I heard her on a podcast the other day, reading from her novel, Polar Vortex, which had just been shortlisted for the Booker prize. It reminded me of the very first thing that struck me about Shani Mootoo ... her rich and wonderful Trinidadian accent. It’s much diminished now, an echo of what it was all those years ago, but still evocative.
I had just finished the Revelstoke Dam project and found myself in Vancouver looking for a new adventure. I saw an ad looking for people to sign up homeowners for the federal home insulation subsidy program which was due to run out in a few months time. Never having tried anything remotely like sales before, I thought I’d try it.
And so I found myself in a van seated next to a 20-something Shani, completely captivated by her accent. She had already been doing it for a few days and took me under her wing, hours of walking door to door, trying to convince people to upgrade their insulation under the government program.
Somewhere in those hours on that first day, Shani mentioned she was Buddhist, and being ever curious, I was intrigued, so she asked if I’d like to visit some Buddhist friends with her. Over the next couple months I met many Buddhists with Shani and often chanted with her and her friends.
One of the families we visited was a Japanese family, and we enjoyed some great home cooked meals there. They always had an exchange student from Japan who would come for a few months, live with them, and learn English. They were some of the happiest, warmest, most natural and comfortable people I’ve ever met. They never preached about their Buddhism, they just, by example, drew you in and made you want to understand what made them tick.
One night Tina Turner came to town for a concert and one of Shani’s friends managed to get an invitation to Tina, a Buddhist, to a gathering after the concert. Someone responded on her behalf that she would try, but no promises. So a bunch of us gathered and waited. She never came, and in retrospect, we should have just gone to the concert.
Eventually, when the Buddhist monk came to town, I went through the initiation ceremony with Shani by my side. Then shortly after that I went back to Rossland to run a snowcat at the ski hill.
During the winter Shani called me and told me that my Gohonzon (a scroll from the monks that’s given to initiates, and is used when chanting) had arrived and offered to bring it to me in Rossland.
And so, in the middle of a snow storm, Shani, along with a young actor from Vancouver, and a new Japanese exchange student I hadn’t met yet, drove to Rossland. They were totally unprepared for the snow, but miraculously they managed the drive and arrived with a sense of wonder, enthusiasm, adventure, and accomplishment ... and rightly so !
There was only one way to answer that enthusiasm I reasoned, so I piled them in a snowcat and took them to the top of Granite Mountain. As we were coming down the mountain, Shani asked me why the trees were leaning so far over ... I answered that the trees were straight up, it was us that were leaning so far over ... Shani’s eyes grew wide like saucers as the implication dawned on her. I’ve always thought that exchange implied something much more profound about peoples’ perspective.
They stayed a couple days then returned to Vancouver. I never saw Shani again, but the echoes of her voice still reverberate for me today.