The Child and the Great New England Hurricane

Two-year-old Joyce with kittens

I am posting this account of the hurricane I lived through when I was a little over 2-years-old. It came to mind, during my Christmas vacation in the Kern County mountains in California. We were snowed in for 3 days and my reaction to the storm was anything but normal. It was, in fact, my old friend PTSD or deja vue all over again. Different kind of storm, but over 80 years later same terror.

From Never Tell joycehowe.com

While we are living in old Grammy Howe’s house there is another much greater storm and it is one of the defining events of my life.  It begins on Sept. 21, 1938 the same evening that most of Hereford has gathered in the hall for a chicken pie supper.  Why have such a party in the middle of the week?  It is the autumn equinox.  Is the cult celebrating Mabon, the pagan harvest festival?  That sounds pleasant enough and indeed, the cult cannot be directly blamed for what befalls me this day although it leaves me in a susceptible condition.

The Great New England hurricane I heard about although for many years I did not identify it with my experience. It killed 680 people, destroyed some 9000 buildings, as well as dams, bridges, roads, harbors and an incredible amount of forest.  In today’s terms, it caused $20,000,000,000 damage.

That afternoon before the storm broke, Jenny and my mother set off in the horse and buggy with me between them to shelter me somewhat from the wind.  It has been raining for several days but only now has the wind begun to rise.  When we are about half way along the track that cuts diagonally across the field toward the crossroad, I hear my mother call out,  “The wind is taking her breath away!”

For many years, this is all I remember.  I do not even remember struggling to breathe and not being able to, only my mother’s hysterical cry.  I do not remember, Jenny turning the horse around ninety degrees out of the wind and heading it away from the main road up the rise to the farm above.   When the memory finally returns, it unfolds gradually until I piece out events.

I find myself plunked down in the sitting room of Great Grammy Hood’s house, my home at that time.  I am very disappointed not to be going to the church hall where there will be music and food and kids to play with.  After my mother and grandmother leave, Grammy tries to coax me to stop crying and play with my dolls.  My little table is set with doll dishes and Polly and Teddy are sitting in the little chair facing the one Grammy Hood has sat me in.  Grammy is seventy-three and she is wearing what she always wears, a long black skirt and a black sweater.  She will still wear these clothes in the future, but never afterwards will she talk to me like this.

I am fed supper by Nina under Grammy’s direction. John and his sons are still at home then although Gertrude and her daughter have left like my mother and grandmother to get supper ready at the hall.  John and the boys leave before dark, having milked the cows and, washed their hands and faces and got themselves into their good clothes.  Grammy Hood tucks me into her bed downstairs and I cry myself quietly to sleep.

I wake up to a terrible noise.  Nina is howling and Grammy is berating her to stop it, but I can see that Grammy herself is very upset.  She is trying to pull the bureau in front of the window.  I can see why.  It looks as if the wind is about to break in there.  It is very noisy. Grammy falls down.  Nina shrieks and runs over to her.  She tries to pull Grammy up.  Grammy can’t get up and she won’t answer Nina.  Nina drags her over to the bed and after a hard struggle gets her on it.  I have to slide out of the way fast.  Grammy is sort of snoring and her face looks funny.  Nina gets on her knees on the bed and begins to hit her on her body, trying to wake her up.  But Grammy doesn’t wake up.  She just lies there staring with her mouth drooling.  Nina cries harder and harder.  She’s scaring me so bad I start to cry.  Nina kicks me onto the floor and lies down where I was.  When I try to climb back, she kicks me out again.

It is cold.  I need a blanket.  Rain and wind are pounding on the windows.  There is a kind of howling and not just from Nina and the dogs in the woodshed.  The lamp keeps flickering.  It seems as if it is going to go out.  When it flickers, shadows jump on the wall.  I am very, very scared.  Every time I try to sneak back into the bed, Nina kicks me hard.  For a long time, I am frozen there.  Then I remember the dogs.

The kitchen is almost dark.  Only a little light gets in there from the lamp.  But I tell myself to be a big girl.  I stand in the doorway looking hard to see if there is anything bad there in the shadows.  Then I walk as fast as I can around the table and chairs to the woodshed door, which I open.  The dogs that have been leaning against it rush in and make for the stove.  I struggle to close the door up again against the wind that is coming into the shed.  I run back to the daybed that sits under the window.  This window is protected by the veranda so it seems safer that the windows in the living room.  I climb up on it and unhook the barn coats that hang beside the door.  They have the comforting smell of cows.  Then I call the dogs, Rex and Trooper and Sarge.  At first, they don’t come, so I crawl under the coats, but I keep calling until Rex finally comes over.  He has figured out that the stove is cold.  Finally, all of them climb up and lie with me.  They keep me warm.  I hug them for comfort.  In return they have a once in a lifetime opportunity to lie on a bed.

I can still hear Nina mourning above the shriek of the storm.  I pull a coat right over my head and in that pitch-blackness smelling of cow and dog and pass into oblivion.

It doesn’t really ever get light, just less obscure, so that when I wake up, I can see across the kitchen.  I lie there, listening to the rain and wind still lashing the house.  The stove and the table and chairs are very still.  One of the dogs sighs and shifts itself.

Where is my mother?  Where is my father?  Why don’t they come?  Why have they left me alone?

I have actually forgotten that Nina and Grammy are in her bedroom just the other side of the living room.

There comes a time when I get very hungry.  I’ve let the dogs back out into the woodshed by then at their insistence.  I’m hungry and thirsty and crying doesn’t help.

That is when the lady comes.   She looks very bright like an Aladdin lamp and has a beautiful dress, long and loose. She tells me I should make breakfast for my babies.  Then she stands and watches me while I drag a chair into the pantry and climb up so that I can reach the biscuit jar.  There is one hard baking powder biscuit there.  I get a dipperful of water from the pail and carry all these in two trips to my little table.  I break the biscuit up and pour water on it.  A good deal of mess happens.  I sit down chatting to my babies, telling them they have to eat so they will grow up big and strong.  When I have finished my half of the biscuit, I trade dishes with my babies, pretending they have eaten it all up.  The good thing is that I now got to eat their half.  I feel only a little guilty because I am so hungry.  When it is all gone, the Lady tells me to be brave and strong and remember that Jesus loves little children and that he has sent her to help me.  She is his mommy, she says.

