California revisited

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Hanging out in Long Beach, California.

I’ve been away–both metaphorically and figuratively–and have ended up untethered from my writing for a while. I think we do that when what we have to write isn’t going to be easy. In fact, it will feel more like a tonsillectomy without anaesthetic I’m sure. But I digress. So, where was I anyway? Long Beach, California. A place that I think once likely had a sheen to it but since the recession has a decidedly tired feel, like a convention town without the big acts playing anymore. But there were still palm trees and a pool and I got to present to universities from across North America on my Transmedia character named Emily who I created for a sustainability campaign last year so that was kind of great.

The highlight of the trip, however, was visiting the Queen Mary. Being a hotel nut, this was on my bucket list and it did not let me down. The old world elegance was there in her bones and as you walked the length of the teak deck you could imagine corsets twisting, tiny umbrellas dipping, waiters whisking drinks away and courtly flirtations all happening along the remarkable length of this stately ship.

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The ship was built in 1939 and the art deco details still remain. Apparently, 1.5 Titanic’s could fit inside the Queen Mary! Still used as a hotel, I ran into guests amidst the many tours that were being hustled around the ship and wished I’d stayed overnight. I did feel that the management could put a lot more effort into the tourism experience since I for one considered it to be a once-in-a-lifetime visit. They could take some lessons from a few of the heritage Fairmont properties in Canada.

 

Whenever I am in California, I always have the sensation of duality. On one level, I am so happy to look up and see palm trees and feel the warm air on my skin and slurp on beachside margaritas but on another I remember myself as a young woman with dreams and desires who worked, first in my sister’s print shop then in the San Diego regional theatre, and drove the California coast with my ‘official’ Californian licence plates. But my time there was also a time in my life when I had been lost, misguided and searching for a life that would bring meaning, joy and love to me. I found it, just not in California.

I do still like to visit though, mostly because there’s few things more joyful than a palm tree against a blue sky with miles of beach ahead of you.

 

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September

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You notice the cooling of the air, just a brush against your cheek and you turn, as though someone had called your name but there is nothing–only a slight shaking of the trees, as though they know something you do not. They always do. You begin to have a sense of missing something, someone. There is a slow tide pulling out. There is a conspiracy happening, ancient, sure of itself, and inevitable. It doesn’t ask your permission. It doesn’t care that you remember the night you fell in love, thinking it was still summer, wearing a short black cocktail dress–a dress you never wore again–believing everything was touched in the last long lapis blue of an August night. Only, it hadn’t been August and the blue was a reflection of neon and a city heaving its last hot sigh of summer.

 

It’s an in-between place. Everyone rushes to the park, to the air mattress, the pool, the lounger, for one last long bronzing afternoon of feeling carefree marked by sandwiches in a small cooler and warm soda.

Jericho 2014 (30 of 77)

 

The gold of early September isn’t tinny or plastic–it’s a burnished, warm, oozing gold that saturates the horizon. It’s giving you its best. It knows there’s just a few more days and it will be gone again. It rolls along the coastline, painting beach bodies, lifeguard chairs, cardboard fish and chip containers that tumble out of city garbage cans, and crows perch, pecking at leftover fries while the sand soaks it all in, humming its last summer song before it goes to gray.

 

Everyone longs for the summer nights to go on, even knowing they won’t–with absolute certainty they know they won’t–still they long for it, lean towards it, gathering together to twist out of the rays every molecule of warmth, as charcoal smoke blots out the dying sun, and small dusty feet run towards grandparents who have seen in the distance a leaf float and drop and feel relieved. They alone wish for the coming cold.

Jericho 2014 (1 of 1)-2

 

Summer and fall meet at the beginning of September and for a short time, have a kind of exchange–silent, done at night, finished by morning. My son was born after one of these nights and we woke to a deep cloud, the forest shrouded in fog and the first cold rain. His birthday is always a day I never want to end. He, deeply tanned now with a single lock of blonde dappling his forehead, shoulders strong from early morning weight sessions and ocean swimming, with a new tattoo that holds secrets I will never know, doesn’t care as much. He shrugs, accepts it is time to wear pants again. Me, knowing it is time to let go, stand in the sunset and listen to the shore sounds, now quiet as fall brings in faint whitecaps and wind, and I realize the way forward is always like this–a receding tide, a falling leaf, a new season.

