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.

 

 

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Becoming a Blue Bird of Happiness at 80

western blue birdOkay brace yourself! As some of you know, despite my name, I am ‘Sad’, while my sister is ‘Joy’ (according to the gospel of ‘Inside Out’). She is often required to drag me around by my heels, until I cheer up. (Confused? You’re going to have to see that movie.)

Then along came my 80th birthday on Cinco de Mayo, and a house full of people, 18 months to 81, all of them beautiful, people who had gone to the trouble of seeking out 80th b’day cards!!

The biggest surprise was a six foot parcel of fun from Brussels.

Well, maybe he was the second biggest surprise. The biggest is my realization that in spite of events, I have not actually failed. It was never my job to save everybody. They all had their own saving potential. Whatever happened was not wrong or my fault.

I am going to use the kindness I have experienced as a mirror to see myself as Joy.hat:out window edited

Have Yourself a Serotonin Christmas

huge pile of giftsI know, I know, Christmas is over, but it led me to thinking.

The Christmas trees in my sister Georgia’s family look like the picture above. My immediate family, on the other hand, gives one gift each or, by agreement, none at all. I give my daughter and her husband calendars. She gives me her best wishes. I gave my older grandson a new-born check up for an African baby and the younger one a money order.

True, I give Georgia and my niece more because they shower me with seven or eight gifts. This year, I managed to hit a home-run by giving an indigo-blue Turkish robe to Georgia. This was a milestone. The first gift I ever bought at age six was a China teacup and saucer with a lovely rose pattern. My mother wished aloud I had bought her stockings.

My sister and I had the same early conditioning about gift-giving at Christmas. We got a stocking with an orange and hard candy, one main gift, such as new ski pants or sweater and something small if it had been a prosperous year. Most were not and most years, my mother suffered torment, trying to stretch the money. She would wander the department store in despair.

Georgia was a single mother and yet, it was an article of faith with her that her girls had a big spread at Christmas. Our children, in a family with two employed,had to make do with a stocking, a main gift, an article of clothes and a book.

What is it, I wondered, that makes us so different now in spite of similar incomes. Were brain chemicals responsible?

It had been my good fortune to meet Dr. Brown, a UCLA psychiatric professor, who casually threw out the information that prescribing psychoactive medication was simple. You had to write a script for whichever brain chemical was missing.

Gamblers, for example, need dopamine. It is associated with anticipation or striving to achieve a goal and acts as a helping hand in such success. It triggers the reward centre and is associated with exuberance and desire, producing an excitable and talkative state. It enables a stressed out body to feel good. Chemically, it is a precursor to adrenaline as well as epinephrine and noreprinephrine. This last enables vigilant concentration and the fight or flight response, with a corresponding effect on the sympathetic nervous system. A serious deficit of dopamine can cause Parkinson’s Disease

Alcoholics, shopaholics, chocaholics need serotonin, the happiness drug, 80% of which is found in the gut. It enables nuerotransmission. It is triggered by feeling important and confident in the self. It falls off in the presence of loss and increases when we win.Too much serotonin can lead to “A powerful mix of intestinal and mental symptoms”, including hallucinations. (io9) I experienced this myself before the carcinoid in my ascending colon was diagnosed. The slow growing tumour produced high levels of the hormone. Whenever I lay down to sleep, I was racked by anxiety and nightmares, both of which cleared up after surgery. For the past 13 years, I have done a yearly test of my serotonin levels, with no evidence they are elevated.

Gaba is a chemical messenger, an inhibitory aid that reduces activity in the neurons the way brakes slow down a car. It acts the same as benzodiazepines, like librium, valium, lorazepam klonapin or atavin. It seems like just the thing for those who suffer anxiety. (I may be wrong. ) Oolong tea, meditating and yoga can achieve similar effects, we are told. Having tried, I say, “Tell it to the Marines.”

