TRIAGE

After thirty-four years in this house, we’re slowly but surely taking our first steps toward leaving it (I know, 34! Honestly, we were very young when we moved in).

When I say we, I mean my husband of course, but also my sons—especially Simon and Christian—because we’re all bound up in what comes next. Simon most of all, because though he has lived away from us for quite a while now, this reconfiguration of the future was his idea.

A few years ago, he floated the notion of all of us investing in a multigenerational living space. A subdivided house, a duplex, a triplex—anything that would allow us to live with privacy in proximity to one another; a super-home where Simon could gain solid footing in the real estate market, a more permanent roof over his head, and live a life most suited to his values and vision of human ecology: shared space, shared costs and community. The window for making this happen is two to three years.

It has always sounded right. All of us have looked at the horizon, trying to imagine the shape of the world to come, and experienced a shiver of apprehension and a feeling that our futures will be better faced in solidarity. Together.

Together is a word that right now means as many as six of us. When I’m gone or when my husband’s gone, together will still mean…who knows how many people? In some future iteration, it could include Christian and his family, and Penelope and Graeme and their families. Anything’s possible. It’s a word signifying that life is better lived among loved ones. In proximity.

I’ve noticed a change in myself since Simon’s idea began to germinate. My connection to this house, which has been the centre of gravity of my entire adult life, is weakening, and that’s helping me to tug at the roots that ground me to this place. The pain isn’t as acute as I feared. I don’t know what it’ll be like the day the moving truck pulls up and all we leave behind are scuffed floors and nail marks on the walls, but lately, the thought of moving away has taken on the aura of liberation.

My neighbour Gail took this picture of our house from hers, March 7th 2016

Our warm and welcoming little house is dragging me down with the sheer weight of all of the stuff that has accumulated inside it. To quote Sheldon Cooper, it has become “a swirling vortex of entropy. If left to our own devices, we’re each capable of filling any room, any free space with stuff at a remarkable speed.

With the exception of my husband—whose contribution to burying us alive is related to his difficulty throwing out or giving away things that still have monetary value (at heart, he isn’t a packrat), resulting in a crammed crawl space in the basement—Simon, Christian and I * are all afflicted with the ultimate room-filling compulsions: bibliophilia and cinephilia.

[*My married son Jeremy is very neat and orderly—I often think how he must have suffered, growing up, from the effects of our shared talent for agglomeration.]

Simon’s apartment is just like our home, with walls hidden by photographs, artwork and overstuffed IKEA bookshelves that are doing fine with his huge DVD collection, but straining under the weight his books.

It must be genetic.

  

But consider: the photos are of people we love and places we’ve been; each painting or piece of art has personal meaning, including a laminated poster of the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival where Christian performed when he was 16, and oil paintings created by my aunt. We don’t hang things because they match a room’s colour scheme. The DVDs represent hours spent watching and re-watching them together. And the books? I know that Christian, Simon and I have no interest in seeing walls. I know that all three of us (as well as our friend Cindy who is part of our super-home project) envision rooms encased with floor to ceiling bookshelves (she builds them!).

On one side, there’s the consumerism of this century that I want to run from, and on the other, its antithesis, a movement toward decluttering, minimalism and micro living environments.

There’s a beauty in the latter: the order, the simplicity, the detachment, the shedding, the room to breathe.

Darlinghurst apartment
http://www.idesignarch.com/minimalist-inner-city-micro-apartment-with-smart-functional-design/darlinghurst-apartment_3/

I can look at examples of minimalist spaces and the minimalist lifestyle and admire their aesthetic, but then my mind revolts, and what was fresh and cleansing very quickly becomes bleak in its blankness (imagine coming in from the cold of a snowy winter’s day to a white box that passes for your home), clinical in its austerity (like my dentist’s recently redesigned workspace) and devoid of everything except the rarest of personal items.

And that’s the rub. In the spaces where most of my family members live, meaning and material things are bound together through the pathways of sense memory. We feel compelled to live in very personal, evocative environments in which objects reflect and remind us constantly of who we are. This isn’t nostalgic or narcissistic, but rather, I think, a nesting, comforting behaviour. This is who I am because these are my loves.

