How the Tree Leaves Helped the Poet
He gladly told everyone—sometimes volunteered unsolicited—of the first time he met her at a poetry reading. It was the evening of March 21st, International Poetry Day. He was invited to a reading at a neighbourhood library in North Vancouver. Back then he was working at a clothing store as a shop assistant, but he was also trying to make a name for himself as a poet. He often told his friends that he wished he had time to write as many poems as the many shirts and pants he folded each day at his job.
He read a few poems in Sorani—a Kurdish dialect—and at the end of the reading a girl walked up to him and introduced herself. She had attractive lips that deftly pronounced all the labial consonants, sharp inner eye corners, long black silky hair, and a graceful body that she was blessed with because—he thought—she was one of God’s favourites. She was, in one word, beautiful.
Her name was Mila. She was born and raised in Vancouver, but parents were from northern Iraq, the poet’s home region.
“Your Kurdish was impeccable!” Mila told him, her eyes wide open with delight. It was not clear to him if she meant the choice of words in his poems, or, more likely, that she was fascinated that he spoke a second language fluently. Which he did, but not in the way she assumed; Kurdish was his first language.
“Thank you,” he said. “I guess practice never hurts.” In his mind, the reference was to honing poetic skills. By then it was apparent to her that he spoke English with an accent.
“Oh my god,” she said. “I thought you were from here!” She covered her mouth with one hand and placed her other hand on his shoulder, touching it lightly, as if asking for forgiveness. He felt like all her chakras opened right then and invited him inside. He prayed for his knees not to fail him. He was taken. If at that instant he was told the person in front of him had murdered his mother—who was still alive—he would have struck the gavel against the sound block and announced his decree.
Not guilty. Not this time. Not ever. Not in this life.
She was with two friends who had nicely done hair and were both wearing knee-length classic fit dresses and high heels. Mila was wearing a black backless dress. She had a tulip brooch—three tulips, red, yellow, and orange—pinned to her dress.
“Do people these days dress this fancy for a poetry reading?” he asked Mila with honest curiosity.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, a friendly tone in her voice. He loved how fast she befriended him; he felt ecstatic.
“It is Newroz,” she continued, referring to the first day of Kurdish and Iranian New Year. “My friends and I are going to a party. Would you like to come?”
He stalled for half a second, the length seeming appropriate to mask his eagerness.
“I would like to.”
“Great!” she almost exclaimed. “But you have to drop your formality with me.”
Who was this person, he wondered? Was she like that with everybody?
He saw Mila again after two weeks. Then the following weekend. And the weekend after that. By the time summer came it felt like they had been together for ages. They both liked to get tipsy on merlot and read poetry and nature books. They shared similar tastes in classical music and foreign movies. She wanted to “reconnect with her Kurdish roots”, which mostly meant picking up the language and cooking together: dolma, shiftah, biryani, kuba, et cetera. As for him, he wanted to go camping with her and savour maple-syrup-flavoured beans and bacon for breakfast with the same taste buds she had.
It was in the heat of all that when she mentioned The Society of Cyclic Citizens. She was a member and she invited him to join. Once he knew what the society was about—they worked to spread the wisdom that people were interwoven with the natural world and that it took courage to embrace that truth—it felt like a light bulb switched on in his head. Joining was straightforward: a symbolic subscription—donation included—gave him access to talks and social gathering invites, a monthly newsletter, and a seat at an annual conference. He joined at once and became a Cyclic Citizen.
As a Cyclic Citizen, he started organising his life around the principle that life happened in cycles. The four seasons became his spine. The society had a white flag with four circles in it: two on top and two at the bottom. He told random customers at the clothing store where he worked the trite fact that the Earth rotated and went around the Sun in a circle, and he then segued to the less-established fact that time and soul, as attested by religions for millennia, recurred, that science was inching closer to proving it.
Some customers—amused or annoyed, he could not tell—then asked the usual question: “But what does all that mean?”
“Since it is contrary to our natural inclination to be as active in fall and winter as we are in spring and summer,” he would reply, “we as Cyclic Citizens want fewer working hours and fewer days of work in the fall and the winter.”
On hearing this, some of the customers rolled their eyes. “Good for you,” they said as they pinched their card number at the register. Those were the nice folks.
The clothing store he worked at specialised in industrial and casual wear: blue-collar clothing products. Sometimes he would explain at checkout what it meant to be a Cyclic Citizen to the female customers, as they were the ones more interested to lend him their ears, and then their husbands or boyfriends—mostly grunts and roughnecks—would interject and say: “So when is your cycle?” They would then laugh at their own joke. If his sticker gun could print out words he would have discreetly labelled their bags: “Menstruation-obsessed Buffoon”!
Mila warned the poet of kibitzing on the job. She knew he could be sententious about things he cared about. “It could hurt your poetic disposition,” she said.
He had always felt at home in spring and summer. The first six months with Mila—which fell into spring and summer—felt like being in heaven. She was all joy. But then fall came and a gloominess crept in. First into the bed, and by winter into their meals. But then spring arrived and she was as aroused and as gluttonous as the first time he met her. As for him in fall and winter? He was the moodiest person you have ever seen. There were days when he considered ditching his new Canadian immigrant life to go back to work in oil and gas in Iraqi Kurdistan. Good money, but dehumanising work hours. No thank you, he would conclude.
There was something with Mila though that got under his skin. She was crazy about partying with her friends. She would go out and relish half the cocktails on the menu, dance to every rhythm, chat with every stranger who lent her a listening ear, and she would do it all over again in a few days. He reminded himself that she worked as an event organiser, that she was in her element partying. Then after spending an entire year together, seeing she was not exactly the same person in fall and winter, he felt less frustrated.
