Wednesday, April 27, 2011

...Or are you just happy to see me?

The last (unintentionally) provocative title spurred on a reading frenzy so I thought I would (intentionally) aim for continuing appeal to readers.

However, not only am I looking for readers, but also commenters. So, here's what I'm going to do -- one lucky commenter to this post will receive from me a signed copy of my novel. I will choose randomly from among the dozens who reply to this posting. Be sure to tell your friends to wander over here to read. (Also, tell them that the title of the post was largely to create buzz. And that I'm not usually this rude.)

But back to the topic at hand.

The contents of my pockets have come up twice in conversation this week: at my writers' group, we discussed a piece of writing where an emigrant tries to bring a bit of home with them in their pockets. We talked about what can easily be brought across the border, what is hazardous to the wearer (glass and pointy objects), what is likely to get lost (dirt, sand). I mentioned that I regularly keep pieces of sea glass in the pockets of the coats I wear at the cottage we visit each summer. It's a very comforting, happy instant for me to slip my hands into my pockets and find the sea-and-sand-softened glass. Sometimes I also bring home small stones for the same purpose. It makes me feel like I'm still there in the place I love.

The other thing I carry in my pocket is a euro coin. I carried it in my wallet for a while but I kept mistaking it for a loonie and felt disappointed. I like to carry the euro though as a reminder to myself that I am a person who has traveled to Europe before and might do so again someday.

Pockets are curious things. Private places. We carry Kleenex, new and used, in pockets. We carry trash in our pockets, temporarily, before we find a garbage can. We carry keys and coins - things that will take us places. We carry lists that tell us where to go.

But we also carry talismans in our pockets, things that tell us who we are, where we've come from and where we hope to go.

So, the prize-offering question: What do you carry about in your pockets, and why?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Plastic Surgery

When my book was published five years ago, I had to get an Author Portrait taken. I went to a studio and posed and then watched the photographer as he worked on my photos on his computer. It was my first experience with the possibilities of digital photography. I loved that he could remove an errant hair that had blown across my face and that he could take out the reflection from my glasses. But then, he started to remove the laugh-lines and dark circles around my eyes, smoothing out my skin tone.

I made him go back to an earlier version. "I'm not 20," I said. "And furthermore, I didn't look like this when I was 20."

My oldest son has a passion for photography and he loves to doctor photos on our Mac computer. He'll saturate a photo with colour, make Warhol-like images, crop, enhance, blend and more. He loves an audience so sometimes I sit and watch him tinker. Generally, my vote is for the essentially unaltered image and his is for a better version of reality.

There's one place we agree.

When I ask for a photo of me, any close-ups in bright light, I have him remove the vertical line, the frown, that sits between my eyebrows. In an instant, he airbrushes it away, and I look like I did when I was 30, like I wish I still did now. I wouldn't go under the knife -- or the needle -- but I'm willing to squint a little (or erase the burden of frequent squinting) when it comes to Photoshopping my frown away.

Only today, he showed me the photo I've included here. He took it last night and he touched up absolutely nothing. And my frown was missing.

Sure, maybe it's the half-light. Perhaps it's my expression. Or, just maybe it had to do with where we were.

We spent this weekend at my parents' cottage, perched high on a cliff above Lake Huron. From the back porch of the cottage, the lake extends out like a half-moon of unbroken horizon of blue water. We had begged the cottage of my parents. The last time we had tried to go away, our daughter had been sick: truthfully, we didn't want to waste money again on a failed family vacation.

The forecast was for solid rain all weekend, so we decided to do our chores first of all when we arrived on Good Friday. My parents had not had a chance to rake the leaves off their treed property. We picked up sticks and limbs and tossed them into the gully that runs beside the property. We scratched at leaves and ripped out last year's dead flowers. I had told my mother that my goal was to "be a bum all weekend." This bum found it deeply satisfying and extremely apt to rake on Good Friday - letting go of the old, dead life to say yes to the life that was and is to come.

