering of questions and lecturing on nuclear bombs and jetpacks to tune out! Oh, to read world politics, and think about them, and then discuss them! Oh, to feel like I have any expertise, or just plain interests, of my own!
Oh, to not have to cook dinner again.
Oh, to not be constantly aware of the clock, measuring the next naptime, the next load of laundry, the defrosting chicken, the school day.
Oh, to miss my family. To have a break, and to be happy to come back to them.
Oh, to not be jealous of a random stranger getting off a bus at the local Walmart.
And then, my daughter does something irresistibly cute. Babbling, making friends of strangers at the coffee shop, crawling to my outstretched arms. And I feel so guilty for wanting to miss even a single moment of this fleeting time.
And yet, then we’re taking beloved stuffed animals away from my son in a bid to improve increasingly disruptive behavior at school, and Dearest and I spend a daily hour tearing our hair out wondering what is wrong with our son, with us, with the school system. Wondering if there’s anything at all we can do to help our impulsive, inattentive, expressive, bright little boy who seems to only be getting harder with time. Never knowing what, or when, the next battle will be.
Oh, to not have to come home to crying, or to have crying come home to me.
To just get on a bus. And off again, somewhere else. Nowhere special. Alone. For an afternoon. With dinner warm and waiting, unmade by me, happy children, an unstressed spouse, a clean house without a single laundry basket in the livingroom. Oh, to just look out the window. And dream.
I pushed the stroller on, past the bus, through the snow, towards home. I stroked my daughter’s darling, sleeping head, shrugged my shoulders and stretched my legs, and decided on chicken parmesean for dinner.
So, we went to Toronto for the weekend.
Partly to celebrate our umpteenth anniversary, partly to practice traveling with a baby again (prior to our upcoming trip to Iqaluit for Christmas, where pharmacies and Tim Hortons’ are not just around the corner), and partly to get Bonhomme up the CN Tower.
We’ve come back aged.
How is it that our 6-and-a-half-year-old was at least 3 times harder than our 8-month-old? With the baby, we had disrupted naps to contend with, strange hotel sounds at night, a playpen that barely got slept in, hunting for solid foods that she could eat, hours stuck in a car seat, poopy bums, soaked bibs and constant overstimulation. And yet, she was easy. Our angel child. Happy to go with the flow, smiling at every stranger she met, ready for anything. With the big kid, everything was a battle. He’d argue over whether or not he needed to blow his nose.
Bonhomme couldn’t, and can’t, listen to a single instruction or thoughtfully worded request without questioning it, complaining about it, redefining it, arguing about it, whining about it, interrupting AND then either forgetting or ignoring to actually do it. Like going potty before leaving the hotel room. Washing his hands after going potty. Washing his face after getting half his meal all over it. Putting his socks on. Picking up his towel. Not letting go of the stroller. Not getting into an elevator without a parent. Holding hands on unfamiliar streets. Telling us he had to go potty when we were in the car BEFORE it became an emergency. Using his quiet voice in restaurants. When playing in the pool, he had to dictate, and then control every aspect of his complicated little game – plain old tag would never do. Everything was to be discussed, denied, explained, described, by Bonhomme. Out. Loud.
Stopping to get a small snack to tide us over until dinnertime was a scene. Tossing a ball about was a disaster. Waiting for ANYTHING was torture.
With Hibou, everything is simple. With Bonhomme, nothing is.
I am becoming resigned to simply waiting until age 6 is over. Maximizing our son’s time spent with other people, activities outside of home, away from we parents – since we have somehow, mysteriously, become The Enemy. Nasty, boring, endlessly repetitive Enforcers Of Doom.
This morning, chatting with Grampa about his weekend, Bonhomme excitedly described how the wind almost pushed him over at the almost top of the CN Tower, and then gleefully explained that he hadn’t gone higher to do the Edge Walk harnessed like a rock climber hundreds of meters above the ground because his dad was too scared.
Was it worth it? Will he remember the whining, and the yelling, and the crying? Or playing with gravity at the Science Center? The nagging, or the endless watersliding at the hotel? Will he remember the dozens of train tracks and the skyscrapers, or just that his little sister chewed on his stuffed penguin?
As I puzzle over why I feel not just exhausted and disappointed, but saddened by our adventurous weekend, I realize that it’s that my daughter makes me feel so competent, and my son makes me feel so incompetent, and I fear that it will always be so.
We’ve proven that we can travel with a baby just fine. It’s the big kids you have to watch out for – and each other, when your kids have eaten, and eaten, and eaten away at you. When we are not our best selves as parents, we are most definitely not our best selves as spouses.
