Saturday, July 18, 2009

Square 38: The harvester special

Square 038

In the fall of 1922 my grandfather, Van, was 20 years old. Both Canadian railways ran a harvester special to the West. The return ticket from Toronto to Winnipeg cost $16 and you were guaranteed $5 a day plus food. Hearing it was a real adventure, Van decided to go with his friends, Art and Ernie. Art's home was in the West, but he worked for an uncle at the pickle factory in Simcoe, Ontario, where my grandfather had grown up.

The train coaches were called colonist cars. There was no dining car and the seats were all made of slats. They left Toronto with about 1,000 men in 20-odd cars. Each train stop everyone would rush to beseige the coffee shop for rolls, sandwiches, any food. When the whistle blew there was a mad scramble to get back to the seats. The seats would wear ribs in the boys' bottoms, so they sat on sweaters or coats for comfort.

Winnipeg station was jammed with farmers. My grandfather, his friends and two others were immediately hired by a farmer who took them straight to a restaurant for their first real meal in four days. Then they boarded another train, the farmer paying for their tickets, and early next morning they arrived in Margaret, Manitoba. After breakfast they dressed for threshing.

This was all done in the fields. One chap would drive the wagon and spread sheaves around while the ones walking on either side thrust their forks in stooks of wheat and lift it to the load. When the wagon was full it would drive to the threshing machine, and all was unloaded into a conveyor. By the end of the second day they all had big blisters on their hands. They didn't have gloves so they wore socks or wrapped their hands in cloth.

After settling down to harvester work way out on the Manitoba Prairie, imagine Van's surprise to find both Art and Ernie were receiving letters from Miss Fern Hyde, back in Ontario. Van had met my grandmother three years earlier and gone out with her, but they weren't married yet. She was attending normal school in Hamilton, so he didn't see her very often. His friends let Van read the letters, but there were none for him.

The third morning, Art had disappeared. Everyone was worried. The farmer called the station to see if any young fellow had shown. Yes, Art had walked five miles to wait for the train. He had found he was only 50 miles from home and hadn't seen his folks in months. He had bought a one-way ticket to Weyburn. Van and Ernie did not see him again till they got back to Simcoe.

They soon toughened up and liked the work. They were working outdoors, there was lots of food and the group was very congenial. Sundays they had the day off and would drive an old Model T less than 10 miles to a village in the USA. There was no Customs and Immigration, only a little store to buy chocolate bars and smoking stuff.

Once when Van and Ernie had a little spending money, they thought it might be an experience to try a woman, so they visited Winnipeg's large red light district. The women all seemed old and frowsy, and when Ernie told one woman they wanted someone younger she blew her top. Then the boys reached a dead end and had to walk back up the same street with all the ladies hurling abuse from the sidewalks and verandas. Never again, my grandfather decided.

Eventually threshing finished around Margaret and they moved north with it through Manitoba and Saskatchewan before getting back to Winnipeg the middle of December. Van had been sending all his money home for his sister, Myrtle, to look after, as there was not much to spend it on. They had their return tickets but finally decided to take one more job north of Winnipeg at Neepawa.

The bunkhouse there had been built in summer and the boards had dried so there were large cracks between them. At night the snow would blow in and across the beds. The boys slept with all their clothes on. In the morning they could only tell where the grain was by humps in the snow. After four days they decided they had had enough, and left without pay.

Ernie got a bank job in Winnipeg, but Van wired his sister to send money in care of a hotel in Toronto, as he was nearly broke. On the train back he spent the rest on chocolate bars and buns, whatever food he could get.

At the hotel in Toronto a cheque was waiting for him in the mail, but they wouldn't cash it or give him a room. He was hungry and didn't know what to do or where to go.

Then someone slapped him on the back and said, "What are you doing on Yonge Street in Toronto?"

It was the Sunday school teacher's husband from church in Simcoe. He took Van to his hotel room, took him out and fed him, and drove him back to Simcoe later next day. He wouldn't let Van cash the cheque. My grandfather arrived at his brother-in-law's farm three days before Christmas.