Jericho 2014 (74 of 77)

 

All pictures and words © Margaret Doyle 2014

 

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Let the sun find its way to you

HARRISON LAKE 1I used to always feel nostalgic about love during summer. I think the kisses I had in a little park with my first boyfriend made it that way. I would lay with my head on his chest and he’d lazily draw a blade of grass over my shoulder, then slowly along my neck then gently over my ear, finally making me giggle and turn away. And we’d do that for hours. So innocent. So perfect. So sweet.

Lately, I’ve been hugging summer close to me, stretching out in its warm embrace and letting it romance me like I was fourteen again. It isn’t always easy to move towards the present, to really be in it and let go of the past, but once you have life feels as it was meant to.

It feels like the sun can make its way to me without any need for someone else to improve it or a song to score the sunset so I can enjoy it or a book to describe the feeling for me or lover to whisper in the night and tell me what it really is.

No, it’s just seeping into my skin and heart, fully saturated with ripe possibility.

Sweet Sun

 

The sun bleaches all the bruises–

sweat hard, forgive the sun

she’s a guest here, she’ll be gone.

 

Moon gives you blue light

just blue light with no strings–

hold it in, let it go with your lungs

at ease at last in bed alone.

 

Summer

lazy as a cat on a couch

coy and calling in a bowl of berries

finally

you sit down too

content it’s only you.

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Summer Laze

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Holiday. It can be a state of mind, sure, I’ll give you that. But it truly only happens in a specific place. When we tell each other memories of our vacation, we usually start with the place. The way the trees drooped down over a boulevard or how the sun set every night beyond your balcony or the way the lavender smelled in the air long after you’d hiked beyond those purple fields lit by a moody afternoon sun or the sound of waves, crashing in the dark just beyond your window.

My holiday place every year is in Kelowna, British Columbia in a region called the Okanagan. It (as in life) has usually become so unbearable in Vancouver by the time July rolls around I am itching to hit the highway and get to my happy place where peaches hang from trees and counters overflow with fresh berries of every kind and I am at peace under the hot glare of a true summer sun. This time around I drove a slow, lazy route up to the Okanagan, stopping in Osoyoos which is a desert and hot as, well you can imagine a desert could be, and then meandered up to Kelowna where I stayed with my ex sister-in-law of nearly 30 years who isn’t an ‘ex’ anymore but a dear friend. She cooks, I eat. A lot. We talk, water the garden, cocktails are made, plans hatched, relationships pondered and dreams unfurled for inspection. Everything is extraordinarily ordinary and simple and satisfying. Salad and herbs freshly pulled get tossed in a bowl with homemade dressing. Magazines get sticky from the heat, and are turned slowly, as you drift off to sleep in the sun. But best of all, I get to laze around with a small dachshund by the name of Louie who is my favourite animal in the entire world. You’d love him too if you met him. You can see him in the slideshow below.

If you are reading this and thinking of coming to BC, please, spend a few days in Vancouver, but ensure you get up to Osoyoos, Oliver and Kelowna and all of the amazing wineries that abound in our beautiful Okanagan. It’s really heaven on earth. And don’t fly. The backroads are what make it a holiday.

 

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Surrender to the green prayer

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Setting sun on my left cheek as I stand near the bean stocks that are expectant with summer, tendrils of bursting tender beans twirling in the soft air. Verdant respite of whispering conspirators–the poppy least of all, she’s done her dance and slumps now, out of the chorus of tubers and crawling vines–all vying for space, nudging one another as they race towards the sun each dawn.

Here I am in the unexpected moment: an intervention by root vegetables, dill, chives, cabbage, sweet peas, tomatoes, basil, surrounding me with their green insistence to awake, awake! Swallows swoop past my head and hummingbirds tread air wildly, waiting, waiting, for my decision. Will I let go of it? As in really let go of the weight of it, the life before and be in the life that is? Now?

