The following is an excerpt from an email message I wrote to Chuck Brickley after sending him a copy of the preceding haibun. Chuck is an American (and later Canadian) who for many decades lived in Hope, British Columbia, where I also used to live (“hope,” in fact, is my favourite word). I had just seen Chuck at the May 2019 Haiku Canada weekend at the University of British Columbia, meeting less than a ten-minute walk from the Museum of Anthropology, which once again I chose not to visit—but I know I soon will.
I actually left out one very personal detail in my haibun. In 1997, I was stuck in British Columbia for six months awaiting my H1 visa to return to the United States. I visited the Museum of Anthropology in late September that year, and was still waiting for my visa (yet still paying rent in California for all of those six months). In the museum, amid all the massive Haida wood sculptures, with the expansive view of the mountains across the water outside the huge windows, I remember coming to a realization that I could live here if my visa never came through. It was a point of acceptance that was profound for me, a powerful sense of social and spiritual belonging, inspired by native culture and its sense of belonging with the earth beneath its feet. That afternoon, I drove home to where I was staying, where a letter had arrived, that very day, announcing that my visa was approved. It was a deeply emotional moment for me, after six months of disruption and uncertainty, and that’s the real reason why it would be sad for me to revisit the museum again (as I mention in the haibun), perhaps because I turned my back on that acceptance, or so it might have seemed. And yet no. The larger acceptance was embracing what I had sought for half a year, yet also embracing the possibility of the other option too. I found myself capable of accepting everything. For me it was a moment of saying yes to life.
I would also like to mention that the owl might be my totem animal, if I had one. In Manitoba one spring, I was hiking alone along the south shore of Clear Lake, at the edge of Riding Mountain National Park, east of Wasagaming. I walked around a bend of the trail and there, on a stump in front of me, not more than ten or fifteen feet away, at eye level, was a giant snowy owl. I stopped in my tracks. The bird did not move. We stared at each other for at least half an hour. It occasionally shifted a wing, or looked slightly to one side or the other, but mostly maintained its gaze straight at me. I shifted from foot to foot now and then too, but stayed as still as possible—not consciously at first, but because I was transfixed, instantly knowing that this was a rare close-up encounter with a majestic and solitary creature. Eventually I became aware that I wanted to finish my hike and be back in time for dinner with family and friends. I moved slightly forward, a step or two, but the bird did not move, continuing its wide-eyed stare at me. I stepped forward again, slowly and gently. And again. Then the bird smoothly stretched out its wings, at least a five-foot wingspan, made a silent surge of its wings and flew up to a distant tree top. I felt the breeze of its wings as it flew away.
—2 June 2019, Sammamish, Washington
In a review of The Haibun Journal 1:1, 2019, edited by Sean O’Connor, reviewer Tony Beyer writes the following in Haibun Today 13:3, September 2019:
Another feature of this haibun collection is their consistent high standard—a credit to Sean O’Connor and to the authors. . . . [Various haibun] remind us of the origin of haibun in travel sketches and records of human or natural atmosphere. Combining some of these concerns, Michael Dylan Welch, in his “Hearing the Owl,” spins out the associations derived from a favourite book (Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name) into a consideration of cultural traditions among the indigenous Kwakiutl of British Columbia. He muses on the way stories are told and signs become totems passed on into the future, history and mythology, visual art and more intimate personal experience. His words for visiting the UBC Museum of Anthropology, “transcendent and humbling,” draw these strands together into a reflection on what it means to belong among the succession of human inhabitants of a place.
—2 September 2019, Sammamish, Washington
On 8 February 2022, my wife and I became United States citizens, after a two-year process, hundreds of pages of paperwork, and more than a month of anxiety preparing for our citizenship interviews. I still have my British and Canadian citizenship, but at last I am now a citizen of the country where I have spent the majority of my life. On 7 June 2022 (I’m still using the European way of giving dates), I was a featured reader at Seattle’s Hugo House literary center (note American spelling) with Lucien Zell, an American living in Prague. He titled our reading “Exiled Home,” and he didn’t know how meaningful that was for me, because I had spent decades of my life never fully belonging where I lived, always with a feeling of exile, of distance, of otherness. On the lectern I put up small flags for England, Canada, the United States, and Japan (the latter because my wife is Japanese and our kids are half Japanese, and for my many affinities for Japan). I mentioned that I had recently become a U.S. citizen and began my poetry reading by saying “Tonight is a reading that recognizes longing and belonging, and a longing to belong.” That’s been a theme of my life. Obtaining U.S. citizenship may not change that feeling, but perhaps it will, starting with the fact that I can now, for the first time in my life, vote in a national election in the country where I live (I was mostly too young to do that when I lived in Canada). And I can serve on a jury. If nothing else, I am a citizen of life, where everyone can belong, if they say yes to life as I have always tried to do, but for some people, finding belonging is a particular challenge. It has been a challenge for me for a very long time, and my poetry reading attempted to acknowledge this. I started the evening by sharing a poem by Rilke, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing.” Its closing lines are these, the “me” meaning God: +
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
—23 June 2022, Sammamish, Washington