Winter Mind Games

It’ll soon be Christmas and New Years. I’ll meet family and friends. I’ll be all right.

It’s past the winter solstice (Dec. 21), now the days are getting longer. There’s more light. I’ll be all right.

It’s a new year. I’ll eat better, exercise more, read better books and get in touch with long lost friends. I’ll be all right.

It’s the first of February. The worst of winter is over. I’ll be all right.

It’s the first of March. It’s still deep winter. I may not be all right.

PS. Every time it snows, an unknown stranger cleans my car off in the parking lot. I’ll be all right



Have Yourself a Serotonin Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Living in 3 Time Zones: a matriarch’s tale

There were stars overhead. A long-legged eight year-old had plunked himself down in the bed beside me. We could hear the revelers downstairs, but youngest and oldest, we craved rest. The stars on the ceiling glowed in the dark and I remembered sleeping under just such stars 20 years ago in Venice Beach, California, an ocean and a continent away. This is how far my family has spread. This is how far I have had to spread my arms to keep them – what? – not safe, for that is impossible. Let us just say “to keep them”.

Technology has made the job easier in the last 15 or 20 years. E-mail was a great help, so much faster that snail mail. Answering machines and FAX machines appeared. Then long distance rates started to fall, the mobile phone came along, and texting became possible. Distances were easier to bridge.

In Brussels last week, I watched the last episode of the BBC’s David Copperfield in which the Micawbers embarked on a sailing ship for a new life in Australia. Something had finally come up, as Mr Micawber so optimistically kept on saying it would, throughout his disastrous life. The villain of the story, Uriah Heep, was also on his way there, barefoot, chained to other prisoners, to pay for his crimes. His mother cried out, “My poor boy. I’ll never see him again.” Australia was just too far then, even supposing Heep lived to get released. Letters might be exchanged, but probably only two or three a year, given the time the voyage took.

In 1945 when my father moved us from the Eastern Townships of Quebec to Hamilton Ontario, my nine year-old self seriously doubted that I would ever get back to the mountains and the family I loved. Letters were posted and received weekly, but we had no phone. In the event of something momentous like a new baby brother, we could borrow the neighbour’s phone and pay the exorbitant long distance cost. In fact, we did return the summer after my brother Rob was born, in 1947.

Rob was the first family emigrant, hying himself off with a backpack at the age of 19 to explore the world. Our mother cashed in his life insurance policy to finance his getaway. By then it was a tossup whether our father would murder Rob or Rob would murder our father. All of the three older girls in the family harboured the same homicidal urge, but were not as capable of the deed.

Rob stayed safely out of reach of familial harm in Afghanistan, India, and Turkey, where various strangers had a go at him. Finally, he settled in Belgium. Where he had a phone which I could now afford to call to tell him our mother had been given only weeks to live. He thought it was a trick, and indeed, our mother survived against all odds for another 6 years. She had that ace in her pocket though -imminent death- and he came back for a visit – 3 years after he had left. He invited us to visit him and  2 years later I did, with my young family. We formed a friendship then that had not been possible before. So I began the process of long distance living. What time is it here? What time is it in Belgium or Italy or Sweden, wherever his career as a film gaffer took him?

Just when I got the knack of that, my daughter Julia took off for New York City. No problem, same time zone. But -what’s this? She’s off to the west coast. She’s getting married in Las Vegas. And so I began living in 3 -count’em – 3 time zones.

It’s quite dizzying. Whenever I want to talk to Rob, he’s already asleep. Initially, after I returned from Brussels last week, I woke up at 4 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, thinking it was already 10 a.m., and called him then. My daughter up on her west coast mountain would be snoozing away in her 1 a.m. world. As I acclimatized to Toronto time, I kept missing windows of communication. I ended up texting Rob while he slept and getting his reply when I woke up. Julia is beyond the reach of cell phone texts at present, but I catch her at odd moments as she builds the fire in early morning.

As I lay there on Christmas Eve, looking up at the stars, I thought about all the grandparents who travel great distances to be with their far-flung families and sleep as like me in children’s bedrooms. I thought about older women alone in their cars on lonely highways and on long distance flights. Like me, they may well count over 50 such trips and see the results in maturing children who know they are part of something bigger.

That something is family. I can’t help it. I have to communicate, to be there. Someone needs to hold the family together and time has made me the matriarch.