The wind moaned all night, and then we all slept in, and woke for pancakes. The sky brightened and we set out to visit an odd little flea market we had passed many times before. Our daughter grew tired, still not entirely well, and so we came back to the cottage for an early lunch. Revived, we set out again and found a hiking trail above the neighbouring town, one that took us to a converted railway trestle bridge. Some of us crossed and some sat on benches quietly and watched the world below. We found a beach and walked into the warm sunny wind.

We played board games, we watched a little hockey on the six-inch-square television, we introduced the kids to 'Waking Ned Devine.' We ate prepared food - both food we had prepared ahead of time and easy store-bought food. We read books that reflected each of our passions. Our daughter brought Steve, her stuffed llama. He slept on an ottoman. Our oldest took time-lapse photos of two brilliant, unpredicted sunsets.

I wanted to go to the Easter sunrise service in the nearby town, but it started early. I wasn't sure I'd be up. When I woke, spontaneously at 6:21 am, I decided to watch the sunrise alone and I quietly dressed and slipped out into the early morning dawn. The sky was brilliant salmon, but it quickly turned to grey cloud. I could see intimations of glory but never the blinding ball of fire. I walked the kilometre of road connecting the cottages. I brought the account of Mary Magdalene who rose early and went to the tomb and found it empty. But I wasn't alone. Not only in an Emmaus Road sense, but I was accompanied by a chorus of all sorts of songbirds. It was a noisy sunrise service. It was lovely.

We went to church en famille at 11 after we had hunted for chocolate eggs. We had never been to that particular church before but my parents said they had an amazing rummage sale each fall, so we made our choice. The sermon was good and there was a decent choir and friendly people. What stunned us all though happened at the point in the program when a solo was indicated. A woman of about 55 who looked like every churchgoing stereotype you can imagine stood up at the front of the church. She was to be accompanied by violin. My expectations were low. And then she opened her mouth -- and my jaw dropped as she belted out a slightly modified version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah in the most fabulous, powerful contralto voice.

In the afternoon, we went into the other nearby town for an Easter egg hunt. Our pockets filled with chocolate, we split up - my husband taking our photographer to a nearby conservation area to hike, the younger kids and I staying at the cottage. We set up blankets on the grass at the top of the cliff and brought out fruit and cookies, and I read aloud to them for an hour or more, playing Uno between chapters. The sun was intense and I needed a hat. There was no hat to be found so I put a cardboard box over my head and kept reading. We worked together to make a ham and scalloped potato casserole, thickening the sauce with pancake mix. (It worked!)

After the others came home with hundreds of photos and sunburned noses, I sat outside alone and listened to my iPod. I let it pick the songs and I must say, it knew what it was doing. The sun rippled on the water below, everything was pastel for Easter - the still muted early spring colours of the landscape, the soft sky and water. Eventually I could stand it no longer and I took off my shoes and socks and danced alone on the lawn in the sunlight.

So, last evening, after the scalloped potatoes and before Ned Devine won his millions and we ate popcorn, my son and I walked down the lane again, to put boxes in the communal recycling bin, to talk about the world and his life, to take photos of the sunset and the trees and every beautiful thing.

And somehow, my wrinkles had disappeared, and I too was one of the beauties of the day.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I'almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc'd with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish'd thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They'are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look'st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.

- John Donne

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

© Mary Oliver

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easter Water

I like quirky religious things.

I did not like the finger of John the Baptist in the spooky darkened room of the Florentine museum. That gave me the creeps. And I suspected there were more than ten of them out there. So, not relics. But rituals.

A friend once told me how when she was a child, her mother used to give her and her brother a peppermint before they went into the service. On Communion Sundays, the two kids would save their candy until the Host had been distributed to all the adults and then they would reverently remove the wrapper and place the wafer on their tongues in unison with the other worshippers. Another friend used to make the communion bread for his church and he mused that if he made raisin bread, he could get the whole communion in one shot – a two-for-one deal.

I love that kind of thing.

Last week I went into a little soap store near my house. I’ve only ever been in there once before but they are the only source for violet soap I’ve been able to find in Canada, so I went in. On the shelf next to the violet soap sat a collection of small 4 ounce bottles of clear liquid. On the front of the bottles were labels with a crowned woman with a double chin, luminous skin and a middle distance stare. Below her portrait, it reads “Eau de Paques/ Easter Water.”

