Rampant with Memory

Ha, Ha Death kills me!

397537fc00000578-3842910-as_part_of_a_promotion_by_home_sharing_website_airbnb_guests_wil-a-34_1476715689004-1

Maybe you love airbnb. Let’s go ahead and assume you love airbnb. Would you sleep in one of these coffins?

I ask because tonight in Romania one lucky couple will fill each of these crannies. It is October 31st. They will be alive and possibly worn out from all night Halloweening. And they have won an airbnb contest to spend the night at ‘Dracula’s castle’ perched in the clouds above the village of Transylvania.

Death. Is. Funny. But why?

Death frightens, is why. The depth of grief attacks our equilibrium and washes away our rootedness in the normal. We forget how to eat, to sleep, to work or shop; we forget appointments that a day or a week earlier snapped us to attention and carried us into life. All gone.

It scares the hell out of us so we laugh instead and pretend we’ll never arrive to meet Charon, the ferryman to Hades. The old, Greek man has loped off to the pub for a sundowner and won’t return to take his place at the helm; that’s okay with us. We’ll stand with other cold, dead souls on the dock laughing at the foolish man.

We make Death funny by winning a contest and sleeping in coffins. It’s not a brave or foolish gesture–hey, it’s a lark! Our hearts and brains and muscles will limber-up with daybreak. No tears shed for us, oh no, but we’ll gather excellent stories for Christmas party banter.

A woman up the street from my house plastered her front yard with elaborate Halloween decorations weeks before the haunted hour then removed them last night. I asked her why.

“Because they will all be stolen,” she said.

Death is funny and so are bloody, protruding hands rising from dirt clutching at the R.I.P. tombstone shadowing them. Thrilling crap stolen by gravediggers the night before the little costumed children snack their way up the block, their faces smeared with chocolate and caramel; cheeks bulging and parents hurrying them along.

Death comes, they say, as a thief in the night. And silky coffins, they also say, make lovely holiday destinations.

 

Girl Power and the art of the pen

images

Floundering words, words in flight, people too distracted to slow to read them. Syllables flap while we bow our heads and tiresomely glide through the weeks, months, until we also head south.

Huh? What’s that you say? Death is what.

So before that sad moment shifts your eyes permanently away, clutch a fistful of fleeting words.

Maybe you think I’m demanding you read my words? One more flapping, tongue-wagging writer begging an audience? But no, not so, at least not entirely so. I am also an avoider but I am weary of it.

And so a few minutes ago I grabbed a pad of lined paper, two fountain pens, and a bottle of Shaeffer midnight blue ink and sped-walked to the closest café.

“I am an essayist,” I said to myself. “I am a poet.”

I fled from home to write and when not writing to read an Arden edition of Henry IV. Falstaff, born of the imagination of an early 17th century writer who still breathes for us.

The other day I was at the gym working out beside Jian Ghomeshi.

I checked it out with Cheryl, who works at the desk.

“Yep,” she said. “That’s him. He bought a pass last week.”

So there we were, Jian and I, two Torontonians with distinct pasts and recent media presence. I have bylined on death in the Globe and Mail and he has lived violence in presses across the country. Now, apparently, we quietly pump together.

He is short, sheepish, awkward; tiny and breakable and very, very sweaty. But here’s the thing: I lifted more than he did

And I’m only a girl.

A friend said: “You should have patted him on the bum and said ‘how do you like me so far?’

This needs to an essay, said another friend.

And so these few words introduce what I hope will be steadier writing up ahead. But I promise it will be less about Ghomeshi–none about Ghomeshi in fact–and  more about girls and strength. About writing and inspiration.

While being alive.

“You must change your life,” wrote Rilke.

 

 

 

 

A pub crawl memorial

images

A song of youth blew through the front door of my local pub last week and I said to the owner: Why? Before she answered me she seated them, tapped their beer, and tried on the proper expression befitting the occasion.

They were young; they were delightfully jubilant and probably tipsy. And they were grieving…

…the very recent suicide of a close friend. A twenty-two year old who made an early exit and surely broke hearts in his fall.

But why jubilant? Why beer?

“They are celebrating his life,” said Cindy, greeter at the Brooklyn Tavern. He loved beer, he loved his friends, and the times that were good. So they are honouring him.

The broken hearts lay idle; at least that is how I made sense of it, likely mingling fact with fancy. Their youth, in truth, shone through for me that day.

