Archives

Not-So-Auld-Lang-Syne

I am thinking today of my friends who have said good-bye to loved ones in 2015, and are about to enter a year that their lost companions will never experience. For those gone to their sleep, 2015 was the conclusion of their road – a way station to somewhere else. We all have that final year waiting to be inscribed on our own memorials. But unless we are very unlucky today, 2015 will not be it.

My husband was a newshound. Almost as long as I knew him, at 7:30 the NBC Nightly News was his focus for half an hour. Nothing else intruded. He watched other news media as well, but for some reason that was his favourite as he grew older. He also enjoyed CNN. If a breaking story caught his attention, he’d turn to various sources for updates. At the supper hour, Canadian channels predominated – CTV or ATV, CBC, Global. The daily paper then supplied more in-depth coverage of stories already known. We were a well-informed family.

When he was hospitalized at the end, I arranged for TV rental. However, he hardly glanced at the news broadcasts, and I realized then how very ill he was. He had detached himself from the world around him. Letting go of ongoing events seemed so uncharacteristic of the man. Now, looking back, I understand that he had no further need to follow these situations. He knew it wouldn’t matter and that time, for him, was about to stop. I would have to pursue the developing stories on my own. I have not watched NBC Nightly News since then.

How he would have loved the Justin Trudeau groundswell, the election, the excitement of transition! How he would have relished the endless debates about everything from Syrian refugees to the faltering Yarmouth ferry service to the plans for Mother Canada! He would have wept for Paris and Ankara and San Bernardino. He would have recalled his own arrival through Pier 21 as the Syrian newcomers were welcomed to Halifax. He’d now be tracing the rise of Donald Trump. shaking his head in disbelief, and poring over TIME magazine for each election installment. But for him, “now” only goes as far as April 21, 2015. Whatever has come next, I cannot know.

So what is time, anyway? Is it linear? I don’t think so, nor do the great temporal physicists like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, but we have to make it that way so our human brains can comprehend its passage. We assign numbers to the line and mark our progress by referring to them. But the whole idea of time is inherently a comparison between various states of existence that constantly change. If the universe were static – motionless – would we still measure time or even think about it? Would it matter? New Year’s Eve would become rather irrelevant, I should imagine. We’d be buying our champagne and sparklers just for the heck of it.

“People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between the past, the present and the future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” – Albert Einstein

Indeed. We choose our illusions, then, and live with them because to do otherwise would be too much for our minds to handle. Plato’s theory of forms suggests that ideas existed in perfection, separate from their reflections in our own world. In their “place beyond heaven” (Phaedrus), these forms pattern the universe, and we imitate them but can never quite achieve their purity. All, then, is imitative and – while intelligible to our senses – not quite truthful. And what we perceive isn’t always real. Colours change with the light. What looks blue to me might look purple to you. Think of “the dress” that took Facebook by storm a few months ago. What colour was it, really? And who gets to decide?

Time and Illusion. Or are they the same thing? Time AS illusion? I’m just a poet. I can’t begin to go there.

But the year turns tonight and the last people to die in 2015 will have done so. The gravestone-carvers will inscribe that final “5” and move on to a “6”. Those whom time is leaving behind will see neither peace nor war to come; neither celebration nor grief. They remain eternally in the span to which they have been assigned. We have to walk away and if we turn to look back, there is only silence. Snow, perhaps. An odd salt taste on our lips.

We – not being dead – confront whatever waits for us. We ride in an open carriage, ancient and unfamiliar, while all around us the engines roar by, or above, or under. Space stations orbit, jets trail across the horizon, race cars circle a child’s playroom track. But we’re huddled in an Emily Dickinson poem, almost 130 years after she set down her pen forever. We see only the back of our driver, who handles the reins with ease and confidence. Clearly, there’s only one direction to be taken. The horses clatter on stones that spark fire from their heels. We can look toward the very edge of the universe if we keep going. There’s Polaris beaming us north, and Orion swinging his sword arm in his solitary hunt. The blurred galaxies swim like flecks on velvet. Somewhere, angels are caroling, or maybe that’s just the solar wind heading toward its own fate. It has a low voice not everyone can hear.

