Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Knock Out Punch

'Stop all the clocks,' says WH Auden in his poem, 'Funeral Blues.'  'Cut off the telephone. Stop the dog from barking with a juicy bone. Silence the pianos and with muffled drum, bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.'

 The first time I heard this verse, I hadn't lost anyone, really. A few neighbors had passed away. A cousin died. We all felt sad in the way children do when they see adults cry. But it was never personal. Since then I've lost my in-laws, both parents, and many friends.

Before mama died last week, my siblings and I had surrounded her with songs, prayer, assurances of our love, promises of good behavior. Mostly we sounded like a bunch of six year olds trying to make a very good impression on someone who already knew us all too well. With her passing, Auden's poem returned to me, especially the first line. Because when someone so important to us dies, the clocks should stop. A silence ought to fall so everyone on earth can drop what they're doing and ask, 'What's going on? What happened?"

 Grief is the unwanted journey. The boxer who waits inside a dark ring. Please, you think. Just give me a minute. Give me a moment. Please stop the clock. But grief has no mercy. It jabs and jabs and knocks you down until after a while its not even worth fighting.

 Auden's last verse says:

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

You live there. Down at the bottom where the darkness of your grief rips a hole in your chest, confirming what you already knew.  You won't ever rise again. But strangely, and in opposition to how most things work, that admission of defeat brings peace. The hurt begins to ease. You are able to acknowledge that death is part of life. That it's coming for all of us, even if, as I believe, we're simply moving on to another place.

The clocks can't stop because they would never be able to start again. What feels so singular, so personal, so tightly packed on the inside, is universal. We all grieve. We all become orphans and widow-ers. The ones left behind. Most of us are lucky enough to realize what we've had within our small communities of friends and family. In lonely times we draw our memories around us; an embrace from everyone we've ever loved and lost. Then we take a deep breath. Feel lighter. Discover that we don't hurt as much as before. The boxer puts down his gloves and the ring fades. Life goes on.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Piece of My Mind

For someone who considers herself a writer, I have a hard time explaining things. One night at Zumba during a particularly tiring routine, I gasped the words, "I feel like I'm in a concentration camp hauling rocks, with no dinner in sight." Since we were dancing to the theme song from, "Love, Actually," I was asked to lighten up. But I wasn't whining. I was pretending. I just forgot myself and did it out loud.

Weird scenarios jump into my mind all the time. Like last summer, when I saw a small crack in the cement outside my house with a tiny bit of moss sticking out and a strange bug on top of it. My first thought was, "So this is how the alien invasion begins." It made perfect sense to me. I also enjoyed the imaginary dystopian world that followed where I became a freedom fighter with my own plane.

My regular life is rich and satisfying. The one inside my head is darker. Strange music drifts through the background, the melody dependent on the scenario. Say I meet a neighbor downtown. They might nod and keep walking. If I'm spending time in my alternate universe, I may hear the words, "Meet me at midnight. We're starting the revolution."  (Cue heavy African drum music)This is why I often have a vacant look on my face. Because I'm someplace else.

My childhood report cards read, "If Judy spent less time daydreaming, she would accomplish more in class." Maybe. But I don't think I could have handled the boredom. The truth of my adolescence is that half the time I was checked out. No wonder I could never figure out the coolness factor. One time at a friend's birthday party, a girl from my grade six class caught me singing out of a window. I was pretending to be Doris Day sending forth a wistful love song. The girl looked at me like I was deranged. I knew then that we could never be close, because she just didn't get it.

I'm at the age now where I make no apologies for being exactly who I am. It's such a relief. I love reading books because they put me in the company of other dreamers. But writing is my way of getting all that crazy stuff out of my head so I can remember to buy eggs at the store. Not every day dreamer is a writer. They may have something else going on. Those who write, paint, sculpt, sew or sing feel a lot less stress. If you don't let off steam from all those zany ideas, your head might explode.

We all feel that desperate yearning, that frantic call from our secret ourselves, asking to be released into the world. Find your outlets, my friends. Don't be afraid to expose the real you to the world, unless it involves pulling down your pants in front of strangers. Then, never mind. Otherwise, get to it. Over and out.

(I just received a secret call from the white weasel who lives under our garden shed. The mice are planning a take over...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dear Stuart Mclean

Life is made up of goodbyes. The only thing that doesn't change is change itself. Yadda, yadda, yadda. That we know it doesn't make it any easier or less shocking.

Like most fans of CBC radio, I was enamored with Jian Gomeshi, the cultured, soft spoken host of Q. I admired his courtesy. The thoughtfulness he showed his guests and listening audience. Famous people like Barbra Streisand were drawn by the considerate, almost tender way he conducted his interviews. I loved his voice, his smartness. The way he flipped between languages, speaking Farsi, French and English, while discussing books, music and movies with enviable ease. He seemed suave yet sincere. 

Bill Cosby reminded me of my dad. Of everyone's dad, really, but a much cooler version than the ones I knew. Someone who was never lost for the perfect answer. No one was funnier, especially when he talked about Noah. The Cosby show was a role model for the ideal family. Perfectly funny. But Pandora's box has been opened and the truth is out. Goodbye, Jian. So long, Bill. Get down from your pedestals and out of our sight. The nations need time to grieve.

Dear Stuart Mclean, my hope rests with you. With your wacky Dave and Morley stories, your quirky and talented musical guests and even the letters you share, sent by regular people like me. Everything about your show is Perfectly Canadian. Please, Stuart. Don't let me down. You alone are holding up the CBC broadcasting company. I have selected you as my new comfort blanket. Bill and Jian were frauds, and I have never cared for the Kardashians, the Brangelina's or any Hollywood celebrity, really.(Bill Cosby wasn't a celebrity, in my mind. He was a kindly relative that I happened to visit with whenever he was on TV.)

