Memories and Mad Hatters

By Michael Carpenter

IMG_0371Bidding adieu to Cranbrook Ed, we crossed the border into Alberta and our sojourn to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.  This world heritage site tells the story of the Blackfoot nation and their skilful and meticulously planned hunting process which drove herds of stampeding buffalo to their death over a carefully chosen cliff. Accessing the site from the west required us to drive over 30 km of gravel roads (we will come back to this shortly).  We arrived in time to watch the dancing demonstrations, which were truly amazing, and were well explained by the emcee.  The nobility, grace and skill of the dancers, combined with the dazzling ceremonial garb made for one continuous photo opportunity, and Madeline joined in a circle dance at the end.

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IMG_0395The exhibit spans five archeological levels and was beautifully illustrated.  I found myself deeply humbled and moved by realizing that these peoples first used this buffalo jump site 6000 years ago.  We are newcomers indeed!  Everywhere like an echo or a refrain is the message that the sacred earth provides—and the realization that we are abusing her bounty.

Lethbridge was the gateway to a couple of magical and fairly emotional days for me-rich with memories.  I lived in Lethbridge from 1987 to 1990, with my sons Aaron and Alex and with Alex’s mom Donna.  Alex, tragically killed in a backwoods motor vehicle accident in 2016,  was born in Lethbridge in 1989.  I was awash with emotion and memory, triggered in part by the vivid and happy memories of the time we spent there, so while our visit was enjoyable, I was grateful to hit the road for Medicine Hat.

Just before we left Lethbridge I noticed a stone chip on faithful Rudy’s windshield (Rudy is the name we gave our little red Hyundai Elantra GT).  As is often my wont, I decided to ‘wait and see’ about getting  it repaired.

“He who hesitates is lost” was one of my mother’s favourite sayings, and by the time we got to Medicine Hat we were looking at “Windshield Smashed In Buffalo Jump”, as the stone chip had become a nine inch crack.

I must admit, I was upset.  And hungry.  With Madeline’s great equanimity holding me down, I managed to phone our insurance company while feverishly gnawing on cold chicken legs, and swearing when my grease-laden fingers failed to make my touch screen respond.  Turned out that Speedy Glass could do a replacement the following morning, so we decided to spend the afternoon visiting the Medicine Hat Museum and Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

The art gallery featured an exhibit called Terrestrial Beings.  From the curator:

At once sublimely elegant and ruthlessly daunting, the lush intricacies of the natural world have delighted, nourished, intrigued and wrought havoc upon the human race since time immemorial. Occupying a place between reality, dream, memory and myth, Terrestrial Beings presents strange and wonderful works in which representations of the body and the land intersect physically, psychologically and metaphorically. Through sculpture, painting, drawing, and cut-paper, twelve contemporary artists from across the country embrace their connection to the earth as fertile ground for deeper spiritual and intellectual exploration.

 I’ve included a couple of examples.  One that I found particularly moving was This Creeping Feeling, a polymer clay sculpture of two figures laying a third to rest. It was created while a family member was dying, and the gallery note says it is about human entanglement and the unstoppable passage of time.  The figures are covered with coral, organisms which both war and co-operate, and leave the record of their lives on the earth and on each other. The other is of a shape-shifter, which I chose to be photographed with on my shape-shifting mad-hatter day.

The Medicine Hat Museum contained many fascinating artefacts-an anachronistic reference to settling the Indians, paired with honestly stated welcoming to diversity and the many stories that different people bring to the region.

I found myself wandering around laughing one moment and crying the next.  As Madeline and I strolled down to the river and then out for coffee, we talked about how lovely the afternoon had been, and how it never would have happened but for a broken windshield.  Then, in a little coffee shop, we found the Pour It Forward board.  People could buy an extra coffee and then write on a cup sleeve who it was for, and put it on the board.  Sometimes a person was named, sometimes not.  One said, “For someone who has had a bad day, and needs a hug in a mug.”  I am realizing that the world is simply filled with magic, so often missed by my busy or cantankerous mind.

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We began the trip across Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I love the vastness of the prairies-endless plains in quilts of emerald and dusty tan, ochre and acid yellow—with fluffy clouds hanging silently in the aquamarine sky.  I found myself feeling simultaneously tiny and expansive-open to and not separate from the world.

By Madeline

Sunday. Kenora. We wake to the bleak sun muffled by smoke and cloud. Many fires burn north of here. Three more days of driving until we arrive in Toronto.  I finished Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You on Friday, and then started Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water last night.  How is it that I randomly chose, one from a yard sale, one from a thrift store, two novels that are linked by drowning? Coincidence? Oe’s title is taken from Eliot’s The Wasteland, so I re-read the shortest section of that poem, Death by Water, and remembered Phlebas the Phoenician, drowning: “As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool.”

I think sometimes this road trip, RARE 5, with its spaciousness, time to think and ruminate–without projects, to-do lists, a home to clean, people to see, objects to fixate on–has allowed us to pass the stages of our age and youth, allowed us to enter the whirlpool of a heightened awareness. We can think in big-picture ways about our lives, about the past.  We are silent, then we talk. We listen to Stuart McLean, Pema Chodron, Allison Krauss, the Decembrists. In between music and voices we enjoy long spaces and quiet times, the varied landscapes of Canada outside the window. Then we converse and share our own thoughts and stories, and most of all our feelings. A journey of the mind and heart.

On to Thunder Bay today, through green wilderness.

 

 

 

 

 

Folgers in a French Press

By Madeline

After a long stretch of driving, we arrived in Grand Forks longing for some good coffee. I thought maybe Jitters Espresso? But we agreed that the name bothered us; as Michael said, “they have a branding problem.” So we went for coffee at Marvelous Munchie’s bakery. It looked okay, and often bakeries have good coffee. We waited at the small counter while two locals got coffee and pie.  We were next, but the coffee was all gone, so the bakery assistant offered to make another pot in one of the automatic drip coffee pots on a small counter behind her. She was being coached by the baker, a friendly woman in a white coat and hat who kept peeping out from the high rolling trays of donuts.