Yes. Yes.

Waking to abundance, the garden goes on, the trees go on, the birds go on and the green prayer comes in each day like a wave, calling me to answer, surrender to forgetting and live the new.

 

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Another kind of Father’s Day

Much of what I remember of my father is steeped in fear. His mythical reputation for losing his temper was handed down to me from my 10 older siblings through epic tales of survival to cautionary tales from my younger siblings on how to carefully navigate that temper.

I resented it. I wanted to be free of the yoke of his glowering persona. I longed to be free of the hard and terrible consequences that came with being a child in his world. So, I started up a small revolution in my heart against him. I knew I was the youngest, the smallest and female in a family of nine boys–with the only other female my sister who was the seeming apple in his eye–and because of this, knew there was little I could do other than to take a stand against the monster who seemed to dictate life in our home.

I couldn’t stop the blows that rained down on my brothers but when it was my turn, I was prepared. I was in trouble for coming late to dinner and it was time for my reckoning. I walked solemnly over to the drawer where the spatulas and serving spoons were kept, that were, up until that moment, loving symbols of my mom’s cooking, and pulled out one of the less dangerous looking utensils and walked over to him. This ritual was part of the torture: You had to pick the weapon you wanted to be hit with.

“Here.” I handed him the spatula, which was metal (for some reason my mom had no wooden spoons in the drawer that day, why Mom, why?) and he took it and began to slap my open palms with it. Hard and with fire behind it. I stood firm like a soldier and stared him straight in the eye without flinching. I was four. I was fierce. I would not be broken.

My dad never hit me again. But what was lost in that moment was never regained. He died only six years later when I was ten. I didn’t mourn him. I didn’t know him. I was glad the reign of fear was over.

Many years later now, I am able to look back with more compassion on my father who was, at the time of my childhood, dying. He was dying and it was a slow, awful death where his heart was slowly failing him, and he was slipping from life while at the same time trying to control it.

I started to peel back the violence from my memory and searched for moments when he was kind to me. It took some time. But I remembered he bought me a small lamp for the dark when I was 5 or 6 because I was so terrified at night I would creep down into my parents bedroom and crawl slowly up into my mom’s bed (in those days they had separate beds) stopping when I heard his gruff complaint at my presence to which my mom always answered, “It’s only Margaret, dear, go back to sleep.”

I remember another time I was dancing in our dining room to some music in my head and he snuck a photo of me. I was really shocked that he’d cared enough to capture the moment but also didn’t know how to act–it was too intimate for such a distant relationship. Or the time he let me keep the kitten I found in a box–begrudingly, with complaints of future fleas and cost, and a Pinteresque pause before yes–then his small gesture to bring the kitten to him as he peered in the box and petted his small head. I can see now he was there, albeit far away, trying to be a father to me, but I was running in the opposite direction and he never had the emotional or physical ability to run after me.

More recently, I found an old letter of his to his older brother in a pile of photos, from a year or so before his death. He acknowledges he’s dying and is clearly sorrowful; at the end of the letter he writes about me, saying “Most of all, I think about little Margaret. That Margaret is really something, full of beans and always surprising me.” That I was in his mind at all came as a complete surprise to me but the tone is even more surprising–one of delight, tinged with deep regret and sorrow, knowing he will never see his daughter grow up, and perhaps having never really been a father to her at all.

Now, a single parent for two decades, I have a much better understanding of what my father must have been feeling and the challenges he faced during that time and wish I could sit with him now and pour us a stiff drink. I think I’d see that he wasn’t a villain. I think I’d see that I’m full of his best qualities: Courage, leadership, tenacity, vision. In fact, I think we’d be close friends.

Here’s to you Frank, wherever you are, bottoms up. See you on the other side.

My dad in 1977, the year he died.

My dad in 1977, the year he died.

 

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The Vulnerability of Air

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Air. We take it for granted. Well, I know for sure I did. I woke up, took my breath in, leapt out of bed, hummed along to music each morning as I put my makeup on, yelled across the room to my son I love you, laughed and chattered like a songbird with my friend at work, sighed when overwhelmed at the end of the day, cooking, bone-tired and feet-sore, then a last deep breath in and out as I meditated before bed.