Some of Danielle’s boxes

My sister Danielle moved here from the West Coast earlier this year, months before finding a new place. When she did, and the movers’ truck finally arrived and we helped her to begin unpacking, I was reminded of this desire to recreate the familiar. This was my Facebook post the following day:

[…] Danielle left her life in BC behind and is finally settling into her new nest.

This is the stuff that made it to Quebec, except for the furniture, which has of course already been spread throughout her new place by the friendly movers.

This is what a lifetime of baggage looks like–once you’ve sorted through it, evaluated its worth and decided that it will follow you to your next destination across a continent.

Every box that’s opened tells a story. Out of every box floats an echo, a hundred memories.

With every box come the beauty of music, the pleasure of books, the familiar feel and smell of clothing, and tchotchkes–those tiny, useless, priceless mementos of the struggle to have a full, rich life.

The unpacking of the tchotchkes mattered. We stored them in a large glass cabinet in her new living room. Each was dusted off and placed on a shelf with great care. Minimalism, shminimalism.

Painting by Suzanne Howard

A few years ago, I came across a little book about a big question. It’s The Burning House, and it asks: if your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door?

We’re spared some tough decisions thanks to our laptops. With those tucked under our arms, photo albums could be left behind without too much anguish, I think, but what of the rest?

I’m not a phobic person, and yet I often find myself spooked by thoughts that one day, I’ll be driving home from work and see charcoal plumes billowing from our cottage. The fact that our house is sixty-three years old plays a part, but it must certainly also have something to do with The Burning House question. What I would grab seems less significant than what I would MISS.

The burning house scenario is the experience of most immigrants, no matter their status upon arriving in their new country. They’ve left so much behind. Nothing is familiar. What do they ache for and what is most precious?

 

SAMUEL

Henderson, Anne G.; Life Circle; Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/life-circle-59910

June 21st 2017

My day had an upbeat beginning. My teaching engagements have slowed to a trickle, so I have more windows of time to fill differently.

This morning, that meant accepting my mum’s invitation to a tea party at her house with Anne, my daughter-in-law, and Penelope and Graeme, my grandchildren (now 5 and 3).  While my mum and Anne stayed at the table a little longer enjoying each other’s company, I was called to a higher purpose—that is, playing with P&G (or Beans and Chuck Norris, as their papa calls them).

Aside from a bit of teaching preparation for tomorrow that still needed doing, the only other thing on my agenda was (and still is as I write this) an invitation to attend the vernissage of the latest collection of works by members of the Montreal Camera Club.

In between, I spent some time in front of this laptop. A couple of hours ago, an email dropped into my Inbox. It was from Miriam, a former student of mine whom I last saw in class last fall. Its title is MEET OUR BABY BOY.

These are just words to you. Happy and upbeat.

But in me, they’ve set off something altogether different: a swirling wash of feelings that have completely taken me over. Even as I sit here typing, I’m almost entirely absorbed in the emotional memories Miriam and Abmel’s newfound joy has awoken.

I feel such bliss for them. Such empathy and euphoria. And something close to disbelief, because this event is sublime, and laced with a residual sadness that has made me cry and left me with a pressure in my chest from so many more tears still wanting to be released, and my physical self just barely able to contain them.

Miriam and Abmel became parents on June 15th, at 9:12 pm. Their son weighed 7 pounds one ounce. A lovely time of day to be born. A perfect weight. In her email, Miriam wrote: “We are very happy and just wanted you to share our joy.”

How perfectly normal.

Munn, Michelle; Untitled 1954; Birmingham City University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/untitled-1954-32987

But no, no, no. NOT to Miriam and Abmel, who are in their early forties, who have lost several babies, I think, to miscarriage—the last time, at more than twenty weeks—a baby they could hold and touch and recognise as having everything and yet still did not live. A baby old enough to tear their hearts out.

Miriam was a beginner when she first started French lessons, and more than once had to endure the litany of beginner questions like: Are you married? Do you have children? How old are they? What are their names ?—to which her colleagues responded so naturally, but which required of Miriam tremendous grace and discretion. I only realised this later.