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I went to the washroom, using a key that dangled off the end of a pastry brush. When I came back Michael was waiting at an imitation woodgrain table, with Bert, Ernie, the Cookie Monster, and Elmo climbing the window next to him.  Later he told me what had gone down with the bakery assistant.

M: “Do you have any dark coffee?”
She looks at him quizzically. “Dark?”
M: “Yes, you know, a dark roast?”
She: “Well, we have Folgers.” The little hand lettered sign beside the cash register advertised coffee in a French press.
M: “What if I ordered the French press coffee, what kind do you use for that?”
She: “Folgers.”

IMG_0386So we waited 20 minutes for the regular Folgers (not French press), admiring the huge almost empty room that, as Michael said, could house both a daycare centre and a bakery. In fact, there were toys and a drawing easel and other children’s stuff at the back.  There were houseplants everywhere and inspirational sayings taped to one wall.  The locals were engaged in a lively conversation and seemed to be enjoying their pie and coffee.

The bakery assistant looked apologetic as the minutes ticked by. “This machine takes forever.” But it seemed she wasn’t really familiar with where the fill line was, and it finished dripping a while ago. The baker showed her gently.  She was so apologetic.  “I’m SOOO sorry,” she kept saying to us, bringing coffee and a little pitcher of cream. She was a big woman, perhaps in her early 40s, dark hair in a single long braid and wearing a blue tunic and sensible shoes. I saw the edge of a tattoo on her strong brown calf, just visible from under her dungarees.

We drank our Folgers and it didn’t really taste like anything except hot creamy water.  But we didn’t want either the baker or her assistant to feel bad or like they had anything to apologize for, so we drank it up to the last drop.

Later that day in Nelson, I was set on shopping at the I.O.D.E. (mperial Order Daughters of the Empire) thrift shop on Baker Street. It had good reviews, as thrift shops go. Rain had been pouring down for hours. The green forests were dripping wet as we snaked through the Kooteneys.  But now the sun came out as we walked down Baker Street, and I decided I wasn’t in the mood to shop at the I.O.D.E. Instead, I happened upon a very narrow fabric shop where I bought a half-metre of bird fabric that reminded me of Dr. Dolittle.  I’m not sure what I will sew with this fabric, but I do have birds on the brain. Halcyon, the kingfisher, the birds on the fabric, the hummingbirds at our feeder in Victoria.  The woman who ran the fabric shop had old treadle Singer sewing machines on display that we admired. (I like it how Michael happily goes to fabric and thrift stores with me and just finds a seat and reads while I browse.) I chatted to her about scraps. “I make scrappy quilts to use up the scraps, but it seems that no matter how many I use, I don’t make a dent in the scrap pile!” she exclaimed. I agreed that I had the same problem. I am pretty sure it’s because we keep buying new fabric. So even as we assiduously take from the scrap pile, we keep adding to it too because fabric is just so wonderful. Oh well. We could have worse problems. IMG_4043

Cranbrook Ed, by Michael

Our plan was to drive to Nelson and camp there, arriving early and having at least half a day and an evening to revel in the spiritually rich, friendly hippy vibe of this beautiful Kootenay town.

Best laid plans, as they say—after spending an hour waiting for coffee in Grand Forks we fought our way through a torrential downpour most of the way to Nelson.  We loved the array of funky shops, but really wanted to get to Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in time for indigenous dancing the next day and had forgotten that we were about to lose an hour to the time zone change.  Besides, the pouring rain made camping somewhat unappealing. So we decided to press on and stay at Cranbrook.

But first we shopped. We found a gong/singing bowl for our meditation shrine at home, and had the most wonderful conversation with the proprietor of Gaia Rising, who moved to Nelson from the lower east side of Vancouver, decades ago. We talked about community, addiction and consciousness raising-and I found myself thinking that I was really loving all the little connections we’ve been making along the way.  People are so friendly-and then it occurred to me that we’re probably helping that along. I also bought a Peaceful Poppy shirt that seemed somehow to fit with the whole trip so far.

The late Stuart McLean loved “Small Town Canada”, and over the past three days I have thought about this frequently.  The towns we have stopped in have been quirky, warm and welcoming, which seems quintessentially Canadian to me.

Cranbrook was pretty interesting. Madeline and I took pictures of a couple of signs: The Nails Christian Book Store, and very well-weathered Welcome to Downtown Cranbrook.  These have to be seen to be appreciated, so we’re included the images with this post.

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On the way back to our hotel I noticed a statue of a baby elephant—apropos, it seemed, of nothing. On reading the accompanying sign it turns out that in 1926 the Sells-Floto Circus visited Cranbrook and somehow lost fourteen elephants into the surrounding forest  (my mind reels imagining how that happened). Most of them were recovered fairly quickly, but one—Charlie Ed—remained at large for 6 weeks. The post-capture celebration breakfast and parade in Cranbrook was memorable, and Mayor T.M. Roberts declared Charlie Ed to be an honourable citizen, upended a bottle of champagne over his head, and re-christened him Cranbrook Ed.

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Next up, Alberta.

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Halcyon Days

M and M Road Trip 2019
RARE V
Day 1: Victoria to Osoyoos

This month, my husband and I will take turns blogging about our RARE V trip. Michael’s turn!

By Michael Carpenter

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We do love our road trips.

When Madeline and I met in May 2011, we decided we’d found “the one”, and in a fit of great confidence, agreed to travel by car to the Edmonton Folk Festival in August. Since we made this decision two weeks after we met, in retrospect I think we were pressure-testing our nascent marriage.

We listened to music, marvelled at double rainbows crossing the highway, wandered the pathways of Maligne Canyon, and talked and talked and talked.

It all went rather well.

