About joyceahowe/hood

Toronto mystery and memoir writer.

Nothing Arrived: day 64 of lockdown

 

Nothing Arrived: the Villagers (heard in season 2 of Big Little Lies

This blog post uses black humor and talks explicitly about death from covid-19. It may trigger some people, so give it a miss if you think you are one.

What day are you on?

Saying I’m on day 65 is actually inaccurate. I was stuck in all of February with persistent vertigo. I solved it at the beginning of March by taking the advice on my medication bottle. I stopped drinking. They weren’t fooling around about that. I stopped being dizzy and nauseated almost immediately. So this is actually day 93 of being house-bound and day 73 of my sobriety.

For a period of two weeks, I actually did as the leader of my province told us 70-year-old pluses and did not leave the house. That fell through when grocery delivery became impossible. And please! I failed to have enough children to get my groceries. The two I had either got out of town or might as well have. My sister had lured me to her neighborhood with the promise that she would look after me as I grew demented. In the meanwhile, she has aged. But thanks to the magic pill that must never be mixed with alcohol, I have got stronger. Once a week, I gird my loins, cover my nose and mouth and sally forth, bare-handed at the early senior hour to buy the necessaries of life.

I remember that the brave are not fearless. They just move through their terror.

I learned to be afraid of covid-19 by listening to reports from Italy where the octogenarian old dears were dropping like flies. If flies can experience drowning. The lucky ones got shot full of morphine, intubated, and hooked up to a ventilator. Every day the percentage of them dying grew until I stopped paying attention around 25%. What a way to go, you were rendered unconscious and in that state, you passed over, puzzled no doubt and in urgent need of the familiar soul on the other side.

No point, revisiting your mortal coil. You’d have to sort which of the many coffins in the church was you, or where exactly you were in the repurposed ice arena, or which refrigerated truck your body had been stacked in. If you were lucky. If not, you might have found your shell in an unrefrigerated back room or moving van.

This is not my idea of a good death. And yes, I understand it’s not like a good landing – any landing you can walk away from.

A good death involves a degree of consciousness at least initially. The protagonist has to have a clear idea of direction. Window dressing helps, a person or two bedside, holding a hand, smoothing a brow, reminiscing and laughing, reading a poem or even praying. Saying at just the right moment, “You can go now.”

And you’d have to make do with those on the other side who had come to greet you. Those you left behind had been ordered to leave you behind. And they wouldn’t even be gathered in a healing group to urge you lovingly on. Except virtually.

So I didn’t want that death. I wanted even less the DIY, at-home version drowning with fluid in my newly leathered lungs. And such a waste. My death probably wouldn’t even get counted.

Eventually, it came to me that most people my age who died were in long-term care. I am outraged and grief-stricken that society has not chosen to value these lives enough to save them.

I suppose I realized that about day 50 when I wondered just how that sneaky virus was going to get me. All I had to do was carry on like this, totally alone except for scuttling at a social distance into a grocery store, washing my hands 6 or 7 times a day, cleaning the door knobs and my cell phone.

It began to seem that I was likelier to die of anxiety or pop a stroke watching the leader of the free world or just fade away, not with a bang but a whimper out of sheer, utter boredom.

And so I started hearing “Nothing Arrived” in my head.

This is a catastrophe such as I never thought I’d see. Thought I’d seen mine in fact – the Nazi camps, the big bomb, terrorism, genocide. Moreover, this is a slow moving disaster. The morons who gather shoulder to shoulder in their state legislature or in Wisconsin bars or on beaches won’t get the disease for 3 days or even 2 weeks. Every day that number of deaths on the CNN screen goes up.

It’s not even my country. My country has had only 5000 deaths at this writing. But it is my daughter’s and my grandsons’ and my great grand daughters. We are an anxious family, so we are careful people. We may have to be driven out of our homes in late 2021. Talk about ‘Stand your ground’.

So I’m waiting for something, and something died. So I waited for nothing and nothing arrived. “My dear sweet nothing, let’s start anew. From here on in, it’s just me and you.”

“I guess it’s over. I guess it’s begun. It’s a loser’s table, but we’ve already won. It’s a funny battle. It’s a constant game. I guess I was busy when nothing came.”

