Sunday, November 27, 2011

Jordan's Gift

Friday I received my first Christmas card of the season, one that has a very interesting and poignant history. The only time I connect with its givers is at Christmas and they always include a little letter telling of their latest family doings. This sounds very ordinary, but it has a far from ordinary beginning.

About ten years ago I was working in the emergency department one summer when late in the afternoon an eleven year old boy was brought in lifeless, the victim of a drowning. Heroic measures were attempted for well over an hour, but despite this, the boy died. As his heartbroken parents gathered his body into their arms, they told me their story in broken sobs. Jordan was their only child. After a number of childless years they had adopted him as a newborn infant. He was the joy and light of their existence. They were very cautious parents and had only just started allowing him a little more freedom. Jordan and his friend were rowing a rubber dingy in the lake when it capsized. For some inexplicable reason he had taken off his life jacket. His friend made it to shore. Jordan did not.

I spent several hours with Jordan and his parents after his death. When his mother cried and asked for blankets to warm his cold body, I brought them to her. When his father asked "why?" over and over again, I gave whatever poor comfort I could. When they asked that I wait until friends brought Jordan's favourite stuffed dog to accompany him to the morgue, I told them I'd wait as long his parents needed. Mostly, I just listened, helpless in the whyfors of such undeserved suffering.

I didn't cry until I was at home, the images of the past evening flowing through my mind endlessly. I thought of that beautiful child, so unmarred and peaceful looking. I thought of how his dark tendrils of damp hair had gradually dried. I thought of his parents' anguish and grief, of his mother's begging, keening wail, "Please tell me this hasn't happened!" I thought of all they must now go through.

Two summers later, I went into work one gorgeous blue and golden morning. I was working in the O.R. and as I looked at my slate list, one name seemed vaguely familiar; a woman to be prepped for a Caesarian section. As I pulled the curtains aside, her eyes met mine. The smile froze on my face. The last time I had seen those eyes was that sorrowing day in the E.R. wracked in anguish over the body of her little boy. She recognized me immediately. Instinctively, she held out her arms to me, and we hugged.

As she was prepped, with her husband now gowned by her side, she told me about their miracle. After twenty-one years of marriage, at the age of forty-four, she was about to give birth to her first biological child. She told me about how difficult it been after Jordan's death, how there had been times when they had felt they couldn't go on, that life had seemed hopeless and over for them. They saw this new baby not only as a promise of a new beginning but also as a precious cosmic gift from Jordan. Their excitement stretched like a tent over a framework of hope.

"Do you know what day it is today?", she asked with tears in her eyes. "It's exactly two years ago to the day since Jordan died." Then she added, softly, "It is only fitting that you are here today. It was meant to be."

I was immeasurably moved, and I stood with a very full heart as the surgery commenced. By now all the staff working the room that day had heard the story, and the hope and good wishes of everyone was palpable. A healthy, beautiful baby boy was born to collective sighs of relief and joy.

At the end of my shift I made a quick visit to the maternity ward. Baby Matthew's mother cradled him in her arms, her eyes shining with happiness. One of his tiny hands was clasped around his father's finger. Both parents faces were alight with love and the amazement of discovery. On the bedside table next to them rested a framed photograph of a dark haired, smiling boy; the big brother that Matthew will only ever know through stories and pictures.

Since that time, once a year, at Christmas, I receive a card from Jordan's family. Matthew is now nine years old, a wonderful, loving child, full of life and normal boyhood joys.

Life can indeed be mysterious. I had only worked in the Emergency Department for a short time choosing to return to my previous position in the Operating Room after only a month. The day of Matthew's birth, I had originally been assigned to another room but a colleague had asked if I would switch with her.

Through the loss of one child and the birth of another, I am enfolded in the love of a family who have been both scarred and graced. Jordan's gift is one of hope.

(Giovani Battista Salvi Sassoferrato, 1685. Madonna and Child.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tante Adrie

(A is delighted to find that Tante Adrie has the exact same initials and last name as her own.)

Gem's Tante Adrie is the only surviving member of his father's birth family, his father's 'baby' sister. At nearly 90, she lives on her own in a little apartment in Haarlem, a beautiful old city about forty minutes by train from Amsterdam. We arranged a Monday afternoon visit for coffee. The logistics involved several calls to iron out the details, as her English is limited and Gem's Dutch only somewhat better.

The day before our visit, our cell phone rang. It was Tante Adrie. Our conversation went something like this:

"Yah, you come coffee (Dutch words). Appel coek. More Dutch words."

"Danku (thank you; one of the few Dutch words I am sure of), Tante Adrie. I'll get Gem for you."

Gem reassures her several times that, yes, we will be there at about 2 P.M.

The next morning the phone rings again. 'Are we coming? I am worried you will get lost." More soothing words from Gem.