The result has been an annual tradition of road tripping together.  We have travelled to the redwoods, to southern Oregon for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, to Four Corners Monument in the American Southwest, and up the Sunshine Coast to Lund.  This is our fifth trip. Our plan is to drive to Toronto through Canada and visit family there, then return through the states, letting love and whim carry our little red Hyundai back home.

Why RARE?  From the beginning of our relationship we have meditated and listened to spiritual teachers, and one of the earliest teachings we heard was from Tara Brach, about the four radiant abodes.  The abodes are loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity and when they are all present, they can open our hearts to all humanity.  We liked this so much that we decided to name our road trips Radiant Abode Road Excursions-RARE.

We usually pick a mascot for each trip-found in a local thrift shop. We have had a donkey, a sand dollar, and a pig named Falstaff (the Shakespeare festival featured Henry V).  Today we found our mascot—a kingfisher named Halcyon—who is proudly riding on our dashboard.  Halycon represents peace and prosperity, something we are both celebrating in this opportunity to not work for months, and to just be present and enjoy being together.  Halcyon also represents the shimmering rivers and lyrically sloping mountains that we have wandered through and wondered at all day. We love that his beak is broken, because we are all broken in one way or another.

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And it’s Canada Day!  At our motel the swimming pool was full of Canada flag beachballs, surrounded by flag towels, and filled with laughter and smiles as warm as the Osoyoos sun. We walked to dinner and looked at a kinetic sculpture built as homage to the indigenous peoples in this area.  At dinner we talked about enjoying the celebrations and still, wondering how this must feel to Canada’s first peoples with our history of occupation, the horrors of the residential school system and all the rest. We didn’t come up with any answers, but I can’t help but feel that the four abodes can at least open our hearts to all people.

On the way back to our motel a truck passed us. Driven by a man in a turban and sporting a Mexican restaurant logo, there was a banner across the back that said, “proud to be Canadian.”  I know it’s just a little thing, but it made me happy in a gentle, deep way.

Tomorrow it’s on to Nelson. IMG_0373

 

 

 

To speak of sorrow

“To speak of sorrow
works upon it”

from Denise Levertov’s “To Speak”

I haven’t felt like writing.

After the big report on climate change and biodiversity was made public in May, I feel paralyzed, stunned, crushed, blank, undone, guilty, sad, depressed, grieving, grey, blue, flat.  It’s not that we didn’t know it was coming, but the news still hit hard. Given the state of the world—one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, with humans at fault—writing anything that doesn’t contribute to solving the problem seems frivolous. Blogs, poetry, fiction: all of it seemed trivial, narcissistic, diversionary. And yet the fire to read and to write continues to burn, regardless of the state of the world.

Sadness upon sadness: a couple of weeks after the climate report I learned of a young man dying of a drug overdose. Sure, it happens every day, but when you know the family, the sadness hits your solar plexus. My raw and open heart told me to sew. Working with cloth, with objects, feels healing. Even in the midst of sadness and paralysis—perhaps because of the sadness–the work wants to be made. So I sew, and plant, and draw, and write.

Sewing

I have slowly been making a quilt using pieces of my stepson Alex’s t-shirts. He died at age 27 in the summer of 2016 when the car he was a passenger in plunged into a deep ravine. This slow craft is my way of memorializing him. When I heard the news that Logan, who had gone to school with my sons, died two weeks ago at age 25 from a drug overdose, I was again plunged into sadness. I paused in my quilt-making to sew death’s pennant.

Pennants typically celebrate the accomplishments of sports teams, but here the “accomplishment” is early death and wasted life, symbolized by the useless buttons that fasten nothing.  I used scraps of Alex’s t-shirts, reminding me of his death but also reverberating with the deaths of all those who die young. Birth leads to death and then back to birth: I chose blood red cloth, the ruddy triangle representing the fertile womb from which we all came.

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Planting, writing

I decided to look closely at a very small part of the natural world and pour my love into that. I won’t be saving any species, but perhaps focusing my energy on a little mound of dirt and a flowering plant will be healing at this time of grief.

When we had our perimeter drains replaced in the winter, the contractor told me he would have to dig up the garden. Did I want him to save any of the plants? I dug up some of the small ones myself, storing them in the shed. “Can you save just four? I’ve tagged them with red ribbon.” The white peony, the two lavender plants, and my favourite, the big blue hydrangea.  During all of the chaos that erupted in front and back yards, the mounds of dirt, the rain and mud, planks of wood bridging the mucky walkways, I lost track of my hydrangea. Eventually, they put her back in the earth, but as March turned to April and April to May, nothing happened. The dry brown sticks remained barren. I could see no life at all.

I was unhappy. I loved that plant. So many times I had sat on the living room couch and gazed out our big picture window at the full-blown blue globes. Marvelled as they changed hue from soft Egyptian blue to darker indigo, then became edged in violet, and finally took on a full, deep purple as late summer turned to fall.

The loss felt deeper than simply a favourite plant dying. I felt stirrings of an old feeling I hadn’t felt for ages. When I was in my 30’s I was part of a Deep Ecology circle. The five members met over several weeks, taking turns hosting, and during each session we’d discuss material we’d read by some of the greats of the movement: Arne Naess and Warwick Fox, for example.  I don’t remember much from the experience except that we visited a local Wiccan gathering and learned how to do the grapevine step as part of the spiral dance. More than any event or book, however, I remembered a feeling from that time, and the feeling was coming back to me like pinpricks of sensation return to a numb limb. We have been desensitized, have learned to turn away from Earth, to tune out her sufferings, because to really feel them, to empathize with her would be too much for us to to stand. Overwhelming. But when we allow ourselves to connect with her, we start to feel the deep grief and outrage appropriate to the situation we are all in.

My dead hydrangea had come to symbolize all of the destruction of the earth, and I grieved over her death for weeks.

