Sample text for Safe haven : the possibility of sanctuary in an unsafe world / Larry Gaudet.
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Sanctuary in the fog (Ghosting)
Foggy Cove, June 2006
In my travels, I’ve developed a fondness for older neighbourhoods that celebrate the diffuse and unseen, the spooky both planned and improvised. The French Quarter. The Dorobanti in Bucharest. Venice. Vieux-Montre;al. Even when I’m moving inside a tourist throng, I’m still the willing pawn on a grid of haunting streets and alleys, soaking up the orchestrated melancholia in the shadows and whispers between cobblestone and gable. I’m attracted to the gestures that keep strangers on the outside, flat-footed before the imposing facade, or too intimidated to knock on the towering bronze doors. More than once I’ve peered through wrought-iron gates into courtyards obscured by foliage and lattice, imagining a weathered marble shrine or a caged exotic bird talking to itself in complete sentences. I’ve studied half-hidden entrances that seduce the eye only to repel it, leaving me to wonder: Who’s in there? What are they doing? Why am I out here?
Whether I’m on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out, I’m in love with mystery itself, the idea that within everything and everyone there are hidden meanings, and conflicting meanings, too, and things that just never add up, no matter how many clues to the puzzle you have. I don’t know exactly what triggered my obsession to buy land and build a home in Foggy Cove. The mystery still beguiles and indeed engulfs me, not just as a mind game, but as a physical force that shapes life here. A seaside village in southeastern Nova Scotia along the North Atlantic coast, Foggy Cove is often shrouded in the ambiguous conditions of coastal fog, the mythic substance of ghosts, the inspiration for a thousand cliche;s on the human tendency to orient toward inward horizons when there’s nowhere else to gaze. And that’s just what I’m doing this morning as I lie awake in bed.
Here, in our barn by the sea, we’re a nuclear family enclosed within itself, expecting summer to arrive any day now and finally warm things up. The fire went out hours ago; it’s chilly in our loft bedroom. I’m assuming (but can’t yet verify) that small dramas are unfolding outdoors in the fog: spiderwebs thickened to visibility by heavy dew; an intrepid family of deer in the field, munching on clover; a trio of blue jays in a fight at the bird feeder. Someone is likely walking a dog along the beach or the cliffs, intending to pick up the mail on the way back, having determined that this time the dog will not escape into the house before its muddied belly gets rinsed with the hose and dried in the sun, should the sun ever appear again, which seems very unlikely right now.
Everyone else in our house is asleep, oblivious to the clouds on the ground around us, the air uniformly congested with condensation made from heat rising off the land, the evaporating water seeking a home in the sky but temporarily manifest as fog in our midst. Water can’t be stopped. It goes where it needs to, when it’s tired of hanging around, creating fog blindness. Fog reminds me that our bodies are nearly all water. Maybe walking through fog, as so many of us who live here like to do, breathing it in deeply, speaks to an unconscious desire to connect with our distant amphibian past when we were gilled water creatures in search of land, backbone, lungs, a down comforter like the one covering me now. Through the loft windows I can’t even make out the silhouette of our apple trees down below the house, only fifty feet away. The world outside appears like the one behind my eyelids: a shimmering grey surface. So why even make the effort to keep my eyes open? I dig deeper into the comforter, also conscious of the soft pyjama flannel on my skin. Cozy bliss. As womb-like as it gets. Why move? Ever again . . .
Still, as much as I love fog, it has taken me a few years to learn how to gaze with unclenched teeth and unsweating palms into the visual nothingness that greets me here on so many mornings and can muck up the view for days on end. As a cataract over my watchable world, fog channels the hungry eye through veils in the air that come and go, and always come again, softening edges, distorting depth and sound, hiding things. I’ve observed people vacationing in our village for the first time who, in their experience of persistent fog, present symptoms of a panic attack, an anxiety disorder. It’s as if they see a conspiracy behind the weather: something or someone is out to get them from behind the wall of meteorological vagueness. Or worse: maybe there’s nothing there at all. A foggy day disarms the defence mechanisms that provide immunity from the risks of prolonged self-awareness, and that can be disquieting. I personally don’t know many people who go on vacation for the purpose of tunnelling into the darker corners or less travelled pathways of their psyche.
