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)

 

 

EMERGENCY

Nicholas, G.; Hospital Scene; Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-scene-43150

At about 3:20 on Tuesday morning, the phone rang, and then rang and rang, piercing the silence and finally my sleep which was much deeper than usual. An unfortunate stroke of good fortune—my deep sleep, that is—because it took me a while to emerge from it.

This wasn’t a problem for my ever-vigilant husband who snapped into alertness and rushed to the ringing phone (we don’t keep one in our bedroom). I heard him speaking quietly and heard the seriousness in his voice.

He came back to our room and said, in French: “It’s your mum. She’s had a heart attack and there’s blood everywhere.”

His words exploded the quiet of night. But it still took too long for me to activate—precious, dangerous minutes for me to become fully coherent and functional. Mostly, as I struggled to get dressed and clear my head, all I could say was oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…Imagining terrible things. Unable to reconcile the cardiac event with the blood—why the blood?

John Bellany, Self-Portrait in Hospital; The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-in-hospital-233775

Because my mum lives so close by, we were there in a flash. It was a terrible time of transition and my husband drove too fast and not fast enough. With our own key to her house, we let ourselves in and there she was, lying on the sofa covered in a blanket, her bloody head on a smeared pillow.

Waiting for help.

This narrative ends well. I’ve no desire to build suspense. My mum had passed out twice. Falling to the ground in her kitchen, she’d hurt her face and ribs. She then made it to the bathroom and tried to wash the blood from her nose, her face, her hair—she’d lain in it. The second time she lost consciousness, the water was still running in the bathroom sink and soon spilled onto the floor around her.

Blood and water.

She woke up again and thought to turn off the tap, got herself to the sofa and waited till… (I can’t finish this: I can’t explain her reticence to call us asap).

And then she phoned us.

There was an ambulance and paramedics. Two women working in tandem like they’d always been a team, with very few words—spoken with equanimity—probing, observing, evaluating. And my mum answered every question with perfect lucidity. Out came the spinal board, the cervical collar and a long, narrow, dark oval wrapper that enveloped my mum like a giant synthetic canoe.

Carter, Grace; Miller Hospital; Greenwich Heritage Centre; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/miller-hospital-193755

My husband and I reached the hospital before they did. He went to park the car and I walked into EMERGENCY. It was a weirdly dissonant, anticlimactic moment. Except for a security guard behind glass in his booth off in a corner, the emergency waiting room was empty. I’ve never seen this before and don’t expect to ever see it again. Stranger than fiction. There was an aura of calm after a storm. I was thrown by the sudden deceleration.

The ambulance arrived without fuss, or flash, or drama. My mum was unloaded right in front of me. The medical baton passed from the emergency medical technicians to the nurses, one woman and two men, all working the last few hours of their night shift.

I stayed close, then was sent to an out-of-the-way corner to sit quietly, and then allowed back to be with my mum. All permissible because it was so quiet everywhere in triage. Pumped up on adrenaline, my husband just couldn’t sit still and so he was released to go back home and try to sleep.

Fox-Pitt, Douglas; Indian Army Wounded in Hospital in the Dome, Brighton; IWM (Imperial War Museums); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/indian-army-wounded-in-hospital-in-the-dome-brighton-6030

My mum and I had now entered the stall zone, an area of time existing only in hospitals, which probably feels like an endless succession of shifts to the medical personnel, but is a state of static, passive half-life to patients and those who love them.

With her preliminary examinations and tests done, my mum and I moved to spot 15, one space from the window at the far end of the Emergency ward and right next to where I had spent several scary hours at my husband’s side along with my sons, in December 2012, after he suffered a serious, amnesia-inducing concussion.

Being in Emergency stirs up all of those past memories—layer upon layer of emotional scar tissue: a child’s badly broken arm, a slashed eyelid, a gashed finger, a scary virus and more. Long days, long waits and feelings of helplessness.

Enough time had passed so that the ward had filled up again. When we’d first arrived, my husband had read on a monitor mounted on the wall that Emergency had operated at 211% of its capacity the previous day and into the night.

