Paris, Terrorism and Little Canoes

eiffel tower pictureYears ago, my European brother translated a French joke into English for me.

Three explorers, an Englishman, A Frenchman and a Belgian are captured by cannibals. The head cannibal says, “We are going to cook you and eat you, but first, we are going to remove your skin and make it into little canoes. You can have anything you want as a last meal.” The Englishman says, “Can you do roast beef and Yorkshire pudding?” “Of course,” says the headman. “Do you think we are uncivilized?” The Frenchman wants to begin with escargot and go on to an omelette and salad. He is too upset to eat more. The Belgian says, “Give me a fork.” “Is that all you want?” asks the headman. “We do a nice patates frites.” “That’s all,” says the Belgian. “Just a fork.” So they sit down to wait silently.  In a surprisingly short time, the meals  are presented to the Englishman and the Frenchman, and they begin to eat. The Belgian picks up his fork and begins stabbing himself all over his body. When he is covered with bleeding holes he cries, triumphantly, “That for your little canoe.”

Terrorists are nothing new to my brother and me. Our father was one domestically and socially. Keeping us in constant fear would ensure our obedience and turn us into helpers for his nefarious schemes. Oddly enough, we didn’t obey. We contradicted him and took the blows. Then we escaped him. Two of us became teachers, one a minister and my brother, the funniest, kindest oddball in Belgium.

ISIS has miscalculated as all terrorists do. Paris is now the focus of the world’s love. If you’re into it, tune in and see it in your mind-a grid of golden contrails from every corner of civilization. Spiritual help is pouring in from both realms. People are heartbroken and stricken with fear, and, yet, there is more light than darkness even now.

“Out of this nettle danger,” Shakespeare said, “we pluck this flower..” He named the flower “safety”. It suited his purpose. But it is more than that. Empathy is growing by leaps and bounds.

Terrorists always make the same mistake, and they never win. The human spirit was not built for sustained terror. We rise above. We march on.Terrorists actually accomplish the opposite of what they intended. More darkness calls in more light.

That for your little canoe!

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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: part 3 -Brussels

Hobbits are notorious stay-at-homes. It takes a wizard to pry them away from their hearths, and urgent need. Bilbo in one generation and Frodo in the next took their place in the front lines of the war between good and evil, light and darkness.

I have turned into a Hobbit in my old age. I left my home with serious misgivings (see https://115journals.com/2013/11/28/the-septuagenarian-hobbit/) and the journey proved not to be an unmitigated pleasure (see https://115journals.com/2013/12/14/septugenarian-hobbit-part-2/). After three months of apprehensive planning, I find myself back in my brother Rob’s house in the Bois Fort district of Brussels. I was last here 20 years ago and before that 20 years earlier than that. We are, truth to tell, a little concerned about the next trip.

I am here at Rob’s invitation. As soon as he knew he had to have his knee “changed” -his English has grown creative in his 45 years here- he called to ask me over. Not right after the surgery but two weeks later when he would be better. Oh, foolish hope.

I owed Rob. He flew the other way in September 2001 at short notice to help me pull out of a steep decline following surgery. It took him one day to get me to eat, two to get me out of bed to eat and three to get me out to eat. To my credit, I have already inspired him to get behind the wheel of his van, clutch and all. It is his left knee that was changed. And today, we have done 16 leg lifts about an inch off the mat. It hurt one of us terribly.

I had two concerns when I set out. First of all, my brother is a force of nature. His ex-wives and girl friends, all of whom drop in on a regular basis attest to that. He is funny and charming and generous and kind and spontaneous and outrageous and alarming. You never know what he will come up with next, He claimed that a broken leg would slow him down to my speed for a change. Not a chance! He jumps out of the little white van and I have to go rushing after him waving his crutch.

The other concern I had was dealing with the language. He speaks French with, apparently, an odd accent. Some of his friends speak English. Some don’t. I can sort of follow along, recognizing enough words to guess at the meaning and he often translates. What I didn’t reckon with is Flemish. It looks as if it’s an Anglo Saxon language, but just when I need the French translation, there isn’t one.

