FILTER-LESS

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

Thursday, April 18th 2019

On Tuesday, April 15th, Notre-Dame de Paris, one of France’s greatest buildings and symbols, burned.

As is always the case in the 21st century, it was a catastrophic event that virtually everyone, everywhere, could watch. A disaster witnessed by human eyes on a planetary scale.

Human responses to its destruction by flame varied, people fitting the images being transmitted by every means possible to them into the critical context that made sense in their reality, whether it was religious, spiritual, political, cultural, economic, aesthetic…

I found it very hard to watch as the flames tore at the building, devouring it; billowing out, fed by the combustibles within and the oxygen provided by the ambient air. I wasn’t able to watch those scenes for very long. Something truly awful was happening in Paris, again, and for an instant, my thoughts veered to the possibility that this was one more nightmarish terrorist action, but they didn’t last. The day may come when extraordinary gathering places like the Dome of the Rock, or Hagia Sophia, or Notre-Dame de Paris fall to the same impulses that are tearing humans apart in the early 21st century, but surely, we’re not there yet.

It appears that, at least in the case of Notre-Dame de Paris, we were not.

I guess that by now, you’re taken aback by this post. What can this event possibly have to do with the very small, personal story of living with cancer that I’ve been telling, bit by bit and week by week, for the past 9 months, at this blog?

The impulse to write to you this time comes from a memory that was evoked as I watched the beautiful old cathedral suffering so much damage.

I’m not a traveler. I haven’t seen very much of the world with my own eyes. But I have seen all of Canada’s provinces except for Newfoundland (I’d love to correct that) and the territories to the north; and I’ve seen large swaths of the United States. I’ve also been to England (in the summer of 2015), and France (in the summer of 2012), each time, to visit one of my sons.

While in France, Simon, my friend Louise and I were based in Montpellier, where Simon was doing post-doctoral research. We branched out to Carcassonne, and also made sure to set aside three or four days to see some of Paris. I think we may have been a bit unlucky because we hit a heat wave, with temperatures between 31-34 Celsius that made almost everything exhausting and unpleasant (we spent most of our visit to the Louvre in the basement, trying not to pass out).

Then came the day we set off, on foot, to l’Île de la Cité, in the centre of Paris, on which Notre-Dame de Paris was built. It was the tourist season. There were crowds everywhere. The lineup to visit the cathedral had been forming for hours, the  long, serpentine gatherings of people stood right out in the baking sun, waiting, so we decided to begin our day by visiting the adjacent attraction, which was a guided exploration of the catacombs that run under the Cathedral grounds. We were so happy to find ourselves out of the sun and hidden away underground, where it was cool and quieter.

We emerged refreshed and ready to join the lineup for the cathedral itself. It seemed to move much faster than we had imagined and soon, we stepped out of the heat and into the fresher, darker atmosphere of Notre-Dame.

I had no expectations going in. None. It was packed. There were people everywhere, bunched together, moving around with no sense of place or of decorum. They were probably just happy to finally have something to do and see. It was all so strangely anti-climactic.

And then, moving further in, I looked up.

To the vaulted ceiling which my eyes followed up and up to the roof; to the rows and rows of breathtaking arches, so beautiful, so impossible…

And I started to cry. Not just a few wet sniffles. I was overtaken by emotion so intense and so full that all I could do was cry and cry and cry. The tears spilled out of me. As I continued through the building, pushed along by people, I felt utterly filter-less. Defenseless. What did I feel? What was this emotional spillover all about?

I remember looking at the vaults and thinking of the people who had built them, painstakingly, at tremendous personal cost. Hundreds and hundreds of lives over centuries. Generation upon generation, dedicated to a single purpose, day after day. The vaulted ceiling was so beautiful. There was such presence there.

While I no longer adhere to any specific religion, I am a spiritual person and I think that I was also responding to the presence of the numinous in that space.

I don’t know what the human soul is, or whether it exists, but I know that on that day at Notre-Dame de Paris, I was immersed in emotion that I can only call soulful.

What caught me most off guard on Tuesday, when the images of the fire began flooding the internet, was the remembrance of that outpouring of tears on that day in 2012, and the recognition that moments like this have been part of my life over and over since my cancer diagnosis.

Adams, Alicia Melamed; Tears; Ben Uri Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/tears-191484

You see, one of the side effects of my new life with cancer is the sudden and surprising outpouring of tears and the constriction of my face and chest that accompany them. This has been happening to me from almost the very beginning. But they’re rarely tears of sadness, though I have those too. No, these tears are just like my Notre-Dame tears. They’re released unpredictably and they’re difficult to stop. I’m almost always with someone, in a conversation that, for whatever reason, veers to something small, or perhaps more substantive, that is just honest; true; real; and which becomes connected—even if only in me— to the ephemerality of my situation, to the essential nature of human life, to the deepest roots of love. It happens while I’m speaking. I just seem to melt into tears.

Most of my entourage knows that I’m fine. I say that I’m not sad, but that I simply have no more filters. I tell them that I realise that there’s no point trying to bury my tears. I can’t. They just flow, and seem to do so only when conversation has reached a soulful place. Even if the exchange is about someone else, my filters can fail. The membrane that separates me from a river of emotions is foundering.

These moments are like my experience inside Notre-Dame de Paris. They’re moments when all of the fear, compassion, pain, worry, joy, wonder, gratitude and love are flowing one into the other, and I am overwhelmed.

Why hold them back? My life has come to this. To times when what I’m feeling is the essence of my existence. I think my tears appear when words are insufficient.

