Same house several ways

I’m noticing that memoir involves two kinds of investigation. One concerns “facts”: research in various sources for context as well as gathering memories. Two concerns meaning. It probes at memory with a present-day eye to patterns, to who I was then and how I was shaped.

For example, on the left, a photo from my father’s slide collection of the house (near Linden, Alberta) where I lived between four and eight, the only photo I have of it but a solid truth. It was the church parsonage, built into a hill, with a garage beneath, and I know from what I was told and from the evidence of church minutes that it was small and inadequate, especially for a large family (four, and then five, children there with two parents).

Since I’ve been trying to see better via sketching, I copied the house. As I looked closely in order to draw it I was delighted to spot the childhood wagon. And I was intrigued by the milk cans on the porch. The milk cans and signs of construction raised questions for which I have no answers. (I believe the house was eventually blue-grey.)

 

 

ScanBut, closing my eyes, remembering deep inside…. What was this place in my young life? What did it “feel like”? That house never seemed small, even if for lack of bedrooms I slept on the sofa. It felt cozy, happy, secure. It had music: huge reels pouring The Messiah into the air or the choir carolling outside at Christmas. It’s where Mom read us books and I got hooked on story. It set my default for beauty in the natural world: rolling prairie and sky. I see and represent that house (using watercolour paints) in simple lines, in joyful colour.

 

Two articles

Today, since my daughter and I are off to Seattle for two days, in a very-mini-substitute for a holiday we’d planned for Ireland last May*, I’m simply sharing two articles that nourished me this week.

First, “Courage through Small Things” by Carol Howard Merritt which follows perfectly on thoughts I shared last Wednesday about watching the news. In the comments to my post, Susan Meredith Fish asked about “strategies” I was trying to be “watchful” (not just “watch”) in the current news environment. I replied that I may take a meditation break to regain calm, “pray” the news, or make myself read for a long stretch (which is wonderful once I get past the early temptation to interrupt myself and check what’s new). And I love Merritt’s advice to find courage through small things. I read her piece on another heavy news day in the Judge Kavanaugh saga. But I did some small and ordinary things that day: made soup for supper, also made bread, and put in a solid couple of hours of writing.

I also liked a post at ChangingAging.org called “What’s Your ‘And’?” by Jeanette Leardi. She draws on a basic principle of improvisation drama to suggest a simple technique for positively improvising our way through our aging stage. Whatever life throws us, finding an “and” to it will help.

 

*Update note. The May trip was cancelled because of my husband’s cancer diagnosis. I’m glad to say that radiation treatments have done him a lot of good, alleviating pain and currently holding the cancer at bay, though we’re not quite ready to re-schedule the special Ireland adventure.

Watching the news

I’ve always been a news junkie. I credit my upbringing. In our family, the daily news was almost sacrosanct.

Today’s news environment, constantly looping, constantly available on internet feeds and cable networks, feels quite different from a once-a-day newscast and/or newspaper, however. What’s also different is that I’m older, thus more flexible time-wise, so when a president’s speech to the U.N. is carried live, or there’s a public hearing involving a Supreme Court nominee and his accuser, I can watch. And usually, I do.

And then, of course, it’s possible to keep checking the endless subsequent punditry and chatter. (I write at the computer.) Because an answer is continuously available, my mind continuously begs “Has anything else happened?”

Trouble is, the news may rivet, but in a week like this one, it affects me too. Disturbs, that is, not reassures.

The obvious solution, which some people seem to manage, is:  turn off completely, just live your “other” life. I’ve been thinking about that. But I’ve concluded that withdrawal is not where I land. I want to keep up. In fact, being older, I feel it something of a duty. I want to keep up because I’m still alive, and because of my grandchildren (since I have enough span by now to evaluate the word “historic” when tossed about for current affairs).

But how does a person live the calm of “watchful” instead of the anxious compulsion of “watching”? I have some strategies on the go but I have to confess, at this point it’s a big challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

44 years

We happened to be in Toronto on our wedding anniversary so we celebrated with our Toronto family by going to Niagara Falls, which was our honeymoon destination 44 years ago. The Falls tumbled and roared and sent up great clouds of mist, just as they had then, so we stood and looked a while, then strolled the walkway alongside and went for lunch and passed by “attractions” of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not variety where the kids enjoyed the outside teasers. Then we went to the butterfly conservatory, which was everyone’s highlight.