This story is adapted from memoirs my grandfather wrote down in 1980, four years before he died, and I collated and edited for the family in 1996. The booklet turned up this week while I was packing for the move. He was a good storyteller, so perhaps I will post more of these tales as time goes on. I didn't have any memories of my own to draw on for the colours in this square and I have never seen the Canadian Prairies in person, but the rusty-gold Noro Kureyon reminded me of harvest, and the blue of an endless sky.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Square 37: Chaos

Square 037

I am getting ready to move and living in the midst of chaos. Most of the essentials have been looked after: setting up a hydro account for the new place, transferring the internet hookup, change of address, and replacing my land line with a cellphone (Van moves forward to the 21st Century). But my apartment looks like the asteroid belt.

Certain corners have not been tidied for months or even years. One of my first priorities has been to tackle these, find out what is in them, and clear away the clutter to make room to pile boxes packed out of bureaus, shelves and closets. So I will set about facing one of these corners, but I am easily distracted. Ten minutes later I find myself in another room, packing books, because books are easy.

What happened to that corner? Nothing. Now I have a box of books and nowhere to put it but in the middle of the living room.

And what about yarn? A while ago I sorted all the bits and pieces of stash I was using for this blanket into three boxes: cool colours, warm and neutral. Easier to find what I wanted.

Last week as I began packing, I eyed those three boxes enviously. They were just the right size—not too large—for books. And I have lots of books.

Finally, schloop! I dumped all that yarn into one large box, because a big heap of yarn is not too heavy to carry. I will have to make do with diving into that pile for the rest of the month. Immediately it gave me the idea of knitting a chaos square.

So Tuesday afternoon I blindfolded myself, plunged my hand randomly into the box of yarn and pulled out five balls, using only the sense of touch and smell to help in the selection process. An extra remnant—that appealing strand of purple Noro—must have clung to one of the others because it was there on the floor when I looked at what I had chosen. It obviously wanted to be used, but I allowed myself to discard one of the others, and this is what I made of the remaining colours.

Out of chaos comes creation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Square 36: All you need is love

Square 036

An interesting aspect of this blanket (at least for me), is that one story suggests another, leading me down particular paths. The title of this blog becomes even more apt as time goes on. It is certainly the case with these last two squares. Square 35 with its reference to Montreal and my idea of polyamory, "loving different people in different ways," suggested the story for Square 36.

2004 was an interesting time in the history of same-sex marriage in Canada. This country became the first in the world to have a same-sex marriage legally recognized (in Toronto on January 14, 2001), which began the movement toward legalization throughout the provinces. Same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario in June 2003, in British Columbia in July 2003, and in Quebec in March 2004, with the rest of the provinces and territories following by July 2005.

It so happened that Gala Choruses, an international association of queer choruses, held a festival in Montreal in July 2004 with several thousand delegates from around the world. I attended with the Rainbow Chorus of Waterloo-Wellington (RCWW). It was a heady, exciting time. Several of our members had recently married. Many couples from other countries, particularly the United States, took the opportunity while in Montreal to undertake marriages recognized by the state, though not their state.

It so happened that our program, which RCWW had taken to perform at the festival, was entitled "All you need is love", with a variety of songs leading up to a climactic Beatles medley. The theme and songs had been selected more than a year earlier, with no foreknowledge of the precipitous political events around gay marriage in Canada. Our choice was coincidental, perhaps prophetic, because marriage is supposed to be about love between people. Who has the right to deny love between two people of different races or the same gender, or for that matter a love relationship involving more than two people?

As a polyamorous person, I have had reservations about the institution of marriage. An unhealthy or abusive one can be a trap. Legal marriage sets up a hierarchy of relationships, bestowing validity on some and not on others. I believe there are many colours and shades of love, and it should only be restricted to two people if that is their mutual, respectful choice.

