It included a snow storm and horrible driving conditions;
cold and biting wind;
teaching contracts that have tilted to the bad side of too many;
a constant cough that appears to be caused by allergies to what’s in the air at one of the places where I teach;
sad or worrying news about people I care about;
more sad or worrying news about them;
a heaviness I carry around, which is the weight of what I cannot change or resolve (at this moment in my life, it’s as dense as gold);
and a sense of being trapped in a power crusher, with the walls of time closing in and no way to stop them. No room (not for escape, but for breath and perspective and space to maneuver).
At such times, I walk about with the feeling that I could easily cry (and wouldn’t that feel good?), and that I am inadequate to the task of being a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, a good mother, a good teacher, wife, neighbour, human being …
While I tangled with all of these, the sun rose every morning, and my life–the single miracle from which everything flows—never failed in its task of moving me along.
My sister, hip deep in her own struggles, remembered to enquire about the wellbeing of a friend I worry about;
A son cooked dinner for me to come home to late in the day, once, and then again the next evening. His alchemical actions transformed food into love, meals into sharing, and weariness into wellbeing.
(How do any of us survive loneliness?)
A friend reached out to me and found my hand, though I couldn’t hold hers nearly long enough.
An afternoon and evening spent with my granddaughter and grandson yesterday took me sailing on a true-blue ocean of simple, hopeful joy. It saw their parents off to a Christmas party and the rest of us, my other sons and husband, together, making merry ourselves.
A first son fetched us a meal of fried, roasted and sweet foods that left us all with greasy fingers and feelings of satisfaction. He choreographed the day’s end: stories, baths, bedtime without mama and papa.
As the house went quiet, my sons and I—they with their extraordinary niece and I with my sweet-hearted grandson—lay in the dark next to the small and trusting bodies of these children who are the channels of all of life’s promises and reminders that we cannot fail them, and listened to them breathe in the dark, sometimes moaning softly, sometimes crying out as the day’s tiny storms caught up with them, entering their dreams.
Danielle, Christian, Louise, Simon, Jeremy, Anne, Penelope and Graeme and Sylvain, I love you. Thank you.
I sit before my computer screen in the dark of morning, and read the scurrilous wordsof an American president—they are always, always so—whose aim today, as every day, is to set the world on fire, hoping, perhaps, to see his own red, angry image dancing above it all in the flames.
No. No. No.
And then a piece about a housing development in Japan in which the aged are left, each in turn, to a lonely death, disappearing in the choppy wake of filial responsibility.
No, no, no.
While my Inbox fills up, like a boat taking on water, with December entreaties TO GIVE, PLEASE GIVE, PLEASE GIVE. Letters, words and symbols: UNHRC, JDRF, Share the Warmth, Welcome Hall Mission, Amnesty International, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Leucan, Evidence for Democracy, Wikipedia, UNICEF, Movember…their impact obscured by Black Friday, Black Saturday, Cyber Monday. Their voices almost lost in the clamour. There are so many of them.
NO, NO, NO. The sounds inside my head—pain and the refusal of pain.
This morning, I no longer remember why, I looked up John Cage, who said:
“You can feel an emotion, just don’t think that it’s so important.”
And right now, this sounds especially true. What good is empathy in times like these if it leads, inevitably, to system overload?
This is how I feel this morning. Uneasy with my conscience. Feeling, feeling, feeling that I must make radical changes to my life in order to save my human environment. I apologize, John Cage. But you also said:
“Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”
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.
Written January 26, 2015 ·and just recently rediscovered:
I believe that my granddaughter Penelope’s heart bears no secrets.
It is as open as a smile,
As glorious as the sun,
As knowing as the stars,
As tender as tears,
As fierce as a lion,
As gentle as sleep,
As expansive as a dream,
As sudden as lightning,
As sensitive as a flower,
As boundless as the ocean,
As natural as life,
As sacred as a shrine.
What can I do when
there’s nothing I can do about
our neighbours down south and the mess
they’ve made in their yard
already rank and infested
with rancid matter that attracts
the rats and scavengers who survive in
the dark places that the light
I can turn my gaze to the north and
the east and the west and hold up my
light and you can hold up yours and
then you and then you and then you and
then you and we’ll outlast the
dark and the rats and the scavengers
who’ll grow old and weary before
their time and we’ll clean
up the mess they’ve made.
