Inside me, joy, love and sadness share a space so tight they’re all tangled. The way they were yesterday.
I’m a July baby, and my birthday fell on a Saturday this year. I don’t know whether you have specific traditions surrounding yours, but a weekend birthday is different, I think.
On the one hand, it’s probably a little less busy on the social media front, because people are not as close to their phones on a beautiful summer Saturday. But on the other, because it’s the weekend, people are free to be with you, and to make plans without feeling harried.
What happens then is that rather than being spread out over several weekdays—a coffee or drink with a friend on Monday, breakfast with your mum on Wednesday, dinner out en famille on Friday—everything becomes focused on that one day. Your friends and loved ones are free. They’ve had time to conspire. They’ve planned.
I was the very fortunate focus of this embracing attention this year.
When I was a child, my birthday experiences were very different. It was summer vacation for everyone, so I had few birthday parties with balloons, hyper excited neighbourhood friends or classmates, games and cake with super-sweet icing. School was out. It wasn’t easy to reach classmates and usually, we were away on family vacation. Mostly in the Maritimes, but almost always away and sometimes even in the car all that day—traveling.
This year, things began the night before, with a terrific supper at a local bistro and a terrible two-hundred-million-dollar movie at the Cineplex with my son Simon and friend Cindy. We dined, drank wine, and laughed like mad at the movie’s end (shame on you, Luc Besson!).
Yesterday was B-Day. It started off under a GORGEOUS, glittering blue sky (it deserves the uppercase letters: such days have been so infrequent in Montreal this summer), and breakfast in a new pub a few kilometers west of here. Simon picked me up and whisked me away. We were joined by my dearest friend, Louise, who drove all the way from her country house—where her husband was still sound asleep—to be with us.
(You likely already see where this is going. It’s a tale of kind, generous people being their usual, exceptional selves.)
In the afternoon, I was expected at Jeremy’s (Simon’s twin) and Anne’s, to be with them and my grandchildren, Penelope and Graeme, and to be joined not long after by my mum and her partner and finally, by Simon and my sister Danielle.
And that’s when I started to feel an internal wobbliness that makes no sense.
It has to do with the number of times someone said: It’s Grand-maman’s birthday, to my grandchildren, and It’s your birthday! to me. It’s about a pressure building around that, and how I wished I could stand up and send a giant wave their way, filled with all of the love and gratitude and bliss I feel having them in my life: enough so that none of the fanfare would ever be necessary. The being together? Yes, oh yes, most certainly, but not the rest—not the spotlight.
With that spotlight following me, I flounder. I’m not meant for it. The sadness in me floats up with the love and joy. It’s so strange. Opening boxes and boxes of extremely generous and thoughtful gifts with the help of Penelope and Graeme’s paper-ripping skills…It’s all so much. There’s no reciprocation possible.
Then it was dinner at the big table that fits everyone. Burgers, delicious salads (thank you dear Anne), chips, condiments galore, wine and laughter. Penelope and Graeme suddenly becoming a comedy act.
An experience of communion.
And finally, there was Christian, live and in colour, brought to us on my IPhone all the way from Milne Inlet in Northern Baffin Island, three thousand miles away from home for the next three months; due North, in the Canadian Arctic, in the same time zone as us ( ! ); his face the size of my phone’s small screen, missing us, looking, looking, looking and feeling outside of it all, looking for the love on our faces.
And suddenly all of our attention was on the miracle of that phone and the person it was bringing to us. And the phone passed from hand to hand, each of us asking questions in the noisy room where the rest of us chattered as we eavesdropped.
And then it ended up in my hand, and I turned and held it up over my head so that everyone at the big table could catch a glimpse of Christian while he first answered my maternal questions, then told us stories of his first days there, and then just took questions from everyone and made us laugh, and made us feel connected.
As the signal weakened, we all said our goodbyes and see-you-soons. And then it was bath time for the kids, and time to kiss, hug, and say goodbye.
