It was green, really green. I put it on and looked in the mirror. The hat was cute, but it was green and I was looking for something red or black. And yet, there was something about the hat that intrigued me, that challenged me to step out of the box of what I always did, to try something new.
It was only a hat, but it represented more to me as I looked at my reflection. I started to see myself a bit differently. Of course I had the option of playing it safe and staying with my original plan to find a black or red hat, but something shifted, a sense of possibility, and I decided I was going to go with the green one. Maybe no one else would like it, but I decided that I did. And at that moment that was enough.
Of course as I walked around downtown wearing the green hat, I started doubting myself. What if I look ridiculous in this? What if I look like a fool? Back and forth it went in my mind. I told myself that I was placing far too much importance on the situation, and yet I knew the decision to go with the green hat represented more, much more. I was taking a risk, albeit a small one. I was stepping out of my comfort zone and daring to see myself in a new light.
I have always been drawn to free spirits, the renegades, drifters, creative souls, unusual people, beautiful, eccentric people that live outside the box and the usual expectations that we have been taught. I reflect back on some of these people and how they have taught me to follow my heart and not to be afraid to live with passion, emotion, and risk. Some of them, like myself, are what I call dark horse people. These are people that got off to a rocky start in this life and yet somehow, counter to the doubts of others, have managed to rise through their personal ashes and find a sweet kind of redemption.
I think of a true story of a dark horse that despite an unpromising start became one of the fastest and most loved horses of the 20th century. At the start of his life very few people saw anything special in this horse, not in the way he looked or ran. But this horse loved to run, and he would run for the sheer joy of running. He would have run until his heart burst because that was his joy and that was what he was created to do. From what I understand, the people that surrounded this horse and believed in him were mostly considered to be underdogs, and as they witnessed the transformation of this underdog horse, they themselves began to transform, to blossom, to stand up against doubt and what seemed to be serious obstacles and limitations. They started to listen to the dreams that had been written in their hearts and souls when they came into this world, before the layers of this life buried them.
I often cry as I think of this horse. There is a part of me that understands that longing to follow my heart and pursue my dreams, even at the risk of my heart bursting. There is another part of me that tells me to play it safe, stay within the established lines, and to be satisfied with the so called security of sensible choices that get the bills paid and keep me within the norms of this western world. But is it security? What am I trading of my heart and soul to walk the path of conformity to save myself from being judged, shunned or at the very least, looking like a fool? So there’s this choice always, a resigned “safe” heart or a wild heart, a heart that leaves me feeling so alive and hopeful and joyful that if it burst I could almost accept the risk.
It is only a green hat. But perhaps it is a choice among many choices to step outside the lines and challenge myself to see myself differently; a dark horse that has begun to run with a wild heart beating to the dreams that God wrote in my soul a long time ago.
This is what her grandmother said to her as a young girl and she remembered feeling special. She had two granddaughters, but Melissa was the granddaughter who inspired her to paint a picture of a young princess girl, her only adopted granddaughter whom she knew had a connection to the earth and all of her spirits. Melissa was unlike her other grandaughter, Sylvia, who insisted on perfection in her clothes while Melissa was the girl collecting feathers and snakes.
Melissa was different from all of the grandchildren. It was like she had a memory imprinted on her soul of who she was before she was adopted, and the young girl had a restlessness in her that would not be stilled. She seemed to be searching for the girl she was before she became adopted. Her grandmother could sense the lost girl in her adopted granddaughter, yet she stopped short of actually connecting to that part of her. It was more like they could see each other standing on either side of a turbulent river, neither one of them able to cross to the other side. Melissa held out some hope that perhaps her grandma would be able to catch a glimpse of who she really was underneath the adopted family script and she could somehow tell her, put into words what her young heart instinctively knew to the marrow in her bones. Maybe there was a chance she could see the girl’s destiny and give her insight into who she had been before the adoption, although at the time, Melissa could not have put that hope into words. It was just a feeling.
People in her adopted family mentioned in quiet talk that her grandma had a gift, the foretelling kind of gift, and she knew things. Like the time grandma dreamt her cousin would be in a fatal canoe accident the next day, and she had tried to warn the family, and no one listened and her cousin did die the way she had dreamt it. Or the time her grandma knew her brother had died before the phone call came. She just knew. Melissa was hoping that somehow she would be able to know things about her, although the older woman was somewhat reserved in speaking about this gift or spiritual matters.
Being an artist, her grandmother surely used art as catharsis, and she often painted cloudy skies and stormy water. However, being in her grandparent’s home, Melissa mostly felt protected from the storms in her young life. Her grandparents had reached a very comfortable place and lived with upper middle class privilege and ease. A new car every year or so, vacations to anywhere in the world they desired, a home they designed and built on many acres of property in a highly sought after resort town in the Lake Huron region of Ontario. The property did not have a pond when they bought it and her grandfather wanted one so he had one put in. He cut trails through the bush for walking and cross-country skiing.
The home they designed together was of the best wood and stone local to the area, with a very large fireplace that had a hand carved beam from an old farmhouse as its mantle. It was the center of the house, its heart, and Melissa remembered many winter nights sitting in front of the fire, with the snow blowing and gusting and howling outside. She had felt a sense of temporary peace inside of her when she looked into that fire, surrounded by her grandparents and the careful life that they had created. She felt safe in these moments, sheltered from a world that did not feel safe.
