On a warm August evening, Brenda Missen, a 37-year-old single, unattached writer, pitches her tent beside a lake in Canada’s 7,600 square-kilometre [3,000 square-mile] Algonquin Provincial Park. She is on a four-night “reconnaissance mission,” an hour’s paddle from the parking lot, to find out if she has the capability—and nerve—to one day take a real canoe trip in the park interior by herself. Paddling and portaging from her campsite by day and surviving imaginary bear attacks by night, she decides she’s ready. Then a ranger arrives to check her permit, and an inexplicable, powerful intuition tells her this is the person she’s meant to marry. Going solo may not be necessary after all.
But the fairy tale unravels. In the wake of a broken engagement to her One True Paddling Partner, Brenda ventures into the near wilderness on a series of solo canoe trips that blow all her perceptions of romance, relationships, God, and her own self (gently) out of the water. In our high-tech, urban age, when so many people are disconnected from the natural world, Tumblehome—part spiritual memoir, part travel adventure, and great part ode to the Earth—is a timely and important exploration of where our real roots lie.
“Almost allegorical in scope, Tumblehome sparkles with humanity.”
—Joseph Kertes, award-winning author of Gratitude and The Afterlife of Stars
“Brenda Missen, a self-described “keen canoeist,” has been a pilgrim of solitude. She has entered a world in which language has not yet been born and offers us the gift of her memoir, Tumblehome.”
—Diana Beresford-Kroeger, author of To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest
“Tumblehome, Brenda Missen’s compelling memoir, is the story of one woman’s canoeing adventures in the Canadian wilderness. Yet it is simultaneously a profound meditation on the complexities of human relationships, our common interface with the natural world, and a journey of spiritual transformation. In its pages, it is as if Annie Dillard meets the Taoist sage Lao Tzu. In Brenda, explorer, writer, and spiritual seeker converge in the telling. From the first line— “My paddle mines for diamonds that sparkle on the wind-riffled lake”—to the last, Missen cups us in the palm of her hands. As Brenda comes to trust her spiritual mentor Asante, to whom the book is dedicated, so readers can trust Brenda to gently open their hearts and minds to their own interior depths where “joy is [our] birthright and we are the diamonds we seek.”
—Susan McCaslin, author of Into the Open: Poems New and Selected
“Tumblehome takes us on an intimate journey into an emotional, spiritual, and physical wilderness where fears are overcome, relationships scrutinized, and enlightenment sought. A canoe trip with many twists and challenges, by the end I truly felt that I had forest-bathed with Missen.”
—Becky Mason, canoe Instructor, filmmaker, writer and artist
from Chapter 5
A half metre of wet March snow had fallen overnight. I bushwhacked on my skis on the narrow woods trail beside the frozen river, ducking under spruce bows weighed down with snow. At the top of the hill I paused under a branch, elated in the way only exercise elates me, breath coming hard, heart thudding, mind rejoicing in the soft, silent deep white beauty all around. It struck me that if the ranger hadn’t ended our relationship, I would not be here: I would never have found my place on the Madawaska.
And that’s when it came. Like a bird alighting on the snow-laden tree branch beside me. Forgiveness. It arrived when I wasn’t focused on it or trying to make it happen. It arrived, out of the crisp sun-filled blue, with the realization that the ranger was the catalyst for a huge milestone in my life: the final dissolution of the fairytale dream. I could look back now, and see how our incredible mind connection had carried us away.
I took a swig from water bottle and thought back to something my oldest sister had said – that we had conducted our relationship out of time and place, away from our real lives. It seemed to me now, standing under the snow-white spruce canopy, that we had conducted our relationship mostly on a “soul” level. It had taken place, metaphorically speaking, in a canoe on water, never landing on solid ground. It was when we brought it into the social realm that the cracks began to show. We had to deal with each other’s personalities and friends and work schedules and habits – a far cry from purely connected minds and souls. Our minds were so connected, so often “one,” it never occurred to me our hearts wouldn’t, or couldn’t, stay connected as well. No one was to blame. I could forgive him.
I planted poles on either side of skis and pushed off down the hill.