I try to do what the Lady has told me to.  I do for a while, a long, long while.  I wait and wait and wait.  I use up all my waiting for the rest of my life that September day.  Ever afterward, I will suffer intensely waiting for people.  Waiting will reduce me.

In the end, I wet myself and have diarrhea.  I am ashamed and miserable.  My heart breaks.  My Mommy and Daddy don’t love me.  In the end, I give up.

Lying on the couch again a long time later, I watch my father coming through the door.  He looks desperate.  Don’t care.  Don’t want him anymore.  He rushes toward me and grabs me up.  He carries me kicking and screaming into the other room, yelling for Nina and Grammy as he goes.  Nina sets up a howl to rival mine and Grammy just lies there.  He puts me down and calls to Grammy and rubs her hands with his.  He says she’s had a shock.  Needs the doctor, but he can’t go for the doctor yet.  The road’s not cleared for horses.  He stands there trying to figure out what to do.  Then he looks down at me.  He takes one blanket off the bed and wraps me up in it and puts me down on the couch.  He makes the fire in the living room stove and one in the kitchen.  He yells at Nina to stop that.  He walks back and forth to Grammy.  He pumps pails of water and puts it on the stove to heat.  Eventually, he pulls my soiled pajamas off and puts me into a tin tub of warm water next to the hot stove.  He makes beef broth which he tells me is going to make us all better. I think it is my momma is lying in there unable to help me.  But I believe him.  He carries a bowl into the other room.  Then he comes back, takes me out of the tub, dries me off, sits me in his lap and spoons broth into my mouth.

It will live on in mythology that once there was a great storm and Roy chopped his way up Cannon Hill.

After that night Great Grammy sits and stares most of the time.

From Never Tell: Recovered Memories of a Daughter of the Temple Mater (alternately “Daughter of the Knights Templar) joycehowe.com

Victoria and Abdul: on the eve of destruction

As Queen Victoria lay dying, her friend and Munshi (teacher) Abdul Karim had a few minutes alone with her. Abdul was a Muslim from Agra, India, a prison clerk, who had been selected to present a medal to Victoria, Empress of India, primarily because he was tall. Victoria subsequently became fond of him, made him an important part of her household and announced she would knight him. Meanwhile, he taught her Urdo and some of the wisdom of the East.

As he leaned over her death bed, she whispered that she was afraid. He replied, “Let go, Little Drop, you will join the great ocean.” These, he added, are the words of Rumi, but it is Allah who is the teacher, implying that neither he nor Rumi deserve such credit.

As they talked, Bertie, her son and the future king and her grandson, Germany’s Kaiser, waited outside along with the other high-ranking members of the royal household.They were not best-pleased. They had tried to stop her from making Abdul a knight by threatening to have her declared insane. She replied by listing her manifold shortcomings – rheumatism, greediness, morbid obesity, dullness, etc., but declared she was not insane. She had ruled the British Empire 61 years and 234 days and she was not about to step aside. (In fact she ruled, in the end, 63 years, 7 months and 2 days, surpassing even George III. Since then, of course, another queen has beat her record.) Judi Dench portrayed Victoria’s repudiation of her court’s rebellion by announcing she would dub no knights that year, but she would make Abdul a member of the Victorian Order of Merit.

The story is based on fact – mostly – including Abdul’s journal, which managed to escape Edward VII’s (Bertie’s) pillaging of Abdul’s effects once his mother was dead.

Judi Dench is old enough to depict the physical decline of Victoria in her 80s. There is a scene where she sits in her night clothes at her dressing table, her long, straight hair hanging down, her ravaged face registering her disappointment that Abdul has misled her about the Muslim role in the Indian Mutiny. (It was the Muslim, not the Hindu, soldiers in the British army that threw down their arms: they had heard their guns were greased with pig fat. Wholesale slaughter ensued.) Watching that scene is particularly affecting for an older woman like me even though “she doesn’t look her age”. It set me up nicely for the death scene. I had to keep hitting pause in order to wipe my glasses.

Rumi’s poetry, translated by Coleman Barks, has been a great comfort to me, especially his Book of Love. I read Blake his poem called The Gazing House just before he passed. Blake was apparently unconscious but I knew he could hear.

On the night when you cross the street
from your shop and your house to the cemetery,

you’ll hear me hailing you from inside
the open grave, and you’ll realize
how we’ve always been together.

I am the clear consciousness core
of your being, the same in ecstasy
as in self-hating fatigue

……
And don’t look for me in human shape!
I am inside your looking. No room for form
with love this strong.

Rumi the Book of Love trans. Coleman Barks p.178

Victoria and Abdul had that kind of love despite the 60 years and class and race that lay between them. His last words to her are “You are going to a safer place.”

Meanwhile, we must be patient.

 

A Hero’s Return: as a package on West Jet

I am become a name:
For always roaming with a hungry heart

Tennyson’s Ulysses

What did Tennyson know about old age anyway? He was only 25 when he imagined the aging Ulysses, restless on Ithaca, after his return from the Trojan War and the odyssey of his 20-year voyage home.

Personally, I find I am become a package.

It began well, my return from Los Angeles on December 30th, 2019. I had stayed the night in a comfortable room at the Hyatt Regency next door to LAX. I had had a hot shower to loosen up my 83 1/2-year-old body and treated myself to an outrageously expensive and extremely delicious breakfast buffet.

Which was fortunate, as it turned out. In the next 12 hours, I managed to consume 5 pieces of indifferent cheese, 3 corn and 8 tiny non-gluten crackers. And a Kind bar, which I was finally able to dig out of my carry-on at mid point in my journey.

