DARKER MORNINGS

Good morning.

It’s 6:07, and summer is truly gone, because the sky as is dark as ink and the birds are silent and will remain so for a while longer.

 

It’s such a drastic turnaround. A couple of months ago, it rose two hours earlier; just after five o’clock. You may not even have noticed this if you’re a later sleeper. But I’m an early riser, and though I adored waking to birdsong and even an occasional squawking racket, I prefer these darker mornings.

 

I’ve noticed that my husband and Christian tend to sleep longer in the lingering darkness, and this means that these hours are truly mine. Not wanting to move around too much in the house and bother either of them, I stay put at the dining room table on an uncomfortable creaky chair and open up my laptop.

 

I’ve already told you that I struggle to stay asleep and that my nights are often interrupted by cycles of wakefulness and of spotting the lit-up time on the clock radio: 1:15…3:21…4:10…And so I’ve grown to love 5 am, because anything after five o’clock means that it’s a decent time to be up, it’s legitimately morning (or close to it), and, especially in the darker months, I have a small island of time all to myself.

I know that my son Simon, in his apartment just a few kilometers away, is up early too: usually by 5:30 on most weekday mornings. And we often connect then, each in the glow of our Macs, messaging each other. Our pre-dawn banter is such a sweet thing.

This morning, I found my father in the half-light.

In fact, he’s been gone for 27 years. Gone at sixty-one and taken by lung cancer. But he was with me in my morning solitude.

For as long as I can remember, my dad set his alarm clock at 5:30. It tormented my sisters and me because it was a mechanical (dependable!) clock that ticked so annoyingly that he eventually relegated it to the upstairs hallway of our small house (maybe my mum forced him to) where it tic-toc-ticked until 5:30 when its tinny and shrill mechanical ring invaded everyone’s sleep.

Early winter morning in Pointe-Claire

My dad was a chain smoker, and once he was up, the next sequence in his morning ritual was a shower, a shave and a gruesome period of clearing his lungs, during which he’d hack and choke and then spit up into the bathroom sink. Loudly. So loud, in fact, that there were days when I was sure he was turning his innards inside out.

What followed was always very discreet. He made his way downstairs, made himself some toast and a cup of instant coffee, took a look at the newspapers (The Montreal Star—long since defunct—and the Montreal Gazette), and sat contentedly in the kitchen. After that, he grabbed his Samsonite briefcase and his lunch and set off on his twenty-five-minute walk to the train station. I think he usually caught the 7:10 or the 7:20.

These are some of the clearest memories I have of my father because during the last eight years or so that I lived in my parents’ house, they had taken on the weight of a ritual and because inevitably, his morning habits clashed with his daughters’ need to be up and fed and out the door to go to high school and CEGEP (my daily commute to Collège André Grasset was double the distance of his).

These memories are also deeply etched because they are the set piece of our painful and confusing relationship with our father. None of us—especially as we grew into adolescence and young adulthood— ever seemed to be able to find our footing with this man that we loved and even admired in many ways, and who had such power over us and exerted such influence in the house. None of us were ever able to create a space in which we could co-exist with him without struggle.

From the Rodin exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

In the light of what I know today, it’s clear that my father suffered from anxiety which manifested itself in part by obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

I also understand that he was a complex and complicated man with a good heart who battled hard with his inner demons.

Most of the story I share with my dad belongs only to him and me and my mum and sisters. But this morning, I was reminded of another part of our shared narrative.

Before dawn, as I moved quietly in the kitchen to make myself my first cup of tea, I found my father in the peacefulness of brief solitude, and I thought again that I love this time of day as much as he did. Much like he did. And I realized that I need it as much as he did.

Betty Acquah, Breaking of Dawn

A few years ago, I did the Myers-Briggs personality test. I answered all of the questions for the fun of it, with no expectations. So did my sons, husband, other family members and friends. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon because the results were so startling and distinct and insightful.

I came up with INFJ as a personality type (I redid the test a few years later and got the same result), which helped me to realize all kinds of things about myself, including the fact that I’m an introvert.

 

That single word explained so much. The butterflies in my stomach since as long as I can remember, before any kind of party or group gathering. The impulse I often feel in a crowd or large group to withdraw. The exhaustion I feel after a day of teaching, even though I love being with my students and find enormous satisfaction and joy in it. My greater and greater need to stake out pockets of time into which I can escape and be alone. My love of reading. My passion for writing.

Marc Dalessio, Dawn on the marsh (plein air painting in the rain)

Though I wouldn’t dare guess at the other three letters of his personality type, I think—I know—that my dad was also an introvert who needed his solitary mornings and his evenings down in the cocoon he set up for himself in his workshop/office in the basement (effectively taking over that floor); and who loved to sit and read undisturbed.

I think he suffered in the smallness of our house, in the company of his wife and three daughters. I think he would have been happiest out in nature, listening to the birds or just sitting in contemplation. That he needed to be away more. Alone more.

I sense that he may never have succeeded in articulating his malaise; that he never understood this about himself.

I found this in the dark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARTFUL ANTICIPATION

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Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th 2015

Right after Halloween, it started. Christmas decorations up in every shopping centre. Lots of bling. Christmas music—not that many traditional carols—playing in endless loops.

The usual.

My work schedule picked up a lot in November-December. Days just whooshed by. And then suddenly, it was the second week of December and I had done almost no Christmas shopping. Hadn’t put up a single decoration in the house.

With Christmas just a few weeks away, I felt like a beat up old winter tire: half-frozen, half deflated.

