Last early spring - dismal, dreary, drizzily drab sky splattered with skeletal branches where head-scentily mauve and magenta lilac normally bloom in the dooryard here in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands - I went virtual banking. After all, how much worse can things get? Might as well pay bills since the entire worldview from my window is mud-slush oozing drench-wet raggedness.
(See, I'm agoraphobic; so, I only go places with Rudolph IV, now ka-chugging in "Safe Mode" since our virtual memory's bit the cyber-dust. It's one exciting life, no? People think I'm a hermit, a recluse, standoff-ish. That's fine. I don't mind. Truth is, I ain't. I'm terrified of leaving my home. Why? I was attacked and left for dead in the centre of Highway 11 Sunday June 2, 2002. I'm slowly recovering; but, since I cannot drive in winter, it's one step forward, one step back; thus, I break even. But, that's not why I'm writing this Tuesday Essay, not at all. This is a good-news story.)
What's this? In place of its normal portal page, the Royal Bank of Canada's offering its customers the opportunity to carry the Olympic Torch? Coolness . . . er . . . Hotness. Reach out? Torch someone? Nah . . . Nothing so poetic. "Click here to enter our contest: YOU could carry the Olympic Torch in your community; YOU could become a part of history; and, all YOU have to do is tell us what YOU will do to make your community a better place. YOU can pledge to go greener! YOU can pledge to get involved in local events! YOU can teach someone to read or write . . ."
Stop right there! I can certainly do that. Did it for years. Taught reading and writing when I was a professor; and, later, when I wrote in residence at various libraries and universities. I'm a poet, right? (Took me 40 years to say that without wondering where I got the nerve.) Natch, I call Leah, my bank manager, who also happens to be my BFF; this is a very small community, you know? We've been BFFs since I returned North in 1995. We just hit it off. We never mix business and friendship. That's our secret; but, it's no secret; we're both honourable dames and know boundaries.
She also owes me a prime-rib dinner from Jack Tennant's Steakhouse in North Bay, ON. Bloody rare.
"Listen, is this for real? Can I enter a contest and make a pledge to teach someone to read or write and carry the Olympic Torch?"
"Is what for real? The contest or the fact you're eligible? Both, if either's your question. We're expecting about a million applications and there will only be 12,000 Torch Bearers. Why not go for it? You've got as good a chance as the next dame. Betcha dinner at Jack Tennant's!"
"But, I'm agoraphobic! There will be crowds. Oh, prime rib? Those incredible frites? Yum! Oh, yeah! Right . . . about the Torch: I'll have to smile a lot. And, it looks like the only two days that I can do it are the 30th and 31st of December? I have to apply for North Bay or New Liskeard. HOW MANY APPLICATIONS? A million? Get out! Right. No problem. It will be a goal. And, months and months to practise . . . erm . . . how do you practise to be a Torch Bearer? Will they accept someone who walks with a cane? With odds like that, I won't have to worry much. I never win anything, anyway. Why would I start? Just so we're clear, though: I win the dinner if I enter the contest?"
"We'll see . . . You never know. I'd enter but I'm not eligible. It's a real honour. You're a worthy contestant. Go for it! Put your thinking tuque on and enter the thing. You'll figure it out. You're a smart cookie. I think it's a great idea! Gotta go. 'Bye!"
B-b-b-ut, what thinking tuque? I don't own a thinking tuque . . . I grab a fresh coffee to warm up my brains - or what's left of them - and, well, think. Thinka thinka thinka . . . I need an angle. I need to sparkle. I need to get their attention! Just a mo' . . . Who are they? VANOC? What's that? Like, GYPROC? Oh, they're prolly RBC employees. They wouldn't appreciate a poem written in imitation of The Waste Land . . . But let's think craftily here. They'd appreciate a poem. I know this because my bank manager does. This time, I e-mail her:
"Okay, I'll do it. What do you think about me writing a poem? You think Jack'll throw in extra jus and that great veggie medley he makes?"
"No comment," she responds, "and, besides, I'm not involved in that whole thing and have no idea who is. You're on your own."
"What do you mean, 'I'm on my own?' I enter the contest. You deliver the dinner for two from Jack Tennant's. He does Take-Out for me when I can afford it; and, he's really nice."
"Listen. You're getting waaay ahead of yourself. I wash my hands of any involvement in this. I have no advice to give you. Too risky. Now, if you want to talk about banking issues, I'm available . . . You know you're my favourite BFF, client and poet, though, don't you?"
"Of course, I do. Or, I am? Cool. I should do this more often. I get lots of love. And, dinner! Ten-four. Je t'adore! I see your point of view. I'll figure out something. Thanks for nothing. LOL."
"Have a g-r-r-r-eat day! Good luck! LOL!"
"Yeah, you have a great day, too," I say to Rudolph IV. "Whatever she says. How can I have a g-r-r-r-eat day when I not only have to pay those bills over at the banking portal; now, I also have to write the kind of poem that proves to my BFF slash bank manager she's right, that I can ace it and win this Torch swing-thing?"