We arrive, Gem, A and I, about ten minutes late. Tante Adrie is standing on her tiny flower laden balcony eagerly watching for us. She is tall, big boned, smiling, her brown eyes sparkle with humour. Each of us in turn is engulfed in an enormous hug accompanied by the usual Dutch greeting of a kiss on each cheek. Her words flow in a kindly torrent. Gem picks out about one in four, but is able to make out the gist of what she says, and interprets for me. "We are to leave our shoes outside. We are to sit down. Gem looks so much like his late father, it makes her cry. How old is our beautiful granddaughter? Don't mind the dog."

The apartment sparkles with cleanliness. Elaborate doilies edged with scalloped lace, curtains and tablecloth, all snowy white, contrast with the dark, gleaming wood. Numerous thriving house plants in blue and red china pots vie for space with even more numerous knicks-knacks. A is particularly enamoured of a china figurine of a lady in a pink china evening gown with roses in her china golden hair.

Tante Adrie won't allow any help, and we sit a little awkwardly as she ushers in cups of coffee, plates and forks. A plump apple cake sits in the middle of the coffee table next to a bowl of whipped cream. Orange juice is brought for A. We are just about to tuck in when Tante Adrie folds her hands, closes her eyes and begins to pray. Our names are mentioned in the prayer.

The cake, served with lashings of cream, is delicious. The coffee is dark and luscious. A second helping of each doesn't take much urging. The dog, a fat puggish little creature, named Bepo, waddles over to Tante Adrie, who feeds him bits of cake. A is soon giggling delightedly as he licks crumbs from her fingers, too.

Later Tante Adrie brings out old photos of Gem's father, and of other now deceased siblings, of her late husband, her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most now residing in Australia. Snippets of stories are told, some understood, some not, but the love and warmth of them, their soul and essence, nourish without precise meaning. The tears and laughter of old forgotten joys and sorrows fill the room. A reads her book for a time, and then wanders around the room delicately caressing various objects with the tips of her fingers.

Before we leave we give her our gift of a box of maple-cream cookies from Canada, and we take pictures. My husband, a big man and 6 ft, 5 ins, lovingly referred to by friends as 'the gentle giant', dwarfs most people but Tante Adrie holds her own next to him.

Last hugs, last kisses ... and last good-byes, for Gem and I both know that this is the last time we will see Tante Adrie. It is a final earthly farewell. I reach over and squeeze Gem's hand for I know his heart is very full. Having lost both his parents, he is once again dancing with the part of himself that holds all the love and sweetnesses of his childhood.

(Tante Adrie and my Gem. I love this photo!)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Playing Dress-up

In this day of digital games and virtual reality, it is a joy to see my niece, H, (named after her auntie) engaged in hours long games of dress-up and imaginative play. In turns she is attired as a highlander in a Scotch kilt and cap with a large red tin as a drum; a lady trailing a green velvet skirt, long black gloves and a paper fan; a little red riding hood clad in a red shawl clutching a basket filled with apples and little treasures.

Today she is a Queen clothed in a froth of pink tulle, dripping jewels and a sparkly tiara, the royal mistress of a unicorn tethered to the couch with a silken purple ribbon. We've spent the past hour making little paper crowns for the unicorn and its retinue of ponies. H provides the voice for all. "You may kiss my hoof, Oh Queen," she says, bowing the unicorn to her own majestic presence.

She is a swoop of movement in the way only a child can be. Twirling around me in a lovely curve, chattering pell-mell.

"You are the nicest lady I've ever known in my whole life", she tells me, with the wisdom of five whole years of living. "Except for my Mummy", she adds, matter-of-factly.
"Of course." I say.
"Don't go home. I want you to stay here forever", she begs, her hands entwined in mine.
"My house would miss me," I tell her. "It would be so lonely. "
"Just think if your house started to cry and you went home and everything was soaking wet", says H, this image taking flight in her big blue eyes.

We wave at each other until my last craning glimpse of a little girl perched on the back of the couch, lips kissed to the window, is pressed into memory.

Monday, November 14, 2011

All Aboard ... for 'Toyland Express'....

Recently, I was asked by Scholastic to write a review of Walter Wick's new book, 'Can You See What I See? Toyland Express.'

This delightful book provides the kind of interaction between child and reading that is an integral leap of physical and emotional joy. Having no grandchildren living close enough to share it with, the four year old son of a neighbour filled the spot admirably. Connor's shouts of glee at finding the hidden treasures of each page were spontaneous and catching. He needed my guidance for some of the items but was able to find many on his own, an act which thrilled him from the top of his red curly head to the tip of his cowboy boot slippers.