Finally, last weekend I bought some potted hydrangeas from a garden center and placed them on the front steps.  I put on my orange gardening gloves and got the pointed shovel. “I’ll dig her out and replace it with another,” I thought to myself. I knew it couldn’t be the same; I had loved that particular hydrangea. She had generously given her bunches of lapis lazuli every summer and fall. One of those bunches I had dried and the lovely antiqued florets graced the bathroom cabinet in a delft vase. She was even a character in one of my short comics. Hydrangea was cherished.

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But I couldn’t stand to look at the dry sticks any longer. As I started to push the shovel into the ground to pull out the roots, I noticed a few green leaves at the centre of the plant. What? How had I missed that? Had it happened overnight? Although the main part of the plant appeared lifeless, there was life—tender new shoots and rich green leaves at the heart.  So I went back to the shed, excited, to grab the long clippers and instead of pulling out the plant at her roots, I clipped back all of the dead sticks to expose her new child. Beside this little green girl, I dug a hole and introduced a friend—one of the new hydrangea plants just out of a plastic pot.  I’ll watch the two loves grow together this summer, probably not producing any flowers just yet, but hopefully thriving as they reach for the sky under my gaze from the living room window.

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My mother’s closet

We plan wonderful projects. The ideas are good and vibrant. Details burn high with leaping flames then slow down, muted but steady. Eventually the flames gutter and sputter. Other tasks intervene, only embers remain.

Last May, my son Sam and I drove to visit my sister. We zipped up Highway 1 over the Malahat, through Duncan, past Nanaimo and veered off onto Highway 19, then 4 toward Port Alberni.  Passing the tangled green forests of the Island and listening to Pink Floyd, the breeze whistled through the sunroof and we talked about a plan I had been brewing since 2016. The seed of the plan was to interview my mother about her closet. Open those wooden louvered doors in her spacious bedroom to examine the sweaters, trousers, and dresses. Ask her about them. What’s your favourite piece of clothing? Where did you get it? Why do you love it? Is there a story? My mother’s stylishness would be expressed in that interview, her signature love of black, her ability to pull together a look, her insistence on quality. Having taught history of art and design to fashion students for decades, her knowledge of fashion trends across time would be revealed through her closet. We would look down at her dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals lining the closet floor and discuss her struggle to find attractive, comfortable shoes to fit her size 10 feet, feet that had been misshapen by the squeeze of hand-me-downs during her impoverished childhood. Finally, we would walk down the narrow stairs to the room at the back of the house where dozens of hats were piled on a chest of drawers—grey and black knitted cloches, brown and beige floppy brims, watch caps in jewel tones, all made by Parkhurst, one of her favourite companies. My mother would pour a glass of red wine before telling me about her hat obsession that grew from acute embarrassment over her thinning hair.

We’d sit in the bamboo chairs in the back room, our bare feet cooling on the tile, maybe laugh about her practice of wearing denim cut-offs (cuffs rolled) over black tights when she was a young mother.  Ten years on there were the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, such a good look on her—showing deep cleavage, the curve of her hips, a peek of thigh when she crossed her legs, legs even more shapely than Anne Bancroft’s in The Graduate. She bought the legendary von Furstenberg wrap in both the green and the brown python print.

“If you love something, buy two,” my mother liked to say.

I thought about making a short film documentary about my mother’s closet with my IPhone, capturing her expressive face and laugh, the camera skimming over the clothes on wooden hangers, mostly dark things in rich, heavy fabrics. I would have to buy a tripod and figure out angles and such, then how to splice and edit.  That seemed too hard. Finally, the film idea metamorphosed into a scheme to write a series of blog posts about people’s closets and their favourite clothes. Sam and I discussed my plan, and he encouraged me to start blogging. That weekend, I interviewed my sister about her classic denim vest, her sundresses, and her huarache sandals. I took photographs and some video footage. But I never followed through. The project lay dormant.

When I had coffee with Sam last week he told me “somebody used your idea.”

“What do you mean?” Marie Kondo’s series, he told me, is a lot like your plan. She looks into people’s closets and talks about why they have the clothes they do—the history and meaning of each item. Lots of people are watching the show. “That means,” he said, “you had a good idea.” I laughed wistfully.

It’s too late to interview my mother about her closet. She died in February, wearing a black silky nightgown and black cotton watch cap when she drew her last breath.  Her clothes hang in that big closet now, collecting dust.  No longer can she answer my questions, laugh, pour that glass of wine.

So I have become attuned to death. Every morning Michael and I read a few pages from Wake up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod, a Buddhist scholar. He counsels us to contemplate death. Did you know that death is lurking everywhere? Envision dying tomorrow—a sudden accident could happen. Meditate on all of the ways you can die: terminal illness, a car accident, falling in the bathtub. Contemplate the moment of death—what regrets will you have as your life passes before your eyes? Imagine how—if you die of old age—your energy will seep gradually from your body, how everything will be difficult, how you will become dependent on others to do the simplest tasks. Any dormant plans will lie forever dormant. Each day I am reminded to act now. Don’t put off artistic projects, interviews with interesting people, travels, experiences, connections, opening your heart to the world.

Here’s the first of the “Open Your Closet” series. Maybe it will be the first and the last, who knows? The following is dedicated to my mother and my son Sam: thank you both for inspiration.

Rainbows and Basic Black

I wore a polyester rainbow mini dress to celebrate my 10th birthday 1968. That dress seems hideous to me now, but at the time I was thrilled to own it. It was like wearing a spongy, itchy hot box over my lithe young body. But remember, girls: fashion not comfort! (Even at age 10.)  How pretty you look!

My girlfriend and I listened to the Stones and danced like wild fairies around the living room, waving our arms in front of us, giggling. “She comes in colours everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s like a rainbow.”  Imagine Mick Jagger telling me I look like a rainbow in my rainbow dress!

Fifty years later my favourite piece of clothing is a size-L black bamboo undershirt. Large so it’s comfortable and covers me, reaching the tops of my thighs. Bamboo because it’s silky smooth and breathes during hot flashes, yet keeps me warm.  Throughout the winter I wear it all day and night. I wear it hard. I wear it until it is rent with holes. It doesn’t matter—I just cover the holes with a sweater.