And of course we told our Niagara Falls honeymoon story, one of those bits of lore couples gather and repeat over the years while forgetting nearly everything else. Namely this: when we arrived to the Falls, he looked and said, “Is this it?” That hurt. It bugged me, actually. I’d so looked forward to showing off this Canadian wonder to my Paraguayan-born-and-raised young husband! Now this little blot, this disappointment, on an otherwise wonderful honeymoon.

Well, we got it clarified, just as we’ve clarified many matters large and small over the course of 44 years. I’d heard unimpressed, he’d meant is there more? and some years later when I saw his Falls — the Iguazu Falls of South America, where water spills at every turn of a long walk, the clarification was even fuller than before.

On that honeymoon road trip, we also listened to his Charley Pride and Kenny Rogers tapes. A lot! I’d grown up with two kinds of music — church and classical — so this was a stretch. But it was fun; it fit the occasion. So in gratitude for 44 years with the man I love, here’s a link to some country, nostalgia meter set as high as it goes. Remember when?

 

Three views of an oak

ScanI was recently inspired to try sketching again, as I had tried for a while many years ago, not because I’m any good at art — honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing — but because it forces me to really look at things. So I took a couple of pencils and a sketch pad along on our visit to son and daughter-in-law and granddaughters in Toronto last week. One day while the girls worked at their art table on the porch I perched in front of a tiny oak tree, newly planted, and I looked and looked some more and drew what I saw. As you can (barely) see, I was tentative with my lines, light with my pencil, aiming for literal. It was fun though and I more or less got what I was after. (The actual tree isn’t very substantial yet either!)

Scan

While I worked, the 7-year-old came alongside and did her own sketch of the tree, which she presented to me. It’s a generous, cheerful tree. She was loose with her pencils, unhesitating, and quickly captured the shape of leaves and branches. She made the trunk ruddy, the leaves an optimistic green.

Then the 4-year-old, who must have wondered why I took so long, erasing and straining over my tree, presented me with her version. There was concern in her voice. “Here Grandma,” she said. “Maybe this will help you.” Not just one tree but five, and pink flowers too, and the blue sky and a happy face (hers?) and humps of earth. Wonderful, its inclusiveness, its feeling.Scan

I’m touched by the age-related integrity of each picture but I’m studying theirs. (Maybe that will help.) I want to see with their generosity, their emotion. Maybe I’m old enough to stop being so literal again.

No apology for jelly

Two women of note died this past week, singer Aretha Franklin at 76 and artist Mary Pratt at 83, both a tremendous inspiration, but I’m thinking of Pratt in particular today and the paintings highlighted in stories about her. Those jellies, oh those jellies, how they glow from within! Perfect jellies, clear and luminous, reflected also on the table. Many commentators noted how Pratt’s work honoured matters of domestic life. She made us look at the glint of foil, the cream and golden tones of egg shells in a carton, fish on a plate. (Google “Mary Pratt Artwork” Images for many examples of her work.) In turn, I wish to honour her for paying such magnificent attention.

One reason is that many of us, like Pratt, tried to balance domestic and “other” work, and if we remember, that wasn’t an easy task, was it? Who, in fact, ever achieves balance? But Pratt brought — or kept — often competing worlds together, when the temptation for her generation and mine was to wrench them apart or feel our domestic concerns disparaged by others. In Pratt’s work there’s no apology for jelly or a casserole dish in the microwave or the remnants of a meal. She acknowledges both their beauty and the labour they represent.

The other reason I wish to honour her is that aging has a way of setting us back into smaller, and domestic, settings. This isn’t to say we no longer get out or view grand vistas or participate in the storied drama of life. But those my age or older will know what I mean. And I also mean I want to really notice what’s around me now and how light still plays with broken eggs, foil, and jelly.

Jelly_shelf-e1534345257377-1024x796

Jelly Shelf, Mary Pratt, 1999

 

 

 

 

On pilgrimage

I think I can safely say I will never walk the Camino de Santiago. Too, too crowded, for one thing; like a bandwagon by now. Too, too long and physically complicated at my stage, for another.

So why did I just read two books* about Camino pilgrimage? Well, some women I know are considering the trek and one had a book that I later spotted in the thrift store, with the other book beside it, each like new and only a dollar, and you know how it is, you read a few pages and it’s interesting and you keep going and before you know it you’re caught up in the author’s quest, and two books later you feel you’ve twice walked the whole long thing yourself, minus blisters. It’s almost as good as been there, done that.