For example, there are 2 washers and dryers in this house. At a certain point, I had all implements engaged and while I could get clothes clean, I couldn’t get them dry. I chose “Kast droog” I chose “Extra droog”. At a certain point, I realized there was a button which said “Laag” or “Faible”. I disengaged it. An hour later the clothes were still wet. Then I saw a little drawer on the left above the door. I opened it and found a  rectangular tray, 5 inches deep brimming over with water and a notation – in 5 languages, including English- commanding me to empty the tray after every load. My brother limped downstairs. He emptied the tray down the floor drain. And low and behold, there was one in the other dryer as well. The “woman” didn’t know about them, he opined. “I never do the washing,” I heard him say as he started up the stairs. Just now I went down to check them. They were full again after one load. I’m pretty sure the woman knows.

To be continued (Sorry my fingers got away from me again. I wanted to save not publish. See you in the morning.)

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.

Let us Consider the Fortunate Fall Again

Someone has just read my post Fortunate Fall: change the future in a blink, so I decided to reread it myself. https://115journals.com/2012/12/11/the-fortunate-fall-change-the-future-in-a-blink/ and https://115journals.com/2013/01/12/the-fortunate-fall-a-further-exploration/

Events connected with the initial family crises are gradually working out and, any day now, we will begin to see happy results become manifest. In the meanwhile, we have forged new bonds. Yes, it’s a cliche´ but those connections seem as if they were welded in fire. You can probably guess that they were cooled by salt water.

Now a young man is dying. When he came home as a 3 day-old baby, I showed his mother how to bath him. When he was 7, I remembered his curly headed, mischievous- self when I fell into suicidal despair. How could my death be explained to him? It couldn’t. So between him and the crisis line of the Salvation Army, I kept on living.

He doesn’t know that. Indeed at this point, he doesn’t know what is happening.

I am writing this to honour him because I cannot talk to him. What I am honouring is not just his worldly achievements but his inner being, his perpetual light that will not be put out by disease and death.

And to thank him for his shining face that gave me hope and kept me here to aid and comfort others in my turn.

I Dream of Etherica: life changing dream #2

People who say that life is short are generally not old. Although I have not yet achieved old old age, that apparently starts at  85, I sometimes feel like Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando who started out as one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers and ended up as a Victorian mother. I seem to have had that many lives since I was born, although they have all been uni-sex.

One of my lives was esoteric. I meditated twice a day and joined in group meditation at the full and new moon. Every day, I visualized three lighted triangles in partnership with two others (per triangle) in far reaching places -Texas, England, France, South Africa, Australia- to bring light and peace into the world. I read the works of Alice Bailey, submitted essays to the Arcane School and attended conferences in New York City at the full moon in Taurus . We were concerned about world events and considered them in the light of the truth that Alice Bailey had channeled from the being we called the Tibetan.

Now it is true as time went on that I wondered why I never got published in the school’s monthly magazine, whereas my friend, who could afford to donate much more than I, often did. Clearly, I was a poor judge of my own worth. And as I observed the thin, harried, quarrelsome people running the conferences, I wondered if that was what enlightenment looked like.

This was the me that arrived in Los Angeles one August morning about 20 years ago. In the rose-patterened journal, # 23, in my backpack, I had just been making notes: “Tension of heart energy expressed in terms of giving to others- expenditure of spiritual energy can overcome fatigue…”

But not in this case.

My brother, Rob, was supposed to be there to meet me. I hadn’t seen him for seven years. He was flying in from his home in Paris. My daughter met me instead and told me he had been delayed. I was disappointed, I was hot and I was exhausted.

“Take a nap,” Julia said and her husband seconded the motion.

I had my 5 year-old grandson’s room while he was with his father. I lay down on his little futon. I listened. Good. The Buddhist woman next door, who assaulted our ears with her loud, angry chanting, was silent. I breathed deeply and fell asleep.