In 1965 my mother wore cut off denim shorts over black tights, a grey sweater over a white turtleneck. I am surprised she let me photograph her, she was so embarrassed by her looks.  Ten years later on a trip to Greece she wore a peach cotton top and matching skirt on her slim bronzed body. Flat, comfortable Indian sandals on her big sturdy feet. A belt accentuating her curves. Sunglasses, always the sunglasses.

Your clothes – do they hide you or show you? Are they stories in cloth or merely covers?  That shirt, when did you buy it, do you remember? Is there a tale, a memory? Is there a catch in your throat when you recall the moment? What about that belt. . . was it a gift from somebody you once loved?  The jacket: did you steal it, shove it in your backpack in the dressing room? The dress, was it in the free box on the street? Does it make you feel beautiful? The pajamas, did you sew them yourself and make mistakes? Are they cosy dream-makers? Tell me about your clothes.

C6D5E783-B601-4672-928B-12E41B82D62EOpen your closet and
let me see
who you are
who you’ll be
who you were
what makes you free

Open your closet to me

 

 

In February, the Waters of March

My father’s 92ndbirthday arrives next week. A fond memory keeps cycling around my mind, a memory of music and love. Once my father and I sat on a couch in a rented cottage in Parksville, a place where a ribbon of warm sand meets the calm water of the Strait of Georgia. It was a family reunion we held a few years ago: two of my sons came with their girlfriends; two sisters,  one niece, my father and stepmother rounded out the group. For two days we cooked and ate, talked, played Scrabble and Frisbee, and talked some more.

My father and I sat on the couch together, close, holding hands. We like doing that, holding hands when we sit. After an absence, it’s how we reconnect. He used to say to me on those occasions, all those times I came from Victoria to his Ontario farm, “Is there anything we need to talk about?” That was his invitation for me to tell him what was happening in my life: my troubles, my joys.

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While we sat and talked, I liked to press my thumb down on the prominent veins that embellish the backs of his work-worn hands. His lean body has no fat those veins can sink into, so like swelling blue rivers, they crisscross his skin.

Again that day we sat together, holding hands, but this time we talked about music. I asked him, what song brings joy? Not unadulterated joy, but the kind that tastes bittersweet? What song wakes you up, yet makes you wistful? Makes you feel simultaneously fiercely alive and hip to life’s fleetingness, death’s certainty? Well I’m sure I didn’t use all of those words, but whatever I said, he knew right away what I meant because he answered without hesitation: “Águas de Março.”

I was familiar with Waters of March, the Brazilian song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, because my father had often played the version by Getz and Gilberto from the album, The Best of Two Worlds, recorded in 1976. I found a YouTube version on my laptop and we sat and listened to it together, my smaller hand finding his big warm one.

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Gilberto strums his guitar, then his voice starts to climb up and down those whittled Portuguese lines, like climbing up and down ladders in the rain.  Next comes the voice of his wife Miúcha, singing the English words.

A stick, a stone
It’s the end of the road
It’s the rest of a stump
It’s a little alone

It’s a sliver of glass
It is life, it’s the sun
It is night, it is death
It’s a trap, it’s a gun

The oak when it blooms
A fox in the brush
A knot in the wood
The song of a thrush

Her light coppery voice lilts and lists, catalogue of strange poetry, then his voice comes in again with the round custardy Portuguese vowels. The words swirl around, eddying like the rain coming down in a Brazilian town, descending, rippling, flowing into the vortex of 10,000 joys, 10,000 sorrows.

A stick, a stone
The end of the road
The rest of a stump
A lonesome road

A sliver of glass
A life, the sun
A knife, a death
The end of the run

And the riverbank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the end of all strain
It’s the joy in your heart

What is it about that song? Husband and wife singing in two languages, listing and chanting, the dance of two voices, two worlds. That bossa nova rhythm, Getz’s swooping saxophone, the swishing percussion. Flotsam and jetsam of words caught in a whirlpool like little coloured scraps of our lives, moments in time, swirling, twirling. What is it about rain in March swelling rivers in a faraway country that made us both feel a catch in our throats, made us start to cry as we listened together?

After a time, my father asked me what my song was, and I told him June Hymn by the Decembrists. So we listened to that next. And then it was time for dinner.

aguas de marco

https://youtu.be/b9yc_bbp99c

June hymn

https://youtu.be/KusWM9AKfZg

 

The River

 

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Judy and Madeline, 1992

So many people around me have stories to tell. This time, I’ve asked my sister Judy to contribute something to the blog, so here is her guest post. She writes, “in the winter of 1980/81, I spent six months backpacking through Sri Lanka, India and Nepal with two friends. Everyday was an adventure.This piece describes laundry day near Kandy, nestled among the hills in central Sri Lanka.”

By Judy Walker

The sun is hot. It beats down with all its force on the flat white rocks and reflects off the surface of the slow moving river creating a shimmering haze which envelopes the surrounding countryside. The couple squat on a slab of rock, their toes in the water, the sun heavy on their necks and backs, like an added weight, making it difficult to move. They go slowly, slowly working their way through the pile of clothes between them. Piece by piece the soiled clothes are dunked in the murky water, rubbed with soap then thwack, thwack, slapped against the rock, sending drops of water flying through the humid air. They work to the tunes of Hank Williams “Yer cheatin’ heart.” Hank wails while they work, getting into the rhythm, the sound, the feel of sweat pouring down their bodies.

She is brown and thin, wearing only a piece of black material wrapped around her body and gold around her wrists, ankles and throat. He is darker and fatter, black bushy hair wrapped in a knot at the back of his head, wearing a white lungi around his loins and a pair of sunglasses. Occasionally one or the other stop work to glance around, not wanting to miss any of the action. As the day gets hotter people and animals wander down to the river to submerge themselves in the cool water. An elephant is led down the jungle path moving slowly and labouriously. His keeper, a small black man, releases the animal at the edge of the water and he wades in. He slowly lowers his huge body into river, first down on his front knees, oomph, then on all fours, oomph, then he rolls over sending ripples across the river. His body is covered save for one eye and his trunk snaking out of the murky water.  He lies still and once again the surface of the river is like glass.