Connor's least favourite page was the Toy Maker's Workshop which shows the train in its wooden skin before its painted glory. He rapidly wanted to skip to the next page. His favourite page was the Store Window with its bounty of colourful toys. Personally, I loved "At The Circus' the best. I could almost hear the whirligig music and smell the buttery scent of popcorn.

It seems to me that when it comes to books, children often want a very similar involvement to people of all ages and generations; participation in a wider experience that is not yourself, while at the same time, seeking and sharing the security of the known. Walter Wick's Toyland Express does this wonderfully. Its unique interaction brings a degree of autonomy for the child, as well triggering imagination and creativity.

To learn more about this delightful book, please go to the Scholastic website, here.

(The author, Walter Wick, poses with the circus scene from his newest book.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Chimes of Westerkirk

(A and I by Bloemgracht Canal.)

This past August Gem and I had a wonderful holiday in the Netherlands. Gem immigrated to Canada with his parents and two older sisters when he was nine years old. He had never been back to Holland since, so for him it was a pilgrimage of sorts, to his roots. We brought our lovely eight year old granddaughter, A, with us, and her presence added a beauty, a light, and a perspective we wouldn't otherwise have had. I plan over the next months to write the little stories about our time there. This is the first one.

Instead of staying in a hotel, for the first week we rented an apartment in a 17th century row house along the Bloemgracht (Flower canal) in Amsterdam. The house boasted twenty foot ceilings, wide windows overlooking the canal, gleaming black shutters, crisp white scalloped curtains and a wood floor worn beautifully smooth and uneven with the years. The street breathed romance, like old songs and old books.

Our apartment was located so close to Anne Frank house that we could hear the chiming of the nearby Westerkirk every fifteen minutes, just as she had. In the diary she kept while in hiding, Anne wrote about finding the sound so very comforting and reassuring, and how it made her want to both cry and sing.

(Westerkirk, Amsterdam, built in 1620.)

The evening before we visited Anne Frank house, I told A, Anne's story. She was very interested and asked many questions. The next day, as we waited for our turn to view the house, a woman near us reached over and gently touched A's hair, "You know, I think you look a little like Anne", she said.

Once, this canal house on 263 Prinsengracht was the office of Otto Frank, Anne's father, for his spice business. Entering, I’m immediatly struck by the subdued atmosphere. Voices are low. It is very quiet, very solemn. I begin to imagine what it must have been like, living in this eternal dusk ... day in, day out; in constant fear of discovery. Poignant excerpts from Anne’s diary are written on the walls:

(Anne's actual diary, which she received for her 13th birthday.)

11 June 1942

"We will have to whisper and tread lightly during the day; otherwise the people in the warehouse might hear us."

19 November 1942

"I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."

21 August 1943

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death."

In Anne's room we gaze silently at pictures and newspaper cuttings she had pasted on the wall almost seventy years ago: the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Ginger Rogers, Sonia Henie, Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. Nearby are the pencil marks on the wall, drawn by her father, noting her growth during her years in hiding. A stands very still. I see tears start to trace her cheeks. I place my arms around her, draw her close to me. "It just wasn't fair, Nana. It just wasn't fair", she whispers.

Later that evening after tucking A into bed with her prayers, I lay down beside her for a while. The silvery melodic bells of Westerkirk start to ring in the summer darkness. As the tones die out, A says in a tender voice, "When I hear those bells, it's like Anne is speaking to me because she could hear them, too." I will never forget the hush and holiness of that moment.

(A 8, beside the statue of Anne Frank outside the house where she wrote her diary, while hidden with her family for two and half years, 1942 - 1944.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Moore's Symphony

Hear the wind blowing through the trees.
It dances scarlet graves of leaves.
Spectral orchestra, communes under direction
Of the equal conductor, section by section.

The slabs and headstones all in place
Perched, high and low, named, face to face.
Each one solos its finite story
Long, short or middling inventory.

The symphony plays its stony dirge,
And bone sounds carry and converge,
As blades of grass in supplication
listen to Moore's ghostly ovation.

(Magpie Tales #90)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My Love

Gem cleared the patio of its bounty of leaves today. Before he did so, I took photographs; A carpet of winged red maple. My angels peeping from gold and scarlet dreams.

He wore his old tweedy, leathery jacket, the one he basically now only wears for gardening and puttering around outside on frosty, nippy days. Occasionally I like to press my face against its scratchy folds as it hangs in the closet. There is something immensely comforting to me about the feel and scent of that jacket. It contains the essence of Gem's strength and manliness, his gentleness and his love. It is chock full of love. Love bursts through its seams in an accumulation; his silly little sayings, his uncomplaining toil, his long arms stretched out for the rake or mugs of coffee. Love, that I have sometimes in my conceit, taken lightly, as my due.

As a leaf raker may pray by raking, a lover may pray by intimate conversation with an old worn jacket.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fred Dances

(Dancing sculpture, titled 'Joy' by Bruce Garner, in Ottawa.)