Both Mila and he were proud Cyclic Citizens. Among the Cyclic Citizens were the typical maple leaf Canadians—those with ruddy faces and smiles indicating high scores on the global happiness scale—, indigenous folks, and immigrants from all generations. People who have not swapped the liveliest years of their life for a wished-for, worry-free retirement. Those who have re-evaluated their North American dream and embraced Lao Tzu’s infinite wisdom of wu-wei: letting things happen, rather than striving for control and domination.
He kept falling in love with Mila. The fall was bottomless. Some mornings he would wake up before her and watch her breathe. He was rapt with her delicate and seemingly eternal beauty. He daydreamed about living together until the end: two old souls sitting on rocking chairs at the moment of their last departure, hand in hand, staring into each other’s eyes, saying their goodbyes, promising to meet again on the other side.
He moved in with her after two years. His life was finally taking shape. He planned to propose to her on the anniversary of their new life, March 21st, the following year.
He had an insatiable desire to know more about her. That kind of happens when couples live together day in, day out, but they were in their early thirties and had lived a good deal of their life apart. Since he believed they were meant for each other, it seemed natural to know more about her, including her past.
Mila was lovingly forthcoming and that fanned the embers of his curiosity. He would ask her about her previous relationships, what she liked about the guy and so forth, and her honesty was childlike. The only relationship she showed reservations about, though, was the last one. He finally found out the dude was an engineer, a handsome guy who taught Mila snowboarding and skiing. They were engaged. None of that helped his insecurities. To top it off, she said the guy had proposed to her on March 21st. That messed up the poet’s plan.
He felt—most likely unilaterally—that their relationship needed some healing and he proposed to her to go on a several-day hike.
Doing the West Coast Trail, they met a guy, a soldier who has been in the army for almost a decade. Out of the blue the soldier told them he was on a week-long hike suggested by his therapist because his last girlfriend had broken up with him the past Remembrance Day. That sounded to the poet like an apt definition of cruelty. How on earth could someone do that to a serviceman on Remembrance Day, he silently fumed to himself. The poet attached pivotal value to memorable days and he felt sympathetic.
The soldier then went on to say his ex had tried to break up with him multiple times, but he was not having it. He seemed to be the kind of man you would play poker with late at night and when you told him, “That’s it buddy, I need to call it a night,” he would reply, “Yeah right, one more or I will knock you out.” And he did boast about his collection of brass knuckles.
As the poet slowly understood, the soldier’s ex-girlfriend finally parted on a day she knew he would take things seriously, reverently, and with the resolve, honour, and pride of a soldier. Solemnity mattered, thought the poet. He wished the soldier best of luck and both Mila and he were relieved to break free of his company.
The poet’s hike-healing-trip kind of backfired. The encounter with the soldier made him feel apprehensive. What would he do if he ever experienced a split-up on a memorable day? No, it would not happen to him, not to them, he assured himself.
He started entertaining the idea that Mila still had feelings for her ex-fiancé, the snowboarder-skier engineer. Why was not he a boring backgammon player or a Monopoly champion, the irked poet asked himself? Mila loved snowboarding and skiing. The poet did try to learn to enjoy them, but his “poetic disposition”—as Mila put it—was against it. She was going with her friends, some of whom the poet had never met and she had not mentioned by name or features.
He was working fewer hours that winter. Along with some other Cyclic Citizens, he was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, which was the only way to convince the government he did not function well in fall and winter. He got on short-term disability and had ample time to wallow in self-doubt and second guesses.
He became inquisitive, which led to Mila becoming more reserved and distant, which made him more inquisitorial, which led to…yes. They had been together for three years by then. On the afternoon of March 21st they went out to celebrate the anniversary of their relationship without having made any plans. They came across a gelato store and Mila insipidly suggested going in. He sensed something was not right.
With gelato cones in hand, they walked around the Olympic Village, then sat on a bench overlooking the False Creek inlet. Two teenage couples were feeding rock pigeons on a nearby bench. The pigeons cooed while pecking at the seeds.
Mila sighed deeply before starting. Ten minutes into the talk, he knew it was over because he saw the teenage couples holding hands, crooning to each other, and he already missed having that.
Inside each circle on the society’s flag was a leaf. A small leaf, a large green leaf, a yellow leaf, and a brown, lifeless leaf. In the months that followed, the poet created four folders on his laptop, each for a season, and for an entire year filled them with pictures of tree leaves. Witnessing and watching the subtle, gradual changes of the leaves amounting to greater changes, motion, and rhythm was a revelation. It took him a whole year to recover, one full cycle to find his centre and to write poetry again.
Mila got engaged after two years and eventually married a doctor of some sort.
The poet no longer works at the clothing store. They were too nice to fire him, but management told him about some poor reviews online where customers had complained about a Cyclic Citizen staff who usually offered unbidden advice to them to observe nature and work less. The less people worked, the less wear and tear, and the less they would need to spend on clothing. Even as a poet he understood as much that that was bad for business, and he quit.
He now works at a hospital where he scrubs floors at night listening to podcasts and music on his headphones. In his free-time he has been working on four poetry volumes, each dealing with a season. He plans to dedicate each volume to the leaves of a tree. Maple, ivy, linden, ash.
Dilan Qadir (he, him) writes poetry and fiction. He is a Kurdish Canadian, born and raised in northern Iraq. His poems have appeared in The Underground Literary Journal, The Lonely Whale Memoir Anthology, Wax Poetry and Art Magazine, and Culture Project. Dilan studied Creative Writing at Emerson College. He lives on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) unceded territory, Vancouver, BC.
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