Finally, endorphins, another happiness chemical, is opiate-like and produced in the pituitary gland. It is triggered by physical actions, including exercise, and produces a feeling of euphoria or pleasure. Even seriously depressed people feel better for a long hike in nature. Obsessive compulsive behaviour may result from too few endorphins. One site muses that OCD people may never have been praised for achievement.

Happiness involves the presence of dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxycotin. The last is that wonderful drug that kicks in for most new mothers, establishing a bond with the baby. Some new mothers, doubting their own abilities, are astonished to feel this kick in.

At Christmas, Georgia and her family give themselves a license to shop. Unselfishly. Therefore serotonin. When they choose the right gift, often as a result of carefully listening to the recipient all year, they feel the dopamine of achievement. Thinking about those they are shopping for increases their oxytocin. If they actually walked the malls, I suppose, they might get a shot of endorphins, but probably someone will figure out that eBay serves a similar function. Then, of course, there is the oxytocin high of watching loved ones open the gifts.

Psychology Today says that happiness is a neurochemical spurt. Merry Christmases and Happy New Years ease us into winter here north of the equator. Now that I understand a little more, I hope can accept the generous bounty showered on me and let it carry me through to spring.

 

 

The Immense Heart and Mr Death

rumi quoteBlake turned 80, the first one in the family to do so, so Rob, who was visiting from Brussels and Georgia threw a small dinner party. The food was amazing – baked breaded shrimp with mango and chutney, salmon Provençal en croute, lobster ravioli, champagne – rose, for a change- lots of white wine and chocolate cake.  It was a laugh fest from beginning to end. Blake, an only child and war refugee, found himself teased by my siblings and knew he was family.

Then we said goodbye.

Rob, who was going home the next day, followed Blake and I out the door in his sock feet, despite the cold. He gave me a last hug and turned away. He might as well have spoken out loud. I heard his thought. We might not meet again.

For a while, his fear was based on the fact that I am 11 years older and had had cancer twice. Now that I have been cancer free for 13 years, he himself has melanoma. His doctor was not happy that he postponed treatment of an excised patch to come to see us. Meanwhile Blake is perking alone nicely with the latest prostate cancer drugs, free as it turns out, part of a study. He had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was happier than he had ever been.

Grandpa Munn routinely bade us goodbye by declaring mournfully that he would probably be gone by the time we made the long trip back. Eventually, many years later, this turned out to be true.

My mother died after a 7-year bout with ovarian cancer, a few years afterwards. She had been horribly ill and deserved a break from it and her psychotic husband. I expected her spirit would show up in my house the way my other dead people did, even my father-in-law. When she didn’t do so, I fell into a deep depression and suffered what I call an existential breakdown, complete with hospitalization. I recovered, but for many years, I saw death as the grim reaper and my advancing age as his harbinger. Either there was no life after death or my mother didn’t love me.

This fear was so great that I tended to drop friendships with older people. Unfortunately, my son, Daniel, seems to have caught it. The older people he has dropped are his father, Blake, and me.

Eventually, after Blake and I divorced, I had a run-in with suicidal ideation. It wasn’t really about death, just a deep desire to stop hurting. A momentary vision of the future where I would be needed, the Suicide Help Line and the Salvation Army pulled me through.

Getting cancer settled the question once and for all. I definitely did not want to stop living in my body, no matter what.

This spring, I walked into my daughter’s new home in the Sierra Mountains and clearly heard my mother say, “This is nice.” So she shows up now, 38 years later. What the….?

She hung around, apparently swooping over the pines in the company of her 43 year-old grandson who had just passed on. He seemed to be 3 now, the age at which she first knew him, and quite happy to be flying loop-de-loops with her.

I was going to write this post anyway, but then Rob called me in tears this morning at 5 a.m. He had returned to Brussels to discover that his young friend, Julian, had died of an asthma attack.

