Let It Be: contradiction to despair #9

Aslan, the Lion, turned up at crucial points in CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe books. Once He chased after Lucy, one of the child heroes, who was riding on a horse across a desert and nipped her bottom because she wasn’t getting the job done.

Today Aslan has been gnawing on my inards. Well, he’s sent other messages, which I’ve ignored. This one is not to be ignored. I have to change my ways.

One of the messages appeared on a tiny sand beach on Lake of Bays in Muskoka. I found it when I went to look for the puppy. He had been quiet too long. Any mother knows that is a danger sign. He is a sheep dog mostly beige with brown and tan and black markings and white legs. I found him in front of a Muskoka chair, dug well into the sand, sound asleep, almost invisible. He had dug the hole while he waited for his human, a 13-year-old girl, to come back on her kayak. She was taking too long and he had fallen asleep on his watch.

Back in the cottage, I found a 6-year-old girl in a red sundress asleep on the couch, her thumb in her mouth. Too much sun.

Upstairs, I gazed out my bedroom window at the maple woods, rising to the ridge above the lake. Last evening, it had been lashed by heavy rain. I had cranked the window open to hear the rush and fall of the water. Surely, there is no greater pleasure than to be safe and dry with a good book during a summer storm.

There were 11 of us at the cottage, my sister, Georgia’s family, four generations. The oldest was 82, the youngest 4, teenagers, mother, grand parents and Georgia, great grandmother. I’m aunty. There are many delights to be had while playing aunty. Being bed-crashed by a 4-year-old who calls you “Poopyhead” with great glee, being overwhelmed by a full description of family ancestry by a solitary breakfast companion, sitting by a campfire with a man who loves to build one and took it upon himself to know when the fire ban was lifted (cf heavy rain).

It was a family, so there were also sulks, parental irritation, crying jags, defiance, sudden loud explosions of joy, differences of opinions and mild panic over wandering dogs. There was to Georgia’s delight much book reading and some discussion.

There were DVDs but no television. One cell phone and computer were called into play for work, but not for long. I made one phone call. Well, two if you count the one my phone made on its own as it charged up. It was 4 a.m. in Brussels, but there was my brother sitting up in bed.

Aslan is on my case because of the other call. If you going to call someone to help them out, and let yourself get drawn in, you are not doing the job.

Worry was the problem. Apprehension about a negative outcome. How effective is worry? Can it change outcomes?

I have conducted this experiment countless times in my long life, and I can reliably report that worrying has never altered any outcome in the smallest way. It has had considerable effect on the present, however, and not a good one.

The alternative is awful.

Letting go. “Let go and let God”, so speaketh the fridge magnet. Which is fine if you have a fridge magnet’s faith. “Let it be” as John Lennon’s mother Mary told him. (No points for knowing how that turned out.) “Whatever will be, will be,” as the old song says. “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Just goes to show that I’m not in charge.

Isn’t that the point?

 

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Hope: contradiction to despair #7

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings…

Emily Dickensen

It took me a while to find this poem because I thought it said, Hope is a thing with a broken wing. A Freudian slip to be sure.

I started thinking about hope when Ian Tyson’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow came up on shuffle as I pulled into the No Frills parking lot. I first heard that song at age 6 when I saw The Wizard of Oz in 1942.

We Quebec children were not usually permitted to go to movies, ostensibly because of a fatal movie theater fire, but more likely because the Catholic Church held sway over the province’s morals and saw movies as corrupt. An exception must have been made in this case.

I was already enthralled by the black and white footage of the coming storm when Dorothy arrived in the Land of Oz and things burst into color. And then the music began.

I had found my answer.

The tornado of my home life offered no escape, no shelter. The cellar was just another place of danger. But now I knew that over the rainbow, there was hope and someday, like the bluebird, I would fly there.

It worked. More or less.

Much later, I learned that those who had five or even ten year goals were more likely to be happy and successful. At crucial points in my career, my personal life and my health care, I was asked about such goals. In other words, ‘Articulate your hopes.’ My instant response was “Beats me’, but, of course, I repressed that and made shit up.