I dreamed I was on a plane on the way back to Toronto, but something was wrong. We made an emergency landing in a high desert airfield. I was looking out the window at something like snow that was blowing up into dirty little drifts.

I turned to the man next to me and said, to my surprise, “Do you think we are dead?’

“Yes,” he said.

We were herded into the airport waiting room, the walls of which were alternately plum, fuchsia and orange, each one edged with the colour of the wall next to it. We were at loose ends, milling about in vague expectancy. I was frankly appalled at the sheer tastelessness of what was, by all accounts, heaven.

Above us, an LED sign fired up, telling us that our first class would be at 10 p.m. Great! Just what I longed for! Heaven is an evening class!

It was 10:10 already. All I wanted was a shower and some rest. Resentfully, I followed the crowd up a curving, adobe staircase. (Don’t ask me. The journal says “adobe”.) Resentfully. The others were chattering merrily as if they were on a cruise. I was thinking how summer-camp, how awful. I didn’t fit in here either.

At the top, I heard joyful greetings. Each person was greeting an assigned teacher, whom they instantly recognized because they looked alike. A swarthy Mediterranean man had met his Spanish-looking teacher. A bull of a man with a short neck had met a broad-shouldered teacher who could be his twin. Each pair withdrew to a plum-colored banquette to begin orientation. They were all talking animatedly.

Except me. I was standing all alone. Bereft again.

What karmic debt was this? What failure of positivity? I had clearly not tried hard enough. I wanted to cry. And I was very angry. I wanted to clean myself up. I wanted to lie down. Lay my burden down. Oh damn.

Then someone clattered down the stairs that curved up to the third floor. She was running. She was smiling ear to ear – thin, pale, intense woman dressed in flowing, flapping, filmy prints of plum and fuchsia and orange.

“Hello, hello,” she cried, “So sorry I’m late. I’m Etherica. I’ll be your instructor. You can call me Dea, that is “of God”.

Her draped arms were held out, ready for an embrace. She was beaming, smiling broadly but more than that. Her eyes were wide and bright and intensely focused on my face, as if she were beaming light and love as she bore down on me. LIke one of those TV preachers or self-help gurus.  But she was also tripping on her gown and, unforgivably for me as a teacher, she was late.

My stomach revolted. I thought I would vomit. This was my  angel! This was how I seemed to others! Flighty, incompetent, ungrounded, and showering a blaze of brightness that made them want to wipe it off. She was not genuine. She was not …what…. She was not real. She could not, please God, be what I was meant to be.

GAAA!

I struggled awake, tangled in the wet sheet. I gasped for air in the stifling room. I stood straight up. Oh bad idea. Low blood pressure. I sat back down. Put my head between my knees. I could hear Julia treating a patient in the next room. I was in Los Angeles.  I was still alive. Etherica might be waiting for me, but she’d have to wait a while yet.

When I was able to get to the kitchen and had blurted out the whole sorry story to my son-in-law, he found it vastly amusing. “Sambo’s”, he chortled. “You died and went to a Sambo’s.”

He had to do a footnote for this uninformed Canadian. Sambo’s, he said, was a franchised restaurant that specializes in pancakes. Ah, as in the story of Little Bl….., how non pc.

“You’re really spooked. Don’t want to die?”

“It’s not the dying. That’s bad enough, but is that what I am – desiccated, flakey, ineffective, nervous…”

An unwise question to ask a son-in-law but at that moment the phone rang. He picked it up. I could hear the person at the other end, saying, “This is North West Airlines. Mr Hood’s bags have arrived and will be delivered before five.”

“And Mr Hood?” my son-in-law asked.

“Yes?”

“Mr Hood has arrived as well?”

“Good” said the man and hung up.

Where, I wondered is Rob. How could his bags be here and he not? I cursed Air Canada for showing that movie about Judgement City on my flight down.