 

Slow Time, Slow Horses: the Slough House spies

Fortunately, I trained early in the art of solitude. Until I was 5, I was an only child on a farm in the mountains of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Our land produced a reliable crop of stones every year, just enough hay to keep the cows going and a few hardy vegetables. Without electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing, I had only my imagination to entertain me. It has come in handy in the past two months.

I know the Covid-19 shut down has theoretically lasted only 5 weeks or so, but I was shut in by debilitating dizziness and nausea for most of February, so thank you early childhood.

Once we moved to town and I learned to read, I read everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much. It wasn’t until we moved to the city at the end of the war that I laid hands on library books. Then my ingrained solitary self could live happily in worlds populated by imaginary people.

For 2 1/2 months, I have lived surrounded by the slow horses, exiles from the British Secret Service (MI5), banished across the Thames to rundown Slough House in the hope that mind-numbing clerical work will force them to quit.

I discovered Mick Herron’s Slough House series when I searched the e-book catalogue of my local library for the Soho Mysteries. I had already read many of these books including the Cara Black mysteries set in Paris, David Downing’s set across Europe and South Asia and Dan Fesperson’s also European in setting.

Herron is English, an Oxford alumnus. He worked as an editor and never, he is quick to say as a spy, unlike many well-known spy novelists like Le Carre. As a result, he feels free to invent. His ‘slow horses’ are rejects from the MI5 head-quartered in Regent Park, London. Each of them has failed in their training or their service, some spectacularly, but, for one reason or another, cannot be fired outright.

River Cartwright, for example is the grandson of David Cartwright, fondly known as OB (Old Bastard) and formerly #2 in the Service. River ‘crashed’ King’s Cross subway station during the evening rush causing the entire system to shut down for hours. Theoretically. By failing to capture the ‘suicide terrorist’. In fact commuters carried on blissfully unaware of their fate. It was a training test.

Other insubstantial inhabitants of my 14th floor apartment included Bad Sam Chapman, disgraced head Dog (security) of the Service; alcoholic Catherine Standish, former assistant to #1, whose body she discovered, fighting her addiction a day at a time; Louisa Guy, the most competent of the lot; Min Harper, who left a top-secret disc on a subway seat; Roddy Ho, computer genius and social moron; Marcus Longridge, an inveterate gambler; J.K. Coe, PTSD victim who finds stress relief in killing people; Moira Tregorian, who has no idea why she has been sent there: Lech (Alec) Wicinski, who absolutely did not access child pornography on his work computer; Sid Baker -is she a plant and what really happens to her; Shirley Dander, cocaine addict and one-woman army and Jackson Lamb. Lamb drinks, smokes, and farts at his desk, never washes, and, generally breaks each and every politically correct convention there is going, inflicts pain and suffering on his staff, for he is indeed the head of Slough House. For his sins or possibly for his achievements. On the other hand, he will not suffer anyone one else to harm his joes.

A joe is an agent in the field. Slow horses are no longer permitted to mount ops, to undertake operations. They are to stick to their book work, their computer drudgery on their outdated equipment, but every so often an op is forced upon them by circumstances, when someone is intent on murdering Roddy Ho, for example, or someone kidnaps Catherine, or Min’s teenage son goes missing. The list goes on.

They are all inept, not a James Bond in the bunch. Quite a few of them get eliminated by their much more cunning adversaries. What they lack in effectiveness, they make up for in spirit. Some deaths are heroic, some are chance and some are just plain stupid. Even though they can’t stand each other in the office, they throw themselves bodily into the fray when a fellow slow horse is in danger. And Jackson Lamb, who often seems to be missing in action, is usually meeting Regent Park’s #1 or #2 with enough blackmail to protect his people from ‘friendly fire’. You may hear him snoring, but don’t assume he is sleeping on the job.

The books are mysteries, yes, but they are also funny, partly because of their absurdity but also because of their wit. Jackson Lamb dismisses Brexit, “I’ve read more convincing lies on the side of a bus.” And “Except the cold war didn’t end. It just hid behind closed doors like Trump in a tantrum.”