During the twelve hours that my mum and I were there together, I came and went, getting tea, getting food, walking through the rows and rows of people on stretchers as I exited and returned, realizing that my mum had lucked out, that she was in fact in a sweet spot in the ward. Because by midday, there were patients everywhere, filling not only the small spaces defined by curtains, but what remained in the aisles between them.

Curtois, Mary Henrietta Dering; Ruston Ward, Lincoln County Hospital; The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery);

Whether patients or loved ones, we all shared the same sense of unease. Emergency is a terrible place to be and while we’re there, we’re trapped—by our injuries, by disease, by the ties that bind us.

Nobre, Manuel; Hospital Scene; CW+; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-scene-178621

Emergency is the ground zero of health care and government bureaucracy, and everyone who enters knows this and feels the first tingle of fear. It’s a place of serious and possibly critical illness, trauma and pain. Sometimes, it’s just the first part of a long and harrowing passage toward death.

Every new person on a stretcher who gets wheeled into its corridors pushes every other patient that much closer to the indignity of anonymous suffering. Of being overlooked. Of being left alone for hours, exposed and vulnerable.

It’s a place where discretion and compassion must constantly be exercised. Women and men leave decades of conditioning behind and suffer constant assaults to their sense of personal modesty within view and earshot and smell of each other. Bodies are not beautiful in Emergency.

While I was there with my mum, I was struck by the number of older men who’d been admitted, having been fitted with oxygens masks or else tubes in their noses; many with COPD, diabetes, failing kidneys. Some with concerned and tired-looking wives by their side but too many, alone.

Such solitude is unimaginable to me.

Awan, Sara; Hospital 2; Durham County Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-2-43866

My mother didn’t have a heart attack on Tuesday. For want of a better explanation, the most likely reason for the two periods of unconsciousness she experienced was a vasovagal reaction to a bacterial or viral infection. As her condition improved and my focus was able to shift a little, I abandoned discretion and began looking at faces. When you look closely enough, you can see the invisible walls that some have built around themselves with the intention, I think, of containing the scale of misery and worry they have to endure. It looked to me like most of the time, the wall builder was the companion, not the patient.

On most faces, you can read tension, fatigue, worry, restlessness and fear. Sometimes, submission. Sometimes, combativeness.

As I came and went and even as I stayed by my mum’s side, I decided to make eye contact and smile at people. That’s how I met 89-year-old Mr. Pilkington, his wife and youngest daughter, and that’s how I met the tiny, mischievous Italian woman who immediately took to calling me la bella signorina every time she stopped by on one her short and restless walking tours.

My mum was badly shaken, but has bounced back. She’s such a marvel. I didn’t realize how affected I was by it all until the following day, when it was all I could do not to cry when my thoughts slid just slightly sideways to her and how close she’d come. I was so tired.

Emergency is a reminder that our daily wellbeing is built on clouds and  can be undone by something as simple as  a night-time walk to the kitchen for something to settle your stomach.

It’s a place full of dangers, the very worst of which, in the tumult of medical care, may be the breakdown of human solidarity.

Pomeroy, Tim; My Old Men, Hospital; Art & Heritage Collections, Robert Gordon University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-old-men-hospital-105860

 

MAKING THE BEST OF THE WORST

It’s been a weird weekend.

Last Thursday, our passage from winter to spring took an unwelcome turn. A rainstorm washed in and dumped a record-breaking number of centimetres of water onto ground that was still frozen. That’s a rotten recipe.

From Thursday morning through Friday night, rivers overflowed their beds, sump pumps failed and hundreds, if not thousands, found themselves ankle deep—or worse— in water in their own basements.

We were among them, and that Thursday vigil by the submersible pump (borrowed from my saintly brother-in-law), in the damp and cold basement, was a long, lonely night.

Hardly the ideal circumstances leading up to a trimestrial Saturday gathering organized by my son Christian, this time named:

Best of the Worst (BOTW to the initiated):

AMERICA! DISSTOPIA/UTOPIA

From Megaforce.

