Watching the Breath: listening to the light

Day 93: Yes, I know there are other people still locked down. Steven Colbert was last week. Possibly, my region can be opened up this week, but the last I heard cases of Covid-19 were still going up, especially in my suburb. Although, honestly, it won’t make much difference to me, given my advanced age and the nearly 20% chance that it will be fatal if I catch it.

For the first three weeks, I didn’t leave my apartment, but then grocery delivery stopped working. You could order a large number of things and sit up until 12 a.m. to get a delivery slot, four nights in a row and never get one. Conclusion – I had had too few children, the two I had were wanderers and I would have to scuttle out before daylight and buy my own.

So for three months, I have been staring out my high windows at the sky, my feet touching earth once a week to hunt and gather. The good news is it’s now daylight at 6:50 a.m.

I know everyone has had different stresses and pressures. I’m grateful I wasn’t shut up with the man I married nor our children who needed the challenge of strenuous exercise to keep from killing each other. We were both teachers, and good at it, except with our own offspring, who tended to run screaming from the room when their father tried to teach them algebra.

So there’s that to be grateful for.

I also know there are many, many single people who have got to the end of their rope, like me, around 9 p.m. when they haven’t heard another voice all day. Except of course on television. I am proud of the fact that so far I have had only one real panic attack caused by a sudden vision of burning cities and gunfire. We had already had some of that, but this was worse and involved Trump’s rally in Tulsa. I called Georgia my sister, who was puzzled because I couldn’t speak. Finally and with no sociological reference, I managed, “I can’t breathe.” It was a doozy combining all the symptoms of suffocation, heart attack, food poisoning and seizure-like spasms.

Georgia said in a kindly, scolding voice, “You know we all signed up for this. Every last one of us. We made an agreement to take on these roles – victim or killer or Covid patient. We came to do these things, to learn a certain lesson. Anyway, it’s all already happened.”

Now you may not agree with Georgia’s view of destiny, which we undertake pre-incarnation. I’m not altogether sure that I do. At the time,  it seemed a wise idea, although I nearly drew the line at it had “already happened”.

Half an hour later I had calmed down.

Next day I checked in with my daughter in California and she seconded everything Georgia had said, despite the fact that the two of them have barely spoken for forty years. I still want to nail them down about the simultaneity of time. Certain times I absolutely do not want to ever encounter again.

Such as this one.

Thank goodness for household chores that ground me, thank you for Face Time and video calling and even telephones, thank you for television – for  news channels and Netflix and Acorn, thank you for e-books and library loans by internet, thank you for socially distanced chats in Georgia’s backyard and drive-by birthday parties and thank you for the strange experience of being a monk in a mountain cave.

I had read a lot about these chaps in my study of Buddhism and Taoism. I knew that they depended on routine. That seemed an odd way to organize nothing, but I leapt to the task. One of my first daily tasks is to put my hair in order. It was last cut in late January. I wear it short, very short, usually. Now it is half way down my long neck and curling up in an awkward reverse pageboy. This morning I found myself saying, “Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bear..”

Both Georgia and my daughter are fond of reminding me to breathe. I, of course, always respond in my robot voice, “What is breathe?” “Watch your breath,” my daughter says. “And listen”.

I can see about 50 miles of horizon out my floor-to-ceiling windows. The view’s horizon is the shore of Lake Ontario. The photo above does show a line of darker blue that is the water. In the east, I can see the C.N. Tower in downtown Toronto and in the west, I can see the height of the Niagara Escarpment, the only height in this flat land. I particularly love Rattlesnake Point there and longed to go there for the long weeks of shut-in.

I used to live in a ground floor apartment in a triplex. There were bushes and flowers, trees and birds at my level. Now my view is of doll house roofs and tree tops. And sky. I have taken to noticing the change in light throughout the day. At the moment the ground is all green kodachrome while the sky is light blue fading to white over the lake. I have watched a line-squall suddenly tear through with floods of rain and tree-bending winds. I have watched its darkness leave just as suddenly to lash the city. I have remembered the names of clouds from my sailing days and the weather they presaged.

I have sat in absolute stillness listening to the quiet.

At dawn this morning, I dreamed of a man who loved me when I was young, a tweedy grad student who smoked a pipe and wrote me love poetry. I liked him well enough, and spent time with my roommate in the house he lived in with other grad students. It was good to get way from residence food and rules. We laughed and pretended to be intellectuals. After I left university, he called me to invite me to a cousin’s wedding Friday night two days hence. He had tracked me down at Blake’s home. I said I was sorry I couldn’t go. He said, “I suppose you have something important on.” He could be snarky. “Well, yes,” I said reluctantly. “I’m getting married.” I may have named my son after him, although I spelled it differently and reasoned it was my grandmother’s maiden name. He died young, in his forties, of a brain tumour. I didn’t learn that until years later, by which time I was divorced.