Alison’s feet seek out mine as she turns toward me. Cold feet. I thought she’d got into bed with heavy socks on, but she seems to have lost them in the night. The message encrypted in her toes is established bedroom code in our house: I’m supposed to get up and start a fire. But in this dialogue between feet, I respond sullenly. I have no intention of getting up yet. I’m wiped. As she is. As everyone is. We arrived in Halifax last night after a two-hour flight from Toronto, then we drove two more hours in rainy darkness and arrived in time for dinner at Alison’s parents’ house next door. The evening featured our two young boys acting out the part of runaway-train engines, chugging and tooting around the furniture. Only deep dishes of ice cream curtailed the meltdown caused by a derailment after four-year-old Theo missed a signal and collided with Jackson, his six-year-old brother. The incident happened in a quadrant where the invisible tracks weren’t supposed to intersect. Back at our place, in the final minutes before bedtime, it seemed unwise to insist that the boys, after such a long day of travelling, be required to wash the vanilla streaks off their faces. They’re sleeping everything off, and good for them.
Ignoring the prodding of my wife’s toes, I close my eyes and try to recapture that luxurious feeling that comes with being sheltered in a space of one’s own making. I am protected here, and happy doing the protecting, as a father, husband, neighbour, alert to my good fortune, listening for any source of danger, no matter how insanely remote the threat. My vigilance scares me. I’d sleep with an axe, stick pins in voodoo dolls or clench prayer beads if I knew it would keep us safe here or anywhere else.
The foghorn sounds again: an extended brooding note, like a million owls in symphonic lockstep.
I love the sounds of nature. Pheasants squawking. The thrum of hummingbird wings. The wind teasing out ditties from within leaves and branches. The acoustical variations that result from collisions of tidal water and land mass. But foghorn music resonates deeper with me. It feels like nature invested with a human spirit. It gives meaning to fog, not only protecting ships from being wrecked on shoals, but assuring those of us onshore that there’s always something or someone out there: we are not alone. The foghorns in our vicinity are positioned on remote islands and headlands, and echo fantastically. Sonic fragments bounce here and there and overlap one another, like the distortion of an electric guitar tweaked by a reverb pedal. The foghorn functions like a heart, thumping for an essential purpose, reassuringly steady. It’s a voice like many voices in Foggy Cove: an echo with distant origins. Or possibly a homing device for those who have fled here for one reason or another. Sometimes, however, there’s another voice in the mix, similar to a foghorn. It’s a sound with more grit, lower on the scale, hollow and uneven, unpredictable, like an injured monster moaning in its lair. A monster that can’t carry a tune. This sound, I’ve been told, is produced by tides swirling into crevices on the headlands. But no one around here speaks authoritatively to that claim. It’s Mother Earth speaking, absolutely–too eerie for my liking. I feel I’m being stalked, not soothed, by the incomprehensibly large forces all around me.
“Honey, I’m freezing.” Alison is finally drawn to words.
I don’t even pretend to snore. A dead giveaway of wakefulness.
She’s layered up in fleece and flannel, an elaborate getup she dons each night here with the seriousness of a high priestess, in the belief that more is better when it comes to producing body heat.
“Larry?” She shrugs her body into mine.
When I make no response, she turns away in a mini-huff. With her back to me, the silence is too pregnant. She’s calling my bluff, my extreme stillness alerting her to the possum act. There’s no way I can win at this. I’m going to have to get up and make a new fire. Of course, I could simply turn up the electric baseboard heaters–but that would be the triumph of sense over sensibility. I give up the game.
“Could you put the water on for the coffee?” she asks.
Last night we went to bed listening to the foghorn, the rain patter on the roof, the wind and whitecaps scouring the cliffs. The wood stove murmured with high-tech efficiency, the incineration of old maple making the place all toasty while the greenhouse gases escaped into the blustery night. As the fire created a torment of shadows, I lay there drowsily content. In my final seconds of wakefulness, my thoughts were of the eternal tomorrow resident in my imagination: waking up to a calm blue sea, a temperate summer morning, the beaches fattened up with sand returned from its winter home in the deep waters of the bay, the air peaty with seaweed, the army of tourists absent for a while longer and nothing on the schedule but chopping firewood or watching our boys invest their toy bulldozers with the power to regrade the landscape.