Inspired by the fellows at Red Letter Media, Christian has made the event his own.

I’ve been struggling to remember how long we’ve been at this. At least four or five years by my count. Christian is a combination movie buff and collector of trivia and esoterica with an elephantine memory. Mix this with a tight group of friends who are each as nerdy, sharp-witted, good-natured and crack-me-up funny as the other, and you have the makings of a rosy tradition.

The basic formula of a BOTW evening is simple: Christian selects two films from the vast and shameless videosphere of intentionally, ironically or accidentally terrible movies that are so bad, they’re good. We watch them together, eat, drink and, when it’s over, vote for the “best” bad movie. The BOTW. More recently, Christian has added some pretty terrific Pub-night style movie quizzes that are the extra fun between viewings.

There’s real artistry behind Christian’s soirées. It takes a deft touch to get the balance just right: to create an atmosphere in which hilarity offsets mockery, and in which a genuine sympathy for endearing cinematic intentions gone horribly awry prevents the mix from souring. At his BOTW evenings, scripts and scenes are usually in such awesomely, spectacularly poor taste and effects so cheesy, that you just can’t help but deride them with glee and genuine affection. It’s often hard to hear the movie over the guffaws and running ribald commentary of the BOTW gang.

I get to attend because this house is still the only Daoust venue big enough to hold and host everyone who has now been drawn into Christian’s and the event’s orbit.

Last evening, while Megaforce and America 3000 were filling the darkened space, I surveyed the room, and it struck me how unlikely a bunch we were, and how many mutations this group has experienced. The tight nucleus of Christian’s college friends, which also drew in his brothers—especially Simon—now exerts an unpredictable gravity.

Among those packed like sardines into my living room were Cindy, who was first the friend of a friend of Simon’s, but who is now, well, family, and who arrived with Raouf, who in the beginning was her lodger and is now her friend, having come to Montreal all the way from Egypt to complete his MBA. This was his second BOTW evening, and he was better prepared for the mayhem.

Then there was Thomas, in Montreal from the Maritimes to start his first job eighteen months ago, who was originally my French student but integrated my sons’ lives first through sheer necessity and then, in amity. He’s now a BOTW veteran.

John Wells, Near and Far

There were Pat and Patricia, the world’s most convivial couple, who both work and teach at the same college as Simon, and fill every room they occupy with joy and energy. They get along with everyone.

There was Alec, who grew up in the house on the corner but alternates between two different living spaces, miles apart, and whose presence is both constant and sphynx-like, though his knowledge of movie trivia is spotty.

There was Saran, a former student of mine and wonderful person. Now in Montreal after studies in London, England, Saran works in I.T. He was very brave to accept my invitation. He couldn’t have known what he was walking into but then, he is an explorer at heart.

Last time, my son Jeremy was able to join us and this time, it was my daughter-in-law Anne’s turn. Their integration was seamless.

Network, by Steven McDade

Our evenings have seen couples come, go, and reappear in new configurations. They’ve welcomed every new person one of us has wished to include. The only limitation is the size of my living room.

Among Christian’s friends, the regulars: Rainforest, Owen, Danieli, Pavlo, Li, Stephanie (and now Marco), there’s an understanding, I think, that BOTW evenings constitute the beginnings of a tradition—a promise to be kept as often as possible—a means of acknowledging the depth of friendships and solidarity in this world.

As always, change is imminent.

Thomas is leaving in a few weeks for Sudbury, Ontario, to begin a Master’s degree in Geology and find a new life path;

Rainforest, one of Christian’s original college friends, is in the process of choosing the university where he will next begin doctoral studies in Game Theory. His options include California;

Alce Harfield, Swans Flying Together

Raouf received his degree and has just found work, which means he’s now officially a Montrealer. He’s here to stay—we hope;

Christian will leave Montreal at the end of July to take up a three-month posting at an inlet on Baffin Island;

Owen is just about to become a Fine Arts graduate and head into his school-free future;

I don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep Saran in Montreal, but as long as he’s here, he’s a BOTW alumnus with an open invitation.

