My first weeks alone on an estate near Alder Flats, Alberta, have been a study of snow and silence. Who in their right mind agrees to house & pet-sit for total strangers in the dead of a Canadian winter? Me, it seems.
I wanted to be proximal to family members—well, within an hour or two drive of either Edmonton or Calgary. And after many years away from home, I wanted to feel part of Alberta for a few months. Of course, I didn’t know it was going to be the coldest February on record, nor that I’d be doing it alone since my friend was hospitalized and unable to join me at first.
A writer’s retreat
The wooded countryside is very beautiful in its stark winter way, all shades of white and grey and black. Rarely any sunshine, but always those low snow clouds that diffuse the light. Ice-crystals hang in the air even on days when snow doesn’t fall. With temperatures dipping to minus 37 Celsius at night, it doesn’t warm up much during the day. Even though the garage is heated, I have decided not to drive the car anywhere because the engine could freeze up if I stay outside too long.
The first few days of solitude feel strange and alien in this white and silent world. I stay inside because of the weather. I am writing a memoir of a particular span of my life—fourteen life-changing months on a tropical island. The space between necessities makes an immediate blankness that surrounds me and helps me to recreate that time.
Two huge dogs for company
As I write, I am also learning the quirks and disposition of two huge dogs who own the place. Until I met these dogs, the truth is that I didn’t really like dogs all that much. Maybe that’s because my childhood dogs yipped a lot, nervous little things. But I have fallen irrevocably in love with these two behemoths. They come when I call and go when I tell them to; they’re dogs that have been trained to monitor the border of the estate, always on the look-out for coyotes. Sometimes they will be lying asleep on the rug beside me, awaken to sounds I cannot hear, and leap to their feet barking a full-chested coyote alert. I scramble to open the door and they barrel outside into the drifts of snow, and onto the trails they’ve made around the estate.
The dogs cohabit peacefully with a couple of cats, mousers in summertime, that treat me like furniture. I work on my lap top computer, a blanket over my legs that are out straight on the wide living room sofa, cats between my knees. For hours at a time, I type and type and type. When hunger strikes, I warm things up in the microwave oven. Standing at the kitchen counter to eat is a relief from sitting. I have no impulse to bake or cook a meal. My writing consumes me, and I even begrudge having to sleep.
Patterns in solitude
After a week alone, my days take on a pattern wherein my solitude becomes solace. Since I live in silence, I can capture some of the music I hear in my mind. So when I need a break from the memoir, I turn to composition. Truly, this house and pet-sitting gig has morphed into an extraordinary winter writing retreat.