I'm not expecting you to be perfect. Just don't molest anybody. Be the nice guy you seem to be and keep making me laugh. Keep that kindly, Canadian persona going that every listeners identifies with, even if they are American. So, do we have a deal? I'm going to assume we do. Good luck with this Sunday's show. I'll be listening, as usual. Your faithful and devoted fan, Judy

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ninja Sex

When Mari was three years old, she slept in the bedroom across the hall. We had an open door policy, which meant if any of our kids got sick, had a bad dream, or needed a cuddle, they could crawl in with mom and dad.  Our bed was king sized, and we kept our bedroom door open. Theirs were kept closed at night for reasons of fire safety and  parental privacy. We should have kept ours closed too, but for some reason, I felt the need to hear EVERYTHING that went on in the house. Was somebody walking through our yard at night? I would know. Could the hamster escape from her cage? Yes. In fact, she ran under the dishwasher with two weeks worth of stolen dog food. It was the chewing that woke me up. My point is that I was tuned in to every creak, every cough, every single thing happening inside and outside our house. I was always on the job.

Except for one night. With the desperation of parents with three children and a busy life, we happened to wake at the same time, with the same idea. Let's fool around. Happily preoccupied, we didn't hear the door across the hall opening, or the small sound of a person breathing nearby.

We kept our bedroom dark. You could barely see a hand in front of your face, never mind a small child standing beside the bed, her head resting on her mother's pillow. It was only when she started to play with my hair that I screamed in fright. Quickly snapping on the light, I don't know who was more horrified; Mari, Clarence, or me. It was probably a tie.

The difficult conversation came next. "Did mommy and daddy scare you?" She nodded, climbing up on the bed and tucking herself between us. "Did you wonder what we were doing?" She nodded again, looking forlorn rather than traumatized. Clarence and I could barely make eye contact, both experiencing the shame of first world parents. Most of earth's human population is crammed into one or two room dwellings, and often one bed. They tend to be prosaic about these things. Nevertheless, I quickly conjured up an alibi.

"We were wrestling," I said, inspired by an idea that would perfectly fit the situation. "Practicing our ninja moves." I did some ludicrous arm chopping and nunchuck wielding imitations, just to hammer home the point. She seemed to buy it, but I apologized anyway. "Mommy and daddy are sorry for scaring you." This was true of mommy. Daddy had already gone back to sleep.

The lesson was learned. Since I wasn't comfortable tying a bell around Mari's leg every night, I figured it was better to close, and even lock, our bedroom door. Not always. Just when we felt like being Ninjas. As parents with three kids and a busy life style, we didn't get as much practice as we wanted. But over time, we definitely earned our black belts.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mrs. Pettersen, In the Elevator, With Guy Thornton

Like our old board game, Clue, this story has been stashed away for many years.  I've picked over the memory from time to time. Shared it with a few friends. But with Clarence's Brandon University reunion happening this weekend, I'm ready to take it out of the closet and hold it up to the light of day. Is it shameful? Not really. Foolish? Perhaps.

Please, join me on my walk down memory lane. And I hope you learn from my mistakes. Like always looking before you leap into the elevator. Or at the very least, take heed of the Georgia Satellites song title, 'Keep your hands to yourself.' Wise words.

We got married in our last year of university. A few weeks after the wedding we left our tiny attic suite and drove over to McMaster Hall for a visit. I greeted my friends as if I'd been gone for a year. Hours later I waved goodbye to everyone and followed my husband into the elevator. I felt bathed in happiness. My life was perfect.  We'd be finished school in a few months, then apply for teaching jobs and spend the rest of our lives together in blissful harmony.

Since we were alone, I scooted backward, pressing myself against my sweet husband. Feeling a little playful, I reached behind me and... Well. You know. But as I peeked upwards with a cheeky grin, my eyes met those of a complete stranger. It was not Clarence. It was a fellow by the name of Guy Thornton. Yes, that's his real name.  And though he lived in my residence, I had never met him before this intimate and mistaken occasion. In that moment I felt like the worst version of myself; the one who wiped out crowds of skiiers on the bunny slope. The one who went right instead of left and fell off the stage during a ballet recital. But those occasions were merely humiliating. This was embarrassment on a whole new level. As if embarrassment had decided to smoke crack and reinvent itself.

"Oh my God," I said, clasping my hands together like a Victorian maiden in full retreat. "I thought you were my husband!" His reply may not be exactly as follows, but the meaning was clear.

'Uh huh.'

"No, really. I thought you were Clarence. Why are you wearing the same pants and sweater?" I asked this in all sincerity. He ignored my sputtered words, continuing to smile down at me in a rather heartless manner.

"Sure," he said, mockingly drawing out the single syllable. Was he teasing? I had no idea, but he seemed to be hinting that I'd planned the whole thing. Which made me wonder if the problem was my reputation or his ego.

The elevator doors opened then, and I fled to the lobby area where I found Clarence waiting.

"Where were you?" He looked puzzled  and irritated. I remember that part very clearly.

"I.... I... I..." I decided to lie. Well, not really. "I got on the wrong elevator," I said. Part of me felt extremely embarrassed and remorseful. The other part, the one that insists on writing this blog, was having a good laugh at my own expense. I never told Clarence about what happened for at least ten years.

"We invited him to our wedding!" he said in response to my belated tale, not appreciating the humour of the situation. As if the invitation made my behavior even sketchier. "How did you get on the wrong elevator?"

"I backed in and he was wearing the exact same pants and sweater as you. I don't think he believed me when I said it was an accident." Clarence didn't want to discuss it. So we put it behind us like it never happened. But it did, and I longed to restate my case in a calm and convincing manner.