So, no, I won’t cross Spain in real time on real feet, but I am compelled by the notion of pilgrimage. One of the earliest books I recall as read to me by my mother was a child’s version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The stages of little Pilgrim’s journey through the Slough of Despond to the Wicket Gate to the Cross and places along the way such as the Palace Beautiful, Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Delectable Mountains and so on, to reach the Celestial City at last, are still burned in my mind. Whether allegory like that or a physical practice, pilgrimage describes a truth about any pursuit — it’s a journey with a start and a finish and a road between. Since I’ve been doing memoir-type writing lately, I find pilgrimage a useful way to think about life.

 

* Jane Christmas’ What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim and Hape Kerkeling’s I’m Off Then.

 

Grim Reaper on a treadmill

51mvUXJvBUL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The cover of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer startles: Grim Reaper in cowl and robe, track shoes and wrist weights, face set in the grinning grimace of skulls and fitness obsessives, going at it on a treadmill.

Ehrenreich was startled too, some years ago, by a report that “the immune system actually abets the growth and spread of tumors, which is like saying that the fire department is indeed staffed by arsonists.” The body carries conflict within it, and try as we might to manage and alter this, we can’t ultimately control the outcome or forestall death. I couldn’t follow all the technicalities of Ehrenreich’s argument, nor do I share all her views about life and death, but the question she raises is spot on: how much of our lives should be given to living longer when we have “other, often more consequential things to do.” She takes on the medical complex, anti-aging nostrums, and fitness and wellness industries which tempt us with essentially futile illusions of control. (Ehrenreich’s not called “a veteran muckraker” for nothing.)

I admire the nearly 77-year-old Ehrenreich’s recent revolt against screenings, exams, smears etc. urged upon her for “prevention” and her feisty resistance to faddish longevity diets and self-denial practiced by her demographic, where “health is indistinguishable from virtue.” She eats well, she says, exercises because it feels good when she does, and will seek medical help for an urgent problem but is no longer interested in looking for problems undetectable to her. “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die,” she writes, old enough “not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life.”

 

 

Flower in a vase

Before we moved to Tsawwassen, B.C., I visualized myself researching and reading and exploring the place, going deep and wide in putting down new roots. After all, I’d done it before, both in Paraguay where we lived a couple of years in the 1980s and over the decades in Winnipeg. I wrote novels set in both places, so that was part of it, but the writing meshed with my own desire to know and belong.

We’ve been here two years now and we love it, but I confess I haven’t done much about the roots. I’ve been living like a cut flower in a beautiful vase.

Is my inaction a factor of aging? A sense there’s too much material in “new” for the available energy? Do I even need more roots? I recall reading of a pastor’s disappointment that people weren’t enthusiastic about an exciting new discipleship program on offer; he saw it as resistance to growth. I didn’t know the situation but my first thought was, I bet he has a lot of olders in his church. For olders, enthusiasm often resides in what they already possess, rather than in quest for the new.

Nevertheless (there’s always a nevertheless), I can’t let myself off too quickly. Pondering my resistance, picking at reasons for it, I find my curiosity waking to the history of where I live, especially in awareness of being on traditional territory of the Tsawwassen and Musqueam First Nations. I went on a bit of a local tour the other day and learned there’s evidence here of human life going back some 9000 years. Wow! That’s overwhelming; it’s humbling. Paradoxically, it makes me feel I belong here too, for all flesh is like grass…its glory like the flower…the grass withers…the flower falls.

  

Today my aging slips along, almost unnoticed

How’s your aging going this week?

Mine slips along, almost unnoticed at the moment, and I’m rather glad about that. An ordinary day, this day, bit of a breeze. Company for supper last night. When it got dark, we searched the sky for Mars, close and visible now, and earlier I’d scolded myself out the door for a walk to the Bay, because I need to keep walking and it’s always better when I do. Today I’m going into Vancouver with Daughter, chasing a shopping list and hoping to slide in a professional foot massage. (My feet ache with excitement at the very thought.) My Saskatchewan sisters visited last week. It was such a treat to be together. One of them a recent widow though and I wished I could lift her sadness. Impossible, of course, for he’s gone and all I can do is carry a tiny corner of that. And Monday — was it Monday? — we tuned into the now infamous Helsinki press conference and we didn’t quit watching until it was over. Which more than used up a day’s supply of indignation. Husband’s radiation treatments are done, hallelujah, and best of all they’ve helped: pain alleviated, some return of equilibrium. Further results to be known in September. Time in better proportion now. The first months after diagnosis pressed us into the present; we couldn’t make plans beyond the moment. Living in the moment is touted as good, as in mindfulness, but realistically some measure of future beyond “we’ll see” makes for a happier time. And I’m writing these days. A life writing project. For myself, I say, when talking back to the familiar Inner Resistance (“who’ll care about that?”). Besides, I say, writing is the way I think. And remember.