It’s right about then that my son Simon arrived on the scene. With his glad tidings. Or to use 21st century language: with his irresistible, upbeat energy and effortless joy.

In no time at all, we were on a focused and fun track.  We were on a mission. First, there were the recipe searches. We sat together on a Saturday afternoon and looked through the magazines I’ve collected over the years that are stuffed with proven recipes. We surfed online, stopping a long time on Nigella Lawson’s website, hoping to pay homage to my son Christian’s year in London by making some smashing British Christmas puddings and cakes.

Then came the marathon cooking/baking weekends. Two of them, in fact, that caused us to STOP all of the work we normally bring home and pore over for far too many unpaid hours (we are both teachers), and instead, make things happen in the kitchen!

 

The tree in the heart of Pointe-Claire Village. December 28th 2015
The tree in the heart of Pointe-Claire Village. December 28th 2015

We cooked and baked till our backs ached and our hair and skin smelled of it all: mini-tourtières, ragoût de boulettes, shortbread, gingerbread, Nigella’s chocolate fruit cake (to die for—thanks, Nigella!), jam-filled butter cookies, chocolate hazelnut mocha balls and cinnamon roll cookies…

We did it all with my laptop next to us on the table where we rolled out all of our dough, drinking gallons of tea and listening to The Great British Bake-Off (Simon’s idea, with Christian’s tech support). We got through seasons 2 and 3.

 

 

When we were too tired to cook, we shopped.

This year's tree
This year’s tree

A week before Christmas, my husband, Christian and I got the tree up and decorated.

I lost track of lots of things (house cleaning among them), and it didn’t matter.

And some time, in the midst of it all, it occurred to me that this, in fact, is what anticipation is all about. And that anticipation can be a very good thing.

As part of the yoga practice that I’ve been developing for the past two and a half years, I’ve been working on mindfulness, and on learning to be more centered; more in-the-moment. There’s something to be said for pushing out the anxiety that wants to build and build, as pressure from both the outside world and my own mind swirls around inside me.

And there’s something important about turning away from the expectations that my mind manufactures constantly; the mental check-lists of what my life should be.

But it also occurred to me—with a bit of coaching from Simon and Christian—that pushing things out of my mind to keep stress at bay also prevents me from feeling the joy of anticipation.

In Pointe-Claire, QC.
In Pointe-Claire, QC.

All anticipation is, really, is the ability to see the joy in every part of a process, in every step of a journey. Regardless of its destination.

Time will pass, we will move through it, inevitably, so let’s mark every moment of it as we discover where it’s leading us.

Some people seem to have a natural talent for joy and understand the value of artful anticipation.

What Simon never loses track of is why he’s doing all of the things he undertakes at Christmas time.

Full moon on the rise, on a snowless Christmas Eve, in Pointe-Claire, QC
Full moon on the rise, on a snowless Christmas Eve, in Pointe-Claire, QC

It’s for love. Love of life and of his family and friends. That’s what makes the planning and the doing fun. Joyful. Even when things don’t quite go according to plan. Even as plans change.

This year, for instance, winter forgot to show up in time for Christmas. With temperatures rising to weird numbers like 17 Celsius on December 24th—instead of a more familiar minus 5 degrees C—it became obvious that we were definitely NOT going to have a white Christmas. People shopped in t-shirts instead of parkas.

 

 

On Christmas Eve, a friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

« This Christmas is all awkward… There is no snow…,my boys don’t believe in Santa anymore… So no halfway eaten cookies and milk under the tree…no letter from Santa…no hiding wrapped gifts

Another step farther from childhood…

Anyways
Happy holidays everyone! Wish you all health and happiness and all the best! »

 It was such an honest post. There were personal elements in it: her sons growing up, the wistfulness of small traditions being abandoned, the fading of a phase of her family’s life.

But there was an unease that we could all relate to: strange, unseasonal weather that left us feeling «off». That felt ominous. Weather that echoed the feelings and fears we have about change in our lives. About Christmas, like so many things, becoming undependable, or unrecognizable.

All the more reason, then, to live in the advent of important moments.

Home on Lakeshore Road, in Pointe-Claire.
House on Lakeshore Road, in Pointe-Claire.

This is what I realized this year. And it changed everything. And my three Christmases—one with my in-laws (about 30 of us!) on the 24th ; a quieter Christmas day at home with family and a dear friend; and a third, on the 26th, with my mum, family and extended family—were the happiest in years.

Because everyone showed up. Full of cheer. Because we were sincerely glad to be together.

There are people who have a special kind of gathering energy. They are the ones who bring everyone together. My mum and son Simon have that energy. They change things for all of us. They make things happen. And that’s okay. All we have to do is cooperate. Jump on board.

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A house just around the corner.

My son Christian cultivated the art of anticipation by planning and effecting his gift purchases  months in advance. He was just bursting to finally give them to us.

I found myself responding to the lights that are hung everywhere at this time. So I went off on foot or in my car photographing my freshly dolled-up home town and neighbourhood, when I had a few free hours.

We went together to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens, which my sons have looked forward to for years!

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Simon, Christian and my husband, at the Kirkland Cineplex. The Force Awakens!

My granddaughter Penelope, who is 3 ¾ years old, took at look at the season’s first snowfall and exclaimed:

« I love the snow! It makes my heart beat faster! »

That’s anticipation.

Penelope and her brother Graeme, playing under the table, on December 26th
Penelope and her brother Graeme, playing under the table, on December 26th