I've had no opportunity to say this on national television. The breakfast shows where I've appeared on behalf of the babyTrekker just weren't the right venue. So  let me state here and now, almost forty years after the fact, that I truly didn't know it was you, Guy Thornton. And that's the truth. I also need to thank you. Because you might have been heartless and disbelieving, but at least you weren't creepy. So thanks for that. And happy reunion. Whew! I feel so much better.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sweet, Savage Love

I was hanging upside down cleaning the bathtub when I happened to catch sight of my face. It was sagging the wrong way and looking very red. Think Arnold Schwartznegger in the end of days. Not the movie. His real end of days. Especially if he is constipated on the way out.

I was startled. My husband has never mentioned seeing me like this. Having had a relatively long married life, chances are he has. His ability to not notice these things is my new definition of sweet love. He is also oblivious to my back fat. I hadn't notice any either until I caught sight of it in a three way mirror. His assurance that I was just imagining things can be grouped in the same category. Sweet Love.

Savage love is another thing entirely. When I find yet another hidden item from Value Village, (a turquoise vase, honey!) and go into a rage filled rant, I can last for a good ten minutes. Afterward, my husband will exit whatever room he was in, give me a puzzled look and say, 'Were you talking to me?' That, on my part, is Savage Love. Still sweet on his side. However.

Let me throw away a moth eaten, stained pair of woolen winter pants and he will transform into a version of me. It is a monumental thing getting him to part with his clothes or any item in his 'collection.' Others are not oblivious to the situation.  "I can have a team here in an hour and clean all this shit up," promised a mutual friend of ours. "One hour. A whole team!" As she walked away, I felt vindicated. I was not the only one thinking our garage was overfull. On days when we leave the door open, people pull into the driveway thinking that we're having a yard sale.

My short temper and his latest turquoise vase collection have led to some humdinger arguments. The warmth in the room disappears while we sulk in our respective corners and contemplate divorce. A half hour later, we're snuggled in bed reading our books (because God forbid we don't read every single night!) while playing footsie. After a good night's sleep, sweet love reigns again.

There is an art to a lasting marriage. An ability to take the long view and not let a hissy fit, (mine) two speeding tickets in a row (his) and a disagreement over how to weed the garden, take away all the good stuff. Like the fact that he is the kindest person I know. That he is passionate about family and community and never tries to be anyone but himself. I know, because I've tried to make some changes and they haven't taken very well.

So, even when I'm building a full head of steam over his latest find, I appreciate very well what we've got. Between us we juggle this glass ball of delicately beautiful, sturdily complex love. We remember how we looked when we were young, and that's pretty much how we view each other. We know all of each other's stories. He excuses my bad mood and Arnold Schwartznegger, end of days, expression. I forgive his cupboard full of bargains. Because the truth about marriage is this. Forgiveness soothes the savage days of love, turning them sweet. The bad moments are lost in the colourful tapestry of our life together, becoming just another piece of the beautiful puzzle we call marriage. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cry Baby

Last week, very, very early, a fire alarm went off at our place in Winnipeg. Since we live on the 20th floor and Clarence had just had surgery, this was worrying.  What if it wasn't a drill? The elevators were locked so I started down the stairwell to check things out.

I had reached the 3rd floor when a voice came over the intercom. 'Please stay in your suite,' it said firmly.  'Remain in your suite until further notice.' Oh, the timing. My legs were shaking from leaping out of bed and rushing down 17 flights of stairs. My heart was tight from lack of exercise and panic. There could be a fire. And the 20th floor is unreachable by ladder.

I headed back up the stairs, holding onto the rail and feeling like a ninety year old. At the sixth floor it became apparent that a cooking fire had set off the alarm.  My sense of relief morphed into bitter self pity. Pulling myself upward, I cursed my ill luck with some colorful language and small bird like sounds of exhaustion.  Clarence was still awake when I stumbled into the bedroom.

He said,  'I told you not to go.' While technically true, this is exactly what a person who has taken one for the team does not want to hear. But the words, ' I told you so,' are an unavoidable part of most relationships. That does not mean I took them in the right spirit.

'But there was a fire,' I said. 'On a stove in an apartment on the sixth floor.' I was on the defensive, presenting my own version of, 'No, I told YOU so.' I went back to bed, feeling very hard done by. 

A few days later, one of my sisters had an accident, breaking her wrist and bruising herself badly. Later, when I was in the middle of retelling my story, "I can't believe I climbed ALL those stairs," it suddenly hit me. I'm a cry baby. There was my husband, the staples in his stomach catching on the fabric of his shirt. My sister, her small wrist wrapped in a cast, supporting herself with the help of a cane while gazing at me sympathetically.

'Fine,' I muttered to myself, feeling the weight of my own shame. It was time to re-embrace the gratitude mantra. After all, Clarence had had a successful surgery. My sister would get better. And I would take my physical fitness more seriously. Especially since, part of the time, we lived on the 20th floor.

This small life lesson is like a mirror. Instead of good intentions, it revealed me as a self indulgent mini martyr. And if I'm too thick minded to see the error of my ways, I suspect another lesson might come round again. It may not involve twenty flights of stairs, up and down. It may be something even more formidable. So I'm saying right here and now that I get it. There are a lot of people having a tough time. Most of them are stoic individuals silently bearing all that life throws at them, and still greeting the day with a smile.

They are my heroes. And I will run up and down many flights of stairs if I can help them in any way. I just might have to duct tape my mouth shut afterward.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Way Station

I went for a walk the other evening in our Osborne Village neighborhood, heading down Nassau and turning left at the corner of Wellington Crescent. There is a building right there that I have always admired. Impulsively I headed up the driveway, and wouldn't you know it, the door swung open like it was expecting me. The small foyer inside showed beautiful and wonderfully clean glass doors. Through the doors there were statues tastefully placed around the room. On my left was a man seated in a cubicle. He had one hand hovering over a phone, and seemed frozen by indecision.

