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?

 

Advertisements

Loose Lips: contradiction to despair #5

Despair like the mafia, my father and bullies in general demand silence. “You can’t do anything to stop me and if you do, I’ll kill you. Anyway, it’s your fault.” (See Never Tell, my memoir of childhood joycehowe.com) Convinced of the hopelessness of speaking, we fall silent.

Quite the opposite is true. Loose lips, where depression is concerned, sinks the ship of despair.

Talking is just a riff on union with the divine or connection, assuming a more earthly contact. A phone is a useful tool.

The listener needs no training, except in the art of silence and the odd encouraging remark – how do you feel about that. While it’s hard listening to an hour of weeping and absolute despair, -wine helps, or half an Atavan – it is rewarding because the speaker eventually runs down and may even say she feels better.

The depressed person is only required to voice her conviction that life is totally meaningless, unfair, unbearable and not to be endured, with specific examples drawn from the present at first and then from the dismal past.

There is one essential question: are you suicidal?, followed by what plan have you made? Once this is on the table, strategies can be developed. Such strategies do not involve, “You can’t do that!” They need to be practical and effective. Once a Salvation Army officer sat with me far into the night until I was too tired for self-harm.

In those days, I was too far gone for my immediate family, but suicide hotlines were there 24/7.

In less exigent circumstances, your best friend is your journal. “Dear Constance”, one of my creative writing students began each of her mandatory journal entries. I didn’t actually read these entries, although, as I recorded journal completed, I noted the salutation. I have a 6-ft-high bookcase filled with 159 journals, written between phone calls. After many years, I write less, call less and listen more.

Life’s a bitch. But hang on. Lean on me. Lean on you. Let’s make it through.

Serendipity: contradicting despair #3

Serendipity: the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident

I’m back in the mountain village in South Cal that I write about in these blog posts and in my mystery Hour of the Hawk. joycehowe.com

When I arrive, I usually stay at the house in the pines for the first few nights, before moving to the other mother’s house. The house in the pines is the abode of our children. We are the mothers or the mother-in-laws. They are happily married and my moving after a few days enables them to stay that way.

In the house in the pines, I sleep on a mattress on the floor for the sake of my back. Last night, I was reading Masaryk Station by David Downing, rereading really, but that’s neither here nor there, when a tiny black shape scuttled under the door and flattened itself against the wall.

I processed this information, fixing it with my gimlet eye.

We knew we had a mouse and, apparently, one that could spring a trap and escape. I had mouse experience, although not recently. Mice don’t  seem to climb 14 floors. I knew mice of old as long and narrow, fast moving critters that induced shudders. This mouse was not like that. Sitting, it was more of a triangle with large rounded ears. Cute as all get out.

It was in the right house.  MIckey had been the founder of the feast. MIckey Mouse artifacts and High School Musical Awards adorned the place. Walt Disney’s cute little guy and his immense studio had been in at the rise (and fall) of family fortunes.

I don’t shriek when I see a mouse. Well obviously. Yet I knew that health and safety were at issue. Is there Hunta Virus in Kern County? I knew I had to stop staring into its -oh, what the hell – his eyes. It was not clear who was hypnotizing whom.

“Mouse, mouse,” I cried.

Then as quiet fell, the mouse and I went back to gazing at each other.

My daughter eventually appeared, put her head in and looked down. My son-in-law followed in due course. The mouse sat staring at me.

We talked it over. I didn’t move. We decided to try the spider rescue trick: cover it with a bowl, slip cardboard underneath, carry it outside.

The mouse and I were motionless still. Son-in-law returned with pan and swooped down. Mouse made for the closet, slipping underneath the door. The closet floor is stuffed with laundry baskets, shoes, yoga stuff and more. I asked son-in-law to bang on the door and assumed my tiny friend had scarpered.

Half an hour later, as I returned from tooth brushing, he sallied across the room and back to the closet. Fifteen minutes after that, he re-emerged running toward me. He stopped eight inches away and stared into my eyes.