And, I concluded, their friend would have enjoyed this joy instead of  the other–by other I mean that dour ceremony that scarce belongs with people this fresh.

They sipped and smiled and moved on, easing by invisible me at the bar thinking my middle-aged thoughts and pondering the now, the next, and the long ago.

I’m not sure how I would have wanted my friends to say goodbye to me when I was their age. Or when I am my age. Or when I am, if I am, much older. I like to think: sip and smile: send me off in an Irish wake; toast to what won’t be “heaven” (a consoling lie) but to what was life.

Plutarch on grief

Unknown

Is a truism a truism if written in A.D. 76? Can platitudes possibly be buried in ta-da words–describing what we have come to know well and that has been regurgitated in popular culture, self-help manuals, and online feel-good courses crashing toward today?

For several years, I’ve turned for wisdom to a great tome of lived storytelling: The Art of the Personal Essay, an anthology from classical era to the present, edited by master contemporary American essayist Phillip Lopate.

First up: A scant four pages penned by one of those single-named demi-god Greeks with squirrely beards.

One day, while on the road to Athens, a messenger sent tidings to Plutarch of his little daughter’s death. He dashed off a consolation letter to his wife meant to ease her inside and outside of a wrenching absence.

“After the birth of our four sons you yearned for a daughter and I seized the opportunity of giving her your name,” he wrote.

Little Tixoxena.

To paraphrase Plutarch seems like a criminal literary act and impossible to do justice to but I shall nevertheless attempt it.

Remember the good, he more or less said.

Speaking of grief:

“It becomes us ill, inculpating our own lives, to find fault with a single blot, as in a book, when all the rest is clean and unstained.”

Remember the joys, he urged her. Illogical, he said, to dwell in sorrow.

“I cannot see, my dear wife, why these and similar qualities [in Tixoxena] which delighted us when she was alive should now distress and confound us when we bring them to mind.

“Rather do I fear lest we lose those memories along with our grief, like that Clymeme (handmaiden to Helen of Troy) who said: ‘I hate that well-turned cornel bow; away with all exercises!’”

Plutarch, Clymeme, Little Tixoxena and Big Tixoxena spent their lives around death then died young themselves. In that slant of light, how could they do other than lift their faces and feel the still warmth?

And we should attempt to do the same. But of course I speak only for myself. I shall attempt to do the same, remembering Plutarch with thanks.

 

Not less radical but more so

IMG_4259

“As we grow older we should become not less radical but more so.”

A thoughtful dissection of these words and next an attribution to the writer.

As we grow older…

Images rise within me, as I rest on these words, beginning with my arthritic big toes that step painfully onto the curb while once they tore though beach sand following upon the heels of other children.

And

A fresh etch on my chin that wasn’t there when I went to bed –that one, there, next to the newly sprouting hair.

And

Whence once I stood, now I sit: “Would you like a seat?” The young man asks me on the streetcar. “Thank you,” I say, appreciating his kindness more than I do the seat. I try not to shout at him: Why would I? Don’t you know that I go to the gym three times a week where I deadlift, benchpress, and sweat?

And

Ah, there surely are endless ‘Ands’ only to be many more. Stay tuned; stay alive; they will come.

We should become not less radical…

Should. Become. We must fully become and then let go. And what do we do during that becoming? Fight like hell to climb that hill.

When I was pregnant I carried my belly during the heat of summer up to my Vancouver loft. I was 32 and my ankles swelled and my toes were fine. But it was a still a fight and now many another.

I was radical then. On the vanguard of gay parenting where I faced assumption, rejection, ridicule, and scorn. Since then, I strive to excel in radical but other preoccupations sometimes threaten best intentions.

Now I am an almost-old-woman ignored. My hands hold the back end of a shopping cart instead of a placard. Maybe someday they will hold a grandchild’s hand. Ah, but inside my heart and thought I am as radical as always.

…not less radical but more so

Margaret Laurence wrote that quote, the one that awakened a flood of words. She also inspired me to name this blog long ago when she gave voice to Hagar Shipley in the opening lines of The Stone Angel.

Laurence wrote that one small sentence but she couldn’t endure old age and killed herself instead. She tried twice, in fact, succeeding only once. Cancer struck her out. Which of her books remain unwritten? Was her final act also radical?

No answer because she can no longer speak it. We are held prisoner, wrapped in the mystery of her life, her death.

