Fixed in Fernie

I stepped off the bus two days ago with the immediate impression i’d stepped into a cathedral. Every direction you look … awe-inspiring mountains, true heaven-reaching ramparts of primordial grey stone. Oh yeah, you remember … this is what mountains look like.

The impression improves. The hostel is a block from the bus station. The town’s streets are spacious without being ostentatious, the houses, blessedly, are tiny, the flat-roofed shops are charming. And those mountains, everywhere around. “God’s country” comes to mind, and not in a cliched way. I’ll have to sort out my picture-posting glitch from this new computer to show you what i’m talking about.

Boy, is it hot here these last couple of days. I’ve been walking a lot, but the heat is taking the piss out of me. this morning i meditated, read a bit, went back to bed and snoozed, and finally pushed myself outdoors to explore.

Strangely, the town seems very slow — little in the way of tourism that i can see. It comes alive in winter, i’m told, and local businesses struggle through the summer. Hard to understand why, if my last two days are at all representative.

I’m deep into a stretch of ennui, i can feel it. Little interest in anything, little passion. I’m treating it as a phase so far — “this too will pass”– and not beating myself up about it.

To spice things up i rented a bike today — one of those downhill monsters with 7 inches of suspension travel front and rear — just to try the damn thing. (Actually i asked for the tame little road cruiser, but they brought out the beast by mistake and i took that instead.) Getting on the thing feels like sitting down on a plush sofa: yoou float. I actually aim for potholes now, just for the novelty of hardly feeling the impact. Stopping, though, is a bit of a trick. Soon as you put your foot down and take some weight, the suspension springs back up and the bike is suddenly several inches taller than you’re prepared for. I fell over at a light today, barely avoiding rolling on the pavement, no doubt causing some laughter in the nearby cars.

A bike, as i’ve always known, opens up the horizon enormously over walking. Suddenly the whole region is within reach. My plan tomorrow is to rise early, ride out too the big ski hill 6-8 km out of town, and hopefully take the chairlift to the top for some views. Or maybe even ride up (yeah, right). The weather’s plan, apparently, is to rain. We’ll see who comes out on top.

Art last!

This walkabout has turned, for reasons unknown to me, largely into a search for local, homegrown art endeavours. I haven’t had much success so far — it takes a while to get into the loop, so it doesn’t happen easily when you’re travelling — but i did manage to get to a couple:

  • An open stage event at Finley’s Irish Pub. Billed to start at 9 p.m. (why i believed that is a wonder), i sat around in a virtually empty bar till 10, when people began trickling in with instruments. We eventually had the requisite first-timer who sang out of tune and forgot half his first song; the regular whose confidence overshadows his talent; and the woman-with-a-great-voice duo marred by bad sound and too many songs. I’m only being slightly glib here; they were all worthy efforts and i wouldn’t have done any better.
    I considered signing up to recite my poem The Battle a Abby’s Butte, which would have gone over well because Abby now lives in Nelson. But i had no local supporters and i didn’t know the protocol, so that wasn’t to be.
    I left about 11:30, overtired, as a 4-piece reggae band (lackluster but for the lead singer’s hat) started up.
  • Abs and i were set to see a play, but she had a rerun of her summer cold so i went alone. Livingroom Theatre inhabits a converted garage off an alley, and seats maybe 30. The twin fish theatre show, well into a 3-week run, was sold out. Written by Bessie Wapp, one of the four performers, it was impressive, much better than i expected in a town like Nelson — rich, nicely crafted, well acted. Loco Phantasmo — go see if it comes near you.
  • In my perambulations i happened upon Craft Connection, a most impressive co-op gallery owned and run by several Kootenay artists. Beautiful big space full of high quality work. I had a long chat with one of the staffers about the long, painful process of getting the facility up and running.
  • I didn’t get to, but at least found out about, the Cottonwood Market Saturday drum circle, which has been running for over a decade. It takes place iin the Japanese garden adjoining Cottonwood Falls, during Saturday summer markets in the park. Sounded great, but the hostel was full up Friday and i had to leave town.

Echo Ukee, echo Toff

I met with Abby, ex of the Sacred Stone Spa in Ucluelet, now of the Stone Spa in Nelson, and we shared a nice cuppa tea.

I tried repeatedly to catch Shawn and Carla, ex of Words End Bookstore in Ukee, now of and, but despite several visits and calls i never managed to catch them at the office.

I wandered into Enchanted Gifts, on Baker St. (the main drag), and started chatting with the owner, who turned out to be Francois, ex of the Enchanted in Tofino.

And at a street market i saw a newsletter put out by Eco Society with an article by Lee-Ann, ex of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound. I thought i’d look for her in town, and found her by pure coincidence on a street corner, waiting for the light to change.