I think I was 6 or 7. We were in Mestachibo, Quebec, visiting my mother’s aunt and uncle. This was at a fishing camp. During the night, my father opened the door to the bedroom where I slept with my sisters and when he heard me move, he whispered: “You awake?”, and when I whispered back, he said: “Come with me.”.
And he took me in his arms, outside where all the adults were standing, looking straight up. It was a perfect and perfectly quiet night in July and the sky looked just as it does in this painting. It looked alive with light and texture. Even my imagination couldn’t have come up with this wonder. My dad was very relaxed and he was happy.
My relationship with him would only get more fearful and complicated over the years, but that night, I saw the boy in him; the poet in him. I understood what he knew to exist out in nature but never got much of a chance to experience, settled as he was in Pointe-Claire.
It was a transcendent moment. I’m so glad he came to get me. I know for having looked up that there are that many stars just waiting to be seen.
[Thank you, Mikhail Iossel for introducing me to this painting]
I came across this quote one morning. Scanned it in a flash. It felt so familiar. Almost toss away. A well-worn reference to being young at heart, or to the importance of cherishing my inner child. Trite.
And then I read it a second time, and noticed that where my eyes had registered child, they should have read childhood.
It was early and I sat staring at the screen, bothered by the way that word altered Sutzkever’s message.
What did he intend? What does it mean to “become older” ?
I looked him up, and learned that he was a great Yiddish poet and survivor of the Holocaust. Born in Belarus in 1913, he later lived in Lithuania and was sent to the Vilna Ghetto during World War II.
And I thought: well of course, he was 26 when the war began. Memories of his childhood would have sustained him; he would have drawn deeply from that well of familial love, protection and relative innocence—and then the words “you never become older” : those foundational memories acting as a talisman of sorts, warding off the damaging effects of disillusionment, cruelty, suffering and despair in a world made by adults.
I’m not sure of any of this. I don’t even know whether he wrote this or spoke it. And so, what I have is what his words mean to me and might mean to anyone else.
I’m puzzled by the phrase.
“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.”
There’s no if. We all carry our childhood with us. What matters, then, is only whether its weight supports and grounds us or instead burdens us—and if so, how heavy the burden is.
If I polled a bunch of people asking them to list the distinctive elements of childhood, what would they come up with? Maybe something like:
It’s precious because it’s over so quickly;
It’s the most carefree period of a human being’s life;
It’s usually the healthiest period, too;
It’s when humans change the most rapidly;
It’s when we’re most curious and able to learn;
When our minds are most plastic;
It’s the only age of innocence;
It’s when everything seems possible.
A positive list. But few of those elements can be carried forward into the future because time runs out on them.
I’m bothered by statements like Sutzkever’s that are predicated on the notion that childhood is the space-time of optimistic possibility from which we slowly but surely lose our way.
I’m bothered by the unintended pessimism of it.
Childhood is frequently the place of our deepest wounds and traumas, and when this is so—especially when this is so— it becomes either the crushing burden that stunts us for life, or else a powerful agent of resilience; of growth through experience.
I resist the implications of Sutzkever’s message and others like it because I don’t believe that a happy childhood is a sine qua non for a happy life.
I think it’s probably true that:
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
The wryness of this makes me smile.
I see childhood as a crucial period of growth on a lifelong transformative continuum.
We speak of childhood as an idyll, but I think that our vulnerability in childhood is one of its most poignant dimensions.
Watching my grandchildren Penelope (four), and Graeme (two), grow up is a daily reminder of this. While I feel all kinds of strong impulses to protect and shelter them, I believe that this same vulnerability is childhood’s precious bridge to adulthood. From our places of shelter and support, we learn to go out into the world and live fully.
Why wish to never become older?
Just a few months ago, as her father—my son Jeremy—was putting her to bed, Penelope had a moment. Lying above the blankets, her lovely eyes welled up and she turned to her father and said:
“I miss myself when I was a baby.
Oh papa, I’m so tired.”
Maybe she felt old that day.
Maybe she has already begun to understand that she’s leaving her childhood behind a little bit every day.
The next morning, she woke up rested, happy and looking forward to what the day might bring. Four years old and fresh as a daisy.
She and her brother do this every time they go out into the world and gather experience, as they, like their parents, constantly reinvent themselves and grow older together.
“Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along―the same person that I am today.”