“You cannot be here,” I told him. He sat listening. “You have to go away, back out to your field.” He didn’t move.

My daughter, who had clearly just woken up, opened the door. The mouse retreated to the portable heater, where he sat in plain view, convinced we could no longer see him.

I gathered my quilt and my pillow and carried them to the living room where I cocooned myself on the suede sofa. I slept like a log and woke up stiff as one.

I was changed of course.

And so good morrow to our waking souls
That watch not one another out of fear (John Donne)

 

 

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.

‘Am I in your book?” – The Worst Kind of Thief

The mountain village of PMC in Kern County California, which served as the prototype for Bear Mountain Place.

Awake, I lack imagination. Asleep, I dream whole new worlds. Unfortunately, I do my writing awake. And so, I identify with Sheryl Crowe’s ‘worst kind of thief’.

In her song, The Book, Sheryl Crowe (from her 1996 self-titled album) sings that she read the book and discovered she knew that girl in it ‘a little too well’. She’ll always remember three days in Rome. She got “written down, sliced around, passed down among strangers’ hands”. She ‘laid her heart out, laid her soul down’. She learned that ‘the love you once made/can’t be undone’. ‘Will I get revenge?’ Well yes. By writing this song.

I longed to find proof that this was autobiographical. It seems too heartfelt to be fiction. But I didn’t.

Why do I care? I “carry a pen and a paper” and “no words I waste”.

I started writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk, when I spent several months in a California mountain village waiting out a family problem. My amateur detectives are two elderly women who set about finding out who is terrifying the town with acts of ecological terrorism, which steadily grow more deadly. I modeled one of them on a friend.

Clara was a disarming little old lady, cute, with flashing blue eyes and a lovely smile.  She had a great schtick. She could seem charmingly helpless-a girl just out in the world, or alternately, a slightly confused elder. The first week she was in Bear Mountain Place, a woman stuck $10 in her purse and told her to buy herself a decent meal.
“Why did she do that?” Clara asked me.
“Generosity,” I said. “But next time tell her you need $20 for a decent meal up here.”

I shamelessly stole other identities as well. Two of these people read the manuscript, and, although they both offered advice, neither objected to the theft. ‘Clara’ still had not read the book when I published it as an e-book on Amazon. Since she didn’t have a tablet, she still couldn’t. Then in February, I published Hour of the Hawk through Amazon’s Print on Demand. Now she could read it.

I’m such a coward that I tried the indirect approach. None of her close relatives would hazard a guess about how she’d react. Fictional Clara is hard of hearing and sight, so much so that the villain of the piece – or one of them at any rate – is able to sneak past here while she is watching television. Real Clara has had her vision corrected, but has also fore-sworn her hearing aids on the grounds that elderly fingers can’t handle tiny, tiny batteries. Would my friend resent these handicaps being used for humor?

The other amateur sleuth, Joanna Hunter, can’t recognize faces, a disability I am familiar with.

So I found my courage and wrote Clara a long letter, explaining my concern and enclosing a sample or two.