Argh! I pay the bills, just; and, then, I walk over to the window and the muck still squish-muddles so I return to Rudy My Computie and the RBC entry form; and? When it comes time for me to fill in my pledge, from God knows where (since I don't), the poem - doggerella, really - just falls off my fingertips, right royally divinely inspired, I guess. I call it, "Create a Better Canada," because that's the category I enter - duh:
I would like to stand up and allow my poetic voice to be heard; w hen it comes to artistic expression, He gave me the gift of The Word. Athletes compete, that's their beautiful domain; But the arts keep us civilized; that's why I sign my name.
Natch, I promptly forget about entering the contest. I have small steps to take. Words to shape. Mud to check. Trees to scope. Lilac to blooming ogle. But, you know, to tell you the truth, I love entering contests. I enter all of them. Well, almost all of them. I don't enter any that mean I get junk mail or spam. I read the rules, the fine print. I always take that check mark out of that box. I have enough clutter. I do not need one iota more of it. I rarely receive spam. Just lucky, I guess.
"Don't make any plans for December 31st!"
That's the Subject Line on an e-mail arriving in my inbox. Darn. Spam . . . I think . . . I check the Sender: Admin@CarryTheTorch.com. I note its size and the fact there's an attachment. Oh, dear. I don't know. Is it spam or is it from the Olympic Torch Bearers' Committee confirming they've received my application, one of a million? I ain't opening that attachment, though, nope; at least, I ain't opening it until I've run it through my virus-scanner and stuff.
I take a deep breath. I position the cursor on the message. READY. AIM. CLICK!
"Dear Judith: Exciting news! You have been preselected in the first draw of the RBC Carry the Torch Contest! Thank you for pledging to create a better Canada. Big or small, everything you do makes a difference. Congratulations! YOUR OLYMPIC TORCHBEARER EXPERIENCE BEGINS TODAY!"
Oh, Lard! Er, huh? Who told them I was small? (Five feet, to be exact; no shrinkage even though I'm 57, now; but, still, five feet!) Or, did they think the poem was too small? OMGasp, what was the poem? That was months ago! OMGawd, this can't be for real! I never win anything. I have to ask my other BFF, my Southern one, Lenore in Windsor. I forward the e-mail to her. I ask her to tell me if I win. Actually, I forward it to everybody I know because I have to answer a skill-testing mathematical question with brackets and stuff and I am worried about getting the answer right. That would be just my luck. I'd finally win something and blow the math since I'm an Anguish major. I do the math. I send the answer around. (Well, that was after I asked Lenore's son, David [with his Stanford PhD] who gave me the same answer that I had already figured out on my own, FWIW . . . and, oh, I dunno, about a bijillion others, just to be sure, right?)
Then? I call my Northern BFF / bank manager: "Guess what?" (I think I peep-squeak chirped.)
"You won the lottery?"
"How did you guess? Almost! I am the Olympic Torch Bearer for Poetry on the last day of the year! Yes, I am! I carry THE Olympic Torch into the new year and you know who carries it on New Year's Day? The day AFTER moi? Day 64? Shania Twain in Timmins!"
"Really? Really, really? WOW!"
"Yeah, really, really! I'm so excited I could drop my dires! They sent me my uniform. It's XXS but it's still too big. It has neat little strings and pulleys, though; I can make it fit. They sent me a tuque, an Olympic tuque, a thinking tuque! But, the red mittens! They're precious . . . and, so cute! Really! They have a beautiful white Maple Leaf stitched inside on the palms and the Olympic Rings outside; they're just . . . ah . . . adorable!"
"Uh, yeah, Judith . . . They're for sale all over the country. 'Wear your heart on your hands.' Ring a bell? You're not getting out much yet, are you?"
"Oh, yes. I have been going places. Whose heart on whose hands? I went to Bo and Doc's place for the Grey Cup Game! They have a TV! HDTV! I lost five bucks - too many men on the field - but, that was a good trial run. AND?"
"AND, I've been practising walking without my cane. I think I can do 300 metres without it! I am confident I can. I don't want to walk with the Torch and have the cane, too. I feel good. I feel strong. I feel invincible! Hear me roar! I am a Torch Bearer, eh? I have to be in New Liskeard at 11:30 on New Year's Eve Day. I do my run - er, walk - at 1:05 p.m. Did you see there were protesters on TV? I saw the woman on the 'net. You think I should take my cane? Nah . . . I heard they beefed up security. I'll have all kinds of hunky RCMP guys who will walk with me. I've been watching the others on the CTV 'site! Oooh . . . I don't need my cane! It's all happening, just like they said it would."
"I'm so proud of you. Congratulations! I knew you'd ace it. I never doubted it. You wrote a poem?"
"Must've been a good poem. You're carrying the Olympic Torch for poets across the country?"
"Yep. Day 63. Last day of the year."
"Can you read it to me?"
"Nope. I'm not showing it to anyone until I write this Tuesday Essay for the Globe and Mail."
"Oh, I see. You're writing about carrying the Olympic Torch for The Globe? Coolness."
"I'm mentioning Jack Tennant's, too, you know?"