Not for long. A couple of boys just liberated from a morning at school run shrieking from the bushes, fly through the air and cannon ball into the deeper waters upstream, splash…splash. Then they’re out of the water and in again, splash… splash.

A long horned cow taking a break from working the rice paddies is led to the water by a young boy. She needs a little coaxing and pushing but is finally standing in water up to her chest. Her keeper pours water over her head and back.

Occasionally a woman appears from one of the many hidden paths leading to the river carrying a bundle of clothes to wash. She takes up her position at the edge of the water and begins the ritual. Thwack, thwack, each woman working to her own rhythm, the sound echoes through the river valley. Soon the surrounding rocks are covered with bright coloured saris drying in the sun.

The couple have finished the washing and are now moving slowly, spreading the wet clothes over the warm rocks and dried grass. This task finished, they retreat back from the river’s edge a bit, taking refuge from the midday sun under a coconut palm. The man removes a small pouch from the folds of his lungi and takes out a piece of sticky black hash, some tobacco and papers and proceeds to make a joint. The woman looks on lazily. Down river labourers are hard at work collecting mud from the river bed. They carry it into the forest in baskets balanced expertly on their heads. Everyone else, beast and human, have quit working for a few hours to avoid the punishing heat.

The clothes dry quickly but the man and woman under the tree are too stoned, too lazy to retrieve them just yet. Hank is singing a sad song and it is just so hot.

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Drawing by Madeline Walker

 

 

Midwinter: bleak or bright?

I could hardly believe that for the third time this week, I was looking at the four of cups. On Monday, I pulled the upright card, then on Tuesday, the same card reversed.  Now on Friday, I’d somehow picked the upright four of cups again from Michael’s Smith-Waite deck.  How is that even possible? Some will say it’s pure coincidence. Jung would call it synchronicity, “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.” The universe delivers her message.

The first two picks were from my lusciously illustrated “cosmic” Norbert Losche deck. A young man looking into himself—the apex of introversion—ignores the four chalices among white lotuses placed before him. I read Anthony Louis’ explanation of this card, headed by the keyword “Discontent.” This card indicates withdrawal into oneself because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of life. I love my life right now, but I feel annoyed by my relationship to social media and electronic communication.

Promises of fulfilment via Facebook and Instagram are facades draped over a void. My addict self is speaking here—I use these applications like drugs rather than the tools they are meant to be. That’s why I feel the abyss. I long ago gave up the thrill of drinking that first glass of wine in the evening, but as I discovered in social media a similar addictive excitement. The anticipation of putting a new picture on Instagram and checking for likes, the little pop-up notification on my phone, feeling the sweet pinging pleasure each red heart sends. That was early days. Then after months, the shabbiness of the whole enterprise slowly shows through the popping hearts. I read about how employees at Instagram manipulate our dopamine release. They make us wait—release a bunch of likes all at once to hook us, keep us checking and checking. I feel cynical, cheap, and used.  There are never enough of those little digital hearts: they are insubstantial; they don’t satisfy. I am a hungry ghost with a tiny mouth and a huge stomach. Never enough, never enough. I built a tolerance for the dopamine high and pretty soon it feels flat and I start to wonder, why am I doing this, wasting my time? Why does it matter? Why did we even take pictures before Facebook and Instagram and why are we taking them now? What has happened to me?  As I despair over my addictive tendencies (over-checking email, grazing constantly on FB and instagram), I long for some pre-email, pre-social media era when my mind wasn’t tormented so. When I had a telephone that stayed anchored at home. When I got paper letters in the mailbox.

On Tuesday, I pulled the reversed card announcing the end of discontent (Anthony Louis’ reading of reversals) and felt relieved even though nothing had happened. Other tarot experts look at reversed cards as simply softer or slightly blocked versions of the upright, so perhaps nothing had changed. When I miraculously pulled the four of cups at the end of the week, upright this time, from Michael’s deck, I was astounded. He read to me about the card, and I realized what I’d missed the first and second time around was the dangerof discontent:  When you feel dissatisfied, you fail to see the good that’s right in front of you. Although Losche’s deck has all four chalices in a group, Smith-Waite’s pictures three goblets before the young man while a hand borne by a small cloud offers a fourth goblet, which is ignored. You focus on the three things lacking in your life while oblivious to the overflowing goodness right in front of you.

Since Friday, I’ve been awaking to everyday riches. For example, on Friday morning I enjoyed the fun of driving to work listening to songs starting with “You” on the sound system:  the wonderful bluesy, “You’ve got to be ready for love if you wanna be mine,” by Bonnie Raitt, then Keith Jarrett’s “You took advantage of me,” live at Montreux. I appreciated the agility of my wandering mind as I remembered the wonderful Ian McEwan novel The Children’s Act that I’d just finished, in which the memory of a Keith Jarrett concert cements a troubled marriage.  Then I time travelled back to a concert I attended decades ago and remembered one of Jarrett’s famous outbursts when the audience cheered for an encore. He called us ungrateful, never satisfied, and I remember feeling shocked and ashamed. He was rude, but he wasn’t wrong. Why do we always want more and more? Soon my mind swung back to the present with the heart-thumping percussive strums opening “You turn me on,” by Joni Mitchell. I swung the car into the parking lot, feeling thankful for Mitchell’s life-long artistry.

