The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
But that’s where your soul lives!” she said.
I had just told her, this friend, a student from my early days as a university teacher, that, as I mentioned in an earlier column, I had sold the old house on Wolfe Island, opposite Kingston, Ontario — at the point where Lake Ontario flows into the St Lawrence River. Wolfe Island is a large outcropping of land, with many farms, a village, a large summer population. While my friend must have known the island from her days at Queen’s University, she had never seen the house. But she knew what I had written about it in my books and obviously had drawn conclusions about its place in my life.
It was last summer that this conversation took place, and I’ve been thinking about it since.
The place where my soul lived: perhaps it was that.
One of the memories that returns involves the placement of the stones. The old house, built sometime in the nineteenth century—post and beam construction, a hand-hewn post revealed when I was renovating—stood only a few feet from the shore of the lake, and one summer day something impelled me to haul stones out of the water and set them on the back lawn—found sculpture.
I put on a bathing suit and cheap canvas shoes to protect my feet, and waded in, prospecting for rocks. The first one I found, in perhaps two feet of water, was a large, oval boulder of pink granite. Immersed in a fluid, lifted by the buoyancy long ago defined by Archimedes, the rock was not too difficult to move along under the surface, but when I reached the shore it was suddenly impossibly heavy. But I was determined, and I heaved it to the edge of the low bank and rolled it up, a few inches at a time until I reached the flat lawn, where I set it in place. Then I waded back into the water and found a more or less matching rock, more spherical, a little smaller, and hauled it too up to the lawn, where I situated them, close together but not too close.
I was living alone in those days, in a state of some psychic dishevelment and recalling it all now, it seems to me that the struggle to find and correctly place those stones, to bring something into being on the shore where the lake and river meet, was part of recreating myself in my solitude. Not far from my two granite boulders I dragged up pieces of an old ferry dock which had drifted ashore nearby, slabs six inches thick, soaked with creosote or some other tar. A couple were set in place on a flat limestone outcropping, an eight foot beam stretching across the space, an irregularly shaped slab nailed upright at one end. The beam was a convenient place from which to look out over the water. I sat there to eat my breakfast. I called it my surrealist picnic table.
All this was a way of defying folly and depletion, not to piddle about with words and feelings, but to build anew, eccentrically and with the strength of my arms. Inside the house I drew on the wall a single large observing eye, and all around it small moths and spiders, life-size, as realistic as I could make them. Photographs were linked by strands of vine with curling pointed leaves. Growing older, I was building, or rebuilding, my soul. The psychologist C. G. Jung created for himself a round stone tower, inscribed words on tablets of rock. Or so I’ve heard.
Finally, when I had nailed new clapboard siding on a back wall, I hung on it two tall, slender wooden forms, a found king and queen, I decided, or a god and goddess. In their silence these totems watched over my stones and my new bench, spirits of the water’s edge, guardians of my soul’s labour.