So now I am old, not old old. I won’t be old old for 7 or 8 years, not even middle old, which I will be in 3 years. But old nevertheless. What are the possible goals of a hopeful 82-year-old? My immediate response, ‘Living to be 83’.

Until recently, I harbored a broken-winged hope that the world was evolving and becoming a better place, little by little. And that I had played a part in that.

Look what happened.

Now I’m reduced to the idea that life on this planet of pain is pendulum in nature – two steps forward, one step back. Or is it the other way around?

Really, this blog post is falsely advertised. It’s the old bait and switch. I have no faith that there is hope nor that it contradicts despair. In fact, hope of the over-the-rainbow kind is too broken to hold in hand. Yet I get up, stand up and go on, with no expectation of reward. Is it from some old hopeful habit or just an obstinate refusal to give in?

Wishful metaphors make fine poetry, but hope is a 4-letter word – patient, resolute, strong and defiant in the face of darkness.

 

 

 

Wine, Women and Song: contradiction to despair #6

So Apollo and Bacchus walked into a bar….

Well, actually, I walked into a bar. I was fleeing despair.

This particular stumble into the abyss was occasioned by a lost load of laundry. I hadn’t realized it was lost for a week. When I inquired about Lost and Found, I discovered my apartment building didn’t have one, but I might find my clothes in the laundry room garbage container. That’s where they were, down at the bottom of a bin big enough to hide my entire body. And half full of lint, empty detergent bottles and other nasty bits. I leaned in and liberated the garments, one by one, bare-handed.

I have owned three washers in my life and just as many dryers, I suppose. No longer. Another proof that I can not now count myself among the middle class. So what? So – the lower classes live at the behest of others, especially landlords and their agents, the dreaded resident Superintendent couple.

So I took myself to Shoeless Joe’s, my local franchised watering hole. I ordered a glass of white and a burger with salad, and opened Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. A certain kind of poetry can bring me out of a funk if I persist at it. Leonard published this book in 2007 after he came down from Mount Baldi and gave up his munkish pursuit of enlightenment. Around this time, he discovered he had been robbed blind, although I doubt he found himself losing a load of wash in a laundry room. Or failing to realize that for a week.

So Apollo, Greek God of poetry sat beside me, in the guise of my friend Leonard. (See https://115journals.com/2018/03/08/leonard-and-i/ ‎) A dear friend had bought me this book at Shakespeare and Company across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I started reading again from the beginning.

When I drink
the $300 scotch
with Roshi
it quenches every thirst
a woman lies down with me

A high-pitched shriek breaks in. It is a sports bar. The world cup of soccer, FIFA, is happening in Europe. No, all visible screens are showing golf – a guy putting a ball not very close to a hole. A NASCAR interview. What must be a hockey replay.

I try another poem:

You’d sing too
if you found yourself
in a place like this
….

Several screams of delight, not all female. The bar itself is rectangular. I am sitting at a two-person booth at one corner. The screamers must have their backs to me. Suddenly, a woman in a tight white dress showing a lot of back skin, throws both arms straight up and utters another bacchanalian shout of joy. What!!! She turns and throws her arms around the guy on her right, kisses his neck and says, “I love you.”

My food arrives. I let the book fall shut as I begin to eat. I observe the crowd. On the left of the woman is a thin man in his late 50s with a moustache. Beside him is a First Nations fellow wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt, sleeves cut to show off his muscles and tats. Closer to me is another thin, late 50s man with a grey moustache, who could be a twin to the one on the left. Around the corner is a guy, who doesn’t look like the shrieking type with his buxom lady. There are 3 or 4 more, apparently all part of the same constellation.

No one is watching television, yet every so often one or another erupts in a shriek, although only the woman in white throws up her arms in true I’m-having-a-G.D.-good-time fashion. When she does, she shows off her little pot belly.

I’m a proponent of non-age-appropriate clothes. At my advanced age, I am wearing an Alice-in-Wonderland straw hat. In a bar. Wear what you can get away with. This girl is pushing the limit, sartorially and otherwise.

It is a fluid group. Women go out to the patio, leaving their purses hanging on the back of the bar stools. Guys wander over to other guys, clasp them in fond embraces, assure each other of their love and exchange neck smooches.