But let’s honour her words and fight on.

 

David Hume on birthdays

 

David Hume (1711-1776) mausoleum
David Hume (1711-1776)
mausoleum

Eighteenth century philosoper David Hume learned he was dying and so within an hour wrote an essay called “My Own Life.” It begins with comments on age and the elements.

“Last night I dreamed about mercury — huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be 80 myself.”

Elements and birthdays were intertwined for him since boyhood, when he learned about atomic numbers.

“At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold.”

All this spins me off in a couple directions–first, into the countenance of age; the measurement of human life and lively celebrations of birth.

We are all moving into mercury and many of us have already arrived. Some finish before; some go no further. And it’s common, these day, to smash the barrier into a higher number.

David Hume mused on mortality and perhaps so should each of us.  Because musing stops us dead, so to speak, allowing us to take stock of our own lives in a human–and Humean–fashion.

[As well as being an element, Mercury was the Roman god who escorted people into the Underworld.]

It also moves me toward philosophy itself. I have lightly, only lightly, studied it and pleasantly tangled myself into the cobwebs both as an adolescent and adult: two shockingly different ages and approaches to the discipline.

I want more time, always, to savour what I find. Reading philosophy requires slowing down mighty slow, slow like walking on the beach to a roar of water, or meditating high upon a solid cushion.

The art in the thought that is philosophy arrives as a gift. Hume knew this and offered it to us a handful of years before the French Revolution, when Europe leaned forward more deliberately onto the world stage and into history.

Tomorrow I turn 57. My birthday is July 14th: Bastille Day. I have always loved being a revolutionary baby–willing myself to storm the great walls obscuring my life.

Tomorrow I attain Lanthanum on the periodic table. This element means: To Lie Hidden. And for me, reading philosophy means rising up and stepping out from the cloud of sleep.

Tomorrow will be time to read philosophy.

 

Love is love.

IMG_0006

Love is love.

Loss is loss.

Simple proclamations but powerfully true.

Maybe you won’t want to read this post? Maybe you think it is trivial and that I am naught but a cat woman mired in post-put-down personal pain–having offed our cat a week ago. But love is love—and there are two freshly broken hearts in our home; there is an absent imprint on the blanket and we are shattered.

Be free to read no more.

We were, last week, traipsing across the country in our Pontiac Sunfire: Toronto to Dawson City, 7,000 kilometres in a week, arriving to whoop it up in the land of gold when we learned that Oedipus, our cat, whom I found when he was four weeks old (abandoned, a mat of black fur pressed against a wall) was necessarily killed off.

We expressed to our poor, poor friends who so kindly carried out the nasty job at the vet, those two women who cared for our house and cat while we were away, as grateful a thank you as possible. Our cat’s illness was sudden, unexpected, and thankfully brief.

Love is love and loss is loss and this, my friends, is loss. This is grief as sure as grief can be. Every few hours I cry. At least three times a day I sob. Only Heather and I bear, in each other’s arms, the pain; only we know the shadow of his absence in our home since returning home yesterday.

Fifteen years ago I found this cat and, coincidentally, fifteen years ago Heather and I found each other.

 

 

Oh! How our dead danced!

images

“Pleasure canopied in lustful smiles meets and embraces exuberant Joy…the fascination dance goes merrily, and the libidinous waltz with its lascivious entwinements whiles in growing excitement, the swelling bosom and the voluptuous eye tell the story of intemperate revel…”

Thus spake our Canadian ancestors, while Confederation dogged their heels, no doubt tightening entwinements. This ball was described in an east coast newspaper from that time.

I call them dead people because that is what they are but then–oh then!–they were so darned alive.

Yammer about Confederation didn’t arouse interest in the Atlantic provinces, who were minding their own business and doing just fine without it thanks.

(About this purple prose one editor commented: “There are some desperate fellows in the Prince Edward Island press.”)

Yes, these revellers are several generations dead while we, who live, topple on the edge of a century and a half of Canada.

I love this quote for many reasons, not least because it was written by a fellow journalist from another world who stood to the side with a notebook in hand.

A pack of lies penned by a sexually frustrated man held back by the perils of conservatism.

Interest in genealogy grows with age and will soon explode with retired baby-boomers clicking madly on ancestry.com and with help from the Mormon stash.

And so, somewhere in this crowd of dead folk dancing, I hope, were our folk. And now these party-goers are several generations dead while we stand on the edge of a century and a half of Canada.

