Seth Ratzlaff is a writer based in Kitchener, Ontario, and he was one of two writers to win the Young Writers Bursary to the 7th annual Write on the French River Creative Writing Retreat, at the Lodge at Pine Cove, in northern Ontario. The bursary was founded by the Class of 2018 to support and encourage writers under 35. Seth’s mentor/instructor for the week was the inimitable Andrew Westoll.
Seth’s project, at the retreat, was a collaborative life story project he is writing with Indigenous activist Clarence Cachagee. Clarence’s “Mornings,” from their manuscript North Wind Man, appeared in TNQ 150, spring 2019, in our Soundings series.
–2019 retreat director, Susan Scott
In northern stillness, our canoe drifted beside the nearly submerged beaver lodge. Steam slowly rose from its top, the combined exhales of a family curled up inside. They were no doubt carefully listening to us uninvited guests, loitering beside the stick-and-mud walls of their home.
It’s one of those moments that instantly called for a description, before you have even taken in the scene for yourself. I’m sometimes uneasy slipping into that spectator view of the world, more concerned with the perfect metaphor than actually being totally present. But when you’re on a retreat with a bunch of writers, you can’t help but think about words, motivated by everyone else’s dedication to the craft—and their skill.
This was the second day of the writing retreat. My roommate, Steve, and I had risen early for the short canoe trip. One of the Lodge’s directors had driven us and two others to a small bay. From there it was a short paddle to a forest flooded with high waters, where we encountered the beaver lodge.
Steve and I were in the canoe together, quietly listening to the crow calls above, imagining life in this shelter below.
I met Steve soon after arriving at the Lodge, when I was brought to our cottage after checking in. He was a tall, slim man with long grey hair. I knew we would get along when he confessed that he liked to really explore the meaning of specific words, giving examples such as individuation, synchronicity, and love. By breakfast the next morning, we were working at the kitchen table together, sharing about our paths on life’s way, drinking coffee and listening to the sounds of the French River through the cottage’s screened windows.
Paddling back to the Lodge, I tried to appreciate my surroundings wordlessly. But my thoughts returned to that beaver family, crammed into the highest point of their home by unusually high water levels. Was it an omen?
Our paths on life’s way, it turned out, formed a surprising symmetry. He was entering a stage of solitude, his two daughters having moved out recently, into their own independent lives. Steve’s life as it had been for the past thirty-some-odd years was, for all intents and purposes, over. Transitioning out of their well-practiced roles, he and his wife had decided to take some time apart from one another, to find themselves again after nearly a lifetime together.
“Individuation,” he said.
I, on the other hand, was situated at the beginning of Steve’s path, preparing to get engaged and thinking about soon starting a family of my own. All of this, I confess, has been no easy thing for me to ponder (fear and trembling, etc.). The funny thing was: we were both worried about similar questions. Who will I become after this? What lies ahead?
When I pointed out the mirroring of our situations, Steve smiled.
“Synchronicity,” he said.
Paddling back to the Lodge, I tried to appreciate my surroundings wordlessly. But my thoughts returned to that beaver family, crammed into the highest point of their home by unusually high water levels. Was it an omen? As Steve steered the canoe, I was no longer present, thinking once again about words I needed to explore.