Tuesday, 5 January 2016

64 Million Artists Day 5 - Chris

"Write a story about a time you lost something, or someone. It can be a funny story, or sad. However you'd like it to be. Remember the details.. and feel free to make up a new ending."

I was 18 and he was beautiful. Actually beautiful. An Adonis in the back of a canoe. His name was Chris. We both worked at a wilderness canoeing camp over the summer holidays, leading canoe trips in northern Ontario. I had started out as a camper, and had worked my way up over the following summers until I was assistant trip leader. This was my last summer canoeing; my family was leaving the country, I was going away to university and I was not coming back to that city. 

The camp was run by the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. It didn't have a physical site, just some offices in which we stored supplies over the summer, with our ancient aluminium canoes stacked outside. We'd meet the campers on the first day in the street, and then have journey in a mini-van, towing the canoe trailer, for several hours north to Algonquin Park. The camp didn't have very much money, and we weren't paid well, but it was - and still may be - the best job I ever had. The kids who came to camp were also not very well off. Sometimes the Children's Aid Society sent us kids, who were blown away by the sheer number of trees they saw on their week away from the city. And once, a young boy, who had as his water bottle an empty mickey, clearly once filled with booze.

It seems remarkable to me now that we - in our teens or barely clear of them - were given responsibility for those kids. We were supposed to provide spiritual leadership too, which seems incredible. Mostly we'd read a poem, or a thought for the day, out of a water-stained photocopied sheaf - and then let nature do the rest. Chris was pretty good at this - he actually seemed to have a belief system of some sort. I'm not religious now, and back then I didn't know what I thought about anything - I was awkward, sheltered and shy. But he was nice to me - he treated me like I was none of those things - and I had a huge grateful crush on him.

He was the trip leader on my last canoe trip of the summer. Even now, looking back, I can still feel the magic of it. I loved being around him. The weather was perfect. The kids were great. One night, we managed to reach a coveted camp site - a small sandy peninsula - before anyone else, and so we decided to have our rest day there the next day. I got up early before anyone else and swam in the lake while the morning mist was still rising off it, before sitting on the beach in the sun with my journal. That night, we had a bonfire. The night was clear and as we scanned the skies for the Perseids, the meteor shower visible every August, we realised we were seeing something else - the Northern Lights. We were all carried away by the sight - actually euphoric - running and laughing away from the bonfire to the darkness of the beach, and lying on our backs on the cold sand to watch the shifting patterns in the night sky until we were chilled and shaking.

I felt like I had a connection with Chris because of the magic of that trip. It gave me the courage to suggest we meet up after the summer. I was going to be in Toronto, and he was at university a few hours away in a town called London, where my sister happened to live. Chris said it was a great idea. I went to see my sister for my birthday weekend, a month or so after moving to Toronto. I arranged to meet him for coffee. It's funny how well I can remember the meeting. Chris arrived by bicycle. He offered to buy my coffee. It felt really easy to talk to him. And then he told me he was dropping out of university. He wanted a change of direction. He'd decided to become a Roman Catholic priest.

There wasn't much I could say to that. We finished our coffee. I went back to my sister's, and then I cried and cried. I'd lost any hope of realising my crush, I suppose, in a fairly inarguable way. But I think also I cried because everything in my life was in motion and there was so little to fix on. Sand underneath, the shifting night sky above. Beautiful and terrifying, all at once.

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