"Is this an apartment building?" I asked excitedly.
"It's private,'' he said, like he was going to the bathroom and I was  being rude enough to watch. Which reminded me. I really had to go.
"Can I come in and look around? I've always wanted to see this place."
"You'll have to leave."
"May I use your bathroom?" In retrospect, I can't believe I asked this, except that my bladder was overtaking my brain.
"Absolutely not," he said, as if a simple no would lead to some persuasive arguing that would wear him down.

Continuing on my journey, I passed an Anglican church that rings actual bells on Sunday morning. They play 'Ode to Joy,' making me feel like I'm in the movie 'Sound of Music,' and have just gotten married in a beautiful cathedral. It inspires me to sing, 'How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria?' I can get away with that kind of thing in Winnipeg, because no one knows me and anyway, Clarence is impossible to embarrass. 

But back to my bladder. Since it's the size of a soy nut, I decided to stop at the Safeway across from our building. The small bathroom at the back is tucked between the egg fridge and the meat counter. A strong odor of cigar met my nose when I stepped inside. As I exited, a guy in an apron was standing there with a frown on his face.

'Someone's been smoking a cigar,' I tattled helpfully.
"It's not allowed," he said, glaring at me.
"I know. I'm just reporting it."
"Especially cigars. They stink up the whole place."
"I know. I..." He walked away, leaving me feeling as if I really had smoked a cigar in the bathroom. As if I'd just forgotten it. His certainty was very unsettling.

Feeling disoriented, I headed home. Why, I wondered, can't we have real way stations? Ones with helpful attendants, convenient bathrooms and guides willing to satisfy one's curiosity? Wouldn't life be wonderful if, every day, we were met with snacks, hot towels and comfy chairs wherever we went? I'd like that. For now, though, I'll settle for my friendly apartment building, where nobody knows my name, but where people will hold the elevator and even say hello. It's a start.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

While You Were Sleeping

At four in the morning, there is not much to do around my place. Especially when the house is full of people, including a toddler who wakes at the slightest sound. Exhausted, bored, and fearing the appearance of a rambunctious one year old, I hid out in the bathroom.

After styling my hair in a variety of fashions I would never wear publicly, I decided to try on my youngest daughter's discarded make-up.  Sleepless night lesson number one:

 I can never use a black eyebrow pencil.

My eyebrows bec0me exaggerated question marks, as if pondering the fate of the world during a zombie apocalypse. I look like Joan Crawford, the later years. Much, much later.  Or someone creeping through a darkened hallway in a horror movie. Possibly a zombie movie.

Red lipstick is also a mistake. The bold color on pale, tired skin says crazed prostitute with a chainsaw behind her back.

There should be a hotline installed in bathrooms for people who can't sleep. It would connect us to others suffering the same problem. A therapist could be on hand to answer the questions one ponders in the darkness of the night. Overblown, fueled by sleeplessness, they weigh on you like an anchor from the Titanic.

It's not even the serious things that occupy my mind at three am. It's my deceased in-law's slide collection, at least thirty carousels worth, that sits in our back garage. Or the fact that I live in Manitoba and winter is coming.   And I don't know how to use our snow blower, and my husband spends part of his time in Winnipeg. And won't teach me because he thinks I'm going to cut off my foot. It's all completely ridiculous. But that's the working of an illogical, sleep deprived mind.   

Does a sense of aloneness creates a feeling of desperation? Or is it the fear of tiredness, that next-day-ache that settles into your bones? Whatever it is, while you were sleeping, I came to terms with a few things. Like, it is better to try on make-up in the middle of the night than lie there cursing the darkness. Or my messy garage. Or snow.

I hear the babbling of little voices. Time to creep back to bed.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Invisible Woman

I hate being short. When my younger sister, Susan, shot past me in childhood, the unjustness of it hit hard. Now I've become invisible, and the self pity party is back in full swing.

It seems the automatic sensors on towel dispensers and toilets can't see me. I stand waiting, my wet hands raised in the air like a prepped surgeon. Nothing happens. I wave. Nothing. Tap it. Same lack of response.

Unlike the paper dispenser, the toilet needs to see that one has left the building. But flattening myself against the cubicle wall doesn't work. I don't want to leave without flushing. Doing a funny dance in front of the sensor doesn't work either. It gets complicated when the bathroom is busy and there is a line-up. 'I think that woman is tap dancing,' I heard a woman say during a recent visit to Calgary.

'I can't get the toilet to flush,' I replied defensively.

'Stand to one side,' she suggested. Like, duh, I didn't just try that. Sometimes I'll leave the stall and wait, one hand on the door so that no one goes in. I begin to feel like the grade ten version of myself. The one who was too short to make the volley ball team.

But it's not really about size. It's about being part of something. Being visible. I want the toilet to know that I'm done, like it does for other people. That I'm exiting the room. 'There you go!' I want the toilet to say. 'Good job!' Accompanied by a flushing sound.

My joyful response to the rare flushing toilet or automatic towel is usually a little over the top. 'It worked!' I'll say to the other bathroom occupants, expecting a high five or, at the very least, a congratulatory smile.

'Uh huh,' they'll reply. I forgive them, knowing that they occupy a different universe than me, perhaps breath a more rarified air They don't really understand the difficulties of trying to measure up. Of hoping to be tall enough, or good enough  to make 'Team Human.' When the toilet finally does notices me, it's like an invite to the club. 'Welcome,' it says, and the flushing away is like the secret handshake of acceptance.    

Friday, August 15, 2014

Six Girls and a Guy

In life, sometimes a person needs a behavior check. Or a mood check. Usually we don't even realize it. Thank goodness for friends. Or in my case, siblings who don't wait for friends to speak up.

The first hint of their concern is a gentle tone of voice. Susan and Linda are masters at this. "Am I going around the bend?" I start to wonder. "Am I the last to notice?" My other sisters, Jen, Cindy and Joni, are sympathetic, but have a harder time suppressing their panic. They have no poker faces. Or voices.