I shrug off my worn overcoat of mourning, and put on hope like a lap robe for the journey, to warm my feet. In the crowded darkness, a watchmaker adjusts the minute and second hands to mark this midnight hour. I do not believe he is blind, as some might call him. He simply has no need for optics. He can feel the rightness of things.

Then come the Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels. Someone across the river sets off a string of explosions. I raise my glass to the window, seeing only my own face reflected in its pane. The reality of myself – or just the idea of me? The wine glints in starlight. A Parisian baby opens her eyes for her first astonished look at life. A very old man in Corner Brook smiles and wishes “Happy New Year” to his fragile wife. A shopkeeper in New Delhi kisses his new bride and listens to a ghazal singer from the street. Slowly, with great precision, the planet moves through her own dance.

High over my roof, wild geese vee across a skein of clouds, heading for somewhere else. No map required. They know the way.

Advertisements

Be Not Afraid

The merchants of fear are busy on social media in the wake of the Paris tragedy. ISIL has cast suspicion on every innocent refugee trying to flee its cruel regime. People are assuming that every one of them is a potential agent of terror. I feel sickened and saddened  – not only by the carnage in the City of Light, but also by the vicious campaign being waged against innocent people in a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable impact. Are there any quick solutions to this situation? No. It is a logistical minefield. However, the response to catastrophe should not include intolerance toward those caught up in it. Anti-refugee bigotry is being promoted all over social media. It touches people I know; it strikes locally and it strikes internationally.

We have opened the gates of our hearts – to let out compassion; to let in hate. And thus the terrorists win. Hatred is their currency. It is cheap to mint and readily-accepted by far too many of us. But the faces stamped on these coins are quite often our own.

A number of these refugees – Syrians, at any rate – are professionals in various fields. Contrary to popular belief, there IS an education system in Syria. These folks read, write, study, have hopes of a better life. They’re not warriors of any sort. They lack access to arms – unlike the forces to whom certain more powerful nations are quite willing to sell weapons. Since 2011, as of this past September, American munitions makers have sold $7.7 BILLION dollars’ worth of arms to Syrian forces! Sadly, the US has accepted only 1434 refugees from that country. Canada has provided $718 million worth of weaponry. We’ve accepted 2300 refugees. So-called “military aid” doesn’t always fall into the hands of freedom fighters. And a considerable stockpile of US-made weapons constitutes a legacy of the Iraq war. “Many of these same countries fueling the slaughter have also been some of the least willing to grant amnesty to Syria’s refugees.” (US Uncut, Sept. 4, 2015)

I read a poignant interview a couple days ago by a pharmacist who wanted to come to Canada. He’s not unusual. He just wants to be safe, with his family, and work toward a decent future. The majority of Syrian refugees are women and children of both genders, despite what some would have us believe. 50% are under the age of 17! Not even old enough to graduate from our Canadian high schools. 24% are women aged 18-39, and 22% are men in that age range. So to those who try to spread the disinformation that most refugees are males of “fighting age” – you are WRONG. Refer to the UN Refugee Agency. Updated statistics are always available. Here’s the link to their figures. Don’t take my word for this; check for yourselves. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

These refugees, contrary to popular misconception, are mainly families – and they’re powerless to stand against the kind of weaponry that ISIL has at its disposal (often provided by Western countries, as noted above). They cannot simply rise up and fight back. They would be slaughtered – creating a nation of widows and orphans, worse than it is now. There’s bravery and there’s futility. Big difference. Yet I keep reading posts that the men ought to “go back home and fight.” With WHAT? Sticks? They’d be facing assault rifles and explosives and whatever else ISIL has managed to acquire. Purchased, captured or stolen, these weapons can easily fall into merciless hands.

“Ah,” you might say, “But ISIL has infiltrated the refugee camps and planted their agents among these people.” Probably true – as far as it goes. However, those agents would most likely constitute a small percentage. One Syrian passport found near a suicide bomber’s corpse does not equal four million terrorists. Two, or five, or a dozen passports still don’t signify that most refugees mean to do harm. But people bent on inflicting devastation are very good at disguising their intentions. They learn to blend in. Otherwise, it would be too easy to spot their presence. They surround themselves with innocents, knowing full well that when they do act, those innocents will be instantly burdened with their wrongdoings. Suspicion is terror’s constant – and in some ways, far more insidious – companion.

