Collage of a life

🕔Dec 03, 2008

My connection to Alexander

I am arranging paintings on the gallery floor for the All-Islands Art Show on Haida Gwaii. I notice one particular piece.

At first glance, I frown at its tacky
gold plastic frame, wondering where to hang it in the show. There is an intentional disorder in the arrangement of images—a collage of old, weathered family photos mounted without glass.

I look deeper, searching for the secret. I see part of a broken mirror inside the upper corner of the frame. On the left, a piece of wire sticks out like a forlorn grey hair atop an old woman’s head, its coarseness incompatible with the arrangement. The wire—a reminder of what was—is a tiny part of a man’s home that is no longer. Among the old photos a collaged text reads:

“Who were you then?”

This question is linked to a photo of a young man—happy-faced, long, curly brown hair flying in the wind; he embraces two excited
children. These young children
belong to Alexander. The photo is old.

There is another text phrase:

“Who are you now?”

This text leads to a different photo—a defaced headshot of Alexander. What has happened to this man in the collage, the one without a face? Attached to the collage is a written description: a piece of Alexander’s life, part of a collage of life happenings—
a piece that is broken.

Christmas, December 23, 2003.

Alexander MacDonald lost his home to the sea. He lost most of his belongings, except for these photos in the collage, and the wire, and the glass. A friend salvaged the photos from the beach, dried and pressed them, and gave them back to him.

I must meet this man.

“There is an old saying: ‘Don’t trust anyone who hasn’t been broken,” he tells me. “I have been broken, and broken again.”
Alexander’s calm voice resonates within me as I watch him, looking for some secret in his face, some revelation into my own life. I know he has a story to tell. And I know that I need to hear it.
“What was your life like before the storm of 2003?” I am watching him as he settles back into a green velvet chair. A small white stool separates us, creating intimacy with its glass dish full of miniature mandarins. He offers me a cup of herbal tea, brewed from cistern rainwater and pumped by hand.
He tells me he was dreaming of building a new house. A house that could provide shelter and healing to people—a gathering place, somewhere for artists to meet, healers to heal, shamans to dream. He wanted to give back the good energy that was given to him.
“I am interested in helping people connect with their hearts,” he said. I wonder if he is going to help me connect with my heart. But I do not tell him this.

Blessed to be

He is wearing a thick, hand-knit sweater and a matching grey scarf. His hair is wavy and grey. He has gentle eyes; eyes that reveal a man broken many times who is now healed. He tells me he is blessed to be living here in this body, in this house, in this world. I rejoice in his words.
“I was born and raised in the Ottawa valley. I have two older brothers. My mother was a botanist, and my father was an ornithologist—he studied birds. He worked as the curator of vertebrate ethology at the National Museum in Ottawa.”
“Did you pursue post-secondary education, following the footsteps of your parents?” I ask.
He looks away, deep in thought. “No,” he says, “I wanted to be a photographer. I remember when I was about 10 years old, finding the words for what I wanted to be. I told my father, and he told me I could not do this for a living.
“I believe we are born with a creative voice resounding in our ears. Kids come into the world to remind us of what we have forgotten. When I was three, my father showed me a wren’s nest in the barn. I marvelled at their tiny yellow beaks, the bulging closed eyes, their featherless and vulnerable bodies.
“Later, my brother brought several friends into the barn. There was a frenzy of excitement over the baby birds: kids were holding them, passing them back and forth. I knew something bad was going to happen. I remember reaching out to lift one of the kid’s feet off the ground. Underneath his foot was the crushed body of a baby bird. All the chicks were killed. I was appalled.
“This hurt so much because I loved them so deeply. I decided I could not let things hurt like that anymore; I wanted to stop caring and I did. As I grew older, I tried to hide my pain and fear with alcohol and drugs.