My son-in-law took his shaken mother-in-law out, down to the beach apartment to make up a bed for Rob. My urgent need to prevent myself from ending up in Sambo heaven with Etherica had to be put on hold.

When we arrived back home on Washington Way, a van labelled  AirServ stood in front of the house and a delivery man with his phone to his ear was pounding on the door, yelling, “Pick it up. Pick it up. I know you’re in there. Well finally… I’ve got your bags here. Where am I? Right at your door. Your single storey brown house..” He turned to look at us as we came up the walk and Julia threw open the door.

“I think you have our bags there,” my son-in-law said pleasantly.

In the evening, the front room changed from a consulting room back into a living room and we were there watching television when I suddenly got to my feet and opened the door. Rob was getting out of a car across the street.

“Hi there, Sis,” he yelled. “I lost somebody. I’ll be right back”.

Back in the car. he made a U-turn and vanished up Abbot Kinney. We stood shivering in the cool desert air until he came roaring back followed by another car. He stood in the middle of the street speaking rapid French at the people in it. We must meet his friends, hear the story of the lost bags, of being questioned in Amsterdam as suspected terrorists because they were bagless and much, much more.

He had blown back into my life, this force of nature, he who had been stabbed on a train platform in Bombay, spent a week in jail in Turkey and as a camera man had had compartments that no one could ever find.

While Julia and her husband were working we walked on the beach and Rob talked, “And so I said to him, ‘Monsieur Godard, films are not made with trucks. Films are made with people – directors and actors.’ quel triumph…”

We drove north up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur, where there was no room at the inn but he conned the hostess into letting us have a table. I had been a vegetarian for ten years but I ordered chicken.

“I remember you, Sis,” he said. You used to laugh. You could laugh at anything. You had a root canal that went wrong. You were in agony for weeks and you had people splitting their sides. You’re the one who taught me how to laugh.” He put down his fork. “What happened to you?”

Probably only Rob could have said that to me. Even so, a list of what had happened unfurled  in my mind and I started to cry.

“It’s okay to cry,” he said, taking my hand, “but, when you get around to it, it’s better to laugh.”

And so it was that what Etherica started, Rob finished, and I gave it all up. I gave up esoteric study and triangles of light and group meditation and terrible earnestness. I gave up flowing prints. I gave up a whole bunch of friends who didn’t laugh either. I ate meat.

That night after he had registered us at the Carmel Motor Lodge, he came out and said, “I told her you were my sister. I think she believed me,” and he fell over the steering wheel in gales of laughter.

The Void Again: Something out of Nothing

A friend of mine beset by ill health and economic downturn, bewailed the fact that at 50, she has nothing. Her business is being sold. Her house is under water (over mortgaged in the failed housing market). She has no pension and she has used up her savings.

Ah, yes, the void again, the great emptiness.

Here we go, my dear, my answer to you: like me you have made you living by talking to others. It was the principal way you helped them heal. All those generous and compassionate words took wing and settled in their minds. They carried your words away and gradually understood them. They became better and better people for it. There is no way to see or measure this effect.

This week, Charlie Rose interviewed Oliver Platt, Lily Rabe and the producer and director of As You LIke It which is being presented in Central Park this month. Lily Rabe, who plays Rosalind, said that she never feels as alive as when she is playing Shakespeare. There is something about just saying the lines over and over that improves her mental health.

I know that feeling from years of reading his plays aloud and listening to students read them and listening to them go out the door still speaking in iambic pentameter without the slightest idea they were doing so. The very cadence and rhythm of the poetry change your brain waves. Behind that, lies Shakespeare’s deep understanding of feeling and his brilliant logic and insight into life. A bracing stimulant like a cool Perrier mist in a tropical bar above a deep blue lagoon.

All that talk just seems to vanish, like my grandmother Gladys’s deep throated story-telling and her great laughter of, for example, the time her French cleaning lady came running downstairs crying, “Gladness, Gladness, the house is on fire.” Indeed the house was on fire and subsequently burned to the ground, but fifty years later, Gladys rocked with laughter. After 96 years and 2 burned-out houses, Gladys is gone and only memory can hold that treasure now.

