Harrowsmith Friday

Every once in a while, I try the Zen “live in the moment” thing. It’s a nice idea: technically, it should keep the mind from being fraught with emotions and connections. The older I get, though, the less often it works. Brains are meant to remember things, and memories pop up no matter what practical or spiritual theories one might espouse.

As well as a brain that is full of memories, I have to deal with the fact that time is clearly circular. (Feel free to sing the chorus of The Circle Game… or The Circle of Life, depending on how old you are.)

All of this relates to what I termed “Harrowsmith Friday”.

Harrowsmith was a magazine for hippies. It was about getting back to the land and living nicely with nature and stuff like that. In the 1980s, my parents had a subscription — which I occasionally let them read. Harrowsmith had columns for homesteaders and for whole food cooks and for wannabe writers. Timothy Findley wrote for them, as did Paul Quarrington and Patrick Lima.

Now, Patrick Lima was – is — one of my heroes. He and his partner created Larkwhistle Garden, made tea from herbs in his garden (my tea addiction started early) and they were clearly the reclusive type of people that I wanted to be. And Patrick Lima could write. When it first came out, my parents bought me a copy of his gardening book The Harrowsmith Illustrated Book of Herbs. I still have it, and I still read it for pleasure even though my gardening is limited to containers of catnip on a north-facing balcony.

On the morning of Harrowsmith Friday, a quick Facebook check (and here you can consider phrases like surfing, connections, and six degrees of separation) ended up with me watching this series of videos on YouTube. I’d never seen Patrick Lima in person. He seems to be everything I thought he was. For half an hour, I was transported back to adolescent adoration.

But the present always interrupts the past, so I left my 2-bedroom suburban apartment and went off to work with visions of Larkwhistle (and, via connected memories, Timothy Findley’s Stone Orchard) in my head. I met with my first student who sighed heavily and said he had another novel to read for English class: Aritha van Herk’s The Tent Peg.

When The Universe wants to pay attention, it slaps you across the face.

For The Tent Peg, I need to take you out of Harrowsmith magazine and into my small-town high school to meet a teacher. I forget her last name – her first name was Carole, which is what she wanted us to call her – and she was hired as an English teacher. She wore long calico skirts and tied her hair back with batik scarves. She was vegetarian. She taught me to refer to books as “a copy of (insert title)” rather than just by their title, because you’re not likely to have the original manuscript in your hands. *  She and her husband had once written a back-page gardening article for Harrowsmith: I recognised her name. When Carole discovered that I needed more than what the Ontario curriculum could offer me, she told me to go to the library and get a copy of The Tent Peg.

The Tent Peg, in case you haven’t read it, is so powerfully written that small-town Ontario disappeared and I was suddenly somewhere in the wilds of the Yukon. I became child and adult, woman and man. I understood everything for those two precious hours it took to read the book.

I fell in love with the book, and Aritha van Herk became a hero — as did Carole.

So, on Harrowsmith Friday, when the student carelessly shoved a copy of The Tent Peg in my direction, I almost cried with happiness. I think I stroked the book. The student looked at me oddly.

It has fortunately long-since been lost, but in adolescence I wrote a (terrible) short story based on The Tent Peg. It mashed together all those hippie things I was thinking about at the time, and I added a few bits of adolescent emo-ness like murder and suicide. Carole told me it was an excellent story and showed me where it could be improved. It was one of the first times I took constructive criticism to heart: I wanted her to love the story. I wanted her to be as moved by my story as I was by The Tent Peg.

Needless to say, the story never got that good. Not even close. But I had a goal in mind, which is always a useful thing to have.

Days like Harrowsmith Friday don’t usually get me anywhere: it’s not like a burst of enlightenment. They’re a comforting trip through memory. (Jesus, I’m getting old.) They remind me that my ideals have not changed since I was very young – and, therefore, any effort to change them is probably a waste of time. And days like Harrowsmith Friday remind me to take my book out on the balcony and tend to that catnip like it’s a sacrificial offering.

*[Editor’s note: when I held my finished manuscript of Holland and Jaime in my two hands, I so wanted Carole to be there with me.]

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