I did some fact-checking and discovered that right here in Canada, 10% of us have criminal records. While some of those crimes may have been minor, I’d guess that maybe 3 out of 10 – at least – were not. Canada is the home of Clifford Olsen, Robert Pickton, Paul Bernardo, Marc Lepine, Alan Legere and a whole collection of other brutes. We’ve spawned the FLQ. We failed to prevent Babbar Khalsa from planting a bomb on Air India Flight 182 out of Toronto/Montreal and killing 329 people – 268 of whom were Canadian citizens.

Our collective Canadian hands are NOT clean! If we believe otherwise, we are lying to ourselves. And for every hateful word or deed, for every hopeful human being denied a chance to realize that hope, the stains spread and darken. We cannot distance ourselves from the bleeding. We cannot close our borders and turn away the victims of brutality and repression. This isn’t who we are as Canadians … is it?

We – together with the US and Cuba – denied SS St Louis entry to a safe port in 1939. We sent hundreds of Jewish passengers back to Europe, where many of them died in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Surely we’ve grown more civilized since that terrible time? Surely we have …

Reading Facebook this weekend, I’m no longer convinced of our Canadian cohesion in the face of fear. But I can’t generalize. That would be unfair. I’d be guilty of the same narrow-mindedness as those who try to generalize about Syrian refugees. I think most of us are still kind, altruistic, reasonable, humane. I just wish those of us who lack these qualities weren’t quite so loud about it. But in the end, we must inevitably reveal our true character, for good or ill. May the good assume the upper hand. And may we not be afraid, because this is what terror networks aim to do – make us afraid. And then will come other emotions. Fear makes us turn on each other. It fractures our unified stance against a common enemy. No wonder ISIL is pressuring us to do this. “Divide and conquer” is an approach as old as humanity.

But division can never bring peace. That has to start from within. We can’t let go of each other. We can’t break our own civil society into fragments. There will always be someone waiting to take advantage, poised and ready to hide in the spaces between. We must not allow this. Not ever.

Musings on Moving …

Selling a house, and moving everything out of it, can teach us some valuable lessons about people – including ourselves. We learn what we’re made of! We discover which members of our personal circle most value and support us. We uncover inner resources that catch us by surprise. Through the course of the transition, our perspectives shift and waver. Our vision blurs and sharpens. Depending on our ages. we might exclaim, “This wasn’t so bad – now I know better for next time!” or “I will never move again until they carry me out in a pine box!”

First things first, however: our mainstays and companions for the duration. Without them, we simply couldn’t make it. They’re the ones who arrive on our doorsteps, or provide us with behind-the-scenes assistance, even when they stand to gain nothing. They just want to be there, either in person or otherwise, with a word or gesture of encouragement. A friend or family member will pitch in to wrap dishes or pack kitchen goods. Or volunteer to pet-sit. Or clean out the garage. Or haul trash to the dump. Or just share a positive message at the end of a hard day, maybe a Facebook joke, perhaps just a “thinking of you” text when it really counts. Not everyone can be physically present. The older we get, the less strength we have. The less mobile we are. But kindness takes many forms. An upbeat and thoughtful note puts extra bounce in our steps. It means someone cared enough to share a moment of his or her day – just for us.

In the case of a short-distance move, someone might bring a truck and load it with bulkier and more awkward items – drawers, footstools, chairs, framed art. Things that aren’t quite heavy enough to leave for the moving van but too substantial to shove in a car. Things we want to see safely transported because of their sentimental or familial value. Some people actually enjoy having a hand in this sort of thing. An acquaintance will drop off a steaming mug of coffee and a stack of cardboard boxes left from his or her own move. Someone else will bag up clothing – a very painful experience for a recently-bereaved or newly-separated homeowner, or a parent whose grown children are now gone off to their own destinies – and take it to a local charity or pickup site. The possibilities extend from one horizon to the other. Human charity does begin at home and in the home.