Wait a minute! I’m in Meadowvale. I am in one of the squarest suburbs in the square city of Mississauga on the western edge of Toronto, which is not square only on Pride Weekend, which has come and gone.

The non-shrieking guy collects one of the abandoned purses and hangs it over his own shoulder. The woman in white sails in from the patio and spots a pair pushing a wheelchair-bound newcomer. Screaming in delight. she stands so close to me that we are almost touching. All four catch up at the top of their lungs.

I pick up my book and my tumbler of Chardonnay.

Slipping down into the pure land
into the Awakened State of Drunk
into the furnace blue Heart of the
one one one true Allah the Beloved
Companion of Dangerous Moods

“How is everything?” the tattooed waitress, with the extremely interesting cleavage, asks.

“Fine,” I reply, with only a slight eye roll. I set to on the salad.

They are still singing down at Dusko’s
sitting under the ancient pine tree,
in the deep night of fixed and falling stars.
If you go to your window you can hear them.
It is the end of someone’s wedding,
or perhaps a boy is leaving on a boat in the morning.

Cohen wrote this in 1967 on one of his Greek islands. I didn’t follow him to Greece for 7 years, and, even so, I didn’t get to the islands. Still I have heard singing on a beach across the gulf from Delphi. And eaten the small fish fresh from the sea. And found unsuitable love.

“Everything good?” asks the male manager.

“Yes,” I reply. “Everything is good.”

Bacchus, god of wine, wild reckless leader-astray of besotted followers has just paid a tangential visit to help his bro Apollo lift this despondent old girl out of her misery.

 

 

 

 

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Joy: contradicting despair #1

Infant Joy

I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!
Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.
I have been reliably told that I spent the first months of my life crying inconsolably, and yet, I was called Joy. I was Joy for many years, unsuitable name though it was, until the people who called me that were gone, and I became Joyce. Even my children and grandchildren call me Joyce. I don’t complain. It is my baptized name after all, but I liked being called Joy. It reminded me that joy existed.
Just today, I got short video texted to my phone, which showed my 14-month-old great granddaughter rising to her feet, free-style with no support, and setting off to walk toward her joyful mother’s out-stretched arms, moving with sure speed toward laughter.
Joy is not contentment, nor even happiness. Dwelling in joy sounds challenging. Ancient Chinese medicine warned that excessive joy damages the heart. We are told that winning the lottery is a stressful experience, for example, and can lead to negative outcomes.
I have known only one person who came anywhere near dwelling in joy. That was my Aunt Mae. I didn’t see her often because I lived hundreds of miles away from her, but when I went back to visit my grandmother, I always walked to Mae’s tiny house under the mountain. The last time, I did so, I was with someone, my sister perhaps. As we neared the little porch, we could hear her singing. She had always had a dreadful voice and she was belting out, Jesus Loves Me at the top of it. It took a while for our knock to penetrate her ecstatic hymn. Then she threw open the door and cried out with such welcoming love that you would have thought Jesus himself had come to see her.
Mae had seen many dreadful things in her life and suffered poverty and abuse. I had watched her grieve enough to finish off most people, but now in her old age with legs like stove pipes and the agony of a declining body, she was joyful.
When I think of her, I can’t decide whether she was a saint or senile, an old fool, she would have called herself.
I propose to continue my contradiction by looking at ecstasy, contentment and happiness in future posts in order to set them against the deep and abiding depression that I share with several others in my life.

On Turning 82

This was my thirtieth year to heaven, Dylan Thomas wrote in 1944 in his lyrical and joyful way. I was 30 when I fell in love with that line. That was a good year for me, 1967. It was the year we moved our young family to the house under the hill, where pheasants called in the copse above, where we planted rock gardens and shrub gardens and put up a martin house and built a dry stone wall around a pool. It was the year I got a job as assistant English head at the school down the street, where my husband was head of math. It was the year Canada turned 100. Everything was going to be fine.