A few evenings ago I attended a local Kamloops Blazers hockey game with Gem and three of our friends. To be honest, I did not really closely follow the action on the ice, preferring to enjoy myself in my own absurd way. I was more interested in observing the other attendees around me. Near me was a mentally challenged man. He was about my age, stooped, very thin, bald, with an oddly elongated head. His jacket bore the name 'Fred' in white scripted letters. Fred clutched a large cup of coffee in one hand and in the other held a noise-maker. The young man seated beside him, obviously his caregiver, frequently reached over and dabbed dribbles of coffee from his chin.

Fred plied his noise-maker enthusiastically and appropriately throughout the game. Occasionally he'd look over and smile at me, nodding and smacking his lips. During the first intermission, Fred opened a small backpack that has been lying near his feet. One by one he removed the contents, lifting each up and showing me the item; a large bar of chocolate, a pen, a pair of gloves, a knitted hat, and a small battered stuffed mouse. I smiled and made a thumbs-up sign, and then rummaged in my purse and showed him the apple I had secreted there. Fred grinned and then pretended to feed the bar of chocolate to the mouse, as his caregiver smiled indulgently.

During the second intermission, the presenter announced a giveaway called 'Dance for your dinner', during which people could stand up in the aisle, dance to the music, and the winner would be given a $50 gift certificate to a local restaurant. As several young people began to dance, Fred observing them, stood up, removed his jacket and shuffled to the aisle a few seats away. As the music blared, this small, elfin figure lifted his arms and began to dance, unabashedly and unashamedly. Then he looked over at me and gestured for me to join him. I smiled and shook my head, but this didn't deter him. He waved at me again, using a broader, more expansive movement. Twenty seconds later, there we were, Fred and I dancing in the aisle together. Beaming at me, he echoed the sign I had made at him earlier, raising his hand in a prolonged thumbs up. My small embarrassment disappeared completely and I just gave myself in to the moment.

Neither of us won the prize, but I am humbled to have been a tiny part of the heart, instinct and courage I witnessed that night. Joy, indeed.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


A living tree is taken so I may give birth
to words on paper, and yet today
I see only Rorschach splattering ink on the wall.

"I see a sleepless angel"...
"I see a clumsy lover"...
"I see a girl crying in a Rowan tree"...
"I see Mary calling out for grace".

but my fingers are still.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Holy Smoke

This afternoon Gem and I made a wonderful visit to a local Native Museum and Heritage Park. Located on the banks of the South Thompson River, there are more than a kilometre of trails leading through the archaeological remains of a two thousand year old Secwepemc village. This major archaeological site includes a cache of over fifty unique lodges. It also features four authentically reconstructed winter pit-houses.

I spoke with a remarkable eighty year old aboriginal woman, an elder, whose stories both enthralled and captivated me. She told how in the old days, as a little girl in her village, there was always a welcoming fire. Everyone shared what they had in a circle around the flames; smoky morsels of fish and wild meat, bannock, tea. She said, too, how when you saw smoke rising from the huts, you knew you were welcome, that it was not too early to make a call on your neighbour. The whole village was blessed with a mingling of the smoke from the many fires of the community. Nowadays, she said, sighing deeply to express her sorrow, nowadays, you hardly see any smoke, and people are too busy to visit their neighbours.

There was a time when smoke communicated the presence of the holy. Where there is smoke there is fire, the fire of the scared energy at the heart of life, the hearth of creation. The first peoples of this continent experienced the communion of the sacred sweat lodge and the vision sleep ... ecstasies induced by the smoke from ritual fires. Even now, when I see smoke rising from a bonfire of fallen maple leaves or I get a resinous whiff of alder smoke from a fireplace, I sense the benediction of a spiritual, fleeting presence.

"For my days", says the psalmist, "pass away like smoke." Sometimes it's a holy thing to allow ourselves to be transformed, to be absorbed into the very air we breathe, the apparent nothing which is everything.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Clothed Body and Soul

I gather the velour infant sleeper , the little red fleece hoodie, the small Canucks hockey jersey, and the brown Carhart overalls that my oldest grandson, D, loved so much and insisted on wearing until the straps literally dug into his shoulders. All are outgrown now. They contain memories as palpable as the fabric between my fingers as I fold them neatly. Each recalls a time-woven tapestry of the three years when two of our grandsons lived with us.

I remember buying baby M that orange sleeper with the man-in-the-moon decal over his heart during that first harried week as we frantically readied a room for the boys. It speaks to me of those early days after they had arrived beautiful, beguiling and a little bewildered, at three and half years and six months old. I took this picture of him wearing them, sweetly sleeping in the borrowed crib Gem had scrubbed, in the bedroom where the sky-blue paint still smelled new and looked unfamiliar. How full my heart was that first night five years ago.