“Then I met my wife. She was “pure laine,” meaning 100 percent pure wool—she was all Quebecoise. We married. I was 19 years of age. We had two sons.”
I am shivering from the dampness. The plastic tarp hanging from the ceiling, intended to keep our sitting area warm, is no longer holding back the cold of the empty new house. He brings me a wool blanket and rests it over my shoulders.
“What happened to your family?” I ask, knowing he lived alone before the storm took his house.
“They left. Moved back to Ontario. I drove across Canada to deliver all their belongings, knowing I was saying good-bye. I chose to support her decision even though I hated it. It was like setting your family adrift on an icepan, watching them go.”
There is a pause. He brings me a binder with photos. Alexander is a very successful photographer. For a couple of years, his images appeared in every issue of Canadian Geographic. He has been a freelance photographer for 22 years, including producing images for the Ministry of Tourism in Ontario.
“I charge $1000 a day plus expenses. Moving out here was career suicide. But I don’t want to do ‘prostitute work’ any more. I want the work coming from my heart to support me now. I have made a 25-minute video montage of the pole-raising work in Skidegate. I hope it will be ready for the opening of the Haida Gwaii Heritage Centre this summer.”

The winter storm

I am searching for the next question to ask him. “Tell me about the storm that took your home.”
He begins. “I was in town, and had just finished getting groceries. I didn’t realize the power was out until I got to town. The wind was blowing and the tide was high. I stopped by a neighbour’s house and watched the water rising. I didn’t think about my home until I looked at the beach and saw a stranded log move toward my house.
“I rushed home to find water moving under the stilts of my house. The current pushed the log into the supporting stilts underneath, shaking the entire structure. I got a rope and tied it to a tree. I looked for something on my house to attach the rope to, but there was nothing. I tried to hold my house back.
“While there was still time, I went inside, rescued my dog and grabbed my camera equipment and computer. When I returned, I saw my collection of over 1,000 books fall from the bookshelves into the water. Dishes poured from the shelves. You know the scene in The Titanic where the dishes fall off the shelves? It was just like that.
“For a moment I was conscious of this surreal event, wondering if I should try to videotape it. I realized I would die if I took the time to do this. I ran back to safety and watched as the storm water swallowed my house.” Alexander looks toward the ocean, pointing to where his house once stood. He is seeing it now as he speaks. “The water lifted my house; it shuffled off the stilts and slid out into the bay. It turned 450 degrees by the time the tide went out. I remember the sides falling off. All that was left was the top peak of the roof.”
“What was the most valuable thing you lost from your home?”
“The kids’ stuff: drawings, two plaster casts of my kids’ faces. We made a cast of a hand out of wax, with beach items in it. That is gone. This white stool here was rescued. You can tell by its condition.” He points to the stool between us.
I consider what I want to say next. “When you built this house, did you not realize it was too close to the ocean? Storms happen.” I wonder if this is a fair question.
“Yes, I was aware. One must accept the impermanence of life.”

Giving back

I look around his new home. Even though it is unfinished, there is beauty. The main floor is designed for ceremonial gatherings. In the centre, a spherical wood stove rests under a tall stovepipe that rises to the second floor ceiling. Upstairs, 20 people can sleep comfortably side by side. The second floor opens in the middle with a circular lookout onto the lower ceremonial room. The whole building is designed like a modern longhouse—a house of healing.
“This house was manifested. People gave back to me after I lost everything. I have learned over the years to stand on my own two feet. Now I’m being taught something a little different. I am learning to stand on my own two feet and humbly accept with an open heart.” He stands and pulls back the tarp so I can follow him down the curving wood staircase. He adds, “The same energy that nurtured and supported me is manifested in this house. It has supported the design of this place.” He looks around his home, content in his space.
“My parents had a very special relationship—they were an inspiration. When I cared for my mother as she was dying, I learned a lot about the relationship between my mother and father. They shared a special love for each other, a love that was built from the inside. They overlooked the outward aging of their bodies and were devoted to what was on the inside.”
I look around his home, and know that this man is also devoted to what is on the inside. Before I leave, we hug. He says, “Heart to heart. Now breathe.”
I breathe deeply.