Later that day I wrapped Christmas presents and thought of how my mother taught me how to wrap gifts.  How to crease the paper neatly at either end, but especially how to curl long strips of ribbon by tautly pulling the sharp blade of a pair of scissors against their length. It was like magic, a zipping sound as the blade made its trip from end to end transforming something flat into bright bouncy curlicues. She’d ask me to put my little finger there, in the middle of the package, holding the crossed ribbons firm so she could make a knot around them. We’d laugh as I quickly pulled my finger from the tightening strands. She started me on the tradition of homemade cards as well. At Christmas and birthdays, we’d receive her thickly drawn pastel abstracts and inside, sweet messages in slanted cursive.  I felt another wave of gratitude for those memories and gifts from her.

Oh, and discontent about social media—well that too is about perceiving the good that technology yields. For example, this morning I was able to see my eldest son playing the synthesizer at his concert in Portland and my youngest son’s latest paintings—both on Instagram. Gifts.Finally, I feel blessed to have a small audience for these personal essays through the wonders of WordPress and Facebook. I write, technology delivers.  I am grateful for you, my reader.  Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may you too appreciate the full chalice brimming before you.

Moving through fear

Lit from within is the sole secure way
to traverse dark matter. Some life forms —
certain mushrooms, snails, jellyfish, worms —
glow bioluminescent, and people as well; we
emit infrared light from our most lucent selves.
Our tragedy is we can’t see it.

From Robin Morgan’s “The Ghost Light”

As I get older, I am scared to do new things. Sometimes fear sucks the life and juice out of my plans and ideas, drying them in my solar plexus where they rattle around for months, even years. I can feel one or two in there now.  Those husks are like the bone-and-fur pellets—all that remains of their prey—that owls disgorge in the night. But the good news is that when I walk through fear, my plans and ideas can be reconstituted.

For over a year, I contemplated the bike racks on Victoria’s BC Transit buses.  I’d watch a nimble cyclist enter the space in front of a bus, pull down the rack, and lift her bicycle up and into the metal grooves. Her quick hand motion somehow moved a slender, rubber-clad arm up and over the front wheel. There seemed to be some mysterious communication pass between the driver and the cyclist both when the cyclist secured the bike and again when she removed it at her destination. How could I ever hope to know what was going on there? And with such weak arms, how could I possibly lift my bike onto the rack, place the wheels precisely into the grooves? Hopeless.

But I wanted to. Dusk begins before 5 p.m. these days, and I don’t want to ride home in the dark. But the mornings—well the sunrises are spectacular on the commute to work, streets frost-rimed and crisp as my wheels spin down the pavement. Smoky red-violet light blooms in the sky, heralding the sun’s bright burst of glory.  And it’s good exercise, my 45 minute commute, exercise I need. Another selling point: The Galloping Goose and Lochside trails have few riders this time of year.  Wouldn’t it be nice to ride to work in the morning and at the end of the day, pop the bike onto the rack and relax on the bus ride home, watching colourful Christmas lights slide by?

Feeling scared, I procrastinated. I didn’t know how to do it, wasn’t part of the bike rack club, one of the initiated. The bus driver would get annoyed with me. Other riders would feel irritated by my clumsiness. What if I did it wrong and my bike flew off the bus and caused an accident? Oh and the rack would probably already be taken up by other bicycles. Then what?  The list of fears and reasons not to act went on and on, dehydrating my plan until it was just a dry pellet.

One day I’d had just enough of myself, of the dry fear pellet knocking around my middle. I watched the video on BC Transit’s website on how to use the bike racks, then walked my bike over to the bus stop after work. I was lucky that an acquaintance of mine happened to be in the line-up, a philosophy student I’d coached. So I told her about my fear, and she admitted to also feeling paralyzed at the thought of doing new things. I felt less alone.  We chatted and I forgot to be scared.

When the bus arrived, I stepped in front of it and pulled the bike rack down. Just as I had imagined, I found it hard to hold my bike up and away from my body, then navigate its wheels into the grooves. I faltered a couple of times, almost dropping it. A young woman waiting for another bus saw what was happening and came quickly to my side. She helped me manoeuvre the wheels into the spaces, then showed me how to pull the locking bar out and over the wheel, how to test that it was secure.  When I got on the bus, the driver instructed me to give him some notice before my stop. I felt relieved.

I chatted with my philosophy acquaintance about C.S. Lewis and the four loves, about religion and being brought up as atheists—an experience we shared, about Iris Murdoch, and about marking papers. Such a delightful opportunity to discuss ideas and feelings.  Occasionally, I’d look up and see my handlebars through the front window and feel a ping of pleasure. I did it!  When I got off the bus and removed the bike, I flipped the rack up, made eye contact with the driver and gave him a thumb’s up as I moved out of the way. He nodded at me.  I was initiated.

The second time was a little easier—again, someone came to my aid when I faltered. (Oh, the kindness of strangers!) Third time was smooth; I needed no assistance, felt confident. Fourth time, I felt like an old hand, like I’d been doing this forever, what was ever the problem?

Fifth time I had to take the bus both to and from work because my tire deflated 10 minutes into my ride. The tires on this new bike of mine have Presta valves, and I was used to Schrader. I hadn’t paid full attention when Michael showed me how to use the pump on my tires. So when I inflated the back tire because it was feeling soft, I forgot to screw the little nut clockwise on the valve, and the air slowly leaked out as I rode.  When I noticed I was riding on a flat, I said to myself, no problem—I’ll take the bus.

After the workday, I put my bike on the bus home, and the friendly driver commented, “nice bike.”  I agreed it was a great bicycle. Then I mentioned my problem that morning with the deflated tire.  I took a seat near the front and fell into a reverie. After a while, the driver pulled to a stop to let some passengers on, and a big truck swiped the bus, cracking the side mirror. The driver was shaken up, and he announced to us that he’d do his best to fix the mirror with a rubber band, but he wasn’t sure it would hold and we may have to get off and wait for the next bus.

The rubber band held for about seven stops, keeping the glass fragments in their frame.  But then the driver, a kind and patient guy in his fifties, stopped again and announced that the rubber band had snapped, and he’d have to find some kind of replacement. He was pretty upbeat about it—not defeated yet.

