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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 12, Number 1, March 2018

Alex Nielsen
Georgetown, Ontario, Canada

River of Ice

Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on . . .

        ~ Joni Mitchell, "River"

I learned to skate on the Thames River, the one in Southern Ontario not the famous one in England. Along the highway that followed the Thames, my father had rented an old farm west of Chatham for one long-ago, cold and snowy winter. Toughened by more than a half-century of hard weather, the tall house wore a steep roof trimmed with flaking gingerbread and icicles reaching for the ground. It faced the river at the end of a long dirt driveway where winter had overrun the surrounding fields, white dunes drifting in every direction.

After a punishing day fending off the hard lessons of the brutes at school, a friendly kid from a neighbouring farm and I would ride our butts down river banks as steep as the pitched roof on the farm house to the frozen surface. Mid-river, we’d find wind-blown bare patches where we’d struggle to stay upright, keep our skate blades straight and wobbly ankles from bending. My father gave us a couple free miniature hockey sticks from a Texaco gas station promotion. We used a jar lid for a puck to play wild and crazy approximations of NHL hockey games – bent over versions of our favourite players.

Dad’s wanderlust always grew legs with the changing seasons. Soon he took us along other twisted roads to houses near new towns and different rivers, but with the same feel of cold snowy winter. Dreams of hockey stardom melted like snow and years. I awoke from winter dreams to find my inclinations drifted away from hockey, toward art and literature and especially music. Radio became a main pastime and discovering new music an obsession. Girls began to compete with music through high school and slender vinyl collection grew to include albums by the beautiful and alluring songstress Joni Mitchell. She swept me away in an avalanche of possibility and commonality; personal and meaningful lyrics delivered by an earthy angel strumming indelible guitar figures.

When my own wanderlust had taken hold, I journeyed down my own highways to find love and employment. I was able to grow a career, a loving family and gratitude for good-fortune. And I found enough free-time to write and paint in private, and become a careful listener of all manner of music. The AM-radio hits of my lonely youth on snow covered streets opened to a world of exotic continents bearing infinite summers of music.

I finally came to understand the import of Joni Mitchell’s River. To a displaced kid, struggling to learn new life skills on a frozen river, a song about heartbreak and sadness, but in my ruminating years it became an exposé of a silent struggle with alienation and otherness.

I no longer skate on rivers. Wanderlust now treats me to gentler sojourns in memory’s house with the phantoms that live there. My kids have moved on to create their own metaphors and rationales for living and survival. Quiet and disquiet fill in the blank spaces of life as often as music. But sometimes, in solitary-man afternoons with the cold wind blowing potent clouds past the window, a Joni Mitchell album will climb out of my record bins onto the vintage Rega-Planar turntable for a thirty-three and a third twirl. I slide down banks of music onto a fragmenting river, and skate away on memories and wishes.

winter solstice
my garden’s gate
slightly ajar

Note: Joni Mitchell's lyrics are from "River", Blue, 1971.



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