I remember the joy on D's face when he chose the little hockey jersey, how he clutched it to his chest, his face beaming. My fingers linger over the small red hoodie, and I joyously recall M, at age 14 months, lying on the grass at our summer cottage kicking his legs in beatific delight.

Parting with my children's outgrown clothing is a ritual which has always given me bittersweet pangs. Over the years, some I have given away, some I have donated to a women’s transition house where sometimes mothers and little ones show up in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Yet others, I can’t let go; the first tiny pink dress purchased by her Daddy for our daughter Sarah-Beth when she was born, The cub scout shirt with its rows of badges so proudly earned by my eldest son, Nicholas. The penguin sweatshirt belonging to my younger son, Joshua, which he loved into faded shabiness. He wore it until the opening would no longer stretch over his head and the sleeves were only a little past his elbows. I remember his words when he solemnly accepted the fact that he just couldn't wear it again, "He was a good penguin, wasn't he, Mummy?"

All these items are imbued with the souls of my children. I place them back into my memory box, adding to them the few items now outgrown by my grandsons. The freshness, sweetness and fragility of their history reach down to the very marrow of my bones. They are strewn with the songs of yesterday; tunes of dawning faith and promise and unblemished hope. They still possess the power to both nourish and elate.

Friday, October 21, 2011

October Gratitude

Here, in this deeply wooded land, I have a ringside seat to all this season holds. Each day the colours intensify. Less green, more gold and lemon, rust, orange and deep red.

Sometimes I stand rapturously with my mouth open in wonder. I wander around in a dream-like state, thinking of superlative adjective after adjective, a successive seasonal litany. The children I encounter on my daily little walks romp in a glorious shuffling of boots and fleece jackets. They gather pine cones and clutch reddening leaves in their hands.

I took my five year old grandson, M, for a walk in the park on a crisp October afternoon. Following an old ritual I recently read about, I told him to gather the five most perfect autumn leaves he could find, and that each would represent the giving of a perfect day to someone he loves. The collecting done, we stood holding our bounty on the pier overlooking the river. One by one he tossed them into the rippling water, calling out the names ... "Daddy, I wish for you a perfect day! Nana, I wish for you a perfect day!" The delight of the afternoon is as sweet, as spicy, as fragrant as a Macintosh apple.

October is a time of the fullness of ripening. Seed pods hang swollen from the memory of their petals. The orchards and fields lie bloated in their excess. Pumpkins and squash rise among their slow leaves and show their thick skins to the paling sun. Cool mornings ride on the hot air balloon of Indian summer afternoons. My arms take turns in wool and skin.

This, too, is the season of fragility. I think maybe wholeness is possible only when we embrace our fragility. It is a paradox, perhaps, that the only way to really be fully alive is to open your heart to all your life contains ... the sad and poignant and hurting, too. My heart often feels wrung, as if all the grief and joys of my life are stirring together in one large lump in my throat.

I always take pleasure in finding an apple on which birds have fed. We all make our mark on the things we touch, and the curves and arabesques of the birds’ beak is a signature to its hunger. Writing is like that for me. It is the food I carve my name upon. I feel much gratitude this October day to once again possess the strength to write.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Northern Reflections

The Northern Lights, interpreted by the Tlingit of Alaska as the dancing of human spirits, came alive for me in a glorious concert Gem and I attended last evening. We accompanied lovely new friends to a concert given by the Thompson Valley Community Orchestra. Themed 'Northern Reflections', it featured gorgeous music from Norway, Finland and Russia; Jean Sibelius, Edvard Grieg, Gustav Holst, Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexander Scriabin. The guest pianist was a brilliant, passionate twenty-one year old young man named Clinton Denoni, who last year won the Canadian composer's class at the B.C. Festival of the Performing Arts.

The music, under the direction of the wonderfully talented Norris Berg, came alive in banners of unfurling green light, each note possessing its own geometry of grace. I felt nourished as I listened, my soul fed. I could feel the distinctly Northern reflections of each piece; music seeking the kaleidoscopic transformation of the ever-shifting beauty of mountains, of snow, of liquidity and ice, of dark and light.

It occurred to me as we drove home, that the whole evening was a form of prayer; an intimate dialogue, gathered and given. For just as a dancers pray by dancing, and musicians pray by playing music, we human beings have a continuous, ongoing need for prayer through the rituals of communing.

(Clinton Denoni, wonderful young pianist.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dance of February

Today is all glitter and sunlight and blue shadows. Swells of the sheerest intimation of winter transition quivers in my bones; a tune that teases memory but can’t quite find the words.

After waving goodbye to my parents, who have been visiting for the past week, I hasten to go for a walk. There are melting pools of snow everywhere as the temperature soars to 8 degrees above zero. For the first time in months my body feels an inkling of spring. It registers in my legs, my brain, my heart.