The series begins with Slow Horses, in which a kidnapped Muslim boy is due to be beheaded on-line. Dead Lions harks back to the Old Bastard’s glory days, a possibly mythical Soviet spy and a very long term sleeper cell. Real Tigers involves a para-military group coercing the slow horses into handing over secret information. Spook Street centers on River and his grandfather and a curious commune in France with children but no female residents. London Rules focuses on British politics and elucidates the rules of spydom there as opposed to Moscow rules; London rules include ‘Cover your arse’ and ‘Stick together until you can’t.’ Joe Country is a Brexit era novel with a character who may well be a pre-covid Boris Johnson, its thrilling final action set in wintry Wales. There are also several novellas, including The List -after Dead Lions, Nobody Walks -after it, The Drop before Joe Country and The Last Dead Letter after it as well as The Catch. These shorter works may refer to Slough House but center on other characters.

Herron has also written several novels featuring Zoe Boehm, a private detective, another down at the heels protagonist.

For a glossary of terms, characters and places used in the Slough House books see https:spywrite.com/2018/07/04mick-herron-slough-house, which would be particularly helpful if you read the books out of order.

 

 

Who Wants to Live?:

Who wants to live to be 103?
A 102-year-old.

My point of view is not unique, but it is not shared by a large percentage of the population, so I thought I would share it.

I am 84.

It was a struggle getting here but, considering that, you may wonder why I want to stay.

I suffered an extremely abusive childhood. I barely survived my sixth year. It led to years of mental anguish and much therapy to recover. A pattern that was continued in my adult children. I was divorced, enduring not only the loss of my beloved family, but also loss of financial prosperity. I have survived two different malignancies. Recently, I have helped my ex-husband as he passed painfully on and then I managed his estate. Finally, my life seemed to sail out into an open, calm sea with a following wind.

Then covid-19 appeared.

For weeks we have heard stories from Italy and just today from Spain about how stressed hospitals are triaging acutely ill patients. Older people are going to the back of the ventilator line. I have just watched a video of a Spanish doctor crying as he introduced the audio of another doctor, describing how patients older than 65 are being sedated. There are not enough ventilators. Of course, their families are not allowed to be there. Health care workers hold their hands as they suffocate.

As my ex-husband fell into unconsciousness last March, four of us sat beside his bed, talking to him and to each other, laughing even and surrounding him with love as he made his passage. Across the continent, his daughter supported him long distance.

I am 19 years over the cutoff of 65 years used in Spain.

I have changed my care directive. It already said ‘do not resuscitate’. Now it says that I opt not to be treated by ventilator if there is a shortage. Probably unnecessary, but it may help those who have to deny it to me.

But I am not ready as apparently Glen Beck, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, 69, is to die to raise the Dow Jones or the S&P average. Talk about volunteering to be cannon fodder. The economy, like the human spirit, has resources not dreamt of in his philosophy..

I’m lucky that my country, Canada, has a sane and thoughtful leader. He and his cabinet assure us that preparations for the surge of patients that is coming is being prepared for. I have now been in self-isolation for more than two weeks as have most people in my province. I had to go out for food last week. Stores let older people in an hour early. The first store was all but empty. There was a line to get into the second one, everyone six feet apart. I am being very strict with myself, even refusing to join my sister and niece for an at-home movie and pizza. I wash my hands like Lady Macbeth and clean my devices as I’m told.

Eighty-four-years that’s enough surely. Can’t ask for more.

Well, any extra are not going to be subtracted from your allotment. I’ve made that clear. And, surprisingly, where there’s life, there’s hope. Living things do not usually want to become non-living. Some people want badly to stop hurting and confuse that with not living, but the two are not the same.

So when you hear the news that’s supposed to cheer you up that covid-19 is fatal only for the immune-challenged and the elderly, don’t misunderstand. For one thing, young people, even infants and teenagers, have died of it. For the other, a great many of us have underlying health issues and some of us are old. Curiously, we still want to survive.

Yes, we are all afraid. And bored. And under-funded. And going stir-crazy. In that we are as one. Let us carry each other.

 

 

 

Waiting for the Bullet: Diary of a Dead Man on Leave

David Downing takes the title of his latest spy novel, Diary of a Dead Man on Leave from a Comintern expression roughly equivalent to the American saying “dead man walking”, which describes a prisoner condemned to death. Spies for the Soviet Union expected to be eliminated eventually, often by their own side.