Lash me to the mast. Sail me between Scylla and Charybdis. Let those sirens lure me onto rocks. Take me to Lotus Land and ruin my moral fibre. But never, never again let me book an Air Miles flight with Delta, which is operated by West Jet. Especially not as a package!

For I am become a package. For always roaming with a hungry heart.

We were all packages once, carried about by our parents or other responsible adults – our 11-year-old sisters, for example.  (I saw a few of these little angel packages during my odyssey, one of them about 5-days-old.) Then 80-years later, when the endless miles of airport walkways threaten to finish us off, we reluctantly opt for wheelchair assistance.

But first there was a shuttle bus. The driver winged by terminal 2 and the West Jet sign, despite my protests and deposited me and my heavy suitcase at terminal 3. “International flights,” he said, as he palmed my tip.

If only.

Turned out I had to check my bag at the West Jet counter in …. terminal 2. “It’s only a 5-minute walk,” said the kindly Delta agent who walked this old girl back out. I stared down the curving sidewalk. “Do you think I’ll make it?” I asked. “Oh, yes, you have plenty of time,” and she was gone. No, no, that’s not what I meant.

Okay. Chin up. I placed both hands on my $6 U.S. luggage cart and began. Stop whining, I told myself. No point. Buck up. You can walk. It’s standing in line and marathons you can’t do. I walked and pushed and walked and pushed. Was terminal 2 actually receding? Okay, stop now. Get your heart rate down. Have a drink of water. Ignore all the people walking the other way. Why are all these people walking the other way?

Reader, I made it. I stood in a short line. I ignored, “Please put your bag on the scale” as usual, until someone did it for me. I checked my heavy bag. I sojourned to the seats with wheelchair logos. Eventually, I was loaded into an actual wheelchair and a young woman wheeled me out the door onto the sidewalk and turned me back to … terminal 3. She had made this same trip 10 times already. It was 10 a.m. Inside Bradley Terminal, she pushed me an equal distance until she arrived still complaining at the security check.

Just a tip: here in Canada, you don’t have to remove your iPad as well as your laptop, but in LA you do. If you don’t, they send your tray back to the beginning as you stand there in your sock feet.

There were twice as many people as chairs near gates 30 to 35, but they were civil and had left the chair with the wheelchair logo for late arriving gimps like me. They even left it empty while I bought a bottle of water.

I could have bought a sandwich but I was clueless. Short-haul flights like the one to Vancouver sell only snacks. My flight left at lunch-time.

I knew what to expect of the 737-600. I had flown down on a 737. Thin seats with minimal contour comfort, 2 extremely tiny washrooms, 1 of which we cheap-seat types were encouraged not to use. Didn’t 737’s used to be luxurious? West Jet’s seemed like tin cans, so poorly insulated that the sound of braking made death seem imminent.

All right. Easy-peasy. Three hours straight up the coast. Then 2-hours before the next flight from Vancouver to Toronto.

But…

There was a headwind. We arrived 40-minutes late. I got wheeled up the ramp.

“I’ll be right back,” said the young man pushing my chair, and he vanished back down the ramp.

There had been a genuinely non-walking woman on the flight. Boarding, it had taken three people to move her from her wheelchair to a smaller airplane-going model and a long time. I waited all alone in a curving corridor, gazing at the glass heights of the terminal. And I waited. Boarding for the Toronto flight was due to start at 4:20. 4:20 came and went.

Suddenly the young man was back and we were off. I had to clear customs. At an electronic kiosk. No problem. I had nothing to declare and I was pretty fast at touch screen. We were off again.

The rest of the 3-mile (I swear it must have been) trip is a blur. It involved elevators, golf carts, more wheelchairs, 3 other West Jet wheelchair wranglers, clearing security, having my tiny remaining water wrestled from my hands – I could barely speak my mouth was so dry. It involved, I kid you not, leaping up and running a good long city block, attendant by my side dragging my carry-on and seeking assurance that I wasn’t about to collapse. We passed West Jet outriders who kept calling ahead to alert the flight I was on my way and we arrived at another golf cart. (Why, why, couldn’t it have met me back there where I started my sprint?)

“Don’t worry, Joyce,” said my kindly attendant. (I was crying of course.) “By law, they can’t close the door until 10 minutes before take-off.”

Yes, but pretty sure we’ve passed that deadline.

We made it, 3 minutes to go. Kindly attendant walked me to my seat. Gave me a hug. Spoke kindly. Got the flight attendant, Heather, to bring me water. Heather hugged me. And I have to say, passengers from three rows away would have done so as well if they weren’t already strapped in.

Another passenger, a woman, cool as a cucumber, arrived after me. We took off at 5. I, the uncool package, read on my iPad. Food service had been postponed due to turbulence until we crossed the Rockies. Thank God I remembered the protein bar.

Four and a half hours later, we landed in Toronto. Last flight of the day. And wheelchair people wait to disembark last.

Mo – short for Mohammed – wheeled me through deserted YYZ terminal. He had just graduated from an International Business course and was working his way up to an executive position. Learning the West Jet business from the ground up. He called me Joyce and chatted cheerfully as he wheeled me another three miles. West Jet’s responsibility for the package that was me ended at baggage claim, but he claimed my bag and walked me to the taxi stand, ready to catch me should I falter.

Lucky old Ulysses said, “There lies the port/The vessel puffs her sails”. His crew was ready to sail again out beyond the sunset’ perhaps to touch the Happy Isles and to see the great Achilles. To strive, to seek, to find and not to fail.

Right on! And let’s face it, my crew did their best. And for a package, so did I.

 

 

 

 

Winter Solstice 2019

Saturday, December 21, 2019, 8:19 p.m. is the Winter Solstice -the shortest day of the year, about 9 1/2 hours of light and the longest night. Today the year turns and tomorrow will bring more light. The following poem was written in Venice Beach, California on the Winter Solstice in 1993, a long way from the mountains of my childhood in the Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada, but not so far from these Kern County mountains where we expect snow again.