There’s no rain to keep me awake but my brain is too full of new questions to sleep. Did Louise have any inkling of what was going to happen? Or did her intuition tell her to be with Brett, and did she, too, ultimately feel betrayed by it? She was an angry person, angrier than I’ve ever been. Did she come to a place of forgiving Brett before she died? Did she, perhaps more importantly, forgive herself? These are things I have yet to find out. In my own case, even as I’ve rejoiced at the arrival of peace in my heart toward the ranger, I’m aware there’s still anger simmering. It’s directed mostly at myself, for getting into one more short-lived relationship, and even more so for my “faulty” intuition. There’s just no reconciling that powerful intuitive thought that came to me on that Kioshkokwi campsite three years ago with my current status quo. I’ve spent years honing my intuition, it’s always been a gift. How will I trust it again? And yet, I muse sleepily before I drift off, it must be somewhat trustworthy: I’m out here by myself….
A cooing loon reveille brings me out of the tent. It’s eight o clock in the morning and seven loons have gathered in the middle of the lake. I plant myself on a rock to watch.
The loons form a circle. A moment later several disappear under the water only to bob up almost immediately. All seven form a row, white breasts all facing me. Still in a row, they swim toward me. Just as I wonder how close they’ll come to shore in this remarkable synchronized routine, they do a quarter-turn, all at the same time, and form a single-file line, in silhouette to me. They glide up the bay, and I race to get the agent’s binoculars for a magnified view of the rest of the show.
Through the binoculars, I watch one loon separate from the others, look around and flap his wings vigorously along the water until he’s airborne. He disappears over the tree-line but, because he’s a loon and it’s a loon ritual, carves back around the lake, flying past his loon friends and me before he disappears for good.
And then there are six.
One disappears below the surface.
And then there are five.
Another goes to check on the one below.
And then there are four.
These four swim farther up the bay.
And then I have to go to the biffy.
The four are still hanging out in the middle of the bay when I come back. They line up, like so many planes readying for take-off, and follow each other down the water runway and up into the air. Two disappear over the trees (forsaking loon ritual!). The last two grace me with a beautiful white-breasted fly-by over my campsite on their way around the lake.
And then there are none.
Except I know two are somewhere under the surface, somewhere in the lake. These two are the pair that belong to the lake, and I know sooner or later they’ll reappear.
I build a modest breakfast fire. It blazes immediately without the help of camp fuel. I’m confident the woods are safe. No guilt. Or remorse.
“Remorse,” writes B. Alan Wallace, my latest Buddhist mentor, “is sincerely focusing on a misdeed, taking responsibility for it, and regretting having done it…. Guilt is an afflictive state of mind focused on the self as in, ‘I am an unworthy person.’”
Asante puts it more bluntly: “Guilt is a useless emotion. It’s just you feeling bad about something you’ve already done. It doesn’t change anything.”
My writing has always been the biggest source of this useless emotion. I’ve felt guilty for the way I procrastinate. Guilty for not being prolific. For not having one novel published by the age of forty. And now I have the agent to throw into the mix. Asante is right though: the guilt doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t spur me to do anything different. It just makes me feel bad. Which makes things worse. I’ve come a long way in silencing the Critical Chorus, but guilt feels even more deeply ingrained than my propensity to beat myself up. It’s hot tar I can’t seem to stop pouring over myself. And is even worse now because ever since Asante told me how useless it is, I feel I shouldn’t feel guilty, which makes me feel guilty about feeling guilty.
I’m munching on buttered bannock on the shore when the two loons resurface.
The campsite at the north end of the lake is on such a steep slope there’s barely a level place to sit. And nowhere quiet: a band of ravens is screaming at each other in a tree. Finally I settle on one of the few flat rocks down at the water and open my notebook. The plan is to reward myself for a (hopefully) productive morning with a hike on the east shore slope. Somewhere beyond that slope is a ski trail. The same ski trail the ranger pointed out after bellowing his ecstasy into the little bay at the top of this very lake two years ago. The same ski trail the agent fantasized he would hike over to come for a visit this week. I can’t help thinking what would happen if he did.
In spite of the ravens’ continued screaming in the tree next door, I get a three-page scene scribbled. Huge relief: I’ve finally got something down on paper besides ideas. Also frustration: I’m antsy for exercise. Oh to be a calm sort of person who sits and writes for six or eight hours straight, the way I imagine all the other writers in the world do.
I climb in the boat. The ravens have stopped their racket at last. My thoughts return to the agent. Are we committing what he calls “emotional adultery”?