Tag Archives: Catholic

Your Life: Sit Up and Take Notice

When I was five, my mother took me for a test at the school near our house. I remember it was a sunny day and I wore a dress, hoping to add to the impression that I was capable of going into grade one instead of kindergarten. Why I was taking the test in the first place remains a mystery but I suspect my mother wanted me to start grade one early because after eleven children she simply needed her days alone and silent. I remember walking across the black asphalt of the playground afterwards and my mother beaming as she told me I had passed with ‘flying colours’.

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So, at the age of five I entered grade one. Unfortunately, the night before my father cut off all my hair and I was crestfallen when I walked to school with a boy’s hairstyle. I’d had high hopes for my debut in grade one. Instead, I slinked along the back wall, furtively searching for my name on a desk and secretly hoping there’d been a mistake and that I hadn’t gained entry into this new and bewildering world and could go home and help my mom with washing the floor or laundry or sorting socks. And yet, there was my name, second row in, two desks from the end. MARGARET spelled neatly on an index card.

Behind me sat a boisterous girl with shiny thick black hair and luminous brown skin and mischievous eyes. She didn’t hesitate to speak up and raise her hand, unlike me who prayed I wasn’t singled out by the teacher for anything and hung my head low behind the student ahead of me. She quickly surmised I could be teased and with tremendous entertaining results. Her name was Sharon. She spoke fast and had a sharp wit and wielded it confidently like an adult; she noticed everything including my crappy shoes and the fact I’d forgotten the belt on my uniform. I longed to be her friend, mostly to avoid any deeper insights into my character becoming known to the rest of the class. Thankfully, she seemed to sense my desperation and let me into her safe zone as an ally despite my shortcomings.

Forty-three years later: we are sitting and drinking in the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day beside the ocean. I find myself once again admiring her way with words, just as I had at age five, the sure and confident manner as she speaks to the waitress, her still beautiful brown eyes that are full of life, intelligence and humour. I notice they have more ‘life’ behind them now though, one that I am hearing as we, at first cautiously then with abandon, pull threads out of the stories of our lives and stitch together our past into a new shared story.

We had gone to school together until grade nine, during which time we’d shared dozens of sleepless sleepovers, elementary school dramas, walkathons, endless hours of Catholic prayers and the uncertainty of hormones and fears of growing from little girls into young women. Our friendship had started to wane just before we both left to go to the all-girl private school our mothers sent us to for grade eight. But I got caught up with ‘public school kids’, which was seen by my mother as the surest way to hell and, looking back, in some ways it was true.

My childhood seemed to have suddenly vanished and I was lost in a world without boys and the seemingly endless unspoken politics of daughters from the wealthy elite of Vancouver where my non-working-widow-mom and less-than clothes and accessories were wincingly noticed and graded as a fail. Eventually the wagons circled with me on the outside. By the second term of grade eight, I was defiantly taking off my uniform and dressing into jeans and a jean jacket in the bushes after school so I wouldn’t have to be ‘seen’ by my public school friends in the telltale uniform of Little Flower Academy. The fact was, I never could quite fit in and didn’t know how to but Sharon managed to find community and a place at the academy and made a success of her high school years there.

As we sat across from one another in the busy restaurant and slowly unravelled our lives I felt like almost no time had passed while simultaneously trying to take in the enormity of all that had happened to us over the many decades.

With more scar tissue than either one of us would liked to have acquired, we shared one story after another after another with ease and a frankness that was unexpected. The afternoon light changed, food plates were stacked and taken and replaced by drinks. A one-hour lunch stretched into three as our lives and the people in them were introduced or re-visited. Deaths, break-ups, love, children, parents—all got covered off in a matter-of-fact way but it was the small details, the understanding between us of the hopes and dreams we had as young children set against the tableaux of where we were now, sitting across from one another as women in the middle of our lives that kept me thinking for days after about the past.

In fact, the past had been calling me to pay attention all week, nudging me to listen, just as I was trying to let it go. Only the day before my lunch with Sharon, I had re-connected with my boyfriend I had been madly in love with in university. We met for lunch and appraised one another with smiles and delight, me noticing more crows feet and gray hair and the gestures I used to be so smitten with, he well, hopefully not noticing the crows feet so much. There’s a sweetness to seeing an old love, a tinge of melancholy mixed with joy and remembrance accentuated by oh fuck’s and awww’s and sighs and long looks of remembering what was and a quiet listening for what is.

My sister-in-law is always telling me to stop living in the past and I’ve come to see that not dwelling in the past makes the present so much more lived and full of potential. To be present is to edit your life with ferocity. Staying present is like working on the ab muscles of the soul. You have to practice it daily to have any strength in resisting maudlin moments.

Yet this week the past found me in my present and the movie of my life suddenly enlarged, went wide-screen, became richer with more characters and synapses and discoveries that didn’t pull me back into sadness or regret but instead, opened up like a new canvas. After all, I was alive wasn’t I? And my old friends were too. How lucky are we to get to share a meal with one another! This is the sweet grace of the past coming to revisit you. Life itself winks and you finally get it. Oh right, time is passing—forty five years just went by like that—so I’d better get on with it and do the absolute best I can with what remains.

I’d better sit up and take notice. What story do I want to tell forty years from now? This is the work at hand. Now.

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Books, Bras and Coming of Age

I am working on a digital story series called Summer Reads with some writers (many famous, lucky me) and I’ve asked them to write a memory piece on a book that changed their lives one summer. Then I’m going to film them reading from it. So it will be a sweet little interactive experience when I’m done with it. But my interaction designer and story partner said, ‘just send me exactly what one of the pieces will look like‘ as she is prone to do (being precise and logical).  I always forget that she isn’t wired into the pictures that appear in my head. So to that end, I wrote one myself. Enjoy.