“What do you need?” I asked. “Maybe I have something in my purse.”  “Well as a matter of fact,” he smiled, “I’ve been eyeing that bungee cord you’ve got on your bike basket. That would be perfect.” “Oh, that’s a great solution. Take it—it’s yours!” He removed the cord that I keep strapped onto my bike’s wire basket and wrapped it around the mirror until the glass shards, like puzzle pieces, were secure again in their frame.  “Perfect,” he said as he came in from the cold and closed the doors. “We’re legal.”

As I got ready to get off the bus, he thanked me for the bungee cord.  “Hey, if you hadn’t had the problem with your tire deflating this morning, you wouldn’t be here now giving me the bungee cord. You saved the day!” I smiled at him and waved at the passengers. They waved back and a few called out their thanks.  My bungee cord had helped them avoid a long delay in their travels home.

These days, fear seems to loom large over small things, things like putting a bike on a bus rack. But when I go forward and just do those things I fear doing, in the

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“where fear lives/lit from within”

words of Robin Morgan, I feel lit from within. I come forward, out of my safe cocoon. I engage with people—kind strangers, grateful passengers, and a gentle bus driver.  I engage with life.

Note on the illustration:  Credit to Nathaniel Churchill (thanks, Nat). I used one of his paintings behind the cutout in my sketch.  It occurred to me that this piece illustrates not only fear-pellets in the solar plexus, but it can also be interpreted as the experience of feeling “lit from within.”  Life is full of paradoxes.

 

 

No candy here, but you are loved

On Hallowe’en, after eating Michael’s amazing lamb curry, we went for a walk around the neighbourhood. Dusk, and the veil between the worlds was growing thin. We saw some spectacular sights: skeletons rattling from tree branches, dozens of glowing jack-o-lanterns, front-lawn cemeteries, and even fog machines blowing eerie mists over cardboard gravestones. We saw a few costumed kids, as well, and were reminded that we had no candy in our house.

On our return home, we closed the living room blinds and turned out the porch light. My husband printed a sign and taped it to the front door so there would be no confusion: “Sorry, there is  no candy available here. Please be safe and enjoy your Hallowe’en.” We are out of the habit of distributing candy to trick-or-treaters not only because our children have grown to be men, but because we rarely eat white sugar anymore.  My body suffers when I eat sweets—I experience an immediate high then a crash with aching joints and deep fatigue. So doling out mini Snickers bars or bags of M&M’s seems cruel. (Apologies to my own children for feeding them so much sugar over the years.)

We settled down to watch a movie, a documentary about Fred Rogers called “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”  Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood made its debut on national public television in February 1968. I didn’t watch the show as a child, but it aired until 2001 so my children watched it sometimes, and I always had a fondness for the show’s slow and gentle pace and the kindness reflected in the content.

As we watched, I found tears streaming down my face.

I cried when Fred Rogers, sitting on a low stool, angled his tall, lean body toward a small boy and listened carefully to what the child had to say. I cried when children thronged around him during his public appearances, and one little girl came right up to him and said “Mr. Rogers, I want to tell you something. I like you,” and he said “I like you too, dear. Thank you for telling me that,” and touched her arm. I wept some more when I heard him say, “I like you just the way you are” to the thousands of unseen children at home and again when I heard that the simple, scruffy Daniel the Tiger puppet spoke from Fred Roger’s own childhood fears and vulnerabilities. More tears came as I witnessed the kindness Rogers showed when he spoke to children about how confused, sad, or scared they felt about divorce, death, or war.  I cried out of sadness about my own childhood when I heard him say “Children have very deep feelings, just as everyone does.” And I cried the most when I heard him say that “Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”

It was my birthday present to myself, I realized, to release my sadness and joy through tears as I watched this movie. I feel happy that Fred Rogers created the show and made a difference in so many children’s lives. I suppose it was ironic that we hadn’t been neighbourly ourselves when we posted our “no candy” sign and shut out our young neighbours on Hallowe’en.

A few days later, I went to a craft fair with friends and found a man who carved wands out of wood.  A wand with a chisel design and a heart at one end caught my attention. After buying it for $10, I moved the wand through the air, imagining that as I waved it, love flowed from the tiny wooden heart and spread warmth and philia over those around me. I tested it on my two friends and a few of the craftspeople sitting at nearby tables. Feeling the immediate effects of the love wand, their smiles grew wide and shiny.  I was onto something.  So when I brought my wand and other purchases home, I thought back on Hallowe’en and imagined what might have transpired if I had in my possession that evening my magic wand. I would have cast a small yet convincing spell over all the children in the neighbourhood as they trudged house to house for treats. To the witches and zombies and superheroes—to all of them—I would have delivered a powerful message: You are loved just the way you are.IMG_3403

Michael’s Lamb Curry (the secret is in the onions)

serve with rice; 8 portions

2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
6 large cloves garlic and 1.5 inch knob of ginger – both minced
7 Roma tomatoes
3-3.5 lbs. lamb shoulder (boneless) cut into small cubes
14 oz. can chick peas, rinsed and drained
3 c. green beans, washed, trimmed and cut into 2 inch pieces
1/3 jar Patek’s Vindaloo paste
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
approx. 1/2 tsp. cayenne (to taste)
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. honey
olive oil as needed

Sauté onions, garlic, and ginger in olive oil over medium heat until you swear they are going to burn. Just keep turning them as they turn dark brown and you have to scrape them off the bottom of the pan. This takes a while. Meanwhile, pat the lamb cubes dry and fry in another pan in olive oil until brown, then deglaze the pan with a little water to get all the brown bits off.

Blanch and peel the tomatoes.

When onions are completely brown, add curry paste and fry into the onions, blending well.  Crush the tomatoes with your hands into the onion mixture. Stir. Add the lamb, the cut beans, and the chick peas, then mix in vinegar and honey. Add the cayenne to as hot as you like. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook 40 minutes or until the lamb is tender.

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Magic love wand: $10