The Septuagenarian Hobbit Returns: New Year’s

(This is one of a series of posts in which I have explored my hobbit-like reluctance to travel.)

The arrival of 2014 was confusing for me. My body-clock registered it at Brussels time and took me to bed shortly afterwards, but not before I received a text from my brother Rob, who had probably just set off fireworks in Bois Fort: Where are you? I have looked all over the house.

I can’t imagine how confused my fellow travellers must be. I joined their flight at the Brussels airport, half way through their journey from Delhi – mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children, babies and one grandfather. Shortly after take-off at 10:15 a.m., the lights were turned down and  most of them went to sleep. I joined them.

Even as I was swept south on Highway 427 from YYZ, otherwise known as Pearson International Airport, I felt as if some essential part of me had still not landed.

It is after 3 a.m. eastern standard time. My neighbours have just come in from partying and gone to bed. I went to bed at 6 p.m., so here I am.

I postponed the return to my home by stopping to eat. I was ready for dinner. Blake, who had picked me up, wanted brunch. Easy to get dinner at noon, but brunch on a weekday, New Year’s Eve or not, took some convincing.

Finally, I got home. The lights were on. I had carefully set the timer to put them on at sunset, but the ice storm cut the power, so the timer clock thought it was dark already. Warily, I approached the refrigerator. Four days without electricity! Nothing. No dreadful smell. My landlord had come in, I knew, and all the frozen meat was gone, but all the glass containers of stock, soup and stew were still there. For a brief moment, I thought there was a reason, but of course, there wasn’t. Refrozen they sat patiently waiting to give me ptomaine. For the third time in a year, I had lost everything in the freezer. (But global warming is a myth and all this crazy weather is just part of a natural cycle!!!!!!!)

The news showed me poor people in long lines waiting -many in vain – for food vouchers. They had lost their Christmas food and very likely had spent the holiday freezing in the dark.

I had gone with Rob to the fish market in Brussels to pick up a huge iced platter of oysters, sea snails and shrimp, destined to join turkey as our Christmas Eve feast. (The snails were particularly delicious.) I had been warm and cozy throughout. Evidently, there are advantages to travel.

(I will post one more blog in this series, in which I will explore the surprising fact that my Brussels family, whose language I can barely follow, has so much in common with my Canadian family and my Southern Californian family.)

Happy New Year.


The Septuagenarian Hobbit: honored guest

(Fifth in a series in which I explore reluctance to travel)

The 13th century poet Rumi said “You are the honored guest/ Don’t go begging for bits of bread. (Trans. Coleman Barks) I have been learning what he meant by that during this Christmas trip to Brussels.

In part I am honored here because my brother Rob introduces me everywhere as “ma soeur” with great affection and any sister of Rob is instantly honored by his vast number of friends. They are constantly in and out of his house here in Bois Fort. A remarkable number of them seem to have keys and the rest ring the bell at all hours.True two of them are his grown up daughters. Others have found refuge here until they could get on their feet. Still others drop by to see how his recovery from surgery is going or to borrow his sander or soy sauce, just to chat or on the off chance there is dinner.

Christmas Day, Rob interrupted my nap. He sat on the edge of the bed and presented the problem. He had invited 4 people for lunch, intending to serve Christmas Eve leftovers. (Christmas Eve is the main event here in Brussels.) One had cancelled. In his mind, lunch was cancelled. Now the other 3 had arrived.  No leftovers had been left. What to do? In 5 minutes, we devised a menu of smoked salmon, quiche from the freezer, Polish blueberry-stuffed pasta, his famous green salad and cheese. In half an hour it was on the table. Each guest specialized. One made a meal of salmon, another of cheese and salad, etc. Only the exotic pasta got short shrift. And of course there was wine. He had sent me down to the wine cellar, being hampered himself by his “changed knee”. Absent-minded he may be, but he honors guests.

In turn, these friends invite us for dinner. At home in the west end of Toronto, I lead a quiet life. The door bell never rings. Dinner out is, at most, a monthly event. Cozy it may be and introspective, but not dinner out every other night. And, to my embarrassment Christmas gifts for me. I protest to Rob that I have no gifts in return. “You are the gift,” he assures me. I contemplate tying a red ribbon around my neck. “You came so far,” he says. A lifetime of self- criticism stands in my way. How is it possible to feel worthy of this outpouring?