When she first became my student, and those questions came up and Miriam answered “No, no. No children”, with a polite smile, I thought that perhaps there was a fertility problem with the couple, or that they’d just chosen not to have any. Miriam was always so private.

But when Abmel, who was more advanced in his French, became my student, things changed between the three of us. While Miriam is ebullient and expressive, Abmel is quieter and more intense.

Anima 1
by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

He was struggling with his pain, and with a weariness that was in part the result of dealing with family problems back in his native Cuba, but more profoundly, with an incipient loss of meaning in his life.

Miriam is always warm and optimistic, despite the trauma of her losses, but Abmel’s was the energy of someone aggrieved. It isn’t just that he had the words to say more; Abmel wanted to say more; to express his feelings of growing dissatisfaction with a life in which career pursuits seemed hollower, and in which there was nothing, yet, that he could imagine on the horizon, to quell his unease.

Miriam stopped coming to French class a month early. I’d heard that she was very busy with work; that her department was overwhelmed by the effects of a recent project. And then, one Friday afternoon in December, after his class, Abmel waited till everyone had left the conference room and told me that Miriam was pregnant again. No, that’s not quite right: he whispered that Miriam was pregnant.

Fisher, Samuel; Mater et filius; Solihull Heritage & Local Studies Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mater-et-filius-55683

I remembered an earlier class when, speaking of the last child he and Miriam had lost, Abmel had spread his hands out in front of him—the width of a shoebox—his opposing palms slightly curved, as though touching invisible feet and an invisible head, to show me that THIS was the immensity of their loss.

On Abmel’s face last December, I could read everything. He didn’t smile when he delivered his news and I knew why. He was afraid that Fate was listening.

He didn’t smile because he was afraid to hope and to believe that this time could end differently. He didn’t smile because he was now on guard. Again. Thrown into a state of powerless vigilance. There was fear in his face and a tightness—each experience having further compromised his capacity for carefree joy. Abmel’s face is beautiful, and lined.

MEET OUR BABY BOY detonated in my Inbox. I had resisted contacting Miriam, asking for news. I knew that she was on precautionary pregnancy leave and I worried that if something had gone wrong, my inquiries would only cause her distress.

Downie, Kate; 12 Minute Baby; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/12-minute-baby-83821

MEET OUR BABY BOY. And attached to her words, a photo of baby Samuel, minutes after his birth, resting on Miriam’s breast. And on her face, an expression of completeness and peace.

I lost most of this afternoon to a flood of feelings that I couldn’t contain and that left me spent and all upside down and, improbably, calm.

A Lullaby, by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

Miriam and Abmel’s son Samuel is like my Christian: the life that vanquishes a grief that seemed bottomless.

His parents are not sleeping very much these days. Their lives have just expanded a thousandfold and are no longer their own. Abmel’s search for meaning is over. And Miriam? Well…I like to imagine her in the moments captured by Abmel’s photo.

June 15th, 2017

 Dear Miriam,

                 Today, you sit up in a hospital bed. It is early evening. Your bleary-eyed husband stands next to you, staring in awe at the beautiful new son you cradle in your arms, who is as fragile and miraculous as life itself. And imprinted on his tiny head and body are all the joys, sorrows and pains that Fate will cast upon him. But you will love him enough to make his journey worthwhile.

             And then, you turn him toward you. You lift him to your face, feeling his breath, absorbing his scent. And you bring him closer, ever so gently, so that his tiny head might nestle in the warm hollow of your neck. And slowly, slowly, you rub your jaw along the silky down covering his delicate skull, and then it happens: that long awaited moment of absolute remembrance. It is exactly as you knew it would be. It is timeless. It is sacred. And at long, long last, you tilt your head and kiss your son.

Collins, Cecil; Dawn Invocation; Towner; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dawn-invocation-73112

 

                                                   

AFTER THE FLOOD

I’ve been away from my blogs for over a month and I’m sorry. In part, it’s because in the spare moments that I had, I was doing some writing at the request of someone else—a gratifying, if time-consuming opportunity. But mostly, it was because of a series of disruptive events.

