Tag Archives: relationships

Memories and Melancholia

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here and I’m sorry for that readers—I was working on a major writing project that took up all my spare time outside my day job.

But today I have a fever and am home sick. And what comes with fevers are always those strange hyper-real dreams, you know the ones where you think you are awake they are so tangible? I had one of those today about my mom and it brought me back to the years I was looking after her while slowly losing her to dementia.

Also woven into these dreams were the poems of Ulrikka S. Gernes, a Danish poet, who read at the Vancouver Writers Festival this past Saturday. Her poems have been singing in my head ever since. They surfaced in my fevered dreams like ocean glass and I wasn’t so sad to be sick if you want to know the truth.

She writes in her book, Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments,  that “Melancholia has a wide spectrum of nuances and tones and it often evokes a heightened sensitivity.” I felt these nuances today, the curtains drawn, quilt pulled up, dreaming of my mother, her small dog Max, her brittle collarbone against me as I held her towards the end. Don’t think ‘depression’, it’s just a daughter missing her mother when she’s sick. People like to make more of these things than they are—just human moments we all experience and sometimes the way into them, to really feel them, is through a fevered dream.

Ulrikka’s says she will “forever defend melancholia; it has an inherent power to sharpen certain senses that are beneficial to art, to life.” I couldn’t agree more. Herewith, a little poem that came from my memory dream with my mom and her little dog Max and myself towards the end when she was slipping in and out of the now and I was trying to pretend everything was just fine and hold onto her.

Moustache 

I look at your dark moustache as your coffee cup dangles

From your bony fingers, smoke curling into the air

through the dust as it floats

Through a shaft of morning light.

The hairs move like cheerful whiskers,

black and wiry, poking down into your cup

as we talk about the dog , how he likes to bark especially hard

at the man in the motorized wheelchair.

You tell me you sometimes duck your head

under the window to avoid him

or let the dog out to attack his wheels.

This was some time ago but I don’t bring it up.

I help you walk to the bathroom, undo your pants,

let you down slowly onto the toilet

then slip out for a second so you can be alone.

Okay? I say then come back, place your hands on my shoulders

And pull you up. We laugh a little as your pants drop

To the floor and I have to balance you and pull them up in one motion.

I close the lid on the toilet and sit you gently back down.

I’m going to dye your moustache okay?

You seem a bit embarassed but not sure why and

cluck at the dog to come and he circles then sits down at your feet.

I mix the Jolen powder and cream together and apply

the white paste to your wiry scruff.

I set a small kitchen timer for five minutes.

I lean back against the sink and tell you about my son.

He’s four months old now. You exclaim oh oh—

Most of the time you forget he’s been born.

Sometimes you remember and admonish me,

saying  of course, of course.

I take the face cloth and gently wipe the paste off then

take you to the mirror. You’re not sure

what you should be looking at but smile at me as though

I have just given you the news we were going on a holiday.

You will have no memory of this tomorrow.

I will hold it inside long after you are gone

like a snowglobe

shaking it whenever I need you.

 

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Filed under Memoir, Non-fiction, Poetry

The Unwanted House Guest

I was talking about my constant waking up in the middle of the night with a friend the other day and he said, “Mags, we’re getting old.” I laughed but inside I winced just a little. I don’t like being included in that club.

It seems suddenly—though let’s be honest, it isn’t sudden, not really, you just don’t notice the incremental changes—I am noticing my age.

Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with genes that belie my age. Up until a few years ago I used my son’s age as a kind of party trick to gasps of ‘surely you don’t have a son that old! Did you have him when you were 14?’ which I took as affirmation I was beating the age game.

But lately I have noticed it, particularly in my yoga class as I look over longingly at the taut young girls in  their power poses, their lean long abs with muscle highways running up and down and their dewy skin plump and glowing. I used to look at shoes this way. What is happening to me?

I am aging. It’s a fact. Let’s not be coy about it. What to do about this unwanted house guest? I’m figuring it out. I’m getting into gear. I’m a factory of ideas. I’m all over it. Life, I hear you okay? I won’t fool around. I get it, the time is now. My time. Is mine.  What will I do with it?

Get binary. This or that. This is the gift of age. Suddenly, you’ve built your own personal emotional garbage sorting bin. This is out. This is in. Simple really. Why haven’t I done it before? Lots of reasons. Low self-esteem. Relationship issues. Family issues. Child issues. Financial issues. Yada yada yada.

Forget all of it.

Get binary. Simplify. Yes or no? Want to have in my life or no? The chatter gets quiet, and the age question seems irrelevant.  Just the way it should be.

The Unwanted House Guest

It’s catching up to me

like a slow seeping morning fog

some mornings it catches me

and I wake with sore hips and

eyes so dry they gasp for air

like a dying fish.

 

Am I dying?