I wrote last December about Julian, whom Rob was coaching in life skills, like controlling his temper and wearing his teeth. Julian had been left to institutional care, pretty much abandoned by his parents. He did his wash at Rob’s house, carried up wood for the fireplace, helped decorate the Christmas tree and showed up at awkward times. Rob had taken back a sweat shirt for him with “Toronto Alumna” written on it. My niece’s really but new and we figured Julian wouldn’t get that it was a girl’s. What was he to do with it, Rob asked me.

I am bowled over by how we four siblings, children of an extremely abusive home, all of whom nearly died at one point from that abuse, turned out to be so concerned with the welfare of others. We learn to give what we need, apparently, and Rob was a good “father” to Julian.

I don’t think of passing on in terms of Mr. Death, anymore. (Well, not for the moment anyway. Get me in a hospital room, I may revert.)

At present, it seems more like an approaching holiday, like Christmas feels ten days before, something glorious approaching. A very old priest I knew told me he felt like an excited kid about to start school. The old pictures of heaven are totally irrelevant to me. “Heaven” is just dwelling in love and being without a physical body will mean no opposition by space and time, more opportunity to look after loved ones. Sure growth happens in the body, but we can take our achievement with us.

I got over the angst of farewell by sitting down to begin writing a book I had in mind. We are keeping busy. Death will have to interrupt us.

As a family, we are scattered across two continents. Some of us don’t even speak. Yet we found each other across time and space. We have a long history with each other. We came together because of our long term love for those two outrageously dysfunctional people who were our parents. I think we saved them from what the church would call damnation. Not everyone agrees with me, but I feel my father’s help these days.

No force, not even that guy in the black top hat and tails is powerful enough to overcome love. It holds the stars in place.

MrDEath

The Great Loneliness

Churchill called it the Black Dog

Churchill called it the Black Dog

The great loneliness fell upon me without warning.

True it was Saturday night, the loneliest night of the week, according to Sammy Cahn. True I had just watched Piper’s boyfriend break up with her on the phone, after dissing many of her fellow inmates on NPR and telling her who actually turned her in. True Jamie Fraser,s cousin, Simon, had just died of a musket wound, but Jamie had gone to the British lines under a flag of truce to bid him goodbye in Gaelic. Still it was very sad. I hadn’t spoken to another human being all day. I had phoned but everyone was out. The sky had been heavily overcast when I opened the curtains at 8:30, there was ten minutes of sunshine around noon, but at 3 p.m., I closed them against the gloom.

I shut off the iPad and An Echo in the Bone. I disappeared the TV and sat down on the couch. Winter loomed, months of lost light and cold, days of being shut in by ice and snow. I didn’t even get to my impending mortality before one of the women upstairs broke down, crying “it’s not funny”. I got up to get a glass of water and dropped one of my favourite glasses onto a pyrex bake dish soaking in the sink, smashing it into seven sharp pieces. As I put the wrapped shards into the garbage, the other upstairs resident drove away.

Right, you can feel the great loneliness even if you have a spouse. I knew that. I had felt that lonely before my husband left.

You can feel it in the midst of your family. When I first found myself suddenly on Pine Mountain, I would sit in bed with the curtains open, watching the steep wooded slope, the moon waning above. I was longing for home and the familiar, my no-view first floor flat. If I had known that the family emergency would keep me on the mountain for five months… I didn’t and I fell asleep before the loneliness got well established.

Usually, the year end holidays keep it at bay at least until mid January. You can armour yourself against it even then. I can usually con myself that winter is manageable until a month later, at which time I begin to snivel and consider throwing myself down in a tantrum, but unobserved tantrums are over-rated.

This particular bout of great loneliness follows upon the great good fellowship of family achievement. Four of us together handled a serious illness and a traumatic change in an elder’s life. Elder even than me, which is very elder indeed. In the last five weeks, we broke through to a relaxed and healing companionship. We were going to live after all.

Then I had to come home. Not only did I need to come home. They needed me to. Marriages go better without mother and elders need to feel self-sufficient.

