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Killarney: Land, Locks, and Spirit

Killarney: Land, Locks, and Spirit

In the winter, the prairie sky is elongated. The tilt of the earth stretches the end-of-the-day into a perpetual blue hour. Shadows lengthen early, harbouring the past. The wooded creek behind my childhood home, just a few blocks away from where I live now, darkens to a chocolate dim before the sun even nears the horizon. When I first moved to Calgary, I ended up in the neighbourhood of Killarney, a block away from 17th Avenue.

Without choice, I left for Glenbrook in middle school, Highland Park in high school, Dalhousie when working as a cook at the children’s hospice, Bowness when living with my ex-fiance, only to finally return here to Killarney all these years later. Tucked early to bed beneath a downy duvet of snow. Peel back frost ferns coating a blurry window to glimpse Venus gleaming shyly through blueing dusk. Wrapped in whiskey-scented candles, watching flurries swirl. Breathe deeply, inhaling calm, feeling darkness rising all around, unhurried and gentle as yeast.

“Home is where the haunt is / The past still present tense / Need more time to mourn” —American Football

Eventually, I wake up. Sunlight has been bleeding through the real window for hours already, staining the inside of my eyelids pink. How long has it been since awaking in full darkness? Circadian rhythms still attuned to farm chores and a 5AM rising inherited from ancestors who worked the land. Nevertheless, waking remains a ritual act. As consciousness filters in, orient towards the sacred objects kept close: Tibetan singing bowl, vintage maps of collapsed countries, jasmine and sandalwood incense, black kettle. Talismans rendering this space mine—even when everything else feels contingent.

I recall Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, how her manifesto reflects my room. “A lock on the door means the power to think independently,” she wrote. No lock adorns my door. My bed, wooden frame forged in sheepherder days, now bearing a startup mattress with false warranties of Casper/ Brooklinen/Parachute. The jade plant hangs with trailing rosary beads down from the windowsill. Coffee rings etching sigils into the hand-me-down desk, poetry laid atop the palimpsest of past assignments. The makeshift bookcase of two-by-fours and plywood scraps sagging under the collected weight of paperback anthologies, broken-spined textbooks, and yellow-paged secondhand novels ravaged by the eyes of strangers long before mine. I sleep here, I write here, I eat here alone. I fuck and make love furtively like a squatter unsure when reprieve might end. My presence is conditional in this building rented in another’s name. The ritual of waking, yet, gives me sovereignty over consciousness itself; training my attention makes reality submit to my lens. Outside these plaster walls people scurry to catch buses or yell at service workers or jostle cars from ice, but peering through thrifted kaleidoscope windows fractures a working world into jeweled shards. An outsider to my own home, a flâneur foreign in native land, subsisting by chance rather than through inherited claim. Morning’s light—spilling over quilts sewn by ancestors long dead—gives permission for the belief, if only for one more dawn, that I might still have place and purpose in this world.

Eventually, the sanctuary of self is left behind. When emerging onto the creaking front steps, the brisk air raises gooseflesh even through the feathered-stuffed coat. The key slips into the stubborn lock, jiggling until the pins catch—no posh mortise mechanism here but a humble doorknob from the hardware store my step-dad frequented when we needed to replace stripped screws or bent brackets on the homestead. The knob itself broke off years ago, leaving just a metal shaft poking out along with holes where screws once anchored it. Each tenant has left it, functionally nude but still guarding the threshold.

Without a deadbolt slammed securely home, the door would swing wide to winter’s whims, free and unlatched. Picture returning to a snowdrift forcing entry across the worn welcome mat, ice edging over the threshold to craze the laminate flooring inside. The key must, then, be turned forcefully, wrenching it sideways to ensure the tongue slides fully into place, then test the handle unsuccessfully. Only afterwards does attention drift outward, noticing at last how ice has varnished every bud and branch in glittering lacquer, frost’s refracting prism rendering each twig alien, otherworldly. Inhaling crystalline air tinged with woodsmoke, descend the slick metal steps, edges rounded by uncounted footfalls of strangers under this same cold Sun. The locked door stands vigil behind me, patient for my return.