We also find out who’s mainly at the edges of our lives, and can be counted on not to materialize or communicate even when the need becomes obvious. “Call if I can help,” some will casually remark, knowing we never will. Or emails and private conversations will fall silent. Messages once exchanged on a daily basis will suddenly stop. It’s as if the usual senders are afraid of what we might ask. They shouldn’t be. Most of us are too proud and/or stubborn to ask for anything! We can hope, maybe, but we’re also realistic. These no-shows can include some folks we’ve always considered to be right there with us, every step of the way. It can be disappointing to find out otherwise – but that, too, is valuable knowledge. And we should never impose on someone else’s presumed ties to us, nor on their time. This, too, is inconsiderate. We cannot expect people to simply drop everything for us, not even if we’ve previously done it for them. People have commitments; illnesses strike; things change. It isn’t always a tit-for-tat deal. Both sides of the equation aren’t necessarily equal. And it’s not going to make us any happier if we keep a tally of good deeds unacknowledged or favours unreturned.

Still, half the secret of living successfully is knowing whom to trust – and this rebounds on us, too. We need to stare at the mirror and reflect on the person we see in it. We can hardly ask, “Where are you? I need you!” if the response will be, Well, where were YOU when I needed you? We must be worthy of trust. The first stone can’t be tossed through that mirror unless it shows a perfect image. In other words, we can’t even pick up a single pebble.

Then there are the homeowners for whom moving is intensely private and personal. They don’t wish to have others involved in it. They much prefer the do-it-yourselves technique. Some associations with various household goods might not be happy ones. There could be questions which the owners don’t want to hear, let alone answer. The reasons for the move could be the result of tragedy, marital disruption, financial hardship or some other unfortunate occurrence. In such cases, there’s an element of tent-folding, so that in the end, it becomes possible to “silently steal away”, as Longfellow suggests. At the end of the day, departure is fraught with both regret and release.

Yet there are those precious few who do mean it when they offer help, and hope to be approached. They truly want to be called, and they will come. In fact, they won’t even wait to be called. They’ll see our vehicles in the yard and know we’re home and hard at work. We’ll begin a day of packing, then notice them pulling into the driveway. “What would like us to do?” they’ll ask, then do it. Our relief and gratitude might well extend to hugs and tears. For the truly stiff-necked among us, who simply cannot seek assistance, this intervention comes as an immense and therapeutic boon to body and soul.

Often, these impromptu sidekicks reap some of the goodness they’re sowing, because they might well leave with useful stuff we don’t wish to carry to another location – small appliances, books, decorative items. Candles and boxed foods and area rugs. Table lamps and flower pots. Whatever catches their attention in the process of being helpful! Whatever we’re happy to offer by way of a thank-you gift. Everyone walks away happy. This, too, is a blessing all around.

Although the above is a generic piece, and not necessarily relevant to my present circumstances, I am in the middle of selling a house and clearing out. My husband has passed away and, since we had two properties – town and country – I can’t possibly manage both. So the town place will be passed to another family. It’s a lovely home and I’m sad to leave it behind but there’s little choice. It’s imbued with David’s spirit. I hope he will be content to wander in my country gardens now. He enjoyed those too. I have chosen to dwell in a modest place where nature is close and quietness surrounds me.

We’ve been party to something like thirty real estate transactions so far, both as sellers and buyers. With David or solo, I’ve spent a rather nomadic existence by times. Land, a woodland cabin or two, country places, town properties, building lots … we’d acquire them, enjoy them, sell them as our situations changed and hope to break even if not make a bit extra. We once had to move my mother from her home to ours, when she became too infirm to live there alone. Let’s just say that was an interesting experience, because she was a packrat and she and my father never threw away anything.

Out of that particular undertaking has grown a healthy skepticism when it comes to saving stuff – yet, well, I still do it. I’m my mother’s daughter, all right. My husband, having grown up in extreme poverty, was also inclined to collect possessions. Combine two people of similar habits and you create a house-moving monster! We’re made, not born that way. When I finally head for another stage of my own journey, my own daughter will be faced with all my leftovers. I hope she’ll find something she can keep, cherish and hand down to her descendants. I guess everyone wishes for this. We save because someday, somehow, we pray that we will be remembered through our material legacies. These are far less important, however, than the other kind, the intangibles – qualities of character, expressions of kindness, acts of selfless love and concern. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. (1 Timothy 6:7)

So today is yet another in the necklace hung around my throat, a bead to be counted off as each task concludes. When all is finished, I will tuck away the empty thread of this year’s memories. It has been a difficult passage through the Valley of the Shadow. Still, light falls on the mountains and illumines the path beyond. I remain grateful for what I’ve been given, for all whom I love, for those who care about me as well. I’ll close with Longfellow’s poem, from which my earlier quotation has been taken. The “day” stands for me as a symbol of all that we do, of all that is now, but cannot continue except through some kind of transformation. The sun moves to another part of the world. We welcome a cessation of the brighter hours with their demands and obligations. The onset of darkness is merely our respite from care.

