I have been travelling, and I have learned many things. I learned why the water in Lake Louise is blue. I learned that I don’t particularly like mountains. I suspected as much, but now I’ve had it confirmed. They are beautiful, yes, of course. (You are supposed to say that.) I simply don’t find them comfortable to be around. Every time I see a mountain I wonder why the land doesn’t just lie down and relax.
A mystery I was not able to solve: why do we build such crap, and why so much of it? The strip malls and the big box stores and the industrial “parks,” for example.
There is only one thing that is butt-uglier than the outskirts of a North American city: an actual ugly butt. Endless rows of Monuments to Waste, and Castles of Bleh. Our motto could be “The Human Race: Building Eyesores Since Thirteen Hundred and Forever.” It’s not all like that, no. We have built exquisite things too. But it is discouraging, after a drive through the mountains (they are beautiful), to come across the same wasteland of Sludge Burgers and Pet Accessory Supercentres and Outlet Whatevers that you saw in the last town, and the town before that and some other town two days ago. We don’t have to travel at all. It’s all the same.
We went west for a wedding. My cousin Juniper married Alpesh, and Alpesh married her. The invitation had boxes to check that said “will attend” or “will not attend” but it didn’t have any box to check for my response, which would have been “there’s no fucking way I’m missing this wedding.” I keep thinking of Juniper and her siblings as my “baby cousins” since I am old enough to have changed their diapers once upon a time. It turns out we are almost the same age. They are grownups now, and very impressive ones too. The wedding was on Canada Day, which was fitting as it was a distinctly Canadian event. The groom’s home base is San Francisco, he was raised in Regina, and his parents were born in India. The bride’s family is a pleasingly mixed bag of prairie-born violin players and west-coast island-dwellers, and one of the events took place in a hall on K’ómoks First Nation. People came to the wedding from India and from Nanaimo, from a houseboat in Hong Kong Harbour, from Regina and Winnipeg and Salt Spring Island and the Island of Manhattan. This newly minted extended family, like our country, has plenty to talk about.
How to break the ice? One good way is to dance. The night before the wedding we gathered in K’ómoks First Nation Hall for some good curry and then the groom’s family taught us two traditional Indian dances. One of the dances, dandiya, requires the participants to travel in a circle and hit each other with sticks. Well, you hit their sticks with your sticks according to a pattern, and the sticks represent swords. Once you’ve done that, you can’t help but feel acquainted.
The next day, the wedding day, was almost all flowers, or things that are like flowers. The children, the women’s saris, the stiff-shirted boys playing soccer afterward in the grass. The white blooming tables under the trees. The bride’s pure and lovely face, the groom’s uncontainable joyousness. Garlands of flowers were given and received. Everything opened up in the sunshine.
Dammit. It’s so hard to be cynical. I think I’ll stop trying.
That’s the problem, you see. It’s the beauty that’s the problem. If life was nothing but strip malls, you could give up on it. But then there are the colours of saris, and a baby cousin who grew up to be a Queen. There are sweetpeas on the tables, and a boy called Aaron, and you can’t. You can’t throw it all over in despair.
Aaron is 11, and he has the biggest family of anyone I know. Juniper is technically his step-second-cousin, I think, but he calls her Auntie and theirs is a very close bond. He has what our school system might call “special needs,” but he is first and foremost just a kid, a great kid. Maybe the school system needs more boxes on their forms. When describing Aaron, I would check the box that says “magical.” When he was little and the family needed some help with him, Juniper took the lead and now, if she is the Queen and Alpesh is the King, Aaron is a fitting Prince. Juniper, along with the extended family on both sides, her excellent friends and now Alpesh and his family, have done wonders in helping Aaron make the connections and learn the skills necessary to have a full and happy life.
How I love him. We all do. As Alpesh said at the reception: “it is not a decision to love Aaron.” Everyone at the wedding got to have a turn to dance with him when he felt like dancing, or go outside with him when he didn’t, and watch him eat chocolate cake, which he does with enthusiasm. He was the life of the party. He looked pretty sharp too.
The day after the wedding we visited the bride and groom in their sea-side suite. They had the flowers from the wedding all over the room. The suite had one of those great big bathtubs that’s right out in the open. They had filled it partway up with water and floated all the garlands in there. Flower soup.
If you count your ancestors going back 13 generations, that takes you back to around the year 1700 or earlier. You’d have over 8000 ancestors at that point, people who met and mated and made the people that made the people that made you. Somewhere way back, of course, we all come from a very small group of individuals who bequeathed to us their DNA. The inevitable inbreeding in our distant shared past might go a long way to explain why we as individuals are so messed up sometimes, and our collective predilection for building big ugly block-like buildings all over our pretty planet. In any case, there are a lot of people in your family tree, and the math here doesn’t take into account the family you have because of who you married. Or the family you have because there are some people you simply love enough to call your own, blood or no blood.
It’s possible I think too much. It’s an occupational hazard I don’t usually mind. Some of the thinking I do allows me to make a living. Also, I am never bored. But it would be nice to stop sometimes, like when on vacation. Just to stop. The problem with mountains: well, I wonder. Could I just look at them and not try to figure out the “problem?” I tried. They are too damn big but I tried. Just to look. And I got the feeling, driving along, that if I just let my thoughts run up the mountainsides, eventually they would get tired, and not be able to go any higher. My thoughts would roll back down to the bottom like rocks, and be still.
One day the week after the wedding, after driving through the Rockies thinking about not thinking about mountains, after stopping at Lake Louise like we’re all supposed to do, we accidentally went for a 16 km hike. We intended to go for a hike, but didn’t know it would be quite so long or so steep. The altitude made me dizzy, but we got to the waterfall at long last, and it was worth it. Walking the long hot trail back down and looking at the mountains (the mountains are beautiful, by the way) we stopped by Ribbon Creek and jumped in.
Something about how cold-beyond-cold that water was, coming down from a glacier: it made the very moment freeze. Something I’d been trying not to think about how some of the mountains, as big as they are, are all worn down by now and much smaller than they used to be. (Some mountains, like Everest, are still increasing in altitude all the time but it’s better if I don’t think about that right now.) The water in Ribbon Creek comes down that old mountain from a glacier that is…how old? Not as old as the mountain, but old, anyway. How old the mountain is, how far the water has come and for how long, and how small we are, how short our lives. We sometimes say we’ve had a long day. We haven’t.
These things taken together are what make weddings so necessary. Mountains don’t look like they change, but they do. Flowers don’t last long, in the bathtub or out of the bathtub. The strip malls won’t last forever either. We are such rickety, wrong-headed creatures. We have built some ugly things. But on the other hand, we know that if we try, we can make a day that is perfect. (I hear it helps to hire a wedding planner.) We can dance and eat cake. We can help love take root in beauty. We can vow to try forever to be as good as this one short day. The best things we build, which are families, are part of time. They make us part of time. They grow and spread, instead of eroding. If you think about it.
© 2017 by Ellen Peterson. Photos by Ellen Peterson and Carly Peters. With love and thanks to the happy couple.