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.

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The Great Loneliness

Churchill called it the Black Dog

Churchill called it the Black Dog

The great loneliness fell upon me without warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having said that I see that the moon is full.

full moonmtn

 

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.

Stinky Flower – a personal reflection on Amorphophallus titanum

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Last week ( Sun April 21) an Amorphophalus titanum or corpse flower bloomed in Edmonton, a noteworthy event. There are only about 5 such cultivated blooms a year, world-wide, and an individual plant does not bloom for several years. In its natural habitat, the jungles of Sumatra, there are probably more.

The one at the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, Alberta was the first to bloom in western Canada. It grew from a dormant 225 lb tuber flown up from Boston last fall. The bloom lasted for a little over 24 hours, attracted 3,500 visitors and smelled like rotting flesh.

It was my privilege to be in the right place -within driving distance of the Huntington Library- at the right time -August 6, 2002 – to see the Amorphophallus titanum in full bloom and redolent of corpse.

People actually do fly great distances to witness this miracle. One of those was Jen Gerson, the National Post reporter, who wrote “Thousands Come for Rare Bloom”, (Wed. April 24, 2013) But, alas, Jen arrived Tuesday by which time the flower had wilted and its perfume abated. I can attest to that short life span. I went back to the Huntington on Saturday, August 10, 2002 and found the 6 ft spadex or”phallus” wilted and even more amorphus (ill-shaped).

The tallest specimen on record appears to have been 9 ft. tall. Even the one I saw dwarfed all viewers as they huddled leeward.

My encounter with the Stinky Flower occurred at a low point in my life. I had fallen into one of those black moods where you can’t remember how to put one foot in front of the other. It did seem like a reckless plan to keep my 8 year-old grandson, Leo, out of school and set out from Culver City. It’s easy to get there I was told: go to the end of the 110 where it turns into South Arroyo, turn right onto California and then Allen. This advice for a person who could no longer master left, right, left.

Leo’s safety seemed to concentrate my mind, however, and we found ourselves waiting in a long line in the hot sun, being plied with free bottles of water. Leo was very excited by the prospect of a really bad smell. The Huntington had thoughtfully called it a Stinky Flower so as not to upset childish sensibilities by calling it Corpse Flower. Sir David Attenborough had invented his own name when he featured the plant in his series “The Secret Life of Plants”, feeling that repetition of Amorphophallus titanum would be inappropriate. He called it titan arum.

As we waited, we boned up on why it smells so bad. It’s all a question of the birds and the bees, wouldn’t you know or, more precisely carrion beetles and flies which pollinate the plant. These flies, children were told, fed on decaying meat. Leo, being Leo, got the straight goods out of me by careful questioning.

The Post report described the smell as a diaper pail that’s been left out in the garbage in hot weather or minnows forgotten on a boat. The closer we got, the more people covered their noses. Even Leo began to wonder if he was up to it. Despite the still hot air, the porch where the plant stood seemed to have an air current and we kept circling until we could stand the putrid odour. It was definitely trial by smell.

The spadex apparently has a velvety texture, is shaped, according to one report, like a French loaf and is purple, a visual imitation of putrefying flesh. The huge cup-shaped flower is also purple inside and green outside.

When we had had all we could take (and out of deference to those out there waiting in the sun) we retreated to a cafe table with an sun umbrella. By chance the docent who had given the “tour” talk sat at the next table. Where, demanded Leo, could he get some of those seeds. A lively discussion ensued about possible places where he could grow such a plant.

He was not so interested in the HUntington’s other offerings – a first folio edition of Hamlet, a Guttenberg Bible or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

That night, I dreamed I was a young woman, very depressed, and I had been asked to a formal dance by Blake. I knew he would get me a floral corsage and that in the course of the evening, it would die and get repulsive so that I would have a hard time wearing it. Indeed when we met for the event, he was no longer the tanned, trim, athletic boy he actually was but slightly over-weight, soft and -how did I know- hopelessly behind in technology. When I woke up, I felt as if I had created something of great scope and beauty, which had morphed into something noxious and ugly. And that was before I went back and saw the wilted titum arum.

I said I was going back to peer at the old books, but I made for the stinky flower right away and while I spent time with the books, I also spent much time just sitting in the garden.

Our Stinky Flower had previously bloomed in 1999 and an offset seedling from that plant gave rise to a new plant that bloomed at the Huntington in 2009 and again in 2010.

Then last week, as depression lapped around my edges, I came across the Post article. Amorphophallus titanum had come back into my life. Things are greatly changed. I am far from the Huntington. Leo is as tall as the spadex of our Stinky Flower, an adult and very much his own person, but then he always has been. He did not follow through on those early biology interests. He’s more of a troubadour. What hasn’t changed is that, what Churchill called the Black Dog, is still dogging some of us.

Well, so be it. The Stinky Flower has its own amazing beauty and its stink can be endured.