Winter Solstice

Such deep dark
so long sustained
should smell of balsam,
cedar, pine,
should have a canopy of icy stars,
of Northern lights,
shifting panes of white or green.

-A child under a buffalo robe
watching a sleigh runner
cut through blue
moon-shadowed snow
sees a rabbit track running off
into deep woods.-

Waking in the depth
of this longest night,
thirsty for sleep,I hear
the pounding surf,
an angry wordless shout
one floor below
and the reverberating slam
of a dumpster lid.
The sky at least is quiet:
a star hangs
above the flight path.

In my long sleep,
I have been following
that track back
into the woods
breathing spruce pitch
and resined pine,
lashed by boughs of evergreen,
until I have arrived at this
secret place
which only wild things know,
a place to shelter
while things end,
time unwinds,
the circle turns.

When we awaken,
shouting, homeless,
single and bereft,
we will go forth
into the growing light,
a light
we creatures of the dark
must yet endure.

This is the place,
now is the time
for the birth of the Child
in the cave of the heart.

Dreams: Ian, Mae and Harold Arlen

I woke up to Ian Tyson singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Siri had slipped her leash and shuffled from White Noise on repeat.

I don’t need to tell you, dear constant reader, that that song is from a famous movie

The first real movie I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz. I was probably 8-years-old. That was 1944. In the province of Quebec, children were not permitted to go to movies, ostensibly because of a terrible fire in a theatre that had killed children, but, more likely, the Catholic Church deemed movies corrupting. The Catholic Church ruled in the mostly French province.

I had seen films, made by the National Film Board of Canada in class, quite a few of them. I think the projectionist made a circuit of the schools, English schools in my case, and we got to see whatever he brought whether it related to the curriculum or not. So I was already enraptured by flickering motion pictures in a darkened room, but the moment when Oz burst into colour sealed my fate.

Quite simply I had to go there.

True my life did not include tornadoes, but it did contain World War II, which I initially thought was right next door. Uncles were overseas, German prisoners kept escaping from the POW camp in Sherbrook and my friend’s uncle got shot down and died. Plus there was the on-going war at home, not just the struggle to live on little money and rationing, but the very real possibility that my father would eventually succeed in killing one of us.

So I dreamed.

Eventually, I realized Oz didn’t exist and I would have to make do with Hollywood. My Aunt Mae could tell the future and she said that yes, I would go there. I wasn’t clear why she was laughing as she hugged me close.

I kept scrap books of movie stars and pursued an acting career. I had a few gigs at Christmas concerts and variety shows. I did Burlington Bertie from Bow, like I saw once in a movie. I got the lead roles in half a dozen high school and university plays. The only movie role I was ever offered got cancelled before shooting started. But I did go to Hollywood. Over seventy times and I plan to return in a few weeks.

Spoiler alert: I produced a daughter who went there to live and she produced two sons. I starred as grandma. Daddy #2 introduced me to a movie star at whose Malibu beach house I stayed. Her present husband took me to Warner Bros and we ate in the commissary. I didn’t get to go to the Emmys with him, but who can complain.

So thank you Aunt Mae. You kept hope alive and you didn’t exactly lie.

I woke up thinking about dreams, the kind of dreams you have about your future and which I am informed are essential to a happy life.

Shall we count them up?

I dreamed I would have 5 children and live in a ranch house. I had 2 and lived in split levels. I dreamed I would go to university. I went to McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario and lived for 2 years in a beautiful residence called Wallingford Hall. (I won’t mention the Quoncet hut  I lived in in first year.) I learned a great deal about English literature and philosophy, and continued to do so at the University of Toronto, almost dreaming spires. So check and check.

I dreamed of going to Europe and seeing Paris and the Greek ruins and the remains of ancient Rome. It helped than my younger brother escaped there and stayed, so I was able to spend long summers there and to return several times.

As it turned out, I got caught up in someone else’s dreams that included a swimming pool and a sail boat. Okay, that seems like fun. I can only say I survived.

I dreamed of a summer home in the low mountains and hills of the Eastern Townships where I was born. Not happening. No one was going to sell to my father’s daughter. But as second prize, I found a vacation home in the much higher mountains of Kern County, California where the wooded slopes breathed pine resin and sighed in the wind.

I am not the sort who dreams of having successful children. Mine succeeded by existing, but, in spite of that, they and my grandsons have achieved excellence in diverse ways.

So what are my dreams now in the winter light of my 83rd year?

Well, I dream that I will someday wrap up the executor work for the estate of that other dreamer (of sail boats and swimming pools), and I am pleased to report that I have only 3 tasks left to complete. One of them, the release of a modest bank account, which money has to be paid to a group of people I have never met, is typical of the frustratingly slow process of executing an estate. (Come back here, Boy, and I’ll give you such a slap upside the head.)

Where would he come back from? Hummm. Well, his after-life seems to be some heavenly school room where he is studying advanced physics with a side of human relations. (Can I refrain from saying ‘which he could use’?)

I’m not sure what mine will be. It will probably be a few millennia before I can stop myself from leaning back toward incarnation to make sure things are going well, not that they ever do. But, I suppose, that’s the whole point. We long and hope, yet the real lesson comes from the unfulfilled dreams, the suffering that polishes us up and fills us with light.

And those little blue birds that flew over the rainbow. My father used to see them as a child. Then they vanished. I found them again one morning as I walked along the golf course fence in Pine Mountain Club. They were singing.

 

 

 

Thank You Anger, Thank You Rage VV

https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=Elanis+Morissette+Thank+oyo

It is Thanksgiving again. I say again because we Canucks had one 7 weeks ago. Some of us, however, have a foot in that other country and so we have two.

