Rampant with Memory

A pub crawl memorial

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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

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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.

 

Not less radical but more so

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“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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Snow lands on living statues

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anonymous in snow

 

This child and these women are someone’s ancestors and dead as the driven snow. They pose somewhere in Toronto, I imagine, likely still inhabited by their descendants.

Descendants who pounded through the snows on the same city streets today as I write with a window onto this tiresome white assault. I am seated in an east-end cafe called Crema dreading stepping back into -20 blasting air but confident in my stunningly expensive Canada Goose parka.

Now back to the posers-of-old.

I found this photograph of anonymous Canadians while researching at the Ontario Archives a few weeks ago. It was plastered onto the walls along with dozens of other anonymous Canadians.

It got me thinking about my own anonymity generally but specifically today while disguised in tights, wool socks, Hudson’s Bay scarf, balaclava, mitts and a fur-trimmed ankle-length down coat. Tromping through the snow not pausing to pose for anyone’s camera.

I think perhaps the subjects are matriarch, daughters, and granddaugher. I imagine the picture was taken by the child’s father in High Park, a place I am familiar with, and have often wondered–in all seasons, really–about the lost generations who believed it to be their park, just as those of us who walk along Grenadier Pond or through the woods today believe it to be ours.

“You must be cold standing still like that,” (I pretend to say).

“No, we are from the Ural mountains,” ( I pretend the child answers).

I watch as her mother snugs the mitten back onto her hand.

Then I walk away returning to now.

 

 

What makes a family?

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My brother suggested something to me yesterday that is now clamped around my heart.

It is about potential loss and the possibility of holding on. We all have the choice to deviate from–well, from family. Specifically from sisters and brothers.

People drift away, he said. Caught up by death while remaining alive.

We become orphans once our parents die and this rupture stabs us with with a measure of grief. Isn’t it something we dread in an infantile way?

In my instance I ask: who will bandage my scrapes? Applaud at my graduation? Cry when I move far away?

Freshly comes another challenge: how to continue family? I mean blood family, not the family many of us choose out of a basic desire to be loved.

The loss of original family has been experienced by many of us. Sometimes it comes crashing down and we react by creating alternative families among our lovers and friends.

I think of gay men during the ugliest of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s who were cast aside by “family” and sought companionship and love elsewhere in their community. Attending funerals where no one else would come.

I think of how my partner and I don’t trust holding hands in public even though we can marry and raise children together. We seek family elsewhere, a safer where, with others who share, or sympathize, with our fears.

I think of refugees to Canada forced to leave people behind to endure poverty, torture, and death; people left behind who lose their lustre, without love, and often their lives.

And the new Canadians hope for a welcome here.

But it is the potential loss of blood-family that bludgeons me now. My brother’s prescient words and the whiff of a possible reality. Once our parents are gone–will we survive? Does it matter?

I am not sure whether we will survive but yes, it matters.

Meanwhile, my partner, our son, and my friends are the ones whom I believe truly love me.

Meanwhile, I’ll bank on them.

 

 

 

 

The task of un-glowing

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A friend asked me whether it’s difficult to un-glow a glowing life.

He didn’t say it like that exactly but that was how I understood it. He meant in the context of writing an obituary about an exceptionally noble subject such as Diane MacKenzie. She was a social activist who lived and worked out west.

“Whether she was recruiting doctors to care for the people of Haida Gwaii, procuring healthy meals for the homeless of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or teaching in Ghana…”

That’s the lede. Where to go from there?

As well, Ms. MacKenzie had a severe debilitating illness that caused extreme burning in her lower extremities. She worked with her feet in ice buckets and travelled about on a scooter.

A colleague asked why she wouldn’t take a disability leave.

“My feet would still hurt and I wouldn’t be doing the good work,” she responded.

She eventually had both her legs amputated then the disease spread to her hands.

It’s hard to un-glow Diane MacKenzie. But somehow it felt necessary. Otherwise I write glib and congratulatory–a platitudinous eulogy.

Superficial storytelling tinged with falsehoods because lives simply do not come that way. And yet Diane MacKenzie stamped a critical truth into my words that left me not cringing with shame.

I had to dig deep to find flaws. The best I could get was that she didn’t cook Christmas turkey at home for her children. Instead she dragged them out with her to feed the homeless at a local shelter.

Oh, but did I mention that she helped establish the first safe injection site in the Downtown Eastside? That 800 people come in off the streets every single day to use the site? Turkey be damned. Let it burn, I say.

It is challenging to un-glow. That’s what I said to my friend. Kind of like dissing a particular shade of orange on a butterfly’s wing as it floats through it’s brief life.

Please read Diane below.

Diane MacKenzie – activist

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