Rampant with Memory

Ha, Ha Death kills me!

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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.

 

Plutarch on grief

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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.

 

A sixties story told by a man just turned sixty

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Here is a story curiously told to me a few days ago from the lips of my brother, Sean.

A man, a woman; a father, a mother. And a friend who whisks us away because the father and mother said yes, you may take them. Please take them. That is the story but vague in the details. Why Sean and I alone? Where did we go and who was this man who took us?

Sean said we sat up front with him, this man, and Sean was in the middle; I imagine him in the middle, whether memory or not. If memory, it floats down like glass splinters but I’ll tell it anyway.

Sean beside the driver who was called Jack. Not to us, of course, because that would be rude: to call an adult by his or her first name. He was Mr. White—right? Was his name White?

Sean between us. I, against the door where if I wanted I could flee but no, because my big brother was beside me. We wore no seatbelts; it was many years ago now stretched into several decades and there were no seatbelts then and the stories live on.

I remember that I held Sean’s hand, a bit later, because he reached for it. Crossing a bridge, sister and brother, both tiny, walking toward the other side and maybe away from someone. Or toward someone. Toward a car? Another person?

I was comforted by his hand and carried on crossing the bridge; there was water beneath and tall grasses all around, enough for a child to hide in. Clouds, blue, wind light, and there was almost-fear.

Sean told me this man vanished us to see horses, far away, and that he was drunk.

“You must have done something to piss him off,” he said. “Because he slapped you in the face.”

I was four, we decided, because Sean was eight.

We drove toward home and the drunk named Jack veered into the oncoming traffic. Straight into it, said Sean, but at the last second he threw the wheel away and crashed into a gas station, after crossing a couple lanes of traffic.

“He smashed into two gas pumps then drove through the window of the store.”

Sean remembers, before the police and ambulance came, this man stashed a bottle of whiskey deep beneath the front seat.

Mom and Dad arrived, he said, and we were both in shock and loaded into the ambulance. I remember nothing of any of this. Mom yelled at her friend Jack and  threw a box of sweets he had bought for her–perhaps Black Magic dipped chocolates–into his face.

And then he disappeared from our lives. Until yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

David Hume on birthdays

 

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David Hume (1711-1776)
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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.

 

Oh! How our dead danced!

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“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

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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, .

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“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

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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.

 

 

 

 

Kinesis means movement

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I never married but I changed my name nearly 30 years ago. I did this after asking my grandmother how she’d feel about my borrowing her name and she said, yes, she would like that. Her name was Mercedes Shanahan; I took her first name too.

Back then, I became a writer while working for a feminist newspaper called Kinesis; that was where I posted my name change as well as in the B.C. Gazette.

Kinesis: News About Women That’s Not in the Dailies. That was our masthead.

Changing my name from Howes to Shanahan was, I suppose, a feminist gesture and one I never regretted. I killed off my old name because I loved my grandmother and once she died the name would die with her. So I took it–I gave it another life.

The old Howes half of my name will carry on: I have six siblings, most with children named Howes, so it’s safe. I love that name, just as I love them, very much, but Shanahan, now isn’t that better suited for a writer? Doesn’t it sparkle in a byline?

A while back I posted about my spinster great-aunt Mary Shanahan. That was after I visited the family cemetery and noticed that as an unmarried woman her tombstone only included “Mary,” dropping that last identifying name.

Sure it was her father’s name but Mary and Mercedes, and their four siblings, were raised by their widowed mother Sarah.

And I? I am another spinster Shanahan to follow Mary’s footsteps into the 2000s. It’s a tale of women, identity, and independence–spanning three generations.

“Kinesis” means movement. During the 80s and 90s when I wrote for that paper and honed my skills was also a time when the women’s movement thrived.

It was a time when our intrepid journalists exposed issues that are only now hitting the mainstream and raising the public’s consciousness.

