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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

There is an art to losing yourself and it’s sometimes a difficult trick: my mind is always faithfully tagging along somewhere just out of sight like a dog going out for a sniff but still keeping track of my whereabouts. And the loss doesn’t have to involve an unseemly struggle with my identity, or even the embarrassment of losing my way – although I’m sure that can be part of it.

No, it’s more the surrendering of purpose, the wandering off in the direction my eyes are pointed at the time: following my nose.

I recently rediscovered my penchant for the art-form in Saskatoon – the green part of it that hugs the South Saskatchewan River like a sleeve. I had originally intended to walk to a place whose name sounded interesting – nothing else, I’m afraid. It was mentioned in a brochure in my room, and it appeared to be only a few blocks south of the river, although a fair distance from my hotel across from the university.

It seemed like a simple task: meaningless and yet something to do. But, once outside, the scenery kept whispering in my ears as I wandered along streets so tree-lined and green they could have been forest paths if not for the parked cars. Let’s face it, trees – especially elms – are leathered gods and their bark that day were so deeply wrinkled that I had to reach out and feel the texture and explore the depth. Some had thrust their rough arms out to hug the sky above the street, while others, stood like wooden statues, with their hands silently folded across their chests – gnarled and knotted, covered in vines, and inviting conversation. They were the elders of the clan, but old like my grandmother: stately, full of time and stories if I’d known how to coax them out.

And of course, there were the flowers I met along the way: accidents of colour peeking out from all the green. Some of them were perfumed, but most just reached out and stroked my eyes as I passed.

I can’t say the same for all the people I met, though. Some, as furrowed as the trees, stopped to talk about the day as if we’d already met before, while others, better dressed, ignored me as if they’d had enough of passersby in shorts and backpacks. Or, perhaps they only saw an old man masquerading as a student, pretending to be friendly, but really only reconnoitering the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, if I was persistent enough to catch the attention of their averted eyes, I would nod my head and smile to show them I could be gracious, even in rejection.

But I wondered as I passed if they would even deign to look at the houses I had seen on other streets. Houses so bereft of charm, their innards had likely digested entire lives and whose fading doors not only barred entry but made escape unlikely, too. I asked myself what the inhabitants would see if they dared peek out of the cracked and dirty windows. Would they search the street with hope or, like me, turn away in despair?

Thoughts like that soon gave way to fatigue, however, and I gave up talking to the trees and smelling every garden that caught my eye. I was beginning to notice other things: the erratic bulges in the concrete sidewalk and the weeds that punched up through the smallest cracks. The houses were thinning out as well, I realized, and the area began to harden into industry and no-nonsense rectangles with flat gravelled roofs. These buildings without windows hid machinery, not people deep within. There was an increasing disdain for colour and seemly shapes – not the eye-candy I craved. It was unfriendly and I was about to turn around when I noticed something familiar in the distance. Curious, I began to recognize it as the building in that brochure – the Western Development Museum, 1910 Boomtown.

From the outside, the museum looked more like a sprawling warehouse in a field and had it not been for the sign that promised a 1910 Prairie boom town inside, I think I would have turned around or, more probably, wandered on to find a bench.

But the museum was like nothing I’d seen since I was a child. It was a full-sized mock-up of a town with stores, homes, a turn-of-the-century police station complete with its little jail, and even a railway station with a puffing steam engine. I sauntered through kitchens and a Chinese laundry, a blacksmith shop, hardware store, even (and this was my favourite, for some reason) a funeral parlour with the organ wheezing out a hymn when it saw me standing looking at the coffin lying beside it.

There were full-size dioramas depicting the sod homes of the settlers and the problems facing Indigenous peoples, descriptions of the injustices each faced, not only with the government and each other, but also the weather. The dioramas progressed through time to the Great Depression and the accompanying drought.

In a dust-bowl depiction was an old car whose engine had been deliberately stripped away to leave just the chassis, seats, steering wheel and a set of horse reins draped over the dashboard. A sign invited visitors to board the car and tug on the reins as if you were encouraging a horse in front to move. I tried it out, of course, and suddenly, directly in front of the car appeared a life-size video of the back of two clip-clopping horses that were pulling the car like an old delivery wagon while the car banged up and down and swayed from side to side as it would have on the rutted road the video displayed. Great stuff, eh?

I lost myself on that one for sure, but I lost myself in the day as well. There is art in finding yourself so enchanted, so diverted from your everyday life, that things seem real only in the moment of experience. Time can cease to be a plough you are forced to push in front of you like Sisyphus and his rock, losing it, even for a while, is important.

To find yourself, you must first get lost.

Gary Kinney lives in Bowen Island, B.C.

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