Then today talking to my American daughter long distance, I fell to thinking about how family members trigger each other. Holidays bring this out in the best of families, although a casual conversation can do the job just as well. I had just had one of those and we were analyzing it. How could I have handled it better, we wondered. Possibly, I could simply have acknowledged to the trigger-er that I had been triggered. Then I wouldn’t have got that great come-back in, I mused.

At that moment, I came face to face with my anger.

It’s been several hours since then and I have had time to see some of its dimensions, although mostly they vanish into the distance only hinting at the monolithic scale of my rage. There are sound reasons for harboring such a monster. If it were purely personal I might even be able to let it go, but the abuse which engendered it was visited on those I loved as well, vulnerable small people that try as I might I could not protect.

Years of therapy have not actually made a dent in it, although I have pretended that it did and mostly packed it away.

I read once that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who had a dreadful war to teach him rage, said that we have to honour our anger.

That seems more sensible than the idea that we somehow have to get rid of it. Mosh plans, pounding pillows, clobbering punching bags, all they accomplish is fatigue enough to make you too tired to care. And they seem to establish the habit of expression. For me at least.

My anger is too great to let loose.

I can’t imagine the anger of the Jews who escaped to NYC, leaving all their relatives to die in the camps or the surviving Bosnians whose loved ones were butchered and thrown in rivers or any of the other genocide survivors. Or the anger of slaves, past and present.

Even the anger of those who helplessly watch what looks like the demise of democracy is hard to get the measure of, or the rage of those who see the life on earth in peril and idiots denying same.

Of course we can use our anger as an impetus to constructive action, but the supply is surplus to needs. So then what?

The Vietnamese monk tells me that if I see the suffering that motivates my enemy, my anger will dissolve. A long range strategy perhaps. I’m a slow learner.

Meanwhile, thank you anger. You are mine. You are valid and reasonable. You are inextricably part of me. Sit with me here on this stormy night as Thanksgiving dawns again.

I undertake not to use you to harm others and, by honouring you, I know I render you less harmful to my self.

 

 

 

 

Winter Came: aging in a cold climate

From The Double Game by Dan Fesperman

He (Bruzek) handed it back. Then, with a grimace and a groan, he worked himself into a more upright position.

“Please help me to stand. I would feel much more comfortable speaking to you from behind my desk.”

I took his arm and helped him across the room to a ladder-back chair behind a huge mahogany desk. Behind it was a wall of bookshelves, stuffed full and leaning slightly, as if they might fall at any moment.
p 313 in my overdrive program on my ipad.

I had to recline as Vlacek Bruzek was doing when Bill Cage wound his way up through the antiquarian book store in Prague to ask him questions about spy couriers during the cold war.

I had to recline and pick up Fesperman’s book because I was exhausted. It was 11 a.m. and I was exhausted because the superintendent had called to tell me to move my car for the snow plow. The older woman -only in her late 60s next to my car – was trying in vain to defrost her windows and clear the 8 inches of snow. Fortunately, I had done that the day before and had by now recovered from that exertion.

It’s worth noting that I am so old this woman is solicitous of me.

Twenty minutes later, I had to put on my boots, my furry aviator’s hat and my -30C hooded coat and go back down to relocate my Corolla. (Full disclosure the windchill was only -15, but old bodies are cold bodies.)

That was it. I was barely able to make Masala chai before I had to rest.

I never expected to grow old. Too many close calls and a mother who passed at 58. But here I am, not yet old old. Yes, it’s a thing. In less than 2 more years I will be 85 and old old. My grandmother lived to be 96, so I guess I have to follow a new paradigm.

I suppose I should remind you that if you are lucky, you too will get there. If you’re already there, you know the truth that Leonard Cohen said, ‘You can’t reveal to the innocent youth.’ Part of that truth seems to be that for every half hour of effort it is necessary to rest 30 minutes. I mean I had to go down 13 floors in an elevator, walk 50 yards, get into my car and drive it to Visitors’ parking. How can that be exhausting?

Our bodies all age differently, of course, so perhaps yours is/will be different. If your mind can’t accept that resting routine, you have to numb it down with – preferably -‘stupid’ TV. HGTV works for me, but recently my Bell TV service has been down more than up, so I turned to Fesperson’s books. These are smart books by the way. Whereas I can’t use CNN to rest with, I can use complicated books with good mysteries.

I don’t have many old friends.One, my ex-husband, Blake, passed last March as I have documented in previous blogs. https://115journals.com/2019/03/20/blake-no-more/ My sister Georgia is 6-years younger and just beginning to feel the effort/rest effect. Another friend who is 91 has recently changed dramatically, developing an edge. She was always able to keep me believing she was charming and sweet and cared deeply for me and my loved ones. Then in one single angry outburst laid waste to that idea. Blake had also become irascible in his last days, We all forgave him as we sat beside his bed of pain. Until we had to deal with the twenty years of neglect of home and finances he left behind.

Apparently, we should all assume that our brains are de-myolinating as we age and expect dementia. I’ve got Lion’s Mane mushrooms in capsule on order. fungi.com

An older real estate collapse you don’t even remember in 1995 bumped me out of home ownership. Three years ago, my landlord sold the triplex where I lived on the ground floor in a Toronto neighbourhood I had come to love. Rent increases made it necessary for me to get out of town and at my sister’s encouragement I moved to an apartment in Mississauga. It is warm – often equatorial, even in winter, well-maintained -although the elevators can be chancey, and safe – interlopers are scared of our Shanti in the front office. First responders will be able to stretcher me out and down.

At Blake’s three-story townhouse in Cabbagetown, they had to carry him bodily down the twisty, narrow stairs. He never did get set up with a hospital bed and a potty on the first floor.

So that’s been dealt with. The fact that I really am not a suburb lover can’t matter now. Anyway I am learning to love the sky in all its moods and the distant glimpse of Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment where the clouds are different.

According to my mandatory driver assessments, I am able to drive. That could change or it could gradually dawn on me that spending over $500 a month on a car is too much what with the pressure of rent increases and Bell increases. Grocery delivery, Uber and patience may win out.