Typically, shortcuts are made through the back lane, slipping between the neighboring houses to emerge onto the road parallel. Packed snow crunches underfoot, then gives way to slick black ice where runoff pools. Tread gently, placing each boot heel to toe, skating the frozen rink behind garages. Suddenly raucous shrieks slice the cold air—a parliament of magpies erupts from beneath a spruce pine, inky wings glinting colourful like fresh gasoline. One hops atop a ripped garbage bag, timidly plucking at the plastic before plunging its beak inside seeking nourishing scraps. Soon more swoop down to join the frenzy, competitive bodies jostling feathers. In childhood, enthralled and terrified by magpies in equal measure. Avian majesty dressed in tuxedo plumage, yet an utter disregard for boundaries or manners. Oftentimes cruel—dive bombing unto outdoor cats. Many boast tails longer than their bodies, streaming and shearling.

As the cache picks over waste, notice one with a near-bald head—likely self-inflicted from curiosity and desperation. Another magpie nearby hobbles with a broken wing bowed at an odd angle, perhaps struck by a car or harrying hawk some weeks prior, now biding her time. The corvid impulse for discovery and desire yields both violence and intimacy. As one they rise skyward at some secret signal, dispersing over rooftops and fences. Every few moments one lets loose a warbling trill, echoing and overlapping, never relenting even as their flying bodies shrink and fade invisible. Defiant cries carry over the frozen town, announcing enduring fellowship even in winter’s grip. Stand listening long after the calls have faded, wondering at their strange solidarity before turning down the lane toward whatever discoveries await me.

Emerge from the back lane onto streets, inescapable no matter the season. Sidewalks pockmarked with puddles turned to gingerly frozen water by night. Asphalt roads resemble miniature ice rinks. Each house sacrifices square meters of front yard, each public property sacrifices walkability to slabs of driving like an altar offering, keeping the idols of internal combustion satiated lest they one day go hungry. In childhood, vehicles parked were reds, greens, blues. Over the years I’ve noticed the painted steel skins traded pigment for austere metallic monochrome. Driveways and streets flow with matte graphs of black, white, gunmetal grey, matching the drab aggregate of sidewalk and road. Winter’s white muteness only amplifies the gloom, broken occasionally by a child’s garish ski jacket or a holiday wreath on an abandoned porch.

If only some bylaw could be enacted to outlaw pavement and the dangerous, useless car. Grasses and wild blossoms reclaiming lost terrain outside each home, little parks exulting from plot to plot. Songbirds winging freely through the corridors, all of Calgary a habitat rewilded. But instead, native plants persist only in overlooked margins—where chain link fences bisect a bypass, or in the yawning gulfs between highway lanes. The forgotten gaps still bursting with tallgrass prairie flowers come summer, paysage moralisé reminding us what this land once was, and could be again if we relent our conquering. But winter’s crushing snow erases even those remnants, enforcing concrete’s replicate empire. Only the birds remain, flickering between stark branches, their calls asking where else but here?

There are plenty of dog walkers bundled in parkas, their pets’ leashes tracing chaotic scribbles through snowbanks as they sniff and mark. Fit moms in black Lululemon power past pushing strollers, their breath frosting with each exhausted exhale. Retired couples promenade arm in arm over slippery sections, careful but cheerful behind tinted prescription glasses. And there are the joggers, of course—young suits or students bouncing to some internal tempo, eyes half-mast as music blares from over-ear headphones. Yet absent from the streets are any wanderers. Amblers out simply to witness the world—not bound by mundane errands or routinized self-improvement. As if merely existing and being outside has become taboo, petty crime or aberrance, permitted only when tethered to chores or commutes or canines. The requirement of obligation and purpose. We have successfully outsourced aimless meandering to games and simulated worlds.

Stuff numb hands deeper into coat pockets, grains of windblown sleet needling exposed skin, shuffling onward. The outsider’s vantage detects frantic human patterns made visible by contrast with more-than-human stillness—squirrels frozen in feasting upon the bough, snow muting rooftops, the prairie itself enveloped in mile upon mile of dormancy. Against nature’s poised repose, humanity’s hustle is inadequate, even plaintive. My steps slow, boots scuffing fresh scars through the glazed crust of snow. Walking now simply a reminder other choices still remain—to dwell alongside this living land not only as farmer or developer, jogger or snow-shoveler, but just beholder biding winter’s passage. Just bearing witness to a world awakening. Wonder alone grants right of way. The rest reside only by grace of winter’s begrudging clemency.