Of course I knew that the poet had one last – joyful, I hope – alcoholic binge one November day in 1954 and never got to write This is my fortieth year to heaven, I also knew that he had admonished us not to go gentle into that good night, but to rage against the dying of the light. It seems as if Thomas had an ambivalent attitude to death. Or life. Like many of us.

This is my eighty second year to heaven. Too late to scan. I should have written this two years ago.

I want to say I never expected to live this long and then impress you with all the reasons why: murderous parents, malignancy, suicidal inclination, but it is truer to say I never intended to live this long. At least, the conscious part of me, presumably the part that writes, did not intend to.

I intended to get my siblings to live into adulthood. Then having recklessly brought two more souls into the world, I wanted to do the same for them. So forty two?

That brought me to 1978 and a dark time when I bought only the smallest quantities of pain killers and never looked at bridge abutments on the highway. The next thing I knew a persistent vision of a grandchild called me back. Another generation to get through childhood.

Would you believe that now there is yet another? I’m not in the front line any more, of course, and this little girl is a merry soul who faces no immediate threat.

Except the world as we know it.

My belief is that the real me always intended to grow old, She kept it a secret from me because I couldn’t deal with longevity. She was right.

This week, I did the driver retest mandated for the elderly here in my jurisdiction. It involved sitting in a room of mostly little, old people who found drawing a clock showing ten after eleven a challenge. The instructor pleaded with us to make a list of alternatives to driving which we would shortly have to use. As I merged into rush hour traffic at 100 k. an hour on the busiest highway in North America without breaking a sweat, I thought perhaps the rumor of my decline was premature.

Here’s what I loved: babies, apple orchards, cherry trees in blossom, the full moon over the Tioga Pass, the beach on the Gulf of Corinth, a bunch of pre-schoolers crazy playing by themselves, a teen-aged boy of a Raleigh Racer, his older self in a racing green MGB, the bridge on the Seine near Notre Dame, mountains, pine trees, blue birds, coming about on a sailboat in a good wind, a feather bed, a kite straining at its leash high above Myrtle Beach, mockingbirds, the trade wind through an open window at 2 p.m. on Maui, orange blossoms scented from high on a wall in Morocco, Venus seen from a farmhouse veranda, a brook running with thaw melt, bells rung for victory, the Warsaw Concerto, a big, old Gardenia tree, an enormous date palm, a bench in Bois Fort, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sterling silver, barn owls, swallows, hawks. I have to stop here. There’s a party.

 

 

Three Day Blow: CO or not CO

halfwaybetweenthegutter.wordpress.com

So we had this storm. It was hyped daily as it approached: heavy rain, ice pellets, freezing rain, snow and very high winds – ergo – power outages.

I don’t listen to the news, except about Trump, but everyone told me, even strangers in the elevator. I got in provisions. I checked the lantern’s batteries. Good to go. Or not go really. I’d hunker down inside out of respect for my old bones.

As the storm began, I was woken by a beeping alarm. I stood in little hallway where the CO alarm and the smoke detector were mounted, cheek by jowl, so to speak. No further information was forthcoming.

The next time I woke up,I had a headache or rather something inside my head was trying to get out though the top. Two swords were drilling into the bones there. I sat on the edge of the bed. Dizzy, nauseated. Action!

I opened the bedroom window, the outside right slider, the inside left. Air could get in, but not whatever was falling and hammering at the glass.

I turned on the exhaust fans, opened the other windows, tried to eat toast, drank water and tea, and went back to bed.

A little after noon, I woke up again. Beep. Pause. Long pause. Oh that’s okay. Beep. Long pause. Again I stood in that five foot long hallway, open on the east to the living room, with three other doors and great potential for echoes. Nothing. Except head pain.

I went to the fridge to read that all important magnet. I raised my right arm, then my left. I said, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickles peppers, Peter picked a peck of pickled…” I looked in the hall mirror. No mouth droop. No numbness. Lack of strength? Well, all I wanted to do was lie down. I turned to the stove and hefted the iron fry-pan. Okay, there. Was it the worst headache ever? No, actually, it was the second worst. The worst was over twenty years ago, and just as I was about to call an ambulance, it stopped.

What to do?