Living mostly in different cities, we stay connected with phone calls and yearly reunions. The latter can involve up to thirty-eight people or just a small group of twelve or so, depending on spouses and kids. The feeling shared by all is a slippery combination of anticipation and dread. Individually, we are benign. An opinionated set of individuals with a flair for dramatics and a deeply imbedded sense of family placement. (I'm number two. It's very hard.)

Together, we are the perfect storm of deep, deep feelings. Two weeks of fun amidst loud and incessant conversation translating into a kind of boot camp therapy, starting with a 'he said, she said,' tell all that occasionally ends in tears. (Though usually for just one person.) Strange mutterings may be heard at family dinners. A kind of, 'Its' not going to be me breaking down, dammit,' confession. Sure enough, at the first sign of moodiness, everyone else relaxes, knowing its not going to be them cracking up this particular year.

 Some siblings attempt to sneak away from family gatherings, to find a quiet corner in which to read a book or simply enjoy some peace. (We are all readers, thanks to our parent's fruitless attempts at keeping us quiet.) Alone, we are each friendly, fun loving and sensible. Grouped together, we are a loud, singing, verbose, mighty wind.

Some would say we resemble the mafia, except that every one of us wants to be the Godfather. In terms of siblings, it should be Linda, the eldest. She's been resisting the role since my brother Billy became baby number four. Hiding in her room, (yes, she had her own!) she would pass the time reading.  In high school she shared a room with Susan and me. We became fans of her Gordon Lightfoot collection as well as the many hits of K-Tel, including the ever famous song, "Winchester Cathedral.' It was fitting, because for certain, we were always bringing her down.

Now that we're older, Susan, number three, is the real boss of the family. Not that she's bossy. She's too subtle for that. But she has a way with words, a kind but firm tone that we all respond to in a mostly positive way. She notices things that the rest of us don't, being either too distracted or too self indulgent. I can't throw any stones. I'm the last one to see that the dishes need doing, or the table set. Okay, maybe the second last.

Brother Bill is locked in the middle ... three girls older than him, three younger. This position has helped him considerably in his life. He's learned all kinds of skills, like how to wear tights, how to fight off a wild pack of girls chasing him down for a kiss. That kind of thing. He's a guy who could build a shopping mall with a nail file and some lego, or escape from a prison camp in the middle of the wilderness. I know the last is true because I was one of his jailers. It's one reason why you hardly ever see him without his tool belt.

Cindy came out of the womb knowing exactly what she wanted. She was a 'mama's little helper,' type of kid with hair that was really hard to brush. I remember because somehow it ended up being my job. She treated school work like someone was paying her a million dollars to do well.

Joni was everyone's darling, and over the years, nothing has really changed. If you ever travel with her, be prepared to hug strangers in an airport because she knows everyone in the world. Everyone. I'm not even kidding.

Jennifer, as number seven, had to fight hard to be heard. As a child, she had an extremely loud voice which she somehow managed to translate into a successful career. It all came down to survival. As the baby, we had to take care of her. And it was her job to make sure that we did it in the most fun way. Even when it was very inconvenient. Picture a Saturday morning, possibly 7 am. Jennifer is three, and very precocious for her age. I am eighteen, and possibly hung over. She would climb the ladder to my bunk with a large bag of books, slapping them down on my legs and reading them directly into my ear. Things have not changed a whole lot, though now she brings witty conversation and interesting drink recipes.

I'm not sure who I am in this crazy mix-up of a family. But what I do know is this. There is a secure fortress surrounding me at all times; a wall of people who have my back. It is made up of love, history, and the steely resolve of children who could crack the most stoic parent.
So you can take me or leave me, like or despise me. Just don't mess with me. Because you're going to have to answer to them. And it won't be pretty. We are family, with a capital F.

Mario Puzzo said in his book, 'The Godfather,' “The world is so hard a man must have two fathers.” I say, for extra protection, have siblings.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Please Insert the Butterfly

There is a new product on the market called 'The Butterfly.' It is a subtly named  body liner designed to prevent 'accidental bowel  leakage.' And no, I haven't started using product placement in my writing, though given the contents of my April blog, I'd probably do well to buy some stock in the company.

Allow me to be a little more high brow than that, please. The ad got me thinking about all the ways our bodies give out as we age. Though our knees can ache and other parts drift southward, nothing leaks away faster than the stiff upper lip.

I'm not sure what the trigger is for men, but for women its mostly menopause.  I didn't even know I was stoic before until, suddenly, I wasn't. The problem started in my late forties. First, I was crying during a poignant television commercial. Then the news that an acquaintance was moving away made me morose for days. I stayed away from sad books and learned to watch a lot of comedies.

However. What the body wants to spill, it will spill. The things that have made me grieve have been so minuscule, I feel embarrassed to admit them, even to myself. Thank goodness for this handy blog.

 Here is a short list of sadness triggers for me:

1. Bird song late in summer, (because its a mating call that was never answered.)
2. PBS's nostalgic Saturday night concert series; anything from doo wop to John Denver. It's always a two Kleenex event.
3. Reunions. I once had my eyelashes dyed so I could cry freely.
4. Seeing other people cry. This is a guaranteed trigger, even when it happens in movies. Maybe especially in movies.
5. Songs like K'naan's 'Waving Flag.' I'm not sure if its the combination of rap and choir, or the fact that it was the first song our town danced to in the very first Culture Days. Weepy, weepy.

The list is fairly short, but you get the idea. One thing I've noticed, though. When life became harder and things happen that are more serious than a sad songbird, heavy, depressing literature makes a come back in my life. A well written, deeply moving and morose novel can cheer me up immensely. I have no idea why, nor do I care.  This also applies to sad movies.