But now morning is here again, and with it the burden of clarity.
Two years ago, our family embarked on an adventure in Nova Scotia. That’s not quite true. We were dragged by me into a rural existence in a remote village by the sea, despite palpable reluctance in strategic decision-making quarters, notably Alison’s. This move was instigated by my untested fantasies about the merits of solitude, if not total isolation from the big bad world. The idea was to vacate our condominium in downtown Toronto, leave our lives and friends behind for a year and move to the cottage we had recently built in Nova Scotia, near the great heritage town of Lunenburg, ninety kilometres south of Halifax.
We made it through the year in Nova Scotia in one familial piece, and we’ve returned again for the summer, not as residents but as seasonal visitors. There was much about our year in Nova Scotia that surprised me. Much that confused and, at times, unhinged me. There were many days I felt fragmented, in psychological disarray, standing outside my body looking in, unable to concentrate, frozen by interior storms that seemed to come out of nowhere. There were beautiful moments, as was expected for the sticker price. But who remembers those with the same vividness?
When we decided to buy land here, Alison’s parents, Stan and Vivian, needed a retirement home. So we went fifty-fifty on a property and created two deeds to reflect the division of ownership. There were only three homes on the drumlin hill that winds lazily through the Foggy Cove basin; now there are fifteen, including our two places. In theory, we’d moved to paradise, our property located in a 250-year-old fishing and farming village (a series of villages, actually) of weathered capes and ancient barns, a good number of which have either been restored or built fairly recently, in tasteful deference to the muse of heritage preservation. Our home, a grey-cedar-shingled structure, is well anchored in an old sheep pasture at the end of a gravel road that meanders along the contours of the drumlin ridge toward the coast; it pretends to be a barn but doesn’t entirely succeed because of the immodest wall of sea-facing windows, the antithesis of blunt Nova Scotian thriftiness. We have captured, to borrow from the jargon of real-estate agents, the boldest ocean views. From inside, our place seems like one big window, an instrument for viewing, floating high on the lot, boatlike. We’re behind and above wetlands of mature alders and waves of dune grass that flow to the beach, flanked by two imposing headlands of dark spruce that jut far out into the sea, creating a protected bay where, in the warmer months, and in many colder ones, you can hear the waves collapsing in deep sand, or watch lobster boats groaning along, in a diesel funk, their trap bunches plopping off the stern. In good weather, when the windows are open in the great room, the screens in place, it seems we’re living in a cavernous, bugless porch. And the windows go way up too, with huge transoms topping the double-hungs across a thirty-foot facade that’s oriented northeast toward the ocean. The effect is passive-aggressive solar: all the light you would ever need, theoretically, although fog undermines that theory.
We designed the house ourselves. It was meant to be a simple structure: a gabled barn, insulated for year-round use. We hand-drew the floor plan and elevations. Our builder quietly corrected our errors, added new ideas and created the working plans. Recalling the ambition in that first drawing is always embarrassing. We didn’t know the first thing about how a house should be built. It’s mostly wood, this place. Framed, nailed, sanded, primed and painted by human hands. An ecologically sensitive architect would cringe at the waste in stud-frame construction, the anachronism of shingles, pine floors, wood trim. The suggestion would be to source out prefab structural forms, holistically manufactured metal hybrids for the beams and window sashes, straw bale insulation, more green design strategies in general. There’d be talk of photovoltaic panels, chemical toilets, micro-windmills and engineered floors made from recycled radioactive waste that magically looks like three-hundred-year-old oak. In hindsight, we didn’t exactly hit the high points of ecological responsibility during construction. There were mounds of debris, now in a landfill. But I’ve conveniently come to terms with my horror. Amazing what tricks the mind can perform once the garbage bins are hauled away. We had a few good ideas, though, like insisting on the wooden storm doors that make the place look like a real barn.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Refuge -- Psychological aspects.
Refuge -- Aspect psychologique.