But that is the point Rumi was making. We don’t earn this honor. It is a given. We show up. We are the honored guest and the bounty of life is ours.


The Septuagenarian Hobbit

Recently, I discovered my inner Hobbit. And no I don’t mean I found I have leathery feet with hair on top.

I am planning a trip to Brussels in December to stay with my brother. Blake congratulated me, saying it would be an adventure and I heard myself replying that I don’t want an adventure. Hobbits are notorious for their love of home. They want to enjoy their second breakfast in front of their own hearth, not go wandering over the earth on quests.

Don’t ask me how my brother, Rob, enticed me to go. He did hold out the promise of my own little apartment at the top of his house where the pigeon loft used to be. The first floor used to be a bakery and still has the wide Dutch door through which the loaves were sold. And so I was seduced.

There was a time when I set off gleefully for long summers on the road. Through Belgium, France and Corsica with side trips into Italy and Greece. In a tiny Fiat. Staying in “Clean but comfortable”, one star hotels.  Laughing at getting locked out and struggling through wet laundry lines to get in the kitchen door. Amused by the timed hall lights that left you in pitch darkness half way to the toilet. Undaunted by not understanding the language.

Now I am daunted.

As I recall Belgian cuisine, while outstanding, relies heavily on bread and frites. I haven’t eaten either for some time. My brother is a vegetarian of the fish persuasion.  Christmas dinner, (served on Christmas Eve) will be a huge fish stew perhaps or a steamed Irish salmon. I am ill-adapted to fishy feasts, living as I do far from the sea. Okay, I have those recipes buried somewhere in my memory or in that bottom drawer of the buffet. I’ll just have to go with a complete gastro shake-up. Years ago, I went on a family trip to Maui with the same sort of reservations about hotel food, but the astonishing thing was that the laughter at every meal rendered my digestion better than it had ever been.

But with some things I won’t take chances. My buckwheat pillow is going with me in my carry-on.



Las Vegas: a non gambler’s perspective

palms #2

I’m not a gambler. That’s because my father was. Even a little bit of his meagre income squandered on the ponies had a significant impact on that week’s meals and the one time he won more than a week’s wages did not make up for that.

I was once the owner of sailboat, which, they say is like standing in a cold shower tearing up hundred dollar bills. The difference between that and gambling, in my mind, is that with gambling, you skip the shower.

And yet I find myself in Las Vegas from time to time, staying in a hotel. On Christmas Eve it was the Palms. We had chosen the Palms because one of us had stayed there last Christmas and reported that with wood panelled rooms it had a warm vibe . Besides the rooms were going cheap. How surprised we were to find there had been a total renovation. Now the tigerlike eyes of a woman, framed by palm fronds gazed down over every bed. The bathtubs had been removed and replaced by showers big enough to accommodate a small crowd behind transparent plexiglass. The coffee makers had gone the way of the bathtubs. This meant that whenever I wanted tea, I had to travel down to the cafe to get hot water. On Christmas morning at 5 a.m., I made my way there to discover that the usually crowded casino had only three diehards, eyes glued to their slot machines.

For as you may know, the casino in any Las Vegas hotel is unavoidable. You enter through it. You cross it to get to the front desk. You recross it to get to the elevator and every time you want to buy a bottle of water or get a meal or go out to visit a relative. Initially, the noise drove me crazy, but I have found that it’s like traffic when you’re driving. Pay attention only to what’s relevant.

The Las Vegas that I know is not party central. It is a more suburban experience where neat Spanish-style bungalows line curving streets. Twice we have rented houses big enough to accommodate the extended family gathered from across the continent. The first one could have slept about 20, but it had a few disadvantages. One of the toilets roared when flushed and on the wedding day, the city turned off the water for non-payment. The other was smaller although it still had room for 10 and a pool where you could escape the summer heat. You could escape it in the house as well, but the air conditioning was so fierce that you risked frostbite. Some of us devised a strategy: we stayed inside until we got chilled, then we sat outside until we got fried even with pool breaks. The kids of course just stayed in the water until about 10 p.m. Party central, yes, but….

We did stay at the Monte Carlo on the strip one year and I was bowled over by the Babylonian opulence of it all. I sat waiting for kids to get off the rides in New York, New York. The fountains at the Bellagio alone were worth the trip, not to mention the buffet despite the line-up.