My aha idea is this. When serious leakage begins, forget the butterfly application, the cheery slogans and uplifting comedies. Instead, lean into it. Indulge yourself in whatever manner is required. For me, it is giving myself permission to watch Romeo and Juliet (the 1969 version) or reread a real downer, like 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles.'  Perhaps misery loves company. I think its all about perspective. A thirteen year old stabbing herself to death for love makes my John Denver concert seem pretty chipper. The worst of situations is a walk in the park when compared to Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road.' Things might be tough, but at least I'm not being chased by cannibals.

For minor leakage, please insert the butterfly. For major events, lean in and let 'er rip. You'll feel a lot better. I promise.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Let Me Paint You a Picture

Last year my four year old niece Lilly came down with the stomach flu. When finally offered something to eat, she shook her head sadly, saying, "My teeth are afraid of the chicken."

We spend our lives wanting to be understood. But not all of us have Lilly's gift for conveying exactly what we mean. Our desire to be heard  is primal; a definition for what it means to be human.  At its worst, communication might involve a gun, a death, and a lengthy trial. At its best, the messenger offers  the receiver a gift.

Art is, arguably, the highest form of communication. The artist engages the audience with an openness and vulnerability that belies the courage it takes to create something and let it go. Their work invites a response, verbal or visceral, whether the medium is a painting, song, movie, book or more.  It connects us, engaging us in conversation and self examination. We arrive at a place of empathy and understanding with ourselves and the world around us.  Joseph Waumbagh said it best in a novel. Every time a country song came on, his protagonist would react with astonishment, wondering how the artist could possibly understand the depths of his own confusion and sadness. It was brilliant and funny and would fit this blog so much better if I could recall the book's title.

Gossip is one of the lowest forms of communication. It is passive aggressive, implying cowardice on the part of the deliverer. I'm not talking about movie star bashing (though I can't help but think, why? Who cares?) but a group of people throwing stones at one who is absent. We've all done it. Perhaps we just listened silently, disagreeing but not wanting to speak up. Listening silently implies agreement with the speaker. I've noticed how the mood in a room darkens when we indulge in bashing others with our words.

Regarding conversation, I wish we all spoke like characters from a Jane Austen novel, with witty repartee, poetic confessions and gentleness. Or maybe like Margaret Atwood. Modern, but with all the right words in our tool belts. As it is, the rest of us are stuck with ourselves, with our 'ehs' and 'yah's, our OMG'S and WTF's. In this present day, its a compelling argument for art as the true, timeless form of communication. Whether its a hand knitted sweater or a homemade urn shaped like a log cabin, it can speak to us more effectively than anything we might say. If you concur, please comment. Or message me on facebook. I long to hear from thee.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Oops, I've Crapped My Pants

There's no getting around the topic of this blog posting. Clarence tried to dissuade me from writing it, but in the spirit of the Hanson Family Motto (no thought goes unspoken) I just had to. My husband came up with alternate titles, vaguely referencing the direness of the situation while skirting the facts. He liked 'Last Tango in Regina' or 'A Bridge Too Far.' I preferred to steal the title from an SNL skit about adult diapers. Here's how it all went down.

We were traveling from Calgary to Winnipeg, passing through the City of Regina. I had no inkling of what was about to occur, which, when I think about it, seems highly unfair. Mother nature has certain signals for this kind of thing, but there was no hint of what was to come. No twinges, no sound track from the movie 'JAWS.'' Either would have been appropriate.

Clarence and I were both tired and decided to stop at the Delta Hotel. Leaving our car in the front, we walked through the lobby to the desk. I opened my mouth to ask for a room when a strange rumbling sound caught my attention. Also the desk clerk's, who was quick to give me directions to a nearby bathroom. Did I hurry down the hall? Not really. It is impossible to rush while doing a partial pliĆ© in a backward leaning stance and cupping a hand over one's backside at the same time. It prevents any kind of quick movement. Of the walking variety, that is.

By the time I reached the attractive facility with its marble floors and counters, the damage was done. I will spare you the details, which, in the light of this blog entry, may surprise you. Suffice it to say that it was a good thing I was wearing long underwear.

Thank goodness I was the only occupant. There was no one to bother me except for Clarence who kept opening the door and hollering, "Are you done yet?" while trying to suppress cruel laughter. There is a certain helplessness in this kind of situation where more than one pair of hands is needed,  yet, unless one is in a nursing home, not wanted. 

My feelings of self pity should have been accompanied by high, sad violin music or at least a soft piano chord or two. Something Oscar worthy. Instead, I had only the company of my own bad language.  Suffice to say that I managed to sneak up to the room we'd checked into without embarrassing myself further.

I have no explanation for this event except that things seem to happen to me while on road trips.  My hope is that I can check this one off my list. I know I'm not alone in this situation. There are others out there who have done this particular Tango, maybe not in Regina, but certainly other places. I could use an understanding smile or kind word, so feel free to provide one when you see me. I'll be the one wearing three pairs of pants.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Survivor Manitoba

As March wanes on, we Manitobans have begun to feel like the half dead survivors of a Polar apocalypse. The cold has seeped into our bones and sapped our energy.  Endless snow shoveling, frozen car batteries and cabin fever are just a few symptoms of this never ending winter.

 Sure, the sun shines occasionally and every now and then the wind cuts out. But the snow is still here, piled high in drifts where chunks of ice hide. Covered with a skiff of snow, they wait to catch us unaware, leaving us feeling  bruised and sheepish.

Like a horde of marauding zombies, the cold bites into us, scouring our flesh and souls in equal measure. We fall, one by one, into a stunned acceptance, trudging off to work and school with faces so dull, we look like we've joined Team Walking Dead.
The worst of it is that, at the back of our minds, we're all secretly worried that this is it. The future has arrived. Climate change was supposed to be our grandchildren's problem. What happened to that idea? There's a certain indignation at the bumping up of the schedule. Like the dire warnings that said 'Only thirty years from now!'   Yet here we are.