The other morning, on my way downtown on the AMT commuter train (which stands for Association Métropolitaine de Transport), I looked up from the novel I was reading and scanned the passengers in my car.
If you take the train regularly, you get to know people’s faces and even some of their habits : He goes in earlier on Tuesdays and Thursdays ; she usually has a neck pillow stashed in her bag—she must live near the end of the line.
In the Bombardier-made cars, some seats face frontward and some, backward. People have preferences about this too. My husband likes to face the direction the train is traveling in. I like to switch.
Looking ahead and to the left, my eyes settled on a man leaning his head against the window. Like me, he had chosen a backward facing seat. If you look at anything or anyone long enough, you begin to notice all kinds of things as your brain scans for patterns.
This was the head of an early middle-aged man. It had the polished, overgroomed look favoured by business people. His hair, though cut conventionally short, was slick from having been tamed by some product. He had a balding spot at the back of his head. Maybe he doesn’t know that yet. The flesh of his neck curved softly over the collar of his overcoat in a way that suggested that he’s looked like a stalky grown-up for a very long time, and is used to the tighter fit of his clothing. I imagined, too, that his body’s natural smells had been washed away in the shower that morning and replaced by the scent of designer cologne.
Then, as we fast approached the train line’s second to last stop, he woke from his snooze (I can only guess this as I couldn’t see his face) and got up. And there, where his head had been, was a smudge the size of a big man’s fist. A greasy hair stain.
His seat was now empty and I couldn’t help but stare at that jarring stain. He didn’t notice it. He just walked to the exit. But if he had, would he have felt a bit embarrassed? Would he have wiped the window a few times to minimize it? Maybe he wouldn’t have given a damn.
It was the strangest thing. I took my phone out and photographed it. If you look carefully, you can see it, dead centre.
On trains and buses, you expect the odd food wrapper or abandoned newspaper, but this was a breach of commuter protocol.
We’re meant to glide back and forth in this life, on public transit or through other public spaces, without leaving a trace.
I’ve been thinking about this for the past several days.
During my recent trip to London, I stayed with my son Christian in a small room, in an old building. It was warm and it was safe, but, like many of the buildings in Europe’s older cities, it had seen better days and was no longer getting much love. Just the minimal maintenance required to keep it standing. Enough to rent its rooms out for an exorbitant amount.
There was a smell of decay everywhere. The drains of the bathrooms (shared by ten people) were slow, and body hair, head hair and scum built up all the time and quickly. The floors were always soaked because the shower door leaked.
During our last few days in London, we moved into a room at the Holiday Inn around the corner, in a newly constructed wing. The contrast between the place that had been Christian’s nest for a year and the gleaming bathrooms and impeccable bedroom we found at the hotel was so startling it made us giddy. It had the chemical smell of newness. We couldn’t wait to use the shower.
The truth is, of course, that hotel rooms are carefully constructed deceptions. Behind the illusion of pristine freshness is the reality of the carefully hidden traces that I was there; that hundreds like me were there. Traces scrubbed away or carefully camouflaged by maintenance staff.
But I WAS there. As were so many before me. There’s no altering this fact.
No matter how many hand sanitizer dispensers are placed all over our shared spaces; no matter how shiny and impervious food court furniture and office equipment might seem; no matter how clean elevator control panels and waiting rooms of every sort might appear to be, the truth is that we leave traces of ourselves everywhere we go, and the physical world absorbs them.
It’s true that some of these traces—microscopic, microbial leavings—can spell disaster to many of us. But it’s also true that the traces we leave behind mean everything.
This is so on a historical scale, of course. The recent destruction of Palmyra by ISIS—an obliteration of massive and tragic proportions—reminded me how important what we leave behind really is.
I think that we have to look more often and more closely at the traces we leave behind.
They are everywhere and on everything. They connect us to each other and to our human-made and natural worlds. They ground us. They ward off isolation. They are the marks that trigger our compassion.
We are—we were—after all, here.
I was mindful of this when I went downtown this week. And so I noticed things.