The world has become a much smaller place, and few of us dare to scrutinize the horizon. Instead, we turn to each other seeking companionship, friendship, a port in a storm, meaningful connection and best of all, the bonds of laughter.

The Best of the Worst gang, most recent version.

ARRIVING

Greig, Neal; The Mists of Time; Queen’s University, Belfast

Last week marked the 60th birthday of someone very close to my heart.

There’s a familiar pattern and flow to “milestone” birthdays. Hitting any decade sticks out like a signpost against the backdrop of our lives, and feels weightier, as though somehow, thirty were more substantive than twenty-nine or thirty-two; fifty any different than forty-eight or fifty-one. Invitations are emailed, phone calls made, a reception room reserved, photographs collected and scanned. This is the ritual.

I’m resistant to the milestone birthday concept and have been for as long as I can remember (except maybe number 18, which opened so many new doors). Marking the passage of years and then decades seems like self-brainwashing—like self-inflicted neuro-linguistic programming:

You’re __ years old and thus, you must feel (THIS) way.

The higher the number of the milestone birthday, the greater is the focus on looking back and taking stock: Look at where I’ve been; look how far I’ve come; look at everything I lived through (and survived!). Here, my wedding day; there, the births of my children, the deaths of loved ones.

 The surgeries, the summer trips, the mundane biographical moments caught on camera that have meaning only to the handful of loved ones who were there, and even then, will recede in value as their subjects age and fresher memories are made by younger people.

A list of events seen through a nostalgic lens: It all went by so fast.

Clayton, William J. M.; Time to Remember; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

I’m not a great fan of nostalgia, though every now and then, I’m gripped by a sudden and intense longing to re-experience feelings from the past, to excavate sense memories like the softness of the tops of my children’s heads against my fingers and the curves of their fragile skulls when they were babies; the feel of their bodies against mine when they were in my arms; their tiny hands settled in my palm with such trust when we went walking; the experience of feeling crazy in love with their father and knowing only joyful optimism…

There are times when I feel like I would give anything to hear the young voices of my sons again, their distinctive speech, and watch their small faces that were full of sweetness and innocence as they spoke—in which not a glimmer of the sharper bones of manhood could yet be guessed at.

A thing as banal and lifeless as my kitchen floor is a doorway into the power and cost of memories. It was there 34 years ago—freshly installed by the previous owner—when we bought this old house. It was ugly even then. There used to be a tiny corner table in the kitchen, and it’s where I bathed my infant twins every morning, warm water splashing onto the floor as they kicked and thrashed. Through the years– from high chairs to kitchen chairs–chunks of spaghetti, splotches of applesauce and crumbs of everything edible that entered the house formed temporary mosaics on its surface, miraculously disappearing into its ugly pattern. When we eventually removed the corner table, we left behind the holes in the linoleum, undisguised. With no porch space between the kitchen door and the world outside, we tracked all of the grit of the outdoors back into our house and onto the floor. New appliances we brought in, making fresh indentations on its surface next to the old ones. I cooked thousands of meals over it, slopping and spraying ingredients onto it as I went. I still get down on my hands and knees to wash it.

 

I hate that floor, but the story of why it’s still there is also telling. It speaks of the modesty of our means, especially when we first started out. It speaks of harder times when the boys were older and there just wasn’t enough money. It tells of a terrible, painful time when our baby died and a pall fell over the house that I had, until then, thought of only as a safe cocoon, and which I began to love less. It documents the abandonment of certain dreams, and an exhaustion, a turning away from what, to me, was no longer desirable.

In spite of how intensely beautiful some remembrances are, I would never want to go back in time. My memories are a laminate composed of innumerable experiential layers. They’re what’s made me stronger and more human and I know that they can’t be peeled apart and separated one from the other. They can only be added to.

Phillips, Norman; Hewing out; National Coal Mining Museum for England;

 

Time travel has no allure for me.