It was ten days until Easter.

I spied Easter Water Soap on the shelf above and opened a box to sniff the soap. It was shaped with crosses and crowns and it smelled fresh.

“Can I help you?” asked the clerk, who turned out to be the owner.

I asked about the water and she rolled her eyes. She had been sent a box from head office after Christmas and had been able to sell exactly none, so she was giving a bottle away with each purchase. She had no idea what was in the bottle – “I’m not superstitious, I mean, religious at all,” she said.

I checked out the company website when I arrived home. This is what it said: “For our ancestors, Easter water was known to have multiple virtues. Then and for some, still today, Easter water protected houses against bad spririts [sic], thunder and bad weather. It was also used to heal skin and eye problems and was also used for sacraments. This Easter water was collected according to the purest tradition, from a spring before sunrise, on the day of Christ's Resurrection.” Apparently it was to retail at 19.95

I opened the bottle. The water smelled sweet, with possibly the lightest hint of mint or rain. It cautioned against internal use. I put a dab on my wrist and googled ‘Easter water.’

Apparently, it is an old tradition to fetch water before sunrise on Easter morning from a source of running water. Prayers are said and hymns sung as the water is gathered. Family members take a drink of the water.

“It wasn’t a sacrament or something official that was promoted by the church,” said Marc Pelchat, a Catholic priest and professor at Laval University in Quebec City. “ But it was not denounced, either. It was more of a cultural manifestation of faith.”
Another variation on this was to bless ordinary water during the Saturday evening Easter vigil. Families would be given some blessed Easter water to take home as a symbol of the family’s renewal in Christ. It would be sprinkled on all family members and friends present, as well as in all the rooms of the house.

As the rooms are sprinkled, the father may read the following prayer: Graciously hear us, Holy Lord, Almighty Father and Eternal God, that, even as You protected the homes of the Hebrew people leaving Egypt by means of the destroying angel; which homes were stained with the blood of a lamb (which prefigured our Pasch in which Christ was immolated); so may you in the same manner condescend to send your holy angel from heaven that he may guard, foster, protect, visit, and defend all the inhabitants of this dwelling. Through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.

I was willing, at the start of our spell of bad luck, to buy a pot of shamrocks before St. Patricks Day. For some reason, however, I’m reluctant to sprinkle my house with Easter water. It does feel superstitious and I’m not sure I understand it.

At the same time, at this time of year of miracle and deep mysteries, neither am I willing to dismiss it or to throw it away. I keep it on my shelf and I look at it, shake it periodically like a snow globe, and open it occasionally for a strengthening breath. And I wonder.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stories for the Journey

I am not the world's biggest fan of flying.

It's not so much that I am afraid as that I find it uncomfortable. My hip to knee length exceeds the seat-to-seat length of economy seats (and the cost of business class seating exceeds my budget). The smell of jet fuel can turn me nauseous in about five seconds. The droning of engines grates on my ears after a while.

On the other hand, I don't know that I will ever lose a sense of wonder that a schoolbus filled with people and heavy luggage can lift from the ground. Every single time I fly, I'm astonished. And, I love the exciting rush of takeoff - complete with its risks and dangers. I love feeling myself pushed to the back of my seat, feeling the plane strain beneath me and then the sharp angle of miraculous flight.

After that, it gets a little tedious.

In January, I flew to Florida and back. It was on the return flight, when I was more than eager to see my husband and sons, that I happened to glance up the aisle, somewhere over Kentucky, at all the people nestled like embryos in a womb.

What struck me was the fact that the vast majority of my fellow passengers were passing the time reading novels and newspapers. If there had been an inflight movie, those who were sleeping or playing electronic games might have opted for that.

I suspect that to some people my business as a storyteller may seem a bit impractical, even odd, compared with the practical dry goods of accounting or medicine or marketing. And yet, stories weave around us everywhere, helping us to pass time with pleasure instead of pain. It made me proud of being a writer, made me feel that what I do matters to people.

