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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Love is love.

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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

“The Stuff that Life is Made of”

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Why not? Write these postings? Every month but preferably every week–because I am creative; because I claim to love to write; because I have things I want to say; because some people would like to know what I want to say, perhaps to read my words.

Is this posting all about me? Partly, but it is also about you and the interruptions we all encounter in our lives by floating particles of detritus called the internet.

I had to search the meaning of detritus before pushing save because, like so often, it tapped off my fingers before I was certain it fit the context.

I reached not for the keyboard but for my mother’s dictionary circa 1939 that rests at the side of my desk, the one she flipped open frequently at St. Joseph’s School for Young Ladies in Toronto. At the start of war.

Detritus: pieces that are left when something breaks, falls apart, or is destroyed.

That sounds like death. But this time it is the death of creativity because we surely squander the minutes.

A little girl leans against her mother, popcorn and Fanta in hand, at the Kingsway cinema in Etobicoke circa 1969.

The girl is me and I am still fairly fresh to reading but I’ve made it through Margaret Mitchell’s tome and now I’m watching the screen version of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

I am also fresh to racism, to the history of the KKK, and to American wars.

In the movie there is a large stone plaque marking the passageway to Twin Oakes, the plantation owned by Ashley’s family. Engraved onto the plaque are these words:

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”

It turns out that quote is from Benjamin Franklin. And–of course through a little googling–I discovered that Franklin did more than create electricity–also related to the aforementioned googling.

He was one of the American Founding Fathers honoured (honoured) for his early and indefatigable campaigning for colonial unity.

Ironies abound. Or was Mitchell sending us a subtle message in her book about disunity and the civil war?

Back to the internet and my quest for creativity and the keeping of a regular blog. Blog. What would mom’s dictionary say about this? I won’t check though in my quest to complete this post.

I squander time instead of write. I sit at my desk running ideas though my mind then flip on Facebook. Or catch up on Twitter quips.

Better than running to the fridge or texting Heather about nothing. Messaging snaps of our cat.

I haven’t blogged in over a month and this is shameful to me. Shameful to the “writer” who is I. Who is me. Who the hell knows anymore? But then again, there is the dictionary and time to use it.

 

 

Snow lands on living statues

anonymous in snow
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.

 

 

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