How could I go back into the past without losing most of what I’ve learned and come to understand over time? It would be like trying to fit myself back into size 5 clothes. It would mean being painfully reduced.

Time seems to be passing more and more quickly as I grow older.

 This is said and heard so often that we accept it as canon.

I understand why most of us feel this way. It comes as we begin to brush up against our mortality.  My lifetime went from being counted in years to being counted in decades, and those are piling up. The sense of the end of my days is no longer a vague and amorphous thing hanging somewhere out there in the ether.

But I honestly don’t feel that time is speeding up. And I don’t feel like the days were endless when I was a child (though summers sure seemed to be). Something altogether different is happening. In recent years, I’ve begun to feel squeezed by time.

Schober, Helmut; Time with No Beginning 2; Bury Art Museum

My problem is one of perception. It seems to me that for the first thirty-five years or so of my life, all I did was keep my eyes on the horizon because there was always something out there I was after: every project, every choice was about moving forward and building the future I would inhabit with my family. And everything else flew by, just like the scenery did from the back seat of the car when I was a child.

And then, not long ago, my foot came off the accelerator, and I began to see that I’ve arrived. I’ve reached the place where I want to be. All of the pieces seem to be here. There’s family, closeness, love. There are the new sprouts: my grandchildren. There’s friendship, deep and intimate. There’s work that it took me years to find and that’s a little like standing in a stream that brings the whole world to me. There’s art and science and travel and learning, as immediate and accessible as this laptop. There’s reading and there’s my writing.

Instead of looking far off into the distance for the future I want, I now too often find myself straining to find large, open spaces of time, like gaps in the calendar, that I can stretch out in, where I’ll be able to write more, read more, travel more, experience more.

More than a Game, Brightmore, David;  St George’s, University of London;

 

 

 

 

BETWEEN THE REGIONS OF KINDNESS

I write at the urging of the voice inside my head, the Great Narrator of my small life, the one that seems to never shut up but which I trust doesn’t indicate mental illness.

I don’t know that it ever stops to rest, but I don’t mind because I know myself well enough to recognize that without it, I’ve lost a powerful way of functioning in the world, of processing my experiences and understanding my life. Of understanding LIFE. I’m no longer sure that I could find my way without it.

Shields, Frederick James; Man Repels the Appeal of Conscience; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/man-repels-the-appeal-of-conscience-57014

It’s crowded here, in my head, because there’s a second voice. It’s a smaller, primal, timorous voice that I imagine living in the dark, and that I know for sure dates back to the beginnings of me, because it’s embedded with some of my first memories. Its utterings are uncomfortable and seem to always come at a cost— to be the result of an inner struggle.

It’s the voice of my conscience.

When I was a child, it felt like my conscience spoke from a pulpit.

I eventually figured out that it was being egged on by the voices of my parents, my teachers, most adults in fact, and my peers. It felt like its principle aim was shaming. Which is why it penetrated me so deeply.

Pacquette, Elise J. M.; Protecting the Heart; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/protecting-the-heart-192960

I carry inside me a list of memories of my worst childhood moments. It’s the doing of my conscience, which still spits back up, more often than I’d like, mini-documentary remembrances of me being mean, petty, ugly.

Some of these go back to when I was barely five or six years old, but most evoke minor events that marked my passage through grade school and high school. Moments when I betrayed a friend; a moment when I tormented a classmate who was already marginalized and insecure; moments when I spoke against another for no other reason but malice and competitiveness; multiple episodes of schadenfreude.

(It’s hard not to write shameful here)

As I grew up, I often replayed these mini docs in my mind and then imagined myself atoning for them. In my daydreams, I still sometimes conjure up the person I harmed and try to express my regret.  What’s interesting is that over time, the reactions of the victims in my dreams have shifted and now, they don’t seem to remember any of it very clearly: like it’s just water under the bridge. Does this mean that I’m beginning to forgive myself? If so, I still have a long way to go. If I met any of these people in the street today, I feel sure that I would still want to dredge up the memory and apologize.