Josef, the narrator of the diary is a German national, returned from South America to Hamm, Germany to foment revolution there. He has seen the inside of prison in his previous assignment, but in Hitler’s Germany in 1938, prison is the least of his worries. Any Germans with communist ideas have learned to keep their head down or even to espouse the ideals of the fascist German Social Democracy party, which Hitler heads.

It seemed appropriate that my library hold on this ebook should come through in the first week of March 2020, given the news.

In this winter of my 84th year I have been battling chronic pain in the first place and the side effects of the medication that alleviated it in the second. Briefly, the meds worked brilliantly, except they made me seasick. I staggered about, trying not to throw up, but reluctant to quit them because of their good effect.

At the same time, news of the novel corona virus came at me from every direction. I live in Toronto, where SARs made itself at home in 2002-3 and I knew people affected. The good news being touted was that Covid-19 was not as deadly as SARs. The other good news was that it could be mild, didn’t seem to affect children and most of the people who died were elderly.

Just a minute – that’s me.

The average age of those who have died at this date is 80. Those over 80 have over a 20.5% chance of dying from it, according to WHO’s February figures. I tried to put that in perspective. Twenty of one hundred 80-year-olds who caught it died. The other one presumably became a zombie. No, no, stupid, you have to think in terms of 200. Forty one of them died. Okay. Got it.

Well, should I even bother hoarding toilet paper. The average age of those hospitalized was 60. I’d be carted out of here snappish at that rate. No problem. My apartment door is opposite the elevators. No troublesome narrow staircase.

So that’s settled. Someone else can raid my pantry in their desperation to survive the quarantine.

Like Josef, all I can do is wait for the bullet, comforted by the fact that if it’s my bullet, someone else will be spared.

I had a brief flirtation with Communist ideology in my youth, mostly to annoy Joe McCarthy, the U.S. senator who was persecuting liberal Americans. Never mind that I was Canadian. I cheered when Castro ‘liberated’ Cuba, the day that I was married. Got over that pretty fast, certainly by the fall of 1962 when the Soviets seemed bent on blowing up my babies.

Spy-wise, Josef’s return to Germany, is not a success.The first sign is that he decides to keep a diary: spies should never commit anything to paper. He has found a room in a boarding house run by a widow, Anna, who has a 12-year-old son, Walter. Walter is trying to navigate his way through school assignments, which require him to support Nazi ideas and policies and he turns to Josef for help. It is this unexpected human need that prompts Josef to start his journal.

At that time -the summer and fall of 1938 – Hitler is laying the groundwork for the annexation of Sudetenland, the “Germanic” part of Czechoslovakia. It looks as if he will gobble up the whole country. Probably he delays because, despite the armament he has built, his railway infrastructure is not yet up to the job. Josef knows this because he works on scheduling trains. Czechoslovakia will be annexed entirely in March 1939, but it will take the invasion of Poland for the Allies to declare war. The main narrative of the diary ends before that.

There are four boarders in Anna’s house, avid followers of the news. One of them Rushay delightedly recites newspaper accounts of  the latest Nazi  ‘achievements’ at the breakfast table. He is not the only boarder who is in love with Anna, but he is the most persistent.

Reading these scenes is like watching CNN today, leadership indulging in half-truths, self aggrandizement, unapologetic disregard for facts and downright lies.

David Downing lives in England with his American wife. And yes, they do get CNN across the pond. My Belgian brother gets a head start on us because he gets up six hours earlier and sometimes wakes me up with outrages I don’t yet know about. I have explained to him that my medication is supposed to be calming my nerves, which are otherwise set on maximum alert, that I don’t watch the news anymore.

Addicts lie, but you knew that.

Diary of a Dead Man on Leave alludes to the ever worsening persecution of the Jews and concentration camps, but it dramatizes the persecution of Walter’s African-German school friend, Marco, who gets called a Rhineland bastard. He was conceived there at the end of WW I and his father, who loved his mother, was shipped home, not knowing about the conception.

Josef lives in expectation of recall to Moscow and the bullet that will probably await him. He is not sure he will answer the summons when it comes and meanwhile, Anna’s family needs him more and more.

He has always put his ideals before individual needs. The good of the whole and all that. How much of conscience should be sacrificed for pragmatic personal reasons?