My brother rushed from Brussels to help me make the transition from sunlight and altitude to gloom and sea level. He took one look at me, declared I was not destroyed by my ordeal as he expected. He didn’t actually have to save my life this time. If I had gone to Brussels, as I did last Christmas, I would have been his chief concern, feted by his many friends and his family. Here he has to be shared. This weekend is someone else’s turn.

I used to think I could fight the great loneliness by sheer willpower, by talk therapy, journaling, acupuncture and long walks, identify the aberrant mental attitude and contradict it. Stick up post-its with affirmations on the bathroom mirror. It was exhausting. Now I take psychotropic drugs.

But it’s a long game. I am old enough to know just how long.

Sure, I need to feel needed, as Orange is the New Black has just assured me and for the present, I am not. I wasn’t needed for years, but I’m glad I persisted until I was. Lives depended on it. So here I am again, under-needed and sulking about it.

In fact, old bodies need to rest at this time of year, so home needs to turn into a cave for long sleeps. It is a time to turn away from the outer darkness to the light within.

Having said that I see that the moon is full.

full moonmtn

 

A Change Would Do You Good

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ikjmz_SlGh
Cheryl Crow’s song of the same name
black &white wallI flew back to Toronto on Monday and met my sister Georgia for dinner on Wednesday. I ordered Guinness. She had never known me to order beer. I felt like saying, “It’s not beer. It’s Guinness.” She had not expected that change, but she liked my new hair cut.

Blake, my ex-husband, took me out for dinner Friday. He made no comment when I ordered Honker’s Ale from Goose Island, but he did tell me I looked younger. True, I was tanned from 150 days of sun at 5,500 ft in California, where darkness and silence led me to sleep 10 or 11 hours a night. And I had spent hours sitting beside our patient reading while someone else made dinner. The last seven weeks as recovery proceeded were particularly relaxing.

On Friday, I decided that I hated my minimalist decor and began hanging all the pictures in storage, including a wall devoted to the family and another of Georgia’s colorful paintings of houses. This means that I am giving up on feng shui. I’m not supposed to have red, a  fire element, in my living room during the year of the horse. Georgia’s paintings are full of red. Besides feng shui wasn’t doing  any good. My year has had a deal of bad luck. Our patient had also used feng shui which did not protect her from recession, loss or extremely grave illness. Be that as it may, I prefer now to be creative and bask in the warmth of family fire.

Roberta's wallAt my desk, I rounded up all the receipts I have assiduously saved my entire life and trashed them. I have lived altogether too carefully. During the five months I was away, I didn’t get my mail, of course. I didn’t even listen to the messages on my land line until a month before I left and I couldn’t receive calls because my cell phone got no reception. There was absolutely nothing in the mail or in the messages that was important. Well, there was a thank you note for funeral flowers, pretty much a dead issue.

During my mountain sojourn, I talked about the cold as fall drew on and I adapted to cabins heated in the old way by wood or more modern pellet stoves, both of which meant cold mornings. I have hated being cold all my life. For years, I have included the weather at the top of my daily journal entries. Now I have stopped. At first, I glanced at the thermometer outside my kitchen window. But I’ve stopped doing that as well. I assume that for the foreseeable future it will be below freezing. Snow, ice and wind will be apparent when I open the curtains. What difference does it make? I am going to wear thermal underwear, a heavy sweater, a sheepskin hat and a long down coat whenever I go out. I don’t need to hear a forecaster scaring me silly.

Georgia and her friend, the people upstairs, Blake, my brother on the line from Belgium and others who have called have eased me back into life in Toronto. Not everyone has answered my “I’m-home call”. I am sad, but by their deeds, ye shall etc.

So out of a traumatic and potentially tragic situation, has come new life. As Aunt Mae would say, “Ain’t that grand?”

 

 

 

Home After Five Months Away

Georgia's idea of homeGeorgia’s idea of home

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/home-after-three-months-away

My title is taken from Robert Lowell’s poem, Home After Three Months Away in which he observes his toddler daughter and himself after his stay in a psychiatric hospital. His central image is one of shrunken dried out toast, hung as bird feed by the tyrannical ex-nurse. I like the title, but my own experience is quite different. I wasn’t in re-hab. I wasn’t even a patient, but I returned after a long absence to find myself much changed and for the better.