At that moment, 1 p.m., the alarm beeped 4 times in a row. I rushed back. Nothing.

I phoned Georgia. If you have a daughter, phone her. Mine was way far away. My sister listened to me as I enumerated the stroke signs.

“Which alarm is it?” she asked.

“I can’t say. It’s like a watched pot. It only sounds when I’m in another room.”

“Remember Daniel,” she said.

Daniel was my son, to whom I had given a carbon monoxide alarm for his birthday, one February. I was apologetic about it. It seemed to show a lack of imagination. A few weeks later, a hornlike noise woke him up. ”

“Stupid thing,” he said, unplugging it and throwing it across the room. He went back to bed, but just as a deep and permanent sleep began to claim him, he leapt back up, threw open every window, and rushed upstairs to wake the other two tenants. By the time, they were at their doors muttering, “What the hell?”, he had turned off the furnace. The furnace had last been cleaned 12 years before, it turned out. It also turned out that the girl on the second floor was the landlord’s step-daughter.

I called the resident manager, the superintendent. He was not pleased. We had had a round about a beeping alarm a few weeks before when I had awoken to smell someone else’s fire place. As did the alarm.

By now, my head was pounding so badly I couldn’t think and I was slurring my words. Super was not best pleased. He reset the CO alarm and turned to go.

“That’s not going to work,” I began as I flopped onto the couch.

“All right, all right, I’ll take it to the office to monitor it. Like I did last time….”

“Not going to work,” I said. “It won’t beep there.”

Things escalated. “I’m really ill,” I kept saying, but he just talked over me.

“And if you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

I found myself weeping head-down at the table. Apparently, this was the desired effect since he was still telling me to leave as he closed the door.

“Phone his boss,” said Georgia.

“He is the boss,” I replied.

“No he isn’t.”

“It’s Saturday, and there’s a new management company…”

“Have you met his wife?” she said. ” She’s the boss.”

I phoned his boss.

The lady super could have been vice-principal in a middle school. Indeed, she could have been the head warden in a maximum security prison, but she arrived the image of our Lady of Mercy. She sat down, took my hands, told me amusing tales of exasperating tenants, there was a hug in there somewhere. Anyway her husband said that to all the tenants. And she laughed, lightly.

“But I’m sick,” I said. “I think I need to go to a walk-in clinic. Maybe I have carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“Can you drive?” she wanted to know.

Clearly not. I could barely stand.

“Have you looked outside?” Georgia said. “I can’t go out in that. Open more windows.”

And she had a garage. She didn’t even have to scrape her windshield. Still from the 14th floor, I could see a car in a snowbank and the blue flashers of its rescuers. And no other movement, except whatever evil mixture was lashing diagonally in from the north-east.

As the afternoon wore on and the weather got worse -was this when the ice started building up on my windows? My head pain went down from 10/10 to 6/10. I was able to eat toast and even watch television. The wind was howling in under the door to the corridor and wrenching at the frames of the windows.

At 6 p.m., the beeps started up again. I reported this to Our Lady of Mercy, by phone.  At 9 p.m. beeps erupted from two directions, from the smoke alarm beside the bathroom door and the CO alarm, mine own, I had plugged in, in the kitchen as a stop gap. I unplugged the CO alarm. The Lady Super had put in the 12 Volt battery for me, but had not put on the cover. By now I was able actually to think. I put the cover on. The alarm sat silent.

REplying to my phone call, Mr. Super said he would be up in the morning to take down the smoke alarm, It was now beeping every twenty seconds. I thought I had read this was a ‘nuisance alarm’, but I wasn’t sure. I had spent the evening downloading user manuals. I closed the bedroom door, took a mg of Lorazepam and checked the windows. The outside slider was frozen in place. I turned up the electric base board heater, added a heavy wool blanket and slept like a log.

Next morning, Mr. Super  put back the CO alarm and removed the smoke alarm, all the while saying he had told me from the beginning it was a malfunctioning smoke alarm. Maybe so. It wasn’t the part I remembered.

“We have to order a new one. These are time sensitive.”

“Me too,” I thought.

