While I was visiting my parents over the holidays, an old photograph surfaced of me before a high school dance. There is much I could say about this time in my life, but when I look at the photo, it’s hard for me to get past the hair.
As a teenager, I was very self-conscious and embarrassed easily. When I decided (shortly before this photo was taken) to get my long hair cut and permed, I was hoping for a slightly new look, but not a drastic, attention-drawing change. Not too short on the sides. Not too curly. When I ended up with what could be best described as poodle head, I was horrified.
How could I face the stares and jeers of everyone at school? (Yes, it sounds self-absorbed and superficial now, but this was high school, remember). I called up my boyfriend and we agreed to skip school the next day and drive to Victoria (about an hour away) – where no one would recognize me.
I can’t remember exactly what we did all day, except that we spent some time wondering around the neighbourhood of James Bay near Beacon Hill Park. Maybe we parked the car and walked or maybe we just drove around. In any case, one house caught our attention, and we stopped. On the grass in front of the house, sat a small brown monkey. Neither of us had ever seen a live monkey up close before. When we approached, a middle-aged woman came out of the house. She was very friendly, let us meet the monkey, and chatted with us for quite awhile.
It ended up being a good day, but with a strange quality – as if we had stepped out of our regular lives and even out of time. By our return home, I had grown accustomed (or at least resigned) to my new hair and bolstered enough to face school the following day.
I didn’t give the episode much more thought until two years later, when I was living in Victoria going to university and became interested in the artist Emily Carr. I had known about her before, but now something about her paintings and her life seemed to speak to me in a new and personal way. She had grown up in the Victoria neighbourhood of James Bay (she was born there in 1871) and had lived there as an eccentric older woman with many pets, including a monkey named Woo. As I looked at an old black and white photo of a middle-aged Carr standing in her James Bay backyard holding a small familiar-looking monkey, an eerie feeling of deja vu came over me. Is it possible I might have seen the ghosts of Emily Carr and Woo on that fateful bad hair day?
I’ve walked around James Bay many times since then, trying to remember which house was the one where we’d seen the woman and the monkey, but I never could find it again. If it really had been the ghosts of Emily and Woo, did they appear just to help me through a bad hair day? Or was there some profound message that Carr would have liked to pass on (a P.S. about art or trees or life, perhaps)?
A few days ago, I paid one last visit to “Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon,” an exhibit which just ended at the Vancouver Art Gallery. As I walked through the rooms of Carr’s paintings, it occurred to me that she doesn’t need a ghost to pass on a message: her paintings have never stopped speaking. This is not to say I wouldn’t have a few questions for her, if I did meet her ghost….
[Click on “My Books” in the right sidebar for info on the two novels I ended up writing about Emily Carr’s childhood]