Sims, Charles; Crowds of Small Souls in Flame; Bethlem Museum of the Mind

My conscience has kept a precise ledger of my UNKINDNESS. When I was a young child, my failures of kindness were more often lashing-out impulses than anything premeditated. As those moments unfolded, it felt like nothing could override them.

I was powerless before my unkindness. And then less so, and then less so still, as I grew up.

Kindness is a beautiful word that’s strangely hard to pin down. In French, it’s said to mean a mixture of goodness—bonté—plus a blend of gentleness-kindliness-warmth-sweetness- generosity referred to as gentillesse.

Perhaps it’s simply goodness and benevolence in action.

Kindness of strangers, abstract by Blenda

I aspire to be a kind person. A kinder person. But I’m not at all sure that I am. What I feel certain of is that the wellspring of both unkindness and kindness is pain.

That explains its grip over me in childhood. Kids absorb pain without any of the filters life experience provides. They can only take so much of it, raw, into their small bodies, before it starts to splash back out in ways we and they don’t always recognize and can’t always control.

In adulthood, more is expected of us.

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is a wonderfully mnemonic line that resonates, whether or not we know its origin. It’s a beautiful, terrible statement about our worst fears—abandonment, loneliness and dependency—and the starker truth that it’s those we love who hurt us most.

Raising my children, working in schools and now in companies, it almost seems as though the last two decades of my life have been an immersion in the lives of strangers who first are “others”, then become acquaintances, and then, often, friends.

Mostly, what this process has done is helped me to realize how quickly a stranger can become someone to discover, to know and to care about. More often than not, someone to love.

With each new class, with each new room full of strangers, I’m reminded that my openness to others is as simple as a smile (well, many, many smiles, whenever possible), grounded in my empirically supported faith that there are few human beings on this planet with whom I cannot find points of connection and kinship.

In this context, kindness comes easily.

Banksy, Kindness

Where I find myself failing is where most of the pain is: among the people I love most, if not always best. I’ve discovered that I have limits that are real and firm, and that I’m capable of a coldness that I didn’t think possible.

My coldness is a pain response that I’ve watched gain strength over time. It’s taken me years to figure it out, but I think it kicks in when I feel unsafe in the company of someone close to me. That can happen when being with a person feels like being invaded; when everything about an interaction with this person shuts me down and makes me feel like I want to hide inside myself.  It can also happen during periods when being with a person infects me with negativity, anxiety, or a sense of being controlled or pushed around. Sometimes, it’s simply that someone else’s pain is overwhelming my ability to cope.

 

In those instances, I can be so remote. I’ve cut people off for weeks and months at a time. It’s unkind, and it comes from pain and causes pain. But it feels like self-preservation, and I think that’s probably why I don’t feel as remorseful. The wellspring of my unkindness is my own pain.

And then, unexpectedly, the very real, stripped down pain of someone I love, or someone I don’t yet know, can pull me close once again. That’s the gravity of kindness.

* * *

These are unkind times, when under the guise of self-preservation, many of us now ignore the pain of others and reject kindness, condemning millions to a place Naomi Shihab Nye calls the desolate landscape between the regions of kindness.

It’s a place where none of us are meant to live.

Ernest-Pignon-Ernest-Untitled
Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Untitled

 

 

NOTES ON A SATURDAY MORNING

It’s foggy and soggy.
It’s weirdly, unnaturally warm.
I have one son on a train, Toronto bound, meeting up with his past and his future;
Another in his apartment, taking it easy (I hope so: he comes by rest so rarely);
And the other son—his voice full of worry on the phone—nursing a sick child, my darling grandson, back to health.

Already this morning, the internet has brought me images of pain, violence and terrible drama;
Of heroism, courage and grace.
My feelings have moved up, just under my skin;
The world is Pain and the world is Love.
And I have the time this morning, precious and priceless, to witness it all.
To know that I’m happy. To know that I’m afraid. To know that I love.

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; Love and Life
Watts, George Frederic; Love and Life; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/love-and-life-202765