Wednesday, April 28, 2010


While his brother and cousins were at school, I took my youngest grandson, M, to a local children's museum which was holding an Art Fair. He was completely fascinated by the static electricity ball. He revelled in painting rocks and paper and small pieces of wood. He made a mask from paper plates and construction paper and feathers. He tried his small hands at pottery ... shaping lumpen clay into mysterious blobs. He traced the outline of his hand, joining the dozens of other such images on a large mural to be placed in city hall somewhere.

We arrived home paint and clay splattered, clutching an armful of little treasures. M held carefully in his hands two items which seemed to hold a particular enjoyment for him. One, a small piece of grey pottery he had worked on diligently for about a half-hour, shaping it to some exact requirements known only to himself. He proudly placed this on my kitchen counter.

"It's an ash tray for Mum", he said.

"She will like it very much", I said, gently.

The other object was a rock he had painted. This he turned over and over in his hand, obviously enjoying both the feel and look of it.

"It feels pretty", he said.

I know just what he means. I feel the same way when I touch a piece of driftwood. I find so much to enchant in the shape, the feel. Each piece invites a distinct consideration. There are gnarled limbs, intricate knots and twisted roots, as well as the milled remnants of logging and fishing, all made astonishing by their sea-change.

Humanity's childhood shares with all created things the primal dreams and desires of embodiment. I think all things have this form of affinity. Such is the small collection of objects nestling on a four year old boy's bedside table.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Scent of Mimosa

My stepmother, Pauline, died very suddenly of a massive stroke in November, 2009. My father went to bring her morning tea, and found her lying on the floor beside their bed. Her funeral took place five days later on her 77th birthday. They had been married for thirty-five years. My father lives thousands of miles away from me, from all his daughters, yet his sorrow is deeply felt by each of us.

(Pauline, July 2009, four months before her death.)

With Pauline's death, my father lacks the one person who "owned" the small details of his life. Without her, he has lost the intimacy that can only come with deep, attentive loving. He struggles with the feeling of having been ruthlessly shaken head-to-toe into an unwilling consciousness of someone else's life.

A few days ago, my father, who lives in the beautiful village of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, and often seeks comfort in his lovely garden, emailed me the photograph at the top of this post, alongside the following words:

"A tribute to my beloved Pauline who wasn’t granted the delight of beholding the splendour and fragrance of the tender Mimosa sapling which she vigilantly protected and lovingly nurtured for 5 patient years."

It had been her birthday gift to him in 2004, and she never saw it bloom during her lifetime.

I sent my father the following reply:

"I believe that your Mimosa blooming for the first time is Pauline's way of telling you that she loves and misses you. It is not an accident. There are many things in this universe which we will never logically understand ... that's the heart and beauty of the unknown. When you look at your Mimosa and smell its lovely fragrance, just know that your beloved Pauline’s spirit is there with you."

Right now, after a succession of honeyed April days, it is raining; raining as though the sun may never shine again. I huddle closer to my computer. I pull a blanket onto my knees. I enfold my hands around a mug of hot coffee. It seems to me that rain makes space more intimate. The golden Mimosa bush which wraps its scented solace around an eighty year old man’s grief, seems as close to me as the stream of rainwater glazing the trees outside my window.

Who wants a world that cannot rain or men who cannot cry?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Jo at Fourteen

I have a dearth of old photos right now as all mine are packed ready for our move in three weeks. I hope this one, found tucked inside an old school report, will suffice for today's Sepia Saturday.

This photo is of me in my school uniform in 1971. I was fourteen years old. The first thing that strikes me about this photograph is how much younger and less sophisticated the fourteen year olds of then looked as compared to now. Yet, I don’t recall pigtails and ribbons being unusual amongst the girls of my age at school. Most of us wore white knee socks, and make-up wasn't allowed.

Although I had not yet voiced it, at the time of this picture I was starting to become fully aware and cognizant of the failing dynamics and break-down of my family. I was wary and sad. I think this shows in my eyes. Nine months later my world was to fall apart when my parents divorced and my mother brought her six daughters to live in her native Canada.

I went through a time of what I can only define as grief. It was wrenching, visceral; nothing you could push out with the heel of your hand like an aching muscle. For a long time the stars faded out. The stillness, I remember that. It was clear and fierce and full of such loneliness that the air was thick with it. I day-dreamed of my family being made whole and returning home to England, over and over again. It was a painful, humiliating reflection, the kind I both relished and resented at the same time.

But, life simply keeps on becoming. Both my parents went on to re-marry very happily, and I fell in love with Canada. I have lost my English accent, my hair is white, and I’m certainly fatter, but the girl I was still lives inside me. Looking at this photograph, I am reminded anew that it is good to revisit the hidden, often forgotten parts of ourselves.

(Me, in front of my old school many years later during our holiday in 2004.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Wrong Trail

Gem and I have a small hoard of sayings which mean something only to us; those funny little bits of lore that make their way into your family vocabulary.

"This is the wrong trail, Earl", he said to me during the course of our phone conversation last evening, and I laughed.