They're doing well in Vancouver and LA,  trim and fit from time spent in the great outdoors. All that  walking, bicycling and roller blading. The wearing of light sweaters and attractive fall jackets. Here in the frozen north, we dress like we live on the moon. Down coats, layers of long underwear, and bulky hats that make us look like astronauts in the aftermath of a bad landing. I'm sure all those living on the coast smile broadly, even while making their four thousand dollars a month mortgage payments. "It's worth it!" they declare, having watched the news and seen the suffering of their northern brethren.

  But take comfort, dear Manitobans. When the oceans rise and Vancouverites swim frantically for Alberta's new shore line, we'll wait for spring and rejoice at being high and dry. In spite of our distress at winter's duration, (which has started to feel like an unending marathon,) we're a grateful bunch who count our blessings. We're survivors and we pride ourselves on our stoicism. We'll outlast this winter and emerge with our hearts and souls unscathed. Our frost bitten toes are another matter.

Friday, February 28, 2014

You're Wearing Those Pants?

This morning my husband wandered out of the bedroom wearing a pair of jeans that were so short, he looked like he was pulling them up to wade through water. When I pointed this out, he went and changed. This signifies his easy going nature rather than any agreement on his part. We've had similar conversations over the years. His swaggering self confidence contrasts starkly with my hand wringing plea for a middle ground in the wardrobe department. His tastes have always been quirky.

I was never attracted to guys who were perfectly put together. The kind who can't pass a mirror without checking themselves out. No one can grow up in Flin Flon and appreciate that type of male unless he's shirtless, holding a wrench and dancing provocatively on a stage. We northerners like our men to have a certain disdain for the perfect outfit. However.

Some of the conversations we've had are enough to make me feel slightly wistful. I can imagine the GQ guy's kind of closet. Shirts hanging neatly, immaculately ironed and placed slightly apart. Shoes stowed away, underwear folded. That man could nag me about my own drawers and I'd only be grateful. Really.

Some years ago, Clarence bought a set of vintage burgundy curling sweaters. He wore each in turn, having heard Oprah's friend, Peter Walsh, say that a garment unworn is one that should be given away. When I questioned the suitability of wearing the sweaters for work, he looked at me like a little boy who's been given the best. gift. ever!

"These are the Flin Flon Bomber colours! (Insert the word 'duh' here, unvoiced but expressed in other ways.) "They're vintage sweaters! I bought three so that someday our daughters can wear them to my funeral." With a shake of his head he managed to convey his disbelief at my shortsightedness and lack of taste.

I had no comeback. Aside from a comment shouted from another room, (No way, dad, we're not wearing those sweaters EVER!) there was really nothing anyone could add that would make a difference. And so his love of vintage clothing and unusual combinations continued.

When another MLA at the Legislature said, "Wow. I didn't know you could wear all those plaids at the same time," my husband bragged about it to me. He is not unaware of my opinion regarding his wardrobe and is always looking for opportunities to lobby for it.

Sadly, I'm not above whispering lies to complete strangers. "He's in a play and there was no time to change." Stuff like that. Clarence is temporarily over his love for Hawaiian shirts, replacing them with a series of strange hats. A few are fairly cool looking, but some have me walking slightly ahead of or behind him, like an embarrassed teenager. Especially the one that looks like it should be accompanied by yodeling and the clicking of heels. His 'I'm an extra in the Sound of Music' look. Sigh.

It's a good thing he's such a keeper. The fact is, I value humour and kindness over clothing choice, which means we'll be together until one of us departs this life. When that day comes, there will be copious weeping, the tearing of clothing, (his) and a tabloid worthy profusion of vintage sweaters and Hawaiian shirts. If they're not worn by family and friends, chances are they'll at least be for sale.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Winning at The Olympics of Life

Just like the winter games taking place in Sochi, the imaginary 'Olympics of Life' would host an ongoing series of events. Some would have clear, well defined and easily judged values. Like, who makes the most money? Who has traveled the furthest? Worst criminal ever would be less definable, though not as hard as, say, picking the most altruistic human alive. Then you're getting into categories that, much like pairs dance, are influenced by opinion rather than fact.

It's the same when we judge ourselves. Our own ideas regarding our virtues and faults may be coloured by wishful thinking. "I'm a ten out of ten," we might think when considering our own characteristics of friendliness and good humour. And we believe it to be so, mentally hanging the gold medal around our own necks while being careful not to check with the judges, i.e., friends and family, for their opinions.

I try not to worry about things like that, but instead, focus on the tasks in which I truly excel. Like reading. If there was an Olympics for readers, I would be a contender. For one thing, I train hard for it every single day. I read as if I were being paid a fortune to do so. When I see others sitting glumly on the bus, bookless, not a magazine in hand, I can't comprehend their motivation. Why stare into space when you can gaze into the soul of the universe? Everything you ever need to know about life can be found in a book or great magazine article.

Do you need to be more compassionate? Read a book. Do you have an ungrateful heart? Crack open "Twelve Years a Slave"  and you'll never complain again. Cormac McCarthy's, "The Road," with its bleak and despairing future, actually made me feel less stressed about the environment. Reading chips away at our faults,  breaking off little pieces of pettiness and intolerance. This honing of our character leaves us stronger and much less certain about the rightness of our own opinions. Which is a very good thing. A 'peace on earth' thing. Children and adults become more empathetic when reading. It's impossible to have an 'us against them' mentality when a book opens the door to a new world, inviting us in and introducing us to the lives of others. We learn how to live when we read a book. We become a better version of ourselves.

A handy portal to an expanded universe, plus the new and improved you, sits waiting  at the library. Your life guru, the local librarian, can be your guide to Everything you need to know about Anything. You might seek adventure in a travel book, learn to cook great meals, meet a kindred spirit through a biography or pick up a 'how to' manual which will enable you to survive the zombie apocalypse. It's all there. And its free.

