Greenland, writing and life: It's all about perspective
A by-product of immigration is the long-haul flights to visit family left behind. For 25 years, I have travelled from Canada, through Europe, to South Africa. So, I have flown over Greenland – many times. But until recently, I’d never seen it. Maybe in the past I'd been distracted by my children. Maybe we flew at night. Maybe there was cloud cover. Maybe I’d never had a window seat. So many possible reasons. But what matters is that Greenland has been there all this time, and I’ve never noticed it.
After my most recent visit to South Africa, I boarded the plane in Paris – the final leg back to Vancouver – feeling just a little sorry for myself. The ten days I had spent in the town of my birth were miserable. Family drama is so exhausting, isn’t it?
I curled up in my window seat, half-heartedly watching The Fabelmans. My visit had gone nothing as planned. Such noble intentions I had – to swoop in, like Jesus, and miraculously convert family chaos to calm. But that’s not what happened.
Maybe it was the power outages. Maybe it was not having water. (Filling buckets with swimming pool water thankfully allowed us to flush toilets – indoor plumbing with a twist.) Maybe it was jetlag. The reason doesn’t matter. I failed. Not only did I not calm the chaos, I also ended up being the villain in the story.
If the seat next to me on Air France had been empty, I would have sighed dramatically. But, of course, it wasn’t. Which made me even grumpier. I declined lunch. (Or was it breakfast?) The food was bound to taste like cardboard anyway.
As I removed the red blanket’s plastic wrapping, the couple in front of me leaned into their window, oohing and aahing, taking photos. I paused The Fabelmans, raised the shade, and found myself looking down on the most magnificent mountain range cutting through vast white expanses. Sunlight ricocheted off the peaks at fantastic angles, transforming the mountains into shadowy castles in the snow. Where were we?
I switched the movie channel to the flight path. The little screen showed us heading across Greenland. As we flew west, it introduced me to places I’d never heard of before: Charcot Land, Gaasefjord, Fonfjord, Nordvestfjord.
Far below, two tracks sliced through the snow. Were they moving? Was it even possible to see movement from this distance? I watched the tracks, wishing I’d brought binoculars, so that I could see the husky-drawn sled I was convinced was down there.
It was Fyodor Dostoevsky who said, “There is no object on earth which cannot be looked at from a cosmic point of view.” And as I stared in awe at the ‘objects’ outside my window, the story I’d been telling myself disintegrated, making way for a new ‘cosmic’ viewpoint. I was no longer the unappreciated would-be saviour, the villainized sister, the hard-done-by victim in a messy family saga. I was simply another speck in this universe of wonder. No less – or more – precious than the huskies pulling their sled a thousand miles away.
Greenland changed my perspective.
Much like literature.
My love of books began with childhood bedtime stories. Books gave me access to other people’s thoughts and dreams. Alternate ways of being. A bigger, more exciting world than my own.
I went on to teach undergrad English literature, until marriage, motherhood, and immigration took me down a different road. (Many different roads.) Then, in the midst of an interesting midlife crisis, I returned to the words I had always loved. I went back to school, wrote a couple of books, and started facilitating writing workshops. Most of my clients are writing their life stories. And with this territory comes the slipperiness of memory. The trickiness of truth. And the understanding that it’s all about perspective.
We do an exercise on perspective in our writing workshops. We write a story that is “hard” – one that elicits feelings of guilt, or embarrassment, or shame – you know, all those fun feels. We write it in first person. As we experienced it. Then we write the same story from a different viewpoint: let the antique chandelier suspended from the ceiling narrate it, or the raven on the telephone wire outside the kitchen, or God. Telling the story through different eyes results in fascinating ahas.
Like seeing Greenland for the first time.
Paying attention to something that has always been there – unnoticed – can irrevocably alter the meaning of our stories. And meaning, I have discovered, is not some unalterable truth that exists independently of the story. Meaning is made. By the storyteller.
As the cloud cover filled my porthole, I leaned back into my seat, a little softer. No longer angry for the time spent away from home, trying to accomplish the impossible. Or indignant that my family had not appreciated the effort it took to visit. To help (such a loaded word). Maybe, I thought, it wasn’t entirely personal. Maybe it was not about me. Maybe it was the final goodbye. But maybe it wasn’t. The possibilities were endless. What mattered was that I had finally seen Greenland.
It’s all about perspective.
Originally published in the Nov. 2023 Beacon.