We wrote about: PTSD; reproductive rights; sex selection in the Indian community; appropriation of aboriginal children; “comfort” women–who were abducted during the Second World War and systematically raped by servicemen.

We were also the first to report on missing and murdered aboriginal women. In fact, in 1986 I shot the cover photograph of a demonstration organized and led by prostitutes in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. These women lost sisters; they lost mothers and lovers; they feared for their lives. It was a generation before anyone listened to them.

Several of these missing women were slaughtered by Robert Picton. A name we won’t soon forget and wish we never knew.

A traumatic tour of Europe

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How did this happen? Twenty-four years ago I birthed him and now I’ll watch him tour Chernobyl. Not with me, since he is grown up and plans his own travels, but I will imagine him there–there without his mother’s hand to hold; without the security of another box of crumbly goldfish crackers and tippy cup of juice.

How did it happen that he desires Chernobyl as a tourist destination–not one of the Seven Wonders of the World but one of the world’s greatest man-made disasters?

Greenpeace concludes that among the billions of people worldwide who were exposed to radioactive contamination from the disaster, nearly a million premature cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004

A writer at the World Nuclear Association called it  “A direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.”

How did it happen that, in 2016, Chernobyl has become a tourist destination, like Auschwitz, another site my son will visit, no doubt chatting with guides in flawless German.

I remember the day the Dantesque blast tore though my relaxed radical life in Vancouver, silencing my work on other issues like stomping down the patriarchy; shouting slogans at demos.

Patriarchy-smashing returned, as it must, and so continues, but Chernobyl redirected our energies to The Hell that is Other People. Toward the Massacre of the Innocents. (With thanks to Sartre and Rubens here and apologies for my mixed art history references.)

When I spoke with Toto yesterday and learned of his plans to visit this city, and I expressed shock, he said he likes to view urban decay. I thought: Well, there is Detroit. No glibness intended.

And Auschwitz?

Furthering my son’s education on Nazi Germany is an important link to his ancestry. His father was born in in Germany, and while Angela Merkel generously welcomes refugees fleeing Aleppo and elsewhere, learning about that particular war was something I insisted upon as soon as Toto was resilient enough, resilient enough to learn about atrocity.

 

 

 

Brotherly love and valour

Cedric Mah
Cedric Mah

Cedric Mah was a fearless Canadian-Chinese airman–rejected from the RCAF because of his race–who braved the Himalayas to support Chinese troops fighting in Japan. He was on a route dubbed “the graveyard of the skies.”

Mr. Mah died a few years ago in Edmonton. He was 88.

Cedric was 8th of 11 children. His love for his family expanded his world and proved his valour. For one thing, he convinced his younger brother, Alex, to rescue their 13-year-old sister from China by smuggling her through the Himalayas to the coast in a coffin.

Around the same time, Cedric spotted another sister walking along the road in a crush of refugees, wrapped in the Hudson’s Bay blanket that he had sent her from Canada couple of years before.

He escorted her to safety.

The entire Mah family were reunited in Canada at the end of World War Two.

In a late 20th century Ontario version here is my small story. Small, maybe, but it has thriven in my memory ever since that chilling night at that dock on Georgian Bay. Another tale of a brother’s love for his sister.

Tim, 6th in a family of 8 children, came out to Banff, Alberta to rescue me from a horrible job as a preyed-upon saloon waitress. He was 17 and I was 19.

We hitched-hiked home to Ontario and one night the temperature dropped to dangerous levels and we had no blanket. Tim climbed on top of me, as we lay on the beach that long night, warming me with his body. He likely saved my life.

That tidy teenage heat, that love, that critical creativity stuns me still. The night was long but longer still the gratitude.

We’re in our fifties now with quilts and comforters, slippers and cats and furnaces, dining in each other’s toasty home and chatting about our grown-up children.

Cedric Mah’s sisters, elderly women now, remain alive to miss him.

 

 

 

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