It’s a long walk from the Lucien-L’Allier train station—which brings you right into the heart of Montreal—down into the bowels of the metro hidden below. During peak hours, people stream down the cement passageway like quiet drones. But there are many stories etched into the floors and walls.
There’s the graffiti I saw. One graffito is outside the plexiglass above-ground tunnel, on a stone wall. Its faded colours seem to have sunk into the surface like the cave paintings at Lascaux. It looks like it’s been buffeted by many cold winds. I had seen it before, for sure, but hadn’t ever really looked closely at it. How long has it been there? Who drew it? It has been softened by time, but what of the emotion of the artist who created it one day?
Close by is a second graffito. In spite of its small size, this one pops. It’s just under a NO SMOKING sign with a heart drawn on it.
It’s in-your-face. An upbeat pink taunt. I think the artist is Rosy. It seems logical. I like the asterisk on the right. I wonder why Rosy added it. That’s what you write when there’s more to tell.
There are several human stories here. Clearly, the no smoking sign came before Rosy’s graffito. But I’m not sure when the smoking editorialist added his/her two-cents-worth, with «I heart».
I don’t consider either of these vandalism. It isn’t possible to make that concrete space uglier, and neither artist was trying to. But each left their mark.
Part of this same walkway has been closed off with metal fencing. That’s pretty recent and it upsets me, because I know why it was done.
The walkway is so damp that the wood is already becoming discoloured and the fencing is starting to corrode. It gives ever passerby a feeling of being penned in, and it’s morose.
It was done to ward off the homeless people (usually men at this tunnel) and other itinerants, who liked it here because they could sit on the ledge by the window and see the sunlight and watch people, cap-in-hand, in relative warmth and comfort.
It was meant to erase every trace of them. It’s ugly and it’s mean-spirited.
But their spirits are still there.
This week, I spotted a gap between the wall supports and a window in the tunnel. It’s been stuffed with garbage—mostly paper cups. Maybe these were once filled with beer and dumped there by Montreal Canadiens’ hockey fans after a game (the Bell Centre, where games are played, is also at Lucien-L’Allier).
But I’m hoping that they were left there by the same men who were pushed out of the tunnel, so that we don’t forget them.
Closer to home, the marks left by the change of seasons, and the interaction between nature and human beings, are evident everywhere.
In late November in Montreal, the trees have been silenced by the stripping of their leaves. But there are always a few hangers-on—dry, discoloured and lonesome—to remind us of what, just a month ago, was a glorious multicolored show of foliage.
On my walk to and from the train station, I’ve observed that in a special act of resistance, the leaves have also left their imprint on the sidewalks, refusing to be erased altogether. There is, however, a rub: it’s only on the freshly laid sections of sidewalk that the reddish brown leaf shapes are visible. The newness of the cement absorbed the decaying pigments, creating impermanent works of art (I don’t expect them to survive the ritual salting of the sidewalks this winter).
I love this notion that the new surfaces were more receptive and more absorbant. Less hardened, able to let the imprints fade and capable of forming new ones.
About a year and a half ago, when she was about two, my beautiful granddaughter Penelope came to visit. We went through some of our girlie rituals, including applying an abundance of hand cream, which she loved, sniffing deeply as she rubbed her small hands together.
A day or two later, as I stepped out of the shower on a cold morning, I noticed a small shape on the bottom right corner of the steamed-up full-sized mirror on the wall. As I got closer, I realized with a pang of pure love that it was Penelope’s creamy, tiny handprint.
Of course, from that moment on, I made sure never to wash that part of the mirror. I had a perfect artefact of Penelope’s toddlerhood right there in my bedroom, and I looked for it every time I stepped out of the shower.
And then one day, it wasn’t there anymore. It’s been reabsorbed.
But that’s okay. As she grows and changes, Penelope continues to leave her mark on the world. And I curate new artefacts, such as the logo of this blog, which is a painting made by her as a gift for me, last summer.