I was surprised by change, rather than dried out sameness. Wow, I have a new kitchen tap. I have new phones. True I had bought them, but I had forgotten. I stood for a long time, trying to figure out where I kept my mugs. I knew where they were in both houses in Pine Mountain Club, California. Now, logically, where would they be in my house. I took a chance they were near the glasses and there they were. What did I used to use to carry dirty clothes to the laundry room. Not a basket. I know I used something; otherwise socks escape all the way down stairs. Ahhh, a plastic bin, stored in the closet.

I came into the apartment to be met by heat and the sound of electric fans. It was very hot. “I turned on all your air filters,” Georgia had told me on the phone. That puzzled me. I have only one. She had turned on that and two small heaters that I had been using on cold spring days, once the furnace was turned off.

There were vegetables, bread and cookies in the fridge. I could actually have a chicken sandwich for dinner. All of the clocks except the one on the PVR were an hour out. The audio unit was doing a light show – the power had gone out.

But the place was dust free, it had been aired and the sheets changed. The mail had been sorted and discreetly placed so I could ignore it. The one letter that might cause me angst, opened and summarized for me. An old friend still didn’t want to speak to me, but Revenue Canada had given me back $200. Armed with this information, I ignore it.

True, I also met my terror at receiving the call that led me to leap on a plane to L.A. reassured it that all was well and moved on.

I ran the water filter a few minutes and had a long drink of familiar water to quell the dehydration of the flight home.

I called Georgia to anchor myself in Toronto and then I called Pine Mountain Club because I needed to extend my long-distance love connection and get the latest medical report.

I vowed in early June that I absolutely would not leave until I felt our patient was stable and unlikely to relapse. I vowed it fiercely. I put up with major inconveniences, like living two months in a hotel and two more with Clara. I put up with no car, no internet and no phone of my own. I found ways to cope – a hot wire, Skype and a golf cart. I put up with the occasional hint that now it was time to leave. I was adamant. When I decided to leave, I booked three weeks in advance. Even that three weeks showed significant health improvement.

Phone calls over, I went out to discover my almost new car was full of gas and it started right up. I drove to my favourite restaurant, where the dining room was closed. At 9:30????? (Oh right, I’m back in Kansas.) The bar was open, so I ordered a dark beer and the most expensive item on the menu, lobster jambalaya. I pulled out my iPad, turned on night vision and dived back into the 6th Outlander book, Snow and Ashes.

I was home after five months away, a more solid and whole person, an easier person to be. I knew when I left that our patient was better and so was I. Two heal faster than one.

Going Home: leaving the Centre of the World

mountain 3Air Canada has generously allowed me to change the return date of my $1700 ticket for an additional $210 and I am returning to Toronto -in the comfort of the economy class cabin- on Monday. (As constant readers know, serious illness here in California kept me five months instead of two weeks.) The ticket was bought two hours before I flew down, ergo the high price. Yes, I paid for insurance, which refused to pay out because I knew there was an emergency when I left, and extra for luggage. I intend to thwart the airline of an additional $75 for a second bag by mailing my summer clothes.

Having dealt with that business, I have moved on to emotional impact.

First of all, I have to leave paradise, what I called Shangri-La in May posts, when I first visited and which I later called the Centre of the World, as the Chumash tribe does.

I have talked about the 3 year long drought, bears prowling the village, wildfire on the mountain and early snow. There is potential for large animals on the winding mountain roads as well as ice. There are signs that say,, “Expect to use chains at any time”, amusing enough when the temperature is 100 degrees F. but in  dead earnest. I haven’t mentioned that our ultra-friendly village sits in a valley shaped by the San Andreas Fault.