This particular saying relates back to several years ago when we went for a hike in the magnificent, and aptly named, Cathedral Grove. This wondrous display of ancient Douglas Fir, Hemlock, and Red Cedar is found in MacMillan Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. A forest of giants, it extends only a few metres beyond the highway and continues right through the park to the Pacific Rim.

We were awe-stuck by the beauty. Scale is no dilemma if you walk slowly. It requires delicacy, both in steps and in perception. There is a will to walk slowly, to tease intricacy from the lime filigree of shadows. Trees can root themselves in our imagination, stray across the fragile boundary between the known and the unknown, a portal to another reality. Among them is intimate conversation, rebirth. Wherever the trail meandered through a criss-cross of fallen, moss-covered logs, the golden-green filtered sun lit tiny constellations of loose panicles of white stars, the petals of foam-flowers. To behold their minute astral beauty beneath the immensity of the huge trees was to feel the heartbeat of the woods.

The trails were busy and the grove was filled with people mostly doing what we were doing ... exulting, breathing, glorying. Extended families and groups of young friends. Couples. Children. Voices chased among the hushed cathedral in breathy sighs. As we stood inhaling the sacred scent of fragrant cedars, I suddenly heard a woman's voice resounding through the spires. I heard her before I saw her:

"This is the wrong trail, Earl!"

She and a man emerged in the forest, both dressed like giant babies in matching pastel shorts and t-shirts with white running shoes and socks. She was peering down at a brochure. I was dumbfounded. Wrong trail? How could it be wrong when you are surrounded by an urgent, whispery summons to reverence?

Sometimes we simply don’t see the magnificence around us, and our identity is diminished by this discrepancy. Yet, we can laugh at it, too. Gem and I use this expression when we witness one of those comic, incongruous moments either in ourselves or others. I realise, too, that it’s often this paradox that makes me love the world.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April Unfurling

Yesterday, as I was doing a little spring clean-up outdoors, a neighbour out walking her dog stopped for a chat. This woman has been a neighbour for over twenty years. Her two children are the exact same ages as two of mine. She is fond of telling me how “they have never given her a moment’s trouble in their lives”. As her words float smugly, she somehow always manages to make me feel like an unenlightened peasant with damaged offspring. Seven years ago when she discovered that our teenage son and his girlfriend were expecting a baby, her first words to me were, “I‘m so sorry. You must be feeling like such a failure as a parent. I‘ll pray for you.“ My immediate, absurd thought was, “No ... please don’t ... “

Today she tells me that she is looking forward to having grandchildren one day, but only when the time is right. She then adds, "I've always felt it isn't fair to bring children into this world until you're ready for them, but then no one knows that more than you and Gem. I really admire you."

When I go back into the house, my heart and brain wrestle as they always do after a conversation with her. My feelings are a complex mixture of envy, pity and sadness.

We so often tear one another apart, we noble humans. We are such a fearful species, so fond of lording it over one another in countless absurd ways.

Later in the afternoon, I spend some time at my favourite book store, which is actually a coffee shop and book store combined. It is called ’Books & Company’ and has a wonderful ambiance; inviting chairs, a fat purry cat prowling among the shelves, the best coffee in town.

My husband and I are regular customers and the lovely woman who works in the café section and also does a lot of the baking, knows us quite well.

"You’re missing your husband, dear. Of course you are. Would you like a piece of my pecan caramel shortbread with your coffee? Of course you would" , she says to me.

Immediately, I feel my clenched soul start to relax.

I think it's not really the grand gestures which sustain and nourish our lives. It's the seemingly ordinary, sometimes quirky, little, tender acts. These build upon each other and create a pattern of loving and nurture.

What a startling and beautiful thing it is to grow flowers in one's squalid corners.

(The sign in the parking lot behind Books & Company.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Remembering Oma

(Oma and Opa on the day they became engaged in 1945.)

In the corner of my diningroom there now rests four boxes, all stacked and taped, awaiting life in our new condo. They contain some of the physical remnants of my mother-in-law’s life, bequeathed to us when she died very unexpectedly twelve years ago. Oma was an immigrant from Holland, who came to Canada with her husband and two small daughters in the early 1950’s. A tall, booming woman, who at six feet, had several inches over me. Years later, my daughter, Sarah-Beth, her much loved first kleindochter (granddaughter), born after eight grandsons in a row, would inherit her height.

We had an uneasy relationship at first. She had wanted her only son to marry a Dutch girl, the daughter of best friends, whom Gem had dated occasionally. My large, liberal, academic, artistic family were a complete enigma to her.

As I packed, carefully wrapping the lovely blue-and-white Delft plates and candlesticks, the precious cream cow my husband loved as a child, the collection of decades old silver teaspoons, the impeccable framed cross stitch pictures, and the pieces of fine embroidery, my thoughts were of Eva ... Oma.