“This year, the “Burning Man” festival in Nevada featured its first artistic piece from Ukraine. Alexander Milov’s “Love” was the first Ukrainian piece to receive a festival grant in 30 years. The sculpture consists of two hollow, metal frame human silhouettes, one man, one female, sitting back to back. Sculptures of children touch inside of them (and light up at night).
“It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature,” Milnov explains. “Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives.” “
The other day, as I was reading near a window, I looked over and caught the sunlight on my left hand. It was golden, summery light; the kind that transforms my house and gives it a warm glow. Wonderful light for reading.
It was also unkind, unforgiving sunlight that seemed determined to expose me.
There, was my hand. For a nanosecond, it belonged to someone else. It belonged to the future. Attached to me but briefly alien.
My hand looked so old.
“It was as if the bones and veins were working their way to the surface;
as if the skin were water receding to expose shapes at the bottom of a harbor.”
― Jonathan Franzen
While still in her thirties and forties, my mum often used to say that she hated hers because she had “old hands”. I remember that my father didn’t like her saying that. He’d answer: “I like your hands”, as though he took it personally.
In this, as in many things, I take after my mother.
The shape of my hands is fine: slender fingers, no swollen joints and no calluses. But they still betray me.
While my husband’s are a uniform shade of the palest brown, mine are sun-damaged and mottled. In fact, the skin of my hands seems to barely cover the living tissue underneath. Like overstretched cellophane.
Sometimes, when they’re playing next to me, my grandchildren—Penelope, four, and Graeme, two— will stop and trace their perfect small fingers along the veins that sit atop my hands like fat green worms.
My left hand is actually my better hand: it hasn’t done as much hard scrubbing or lifting; it has plunged far less frequently into hot, detergent-laced water. It has held fewer heavy bags—like the kind I drag along with me everywhere I go to teach— and performed fewer hard tasks. But that hasn’t stopped a noticeable dark spot from appearing on the top, near my thumb.
Then, too, my hands show the long term effects of taking medication for thyroid issues: they’re dry and embarrassingly rough. My nails are almost useless: they chip and break and are covered in tiny striations that begin at the nail bed and run to each fingertip; the cuticle is damaged, and I can’t do a damned thing about it.
I’m a tall woman with small hands. When I got married, my ring finger was size 4 ½; now, it’s a 5.
I envy the women my age who aren’t betrayed by their hands, who can look down at them as they type on a keyboard or do the thousand and one things that their lives require without being reminded that their bodies are, in fact, losing vitality every day and that their beauty must increasingly be found somewhere deeper.
“See all the women seated, youth in their face lifts, old age in their hands.” —J.P. Donleavy, The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms:The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about New York
A while ago, while looking at some of our wedding pictures, my husband said to me: “Do you know what has changed the most about you? It’s your hands.”
I remember feeling relieved and even happy.
One time, when I was apologizing for the roughness of my hand as it touched my son Christian’s arm, he said: “Your hands are dry and warm and I’ve always associated those qualities with the very best hands.”
Which is about the loveliest thing he could have said and which still comforts me.
I don’t wear nail polish. I’ve never had a manicure. I don’t remember often enough to use moisturizing cream on them.
My hands are ME. They’re not glamorous. They keep me honest by reminding me who I am and how much living I’ve already experienced.
They can’t be hidden, so I may as well use them. And get over myself.
My hands extend into life and allow me to do so much, and to touch the people I love. In recent years, they’ve also encircled the tiny hands of Penelope, then Graeme, and felt their soft skin and the gentle curves of their faces and arms…
Aging often feels horribly Kafkaesque. Simply looking into the mirror is a humbling and sometimes jarring experience.
But as long as they’re able to reach out to others, and as long as there’s someone there to touch, I have reason to hold my hands to my chest in an expression of gratitude.
“We enter the world with fists closed and when we leave, our hands are open. He said I should make full use of the time given to me for my life.”
― Debalina Haldar, The Female Ward
“To receive everything, one must open one’s hands and give.”
― Taisen Deshimaru
I snapped these shots from the waiting room at the osteopath’s this morning. They offer a North East view of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, a suburb in Montreal’s West Island, where you find a pretty standard mix of commercial buildings, bungalows, split-levels homes, cottages, town houses, condos, and some apartment buildings.
Almost none of them are visible from this height; the trees have swallowed them up.
It struck me that our dominion over nature is a matter of perspective.
“Do you remember the suburbs and the plaintive flock of landscapes
The cypress trees projected their shadows under the moon