Monday, the schools were closed, but only snow fell. I could see my iced up red Yaris in the parking lot. It wasn’t going anywhere.

Tuesday, I hauled my dirty clothes down to the laundry and set my iPhone timer. Thirty minutes later, two loads were ready to dry while one sat deep in water. An error message was flashing. Thank God, the assistant supers were on duty. Blissfully unaware of my unsuitability as a tenant, one of them climbed up on top of the washer and reached way down to unplug it. This was supposed to cause the water to drain. It didn’t, but it did unlock the door. I sloshed the soaking wet clothes into another washer, paid again and put newspaper down on the wet floor.

Around dinner time, I caught a bad smell in the bedroom. The carpet felt damp. Using two screw drivers, I reefed up the rug. The under padding squelched when I pressed down. It was clear that somehow water had got in at the floor line.

I lost it. How could I face yet another emergency call to the office. Georgia told me to buck up.

Fifteen minutes later assistant guy super showed up with a shop vac.

“Happened upstairs too,” he said as he got to work.

“Just keep the heat on high,” he added, as he left. Smiling kindly.

I had emailed my distant son who had once been a gas fitter. He did some research and got back to me, telling me how to get in touch with the gas inspector for my building and ruminating about how the 25 separate fire place chimneys that vented on the roof could react to such unusual weather. He talked about glass fronts being available but not effective.

Bad word! Bad word! I said to myself

The fire place damper had been open throughout!

Moral of the story: I may or may not have had a migraine brought on by low pressure. The alarms may or may not have actually been signalling danger. It may or may not be a good idea if you are a resident super to assume an alarm is a malfunction. It is definitely not a good idea to piss off an ex-high school teacher with an ex-middle school teacher for a sister. Next time – the full teacher voice in stereo – way worse than a resident super voice!

 

 

 

Leonard and I

Leonard and I were both born in Canada’s province of Quebec. He arrived, in this incarnation, on the autumn equinox of 1934, in the well-to-do Montreal suburb of Westmount. He was almost 2 when I was born in poverty in the wooded hills of the Eastern Townships.

He said he was “the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. Jesus was the only Jew I met until I was 12. He wrote me love songs, although we never met. He never did bring “my groceries in”. If I didn’t drag them in myself, an athletic mathematician did, a man quite unlike Leonard. Since loving me mandated at least tolerating poetry, Mr. Math learned to. He even wrote me a poem once, and was willing enough to go to Greece because Leonard had made me love it from afar.

Leonard, with a poet’s intuition, passed in his sleep after a fall on the night of Nov. 7th, the day before Donald Trump was elected president of Leonard’s adopted country. He had proclaimed earlier that “Democracy was coming to the USA”. I’m not saying he was wrong, just that his prediction may have been more complicated than it seemed.

Besides being born Quebec-ers (although not Quebecois), we shared an enduring depression. Leonard indicated later he had defeated it by becoming a Zen monk for five years. Kudos to him. My own excursion into Taoism did not prove as efficacious. I hope that Buddhism enabled him not to rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: the loss of his wealth to a larcenous business manager, the necessity to start touring again in his 70’s, the ‘unbearable’ pain of leukemia, and the inevitable losses of old age.

Personally, I am bitching mad at old age. I don’t have unbearable pain or a deadly disease (so far as I know). Of course, I don’t have Leonard’s companions either. He said the ladies had been very kind to him in his old age. Recently, two of the major problems in my immediate family have been resolved, I have published my mystery Hour of the Hawk, (joycehowe.com) I have a secure if modest income and a warm, safe place to live.The problem is that being pissed off actually makes my health problems worse.

I had a grandmother who lived to be 96, but apparently I learned nothing from her role model.

So I put in my earbuds and listen to Back on Boogie Street – not his own song but Sharon Robinson’s; he sings backup. I’m still on Booogie St. Got to market this book. Got to keep my head straight. Got to drag the groceries up to my tower of .. whatever. Coming up to 82, could l have my Nanny’s long-lived genes? Then I listen to ‘Hallelujah’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEWqDE20O3U
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrLk4vdY28Q

Youth and beauty and ecstasy are not lost. They are there, ingrained, embedded, as alive in me as any mournful loss.

Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

In my last post, ‘Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection’, I related J.D. Vance’s experience in a family from a Kentucky holler transplanted to an Ohio steel town, to my own. We left the Hill in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to come to a steel town in Ontario.

I pointed out that an elegy is a lament for the dead. But, honestly, who could lament the passing of a class of such people, prone to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of ambition, despair and, finally, sloth?

The short answer is me.

After I posted the article, I began to feel very sad. Was it just the mountain I missed, the sunny open hay fields, the granite and the slate, the noisy trout streams and the deep, sighing woods? Surely it could not be the macho male culture.

My young uncles, younger than me were my playmates initially. There was a young aunt too. Together we four, armed with sandwiches and a wire handled bottle of spring water, would hike off to the nearest brook to cool off. We jumped in the hay mow together, played ‘Kick the Can’ and held country music fests on the roof of the garage. Their father, my maternal grandfather, would sit with us on the porch as evening gathered, and point out Venus. He called the porch the ‘piazza’ to make us laugh.

Ostensibly, it was a teetotal society. Beer and booze in general were spoken of in whispers.

Because, at the time, I was my father’s only child, I got a glimpse into the hidden side of our community, quite unlike the church yard where the ladies stooped as the minister arrived in case their dresses were too short.

In this other world, the backwoods camps, there was plenty of hooch made by my great grandfather and served in bean cans. Rinsed at least once. The latest kill, in or out of season, would be on display. There would be much laughter at jokes I couldn’t really understand, and bad language.

Eventually, my young uncles’ voices got deeper and rougher. They left school at the end of grade seven and began hard labor in their early teens.

When my husband and I, with professional careers and two children, went back to the hill for Christmas, the ‘boys’ took my citified husband off to such a camp on snow mobiles. They didn’t come back that night. I was, of course, frantic. They had got him roaring drunk, a familiar and manageable state for them. In the morning out hunting, they handed my husband a rifle and dared him to shoot a ground hog sitting on a stump. He shot it through the eye and never forgave himself. (Either that or Hitler turned him into a really annoying pacifist.)

What’s not to love?

On the other hand, there was the Guild. The women met in the church hall, a splendid structure with an art noveau interior, a curtained stage and a kitchen. The dances that were held there were a kind of bacchanalia for us kids. The Guild meetings were more sedate. Perhaps we played with the crayons and paper from the Sunday School room in the church. The women sat in a circle and conducted business, usually about projects they were undertaking. Then they got on with the quilt they were piecing together to raffle off, or they  took up their knitting, grey wool socks for the soldiers after 1939.

There was tea and home baking – cookies, squares, even a frosted cake. Not the luxurious spread of the oyster suppers or chicken dinners that ended with a glut of pie, but sugar nonetheless. Or some syrup substitute as rationing came in.

At the dances, the men would filter outside while the fiddle and the piano played South of the Border, Down Mexico Way. What went on out there, besides laughing and smoking was ignored, although female noses turned up at some of the returnees.

Guild meetings were altogether safer. For a year, I was the only baby on the Hill. I would have been adored by all those baby-loving women even if I were ugly. They led me to believe I was not. I remember lying on the edge of the stage being fitted into my snowsuit, while Maude, my mother’s cousin, or Mae, a great aunt on one side and step great grandma on the other, dressed me while singing Bye Baby Bunting. They called a snow suit a bunting bag. According to the song my daddy was out killing a rabbit to make me one.

In short, at Guild meetings, I floated in a sea of love, and this, Aunt Mae and Maude would teach me in Sunday School, was the love of God, ‘which passeth understanding’.

Still float there! I know, I know. Just hard to remember in the face of old age, distance from loved ones and even alienation. But that early grounding enabled me to continue the creation of something beautiful, not just my family, my extended family, my beautiful newly published book, but my own self.

So thank God for hillbillies!

Hour of the Hawkjoycehowe.com

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crying Chair

This is the crying chair. It sits in my entrance way on a tiled floor. Good rocking there and tissues at the ready.