Every day I go for the gold, sharing our Canadian athlete's desire to 'Own the Podium.' "But the training involved!" you might be thinking. "I don't have time!" You make the time. Carry your book, or kobo, with you always. Read in lineups at the bank, in bathrooms (including your home,) in bed at night, and whenever you have the luxury of eating a meal alone. Take note of the time you waste on things like facebook, or computer games. I say this even as I prepare to do an online crossword puzzle. But still. Take up this reading challenge and enter the race to win it. You'll be a better person for it, and just think how in shape your mind will be!  You might win that most coveted prize ever. Old age and a brain that still works. Now that's golden.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Neil Young and me on a Saturday Morning

Neil Young sat beside me last Saturday during choir practice. Metaphorically, of course. But it felt real. We were learning his song, 'After the Gold Rush.' The harmony was lovely and haunting, bringing me close to tears.

The music feels like a dirge with its plaintive talk of drugs and mother nature. And yet. As we moved through the piece I began to feel like my eighteen year old self en route to the best party ever. As if on cue, this memory came flashing back.

My friend Jude and I were driving around in her boyfriend's car. A 1958 Pontiac, or something like it. Turquoise and cream, large and comfortable and, in 1971, already vintage. Jude slapped in an eight track tape and the song soared through the late summer air. Joy wrapped itself around us in the easy way it does when you're young and living in the moment. The music sealed the memory so it could be unwrapped all those years later during choir.

More than any other sensory experience, music brings us back to ourselves. "There you are," some part of our brain joyfully acknowledges. "Where've you been?"
We can go missing from our own lives and not even notice. We grow up, we learn, and we move forward, determined to be the best version of ourselves. To show the child within us that we did good. That we're so much better than we were.

But by trying to forget the parts we find wanting, we miss the opportunity to heal some old hurts.
The music of our youth strips away the inconsequential, leaving us  feeling vulnerable and genuine. A door opens to the past, allowing us to address it in a positive way.

There's pain in the mix of those childhood and teenage years. All the unkind things we thought about ourselves. We didn't like our noses. Our big feet. We were too short. Too tall. It was the gap in our teeth. Hair that never looked right. Klutzy, uncool, shy, geeky.  There are a thousand things we found wrong with ourselves, thoughts sometimes unintentionally confirmed by the people who loved us.

The small potatoes of the past loom large. But that doesn't mean they deserve the reserved seating you've given them in your memory bank. Transform those moments with great songs from your past and everything is put into perspective. 

I sing the words, "All in a dream, all in a dream, the loading had begun. Flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun," and I'm not with my choir anymore. I'm in the car with my friend, Jude, cruising down the highway, singing at the top of my lungs. And Neil Young is right beside me. The artist and his audience, binding each other's wounds. "We're mourning," he says. "And we're celebrating. Let's sing." And we do.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Safe, on the Other Side of Sixty

In 1979 I was standing on a mountain in the Himalayas. My face hadn't seen water in four days and my 25th birthday loomed over me like a serial killer. The thing I'd been dreading all year had arrived. It was finally time for me to grow up. I made a few promises to myself back then, which I've kept. For example, to stop going for gold in the drinking Olympics.

Thirty-five years later my 60th birthday stands before me like a brick wall. I have no way to interpret the number that so thoroughly blocks my view of the future. I know I'm being silly. My husband is already sixty-one, my older sister the same. They haven't spontaneously combusted or dropped dead of old age. What exactly is my problem with this birthday?

For one, I've begun second guessing myself. In the last few months I've started worrying about middle aged/ old people things like slipping and falling on icy roads. The roots of my hair seem, overnight, dramatically grayer. My face insists on keeping my chest company on its journey south. But still, all that has been going on for awhile. Why am I so bummed out?

If I compared my life span to a hike in the Himalayas, then I reached the summit at the age of fifty. So ten years ago, I was on top of the world. There was none of the uncertainty of my present age. Now that I've begun the descent, though, I'm remembering that climbing uphill is actually easier than going down. A steady descent is very hard on the knees. Two hundred and fifty miles of traveling the highs and lows of the Himalayas taught me that much. Perhaps that's the problem. I fear the hardship of the journey on the way down.

I have a disposition that is inclined to rebellion. I'm easy going, but I don't like to be told what to do. Maybe that's part of the problem. None of us gets a say in our future. We can't press the pause button, turn to Father Time and tell him, No Thanks. I'll be leaving the station now and going my own way. You go on without me. Everything I need is right here, right now.

Facing the number sixty has made me feel helpless. Why can't everything and everyone just stay put? Why can't the earth keep renewing itself, the water flowing clean and uninterrupted to the ocean. The air crisp and undamaged by industry and frequent flyers.

Why can't everyone on the planet just get along?  Turning sixty is stripping away all of  my illusions. I'm not really in charge of anything. I have no say over the car that is rounding the bend toward me, or the Tsunami of events waiting to surprise me. Would it be easier, then, to check out early? Stop writing, or running my business? Quit my marriage, say adios to my kids.

I can't do that. For one thing, I want to see how things work out for all of us. And the parts I don't get to see, my children and friends will witness for me. I guess that's one of the reasons we're here on Earth. To observe the wonderful, the ridiculous and the heartbreaking events that make up a life. What we do with those observations, how much we decide to take part, well. That's up to each of us. That's the real power of living.

And in the aha moment reached this very second, I've realized what my sixtieth birthday is really telling me. I must continue growing up, and upward. Every day brings new lessons, and it won't be over until God reaches out and gives me the golden hand shake. That part, I'm looking forward to. "Good job! (God might say) Please head directly toward the light. And no worries, Judy, cause its all downhill from there."