“I thought you knew,” my ex-roommate said when she told me. “We thought you were the woman in the veil who came late to the funeral and sat in the back row.”

Last night, he turned up in my dream. We were both still young. He was working in a hospital in Toulon, he said. That was odd, considering he had studied physics.Then he enfolded me in an enormous hug. His body was more substantial than it had ever been and he held me tightly for a long time. So thank you, Brian, after all these months I needed that human touch.

 

 

 

Something Arrived: covid gives way to chaos

Look The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe 1982

My last blog post was called Nothing Arrived after the Villagers’ song https://115journals.com/2020/05/14/nothing-arrived-day-64-of-lockdown/

It turns out I only had to wait. Eventually 3 cloth masks arrived from the veterinary supply store, not quite as advertised but that’s understandable – not that veterinarians had much call for them on day 70, but the rest of us did. I also received a book from Amazon –Dead Lions by Mick Herron, a birthday gift for my niece, long overdue because it had been circling the eastern half of the continent. And Land’s End sped a summer dress to me, so I could survive my south-facing apartment. Best of all, a new news cycle arrived. Suddenly, instead of watching the death count in the U.S. rolling past 100,000, I got to see burning buildings and looted stores on Melrose. Melrose!! Stay the F away from my eye glass! store.

I caught no glimpse of my grandson in the LA march. He knew better than to be there, I told myself. I called him after midnight. He had just got back. He had been shot by ‘rubber’ bullets three times, one in the chest, but he was carrying his backpack there. One in his foot, which was bleeding, and one missed his face, on which he was wearing a gas mask. He absolutely had to be there, he said. It was his responsibility as a citizen. I didn’t argue. I just whined like an old granny – wait a minute – about live bullets coming next.

“Do over. Do over,” I cried to the gods. I’ll go back to nothing arriving. Please. Yes, I believe in equal justice. I hate fascism. I fought it as a child, dragging a wagon of tin and rancid fat and paper to school. Don’t you just have to do that once?

So I lit a candle to Kwan Yin and Buddha. I have to give some credit to George Floyd’s relatives who appealed for the violence to stop, but I don’t discount my Taoist saints. It did stop – except for the cops who battered girls riding bikes and tasered students out looking for a snack and  crushed news photographers with their shields and pushed old men over to crack their skulls. But, by and large, no more stealing small appliances or burning auto supply stores.

It wasn’t until grandson phoned me on his birthday that I found out he had stopped marching. Too dangerous.

So shut up here in my tower like the Lady of Shallot, I indulge in magical thinking. If I ‘pray’/think hard enough things can change. Some people march in large crowds and refuse to obey police commends, cf grandson, while some people light candles and think hard. If only… justice would be universal and Trump would lose his voice. Pretty sure he can’t write except his signature.

So today, the march in D.C. is going to be bigger than ever, despite the baby gate around Lafayette Park, along more than the two blocks that read ‘Black lives matter’ from the Space station probably. And there will be marches across the States, here in Canada and around the world.

I’m not black. I was -and am- white trash, a hillbilly from the Eastern Townships. In those days, the French held power in Quebec. The French held the mortgage on our farm. Grandpa Willy had defaulted. My father took it on. At first he took me with him to hand over what cash he could pay. Dad’s talent with fire must have been a concern for Monsieur Mortgage Holder. Dad was always first to show to put out the flames in a barn.

It’s not the same. I didn’t have to worry about my black son being shot. They just put my white uppity hippy white son in the cruiser and did a suspect parade of one. “Not him,” said the lady.

And I had a long career, passing as a normal, respectable, more or less middle class teacher. But I lived by a code. Never call the police. Stay out of hospitals. Don’t mess with city hall or the government. Keep your head down. Lucky me! My skin doesn’t advertise my difference.

Nothing Arrived: day 64 of lockdown

 

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

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

What day are you on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Slow Time, Slow Horses: the Slough House spies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a minute – that’s me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addicts lie, but you knew that.

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

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

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

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

If I am wrong, it doesn’t matter.

Ah Josef, this life is a school after all.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Says Words with My Mouth

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

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

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

Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

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

 

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

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

Tennyson’s Ulysses

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

Personally, I find I am become a package.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Dreams: Ian, Mae and Harold Arlen

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

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

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

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

Quite simply I had to go there.

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

So I dreamed.