Then Jesus, the cable guy, arrived.
His card read Jesus Morales, Direct T.V. He pronounced it for me, Hesus.
“Hesus, Hesus,” I kept repeating to myself. I wasn’t used to Jesus as an ordinary name. I wasn’t used to Hispanic accents. I could understand Chinese or West Indian accents, and, of course, South Asian, but not Spanish.
He wasn’t used to Canadian accents. He didn’t understand ‘rooof’, so I had to say ‘ruf’. We kept asking each other to repeat. I held the record. I just didn’t get Hesus.
“Sit down. Why don’t you sit down?” Reg/Doug called to me.
Clara could tear herself away from them only for a moment. “Joanna can show you whatever you need,” she told Hesus.
He turned on the new 70-inch television set. It hung on the wall in front of the couch where Clara and her company sat. We were all jammed into a ten-foot wide space, crowded with unpacked boxes. When the sound came on, Clara cried out, “I’ll never be able to hear that.” So Jesus turned the volume up and up, until Clara was satisfied. The screen told us the volume was 87. Then she and the ‘boys’ resumed shouting.
Jesus showed me his work sheet, and began to ask questions. A bald guy on the screen was yelling about the shoddy workmanship on a renovation. Jesus was shouting questions at me. The boys and Clara were splitting their sides at some long ago anecdote. I grabbed the remote control, and turned down the volume.
“It says one box here,” said Jesus.
“No, no. We were promised two,” I said. “There’s another set in a bedroom. Colin talked to the company several times. There are to be two boxes.”
Then I moved Jesus over near the utility room, so I had access to the landline.
“Oh, Jesus-with a J-God, I’m going to lose my mind,” I thought.
Once I’d got hold of Colin, I handed the handset to Jesus, and locked myself in my bathroom.
It didn’t work. I had to come back out into the din. Jesus called.
When I came out, he assured me everything was all right now. The bedroom set was working as well. I dragged Clara away from the boys, explained what had been done, and asked her to sign her name. Suddenly, she decided she should take charge, and began to ask questions that had been answered an hour ago. Jesus tended to mutter in his thick accent.
“Do I have two boxes? Colin said I would get two boxes.” She went into my bedroom and came out. “There’s just this tiny thing in there, no real box.”
Jesus began to reassure her that both sets worked, independently of each other
“You’ll have to speak louder,” I told him.
He started shouting. I searched frantically for the remote control, found it at last on top of a pile of boxes and pushed mute. I gestured at the boys who were laughing with each other. Now there were only two voices shouting.

It took a week for the letter to escape the confines of Canada Post and the U.S. Mail and end up being released into Clara’s California post office box. Yes, she wanted to read it, I heard. A mutual friend handed her a print copy. I waited for her verdict.

“I’m so flattered,” she said when she called.

I have started writing the second Joanna Hunter mystery and Clara, who will soon be 90, will be part of it.

joycehowe.com

The e-book version of Hour of the Hawk is free to download on Mother’s Day May 13/18 and May 14/18. If you decide to read it, please leave a review on Amazon. The print edition is also for sale.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Who’s your Psychopomp?

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

As for qualifications, I have camped on the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth at the mouth of the River Styx and crossed it several times. So have all the other residents of Akratas. No that won’t do. (The Ancient Greeks believed that Charon, the boatman ferried them across the River Styx to the Underworld. They were buried with coins on their eyelids to pay him for his service.)

As a child, I was shut in boxes. Maybe that was my early training.

At a certain point in my life, the recently dead started turning up, usually sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom. Just sitting. Never talking. Or in my dreams, they phoned me, never saying anything sensible and never answering questions. My father’s spirit persistently offers advice such as ‘Buy lottery tickets’. He was a villain on earth, but he has spent 30 years on the other side and seems to be a reformed being. He even shows up at hospital bedsides to comfort those he once harmed. So they tell me.

Somewhere along the line, my family started to assume that I was a conductor of the dead, a psychopomp. They didn’t use that word of course. It is not a role I aspire to. At the moment, for example, I have a recurring image of a man who has passed over, but doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He is huddled in a fetal position with his ears covered, pretending he is not conscious. I repeat the 23rd Psalm to comfort him and, alternately, offer to give him a swift kick.

I’m not religious at this point, but I remembered that comforting song of David, and thought it might help – Josh, let’s call him Josh. If you feel inclined, you could join me in your own way, encouraging him to “Wake up! Wake up! It’s not so bad. You really are forgiven.”

When I uploaded my e-book, Hour of the Hawk, Amazon called ‘psychopomp’ a spelling error. An aberration, a delusion, perhaps, but not a spelling error.

Creating my main character, Joanna Hunter, I saddled her with that ‘ability’ as well as a conscience which speaks to her in her great aunt’s voice, admonishing her to fulfill her duty.