Like many others, I would be better off today if I had been more pragmatic and morally flexible, but I chose to defy that logic. The same defiance that brought me here leads me to say the Covid-19 bullet is not for me.

If I am wrong, it doesn’t matter.

Ah Josef, this life is a school after all.

 

 

Motherless six-year-old looks at the World in 2020

The 13th century poet, Rumi asked, “Who looks out with my eyes?” Lately, it has been my 6-year-old self.

When I was 6, a bad thing happened and I nearly died. I was hurt bad physically, but much more deeply in my heart and my soul. For a while, I was drifting away until the loving care of my Aunt Mae pulled me back and healed me up with nothing more than a few herbs, a tin bath tub and raspberry pie.

By the time, I returned home, I had no memory of what had happened. Mae had taught me to put the pain away in the inner-most doll of a series of Russian dolls. And under her care, I learned to read the whole of the first Dick and Jane book and add numbers all the way to 10. I had missed almost the entire month of September, but I was way ahead of the other kids. On the December report card, I came first.

I didn’t work my way down to that innermost Russian doll for 60 years. Only then did I learn her story.

For over twenty years now I have had to return to that child and try to address her despair and depression. It hasn’t worked very well. There are dolls around my house and teddy bears, a child’s rocking chair and certainly, I have catered to her love of reading. One of my best friends is my younger sister, whose newborn croup figured significantly in the ‘bad thing’. But the 6-year-old, let’s call her Jo as her maternal grandfather did, has been subject to what is best explained by the old spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/ a long way from home, dear Lord/ a long way from home”. (See my memoir Never Tell  at joycehowe.com

Naturally, she has sought to attach herself to substitute mothers, and to feel equally abandoned when these people didn’t do the job. One of these has recently pointed out that I have within me the power to deal with Jo and her insatiable needs myself. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse – not that I didn’t want to.

So I began the tearful task of confronting Jo’s feelings head-on. (I have described this process.)    https://115journals.com/?s=the+cure+for+pain

I thought twice a day meditations on the trauma would fix things pretty quick. On the 4th day, I felt sufficiently together to go to the grocery store. Rude awakening. Jo was so depressed I could barely concentrate. I weighed a bag of mushrooms at the self-check-out and put in the code for whole wheat dinner rolls. I tried to walk out without paying for 2 gallon jugs of spring water. The friendly helper finally decided I was just dotty not larcenous. I unloaded my groceries into the car’s trunk and sat in the driver’s seat getting a grip.

At home, I decided that little Jo needed more conversation, so I started to talk to her – in my head, I hasten to say.

Now Jo belongs to an earlier time, September 1942 to be precise – when things weren’t going well in the war. It was not at all clear that Hitler wouldn’t win and send his bad men knocking on our door even in the province of Quebec in Canada. Children knew as much about the war as the CBC was permitted to tell us while we ate our dinner at noon and we understood how dire things were because we eavesdropped on adults in the time- honoured childhood way. That’s not to mention the school propaganda campaign that had us dragging in carts of glass bottles, tin cans, newspaper and stinky leftover fat to win the war.

Moreover, we were not only poor, we were rationed. Butter, eggs, lard, sugar and even molasses, the stalwart nutrients of any poor family were hard to come by.

As a result of this background Jo burst onto the scene full of -not grief – but wonder and curiosity. I spent a whole evening explaining – in my head. Her daddy had told her about the fact that after the war, radio would have pictures. She hadn’t believed him, but seeing it was not surprising. She had seen a refrigerator in the house across the street, but could I make ice cream like our neighbour. It was an exciting evening. Jo just would not calm down. In between these lessons, I reminded her that I was a big person now and I was her mommy. I didn’t choose to watch anything scary on television, but I did have to sing three verses of Amazing Grace. She was disappointed that my voice had got old, but it improved on the third rendition.

Today, she is quieter, but I know she isn’t going to let me bury her back inside that Russian doll and I can feel her looking out of my eyes.

Who Says Words with My Mouth

Who looks out with my eyes? What is
the soul? I cannot stop asking.

If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.

I didn’t come here of my own accord,
and I can’t leave that way.

Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

Rumi trans. Coleman Barks. The Book of Love p. 57

 

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.