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

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

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

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

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

Shall we count them up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Winter Came: aging in a cold climate

From The Double Game by Dan Fesperman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blake in the Bardo

Blake as Child #2

Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel by George Saunders has popularized the bardo concept. Lincoln, having been shot to death, spends a single night -spirit-wise – in the graveyard where his son is buried, to the consternation of its ghostly residents.

Eastern religions believe that the soul sojourns in the bardo for 49 days before moving on.

Blake left his body in the middle of March. Initially, and even before his actual last breath, he traveled about a bit, principally to my sister’s home, his ex-sister-in-law’s, where he had attended family parties, including one for his 80th birthday. He always had an eye for my pretty younger sister. See https://115journals.com/2019/03/24/grieving-for-blake-a-ghostly-affair/ and https://115journals.com/2019/03/20/blake-no-more/

He has settled down since then. He doesn’t flit about alarming the living or causing them to throw pillows. He has even given up peering solemnly over my shoulder while I try to sort out his affairs. Possibly, this is because I curse him roundly for not filing a tax return since 2016 or paying Canada Revenue what he owed.

Or maybe he has slunk away because I now owe our mutual bank nearly $9000, borrowed to cover all the expenses that I am not permitted to pay for from the estate until it is settled. I am permitted to use estate money to pay for insurance, the interest on Blake’s line of credit -to the same, rule-making bank, and Ford Credit. I plan to outfox the latter by buying out the contract. More dollars I do not have, but – hey, I’m a great credit risk.

So while I trudge from office to office -bank, real estate, lawyer, post office – clasping his death certificate, his notarized will and my ID, Blake seems to be settling down to bardo instruction. His mentors appear to be small children, mostly boys. Blake was evacuated from England to Canada at the age of 5 to get him out of the way of Hitler’s bombers. His ship was in a convoy, protected by Corvettes, a cargo of British gold at his ship’s secret centre. An earlier shipload of such children had been torpedoed with great loss of young lives. My sister Georgia believes that it is these children who are teaching Blake. I opt, as well, for children who traveled with Blake and survived as he did, but have now passed on. I include my colleague Michael who hung himself one July morning when he was supposed to be doing a group presentation with me at the Ontario College of Education.

These children were orphans of the war, despite the tender care of their Canadian foster parents.

So, Blake sits with the children. In his heart, he was always five years old, always longing to be back on the water, in the water, under the water, always unable to trust his family.

He’s still got a good few days to spend in the bardo, at least until my birthday in early May.

I can’t speak of him in the past tense yet.

But alas, we do speak of him in anger.

First, there was the problem of Alice. I defied the heirs by not pitching her out of the house at once, saying it was too cruel to show up with two cops and a locksmith and tell her to go. (TO HER OWN APARTMENT WHICH BLAKE HAD PAID TO STAND EMPTY FOR 6 YEARS) Of course, I did end up on the front porch with two cops and a locksmith after a decent interval, coaxing her to at least give us access to his papers. Surely, she wanted our co-operation and, for example, his ashes. “I don’t want his ashes,” she snarled. Heads whipped back. Sympathies changed. Documents were handed through a tiny opening between the steel door and the frame. She promised to leave by Sunday midnight. On Monday, with the same patient locksmith, we entered to an impossibly dirty, foul smelling house, but one that no longer looked like a hoarder’s paradise.

Eventually, I collected Blake’s ashes – very heavy, that boy, in spite of how skeletal he had become. Eventually, I passed his earthly remains – in a roundabout way – to Alice. He loved Alice. I tried to honour that.

I thought I was too old at 83 to lift and sort and get soaked to the skin ferrying stuff to Value Village, to battle Toronto rush hour traffic to his downtown house. So, you could say that Blake has taught me that I’m stronger and smarter that I thought I was.

We work in the house without heat – to save money. I wear a winter jacket that used to be off-while. “Is that all from Blake’s house?” asks our son Daniel. “No, I reply, sarcastically. I like wearing filthy clothes.” And I stick my head back in the beautiful fridge, bought on the hottest day last summer, and absolutely never wiped out since. There are swaths of red, sugary spills and orange spills and crusty clear ones. It looks as if they opened the fridge door, stood back several paces and flung uncovered liquid concoctions in for storage.

“Why are you doing this?” Georgia yells, as she wrestles the shelves and crispers out.

“Because….” I yell back. I am kneeling on ceramic tile. My knees are crying. My back is crying. Because, I think, I cannot let the world know what my Blake had sunk to.

He was ill. He was depressed. He was afraid. He had found a perfect woman, one who couldn’t bear to be touched, one who was young and ill-informed and opinionated, -“Are the Beatles dead?” she once inquired. – one who argued and railed and shouted and shut us out of his life for years, who abused us as we tried to clean his room before his grandsons came to say farewell.

But he loved her.

Oh, Bardo Boys….