NEAR MASSET, B.C.—The other day, at twilight, I took this photograph on the beach outside my cabin on Haida Gwaii. You’ll have to forgive my Woody Allenesque self-absorption when I tell you it’s a pretty good snapshot of my interior life: Menacing clouds, a landscape bounded by grey, swaths of shadow, nearly void of humanity. On the plus side, I suppose, is the unbroken horizon and some holy light breaking through.
It’s a picture that says: “Here’s solitude. Now learn how to use it.”
I came here buoyed by a friend’s admonition. Shape your life, he told me. I’m in my late 60’s, without a job, broke, with sleep apnea, hemorrhoids and recurring gout. And I’m going through a breakup. All the shards of a typical bourgeois life on the brink. I was badly in need of some re-shaping. Some alone time to put the pieces back together. My daughter M had a solution. She needed a caretaker for six weeks.
Officially, I’m looking after M’s off-the-grid property here on an island at the edge of Canada’s West Coast. In my charge are four beach-side log cabins, a dog (Darkstar), a cat (Minka), and 20 chickens and ducks. I occupy the main cabin. There’s little actual work involved, other than chopping wood, feeding the animals, locking up the henhouse at night and making sure there’s a fire in the woodstoves when new guests arrive.
For a few days, I also had the happy task of caring for my 9-year-old grandson F, for whom Haida Gwaii is a vast playground and open-air school. In truth, he cared for me. F is a wunderkind; scarily precocious, he eats everything, reads for hours every day and goes to bed when he’s told. I teach him Texas Hold-em and he wins. I beat him at chess, barely avoiding a stalemate.
Friends envy me. They write to tell me they’d happily change places with me. I doubt that’s true.
North Beach is a place to kick back and do nothing. But I’m on a mission. I came here intending to find some solace through writing, with a pledge to crank out at least 1000 words a day. The idea was to turn off the worry switch--not to think about anything, but just write. The late Jim Harrison, one of my favorite authors, put it nicely: “Writing causes writing. Thinking causes more thinking and is not necessarily helpful. Just write an hour or so each day.”
Writing would put all my quotidian concerns into perspective. Writing as therapy. As a purgative. Put your cares on a blank page. Then brush them aside. And then go feed the free-range chickens.
But that writing pledge exploded on my first day. Darkstar, an amiable 12-year-old black Lab, needed a walk along the beach. It was a walk that turned into an expedition, as man and dog investigated what the surf had left behind in the last high tide. Darkstar scavenged whatever flesh was left on the bones of the dead maritime life we came across.
We walked for hours, she, intoxicated by the promise of protein, me, intoxicated by the low rumbling of the sea, and the hazy shoreline of Alaska across the Hecate Strait. Every once in a while, Darkstar stopped and looked me in the eye and cocked her head, as if she sensing the weight of urban anxiety I was still carrying. “We’ll soon cure you of that,” she seemed to be saying.
After our walk, I went back to the cabin, chopped some wood, started a fire (on the third try) and made a desultory meal of rice and halibut. My time, I told myself, was entirely my own. I could do anything I needed to do to prime the pump for the writing. I could meditate. I could read. I could journal. I could start making a bucket list. . . . I ended up doing none of the above. Instead, I fired up my laptop and spent hours binge-watching the first three episodes of I Claudius, that brilliant old BBC series starring Derek Jacobi.
The next day it was F who pulled me away from my work. I didn’t offer much resistance when he suggested a visit to an old growth forest. That turned into a voyage through the Land of Mushrooms. I learned not to eat the Amanita phalloides, better known as the death cap. (Uncanny coincidence: It’s believed an Amanita was used to poison the Emperor Claudius in AD54.) Instead, I should try the winter chanterelles, which look like tiny trumpets. “What’s this, F?” I asked, pointing to something white growing out of a fallen spruce. “Oh. That’s an artist’s conk. But look at this. I just found some chicken-of-the-woods,” he said.
In one clearing, F dared me to throw myself onto a thick cushion of what he called “four-storey moss.” Sure enough, I tried it and landed into nature’s equivalent of a Beauty Rest mattress. Next, he picked up a clump of “old man’s beard” which he said made for a great fire-starter. And he found a root that, when cleaned and chewed vigorously, tasted like licorice. After an hour in the forest, I was hopelessly lost, but F found the trail that led us back to the car park.
Back home, I turned on my phone’s personal hotspot, found two bars of bandwidth—just enough for email. There was something from my lawyer, asking for instructions in my separation proceedings. There was supportive mail from my son P, standing by with financial support. There was a text from my daughter M, asking me to make a welcoming fire for a guest arriving later today. There was a payment reminder from Amex.
And I found an email from the woman with whom I’m breaking up. “ . . . You’ve lost belief in yourself,” she writes. “Your creative energy is backing up in your bio-system and unless you find a way to channel it, you will become ill if you haven’t already done so. Cancer will develop. Or you’ll experience a stroke.”
How does she know my bio-system is backing up? And what’s this about cancer? I knew I should have left the laptop off.
On the way to my writing desk, I make a detour past the cabin bookshelves and come across two books I absolutely have to read, immediately: an early Cormac McCarthy (about two wanderers lost in a threatening landscape . . . hmmm) and Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See.” I also brought with me a depressing classic, Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”
There would be no 1000 words today.
By week’s end, my journal was anorexic. Here’s my entry for October 3. F flew off today, which means I’m now able to spend some real time writing. But I find myself hopelessly distracted—between the woodstove, email, Darkstar, DVD’s and simply staring off into space. How do I manage all this solitary time? Answer: I fill out online applications for two jobs: one with CCTV (Chinese Television) in Beijing, and one as a local reporter with the Haida Gwaii Observer in the Village of Queen Charlotte, and fantasize about the next chapter in my life. By am I kidding myself? Who in their right mind will hire a disillusioned, slightly charred if not burned out train wreck of a journalist who has done what I’ve done for 47 years?
A walk on the beach under brilliant sunlight brought an uncanny flashback. Forty-five years ago, a feature writer for The Daily Colonist in Victoria, I picked up a rumor that Malcolm Muggeridge, the iconoclastic English writer and broadcaster, was in the area—encamped somewhere on Salt Spring Island, writing his memoirs. I sniffed the wind and decided to track him down.
I contacted the postmaster on Salt Spring and asked him point blank: Where was he dropping off mail for Mr. M. Muggeridge, lately of the British Isles? I was astonished when he directed me to blue house at the end of X Street with the white door. So I knocked on the door, and Muggeridge’s wife Kitty answered, and I introduced myself and made my request.
We had tea and talked for two hours and Malcolm and Kitty showed me their garden. I asked him what he was calling his autobiography. “Chronicles of Wasted Time,” he answered with a grin, anticipating my surprise. “My life has amounted to very little of consequence.” I made all the right protesting noises. “I’m working on Volume 2,“ he continued. “I’m calling it The Green Stick.” (I forget why, but I wondered why a life that amounted to "little of consequence" needed multiple volumes.). Before leaving, I once again apologized for intruding on his privacy, and we laughed about the postmaster’s indiscretion. I went back to Victoria and wrote a gushing piece of hagiography about a great man penning his life in the shadow of Vesuvius. (An actual hill on Salt Spring.) It’s uncanny how fresh this memory remains after nearly a half century!