A month before my flight, I met Canadian humourist Stuart McLean when he signed books at our local bookstore. I stood in line and listened as person after person told him about circumstances in which they had read his writing. The woman just in front of me had read his stories aloud to her dying grandmother. McLean nodded: he had heard this before.

Stories accompany us on our journeys.

I think there's light at the end of the tunnel of unfortunate events that has been my life for the past two months, but I have felt especially weary of the struggle this week. Distract yourself, my mother says: go shopping.

But I don't. Well, I do, but it has little effect. What I do instead is go to stories. In the last four days, I have gone to one play and two films.

Today's film was 100 Days - a story of a motley group of young people who built a raft and sailed it down the Yukon River in the summer of 2005. As I walked out of the theatre - the only person there in a skirt, I think - I wondered what the stories I've watched had in common, and what they say to me. Because they've been an unusual combination.

On Thursday, I attended a student matinee of the play The Lark, a retelling of the trial of Joan of Arc. Yesterday, Dave and I went to another matinee of the remake of the movie Arthur. And today, 100 Days.

At a very basic level, my mother is right: everyone needs to escape for a little while from the challenges of their life. Good stories do that well. I laughed during every story I watched.

But stories do more than that. As the narrator of 100 Days said of a rafting journey, "There's a lot of middle. There's a beginning and an end but there's a lot of middle." Stories shape the middle from muddle. The Lark almost ends with the death of Joan, but then those enacting her story remember what's important is her moment of victory and so they re-make a mere series of events into a history that is truer than facts. At one point in Arthur, the title character's nanny confronts Arthur's mother who has called her son weak: "He's a lot stronger than you think."

And this is how stories strengthen us. I think of The Lord of the Rings and how Sam encouraged Frodo: "It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it's only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer."

We climb on a plane and buckle ourselves in willingly, though few of us have any idea how planes overcome gravity, and in this liminal space we read stories that tell us more of who we are and even who we might be. And so, too, we climb into the sometimes turbulent seats of our lives and we are accompanied by stories that strengthen us for the journey, that shape our understanding of ourselves and who we might be when we arrive in the foreign land that is each new day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The garbage truck has just turned the corner. It takes away the last of the cat litter, the tins of cat food, the final visible signs of our cat who died last week at nearly 17 years of age.

She had been in decline for weeks now, but most especially the last two weeks of her life. I was pretty sure she was not going to make it, but I took her to the vet anyhow, in case somehow it was an abscessed tooth, a parasite, or something easily curable.

It was not.

Vets have to do a careful dance with their clients. Some can bite and some can scratch. As for those who pay the bills, there is great variety too, and the vet we saw, new to the practice we have been part of for all these years, cautiously offered bloodwork, ultrasound, x-ray, appetite-inducing medicine and even exploratory surgery.

Our cat did not bite and we did not either. I began to cry but I shook my head. One thing I am tremendously grateful for is that our philosophy was clear and I had the words to express it at the very same time as my heart was breaking. She was our beloved pet, but she was an animal and she was old and we would not waste money to prolong her suffering. Two hours later, after we had said our goodbyes, tried to record her purrs, photographed ourselves with her listless self, she was given an injection that killed her within ten seconds.

Our cat's name, Eleuthera, is Greek. It means 'freedom.' For years, we thought it was an ironic name, given that she was a mostly indoor cat. But, she enjoyed a different sort of freedom right to the very end: the freedom of being loved completely. This is the other matter I am grateful for: we were able to love her enough to let her go gracefully and at the right time. Weirdly, it reminded me of how my oldest child weaned himself - we were so synchronized that it was an unconscious, almost unnoticed agreement. I think our cat would have died within a very few days and yet not long before she was still pouncing and purring.

A cat is not theoretical in any way. Cats are utterly present - or now, in our case, absent. We played back her purrs while she was still with us and they sounded wrong, mechanical, artificial. Dave said that purring is felt as much as heard. And that has been my experience of grieving a cat too. I had a thousand names for this cat, pet names, but I had never written any of them down. They were oral names, relational ones.