I can do very few of these right now.

I look at people running on the street below and watch their lungs with a hungry desire as they puff out and relax in, giving the runner as much oxygen as they need to drive their sweat-covered muscles down and around the corner in a flash of health.

I’m left to sit and look out the window and wonder how I got here?

It seemed like I could will myself to do anything. I never asked my body, are you okay? Is this too hard? Are you tired? Do you need a break? Are you completely burnt out and feeling you can’t go on? I only cared what my mind wanted and the body could go to hell in a hand basket.

And it did.

I recently found myself wanting to lie down on a public sidewalk in the middle of the day. I wanted this more than anything I’ve ever wanted. The brown brick was calling to me to curl up on it and just stop. I managed to make it another 20 feet into my doctor’s office where I staggered in and lay down, shaking uncontrollably, the room spinning all around me. I was convinced I was dying. My lovely, compassionate doctor said, in her matter-of-fact way: “Your body is shutting down and you have to go to the hospital.” For some reason I couldn’t speak and couldn’t make my limbs do what they were supposed to do. I was playing second fiddle to my body and had no say in what happened next.

Luckily for me, an unusually heroic friend from work offered to drive me as I live in an area where cabs take up to half and hour and apparently so can ambulances unless you are hit by a car or actually dead. It was the longest car ride of my life, longer even than the one I took from my house to the hospital on a bumpy country road when I was knotted in contractions and in labour. She had to get a wheelchair for me because I couldn’t walk. I realized suddenly as the doors opened with a whoosh to the emergency room that I’d not been there for seventeen years since my brother had died of head trauma in that same hospital. I quickly pushed that devastating thought away and focused instead on my shallow breath and tried to keep it steady.

I had been on antibiotics for pneumonia for a week but then still very sick, headed back to work and about one hour in found I couldn’t’ finish sentences and was out of breath and having that feeling of wanting to lie down on the ground and sink through it. Did I listen and go home? No, I stayed until 3 pm, until I couldn’t breathe and when I was driving home nearly blacked out from lack of oxygen in my blood. Was it really any surprise I was now in a hospital gown?

At the hospital they wanted to test for possible blood clots so they wheeled me into the CT scan room. I’ve never had one but it is an unsettling experience. They place you on a narrow bed and put an IV in you which they fill with dye so they can take better pictures of everything happening in your body. They slide you into the circular machine that whirs and whirs around you as you feel the heat crawl up through your body from the dye being injected into your veins.

I began to think, what if, just say, this comes back and it’s bad? Is this my life? As in, what I’ve done to this point, this is it? I started to cry. I really didn’t feel like it was a story that was fully written yet. In that moment, I realized how much I wanted to live and be well again. I promised my body to listen to it and care for it. I promised to be a better steward of this vessel I’d be given.

There were no clots but there were some dots and they’re hoping it’s just the pneumonia and it will clear up. It’s nearly four weeks since I first got sick which is the longest I’ve been incapacitated since I was in the hospital as a kid. I have to rest and rest some more. My lungs ache. I am unable to walk up and down my apartment stairs. It’s humbling. My body is in charge. I’ve softened and opened up to its needs. I am gentle when it tells me to lie down at 10 am then again at 1 pm then again at 7; I don’t argue, I don’t ignore, I don’t minimize. I read things that will soothe it and eat things that will nourish it. I calm the interior voice when it screams get back to work! I pray. 

I ache to breathe deeply again. To walk as far as I want. To finish sentences without running out of air. To sing off-key, very loudly in the shower. Most of all, I want to hike with my son again and be able to keep up.

You knew that I was going to say this but I’ll say it anyway: don’t take your body for granted. You are as vulnerable as air without it.

*I want to give a special thanks to the amazing nurses and doctors at Vancouver General Hospital. I saw genuine compassion under mind-numbing hours and challenges. I was wrapped in warm blankets and cared for and for that I am deeply grateful to live where I live and have access to the hospitals I do.

**Special uber thanks to my friend A. I’m so grateful it turned out to be her with me. That was a gift.

 

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