 

Suddenly, age is a house guest

worse than any one night stand.

She gives me cruel reasons to wake up—

3, 4, 5 am nudging me awake to

my sleeping bag of worry

where I am zipped up in a tight bind of middle age

as though I were camping in my own night

my own bed my own life my own pajamas

my sleeve of anxiety good till 40 below

or in menopausal flashes of heat.

 

I look askance at my guest in the mirror

she’s fooling around with my face leaving

a pattern of lines and furrows and constellations

of spots that are no longer adorable

When did I stop being adorable? 

Never.

Never!

Fuck aging.

I tell her to stay in

the guest room and not come out

‘till the funeral.

 

 

 

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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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Three stories that might change your life or at least cause you to read through the night

I have just finished reading All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. In fact, I did so at around 3:34 am, just after my new 3 am waking time, give or take 6 or 7 minutes because apparently something is very important that I need to wake up for at that time. Every night. But nevermind me, let’s focus on the brilliant Miriam. I cried several times reading this novel, not out of sadness as in a linear kind of translation (this happened oh how sad) but rather from Miriam’s ability to tell the truth. The truth of life just exactly as it is in all its absurdity, its terrible exactitude and inestimable love and attachment. The fumbling kind of truth, the kind we never read much about or see in television shows or in news media, the vulnerable truth we don’t show anyone, the hidden layer of our foiled, failed selves—this is what Miriam gently teases out in every scene.

She reveals elemental truths about love, death, family in such a nuanced way that you are in no way convinced it is fiction and yet entirely desperate to stay in her fictional world, if that makes any sense.

I don’t like novels or movies or plays that dress up life, that dramatize it to get a reaction or manipulate an audience with an obvious eye to who is sitting in the front row. The protagonist, in fact all the characters in All My Puny Sorrows, are so genuine that you find yourself often putting down the book and weeping as they remind you of someone you once knew and a scene you had with them in a hallway or in a grocery store lineup or when you last spoke with them before they died and you were meaning to tell them how they’d always been in your heart all along and were sorry it didn’t work out. Death bobs along on a resilient wave of hope that nearly drowns continually through this precious novel but is fished out of swampy humanness by the main character—Yolanda— and her various family members throughout the story so that one is left with a real desire to go and shake one’s child up at 3:34 am and tell them they love them and how special they are and how there’s no one else like them in the universe and how lucky I am that I get to have you as a son.

Speaking of my son, he and I have overly sensitive bullshit meters and can be hard on media we consume. There’s a fair amount of poking holes in storylines at dinnertime. While I likely can’t get him to read All My Puny Sorrows (he’s obsessed with Ghengis Khan at the moment) he did watch Broadchurch which is an English series on NetFlix about the murder of a young boy in a small, tightly-knit rural community. We both agreed it was uncharacteristically like real life and particularly with regards to grief and how grief really behaves and shows up in people when something wretched happens like losing their child or brother. Grief is not an aria sung once with feeling, it winds itself around you and through you like smoke, sometimes thickening so you can’t breathe other times clearing and thin like a vapour gently enveloping you but it is always there. Broadchurch delicately weaves its tale with immense attention to the subtleties of sorrow and human dependence and love. Trigger warning on this one of all kinds including sexual abuse.

And then there’s Eve Ensler. Oh Eve. I said to myself after I finished her harrowing book In the Body of the World, non-fiction will never be the same for me. It likely won’t until she writes another book. Saying Eve is a ‘force’ is like saying the wind sometimes erodes things or the ocean has been known to get angry. In this book she tells the story of getting stage IV cancer and surviving it but it is so much more than that. It tells the stories of women all over the world that she has met through her activism, stories of unspeakable horrors of rape, incest, violence, degradation and emotional bludgeoning masked in marriages or families. She doesn’t lay out suffering like a buffet for the reader, instead she pulls you into her own, private discourse on what it means to question our worth, our physical identity as a woman, to unpack the lies we tell ourselves as women to be accepted, loved and cherished and the cost of those lies in our day-to-day relationships. It makes you wonder who will show up for you if you are ill? It causes you to dig down into your own moral set of rules and chuck out those that don’t serve you anymore, ones that might be leftovers from a family that never really loved you, or a marriage or friendship that subjugated you, squashed your voice, killed your creativity. Eve pulls no punches—she’s on the mountain speaking names, she’s fearless, she’s a warrior, on fire, alive—she is truth. And yet so human and fragile and imperfect, just like life. May she live forever.

These are stories that have changed me. I know something is percolating from all three, something to do with my own truth, my own voice and finding fearlessness to express it. I hope I have nearly enough courage as these creators have.

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A Gift Just in Time

It was in yoga just a few weeks ago when I stopped hating my body. There was no great ah-ha-a-la-Oprah-esque moment, no mid-forties screech and halt, no drum roll or tears of joy. There was only silence and the thrum of heat in my ears as I poured myself into a downward dog, grumbling at my sore elbows, wrists and ankles as I asked them to release. Then I suddenly thought, Hey this body is doing its best, lay off it already!