This does not hurt like the loss of a person: it is less. But, in an odd way, it is more. She could curl up in the smallest, most unexpected place and so I expect to see her anywhere and everywhere, a little paw to come under the bathroom door. It feels as if, say, the colour green was removed and while there are other colours, you see that there were bits of green everywhere and its absence stings. The world is less colourful.

She should have died twelve years ago. We were renovating our old house and had taken special care to close the doors of the bedrooms being gutted. I was eight months pregnant with our second child when, one night, we heard remote mews. We checked the outside door - nothing. We searched the house - no cat. And then we realized that the plaintive cries were coming from inside a wall. The cat had slithered into the renovation room and had fallen down between open joists into the room below. Dave and I looked at each other and had no idea what to do. Leaving her and encasing her in concrete, Mafia-style, were suggested. But, as I couldn't actually kill an ant while I was pregnant, we tried harder. Midnight found Dave holding a skillsaw on the kitchen wall, calculating how low he could cut without slicing off a curious cat's head. The space between the joists was too narrow for his arm to fit down, but my belly was too big for me to manage it. In the end, I turned sideways and reached down to rescue a bundle of trembling fur, to set her free.

I have written before about how I gave her a voice - an irreverent, wickedly funny voice. One of the challenges for me is to find a place for that voice in my own self.

The night she died and all the next day, mourning doves appeared in our garden, on our house, in the trees around the house. They called out their gentle, sad coos even in the night when I was awake. I have not heard or seen them since.

I think it was CS Lewis who said, of grief, that it was like quitting smoking -- which would be quite bearable, if only one could have a cigarette. It's been five days now so I'm better than I was and the kids are fine. I'd be perfectly fine too, I think, if I could only hold my kitten.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


My name is Susan and I am an intermittent hypochondriac.

For the most part, I have very good health sense - I have a good recall of symptoms and treatments for a number of illnesses; I don't clog the health care system with needless panic; I get appropriate vaccinations for people in my family; I get a physical at least every year or two.

But every once in a while, especially when stress is high, I throw myself into a panic and know for certain that I have, or someone in my care has, a Dread Disease. This weekend it was blood poisoning: I cut my hand on a piece of sharp aluminum while gardening. I didn't think twice about it until the next morning when it was red and very sore and then I thought BLOOD POISONING!! It wasn't long ago that I read a biography of Norman Bethune, the celebrated Canadian thoracic surgeon who served in Spain and China and who died of BLOOD POISONING!! It wasn't pretty. I mean Bethune. Or maybe my panic as I stared at my hand, wondering when the red streaks would start down my arm. I did the wrong thing and looked up cures on the Internet. Apparently a good course of antibiotics usually does the trick, but apparently sometimes it just kills you. I looked up home remedies and discovered a whimsical story -- by someone who clearly had not read about Bethune -- about how his sweet mother cut open an Irish potato and put it against the infected wound, drawing out the poison.

What if my potato isn't Irish? I asked Dave and we laughed our heads off.

The good thing about being an intermittent hypochondria - besides the relief of NOT DYING OF BLOOD POISONING!! - is that one can have a sense of humour about one's madness.

I have a friend who is also usually sane and reasonable who suffers from intermittent hypochondria. Once we talked about the fact that we might have head cancer. And we laughed at that.

Non-hypochondriac sickness continues apace at our house. It's the source of the stress that brings out my worries.

But just yesterday I drove home an acquaintance whose life has been severely curtailed by a serious heart condition and who faces his third open heart surgery, a surgery he must stay awake for. Later, a friend who emailed to say that her fourth and final bout of chemo is over without much promise of it having defeated the cancer it battled.

I feel deeply sobered by these people's stories. I don't know how else to put it. It puts my life into perspective. It suggests a posture of courage instead of willy-nilly panic. What I want most of all these days is two-fold: a night away with my husband and a fabulously interesting part-time job. What I see in my friends' lives, though, shifts my perspective into gratitude and fortitude, an awareness of the crocuses in my garden, the coffee in the pot, the general good health we enjoy.