Russ and I have not travelled extensively in our 35-year marriage. In fact, the first time we ever left the country together was only four years ago, so my wonderings about place probably seem naive to those who travel often.
Today I am sitting on a bench swing at the edge of a lush garden. I’m wearing a light floral-print dress with a tie (like when I was four) and my feet are bare — I feel like my four-year-old self. The sun spreads like liquid on my neck and all I can think is, I do not need a sweater.
It’s not even 10:30 a.m., but already the air hangs thick with the smell of green and the flowers are so bright you can taste them: strawberry pink, coral like ripe cantaloupe, popsicle orange and chili red. A breeze rustles the curls of Spanish moss that hang like girls’ ponytails from the trees I’m sitting under. Tiny brown lizards with perpetual smiles scuttle in the underbrush and leap acrobatically from leaves as large as sandwich plates. The lizards have long toes that radiate from their feet like stars and I am delighted, not afraid. For the second time in my life, I’m in Gainesville, Florida.
This is paradise. In Saskatchewan we long for even a single day of warm sunshine, much less a summerlong stretch. We are sustained by memory and hope. Remember the summer of ’84? It was hot for weeks. Surely it could happen again — the possibility always exists. And yet here in Florida, summer is a way of life. Only the flowers have seasons.
At home most say they would miss the snow, the autumn leaves or the thaw in spring. Not me. I console myself by thinking the peace I feel would give way to boredom. And then I talk to residents who came from North Dakota, Indiana, Connecticut, Upstate New York. Been here 30 years. Could never go back to that cold.
Cold. Who would I be if I were not constantly cold from a lifetime on the prairie? From a lifetime of being indoors on all but the warmest of rare Saskatchewan summer days? Who would I be if I were not hunched, pinched, tucked in on myself? If my hands did not hurt because of the wind’s relentless assault on my bones? Would my cramped arms loosen, open spontaneously when offered a hug? Could it be possible to walk on a beach unencumbered by shame? I’ve spent so many years protecting myself, I can’t tell if I’m cold or just closed.
Here in Florida I am reminded of the fable of the north wind and the sun, where the sun proves to be the stronger of the two through gentleness rather than brute force. I am being coaxed out of my prairie armour into a state of being that feels unfamiliar — released into the world, rather than inside a fortress against it.
Flying home last week I watched the landscape below change from green to brown, bodies of water from blue to icy white; even though our snow is mostly gone, the last of the drifts are holed up in tree bluffs. I felt the prairie grip tighten and I instinctively wrapped my scarf around my neck before we left the plane. Shoulders tensed, I braced for the first blast of cold as we went outside.
Back at work next day, I walked briskly (because the temperature was hovering just above zero) past the garden in front of the press building. The earth was crusty and parched-looking, but the tips of green shoots were pushing up through clumps of dirt and by the wall that catches the most sun stood ragged rose-coloured tulips that have made their April appearance since the building was put there 30-some years ago. They don’t care that it’s too cold to come out. They just do.
It seems to me I’ve never made peace with the prairie. Or maybe it’s just I’ve never made peace with myself.
(photos by Maureen Weber)