These folks told me about others who have moved from the West Coast to Nelson and area (the Kootenays, or “the Koots” to those in the know). And the single, striking word they all used about their new situation was “happy.” Happier than they were on the coast. Francois elaborated: when he plays hockey, there’s a melange of freaks, cops, hippies, straights, young and old on the ice and they all get along; people don’t pigeonhole each other, don’t separate into cliques, don’t gossip behind each others’ backs and boycott each others’ businesses because of something someone said five years ago. Others echoed the sentiment. Damn — are we like this on the coast?

But there was one thing they all, every one, regretted: they pined for the ocean.

The art of Nelson

i have been remiss in my reporting duties. The meditation retreat summary has been weighing on my mind and, as usual, having something already in the pipeline jams up everything that’s coming up behind. So, for the record, my first impressions of Nelson:

I arrived on Sunday last, after a delightful drive with young Jessica, a co-meditator. Normally i dread long drives with strangers — the burden of six hours ofconversation is crippling — but i surprised myself by not just holding up my end, but enjoying it as well. Thinking of it, that’s something that has atrophied in Ukee all these years: the interest in and ability to swap liives and stories with strangers. Sometimes it’s good to get outta town.

The town itself seemed to be … closed. It was a novelty to see almost everything shut up for the Lord’s day. The few people who were out and about seemed busy and unhappy — fast walks and frowning faces, which surprised me. The impression i was expecting, based on the effusions of WestCoasters who have moved here (and there are several), was the opposite.

Another thing I was looking for is evidence of Nelson’s rep as an arts town. It bills itself as the “#1 small arts community in Canada” (which does beg the question of what “small arts” are). I’m not sure what i expected — opera singers practicing from top-floor apartment windows, impromptu improv on street corners — but the only evidence of arts i could see were a pretty healthy poster boards of events, mostly festivals held somewhere in the region. Still, it’s early days.

Ten difficult days

Or, Four Days in Hell, Two in Outer Space, and Back to Hell

“Prison” (the organizer’s joke word for the 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat, also mine) let out this morning, and about 50 happy people dispersed to all points of the compass. It would be difficult to describe the experience in detail, and futile because by design and intent the experience is highly individual.

As well, i managed to break almost every rule in the book during the ten days, so my experience is probably not a decent representation of the course.

One of those rules was “no reading or writing,” but by day 3 i was compulsively keeping illicit notes on what scraps of paper i could find (mostly paper towels) with a pen pilfered from the men’s washroom duty list.

If there’s a chance you may be doing a Vipassana course yourself in the next year or so, i strongly suggest you DO NOT read those notes — not because they contain anything startling or secret but because they may colour your own experience and that would be unfortunate.

That said, there are several things i wish i’d known before going into the course that would have eased my journey, so do read and heed these points:

  1. The course is canned; it’s not a living, evolving thing taught by live teachers. The whole of the instrucion is in he form of videos and taped of S.N. Goenka, the course’s Burmese founder, recorded in 1991. Don’t let that put you off; he’s a very good teacher, even on video. Just know what to expect. There are “assistant teachers” there to answer your questions.
  2. Vipassana is the muscular, pain-is-good boot camp of spiritual traditions. I was expecting something like the feel-good experience of my only other retreat — a candy-ass Zen exercise two years ago — and i was rudely shocked by the rigor and demanding nature of this course. It took days to realign my head. Expect to work hard, and working hard at a meditation retreat means two things: sitting and meditating.
  3. For the love of whatever god(s) you hold dear, put together some kind of meditation seat that you can perch on without moving a muscle for an hour. That’s sixty point zero minutes. Then get used to sitting in it for at least that long. At full stretch you will meditate up to 10 hours a day, and everyone on the course (even the repeat attendees) had trouble with butt, shoulder and back pain. So will you — it’s inevitable — but do what you can.
    One key thing, confirmed by the massage therapist/physical trainer i got a ride to Nelson with, is to maintain your lumbar arch: your lower back should arch forward slightly (a belly-out feeling). This stack your spine into vertical column and elps keep you from hunching forward — an invitation to back pain. Pelvic tilt is the key here: your seat should slope down to the front.
  4. In the initial days of the course, you may descend a mineshaft of boredom so narrow and dark that you will despair of coming out of it sane. I certainly did. At this point you must place your faith in the teacher and the method, and assume there’s a point to the whole exercise. This i didn’t do, and paid the psychological price. Remember, it’s a well developed course that has been taken by probably hundreds of thousands of students. It really does go somewhere, in shipshape logical fashion. Persist. Don’t despair. Or try, at least.

For the curious, i will soon post a hidden page with the (rough, fragmentary log of my 10-day Vipassana retreat.