The snow has separated into bone-shaped islands. Blonde grasses peek out everywhere. I stop and eat my apple on a small bridge while looking out at the thawing skin of the river. I knew I was weary of the winter crust on my world, but I hadn't realized quite how much until I feel the glad leap in my heart.

On my way home, I run into my neighbour out walking with her two little ones. B, aged three, scampers ahead, stamping his little boots, mittened hands pawing the thinning snow for treasure. Not having seen her close-up since the autumn, I am astonished at how big baby L has grown. Fat, dimpled, pink-cheeked, she grins at me, revealing two perfect pearly teeth. I issue an impromptu invitation for lunch, and am accepted.

We unwind scarves, remove snowsuits, undo boots. I pass the baby to her mother, a soft, plump burden of love, and then seek out the box full of little toy cars for her brother. I bring out, too, the big Noah's Ark with all the animals. Ben finds this fascinating. Soon giraffes and lions, sheep and elephants, jostle for position in the ark alongside myriad little cars. Baby L gums and drools on a sculpted plastic camel.

I chat with their mother as I add a mixture of sauteed scallions, dried apricots, roughly chopped almonds, and a diced Granny Smith apple to rice cooked in chicken broth. B would prefer a grilled cheese sandwich, and this I prepare as I sear scallops in garlic butter to serve with the rice.

My neighbour comments on a garden plaque resting on the Welsh dresser. It reads 'My Secret Garden'. This I bought the other day because it called to me, partly because The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books as a child, and partly, because I think each of us possesses a secret garden of self which just needs the right conditions to unfurl. We all need light and warmth and watering tears and tender hands. Once the snow disappears completely, I will place the plaque outside.

As we eat and laugh and sip tea and savour the antics of the children, a wave of feeling rushes over me. The dance of February; slowly releasing the soil, stretching the spiralling buds ... thwarting the breath of winter, not just in nature, but in we human beings, too.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Magpie Tales: The Piano Teacher's House

The Piano Teacher’s House

Floors of hardwood, high ceilings,
white curtains, candlesticks on the
brick hearth, clock ticking in dark
wood. Glass bowl of seashells.
No shouting here. No stale beer smell.

She waits for her turn making
up stories for the pictures
lining the room. Babies in white
dresses, men in uniforms,
women in plumes and velvet.

The green house with the piano
converts black insects into
music. She plays them into
gilt-edged pages of incense
breathing secret beauty.

Too soon, in the car, sitting
next to her father, not talking,
eyes closed, trying to keep
the piano teacher’s house
humming inside her.

(Go here for more Magpie Tales.)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Pink Cape

(Jo, aged ten years old, 1967.)

Spring in my family meant new spring clothes; a dress or two, new shoes, and a spring coat. Usually the clothing was sewn by my mother, and although I’d see the pattern, and glory in tracing my fingers along the fabric, my sisters and I would only have glimpses of the garments until they were almost finished. Sometimes I’d gaze in wonder and growing anticipation at the little heap of shapes on my mother’s sewing table.

She had a small sewing room right off the kitchen at our house. My bedroom was directly above it, and often I could hear the whirring of the sewing machine at night when I drifted off to sleep. It was a lullaby that always made me feel loved.

My mother was happy when she sewed. "You’re going to love it", she would say, smiling, "As soon as I saw that material, I knew it was exactly the right shade to bring out the green in your eyes." Or, "Princess Anne has a dress just like the one I‘m making you. I saw it in my magazine." In a trifling, I’d imagine myself in my new dress, feeling beautiful as the material floated around me.

The year I was ten years old, my mother sewed me a cape for my new spring coat. It was of pink Melton cloth with a darker pink silk lining and magenta buttons. I hated it! I had expected a coat. The picture on the front of the pattern had showed three figures. My eyes had fixated on the two in coats, barely noting the one girl wearing a cape. No one in my class wore a cape. Nor did anyone else I knew.

My mother, as she measured the hem line on me, knew immediately that I didn’t like it. I also knew I would have to wear it anyway. That didn’t stop me protesting, though. My disappointment came flooding out in a litany of grievances:

"Nobody wears a cape. Nobody!"

"Everyone is going to laugh at me."

"Couldn’t I just wear my old coat?"

My face burned with dislike, and also with shame at having offended my mother.

I wore my cape to school for the first time, filled with mute despair. I tried to carry my satchel strategically front of me, and place my arms in such a way that it hid the fact that it was a cape. To no avail, of course, and my fears of being teased were realized. Being called, "Stinky Pinky Bat Girl!" really doesn’t sound all that dreadful now, but I was a very sensitive little girl, and at the time it stung to the quick.