Ah, the buffet! Las Vegas has cheap buffets, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like the reasonably priced drinks you can get at the casino bars, the food and even the room is just a ploy to keep the gambler feeding the machines money. Meanwhile feast your eyes on a glass pyramid, an Eiffel Tower and other bizarre edifices that delight a playful heart, never more than when the lights come on at night.

We go there for weddings and funerals and, sometimes, for Christmas. Thanks to the bold imagination of 2 family members who upped stakes and moved there in their retirement and who never played more than the nickle machines, Las Vegas has a homey feel.


Winter Solstice

Winter solstice occurs this year on Friday, December 21 at 11:12 UTC around 4:15 p.m. here on the west coast.

This poem was written nearly 20 years ago, when I was living in an apartment on Venice Beach. I brought a copy with me on this trip and it feels applicable now as we approach the longest night, a time when physical light has reached its lowest ebb and now will begin to grow again, a time when inner light is at the full and can be accessed.


Winter Solstice

Such deep dark
so long sustained
should smell of balsam,
cedar, pine,
should have a canopy of icy stars,
of Northern lights,
shifting panes of white or green.

-A child under a buffalo robe
watching a sleigh runner
cut through blue
moon-shadowed snow
sees a rabbit track running off
into deep woods.-

Waking in the depth
of this longest night,
thirsty for sleep,I hear
the pounding surf,
an angry wordless shout
one floor below
and the reverberating slam
of a dumpster lid.
The sky at least is quiet:
a star hangs
above the flight path.

In my long sleep,
I have been following
that track back
into the woods
breathing sprue pitch
and resined pine,
lashed by boughs of evergreen,
until I have arrived at this
secret place
which only wild things know,
a place to shelter
while things end,
time unwinds,
the circle turns.

When we awaken,
shouting, homeless,
single and bereft,
we will go forth
into the growing light,
a light
we creatures of the dark
must yet endure.

This is the place,
now is the time
for the birth of the Child
in the cave of the heart.


Sage Baby: Bad Titles follow-up

A couple of posts ago, I ruminated about titles that get outdated by time, including George Orwell’s 1984 and my blog 115journals. I imagined that the three journals I have written since are seriously put out and I rashly promised journal 118 that I would mollify it by posting its highlights. Today I reached page 215, the last page. Journal 118 started on July 8th is now retired from active duty.

Let’s see what’s there.

Oh. My. Goodness. Anais Nin would have relegated its first part to her diary of pain. When she was mortally ill in Big Sur, as I remember, she divided her journal in two and kept the unpleasant stuff separate. I haste to add that my “pain” was more mundane and much alleviated by simple means such as a new regimen of supplements to replace the minerals I was short of.

Then I come to a dream I had in which I was a young doctor just beginning my residency when I learned that I was pregnant. The dream was suffused with love, warm, nourishing love for and from my husband, and a quickening sexual desire. I went out for a walk by myself on a rainy Sunday evening to relish this feeling. Oddly, I came upon my actual/ non-dream-life son in the course of this walk. He was working as a blacksmith -not of course in real life -outside his forge and raised his head only briefly to ask if I had written another book.

I seemed to be living an alternative past and seeing an alternative future.

When I looked at what the dream meant, I saw that I was dreaming of healing myself. The Sunday night walk could be seen as a sign I was now complete enough in myself to do so. Someone I told the dream to said I was dreaming about my “sage baby”, that gestation is a symbol of spiritual cultivation.

So I looked on the internet for “sage baby’ and found it was the name of a company that produces baby blankets, a name given to both boy and girl babies and the name of a musician. Not helpful. I imagined people sitting in a shamanic circle fashioning tiny doll babies out of sage leaves. Then I finally realized she meant “wise” baby.

Ah, a familiar idea. One of western civilizations most important festivals centres on the wise or sage baby, born in a manger. But it has seemed to me for some time that this is better understood as the birth of the Christ in the cave of the heart, in other words, our own soul discovering itself and knowing it is one with the divine creative spirit.

A book is another kind of sage baby and my real son was/is fashioning his own sage baby, in iron with fire.

So there you go, Journal 118. That is surely your highlight, an actual insight.

Isn’t it curious that in our dreams, we can be any age, possibly because we are not actually age-specific.

How’s your sage baby coming on?