But it is real no matter how invisible.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. (Hebrews XI, 1). Now faith is a slippery thing. As best as I can see it is the light of our looking and the sound of our listening. It isn’t some dread effort of will. The important idea in Paul’s words is that what is invisible can have substance, can indeed be evidence.

So we could count up what you really have accomplished substantially and visibly, mention, for example, two brilliant male off-spring and a soul mate. Or we could have faith that much more is going on here, the love that people bear you in their hearts is your Pulitzer, your Nobel Prize, your pearl of great price.

This is, after all, only an imitation of defeat and not a very good one at that.

A Poem a Day Keeps Blues Away: Dickinson and Amherst

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer house than prose –

Emily Dickinson

It was a family wedding that took me to Amherst Mass. last weekend. I had never been there before although I felt as if I had because I had read so much about its famous poet, Emily Dickinson. She is the one who wrote those enigmatic four line stanzas beginning with such lines as “A narrow fellow in the grass” or “Because I could not stop for death” or “I taste a liquor never brewed”. Her poems turn up in high school and college anthologies and seem at first glance simple enough, but they are full of surprising insight. The lines I have just quoted, have a hopeful sweep upward at first glance. Ok, it’s a dull day, rain forecast, I’ve got that emotional hangover from a glorious event, but -look- here is a little poem that reminds me that the “prose” of this morning is not the whole picture, that I too can “dwell in Possibilty”. (Yes, grammar check, I do want a capital “P”.) Dwelling is not visiting.

Dickinson goes on to describe the beautiful house that Possibility gives with its fairer windows, more numerous doors, and gambrelled roofs that the ordinary house of prose cannot provide. She is talking about poetry, of course, but you don’t need to know that at first. You may figure it out after a few readings but you don’t have to.

Dickinson didn’t title her poems. An early editor Mabel Loomis Todd, did put titles on them and “corrected” the quirky punctuation -dashes- We don’t approve of that now, we Dickinson aficionados, and in modern texts, we have to look up poems by their first lines. The “right” books of her poetry are published by Harvard University. Amherst College has many of the original manuscripts, but Harvard holds the copyright.

We made the long drive -almost 10 hours, what with traffic- from Toronto to Amherst while others were flying in from the west coast, Texas, Arkansas and the Yukon or just skimming up the throughway from NYC, arriving on Friday night. The wedding was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. What now? Five of us met for breakfast in the Lone Wolf, across the road, more or less, from the Dickinson museum. What to do became obvious.

The docent led us to past the dining room to the library.”Isn’t this where Austin used to meet Mabel..” I began enthusiastically and bit my tongue. It was too late. The docent pegged me for a know-it-all who was spoiling her story by getting to the scandal too soon. Dickinson’s brother, who lived with his wife in the Evergreens next door, met his mistress here in the house where his sisters lived. Since he supported both houses, he presumed such rights apparently.

As our little group followed the leader from room to room listening to her stories, she kept throwing questions at me. Did I know that the Dickinsons had lived in another house in Amherst as well? I nodded.  They fell on hard times early on, she said, but bought this house back eventually. At least, she didn’t demand an answer from me. Later the others laughed at that. I was too busy melting into the background to care at the time. When we came to the last room with its display of how Emily experimented with different words -“gables of the sky” for example, instead of “gambrels”, the docent asked one of us to volunteer to read the poem posted on the wall. Silence fell. Well, it needed to be read aloud. “I will,” I said. What have I done, I wondered. I have no idea what this poem means. I began and the most surprising thing happened. “I dwell in Possibility,” I began and the poem read itself through my mouth until it closed with “spreading wide my narrow Hands/ to gather Paradise”.

Here’s an idea: read a poem. If there’s no book of poems beside your bed – an excellent sleep aid -it’s easy enough to find one on the internet. Better yet, read it aloud. Better yet, read an Emily Dickinson poem aloud. It will surprise and delight you.