They feel GOOD.

Conroy, Stephen; The Garden; The Fleming Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-garden-218248

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE UNPRESERVABLE TRAIL…

Maussion, Charles; Portrait; Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/portrait-1893

April 3rd, 2019

At breakfast with Christian and my friend Gail, yesterday, the conversation turned to memory, and what exactly memories are, and what they do for us, and what they mean to each person’s identity and how we think of ourselves: their weight, their influence…

We spoke of a common desire in this world to dig into the past, to search our childhoods for the trauma, for the pain, and also for those formative experiences that may still not sit easily within us, with which we may still not have made our peace.

Maussion, Charles; Head and Shoulders; Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/head-and-shoulders-1890

And Christian likened past experience and memory to a great tree with so many ramifications that it’s impossible to know where each is ultimately leading to, or emanated from, or how they all come together from a trunk and its roots…

And Gail, who is a Zen practitioner, smiled at that image and said that she had been reminded many a time that to look too long to the past is to get lost inside your head because, in truth, there is only ever the present moment, and though we carry with us imprinted memories of our own past, we can only every really BE HERE, NOW. There’s no going back, and the future is as intangible as space. She likened memory to the vapour trail we see tailing high flying airplanes, which is very thick where it first emerges, but which thins till it disappears off into nothingness.

Unpreservable.

At 60, I’ve stored enough memories to see the truth of both of those images, and to realise that by and large, I remember just enough to remain my continuous self, someone who walks in the world with a personal identity, i.e. I adore my children and grandchildren, I’m Canadian, a Montrealer; the people I love are…The foods I enjoy are…During this past year, I’ve moved to a new town, into a new home…I’m very sick…

But I also know, now more than ever, as I grow older, that the memories we hold onto with an iron grip are really the pain. We envelop those in such a tough, protective shell that sometimes they become virtually inaccessible to us, lost in lock down. It’s the memory of pain that seems to have the longest shelf life.

* * *

 

I’m just reaching the end of Philippe Lançon’s 2018 book, Le Lambeau (a word which means, in the book’s context, a flap of flesh). Lançon is a writer/journalist who survived the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, January 7th, 2015. He was in the conference room at the moment of the attack and had the lower part of his face shot off, as well as sustaining damage to his arms. He was left disfigured, and suffered two years of hospitalisation, of treatments, surgery, more treatments, more reconstructive surgery, and still more treatments and pain…

It’s a gorgeous and profound five-hundred-plus page book, that covers the actual shooting very briefly, but lingers for a very long time on the life that came next. The survival. In French, the meaning is deeper, because to live is vivre, and to survive is survivre, words which, for Lançon, also refer to his two lives: the one before the attack, and the one after. Ma vie, et ma survie.

unknown artist; Les massacres de la guerre; The University of York; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/les-massacres-de-la-guerre-8914

What Lançon examines with fascination, precision, and disarming honesty, is how the man he was for more than fifty years, and the life he had, have become almost an afterthought in his new present. He isn’t so much describing a disconnect between his former life and his present “survival” as he is eloquently making a case for the former’s irrelevance.As I’ve read through his book, Lançon has taken me from the somewhat unconscious, automatic life that was his before January 7th, 2015, to one that was stripped down to the bareness of hospital rooms, pain, drugs, drool, drains, nurses, doctors, surgeries, opioids, fear and dependency.

And what struck me, all the way through his account, are the parallels that can be drawn between his experience and that of anyone who has suffered the violent or sudden shock of a life-threatening event, including war: a physical attack (as in Lançon’s case); a medical diagnosis that promises suffering and eventual death, or any unpredictable occurrence that moves a person’s life out of the public world of home, work and freedom of movement, into medical care and the enveloping necessity of hospitals and treatment.

In fact, I’m shocked that I not only feel empathy toward him (who wouldn’t? his tragic story is one of martyrdom), but that I also understand so many of his reactions, such as his progressive  withdrawal from the world outside (this is a writer and journalist who has lived and travelled in Romania, the Middle East, South and Central America, all over the world, in fact) which took the form of not reading the papers or watching television news; seeking refuge in music, mostly Bach…almost always Bach…for hours and hours; feeling the burden of having become a patient—the weight of that dependency; veins that seek only to escape the piercing needle; the alteration of the physical self and the mirror that returns such alien images; the desire to remain cocooned…

Philippe Lançon
Philippe Lançon

I think of myself, moving between our house and the CHUM, and how it’s becoming easier to feel comfortable in this new, smaller life of mine. I realize that I, too, have become reluctant to take on the news of the world at the rate I did before learning I have cancer. My desire to listen to music has not evaporated, but it’s often music of a certain type—all of Max Richter, for example—largely instrumental music that is expansive and elegiac, that fills up the whole house when I’m alone and which envelops me in the emotions that I feel and want to keep feeling but cannot always share with others; looking at myself in the mirror, the way Lançon did and certainly still must, and accepting anew, each time, that the person being reflected back is the one who is here, now, and that any other incarnation is gone—lost to the past.

For many of us, the sense of awareness of a “before life” and “after life” will only develop as a result of aging. Memories will be explored, evoking both a sense of loss, appreciation, and the sense of continuity. But for the many others, the acceptance of la vie and la survie, of two distinct lives created in a moment, and divided irrevocably, will mean leaving behind the unpreservable trail.

For many, first there was life, and then, survival.

Gerrard, Kaff; In the Twilight, in the Evening; Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/in-the-twilight-in-the-evening-75760

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.