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I was eleven years old when I read Judy Blume’s ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ It was a book my friends had read before me so I was pretty late to the Blume party and often felt self-conscious at sleepovers when quotes from the book were read out loud with a display of tween pride mixed with a nuanced air of a just blooming (no pun intended) awareness of sex.

But my house wasn’t the kind of house where you’d ever find Judy Blume. No, in my house you might find Steinbeck or Lord of the Rings or Farley Mowat or more commonly, technical manuals on how to make your own kayak, weld, or build a boat engine. Owning a Judy Blume novel would have landed me in some serious trouble in my household and so on my bike I went to the Kitsilano library. I slid the Blume between books on Ancient Egypt (I was after all doing a book report on Sphinxes) and some innocent looking P.D. James mystery books for my mom.

Nothing happened when they scanned the book. No alarms, no ‘Are you old enough for this material young lady?’ from the librarian. I was scot-free and peeled out of there on my scuffed up second-hand Raleigh straight to the beach with my literary contraband. That day under a willow tree at Jericho, I saw my own world, a secret world hidden from my parents and my nine brothers, unfold like a mirror where I could see mood for mood, experience by experience, a character just like me, even with the same name, the same internal struggles and worries and physical doubts I was having that I couldn’t share with anyone in my world.

My father had just died from a long illness and I was adrift in a home with no rules or structure or even a parent. My mom had essentially checked out. When I did get my period that year it was alone in a bathroom with no supplies and no one to tell me what to do and it was terrifying. Judy Blume’s Margaret became my surrogate sister and Judy my surrogate mother. As I flipped the pages hungrily, with french-fry and vinegar-soaked fingers staining each page, I half expected a flock of priests to descend on me from my local Catholic church and rip the book from my pre-adolescent hands but no one busted me and I read the entire book in one uninterrupted day at the beach.

That night at Sharon Bideshi’s sleepover I quoted effortlessly from the book, skimmed scented grape gloss across my lips and posed in my faded hand-me-down Queen t-shirt, and admitted I’d bought a bra by myself that didn’t quite fit. Then we all mimicked the book’s now-famous mantra and exercise ‘we must, we must, we must increase our bust‘ and I peed my pants a little laughing so hard. I’d unhinged myself from my family, the church, and perhaps even childhood. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was but it was a better place that included boys, bras and makeup. And still a little bit of God for good measure.

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Gin, The Passion, and Reclaiming Doubting Thomas

St. Augustine's, using large format, around 1992.

Jesus dying was a big event in my Catholic household growing up. Mostly, I was relieved that Lent was over and my mom could drink Gin again. I was always one for theatrical events and our Church was a busy little powerhouse of theatre during this time. First of all, the ‘Passion’ was read. Now, if you’ve ever been to a Catholic Easter service you’ll know what I’m talking about. It is the long version of the tale of the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus. On two occasions I fainted during the reading of it. Likely due to tight-fitting polyester circa 1974 and the fact that the betrayal of Jesus was just too much for me. Why did Judas have to act like that?

In a family as big as mine, Easter egg hunts were not easy. First of all, it was aggressive because despite the fact we were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, my brothers would scupper down my entire basket happily whilst I kept looking for hours on end, calling out, ‘has anyone seen MY basket?’. I remember once I was underneath the dining room table, squinting in the dark recesses a mile-long, when someone leaned under and said, ‘You will never find your basket’, with a mixture of glee and satanic edge that made me burst into tears. I did find it eventually but it was as I suspected, pillaged already.

Life at the bottom of a family of 13 prepares you for a lot of life’s dubious encounters down the road.

Always a sucker for drama, I think Easter is the ultimate performative pageant in religion and I loved the lines of candle holding altar boys (no girls when I was little, nope, too important a job for girls), that paraded down the aisle with the priests’ in their Easter costumes, the Archbishop sometimes bringing up the rear of the procession white hat and all. I always felt we should clap when they entered, I mean, wow, this was a serious troupe of performers, let’s show some respect!

Easter morning breakfast was similar to Christmas morning breakfast in the mayhem and smells that happened only a few times a year: orange juice with cheap sparkling wine, bacon, and scrambled eggs. For dinner we had a giant ham and I liked to wear full length dresses to these events for lack of a ‘real’ party to go to. My brothers cocked eyebrows at me and I’m sure often wondered, ‘where did this one come from?’.

The tale of Jesus’ resurrection likely predetermined some of my more puzzling attachments to boyfriends in my adult life. I was sure they would change their minds, get a job, finally divorce their wife, or even, tell me their real name. Sigh. Believing in the resurrection my mother would whisper to me during mass, requires faith. But, I would whisper back, there’s no proof. She would smile benignly and say, ‘Margaret, don’t be a doubting Thomas’. For those of you who might not know, Thomas was the apostle who had to stick his hand through Jesus’ side to see if he were really there or not after he ‘rose from the dead’. Being a doubting Thomas was akin to being an axe-murderer in my mom’s mind. So, I tucked away my rational misgivings and plunged deep into the story of miracles.

Nowadays, I keep one eye open for a Jesus to appear, the other firmly fixed on what is actually going on. It is highly likely, as my brother Alan will attest, that I’ll fall for the resurrection story again, but in the meantime, I’m going to celebrate the Doubting Thomas in me and ask for full miracle-making proof up front before I believe.

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