Report back.

Why Keep a Journal

My creative writing students used to spend the first twenty minutes of class warming up by writing in their journals.  One of them attacked her journal angrily every morning, addressing her entry, “Dear Constance”. I didn’t actually read what they wrote, but I noticed the daily salutation when she presented her journal for page count. The implication I took was that I was a constant pain in the neck, but still I found it touching. Constance sounded like an ideal reader, patient, loyal and non-judgmental. If I envisaged a reader for my 115 journals, it would be Constance.

I don’t actually. I don’t expect they will ever be read except by me. I can imagine my survivors wondering what in the world to do with them, but I do not see them sitting down to read.

So why do I do it? What motivates me to spend the first half hour of every day writing to myself?

Possibly it’s pathological, a case of hypergraphia, in which case I am in the excellent company of van Gogh, Dostoevsky and Lewis Carroll. I don’t seem to suffer from damage to the cerebral cortex, but then neither did they. Let’s assume that the cause is more benign on the grounds that I could quit if I wanted to. (Honest.)

Like many people, I live alone. Statistics show that many more people do today; as many as 40% of American households are made up of one person and that rises to 50% for women over 75. Like many of these people, I’m used to it and I don’t feel lonely, but I miss having someone to talk to about my daily life. Talking helps me put things in perspective,  clarify my thoughts, make decisions, and enjoy myself. Talking was how I came to understand my life when I was living with others. Now I talk to my journal.

When I was 12, I was given a little diary with a padded faux leather cover and a metal clasp that I could lock against intruding eyes -siblings, mother- in which I recorded the weather for two weeks and not much else. I begin the same way now, checking the present and predicted temperature. (Is this just another obsession or the rational result of living in Toronto?) I review the day before and look over my plans for the day to come. I record my dreams if I remember them, but I don’t pretend to be as good at that as my sister who says she does that every day. (Yes, she also keeps a daily journal. Is it genetic?) I note my response to the day’s stresses, my physical and mental health, the causes thereof and strategies for coping. I examine relationships when necessary. Then to exercise my short term memory, which has never been very good, I record what I have read or watched on television.

There are practical results to having such a record.  What was that particular mystery by Lee Child about? When did I have a bone density test? How exactly did that diagnosis proceed? What was the date of that short-lived, registry office wedding? Apparently, the long delayed divorce cannot proceed until the date of the marriage is established.  Ah, yes, journal #18, August 1986. I am the family archive keeper.

But it didn’t begin that way. It began with a hard covered “Dominion blue line” record book which I bought for 2.75, the same day that I bought “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. It contains sporadic entries, centered mostly on the angst of seeking job promotion, but there are lovely details of my children’s reading -Tales of Mother West Wind, riding home in the MG with the top down in the rain, the orange lilies in the rock garden, the mountain ash berries, until that dire event, when life in the house under the hill came to an end. I began the second journal 8 years after the first and it is entirely in poetry, yet a daily record of what I felt following my separation. By journal #5, I am back to prose, “a record, a scientific basis for discovery and judgment”. What can I say? I don’t actually recognize the person who wrote those early journals.  That is one of the miracles of journal writing.  I see how much I’ve changed. Of course, I’m way better now or at least my prose is not as wordy.

So the books began to accrue, small, brightly colored, easily carried into coffee shops at first, then at journal #33, black, 8 by 11, sketch books of acid free paper. Last Christmas my sister gave me a light blue sketch book (#114) and a lime green one (#115) saying it was time I swore off black. Now they make an untidy, hard to access pile, demanding their own bookcase.

I did use a computer for a number of years, although I prefer the tactile experience of an actual book. At the time, I printed entries as well and I’m glad I did because when my computer died without warning, I  lost several years of entries.

So here’s what I think: you should start a journal if you don’t already keep one.  (If you do, you should keep on.) You’ll get a confidante who can keep a secret, improve your memory and gain clarity. “The unexamined life,” Socrates said, “is not worth living.”