A few weeks after the cape made its debut, my father had business in London and he took me with him for the day. This was a rare treat, and I was thrilled, despite having to wear my pink nemesis.

As I waited in a rather grand reception room as my father attended his meeting, my eyes were increasingly drawn to a beautiful young woman sitting at the big polished desk. I don’t remember what she was wearing, just that I was very impressed with her beauty and poise.

As my father and I went to leave, I was startled when this elegant being spoke to me, "Your cape is just lovely. It’s the very height of fashion. You look so chic in it!" I left the building feeling almost like I had just had a bath; clean, transformed.

My father and I went out for lunch, and then to feed the pigeons at Trafalgar Square. He snapped my picture as I stood there in my pink cape. The delight of that spring day glows in my face.

In time I grew to love that cape. In fact, I wish I still had it.

(This is a Saturday Sepia post.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Magpie Tales: Icons of Dust

Icons of Dust

When I am alone
The world shoves poetry
Into my brain.
It germinates in earth
And sky and trees
And snow glistening
In morning light.
Brick walls and birds
Cello music and
Gnarled hands.
I name it
Give it story
Fill my language with gold.
And the presence inside
All things muses on beauty
As brick becomes an
Icon of red dust
Coating my eyelids
And choking my voice
With song.

(Go here for more Magpie Tales. It's worth the flight!)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Magpie Tales: Snow Dreams in Red

Snow Dreams in Red

A dreaming ashen stillness falls upon
The frozen breathless path, the sapless woods,
The winter of my brother’s death. An etude
Full of young men’s voices calling, his wan,
A hush above the rest. Fleshy heart gone.
The snow so bright, I weep. Weary to rest
My own scarlet vesture beneath my breast.
Strewn with arrows memory hastens on
To pierce far beyond the hard icy rim.
His bright Robin hair shines into the grey
Of sombre wind-rent flakes, that gather grim
Around the dying portals of the day.
The snow so red, I bleed. His tawny lore
Dressed in white, his voice sings evermore.

(This sonnet is dedicated to the memory of my beloved red-headed brother, Jason, 1975 - 2003.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Permitting Play Time

My youngest sister, H, and her little son.

 During the three years I parented my two little grandsons, I gradually came to the conclusion that young parents are under enormous pressure. It seems greater than I remember from the time when my own children were small.

There is an intense push to have your child enrolled in multiple activities, to provide a constant barrage of educational experiences and classes of every description. I also think there is a bigger pressure now to be seen as the perfect nurturer, and to produce a child who is viewed somehow as "more special" than the rest.

In my months standing outside the school waiting for kindergarten dismissal each day, I listened to a litany of parents discussing their child-rearing methods and children’s achievements. There appeared to be an almost desperate need to display superior philosophies.

"We have her in dance three times a week now. The teacher says she’s very gifted."

"We already often eat dinner in the car. I don’t know what I’ll do once the baby is old enough to start activities!"

"He has developed a strong sense of personal space. He is a spirited boy.", said one mother, smiling as her son shoved several children out of his way as he pushed to the head of the line.

I don't like the guilt-mongering and pressure. We parents and grandparents need to be kinder and more gentle with each other. No matter what my preferences and prejudices, the goal should be happy, healthy children ... all children ... not just mine because they're somehow more deserving or "special" than yours. As though all other children are lacking, cheated, less worthy.

An excellent surgeon I once worked with, a very nice, empathic man, shared something with a group of us one day. He was taken aback when his eight year old daughter, after being informed that one of her extra-curricular classes had been cancelled, exclaimed joyfully, "Daddy, do I really have a whole afternoon off?!" If I remember correctly, this little girl was involved in a dizzying array of activities which included piano lessons, dance, gymnastics and Japanese Kumon.

During the holidays, I watched my youngest grandson, aged four, completely absorbed in arranging a series of small sticks in the snow, rocks dotted here and there alongside small cars in an elaborate design of his own making. His mind was cradled in its own rocking.

I passionately believe that children need, as we all do, spaces where passions and visions dance without specific shape. Being over-programmed with scheduled activity takes a toll not just on the child’s soul and body, but on those of its parents as well.

Maybe the only remedy is to permit ourselves and our children to play. To become absorbed in the apparent nothing which is everything.

My grandson, D (in the orange shirt), playing with some of his kindergarten friends.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Good Woman

As this January morning whitened, I took a taxi. The news was on and a story about a violent act committed by a youth was broadcast. The driver, hands clenched tightly on the wheel, expressed to me that, "The problem with the world today is that women think about their careers instead of thinking about their duty as wives and mothers."

His words are expressed politely, but there is an edge to them. "Life can be complex," I murmur. "No," he says. "My daughter will be a good woman."