I saw it first at Christmas 1960 when I dragged my extremely pregnant body upstairs to my mother-in-law’s attic. She was storing it for a friend, but I could have it to rock the baby, temporary loan.

It was cream colored then. At some point, my husband painted it antique green. (When was the era of antiquing?) During a desperate teachers’ strike, our house became the place for coffee break. Deep winter. Constant arguing. Months of poverty. My two children unschooled as well, of course. To avoid insanity, I carried it down to the basement and stripped the paint off and oiled it. I loved the chair. It saved me.

I rocked my large self in it through most of a dark January 1961. When she arrived, my daughter, like her mother before her, cried. If she had cried for Canada, she would have won the gold. My father slept with his foot out of bed rocking my cradle. I rocked her in the big, comfortable chair.

Her brother arrived a year later. By then his sister was noshing on pureed food, so her colic had cleared up. Anyway her real live doll-brother made her so happy, she didn’t need to cry. He, in turn, was fascinated by her -his own non-stop performance artist/teacher, and calm by nature. Still I rocked them both before bed and at teething time, one on each knee, singing every song I knew including ‘House of the Rising Sun”

Some nights, however, I cried as I sang. Their father taught day school, night school, took night courses and tutored on Sunday. We had dinner together. That was it. A quiet, tasteful time, full of conversation. No. Two babies who needed to be fed while Daddy tried to sort out the evening lesson plan.

I had studied English & Philosophy and Drama. I was the only female survival in the Logic class by third year. I had two years of teaching English under my belt as well as teacher training. I had subdued 50 hormone-ridden grade 10s in a classroom with 48 seats. Now I was washing six dozen cloth diapers twice a week.

I started reciting Shakespeare as I bathed the kids together in the big tub.

Eventually, my husband intervened. “What would you do right now, if you could do anything?” he asked. “Put on my navy suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. “Cedarbrae Collegiate,” I replied. “You want to go back to teaching,” he said.

How could I? It was 1963. My job was to nurture these priceless babies. It just wasn’t done. But before we got up from the grey card table that functioned as our dining surface, we had the plans underway. We would hire a nanna, carefully vetted. I would get a job easily. Populations were booming and my clever husband could stop working all the time. My terror and relief could be soothed only by more rocking those bigger and bigger babies.

The rocking chair went with us to a new house. We were now making almost $12,000 together. It was an ideal place for growing children, a hill, with a flagpole and a martin house, wilderness, gardens, fences and eventually a pool. There were parks galore and a very high cliff above Lake Ontario for risking young lives. Not that we worried. They had bicycles. They had each other.

The rocking chair sat in the corner of the rec room beside the sliding door and in front of the fireplace, which any of the four of us could choose to light. Nanna kept it swept free of ashes.

Then the crying chair came back into its own. I was the one in it. It was 2 a.m., where was my husband?

The chair and I set out on our travels. Sans the others. We moved to Heyworth Ave., to Main St., to Fishleigh Dr., to the town of Zephyr, to Mississauga, to Evans Ave., to Stephen Dr. and back to Mississauga. I can picture where my chair sat in each of these places. All except 3 had my name on the deed. One had my sister’s and two I signed leases for. A good deal of rocking and crying went on in those 40 years.

Meanwhile my ex-husband had lost his much younger wife to cancer. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer the same year, 2010. We welcomed him back into the family at Easter 2012. (“Should of stuck with the old girls,” my sister greeted him cheerily.

He and I had lunch last week. A two hour lunch tires out this 82-yr-old retired teacher, but he seemed to want to come to my 14th floor suburban apartment. We did have to talk over a few details concerning his estate. There have been no bad tests recently but…

I pointed out the crying chair. This sent him into a reflective mood. He always cried easily-just maybe not over me. Intimations of mortality can bring that on. He regretted our son had not continued his painting and sculpting. I thought that a youthful art career is like a teen-aged rock band. Most people grow out of it.

Hubby, for example had chosen math and physics, over art. Even got to work with a nuclear reactor. (Is that significant?)

Anyway, grief is always the same, not so much about loss as the f-ups that we regret.

So the chair waits invitingly, inevitably.

Feel free to drop by and cry until you’re done.