But I have also talked about the clear mostly silent skies , blue by day and unbelievably star-filled by night. There are no street lights and there is an ordinance against light pollution. Trees, mostly pine, climb the 8500 ft. peak of Mt. Pinos as well as the lesser slopes of the San Emigdio Mountain range and their breathing purifies the air. Here at 5500 ft. the aspens and poplars are florescent yellow now. The house in the pines is under a steep slope above a pond. House and pond are darkening by 4:45.

When snow fell on Hallowe’en, flocks of birds came down from the mountains. One morning there were many Brown Thrasers and others looking for food on the ground. The Stellers Jays, which amused me in May, flit back and forth between the trees, entertaining Clara and me when we drink our morning tea on the deck of my other, hillside  home. Woodpeckers search for grubs, head down on a pine tree. One jay likes to land on the deck rail and stare at the open door as if waiting for breakfast. But feeding a bird is inviting a bear. A hawk sat in a tall tree at the house in the pines this morning. Yesterday, the family golfer saw an immature condor. His first clue that it was an enormous bird was the slowness of its wings.

There is a horse trail that runs 3 miles down to an immense pine, over 20 ft around and 600 to 1000 years old. There are many other hiking trails. The Chumash Wilderness is accessible only by an ancient trail, which the firefighters had to use to get to the fire and crush out the spots the helicoptered water didn’t hit.

Our patient can do the 6 1/2 mile hike to the big tree. I cannot.

There are other amazing things about this place, for example, I can leave here in my fur-hooded jacket in near freezing temperatures and drive to Bakersfield where it is 90 degrees -altitude and an hour’s driving – north.

Not a bad place to find yourself marooned!

Then I will be leaving behind the close companionship that developed in the family as we struggled with a potentially fatal illness. At first we were united by grief and fear and general angst and now by joy that we have found a way to manage the disease. Our patient no longer needs constant care, even though she is still recovering.

Then there is the actual arrival home to deal with, walking in the door of my home. I confess I am afraid of that. I am told that since no one has lived there for 5 months, the dust will be only a light film not the greasier stuff that cooking and shedding skin cells produces. I did ask my sister to make my bed. I leapt out of it on June 4th when I got the phone call and started booking my ticket and throwing stuff into a suitcase. It’s as if I feel that the place is going to reprimand me for neglecting it.

I visualize it, the pictures on the walls, most of them painted by friends, except for the large photograph of the Seine by night, the Fiestaware cups on the sideboard, the bright rugs, the big rocking chair, so I will be familiar with it.

I have made about 55 trips to Southern California, two of them for several month’s stay and I always find the adjustment back to a long distance relationship with my family here difficult for a few days, not to mention adapting to Toronto, a colder place in every sense of the word.

This time, however, I will be taking back a different self, one more confident in support that transcends earthly connections, comforting as they have proved to be. I have the beauty and peace of this place securely memorized. I will have the memory of sitting alone, tearing a baguette for croutons, and suddenly feeling that I really was at the centre of life, at the centre of what Greek legend calls Eros.

 

 

Between Thankgivings in the Centre of the World

Here in the mountain valley which the Chumash called the Centre of the World, I found myself caught between two Thanksgiving Days. I wasn’t home in Toronto for Canada’s day of thanks on the second Monday of October, and I won’t be here on November 27, the fourth Thursday in November, for the American Thanksgiving. And yet I had much to be thankful for and I wanted to express it. Luckily a birthday came along. I began planning.

Well, let’s be honest. First, I took stock. Was I up to cooking such a meal? I factored in my advanced age, my aching back and divided by thankfulness. The result was a decimal zero, zero, single digit. In other words, no prob!

Not turkey. Sorry turkey farmers, I don’t like your bird enough to go to all that bother. No our preferred protein is roast beast, i.e. a beef rib roast. Since I no longer have a house to mortgage, that was a sobering thought, but I said, what the heck, I’ve got a line of credit. In the event, it cost only $126 for 4 ribs, with the bones cut off and tied back on. The butcher worked away at it for 15 minutes while I looked at wine.