"You wouldn't dare!"
"I have my priorities straight, Ma'am! Coolness! Gotta go! 'Bye."
Coolness? Freezingness. It's the coldest day on record in New Liskeard (a.k.a. Temiskaming Shores). It's minus a million. I kid you not. The mayor later tells me we're breaking all kinds of weather records with the blizzard and snow - once we finally find the mayor and the real Olympic bus that has the other nine Torchers on it.
We got lost. We improvised. I missed the debriefing; but, I did eventually manage to breathe a quick "HOWDY" to everyone on the real Olympic bus just for us. That was after we reached that other Olympic bus - the short-shuttle bus - upon discovering it parked at McDonald's. A pair of guys sitting near the front, eating their lunch, couldn't miss us. We pulled up in front of the short-shuttle bus and made sure it went nowhere without the poetry-representing Torch Bearer. I climbed out of our car. I started hobbling towards the little short-shuttle bus with the Olympic logo and one of the guys came out and went, "Judith? OTR063-052? Are you that Judith?"
"YES! OTR063-052! Lost!"
"Judith! Good grief! Hold on!" He pulls out his cellphone or walkie-talkie or something. He punches in some numbers. I try to see but I'm smaller than he is (or, actually, he's way taller than I am). "Guess what? Guess who we've got? Judith! We've got Judith! OTR063-052! The poet! She's tiny!"
"No kidding. She's standing right here. She's all suited up and ready to go! What should we do? Right . . . Right. Okay. Got it. Roger!"
"Judith! Dump your gear. Get on the bus! We're taking you to the other bus! The Official Olympic Torch Bearers' Bus. NOW!"
"Now? What other bus? I have to do my walk in less than an hour! I don't know where to go. We went to Cobalt. We went by the Highway Bookshop and I said a little prayer for Doc Pollard . . ."
He starts talking over my head to those who've made the trip with me. "Is she gonna be okay to do this walk?"
I answer for myself. "YES! I'm ready! I'm here! I'm doing it without my cane! Let's go!"
"Good! Get on the bus. It's warm there. I'll show you how to work your Torch on the way. I'm Billy Pilon, your host. That's Ross Dukes. He's your driver. We've all been waiting for you! We didn't think you were going to make it! But, you will! You'll even have five extra minutes. Great!"
Billy wraps his conversation with someone on the other end. "Yeah. Yeah. We'll show her. Yeah, yeah. I'll call you when we can see you. No, I won't forget." He looks at me. "You got your picture ID to prove you're you?"
I whip it outta my Olympic pocket. "Yep!"
He answers in the affirmative to the discarnate one on the other end of the line. "Yep. She showed me her picture ID. It's really her!"
On the bus, they tell me about themselves. Ross went to Algoma University College.
"No?" I say, "I was Writer in Residence there. Taught courses there during the summer, too. Critical Theory . . . Literary Criticism . . . English, right? Does the name Karl Jirgens ring a bell? How about Bob D'Amato?"
"Holy Smoke! Too much! You must love the North, too, eh?"
Billy says, "I went to Laurentian University. You taught there, too, didn't you?"
"Yep. In the early eighties. You must love the North, too, eh?"
Out comes that cellphone / walkie-talkie thingie. "I can see you! Can you see us? Good! Here we are! Go, Judith, go! Go, go, go! Good luck! Spell our names right! You're great. You're a real joker. You're fun! We'd escort you anywhere any time! Just don't forget to say, 'We're the crew of two who met you at McDonald's and saved the day, okay?'"
I look over my shoulder at Ross and Billy, grinning silly: "Yikes! Wouldn't ya jes' know it! Everybody's a poet . . . Sigh . . ."
They both break up. Good! (They did save my day. Thank you times two.)
But, they lied! It wasn't five minutes. I had all of two minutes, tops!
Then, I was leading the parade down New Liskeard's Rue Principale heading for Rue Robert and I had both hands on that brilliantly blazing Torch and I lifted it high and proudly above my head and I could hear the crowd cheering and I could feel the tears streaming down my face and freezing in their tracks; but, I did not care because I knew my daddy (d. 2000) - who had coached a few skiers in his lifetime to that Olympic Podium - was just a-beaming and a-watching me from Points Elsewhere and he was so proud of his "Little One" that I couldn't stop the tears even though I was crazily grinning and when I reached the next Torch Bearer and gave him the ol' high five and lit his Torch - The ritual of kissing fire! - with mine, I swear I heard my daddy whisper, "That's MY Little One!"
And? I didn't need my cane. My dad helped me the whole way. I don't care if you believe me or not. Ask Nancy Greene or Lisa Savijarvi or . . . They also loved my daddy - Robert, to them - so . . .
There you go. Just lucky?
Yeah, I know.
Award-winning poet, cultural critic, literary journalist and contributing reviewer Judith Fitzgerald's 30th work, Rogue Lightning, will appear later this year. She also covers poetry for The Globe and Mail's Books Blog, "In Other Words." Visit her home on the cyber-range: Judith Fitzgerald's WriteSite.