Oma’s knick-knack laden home was always immaculate, and filled with thriving plants and spiced cookies and cups of tea. Hand-crocheted lace doilies rested under everything. Knitted afghans were carefully arranged over the spotless sofa and chairs. The furniture gleamed with daily polishing. She had the greenest thumb I’ve ever known ... flowers and plants bloomed for her copiously and joyously. She’d pinch off the tiniest clipping, stick it in a soil-filled paper cup, and miraculously, weeks later she would be transplanting a gloriously healthy plant.

A notoriously bad cook, Fridays were leftovers night at Oma's house. It didn't matter who was there for dinner, her austere wartime experiences had left an indelible frugality that served every item of leftover food the fridge may have gathered during the week. Thus, you could find yourself staring at a reheated pork chop while the person next to you had two meatballs and a slice of roast beef. Someone else might have a chicken leg at the same meal. The same went for the side-dishes ... a few tablespoons of peas, a portion of rice, a couple boiled potatoes, it was all divvied up and served. You were rewarded, though, for ploughing your way through this eclectic repast. Friday nights Oma always served Dutch cooked chocolate pudding with whipped cream for dessert.

Oma used a number of Dutch expressions to great affect. One in particular used to make me laugh every single time I heard it. Whenever anything tasted particularly delicious, she would always say a certain phrase in Dutch, and then follow that up with its English translation, "This is so good, it’s like a little angel peeing on your tongue!” Gem and I would catch eyes, and giggle. The first time she saw my best friend, Dave, after discovering that he was gay, she said to him, "Yah, I thought there was a little sugar in your blood, liefje". Gem and I have often jokingly called Dave 'Sugar' ever since.

Oma and Opa met each other at the end of the second world war, on the day that peace was declared and there was dancing in the streets of Holland. A young man grabbed a young woman, strangers to each other, and pirouetted her into a dance. I’ve always thought it was a very romantic beginning, and I loved to hear Oma tell the story.

By the time of Oma’s death, a deep mutual love and respect had grown between us. A very robust woman, whom I had never known to be sick a day in her life, we were all extremely shaken when she died in the ICU from septic shock after suffering a ruptured bowel. As fate would have it, as her family and I took turns sitting with her throughout that long day and night, it was me, alone, that was with her when she slipped away. A long shape in the bed, her raw-boned strength a mere ghost, I was holding her hand when she died. There’s an especial grace and beauty in that.

Nothing profound was ever said between us. No life-changing revelations. What existed between us was simplicity. Love possessed and given.

Now, today, handling her things, they feel like small indrawn breaths waiting to gently exhale. There is the hush of life in them. They proclaim a comforting stillness, utterly old and forever new. They are both silent and eloquent; mute and yet they speak. They beat with the pulse of Oma’s story.

(This post is part of Sepia Saturday.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dance Me

(The amazing Jack Vettriano's beautiful depiction of 'Dance me to the end of Love')

Airports are such poignant places of passage, of arrivals and departures. The man clutching a bunch of yellow roses ... the proud young couple cradling a pink swathed newborn ... the eager children with noses pressed to the glass ... the young man with dreadlocks immersed in his ipod, but still checking his watch every few minutes ... And then as the swarm of arrivals pour through the security doors, all around me exclaims of joy, names called out ... hugs, laughter, excited chatter. Our physical arrivals and departures feed each other, together, a whole and balanced affirmation. Life at an airport is singular of purpose, unanimous and kindred.

Standing there last evening amidst a sea of people, I was struck by the unifying emotion most discerned on the faces of those waiting. It was one of mostly happy expectation. I was awaiting the arrival of my husband, the beautiful man I’ve been married to for thirty-three years.

We’ve come to understand, to grasp the pattern of each other’s quiet spaces; to know and accept the complexities of the other. We know the rhythm of the dance that is us. We dance slowly sometimes ... barely moving ... cradled cheek to cheek, heart to heart. We dance as May Day dancers do, holding ribbons in hands that intricately weave together in a circle of play. We dance by ourselves at times, each alone, unseen. We dance as the tango ... intense, soulful mirrored actions, responding to each others’ tiniest nuance of movement. And, many times, as Al Pacino said in 'The Scent of a Woman', "If you make a mistake and get tangled up, you just Tango on", we have just tangoed on.

My husband, Gem, has been away for a few days to officially accept a wonderful new position at a university in a city six hundred kilometres from where we presently live. It is his dream job and he has worked very hard to achieve it. We will be moving, packing up our life after thirty years here. We will be saying goodbye to our beloved children and grandchildren, our friends, to the house which is imbued with our veracity and presence, and to a community that has become a part of us. I will also be saying goodbye to the hospital where I have worked for more than twenty years; to the amazing co-workers who have become such a large part of my life.

I have been vacillating between grief and joy. There is a running under-current of fear, too, and of anxiety. The texture, fragrance and presence of so much. My feelings, at first, like fisted hands packing snow ... compressed in layers of cold, hard sadness. My hands are opened now, gently cupping ... soft, amorphous.

When writing to my best friend of many years about my well of feelings, his reply contained the following:

'As you go about life, you will sometimes see a great chasm. Jump! It is not as wide as you think.'
I am jumping ... heart first. And, the dance continues ...

Dance Me To The End Of Love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

(Leonard Cohen)