Wine, Women and Song: contradiction to despair #6

So Apollo and Bacchus walked into a bar….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I try another poem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pick up my book and my tumbler of Chardonnay.

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything good?” asks the male manager.

“Yes,” I reply. “Everything is good.”

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

 

 

 

 

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Ecstasy: contradicting despair #2

Good sex and union with the divine are two reliable ways to achieve ecstasy. Or maybe just one, when you think about it.

Some people seem to be born ecstatics. They make good poets. I had a friend like that, but western pharmaceuticals were able to cure it.

(Sorry, I slipped momentarily into one of the other great contradictions of despair – bitter humor.)

I’m taking it for granted here that I don’t have to explain despair, why, for example, W.B. Yeats wrote, The world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Leave a comment below if you feel I am wrong in this assumption. I will be glad to explain  human suffering, personal and social. That will mean a personal sacrifice because I am writing about these contradictions in order to avoid doing that.

The Sufis whirl in prayerful adoration of God. The 13th century poet, Rumi, born in Afghanistan, was a Sufi. His poetry has become widely known lately through modern translations like those by Coleman Barks. When the Black Dog of depression is shaking me by the back of my neck, I prescribe myself the rereading of Rumi: The Book of Love, to be taken 3 nights in a row at bedtime. I say 3 because I find, if I follow my advice, I forget to be miserable by the 4th.

Come to the orchard in spring
There is light and wine and sweethearts
In the pomegranate flowers

If you do not come, these do not matter
If you do come, these do not matter. 

Who comes or does not come, I cannot say. And yet …

Some of the Romantic poets have moments of ecstasy – Coleridge’s drug induced, Wordsworth’s more daffodill-ian. – but their broken hearts peek through in spite of resolute cries of Joy at that dawn it was to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven.

Others are flat out euphoric.

John Donne greets his wife, “And so good morrow to our waking souls/ That greet not one another out of fear. William Blake says, I love to rise on a summer morn. Emily Dickensen, I started early -Took my dog/ And visited the sea –

Teresa of Avila, a mystic who was canonized after her death in 1582, described the Devotion on Ecstasy as being where consciousness of the body disappears.

Leonard Cohen got the picture:
And so my friends, be not afraid
We are so lightly here
It is in love that we are made
In love we disappear.

Further contradictions to despair will follow.

 

 

Joy: contradicting despair #1

Infant Joy

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

Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

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

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

The short answer is me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s not to love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So thank God for hillbillies!

Hour of the Hawkjoycehowe.com

 

 

 

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

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.

 

 

Easter Retrospective

115 journals

journaling, reading as strategies for survival and change

pagan Christ

I am re-posting this from last year. Of course Easter was not early this year, but given the weather we are still having, those Easter clothes of yesteryear would be too cold.

I love Easter as a time of rebirth, a resurrection of life. When I was a child, there was always a new outfit, hand-sewn and often cut down and reworked from other garments, new white shoes and a new hat, usually white straw with flowers, chilly to wear when Easter was early as it was this year -2013. To me, it was an unparalleled celebration of light, a miracle – like finding the horse radish root pushing green up out of the newly thawed soil.

In those days, I hadn’t heard about the Easter bunny. He didn’t come to the hills where my family farmed hardscrabble soil. But the hens had started laying eggs again by then and they were served in abundance on Easter Sunday breakfast. It wasn’t unheard of for a farmer like my father to polish off a dozen when he came in from milking and before we all set off for church.

Once we moved to town there were still new clothes at Easter and our growing family might even present itself at church, but that was a special occasion. I would have been the only family member who went for all the Sundays in Lent and right the way through, I would have been looking forward to the exuberance of Easter Sunday.

My love for the Anglican liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible were enough to keep my child self coming  back for more.

This Easter Sunday, I revisited some of that poetry as I drove north to Barrie, Ontario for brunch. I fired up my iPhone and listened to the second part of Handel’s “Messiah”, beginning just before the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Handel took the passages from the Bible and set them to his stirring music. One of my favourite pieces is the soprano aira, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, (Job XIX, 25-26) which ends with “And tho’ worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”. The remaining songs are taken from Psalms and the writings of the Apostle Paul, mostly the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians.

I have been lucky in my religious education. I listened to the beautiful King James Bible being read aloud in church and at my grandmother’s, daily in the latter case. I went to church religiously: I sang in the children’s choir. And the university I went to was affiliated with the Baptist Church still when I attended it. Not my church and at the time, I was not happy with the mandatory religious studies, but it gave me a ‘grown-up’ perspective on the New Testament, especially on Paul.

As I listened to “The Messiah” – and drove northward, I remembered reading Tim Harpur’s book The Pagan Christ at Easter in 2004 and I got to thinking about Paul’s letters to the early Christian church. The Apostle’s letters are actually the earliest writings in the New Testament and are “virtually” silent “on the whole subject of a historical Jesus of Nazareth” (Harpur, 166). Paul’s writing predates the earliest gospel, that of Mark, by about 20 years. First Corinthians probably dates from 55 A.D. “Paul was a mystic and he knew only the mystical ‘Christos’, Christ not ‘after the flesh’ but after the spirit. As he says, ‘The Lord is that spirit’.” (Harpur, 172) Paul does not talk about Jesus Christ as a personal saviour, in other words, he talks about redemption through the Christ within. It was the next generation of writers, working from an oral tradition, who wrote about a historical Jesus who died 70 years before.

Harpur, like other scholars before him, noted the similarity between the story of Jesus and the stories of other divine sons of God like the Egyptian, Horus.  He concluded, after much research and soul searching, that the Gospel stories were “true myths” but not meant to be taken literally. This was not an easy conclusion for him to come to. It had unsettled him badly at first, but ultimately, it lent depth to his faith. It meant that he as an individual was responsible for his own salvation, the Bible having shown the way. Jesus Christ had to be born in the cave of his own heart. The stone had to be rolled away from the tomb of his own deadness, the oblivion of being incarnated in flesh, so that the Christ within would be resurrected and true spiritual consciousness be attained.

By the time I read The Pagan Christ, I did not find the idea surprising. I had worked my way around to a similar position reading Buddhist and Taoist writing. It seems to me that all religions come around to that idea. The 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, speaks of the ecstatic union with the Friend as a sort of drunken abandon. My Aunt Mae dwelt in great joy with her best buddy Jesus. You could hear her singing His praises as you walked up to her isolated, tiny house. I do not doubt that she saw heaven on earth.

At such festivals, I find myself reworking meaning, sorting out the literal from the metaphorical. But in the end, I do not doubt that “my redeemer liveth… and in my flesh shall I see God”

On a less serious note: this year, 2014, the local Jehovah Witnesses invited me to a memorial for the death of Jesus Christ. That’s what I call a zinger.

Valentine’s Day: reconsidered

Romantic love has co-opted February 14th. Hard to believe that is what St. Valentine was all about,although Wikipedia would have us believe that he championed courtly love. Just to be clear courtly love is all about poetry and wearing a lady’s favour, not something sweaty.

It’s turned into a festival of red roses and chocolate. And heartbreak. Not evough cards in the classroom valentine box. No engagement ring again this year. He/she actually forgot. That convenience store bouquet. Dinner out in a much too crowded restaurant with bad service. The roses you bought for yourself drooped over next day.

Let’s re-conceive the idea.

Valentine’s Day is the celebration of love, the feast of the god of love or God of Love, if you prefer. Whether that is Eros or something other dude, up to you. Change the gender if it helps. Now let’s take a look.

Feel your most beautiful feeling. Remember it. Imagine it. Picture its beauty. The full moon in August hanging over the Tioga Pass is a good one. The effervescent foam on the moonlit gulf of Corinth. Use your own.

Now focus deeply within.

Perhaps you will hear yourself say “You are more beautiful.  More beautiful than all the red roses, all the red hearts, all the chocolate given and received. More beautiful than sunlight. More beautiful than warmth on a snowy day. More beautiful than _____(name a recent or beloved new born baby.) More beautiful than ____ (name your most beloved animal and/or person).” You get the drift. Just keep piling it on, naming gardens and places, islands, mountains, individuals, whatever warms your heart.

Does it happen? Do you begin to know that that great beauty and love lives there? Repeat as necessary.

Love does dwell within.

 

 

Winter Blues

“Pile Driver Blues” was an a cappella opus, I made up one weekend when I found myself trapped in a San Fransisco airport hotel during construction. I sang it to a two year-old as I pushed him in a stroller around the concrete. Next door was the infernal, 12 hour a day, ground-shaking pile driver. It was not my last encounter with the blues. January seems to breed them.

Does it pay to examine their origin closely? Holiday hangover? Weather fallout? Economic downturn? Legitimate grief? Fatigue? All of the above? Information is always useful, I suppose, and may provide perspective.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the treatise on ancient Chinese medicine, sees it as a good and necessary way to slow us down in winter so that we get enough rest to consolidate our strength.

Early this morning, my sister Georgia, alerted to my winter blues, phoned to prescribe Northrop Frye’s Double Vision Chpt. 3. I was taken aback, to say the least. I was on my way to a tai chi class, however, so I tabled the suggestion.

Two hours later, I was back home, stretched and invigorated, but bluer than ever. I tried a nap and woke up ready to try her idea. I found Double Vision on-line and began reading. What do you know, she might be onto something.

Chapter 3 is called “The Double Vision of Time” and begins with a description of the tragedy of time. “It seems probable that the basis for consciousness … is the awareness that the uneasy pact between body and soul will dissolve sooner or later..”  The body’s drive to survive makes us suppress our consciousness of this as much as possible or, at the very least, to convince ourselves that we are not going to die at once. The result, however, is a “subdued anxiety”, or quiet desperation, according to Frye, scholar, critic, a fellow Torontonian, and 78 years-old when he wrote that (1912-1991).

Ordinarily, we see time as horizontal and linear, comprised of past, present and future, although all attempts to grasp “Now” prove illusive. It barely emerges from the past before it vanishes into the future. Moreover, its progress involves a kind of repetition which Frye describes as parabolic as is clearly demonstrated in Shakespeare’s seven stages of man, beginning and ending in helplessness. (“All the world’s a stage..” As You Like It II, vii) “Thus the tragic aspect of time in which every moment brings us toward death.” The double vision of time involves superimposing a vertical dimension, in which all time exists at once.

In practical terms, we can free ourselves from time by “genuine achievement” in everything that matters and that can be accomplished by the building of habit through “incessant practice”. Practicing the piano, for example, repetitively playing scales and practice pieces eventually allows us to break through to the freedom of accomplishment. Thus we come to an “enlarged sense of the present moment”. Experience and awareness are one. Now we are in the “Now”. This intensity is spiritual connection, the vertical dimension, enlightenment.

Right. I think I get it. I do have a number of practices: tai chi, journal writing, cooking, blogging. If I just keep at them, with intention, I’ll break through to a timeless moment? And such a moment will surely be free of the Blues.

The Cure for Fear

Okay, I should be asleep. I need to be. I want to get up early. Things to do. May actually be getting something, (When am I not?) But I have this great opportunity, which I am going to lose tomorrow. I am uncertain and afraid. Tomorrow I will call my oncologist. If my appointment is moved forward to next week instead of the week after, I know the lump that we’ve detected needs further study.

Blake and I were sitting in Starbucks in the lobby of Toronto General, gazing back at the Art Deco facade of Princess Margaret Hospital from which we had just jaywalked.

“Even if I do get an immediate call-back it could still be A or B. That would have to be determined,” I say.

“Or it could be C,” Blake quips.

“Oh, it could very well be C,” and I have to laugh.

Yes, well,  we have just spent two hours waiting to hear Blake’s test results with regard to C. They weren’t bad, but then they weren’t good either. It’s the usual seesaw game of prostrate cancer. Knock down the PSA score and the testosterone with hormones. Ease off. Watch the PSA rise again. Today, it was decided that it was time to go back to the heavy ammunition. Not easy news for the manly Blake, but excellent news in that the drugs have improved since last time and he is line to get this extremely expensive medication for free.

Not many men in the clinic bring along their ex-wives probably, but Blake’s young second wife was carried off by cancer two years ago. So he and I are embarked on this mutual study of mortality.

Much else has been happening this week. My brother Rob underwent knee replacement in Brussels. My daughter and her husband declared bankruptcy and their home is about to be foreclosed on. True this “disaster” has opened up their lives and led them to a prospective mountain home. My grandson, Leo, who has to get his driver’s license or lose his job, has his own test redo to deal with. I had enough fear to go round.

So I kept up my mantra, “I love you and I trust you.” Initially, I just mouthed the words, but gradually I realized what they meant. Driving down to the hospital today, I found it had morphed into, “I love you. I know you are pure love. I trust love.”

Blake and I, out of nothing but pure love, created a home, two children and careers that supported us. An excellent foundation for this present project.

At home, afterward, I read Rumi’s poetry (Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks). One section is called “Tavern Madness” and the poems in it are about the ‘drunkenness’ of the overwhelming contact with the divine. Dinners in our home were full of such non-alcoholic ‘drunken’ conversations, full of revelation and confidence in our vision of life.

Rumi says: 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.

I love the way, poetry lets you work things out for yourself. And I love the idea of surrender to the steady shoulder that is capable of supporting my staggering self.

In another poem, Rumi says, I am the clear consciousness core of your being,                                              The same in ecstasy
                                             As in self-hating fatigue.

And so, I came around to an open heart and fear dissolved.