Of course there would be champagne and a good bottle of red. I found a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, or the Widow, on the top shelf and the wine guy who reached it down recommended a pinot noir from the Santa Barbara area, just across the mountains from the Centre of the World. I added a bottle of chardonnay for the cook in case her back got going.

I had found a “Classic Caesar Salad” recipe on line and Jamie Oliver’s root vegetable mash. Those ingredients were cheap enough as were the Brussell sprouts that I decided on at the last minute to add green to the main course.

Clara offered to split the cost, but I said it was my treat. I didn’t want to have to do CPR in the middle of the Santa Clarita Whole Foods  and besides I had that generous line of credit.

That was Thursday and dinner would be on Sunday. The plan was to to turn up the fridge and store the roast on the back shelf at the bottom. The butcher, fearful for his rep didn’t want to endorse that plan wholeheartedly, but I explained about winding mountain roads and a long trip down the I 5. In fact, it worked very well, although a container of green soup froze solid.

It was a two household project (Two households both alike in dignity/In fair Verona, etc). One had the necessary more or less empty fridge, but I would be cooking in the other house, the one in the pines where I could find the utensils I needed.

Saturday morning, I had the fridge house to myself, so I peeled the root veg into a big heavy pot and covered them with spring water. The tap water here is very heavily chlorinated because of the drought, I imagine. The wells are lower than ever. When I drink tea made with it, I fell as if I’m drinking from a tea flavoured swimming pool. I stashed the veg in the fridge and drove the golf cart over to the other house.

I had it to myself as well, the occupants having made their weekly trip to Los Angeles for treatment and shopping. I put on music on my IPod and began to prep the salad. I listened to the birthday boy’s album Shadows of Another Time (www.allmusic.com) as I worked and used his Cuisinart to make the Caesar dressing. By the time, I finished and cleaned up, I had heard most of it twice and gone on to listen to 4 versions of Carrickfergus.

Sitting at the table, I began tearing up a baguette for croutons. With the music off, I was began to think of why I felt thankful. Together as a family, we had found the right medical help and routed a potentially deadly disease. Now it was being managed. Certainly, refinements to medication were still being made, certainly it would be a lifelong condition,  but after 5 months, it was manageable. Or the patient had learned to manage it.

Sitting there, I felt all trace of my former picture of myself -78, alienated from a beloved son, prone to isolation in a cold city, survivor of a traumatic life – drop away. I was truly at the Centre of the World, washed through with love as I have seldom been even in the spring of my life and my first and abiding love.

When I came back into the house on Sunday morning, it was fragrant with coffee, bacon and pancakes already. We carried in the big pot and the roast from the golf cart. I rubbed the cut ends of the roast with butter, no salt so as to preserve the juices. When the oven got up to 450, I put it in for 20 minutes. Then I turned it down to 280.

It turned out the Brussell sprouts looked like small cabbages, so I sliced them thin, fried some bacon, added the sprouts, discovered the skillet was too small, put them in a pot and added a cup of chicken stock. Just before dinner, I would cook them 15 minutes.

I cooked the root veg -carrots, parsnips and rutabaga, early and got my sous chef to mash them with butter. I wasn’t up to that upper body exercise, but I was pleased to note that being thankful seemed to keep back pain at bay.

I sat at the table to put together the salads.

As dinner time drew near, I used a digital thermometer to monitor the meat. Luckily there was one. Cooking America which posted how to cook the perfect rib roast had threatened to wash its hands of me, if I didn’t use one. At a certain point it read 113. I wanted 120, knowing the meat would rise to medium rare. Fifteen minutes later, still 113. I jacked the oven heat up to 350 and 10 minutes later, the thermometer read 125. I took it out of the roast pan and wrapped it loosely with tin foil.