But I also believe in the right of lovers to celebrate their relationships however they choose, and to receive recognition and support from their families and community. To this end, I suppose legalized same-sex marriage is a positive step towards universal human rights.

My favourite song from our performance in Montreal was King's Singers' a cappella version of "All I ask of you", from Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber. To the theme of political change at that time, it spoke:

All I want is freedom
A world with no more night

To me, night is the pall of repression that caused me to reject my own feelings for so many years. The song's potent words remained with me long after.

Two years later it inspired me to write a poem entitled "Agape", the Greek word for unconditional love the New Testament commands and Christians attempt to embrace. In my experience love is at once lovely and broken, powerful and fragile. Vulnerability itself opens us to love. The legalistic love of religious people is no more valid than two adolescents groping in the dark for shared pleasure and belonging. As the fallen star, Yvaine, says in the 2007 movie, Stardust:

But when I see the way that mankind loves—you could search to the furthest reaches of the universe and never find anything more beautiful. So yes, I know that love is unconditional. But I also know that it can be unpredictable, unexpected, uncontrollable, unbearable and strangely easy to mistake for loathing.

And here is part of what I wrote in my poem, addressing the hypocrisy of those who declare my love not good enough:

I do not want your sympathy.
All I want is freedom
to love as far as I understand it
and grow cosmic as can be.

Earlier this year, RRWC selected this poem as the text for a new choral composition to be commissioned for performance at a national festival in Winnipeg in May 2010. The piece will be written by an acclaimed Canadian composer. Isn't it exciting how threads spin together and the yarn continues?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Square 35: Summer rendezvous

Square 035

This square was inspired by Colour Field Painting, an offshoot of Abstract Expressionism. I first encountered it with my friend Stephen at an Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit four years ago, The Shape of Colour. It seemed to leave a lasting impression on him.

Stephen was here again this week. He lives in Atlanta, but we have managed to rendezvous each summer since 2004 when we met in Montreal at a festival of Gala Choruses. He has been to Ontario every summer, and I have been to Georgia once. Stephen is an energetic and thoughtful friend, a sexy man and a generous lover.

Years ago, before meeting Danny, I chose to be polyamorous. For me that meant being open to loving different people in different ways. Initially I had many lovers, but as time went on I concentrated on fewer. Even though I only see Stephen a few days out of the year and sometimes months pass between correspondence, he holds an important place in my life.

Our first time alone together in a Montreal hotel room, we wrestled. We both knew what the outcome would be, but the exchange of power in struggling for it was potent. I am a bit larger and stronger than Stephen, but he is an experienced wrestler and uses this to his advantage. Out of this physical dynamic has arisen a particular kind of trust. Every winter, five or six months in advance, I begin anticipating the intense physicality of our exchanges.

But we also share an appreciation for art and the land. Every year we undertake a few new adventures, and we would be friends anyway. This week we explored St. Jacobs Farmers' Market, where I picked up one of the yarns in this square. At the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibit, we observed that while he is drawn more to stone and glass, I am intrigued by softer media.

I also noticed his taste for images reminiscent of the Colour Field exhibit we attended four years ago. That gave me the idea to create this square for him.

It incorporates 11 different yarns. I've never used this many in one square before. It suggests the complexity, contrast and harmony of relationships. From the outside:

  • 1. Cascade (charcoal)
  • 2. Anonymous handspun, hand-dyed yarn from St. Jacobs (aquamarine)
  • 3. Cascade (forest green)
  • 4. Briggs and Little (light aqua)
  • 5. Noro Silk Garden (variegated aqua/brown)
  • 6. Wellington Fibres (variegated red/olive/beige)
  • 7. Unknown three-ply yarn (variegated blue/green/gold)
  • 8. Unknown remnant from Danny (chartreuse)
  • 9. Same as 5.
  • 10. Létt-Lopi (light grey)
  • 11. Same as 2.
  • 12. Létt-Lopi (yellow)
  • 13. Same as 4.
  • 14. Létt-Lopi (bright green)
  • 15. Same as 10.