From his mirror dangles a laminated photo of two children. The little girl looks out with huge, limpid brown eyes. I wonder about her. She’s wearing an orange butterfly clip in her thick, dark hair. I stare at it. A butterfly meant to be probing the heart of tiger lilies, meant to be ascending the sky in papery bursts, improbably strong. Will she find herself stretching, constrained, bound by glass walls she can’t escape?

The silence between me and the driver grows. I want to tell him that our children bear all our hopes, and fears, and expectations. That, these we wrap around us in the guise of love and care. I say nothing more, except, "Thank you" and "Have a good day", as I leave the taxi.

As I trudge through the snow, something in me yearns towards the little girl in the picture. A nice man, and one I’m sure cares deeply for his family, the taxi driver perhaps cannot see the butterfly he pleasantly hopes to confine within a jar. Should I have tried to say more, I ponder? I felt incapable of articulating any words which might have bridged the chasm between us. Am I being too judgmental, too righteous, too fanciful?

Later, I think of the paradoxes inherent in the form and physics of snow. It can be soft and hard. Light and heavy. Thick and delicate. It freezes and insulates. It compacts and fluffs. It is both secretive in what it hides and open-faced in what it presents. It can be so implacably glaring, and yet so softly, amorphously beautiful.

Like a good woman.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Primordial Symphony

Today I turned 54. What better way to celebrate, than to do something I have never done before ... share one of my poems in a public forum! Thus, I have joined the orchestra in this week's Magpie Tales.

Primordial Symphony

A scuff of deer tracks,
crows feet
against my eyes
a symphony of wind song
Breathy sighs
And whispers,
Eternal murmuring;

roots and boughs,
lime filigree of light
my feet release the
song of cedar;

A plethora of
twisted wood
against tide
and mountains
to flight;

If these pieces
of music
predict any arrangement
it is that
all resting places
shall be

And for now
I am simply here
breathing air
needing no
rigid reason
for life but my

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Three Days in Hebden Bridge

Ever since discovering that Tony lives in beautiful Hebden Bridge, I have wanted to write about my own time there in September, 2004. Gem and I spent three days there visiting my sister, Connie, and her two beautiful adopted daughters, Kira and Freya.

Connie is my next in age sister, sixteen months younger than me. For all the years of our childhood, we shared a bedroom. We registered the slightest fluctuation of each others’ moods. We fought intensely sometimes, but loved each other fully, unquestionably. When I remained in Canada and Connie decided to go to England to attend university, that pattern was interrupted. Her absence from my life was like a question that I had to answer every day, until it became a part of me, like all the other barbs that are snagged on the walls of my soul.

I’m not aware of it before I arrive in Hebden Bridge, but my sister’s 12 year relationship has recently ended. Her eyes are no longer receptive, lively, but are bitter with concealment, haunted with pain. She carries her fear like a shielded flame. She and her little girls entwine their arms around each other constantly. Her eyes follow them hungrily everywhere they go.

We’ve lost our easy words with each other, but we walk all over Hebden Bridge together. Gem takes pictures, and I absorb myself in my nieces, holding their hands, peering into shop windows, stopping to buy them each a soft toy. We go out for lunch, and five year old Kira climbs onto my lap. “My Mummy is sad,” she whispers audibly into my ear.

On the way home, Connie pushes three year old Freya on a swing in the small playground near her house. The expression on my sister’s face is frozen, drained of essence. My husband wonders privately to me if we are intruding, and should leave before the planned three days are up.

My sister cooks dinner, and I paint the girls’ faces. Freya peers delightedly at the result in the mirror, and Gem captures the magic of that moment. Later, he goes out by himself in search of a pub. I stay and help my sister put the little ones to bed, and then we talk. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this alone”, she tells me. She starts to weep and the swallows her tears in an audible gulp. Gem comes back having found what he sought. He finds us stuck into the wine, laughing hysterically.

Two days later, as Gem and I walk to the railway station, I am aware of an abiding peace and beauty all around me. It seems in direct contrast to my sister’s fragility. The loveliness is almost painful. I’m not mourning the loss of my sister, but rather the passing of a time when were in the same flux and our stories were concurrent.

When we leave, Connie hugs me fiercely, kisses my cheek. “I love you,” she says. Her words sound almost surprised, as if she has suddenly just realized that it’s true.

Six years later, and so much has happened since our brief visit to Hebden Bridge. Connie has moved with her daughters to Canada. They live in Ottawa close by another sister, and are building a good life for themselves. Connie teaches at a highschool there. She is vibrant, alive, happy. Kira, now eleven, plays the French horn in the city youth orchestra. Freya, aged nine, takes ballet and gymnastics.

Another change: my hair has turned snow white, and I’ve chosen to leave it that way!

Although I hadn't looked at these pictures in several years, seeing them now, I am instantly transported back to the mellow sunshine of those three poignant days in Hebden Bridge.