Amid the greyscale miles, any eruption of colour catches my eye. A rush of gratitude for the gardeners and landscapers, cultivating our shared inhabited soil. Flower boxes adorning porches, dwarf trees prized for blossoms hauled inside most winters, certain plots designated to zaftig daylilies or well-behaved hostas. Such splashes of lively pigment stand defiant against winter’s sterile rule. And confess an equal thankfulness for my own furtive habit of kleptomania when it comes to the prettiest roadside blooms. Carefully pluck purple fireweed and crocuses, tapered stems soon stripped nude by my pilfering. Arrange the stolen bouquet in a heavy glass vase at home, a neurotic curator adjusting each flower as museum pieces.

The bright fuchsia Fireweed always grows first after forest fires, tiny parachutes of seeds lighting upon the scorched earth. The bright yellow blooms of shrubby cinquefoil? A favorite snack for butterflies and fluttering sulphurs. And wherever the soil lies undisturbed, a mix of wildflowers cling—the fuzzy rock-cress with pale petals, a burst of telltale lavender from a Western Showy Aster, the yellow glow of Rocky Mountain Goldenrod alive, echoing last summer’s humming insects. These plants keep withstanding flood and drought and bitter cold, keystone species holding prairie ecology together, generation after generation. Rooted resilience, floral defiance. Each summer, returning no matter what traumas the land endured from one year’s end to the next. The persistence pays tribute to the place itself, the otherwise forgettable suburbia, a covenant between soil and seed gradually encoded in strands of genus and gene.

Killarney alone contains such a richness. Seen and unseen. A block north of my house stands the Central Full Gospel’s humble steeple, with voices raised joyfully skyward in Korean chants each Sunday. Head westward to pass the Holy Name Catholic church, the original wooden chapel now swallowed by an imposing brick and stone cathedral stealing the vista where spruce and maple once presided. Just a few blocks away flies the triangular pennant of the Coptic Orthodox church, strange architecture paying homage to Egyptian dialects of an ancient faith. And if feet follow the sidewalk further towards the lively pharmacy and cafe, come across the once-Baptist church, now Beth Shechinah sharing space with a taekwondo school, a modest sign heralding a “House of Glory” for the Messianic Jewish. The resonant bells, melodic psalmody, and raised arms of countless seekers spread maps to holiness visible only to the spirit-hungry.

Stand back, now where the loop began—before the front steps leading up to home, not fully claiming me. Glancing up, the locked door winks knowingly through glass filigreed with frost. Inside, heavyweight books and half-drafted poems consummated with corrections await return. Yet part of me yearns to keep walking this elliptical route circling my temporary harbor, if only to glimpse more.

All cardinal directions from the entry gate hold storytelling from those who call this region home, whether houseless wanderer, veteran settler, or new arrival navigating the foreign boulevards and Blackfoot place names. Like winter’s wind and water, collective memory sculpts Physical landscape unto monument. The city cannot help but slowly shape herself around our searches for meaning, yearning, awe—not unlike trees bowing outward from internal rings while trying to stand utterly still. Such restless patterns and holiness haunt every doorstep no less than mine. There are as many myths as footfalls leaving bootprints across the lonesome snow. Few share the hunger for aimless walking, the hunger for meaningfulness before death, and perhaps solitude makes one more permeable to subtle shapings. Shapes taking lifetimes to discern. Standing here with skin numbed and mind cleansed by the flurried air, burning profane store-bought Russian sage, envisioning the years-to-come reading buried cartographies like braille. For now, it’s growing dark and cold; my vase awaits replenishing. Home is sacredness passed down through generations who celebrate the familiar. For the community of writers who map place onto page, home anchors our wanderings while reminding us of ancestral rooms granting refuge. I turn the sticky lock once more by habit.