Ah, but most of our folk had yet to arrive to swear allegiance, to stand erect on looted land–right down to the name of our half-baked nation.

But stern and frightened expressions on posing faces back then suggest there wasn’t quite so much jollity. Nursing, not heaving, bosoms with babes-in-arms and bellies lift their skirts and swollen ankles past monster cedar stumps, hoping they, or their small children, won’t die.

Meanwhile, in the comfort of my brick home in Upper Canada, I tap on the doors at ancestry.

The resurrection of Hedy Lamarr

images

This is the story of a Hollywood actress, defined by her appearance, who was secretly a brilliant inventor and helped change the course of history. Until recently, Hedy Lamarr has laid in an unmarked grave in the Vienna Central Cemetery.

Susan Sarandon

This recent tweet from one fine, film star refers to another fine, film star who pleased the screen several decades ago. Ms. Sarandon praised Hedy Lamarr’s remarkable life while commenting on her marker-less grave; in so doing, she put Hollywood to shame. A hammered-down secret: Ms. Lamarr was a genius; she was one of the brains behind the invention of the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cell phone networks.

Each time we lift our phones to our lips we ought to whisper: “Hedy.”

But due to film-set starlet-branding Hedy Lamar was nothing more than a pretty face in a halo of hair coquettishly leaning up against Clark Gable’s grinning hulk. And until very recently Ms. Lamarr lay without a name in a Viennese cemetery.

Thanks to Ms. Sarandon’s insistence, we acknowledge the many talents of this woman. Sixteen years after her death, a memorial has finally been installed, .

hedylamarrmemorial3

“It incorporates 88 steel rods representing the 88 frequencies in Lamarr’s patented frequency hopping technology,” tweets Ms. Sarandon. These rods, when viewed from the right angle, generate an illusion of Lamarr’s face.

“FILMS HAVE A CERTAIN PLACE IN A CERTAIN TIME PERIOD. TECHNOLOGY IS FOREVER.”

I remember Hedy but not for the right reasons. I remember tacking her photo above my bed beside one of Vivien Leigh. Not because I’m from that era but because I was in love with beautiful women and Heddy resembled Scarlet O’Hara. Heddy also knew Rhett Butler.

As an adolescent I was in love with all things Gone with the Wind; for so many obvious reasons, this is an embarrassing confession.

But now, like Susan Sarandon, I am provided with an opportunity to tear off the illusion and thank her for the head behind the halo and celebrate, every day, her invention. One day I’d like to visit Vienna, with a stop among the cherubs and alabaster angels, and raise a toast to Hedy Lamarr.

 

 

A pretzel of time

Unknown

 

But every night I go abroad; Afar into the land of Nod.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The land of nod. That was how my friend Richard described a Toronto nursing home he recently visited. “Like someone sprinkled fairy dust on everyone.”

He spoke affectionately about a residence where his friend Jerry recently moved. Walking along the hall, Richard glanced through doors to see sleeping residents, some with family nearby but most alone with tiny photos in plastic frames; combs, hairpins and jars of Nivea shoved into a single drawer touched by countless germy fingertips.

It’s not always pretty at Rollingrock Gardens but here is a beautiful story.

Jerry met Jerry along a walker-laden hallway a few months ago and they quickly became inseparable friends. The first Jerry is blind; the second Jerry is his fresh set of eyes. These two men in their nineties fought in the Second World War.

The first Jerry is British and the second Jerry is German; both were bombers. German Jerry spent four years at a POW in London around the same time British Jerry was decommissioned and moved to Canada.

(Please forget the common wartime usage of “Jerry” meant to mock the German helmet and referring to British slang for potty. Pure unfortunate coincidence.)

Now the two Jerrys watch TV together. Jerry describes visuals to Jerry.

I love this living instance of time twisting itself into a new pretzel: former soldiers land on the shores of Lake Ontario to begin a friendship of forgetting.

Young men turned into old men smile over their shared name; they reminisce about atrocities and heal with the passage of years and the flicker of television.

And now, literally as I type the final words of this post, Snapchat dings and my son delivers to me a photo of Reactor 4, Chernobyl.

Is this a diversionary non-sequitor? Perhaps not: it presents a more current view of hell.

Next up, he writes, he and his friend Alex are off to Poland to tour Auschwitz.

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: