A Hundred Days of Solitude: chpt 6

Blake is still just sleeping.

Day 150: but whose counting?

I could actually go out according to stage 3 rules of pandemic. I could go to a bar. I like sitting at Cagney’s with a glass of Butternut Chardonnay. With a book. At the short end where there is just enough light to read. Three guys will be sitting in the middle of the long side, separately, one talking to the owner, another flirting with the barmaid. Cagney’s is a Greek restaurant, oddly, and the owner goes to California to get wines no one else imports. It was tough discovering in the early days of the pandemic shut-down that this was the only hobby which got me out of the house. It was tough that the bars were closed for nearly five months. It was also tough that I had to stop drinking. Something about medication and continual dizziness.

But I don’t. Go out.

I get dizzy listening to the statistics. We are leveled off here in Toronto, fewer cases, fewer deaths. For now. I’ve given up keeping track of the deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S. I packed it in around 100,000 departed souls. No the statistic that bothers me is the one that tells me my chances of succumbing. I am 84 and apparently have a 75% chance of surviving. That seemed like good odds when I had cancer. Not anymore. Surviving Covid-19 is an adventure I want to skip. If I want to drown, I’ll just jump in the pool, I’m that bad a swimmer.

So I stay in. Except for weekly early seniors’ hour at the supermarket.

I spend the better part of an hour every day in the mountains of Kern County, California. Via Facetime. My daughter calls every day, realizing that I’m in solitary for my own protection. I know the place well and some of the people and I have her catalogue what’s she’s doing  there. The mornings are getting cold at 6000 ft. Autumn already on the wind. And some days I spend Facetime in a suburb of Brussels, which has seen a rise in cases and less freedom of movement. My brother’s bubble seems to be quite large, but as I reported in chapter 2, he also seems to have had Covid. I see my sister up the street a few times a week without aid of device, but we thrash over Trump every night on the phone. We should be suffering over our Prime Minister’s charity scandal, but the fate of the world is not riding on it. (The first 5 posts are available at 115journals.com.)

Last time, I talked about my idea of destiny https://115journals.com/2020/07/30/a-hundred-days-of-solitude-chpt-5/

In that post, I proposed the idea that we signed up for our roles in life before we undertook incarnation, and that as bits and pieces of God, we had a role in planning events as well. I pondered whether some souls put up their hands to play bad guy. It seemed to me that all types of experience were necessary throughout our many incarnations.

(There are several references in the Bible to reincarnation which the early censors failed to catch.)

I talked to a friend about this idea and she was equally convinced that souls fell into the role of villain through lack of awareness. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Soygal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and  Robert Thurman’s Infinite Life among other books teach us the stages of dying, usually pictured as different kinds of light ending in the vast clear light of consciousness. It is essential to see that light in order to choose your next reincarnation wisely. Confused souls are swept willy-nilly into the next life. This is the way people find themselves incarnating as foundlings who grow into psychopaths or bad painters who found evil empires or rich boys who are given no love or spiritual grounding and become men without empathy. These books encourage us to meditate on this path to clear light so we are prepared when the time comes.

I find that I can’t even keep the stages in order and my experience with death tells me that it’s not  the only route. My father, who was the foundling, was not even likeable and even thoroughly evil and yet, I loved him. Before he died, he made an act of contrition, calling each of the children he could get hold of and saying ‘Sorry’.  I watched his cruel death. While many others wished him in hell, I knew that heaven makes no judgement. He had put in his time in hell on earth, as most of us do. I knew that he had been welcomed and that his nature there was as pure and good as it had been when he was born in a New Hampshire work house and sold to a ‘nice couple’. Years after his death, he appeared at the bedside of a loved one who was in the grip of acute psychotic terror. He assured her he was there to protect her. It was he, of course, who had caused the terror when she was a child.

In another case, a young-gish woman died in a state of rage, which no doubt prevented her from sorting out firefly light from moonlight or clear light. Almost instantly, several of us were aware of a great love she was sending back to us. We had striven to help her on her way, but the people closest to her fastened on her anger and grieved without consolation.

And then there was Blake, my ex-husband, whom we sat beside for ten days. He was grumpy with his pain and childlike, still arguing that he should be able to drive when he got out of hospital. Eventually, he sank into a sort of coma. We didn’t stop talking to him. The ‘girlfriend’, who said old men disgusted her, got into arguments with staff and had to be led away for private chats. His son and step-daughter talked to him and held his hand. I read him Rumi poetry and sang when we were alone. On the last day, we were all 4 there, telling stories about him. He could be very funny, sometimes intentionally. So we laughed a great deal. And cried too. As his executor, I was ready for my final duties, but when he shuddered out that last breath, I lost it. I could barely remember how to dial the undertaker, I was so shaken, So shaken, that I forgot his clothes and he went to the fire wearing a blue hospital gown.

My sister reported that he made an aerial pass through her living room that night, blue gown flying, clearly in bliss. The next glimpse we got of him, he was hurrying off to an advanced physics class, completely absorbed in his tablet and books.

Blake was not spiritually woke in his last years. He had some dementia. He left me his confirmation Bible, which he never, ever read. I have the King James Bible, the New English Bible, the NIV Study Bible and the Amplified Bible, so he thought I was the right recipient. He knew that to me the Bible was literature. He left his fervent wishes for Bernie Sanders, who was still in the running, and a colossal mess in his home and his affairs. I have cursed him many times as we sorted it out, but Blake is preparing to come back and implement a universal wage. Presumably, he will branch into advanced economics next semester.

Which is to say, with all due respect to the Dalai Lama, the Rinpoches and Thurman, that there are many ways to pass and not get swept into the gutter next time.

Having helpers is useful. I have chanted with the Taoists for the departed. I have lit candles and prayed by myself. During the pandemic, I have been very conscious of the dying and the dead. There is an army of us thinking and praying for them. And Angels. I worried initially about dying sedated on a ventilator. No worry now. I’ve opted out. DNR. At the worst, I’d just die sedated. Now I think it doesn’t matter. We don’t need religion to show us the way. And we don’t need to be there with a check list: “there goes the moonlight, clear light coming up.” We don’t even need mental health, although the one necessary thing may lead to that. All we need is love.

 

 

 

A Hundred Days of Solitude: chpt 3

The View -day after day- from my tower. (Taken after the Snowbirds, flew over to cheer us up, peutetre)

A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family, which founded the riverside town on Macondo in the jungle of Columbia. In the first generation the isolated town has no outside contact except for an annual visit from a Gypsy band. It is a place where the inexplicable can happen and ghosts are commonplace. Many misfortunes befall the Buedias, all of which it turns out have been predicted. It is a long book, perfect if you are still, like me, a coronavirus shut-in.

********

 HANK WILLIAM’S ADVICE

I asked Hank Williams, how lonely can it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered me yet,
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song. (Leonard Cohen)

My tower is actually named after a British city and it doesn’t have that many stories. I don’t write songs, but I could perhaps answer the question.

In the beginning, I actually feel lonely, abandoned, bereft. Sometimes I cry. Once or twice I howl. By Easter that has pretty well stopped. I am like the baby who figures out crying is useless.

Day 31: Easter arrives while it is still hard lock-down. Although I’m not a church-going Christian, I am still a cultural one. Easter is the most important church festival. It has always been a family time. My sister’s family is large with children of all ages. We usually drive north to Barrie where the long table is loaded with every vegetable available and roast ham. There is wine and laughter.

This year my sister, my niece and I are in our separate dwellings a few blocks apart. My niece has a sore throat. She is isolating to protect her mother. Normally, they treat each other as a family cohabiting. I order dessert from Sweet Things. The Door Dash delivery guy even comes up to the 14th floor. I drive to my sister’s, call her, she comes down in her N95 mask and I hand two desserts to her.  I come home and eat my key lime pie.

At a certain point, I feel so unseen that I am disappearing.

Day 2 – Day infinity: What to do? What to do?

The eastern sages that live in caves advise us that even the contemplative life must have a routine. I can do that, I think. I go to sleep at midnight, after reading in bed for an hour or more. I get up at 8. I pull myself together. I exercise as much as my body and a 950 Sq. ft. apartment permits. I eat breakfast while I read the news on my phone.

The rest of the day? What was I doing before? I was actually writing two books, a second memoir following Never Tell and a second mystery following Hour of the Hawk. The original two need to be marketed on line. https://www.joycehowe.com/books Many people are reading e-books with libraries closed. So go for it! Are you kidding? The world is ending, at least the world as we knew it. Why does it need another memoir of my abusive birth family? And now that woman has been pushed off a cliff in Kern County in my second mystery, I have no idea who did it? It took two people to get rid of her car, but what two people?

I’ve furloughed my cleaner. She also works in an essential retail store. So I have to do my own cleaning. It takes her 2 hours. It takes me 2 hours times 4 days. But I celebrate that I can do it at all and thank Cymbalta. I also decide my sister is right – an ironed pillow case is divine. The next thing I know I am ironing sheets and shirts and masks. Stop now!

I watch television. At first CNN is on all day. At lunch and dinner I watch Netflix, a documentary called Pandemic, which shows in six parts how ” tireless doctors and scientists” have been working for many years to learn how to make a vaccine for novo viruses. Each episode is episodic featuring several teams and one home-schooling anti-vaxxer and her many children. I take a vow to have the flu shot this year. I stopped getting shots because they make me sick, possibly because they are egg based. But this year, I’ll put up with that AND I will get a Covid shot as soon as I can. The scientists in the show spend a lot of time in full gear in bat caves. In general, it builds confidence, especially in Bill Gates’ money. I also watch Tiger King. God help me! Then I turn from Netflix to Acorn, which streams British, Australian and New Zealand shows. I love a good mystery. Whereas Netflix has taught me German, Finnish, Swedish and Russian, I learn Welsh English, even Welsh, Cornish, Irish and heavy, heavy Scots. I already knew how to decipher Australian and Kiwi.

I read. On the serious side, I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The power of introverts. Probably I’m an introvert at heart. I needed to rest up after a day in the classroom before I could get dinner and relate to my family; however, I was able to avail myself of the ‘free trait’ and act out of character on the stage or in front of a class or even at dinner. Being introverted is an excellent trait to have when you have to stay home for months.

I frog march myself through John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened, bending my brain around references to American foreign policy. I am testing a theory – is Donald Trump as incompetent as he seems. Then I read Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. Even without his suggestion that we ingest bleach to cure Covid, these two books confirm my opinion. I am terrified of coronavirus, and I am terrified of this man knowing the nuclear codes. As time goes on and the U.S. cases start to climb in Florida, Arizona, California again and Texas – oh my babies – the two anxieties come together.

I trade mystery titles with my California daughter and find them on my library’s website. I run through all of Mick Heron’s MI 5 books, which are satirical and funny and intriguing and sad. https://115journals.com/2020/04/19/slow-time-slow-horses-the-slough-house-spies/ I write a blog post about them. I read the SoHo mysteries, set in different countries: Thomas Perry, Dan Fesperson, Ken Bruen, Denise Mina, Mark Pryor, Colin Cotterill, Stuart Neville, and thus I travel to the British Isles, Germany, Russia, the U.S., Thailand, Laos. I read to rest during housework or cooking, but the last hour of the day is sacrosanct reading time and I end up lying my head down at midnight.

I don’t know Alice. What was the question?

As Alice lay dying, she seized Gertrude Stein’s hand and said, “Oh, Gertrude, what is the answer?” Gertrude replied, “I don’t know, Alice. What was the question?”

Then there is Leonard Cohen’s answer in The Tower of Song, “Dum de dum dum, de de dum dum.”

Alice wanted to know the meaning of life. Curiously, that becomes an urgent question as we contemplate death.  Part of what Aunt Mae taught my sister and me was that a person could have several possible exit dates. I have had a few close calls, which led me to read Robert Thurman and Sogyal Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama and Rumi. Now the shocking death tolls in our local long term care homes wake me up.

I had forgotten.

I know the way back – gratitude for the helpers, who are risking their lives and dying to help the sick, empathy for the dead and the dying and the ill – all isolated from their family’s support. I can leap on that train and ride it until I disappear into a universal cloud of love. In the morning, energy too low for that, I recite the Twenty Third Psalm by King David, for whom I named my son. Especially the last lines ground me:
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies
Thou annointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

A Hundred Days of Solitude still to come – those darned visions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Blake’s Progress

That night, when you escape the fear of snakebite
And all the irritation with the ants, you’ll hear
my familiar voice, see the candle being lit,
smell the incense and the surprise meal fixed
by the lover inside all your other lovers.

Rumi trans. by Coleman Barks (Rumi, the Book of Love p.178)

This is the 39th day after Blake’s passing, 39 days during which he has moved through the bardo. He still has 10 to go. But now, his spirit visits us only for the briefest pinpricks of time, although he has found his way from Toronto to the Kern County mountain where his daughter lives, if only momentarily.

He is no longer bothered by the snakebite of Canada Revenue nor the ants of tax installments. He has left all that to me.

When I give way to tears, I say, “You’ve gone and left me here.” You, whom I could count on for comfort, even if you couldn’t remember Paris.

Several of us -far-seers or freaks – see him walking away as he de-materializes. I catch a glimpse of his back foot, a bit of sock above his size 10 shoe as he pushes off his toe. He is almost gone. (But does he have a cell phone in that shoe? 115journals.com/2019/02/08/place-your-phone-in-your-shoe-and-move-forward/ )

You’ve left me with all this trouble, I whine. All the traumatic past, all the chaos of the present. Doesn’t matter. Apart from generalized kindness, you were never any real help, never a fighter, vague, absentminded, not really present, tight with your money – mostly, although you did all right by Alice according to your line of credit.

You thought I was your crazy wife, but you outdid yourself choosing ever crazier partners and left me with the fallout.

So, go on boy, find your home. Maybe it will look like Yorkshire before the war, and you can go on rambles across the moor or spend a sunny day at the shore. Even England can be sunny in heaven.

Even a lost English boy can go home.

See 115journals.com for the series on Blake’s last illness and his passing.

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….

 

 

 

Grieving for Blake: a ghostly affair

Persistent readers know that I have been documenting the demise of my ex-husband Blake here at 115journals. I’ve told of his remarkable 8-year survival with stage 4 prostate cancer, and lately his decline as he began to lose his grip on his perch. He passed away last Monday.

We have been divorced for forty years. We were married for only nineteen. We had two children, who are themselves middle-aged now. To protect their interests, I agreed to act as his executor. I knew it was a bad idea, but I wasn’t aware that I would be chief mourner and ghost-whisperer as well.

When it comes to Kubler-Ross’s  seven stages of grief, I’m a rapid cycler.

Saturday, I set up a little altar in the loving spirit of letting him go, or to be precise, getting him to go. He had turned up in Georgia’s bedroom at 5:20 a.m. in his hospital gown, trailing his blue hospital blanket, confused but vividly Blake. A few days later, Georgia’s daughter jumped off the floor and screamed as something brushed past her in a doorway. Admonitions to go to the light, to go find Leyla, his second wife, fell on deaf protoplasm, as did a final plea to go find his pet Sheba Inu.

In my place, his presence was more diffuse and business-like. He has left me to file several years of income tax, as well as deal with Alice, his resident gold-digger. On Saturday, that seemed charmingly chivalrous, so I set up an auxiliary shrine on the dining room table. As a Taoist, I keep a family shrine with pictures of my people, past and present, Kwan Yin, the Mother, Buddha and candles. I put a picture of 23-year-old Blake in his graduation gown, his obit, a book of Rumi poetry, a dozen tea-coloured roses, incense, Kwan Yin, Buddha and lit bees wax candles. It was the Saturday after his passing, the day we would have had his funeral if he hadn’t opted out of such ritual. I read him Tennyson:

Sunset and evening star
and one clear call for me
May there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.

Then I got on with my own taxes.

In the evening, I sat down to finish watching The Girl on the Train on Netflix. I had read the book some time ago, and, although I had forgotten it mostly, I knew I hated all three neurotic women and especially the drunken protagonist, who just wouldn’t let up on her ex’s new wife and may have killed her neighbour. About an hour later, my mood had swung from loving a farewell to dear Blake, to get back here: I’ll kill you myself. For my lovely Blake was every bit as good at gas-lighting as Tom, the husband in the story. We – ex-wife, daughter and step-daughter – had compared notes at dinner one February night when the family had travelled from near and far to say goodbye to papa. And he wasn’t beyond blackening each of our names to the others. Then, of course, there was the question of Alice, his latest triumph, 45-years younger, who wouldn’t let us in to see him without a hissy fit, and who had been helping him work his way through the home equity line of credit at a good fast clip.

I repurposed the altar in the name of love and told Blake to get lost.

So here I am, middle of the night, suddenly awake and sobbing with grief. I knew him longer than anyone still extant. I may have loved him best. I certainly hated him best.

He’s gone. I can’t call him up to lament about one ‘child’ or the other. I can’t depend on his caring as much as me. And no, I can’t tell Blake – whatever – anymore.

He believed death was the absolute end. There was nothing after.

In that case, settle down, Boy.

 

Leonard and I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bulletin from Shangri-la # 4: spirits

trees outside windowWhen I first walk into the house in the pines, I hear my mother say, “It’s beautiful!” My mother passed on in 1976, but this is the first I’ve heard from her. My grandparents, even my father-in-law and certainly my father when his time came, showed up in the days after they moved on. Not my mother. Absolute silence. So profound, that I had an existential breakdown. Now here she is- or seems to be- celebrating the tiny, jewel of house in Sierra mountains.

Of course she would be here, if anywhere, because the mountains and the pines are like her birthplace in Hereford, Quebec. And we are here, her daughter and her grand-daughter and full of joy to be together. It is the week of Mother’s Day and Julia’s mother-in-law is due to arrive as well.

We speculate that my mother has been lost in the timelessness of that other place, a purgatory of her own making, and only now has found a beacon to guide her out.

In the days that follow, her spirit seems to be doing loop-de-loops in the blue sky above the mountains. All the other mothers in our line, Janet and Jenny and Gladys, come into our thoughts as they often do, but only Lila is delirious.

She is not the only spirit there.

Besides being thin, the air is bone dry in this drought. Near the front door, a humidifier sends a jet of mist into the air. Out of the corner of my eye, I see it as a dancing water sprite.

The floors are local stone, patterned like rugs. Every step feels rooted in their strangely old, slumbering consciousness. There is a small cairn of rocks near the entry and California jade and other semi-precious stones on the desk and tables. The fireplace and massive hearth of red brick fills one whole wall. The cathedral ceiling is rafterred and wooden. A wall of sliding doors looks out on the woods. Below a lake peeks through the trees.

This is a Taoist household with altars to the ancestors and the family, but there is also a stone Buddha sitting below the bookcases. A path of beige floor stones leads up to him. One morning when I am making tea, I catch a glimpse of a figure standing in front of Buddha, the figure of a monk in a brownish robe. When I turn, he gives me what can only be called a stink eye. I hurry away. Julia tells me there is a Zen monastery nearby.

Enough proves to be enough one night as I get into bed, I have a picture of an army of brownies – no not that kind- tiny beings wearing red hats and overalls going about some work under the trees. I saw such creatures when I was a child when my father took me fishing in the trout stream that ran down through the woods. They scared me with their intensity. I always understood the Seven Dwarfs on a visceral level.

In the fields, as a child, I saw fairies – blue and pink and gold- or once in a while, a towering angel. I preferred them.

Happy ghosts, water sprites, meditating monks, nature spirits, but I don’t have to cry like Macbeth, “No more sights!” I move over to the boxcar house and don’t even see dead miners. http://115journals.com/2014/05/15/bulletin-from-shangri-la-the-boxcar-house/

 

Dance Class and Tai Chi

Tai chi-er

We are waiting for barbells. The resident teenager is reconciled to waiting. If the poor delivery guy/girl struggles through the gate with the 105 lb. package before Christmas so much the better, but meanwhile this health-nut proclaims there are many ways to exercise, a towel apparently comes in handy. I didn’t ask.

I packed fast for this trip. I brought only one pair of pjs. (Hello washing machine.) And I’m getting sick of these 2 outfits and the sweat pants. BUT, my exercise equipment did not get left behind. It is not heavy or forgettable. My tai chi is portable.

I ported it to a dance studio yesterday. Well, a masonic hall really, at least an ex-masonic hall, on Venice Blvd., where dance class is held. There is no instructor leading dancers through prescribed choreography, just a DJ with his computer hooked into what seem like the world’s most powerful speakers and a roomful of people moving however they please. Or lying on the floor as they please or lying in a pile on the floor as they please. So no one notices or cares about the mostly linear moves I’m making in the corner.

Loyal readers will say, “How Hollywood!” But no, I’m told that if I look it up on-line, I will find similar classes in my home town, Toronto. If your town is big enough, you might as well. And they will no doubt feature the same creatively dressed crowd -tights and tank- tops, sweats and baggy pants, floating silks of vivid colour, long skirts on guys and girls,- weaving out of their own imagination the beauty or anguish they feel.

They dance alone or with each other or in groups. One fellow danced with a bright red apple. A woman danced with a long white pillow with a heart embroidered on it. The sweatiest fellow in the room gave me a very looong, sweaty hug. It was déclassé  of me to notice any of this, although I carried away something of the sweaty guy’s essence.

My kind of tai chi -taoist.org – is never done to music. Master Moy, who brought the art of tai chi to the west in the early 70s, taught this silent technique so that we would learn to listen to our bodies. So it’s quite a shock to be practising, as I did yesterday, to tribal drums, as the “class” stomped through something like a solstice ritual.

Yet it is curiously liberating. I am so distracted by the whirling colour and the floor-shaking rhythm and even the occasional melody that I find my body moving unself-consciously. Suddenly I feel it accomplishing some refinement that I haven’t been able to get before. My  weight is well and truly in my feet. My belly soft, no longer trying to do the lifting. My hands, full of intention, but the push coming from the back foot. There is a real internal massage going on.

I had arrived here knotted up. Life will do that, as you know. I am away from my usual supports -osteopath, acupuncturist, massage therapist. Then I slipped on a rock, crossing a stream and added a spiral twist -and a good deal of temporary wetness- to the mix. (Incidentally, it was a beautiful fall, I’m told. I would expect no less after all that tai chi.) What to do? You guessed it. More tai chi. I tripled the number or jongs or standing exercises and came unwound. Now, of course, I have to keep that up for the interim or this 76 year-old body will revert or at least stiffen up.

There is usually someone in an electric wheelchair at dance class. One chap moves his chair in dancing circles with his chin. A woman dances with her upper body. Taoist Tai Chi has a sitting set as well as sitting jongs. I have done these while stricken with H1N1 flu when I would have otherwise just languished in bed for weeks.

So here’s the thing, “Dance, dance, wherever you may be.” (“I am the Lord of the dance, said he.) You don’t need any training for that. Or if you won’t dance, (Can’t make me!) take the training route so you never have to pack your exercise equipment. Learn tai chi. Look it up. Taoist Tai Chi is found in 25 countries. It could be in your town and if not, there is some other kind.

Or just get out your towel!

Merry Christmas!

Jack Reacher: a long way from Virginia

Will Jack Reacher ever get to Virginia? That’s the burning question.

Lee Child’s novel 61 Hours (March, 2010) opens with Reacher being involved in a bus accident in the middle of a South Dakota winter. Reacher, a former major in the military police, has, as I pointed out in my post “Jack Reacher, Wandering Taoist” no home and travels constantly across the United States, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a toothbrush. His theory is that buying new clothes every fourth day is way cheaper than a mortgage and laundry facilities.) He either hitches rides or takes a bus.

He sets off at the end of 61 Hours, having managed to figure out the truth about what was down there in that strict time frame. Of course, he did, although you might, like me, have entertained the idea that he had vanished in the final mayhem. You could have guessed he would uncover the truth, so it isn’t exactly a spoiler. How could he not? He’s Jack Reacher huge of body and mind, expert in hand to hand combat and pretty good with a rifle. Why is he bound for Virginia? A woman’s voice is luring him there, the voice of a woman major, the voice that helped him through.

Worth Dying For (October 2010) finds Reacher in the corn country of Nebraska, a day or so later, having hitched a ride and ended up in a kind of feudal kingdom where most people keep their heads down and try not to remember the child who vanished many years ago. Reacher gets hooked once again and stays to help the woman who has the courage to stand up against the local oppressor.

The Affair (September 2011) doesn’t advance the journey to Virginia because it is a flashback to Reacher’s adventures in 1997.

But this fall, along came A Wanted Man, which finds Reacher still in wintry Nebraska with the broken nose he got the day before, but it was worth it presumably, since it was Worth Dying For. Given that he has taped his nose up with silver duct tape, it is surprising that he managed to get a ride, but now he’s dropped off at a cloverleaf. He waits there in the bitter cold as car after car slows, takes a look at his size and his smashed-up face and speeds away. Finally, he tears off the duct tape and after 93 bitterly cold minutes gets picked up by a car with three people, wearing identical, ill-fitting blue shirts and claiming to be business cohorts returning from a conference. Reacher thinks things are not as they seem. He is right.

Jack Batten in his review in the Toronto Star, Sunday November 5, 2012, says “What follows adds up to the most satisfying of all 17 thrillers in the series. The secret to its superiority is a matter of pace. The unfolding of events nudges along at just the right pace -deep into the book – things speed up as Reacher pulls toward an authentically gripping climax.”

Reacher makes it into Kansas at one point, but then has to back track to where he first caught the ride. By now his nose is beginning to heal and in the end, he is back at the side of the road, looking for a lift to a bus station where he can get a bus for VIrginia. And no that woman there has not aged greatly – it’s only been a few days in Reacher time.

Just as addendum: Lee Child was in my town and in answer to a question, saw nothing wrong with Tom Cruise playing Reacher in the movie, One Shot. Dismayed listeners cited height. Didn’t seem to bother Lee Child that Cruise, who is shorter than most of his wives, should play 6 ft. 5 in. Jack. Well, fine, but I will watch that movie only if it is the last one on earth and I need the distraction.