It’s new territory and Tennyson’s Ulysses has advised me to “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses

 

Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection

I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy not as a political explanation of why a crazy man is in the White House, or why a generation of white men is unemployed and opioid addicted – although it is both – but as a personal reflection.

At the age of 5 in 1941, having just moved to a small town 30 miles from the ‘hills’ I came from, I screamed, “Runaway horse, runaway horse”. My cries led to much merriment. It was the first time I had seen a horse-drawn van. When I was 12, a city classmate asked me why I talked and walked funny? I thought my difference was safely hidden inside. I set about immediately losing my hill twang and my bouncy stride in desperation to ‘pass’. The drama society helped immeasurably, although in my 6th decade, I still imagined I would drop the crystal wine glass, and somehow shatter it on the deep pile of the Persian carpet. I knew how to behave in a five star hotel, but I wanted the staff to stop grovelling.

You can take the girl out of the hills, but even in her old age, you can’t take the hills out of the girl.

J.D. Vance poses the question: how can a hillbilly develop the confidence to go to Yale, become a lawyer and write a best seller. He has always been J dot D dot, but he was born James David Bowman. After his father allowed his mother’s third husband to adopt him, he became James Donald Hamel. After that his mother, a trained nurse, went through a string of men, a lot of alcohol and a good many drugs including heroin. J.D. was saved by his maternal grandparents, the Vance’s, Mamaw and Papaw. Their house near his mother’s was a refuge.

The Vance’s had left the holler in Jackson, Kentucky when Mamaw got pregnant at 13. Papaw was then 16. They went north. She lost that child, but Papaw got a job at the Armco. He enjoyed a drink or two with the other Kentuckian immigrants.Whole families moved up to Middletown at Armco’s encouragement. Out of the coal mines into the steel mill. Mamaw eventually kicked her drunken husband out, but he had reformed by the time J.D. needed him. It was true even in her old age, Mamaw could still take down grown men and did so whenever necessary.

My family came from a northern branch of Appalachia in Quebec, and twanged and drawled more New England than southern. When the war ended in 1945, my 4H father lost his job to a returning  veteran. He moved us in a borrowed gravel truck to Ontario. My seat was in the gravel bed wedged among the furniture under a moldy tarp . I was armed with a package of Asper gum to quell motion sickness and a flashlight to be used only in emergency. My companion was a 14-yr-old Ontario boy, Daddy’s moving assistant. In those days, before super highways, the distance measured 800 miles and took all night and well into the next day. I remember only the first hour. The banging and bumping of shifting furniture and the steel gravel bed, hitting the tarp, trying not to throw up or panic is mercifully all but forgotten. The gum and the game of shadow animals had lost their effectiveness. I was convinced that my parents and two little sisters were forever gone. A gravel truck bed doesn’t access the cab’s window. The gravel never has to pee.

Thus we arrived in the much more advanced province of Ontario, Canada, in true hillbilly fashion, and finally ate sandwiches for breakfast on the grass at the side of the road.

We ended up eventually in the heavy industry town of Hamilton. Three of my mother’s five brothers arrived in due course to get jobs at Stelco and turn into alcoholics. My father never needed any help achieving an altered state. He could turn on a dime, faster than we could duck and run.

Violent, alcoholic, check and check, but did we have the Kentucky code of loyalty to family. I don’t think so. J.D. got in early, clobbering boys who said as little as “Yo Mama.” If anybody needed clobbering around me, well – I was the oldest, girl or not, and my weapon was mainly a loud, nasty voice. Once, all four female family members jumped on his back and took down our father as he whipped the smallest Then hurled his belt into a hay field. By the time he found it, he was sweating and not in the mood anymore. I want to say he was giggling, and perhaps he was, but my father’s giggle was just another danger sign.

In short, our family home reverberated with loud verbal and physical violence as did Vance’s home with its serial father figures – he said living with his mother and one ‘Matt’ was like witnessing the end of the world- as did the homes of hillbillies in general.

Vance’s grandparents still had strong ties to Jackson KY which was only three hours away and they visited often reinforcing the values of family loyalty, hard work and hard play.

As a 9-yr-old, I was convinced we could never go back to the hill. I would never again see the great aunt who had taught me to love Jesus. She had also helped me become a friend of an older cousin. His mother was ‘the teacher’ at the one-room school, and he was going to university himself. Never again see the ‘rich” and educated woman across the street I had befriended when I was five.

My mother grieved as though she could never go back. On the hill, she had had all of the women she had known since childhood, no matter how annoying, as backup. In the small town, she had had her cousin from the hills at the other end of our rented triplex. Now she had no one and she lost her mind. She locked me in a trunk. If not for my 3-yr-old sister, I would have stayed there until my father came home from the gravel pit in Orangeville the next weekend.

Still I did well in school. I was determined to. It made my father proud.

Vance was not such a good student. It was hard for him to find a quiet refuge to study, except at his grandparents. Fortunately, my father worked two jobs. After supper, I could count on the time until midnight to quietly study.

As well as his more or less stable grandparents, J.D. had his Uncle Jimmy Blanton who flew him out to visit him in Napa Valley. These visits and trips with his grandparents expanded his possibilities. When J.D. graduated from high school, he knew he was absolutely not ready for college. He joined the marines. In three years, including a stint in Iraq, he learned an altogether different code of living – disciplined, orderly, self-controlled,   He came back to do three college years in two, and to get admission to Yale law school. He credits one of his professors for mentoring and guiding him. And most of all the woman he fell in love with and married.

The boy I fell in love with came from working class Yorkshire, England, but his mother worked as a secretary in a law office and was a terrible snob. I was way beneath her son, but caving in to the inevitable, she took up my education, lending me books I hadn’t found in libraries, introducing me to English eating, gin, sherry and trifles. Then I escaped my violent home by insisting on living on the university campus. There the dean of women and all the middle-class girls continued my training in social niceties. I even ended pouring the tea at one of our white gloved afternoons. The manager of the retail department store which had given me money for tuition, was fond of asking me to pour tea for his guests. Much to my humiliation, for I had to sit still while he praised for 5 minutes. Hillbillies don’t cowtow.

