Rampant with Memory

Girl Power and the art of the pen

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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

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

A key to limber fingers

N without the other keys
N without the other keys

“It sometimes seems as if all our lives we are trying to cope with loss—either the fear of it, or the memory of it, or its raw immediate presence.”

Maureen Oswin, Am I Allowed to Cry?

I will freely write on each statement: fear of loss; memory of loss; and its raw immediate presence. Less on the last because it is not immediate to me–at least not as a death. Death doesn’t knock about in my chest right now or swallow my words but instead it pulses like a life within me, just waiting.

Growing up as an anxious child, perhaps my strongest fear was the anticipated deaths of my mother, father, and grandmother. And now that I am in my mid-fifties family is being picked off one by one like painted ducks at the end of a toy rifle. Ah, but it’s as it should be of course, these deaths are due.

Grandmother gone two decades now. Father a year gone. Stark memories of loss. My mother–she is well, well and visited often by all her children, our partners, and our children. I still live with the fear of losing her.

After that long goodbye there will be absent friends, siblings, acquaintances, colleagues.

And my partner? And my child? I cannot conceive of the world without them so I don’t–ever–think about it. I simply refuse to cross into these imaginings. This cowardice stitches and holds me together.

Meanwhile, there is room for joy. In the face of death heapfuls of pleasure and I grab hold every day. Today, in the rain, seeing Heather climb the steps of the 501 Queen streetcar and find a seat at the back. Her relief at being able to rest while recovering from a energy draining cold.

Joy in watching my fingers limber-up and fly across the keyboard to frame my words, allowing this voice inside and my need to speak it now, the words laid to rest ready for your visitation.

“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.

 

 

A broken wrist on a breaking wheel

PHOTO #2 HOSPITAL SHANAHAN

That imprisoned right hand is the one I write with. It belongs to the body I breathe with and responds to the brain I think with. It moves in all directions and even sometimes twitches in my sleep. But on that day it didn’t.

Heather took this picture after I slipped on an icy patch in an alleyway close to our home and ended up flat on my back, then flat on the hospital guerney, with my hand extended and held in some torture-like thing vaguely resembling a medieval breaking wheel.

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I came across the first picture while gathering together documents on my slip & fall lawsuit with the city of Toronto, who I claim were negligent in their salting duties on that afternoon over a year ago.

That slip & fall led to my bone density scan and diagnosis of osteopenia, precursor to osteoporosis, the same disease that is slowly killing my mother. (Important note: with or without this condition, salt must be delivered in quantity to pedestrians of Toronto!)

She has broken three vertebras, shattered her pelvis, and developed a dowager’s hump all in the last chunk of months. I have been downing calcium, vitamin D, and hefting dumbbells to stave it off.

But let’s face. It is a downward slide, slip, tumble, and I am getting closer to that inevitable.

Ending.

My broken wrist was a jolt of recognition that I am becoming an old woman–not there yet, but I can see it now. Just like I could see the pavement rise up to meet me on that afternoon in the alley.

That was not a torture device used on me during my hospital visit, although the surgeon told me it was developed from blueprints of honest-to-god torture devices.

As for the second image of the breaking wheel: to my eye it looks like a bag of bones up there held together by muscle and sinew as thin as wisps of straw.

I am on that wheel now. That is my fear.

 

Death in advertising

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There has been a proliferation of beauty sites springing up in my former working-class east Toronto neighbourhood lately and some have weirdly incorporated ‘death humour’ in their advertising.

“Don’t go to the grave wearing the wrong face,” warns one sandwich board outside a shop specializing in facials and hair removal. Staffed by falsely beautiful, striving young women. Patronized by similar young women with more disposable income, less need to earn, and a mad dash toward beauty.

My city neighbourhood has changed and I’m not sure I like these demographic shifts, other than to be curious and sightly intrigued by the advertising.

My discomfort and prejudice might have to do with this anti-aging hype and the fact that I’m staring down the road at sixty. Maybe when I was under thirty I uttered similar death jokes and shared this cruel disdain for older women who let themselves puff and droop and wrinkle and grey.

But to the grave? Really? Have we come to that as a draw or a warning? Are we to prettify for the embalmer now with eighty dollar face cream?

Meanwhile, a few doors down from the beauty spot is a Shopper’s Drug Mart where, each Thursday afternoon, I step proudly up to the cashier and request the senior’s discount. I am now 55 and entitled to receive it.

The first few Thursdays was challenging but now I’m fully over it and happily scoop up my goods and savings. Send whatever deals you can my way, I think, as the years build.

What I find more difficult is the increase of invisibility I’m forced to confront as an ageing female. The old invisibility I knew as a lesbian has morphed into the invisibility as an older woman.

There’s nothing good about it, when it comes to healthy ego and self-respect, but I guess you can’t beat the discounts. In my arms at Shopper’s: vitamins, bath oils, and cat food. But watch as I gaily slide past the aisles of promises to erase lines, histories, and hues from my skin, hair, and flabby thighs.

Bottom line, I goddamn hate the false promises and heckling from these so-called beauty spots and beauty aids that have swelled on my home turf. I truly wonder whether sandwich boards teasing about death compel women to put their faces into the hands of these younger women and the men who likely own the shops.

 

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