And just like that, I became its friend.

For decades I’ve acted like my body was my enemy, something to be vigilant about, hard on, like I was its personal drill sergeant marching it to a cacophony of jeers from an imaginary audience, whose voices hovered above me like comic captions: ‘c’mon, you can do better than that, just look at those thighs, my god, what is happening with your hair? To a point where my body was in fear of my mind, always trying valiantly to contort to the must’s and the should’s and the early morning prods. Like some kind of vaguely Russian Olympic gymnast coach from the seventies, my mind asked my body to be things it could never be and wondered why it failed me year after year? When in fact it was I that was failing my dear, imperfect hard-working, slightly pale and in parts doughy but sincerely loving body.

My body eventually caved in with all that unkindness surrounding it. This year was the year my body gave up and said fuck it. Or more to the point: Fuck you. It rose up in all its pale five foot glory and said, you know, I’m not serving you anymore. I’m tired.

I got very sick and stayed sick for a long time. I still have an immune system that is misfiring, like a spaceship that has righted itself but can’t communicate with NASA anymore. This is what happens when your body goes off the rails with a lonely, bereft wail of its unlovable nature.

Recently, while reading Anne Lamott’s brilliant book on writing, Bird by Bird,  I was struck by her recounting of what a friend told her about ’emotional acreage’. Her friend said that “every one of us is given an emotional acre all our own.” Lamott explained that we own it and can do with it as we wish; it has a fence and a gate. As a child, I didn’t live in a home that recognized I had a defined acre of emotional land. Mine was more like a closet with gaping holes in the door and hinges that wouldn’t allow it to close properly. My acre was never my acre.

Later, because I didn’t know I had a whole acre, people camped out in it, leaving refuse and anger and leftover half-hearted love that I was never sure what to do with. Recycle? Bury? Burn? Publish? Who knows. And in my body I felt it was wrong–knew it was wrong– but couldn’t say it out loud. They were squatting on my life but I didn’t really own it so it was okay. I apologized and stayed indoors.

When your body doesn’t belong to you, you don’t notice when it is hurt. Sometimes I would tell someone something that happened to me and they would look shocked and I’d wonder why? Because I hadn’t felt the pain; it had only happened to my body. But I knew, by looking at their faces, that something wasn’t right and there was more to this picture than I was seeing. Or feeling.

It finally came together in, of all places, an upside down pose in a hot yoga studio just before Christmas. What I came to–among many other things that slipped into place like a Rubik’s Cube–was this: the moment you befriend your own body is the moment you defend it. You put your arm around it and say, you’re actually trying very hard and you are actually doing quite a good job. In fact, you are so beautiful it hurts my heart a little. Your hardworking toes, your delicate clavicle, haunting veins, and persevering breath. All elegantly formed and intentionally unique.

Your mind stops ordering your body under the stairs. You say instead: sit with me, breathe deeply, don’t rush, I’m here with you for the whole day and night–take your time.

You get the acreage thing. You see your boundaries. You feel your whole space and the abundance of beauty within it. Fragile beauty, broken beauty, learned beauty, another day beauty. Wisdom.

And when someone rushes onto your acreage, demanding this or that–or confessing, loitering, bartering, intimidating, or worse, telling you what is really happening–you can pause and consider it and say yes or no. You can say Get on out of here if the spirits are dark and hold no love for you. You can hold up your imaginary rifle and fire a warning shot. You own your body and its acreage is sacred.

When you finally, at long last, love your body with all its peccadilloes and late night habits, its public crying at movies, its soreness in the morning, its drying eyes and swelled knees, elbow or neck, you begin to really see the edges of that acre, the beautiful waving grass that has grown wild over the years, the small shrubs with hints of new white blossoms, and the tall Oak trees in dignified repose, as though they had been patiently waiting all along for your awakening.

When you sit on your deck (I imagine now my body like a graceful, simply designed modernist house in the middle of a field) and look out over your land you will realize what a gift it is to have it. And when someone comes along and just tosses open the gate and starts camping out or dumping garbage and saying your acreage is kind of messy and disorganized and doesn’t have any proper landscaping, you can say, Well, that’s just fine, here’s the exit.

But if someone raps gently on your gate and says, I have some homemade soup to share, interested? You say, Yes, I’ll get the bowls, come on in. Pretty sure I have some crusty bread we can break together. You sit together, with your old or young bodies or brown or white skin, your green or gray or brown eyes alight with life, with friendship and sharing that comes from a deep place of security, safety and love.

Because you love your body. And you are grateful for it.

640px-Coastal_prairie

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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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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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Filed under Non-fiction, Poetry