The coal mines in Kentucky shut down. Armco and Stelco went steadily downhill as car manufacturing turned from solid steel to steel frame and plastic. My mother, who had worked in an aluminum plant, and the two uncles who stuck it out in steel, died young of cancer. My father stayed on as a mechanic at Ford, Oakville until he retired.

The three girls in my family earned degrees and had careers. Our dyslexic brother got his education on the road -Europe, India, Afghanistan, Turkey. He married a Belgian French girl and made a career in film and antiques. He never in his life borrowed money until a few months ago. In the 3rd and 4th generation, most have college degrees and all have jobs, although one is caught up in the gig industry. Economic downturns have left some of us the worse for wear. I no longer own my home, for example, but I am constantly surprised that we didn’t end up homeless addicts considering our impoverished and abusive beginning.

J.D. Vance’s book is called Hillbilly Elegy, a song of lamentation for the dead. In this case a whole class of people, without cohesion or identity. Gone. The hillbillies had valued family loyalty, hard work, God and the American Dream. They moved north in large part to give their children a better future, as our father did. When industry failed and they couldn’t get work, they continued to pay lip service to industriousness, even though they never worked a day in their lives. Vance says they practice avoidance and wishful thinking, living on welfare, addicts and alcoholics, like his own mother and her string of boy friends.

Vance regrets that.

Our hill culture has been assimilated. We live in Ontario, California, Belgium and Boston. The hill itself is nearly depopulated. The fields, so laboriously cleared, are going back to trees -plantations and wild woods. I keep a picture of our mountain on my computer. I do not think I will see it with my own eyes again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Cure for PTSD Terror: you’re soaking in it

This post may trigger PTSD sufferers.

In our search for mental health care, we once sat in a Kern County, California, mental health clinic listening to a psychologist exclaim that our patient could not have PTSD because she had never served in the army.

In fact she had been conscripted at birth as all the rest of the family had, and our sergeant major was a bat-shit crazy man, known initially as daddy and later as grandfather. His sadist attacks were so traumatizing that we dared not reveal them even had we been able to remember. So it was that the patient had been repeatedly taken back to that house of torture by her mother, the author of this blog.

(To be fair, mother could not recall that her own life had almost ended when the b-s crazy man raped her as a child. And she has spent the last 30 years since b-s crazy man died and she did remember, in profound guilt and grief. But enough of personal angst.)

Suffice to say Dad could have given the North Koreans or even the CIA lessons in torture or a 2.0 course in mind control. He himself had rather an unpleasant death, which I describe at the end of my e-memoir, Never Tell, recovered memories of a daughter of the Temple Mater. joycehowe.com

That’s the back story as to why the patient developed suicidal impulses and then intractable insomnia. For most of her life, she was able to repress the trauma, going so far as to contend that the rest of us experienced it, but she didn’t. This was lucky, because by then we had put in years of dealing with it, worn out therapists and come to realize that terrifying as it is, the past is dead and gone.

As, by the way, were quite a few people outside the family, who encountered our very own psychopath. And, no, a million dollar police investigation, involving three police forces couldn’t prove that.

How to deal with such insomnia? Even the strongest drugs couldn’t put her to sleep for long. In one 5 day hospital stay, five other drugs were tried. The fifth one precipitated a heart attack. So we cast about for other methods.

Finally last April, I concluded she couldn’t sleep because she was afraid to dream.

At one point, she fled to Toronto and her loving mother’s arms. I would sit at her bedside until she fell asleep, sometimes for 90 minutes. It is a moving experience to sit in the dark beside someone you love as she does her best to sleep. Going to sleep for her isn’t easy, but it is easier than staying asleep. I wasn’t up to being there at 4 a.m. when she usually comes wide awake. Or 3 am or 2 am. Sometimes she doesn’t sleep at all, just lies in a semi-conscious state, which surprisingly can generate bad dreams.

While I was studying the NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) Treating Trauma Master Series , I came across the idea that therapists don’t do their clients any favours by trying to make them feel safe. That is a technique that Grandad and hosts of his fellow abusers use. Trying to make the trauma survivor relax is an immediate trigger – they want to run a mile.

Our patient came at the idea from a totally different angle. She watched a terrifying movie, went to bed late and slept like a baby.

We reached the conclusion that, instead of avoiding fear, she (we in fact) had to soak in it – like that Palmolive dish detergent commercial years ago where the woman is in the nail salon -“You’re soaking in it”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bEkq7JCbik

We are in the research phase. Our patient has spent the last several months reading about psychopathic serial killers and watching shows like The Mindhunters. The Mindhunters interview serial murders in prison in order to understand them. Patient reports that the single scariest scene so far was one in which the woman on the mindhunter team was at home in her apartment at night wearing only a long  man’s shirts and pouring herself a glass of wine at the kitchen counter. She was at the left of the shot. The right side showed the rest of the kitchen and hall, an empty floor. An absolutely terrifying space. Into which something could suddenly come. I myself found the next scene where she goes down to the building’s laundry – still dressed only in the shirt – and while the washer starts, hears a cat meowing outside the open basement window and decides to feed it her leftover tuna. I will not divulge what eventually comes through that window.

Who says recovering from PTSD can’t be fun?

I’ve always hated Hallowe’en and horror shows, but now I begin to see their value. We can’t evade our terror. It may be buried, but it’s there, so we might as well face it, embrace it as far as possible. We don’t need to defy it. We can acknowledge it and even say this is what made me who I am. We can say, ‘I have been to the edge of death more than once, but I can still permit myself to sleep’. At least six hours most nights.

And of course, we can refuse to put ourselves in real life situations with people that scare us.