Her first duty is to attend to Tom Braddock who has been mauled to death, in his own backyard, by an angry bear. Well, of course an ‘angry bear’. He would hardly have been killed by a grateful, happy bear, even though he did persist in feeding his bear friends honey in a tire swing. And the bear had good reason for being angry, although not necessarily at Tom.

There are other deaths. It’s a murder mystery after all. But those Departed have enough imagination to manage on their own.

As you will, no doubt, when the time comes. Just be sure to cure yourself of the idea there is a hell. Pretty sure we are doing our stint there, right here on earth. Like my father we may have much to learn in the afterlife, but as a school it’s much more like Play Mountain Place than the boarding school Prince Charles attended. It seems to me, the afterlife can be whatever you think it is. With night school courses in empathy.

For heaven’s sake, don’t call on me to guide you.

To purchase Hour of the Hawk as an e-book go to joycehowe.com. It will be available as a paperback from Amazon in January 2018.

 

Where Did You Go Joe Dimagio?

Have you had the experience of meeting someone after years apart and feeling that no time has passed. You start up your friendship right where you left off, all those years ago. Me too.

I went away a year ago. Part of the reason can be found in my last post. I was about to lose my decade-long home. The other reason can be found in my Dec. 15, 2015 post, Getting the Hawk off the Ground. The picture said it all. I had to rewrite my mystery, Hour of the Hawk.

I last posted in Sept. 2016 – A Gold Finch This Morning. I had just finished reading Donna Tartt’s book The Goldfinch, and had been greatly heartened by her description of terrible depression, my own default setting. It had made me laugh, horrible though it was: it was so dead on.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Happily, I can report I am not homeless, although I am writing this in my favorite Starbucks. My resourceful sister took me in hand, announcing that I needed to live near her and her daughter because of my advancing age. Any day now, apparently, I will need a zimmer frame and a tag pinned to my coat, giving my address and saying, “If found, please return.”

Georgia lives in Mississauga, a suburb west of Toronto. I had lived there 15 years before. As a young married woman, I had lived in Scarborough an eastern suburb. I had already done my time in suburbs

But Toronto rents for a one-bedroom were $900 to $1000 more than I was paying for my two-bedroom, rent-controlled home. In Mississauga, we found a one-bedroom on the 14th floor for only $500 more. The library, recreation center, pool and park were one long block away. And I could count on invites to dinner every week.

So I moved, got rooked by the movers, lost things – some didn’t make it onto the truck, some unpacked by others- I had to get niece to come back and find the battery box, and just generally lost my mind. Getting groceries from my car and up to my eerie flummoxed me. Ditto doing laundry on the ground floor. My muscles took turns seizing up. I discovered that reading in bed not only helped with that, but had the additional benefit of a floor to ceiling window on life in the burbs: a major thorough fare, two schools, parkland, a community of houses and the front door of the building.

I hated it. Of course I did. I could see all the way to Lake Ontario and, on a clear day, half way across. I wasn’t God. Why would I want to do that?

I wanted my green old neighborhood with the crazy Polish woman next door, who persisted in thinking that I understood her rapid Polish, and had the ability to influence my landlord. I missed the maples and the deer that lived in the oak savannah next to the river. I missed the kids on the other side of my house. I missed the “girls” upstairs. I could hear all 4 of them in my place.

In the new place I had a wood burning fireplace. I had a gym on the penthouse floor and a sauna. In the brief summer I had an outdoor pool. I got to go to house parties where beautiful African Canadian and Muslim children softened my heart. I was in a minority. Let’s just say that Donald Trump would not approve. Even the province of Quebec in my own country would look askance, although we have no burkas, just a lot of very colorful hijabs and African prints. The West Indians and Haitians fill the halls with lilting English and distinctly un-Canadian French. And, of course, I got to go to dinner two blocks away.

Well, okay.

I got the place in order eventually, sat down at my desk in front on another floor to ceiling window, and pulled up version 7 of Hour of the Hawk. It was as usual, completely silent in my tower. And warm. Did I say warm? Those windows face south

Version 8 coming up.

Next post: Getting the Hawk off the Ground 2017.