by Elizabeth Templeman
After two long days in the Lower Mainland, enclosed with two dozen other English language educators, I am at least blessed with a room ringed by windows, admitting sunlight and scenery, and yes, there are plenty of donuts and weak coffee. We are serving on a committee charged with articulating our courses. So, we've gathered yearly—exchanging the incidental stuff about romance, marriage, illness, tragedy, childbirth—as we negotiate our collective way through our work, spinning abstractions out of the lingo of our shared profession, teaching English as a second language.
At the end of two days, our meetings are finished, and I'm on my own, staying in a motel room where the door flies ajar when I push the key into the lock.
The day before, listening to a sample lecture clip from a package of materials developed to teach listening skills, I learned how happiness and unhappiness run their separate courses. The distance between them is, apparently, independent of their sway. It does not become greater with extreme happiness nor with extreme unhappiness. Thus, our exuberance might be tinged with unhappiness; our deepest sadness, bordered by happiness. An idea that yesterday threatened to hold me in its grip, wishing to ponder it even as I scrambled to find my way back to the less absorbing context in which it was embedded. On this morning, though, idle in my shabby motel room, I have the sweet liberty to indulge the notion of distances spanning happiness and unhappiness.
Later in the morning, I walk to the Lions Gate Bridge. Approaching, I pass a runner, a biker changing his tire, a drifter sleeping in a pink-hatted heap against the high concrete curb, the other side of which I leaned into to avoid the brush of on-coming traffic.
Lions Gate pulls me: eerie, lovely, dizzying in its sweeping ascent and the vibration and hum of its traffic. At its point of greatest height, I stop to look out at the city and then turn back. Vancouver is extraordinary in its rugged beauty, its verdant fringes, its rivers, oceans, lakes, and dampness. I retrace my steps, averting my eyes from the still-sleeping man, swallowing back fear and guilt with the exhaust.
On this day of respite, bridges capture my imagination. Today, for me, they represent that abstract tether between happiness and despair in the looping associative reflection of the mind at rest. I will run a short way along Capilano Road to the Capilano Suspension Bridge in the afternoon. In twelve minutes, I’m standing in a line up at the Suspension Bridge, waiting to pay for admission. The damp coolness chills me.
But I love crossing the bridge, crossing back-and-forth three times while moving along through the masses of other tourists, trying to feel alone. Just as the rainforest eases me into the delusion of solitude, a gust of heavy perfume dispels it. Though my panic will rise if I must climb beyond the fourth rung of a ladder, I have no fear on the magnificently long and high suspension bridge. I love bracing myself against the sway, feeling the rhythm of its shudder and swing.
On the far side, I walk through the forest trails, moving in no particular direction. Gigantic leaves mat the ground, making the pathways fragrant and slick with their decay. Insects and fish skim on either side of the surface of murky, grey-green pools of water. From the lookout, I watch a young eagle winging across the canyon—beneath the ground I stand on!
From my quiet vantage point, I reflect on the Scots who designed the spectacular bridge in this wilderness and the young Japanese and Indian men who built it to their design. It's a brooding, magnificent, powerful place: no easy or gentle beauty here, even in days of sunlit blue. The capricious relationship between happiness and despair makes perfect sense to me. My feelings are weighted by contradiction, shunting me back and forth with dizzying speed. I delight at being at this bridge, but I also miss my family and, for a while, filter my experience through what I imagine theirs would be. On that look-out, higher even than the eagle's flight, I consider the men who fell to their deaths while constructing the place and feel burdened by a responsibility to honour my surroundings.
An hour later, I stretch stiffened limbs and begin the run back to my motel room, stopping at a cubby-holed Greek cafe to pick up donair and coffee, which smell wonderful in my empty room and taste even better. Content, I decide to return to that cafe in the evening and have the same meal for dinner.
But I don't. Time on my hands, I'll leaf through the brochure on area restaurants. Thinking of my choice—to stay with what I already know—as too boring and typical of my reluctance to venture out, I will choose an upscale and elegant Tuscan restaurant on Marine Drive instead.
There, I will feel incredibly alone. Tucked in a dark corner and fussed over by handsome waiters, I'll make an effort to appear content with my solitude—all the while forlorn and wishing for donair.
Elizabeth Templeman lives, works, and writes in the south-central interior of British Columbia. Publications include individual essays appearing in various journals and anthologies, and two books of essays, Notes from the Interior, and Out & Back, Family in Motion. To learn more about her, check out her website: https://elizabethtempleman.trubox.ca/