See also https://115journals.com/2013/10/18/the-cure-for-pain/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Janet and the Still Face: attachment theory

Janet was my mother-in-law. I knew her for 26 years from my 16th year to my 42nd. She passed on the same year that my marriage to her son ended. By then, she was 73 and suffering from advanced dementia. The Durant family reconstituted itself for a brief graveside ceremony in a Scarborough cemetery, 41 years ago, on a cold autumn day.

The central mystery of Janet was not why she had to rein in her dislike of me. Blake was her only child. I was beneath him. The central mystery was how could she send that child, age 5, across the Atlantic Ocean through the German u-boat fleet, for what turned out to be 5 years with a foster family in Canada.

Yes, the Nazis had bombed Middlesbrough. Yes, little Blake had watched an airman crash to his doom. Yes, she expected Hitler to land any minute and turn Blake into a junior brown shirt and steal his soul. Yes, it could be seen as an act of self-sacrifice. But I was never convinced. Or to put it another way, I could not imagine doing that even when I was 16. I had a 5-year-old brother. Once I had my own children, I was even more baffled.

Yet I admired the Jewish parents who put their children on a Kinder Train to the British Isles. And I reminded myself that I had not felt the terror of the English people in those early, unprepared days.

Then I fell heir to Janet’s diaries.

They were tiny little books, often labelled “gentleman’s diary”. They stretched from the 1920s to the early 70s, I think. I’m not sure because I threw them all away. Why did I perform such an act of desecration. It wasn’t because they were mostly a record of the weather on any given day or brief notes of meeting so and so for a film. It was because I looked up what she wrote on the day my daughter, her first grandchild, was born. Sandwiched between the weather and a note that she met Mable for lunch was a line that Blake had phoned to say that Joyce had had a girl. After she finished the entry, she went back and penciled in “proud grandparents” between the lines. The birth of my son, a year later, the only person who still carries on the family name, was even more innocuous.

The next thing I knew the tiny books, along with most of Blake’s photos, had vanished down the garbage chute.

I am already custodian of 146 large, thick, extremely detailed journals of my life and the Durant family’s. They may look as if they are written in ink, but they feel as if they were written in blood and tears. So sorry, Janet, no shelf space.

“Avoidant attachment” said my daughter, Janet’s first grandchild.

We had both, along with other family members been studying NICABM’s (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) Treating Trauma Series. Watching the video sessions and reading the transcripts, I began to see that today’s psychiatric theory sees personality development as inter-personal rather than individualistic and based on needs and drives as Freud and his heirs did. The key to mental health, this theory postulates, depends on secure attachment. An infant finds that her needs are answered by a responsive caretaker, who picks her up, attends to her needs and soothes her upset. In this way, the child learns how to self regulate and withstand stress.

Alternately, the caretaker, like my own mother, could respond with ‘What do you want now?’ I had colic. My tummy hurt. I cried. All the time. My father, who gets no other accolades for parenting, was the one who soothed me down, sleeping with his foot out of bed to rock my cradle whenever I started stirring awake. He also beamed at me like a lunatic, talked baby talk and generally didn’t take my hysteria seriously. That is how I came to experience ambivalent attachment.

There were other mothers in our small northern Appalachian community. Some, like my Aunt Mae were champions at secure attachment. My mother’s cousin Maude was another. Either one could take me off my mother’s hands and calm me down.

Experiments show that a mother with avoidant attachment may actually pick her baby up as often as a mother with secure attachment, but not in the same way. Instead of smiling and speaking in a reassuring way, the mother may have a still face. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0  This short video shows how the baby deregulates quickly in the face of that stony response. And quickly compensates when mom comes back to life.

No doubt my mother eventually moved on to ambivalent attachment once my colic improved as colic usually does as the baby matures. Sometimes she would engage and show warmth, but then again, she would be absent and distant. She had her own issues, even excluding the fact she was married to a psychopath, a baby-loving psychopath, but a scary dude nonetheless. (I can clearly remember being in her arms and hearing him threaten to murder her pa and her ma if she carried out her threat to go back to live with them.)

An upset baby for whatever reason – wet, hungry, in pain, scared, lonely – who is picked up and comforted, learns to regulate herself, to soothe herself and move back to equilibrium.

A young child with secure attachment can tolerate her mother’s absence, even though she will still react on her mom’s return in a way that indicates she was upset.

A baby with an attachment avoidant mother will eventually give up seeking consolation and will become a child who avoids attachment. No point crying. No point acting cute. Don’t need anyone anyway.

How surprised I was to discover I had married such a person! Here I thought we had a firmly bonded marriage and family. We shared a profession and even a workplace. We went on long car trips together, four people in a tiny car all over Europe. We sailed a 29-foot sailboat through hell and high water. Then suddenly, he was spending nights in someone else’s bed. He had cared enough to act as though he was attached to his two children, until he couldn’t. That fall, his mother – the founder of the feast – passed on.

I found a few pictures of her mother as I went through her son’s collection, a grim-faced English woman and no doubt there was another earlier grim-faced grandma. My own mother had a mother who hadn’t had great mothering even before her mother died young.

I had motherhood thrust upon me at an early age, by which I mean seven or eight. My first sibling needed a friendly face when I was that age. By the time, the second and third siblings arrived, I was getting the hang of it. Smile, sing, talk silly, get them the heck out of the kitchen when hell broke loose and it wasn’t clear which parent would survive. I had had that hill community and attached mothering from other mothers to draw on, but we had moved to town by the time the other three arrived. All they had was me. Oddly, they turned out well and one of them stayed married.

Blake was an only child in an industrial city with one grim grandma and another poverty-stricken grandmother with seven sons. Then he saw an airman crash to his death and got sent through Nazi u-boats to live with strangers.

Just before he died, he told me he was lucky to have had the love of good women. I did not say that there were certainly a lot of them. His choices went downhill as he aged and his last lady struck me as problematic for many reasons, not least of which was that she  slept on the couch for five years. Avoidant attachment.

We keep repeating those old patterns.