The word cascade comes to mind and it works because it really feels as though I’ve been swept up by the forces of love and connection,  including the aftermath of my mum’s recent flirtation with disaster; the coinciding timing of my younger sister’s move back to Montreal after three decades away, just as my other sister came to visit from afar accompanied by her daughter and new granddaughter; and the ending of a teaching contract, which invariably knocks some of the stuffing out of me.

It also works because everything about this spring has been about water: its wetness; the greyness it brought when sodden clouds hung overhead for weeks on end through late march and most of April and May, delivering more and more of it; and its impartial cruelty as it accumulated above the barely thawed ground and seeped into houses while riverbanks overflowed and storm drains backed up.

Montreal is a city and it’s also an island. For modern Montrealers, this has, of course, meant learning to put up with the frustration of crossing bridges that are always either under repair or choked by traffic. But our proximity to water has mostly been the loveliest of natural gifts.

If you draw a straight line southward from my front porch and walk along it, you’ll reach Lac St-Louis in twelve to fifteen minutes. From my street, I can see the lake, which I’m cut off from by the CN and CP railroad tracks. Fortunately, I can take the shortcut provided by one of several pedestrian tunnels for commuters that run beneath the tracks and the highway.

The island of Montreal and its waterways

Lots of people near the southern or northern shores of the Island have this same luxury of proximity to moving water—all of it feeding into the St-Lawrence river.

Le fleuve Saint-Laurent. That’s its name in French, but not, of course, its original name. The Tuscarora and Mohawk had that honour. Still, it’s noteworthy that while the word river—rivière—exists in French, there’s no English equivalent to fleuve, which is such a resonant word in the province of Quebec.

Fleuve is used to describe a very large river that flows till it reaches the sea. And so it is that the shores of Montreal are swaddled by moving water—fed by a network of tributaries—that increases in speed as it rushes eastward in search of the Atlantic.

This is the geography of my home island, which I love and have always appreciated. Then came the flood.

In a matter of weeks, the West Island of Montreal, my home, was transformed in ways that I’d never before seen in all of my decades growing up and living here. In ways that seemed unimaginable. Impossible. Some of the worst hit areas were at least as far away from the water as my own house, but on lower ground.

Evidence of this appeared everywhere. It was almost the only story being covered (it took a deluge to wipe Donald Trump off everyone’s screens here for a while). Our concerns shrank in scale. My Facebook feed connected me daily with former students and friends I’ve made through my work, and I was able to live the flood by virtue of their posts; see the damage done by the mounting water with every photo they uploaded; and helplessly share the anguish of their messages.

One of the worst hit was my friend Karen. When the water finally crested, it had wiped out large parts of her neighbourhood and was on her doorstep. Her next-door neighbour, an elderly woman, had just been evacuated when I read her most anguished post.

Meanwhile, my former student Sharon, a native New Yorker, documented the slow invasion of her riverside paradise home. It was shocking. Up until then, her Facebook posts had featured images of her beautiful grown sons, of her home town, of jazz musicians and of photos of sunrises and sunsets taken on her back porch.

In early April, before any of this had happened, I listened to an episode of The Current on CBC radio that featured a segment on eco-anxiety—the distress more and more of us live with as we experience the mental stress of living with climate change. It’s early June now, and the skies are still relentlessly grey. It still rains three or four days a week.

Rain on my doorstep, this morning

Our anxiety is amplified by the sheer scale of the threats we face. We’re overwhelmed by a different sort of flood, a torrent of information from every part of the globe, warning us of dangers and looming threats. But this recent flood threw a lasso around our fears and tightened them.

For Karen, Sharon and thousands of other people, the threat was tangible. It was cold, invasive and destructive. It was visible. It glistened and pooled, staining everything in its wake. It smelled of bilge water, humidity and nascent mold.

Karen and Sharon and all of us were reminded of our powerlessness before nature and the problems we’ve created. Of the illusions of protection and safety that we cling to. Of how fragile a lifetime’s worth of work and planning and acquiring really is.

We are like the three little pigs, believing that we are as safe as the walls that surround us.

Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.” -Joseph Fort Newton

Davies, Gwyn; The Wall  (http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-wall-120868)