The sous chef mixed up the ingredients I had measured out for Yorkshire pudding, poured the beef drippings into popover pans, heated them in a 400 degree oven and then poured in the batter. Twenty minutes later when she turned the heat down to 350, they were already rising.

yorkshire

I was somewhat taken aback to discover all the beef drippings gone, but olive oil worked just as well with the scrapings from the roast pan. Beef stock and red wine added to the roux produced a tasty and copious gravy.

Reheating the mash took a good deal of stirring, but the excess water cooked off. The sprouts were tender by now and just needed to be lifted out with a slotted spoon. In both cases things hadn’t worked out as the recipe said and I had had to wing it.

The last ingredient, the guests, arrived just in time.

We had the champagne with the cake, a tropical coconut cake from Susiecakes in Manhattan Beach, which didn’t look exactly like this one. It had pineapple in the middle.

coconut cakeThankfulness is a great shortcut to happiness and mental health. And relief of back pain.

PS I drank the chardonnay anyway.

Evidence of Things Unseen

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,
Hebrews 11.1

Here in the mountains of Kern County, California, we have been struggling with serious illness since the first of June. Finally, we have found the right doctors, got the right diagnosis and medication that works. What still doesn’t work is the bureaucracy that is paying for the treatment.

To skip even one dose of the several medications is to court disaster and yet again and again we turn up at the small pharmacy -the only one less than an hour away- to discover that we are over the monthly limit of 5 prescriptions, that we have used too many pills of that kind this month (doctor had changed dosage), that we can’t get one or another for five days, until we get a TAR, until we get a PA, unless we phone in the day before, never mind that we have been calling for 4 days prior. On the latest occasion it was the last reason.

Okay, confession time, I lost it. I leaned over the counter and explained as quietly as I was able, the possible dire consequences, the least of these was hospitalization. I was assured that the pharmacy had our best interests at heart, blah, blah,blah. That they just didn’t carry that medication and it would be ordered in only if we phoned the day before. Too much smiling from the other side of the counter. Too much eye shadow come to that.

“Consider it ordered,” I said.

The patient had fled to the car. I was so upset, I couldn’t actually see.

“Here are the other prescriptions,” said the Cheryl the clerk. “That will be $137.”

Whaaaa?

Blindly, I undid the bag and began to read the labels. The whole point was that the patient couldn’t pay for meds. As one of the meds’ monitors, I know every med name and dosage. None of these were familiar.

“These are not ours,” I said, pointing to the patient’s name. In fact they were for the patient’s mother-in-law, but I was too annoyed to bother saying that.

Cheryl’s eyes bugged out. As I left, I could hear her saying, “I can’t believe I….”

Next day, after 4 p.m., I drove back down the winding mountain road, to pick up the prescriptions. Yes, one was made up, although the other less urgent one wasn’t. As I waited for it to be done, I stood at the check-out counter.

Cheryl leaned over and said,” I just want to say…. I couldn’t sleep last night. I didn’t know what to do. I felt so bad. Finally, I decided to pray..”

She went on almost in a whisper, quoting a Bible verse with apologies because she really didn’t have it quite right, but it had to do with God’s help when you hit the bottom.

I touched her hand to reassure her. “Of all the problems we have had here, that was the least,” I said. “But thank you for praying. I’m not much good at it, but others are also praying.”

“God hears all prayers,” she replied.

Cheryl is one of those fervent Christians that scare us a little with their right wing views. Our idea of God is much more indwelling, not an all-powerful father or a son that will save you if only you surrender and believe. Perhaps, all things are possible, but they start within our hearts, we think and when you are grappling with life and death, God’s idea of an ideal outcome may not coincide with yours.

That night as I began to fall asleep, I felt the earnest love Cheryl radiated comfort me and  smooth a path for loving support from beyond.

The nature of God and our different interpretations of it seemed irrelevant then. Trying to have faith in God, too daunting. Faith in love that is another matter, our family’s loving and unconditional support of the patient, my own 5 month sojourn far from home, our 24/7 commitment, the wonderful doctors we have finally found, even those drugs with their unpleasant side effects. These are born of love.

And the best prayers may be tears.