This is why we celebrate anniversaries (although preferably without the children along). Not to acknowledge where we are, but to acknowledge where we’ve come from. Years and years of living life together.
We’ll remember the whining. And the cost. And the traffic, and the emergency potty breaks, and the poor sleep. But I’ll also remember my first cup of hot, strong coffee at the breakfast buffet, and the sight of Hibou bonelessly passed out on the bed as we pack later that morning, and both Dearest and I nauseated as both kids sprawled on their stomachs looking down through the glass floor of the CN Tower. This is certainly one anniversary we won’t forget. One more reason to toast “We did it!”.
Today, the morning after the anniversary trip, home, sitting in a cozy chair sipping tea and listening to CBC Radio while the rest of my family is either napping, at school or at work, I can appreciate this. I can appreciate the years that have come and gone, and the years that await. Like Hibou, who cooed in delight in rediscovering HER toys, and HER high chair, and HER change table and kitchen floor and crib, I too can most appreciate the presence of familiarity, of home, from its absence. Memories are always better when you’re not in the midst of making them.
I’m left with a small bit of hard-earned wisdom from this grueling weekend: when going on a road trip, like it or not, the whining comes with you.
It’s ethereal, mesmerizing, uplifting, soul-searching. A prayer, a plea, a homage – it’s pain and pleasure and very, very human.
I went hunting for Leonard Cohen’s original, and came across an interview he gave where he talks about depression, and its impact on his music. He said something that struck me: “Suffering doesn’t produce good work – good work is produced in spite of suffering, as a response, as a victory over suffering.”
A victory over suffering.
As I sing to Hibou, to teach her, to please her, to distract her, to soothe her, sometimes just to overpower her penetrating complaints, I think about this. About how we must celebrate. We MUST celebrate. We must acknowledge victory over suffering, we must capture and rejoice in the beauty, the awe of life. Because it’s too hard not to. Life is too hard when we don’t.
Cohen is right – it’s a cold, a lonely, a broken hallelujah. But it’s still a hallelujah. When we praise, no matter what, no matter how, it’s still praising. It’s still acknowledging, celebrating – even when we’re on our knees and begging, face covered in tears and pressed against the floor.
Anyone who’s been there – wet, cold, huddled, terrified, alone – if you’ve been there, then you know that there is always an after. An after when it gets better. An after when we can get up, when we can sing, when we can celebrate. When we can produce good work.
They’re both human, you see. The broken moments, and the whole.
A good friend of mine is discovering what it is to see the middle of the night with a new baby. To see night after night, sore and tired and lonely. My husband is struggling with seeing the middle of the day with a busy but boring job, chores and whining and more work to come home to. To see day after day, frustrated and angry and overwhelmed.
And I – I am grateful. I am grateful, in as many moments as I can notice, of how I’ve been there. And now I’m not. I may be again, but now, now I’m not.
I’ll sing a different Hallelujah in a few days, my annual Messiah practice and community concert coming up. It’s so very different, such a different form of praise – yet, to me, the same. It reaches the same place within, where the dark and the light are one and the same.
“I did my best, it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch. I told the truth; I didn’t come to fool you. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”
We all pass that way, or this, somehow. Some of us less, some of us more. Some of us celebrating just a little harder, a little louder than others, recognizing the victory for what it is. All of us trying our best. Some of us singing hallelujah.
A storm of white.
Too orderly for raucous gulls –
Oh, but there are thousands!
Wave upon wave,
Threads sewn on the sky.
Tangled skein on the grass.
So big, even from my distant car window.
A sight I’d seen only in picture books.
They are bringing the snow I will drive through this afternoon,
The first of the season.
Flying South, winging in cold.
Like my baby’s first tiny handprint later,
Home safe in the driveway,
Her first touch of snow.
I too shiver in wonder.
Some days, everything is the same. Over and over, I have my coffee, I take my shower, and I go about my day. The same day. The errands change, the outings, the meals – but it’s all the same.
And then, a baby niece is born. A dear friend’s loved one is killed by militants on the other side of the ocean. Leaves and snowflakes fall, and my son outgrows more clothes. Grampa’s cancer spreads. A second precious baby girl is born to another dear friend, and none of it, none of this give and take makes any sense at all.
The beauty, and the horrors of the world come calling, and I can hide from neither.
I wrap my hands around a steaming cup, and wrap my heart over the hurts. One family grows and another shrinks and I cry for both.
Every day is the same, and so very different, at once. The school buses come, the rooks fly streaming by, and the wide stretching sky covers us all.
Slender birch neck. Clear
sky above, a scarf of leaves
below. Cold fingers.
Warm colours, muffled
sounds. Outside is slowing down.