Out of all of their grandchildren, Melissa was the brooder, the quiet one, the girl who watched everything and said nothing. The girl who felt more at peace in the bush with whatever fate could deal her there as opposed to the obstacle course of wanting to belong in a family that could never be her blood. The obstacle course became ever so gruelling when the family photo albums came out, and everyone compared family features through the generations. She was quite sure all her cousins, aunties and uncles did what they could to make a place for her and her adopted brother, but she knew deep in her heart that blood is blood and to see traces of your reflection in your children, your siblings, your parents, your grandchildren, well, there is no substitute for that. So Melissa watched as they flipped through the pictures, laughing, recognizing, recalling, and she said nothing.
There was, however, a special place of belonging that she found with her grandparents. From the time she was a young girl, her adopted parents had put her on the train for the northbound trip to Lake Huron and she treasured the times she got to spend with her grandparents on her own. It was the most delicious feeling to know that for a little while she would have them all to herself. She loved the train rides through the deep winter nights, the laughter of the other people on the train as they toasted to the snowfall and their upcoming adventures as the train wound through Ontario farmland, then the lakes, winding northwards into Lake Huron country. She would feel a sense of hope and wonder as she looked out at the majestic pines, windblown sentinels guarding the shores of the lake, offering their sweet fragrance to the northern sky.
As she looked out at the lights glimmering through the snow and darkness, she thought about the people that lived inside the homes and about her grandparents waiting for her at the train station. How she loved them both, knowing they would be so happy to see her, how they would wrap her in hugs and kisses and take her to their home. Her grandfather would grab her suitcase and put it into the trunk of the car and she would climb inside and sink into the plush seat and it would be so warm and smell so good. She thought of her grandmother, so beautiful that people would still stop her on the street to tell her so, dressed refined and ladylike, and her grandfather, with his tweed cap and smelling like spice. It was then that she felt so blessed to have this time with them.
Melissa would feel anticipation as their car drove through town and then out of it, on their way to the home made of wood and stone. In the distance, she could see the glow from the lights on the gate posts that they always left on, bathing the driveway in soft amber light, and the lights from the house were so welcoming. This was truly her grandparents’ home, and Melissa knew then that it would never be a home without them. It would lose its steadiness and quiet elegance, and it would only be a shell reminiscent of better days and would forever long for the hands that designed and built it.
Once they were at the house, her grandfather would pull the car into the garage, and they would enter the house through the laundry room. The laundry room still had a hand ringer washing machine as her grandmother believed it to be far superior to the new washing machines, and her clothes and linens were a testament to this. She prided herself on her immaculate home, home cooked meals and devotion to her family. The older woman was very politely reserved with people who were not members of her family, but with her kin she was known to have a very good sense of humour and was sought after for her wisdom on various things. Aside from her family, the older woman’s only indulgence was her art. She revealed pieces of herself in her paintings that her words never would.
Melissa was always so excited to be there, to have arrived and know that the guest bedroom would be made up just for her, with lavender smelling sheets and a soft light coming from an antique lamp. She would always sleep in the bed which was just underneath the window. She loved that she could be close to the stars at night and wake up feeling the morning sun on her face. The young girl cherished her time with her grandparents and wanted to do as much as she could while she was there. She couldn’t wait to get out of bed and start the day. Her grandmother would have French toast made for her, and her grandfather would be at the table drinking his morning coffee with a grin.
She would always ask him to tell her a story, and he would. He told stories about life in the bush, life in the logging camps, life with the timber wolves and bush horses. She adored her grandfather and followed him through much of the day. They walked in the bush together and brought in firewood, played ping pong if the weather was really bad, and at night played many games of crib. He taught her how to play a very good game, and their nightly crib games became their tradition.
Melissa’s grandfather taught her how to snowshoe, and also taught her about the wild things, the way they grew, and the seasons of their lives. He was the kind of man who could hold out his hand and a fox would walk right to him. The kind of man who new how to survive in northern Ontario. He learned how to live in the bush and carve a living from it. He believed in treating people with respect and giving them a chance, no matter who they appeared to be. He was also a born storyteller and teacher.
In the spring, her grandfather would tap the beautiful maple trees and make real maple syrup. She loved to taste the sap that ran right from the tree, taking it out of the spigot as it slowly made its way into the pail. It was a slow and very involved process to make maple syrup, and her grandfather did it for a couple of springs and then surrendered it to other projects.
Not many years after the maple syrup springs Melissa accompanied him into the bush in the late winter. She remembered that her grandfather was wearing his moccasins and she listened as he told her stories. She loved his wonderful sense of humour as he pointed out the antics of the blue jays. And then he became quiet. And she knew. He had a history of heart problems and had suffered a heart attack before she was born. She could hear his breathing begin to get laboured, and when she looked at his face it was very pale and his hand was over his heart. She knew that she could not, would not, fail him and that she would make sure he got back to the house where he could get help.
“Papa, please put your arm around me and lean on me. We will take it slow and steady. We’re going to get back to the house”.
For the first time in her young life Melissa saw fear in his eyes and she willed herself to stay strong and focus on helping him walk. Inside she wanted to cry and kept thinking as she looked down at his moccasins about how vulnerable he was at that moment. How a piece of her would die inside her heart if he collapsed in the snow and she couldn’t get him home. She felt God with them, a very tangible strength that kept them calm and focused. But for the grace of God they got home, and he was taken to the hospital, and that was the last time they walked together in the bush.
It would not be long after this that her grandparents decided to sell their home and move closer to medical care attainable in the city. Melissa has had many dreams about trying to return to her grandparents’ home. And in her dreams, she would return only to find her grandparents gone. Perhaps a ghost or two still lingered there, looking out through the windows past the pond and into the aspen trees, following the sound of the wind as it raised old memories and then erased them. Melissa realized there would be no homecoming for her in the house of wood and stone once her grandparents had gone, not in her waking, or her sleeping.