The Day is Done
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of night
As a feather wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:

A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of the day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of time.

For, like the strains of martial music,
Their mighty throughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor;
And tonight I long for rest.

Read from the humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read the treasured volume
The poem of my choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.


			

Wedding Weekend …

Yesterday, August 29, 2015, my Facebook news feed was sewn together with weddings! Summer holidays conclude in hope and celebration. I don’t get to witness many marriage ceremonies now – at least, not personally. Last one was my daughter’s. Part of the downside, I suppose, of having a small family and also growing older. But that’s okay, because my imagination takes me where my body cannot. I imagine the festivities, the beaming couples, the toasts and streamers and baskets of cards. The music and above all, the laughter that ascends to some special heaven set aside for beginnings.

I hover, invisible among the pillars or stained-glass windows or tents and gazebos and lattices. Nobody knows I’m there, but I am, sending out whatever good wishes my ethereal self can manage. I used to be an occasional wedding singer (another casualty of time). My song these days is one of thanksgiving for commitment, community, courage and faith.

So if you were one of yesterday’s – or any day’s – most fortunate brides or grooms, I wish you a long and varied journey of growth and discovery. I don’t wish you endless bliss and delirious love, because those are unrealistic expectations. Such intense feelings rise to their peak and then diminish in the realities of simply getting by. Paying bills, buying groceries, paying more bills. Facing disappointments, appreciating successes. Keeping a house of welcome and safety. Raising children with all their quirks, promises and challenges. Planting a tree, building a future. Sitting at hospital bedsides, holding hands at funerals, moving bags and baggage from place to place. Putting a “for sale” sign on one lawn; removing a “sold” sign from some other lawn. Missing absent friends and parents. Sucking in a deep breath the first hour of that new job. Hugging each other on retirement day.

Eventually, you find yourselves looking in the mirror and wondering how those grey-haired faces got there. You weep for the bitter loss of some dreams, and for the overwhelming realization of others. You reach an understanding that marriage embraces change – constant and continual change. You can no more stop that process than you can shrink yourselves back to nursery school. Nor would you want to do that.

And every now and then, something will catapult you backward across the years. It might happen when you need it most. Fate has a way of sending messages. Suddenly, you might be reminded of why you’re married to this one chosen person; of what you believed when it all started. This little nudge can be as mundane as opening a book, where a spare wedding invitation has marked your place for decades. Finding in a drawer, carefully-wrapped with plastic, a sugar rose from your fancy cake of long ago. Or a faded corsage. Or a crinkled program with the names of everyone you loved then, and still love now – printed forever.

You’ve selected this road to follow. You might have chosen another, but that wasn’t part of your destinies. As Robert Frost reflects, your decision will make “all the difference” to you both. You, in your own turn, stand to make differences to someone else. We all do. May your promises be joyous in their fulfillment.

Congratulations, best of luck, mazel tov!

With Regard to Irregardless (and other date-match considerations)

   Recently, I’ve been following an internet meme that suggests one should not consider a partner whose language usage includes nonstandard diction. In this case, the word in question happens to be irregardless – clearly not acceptable in formal speech or written work, yet often used informally. The meme implies that a potential date must be able to use irregardless correctly in a sentence. Ironically, to a purist, this would mean never using the word at all, because it hasn’t been accepted into the nonstandard English lexicon. This might happen eventually but it hasn’t yet done so. Irregardless may appear in dictionaries but that doesn’t confer acceptability – merely acknowledgment. It IS a word, just not an especially good one.
   Regardless of other criteria, the prospective mate must be able to use – or avoid – this word before he or she will be deemed worthy of notice. 🙂 The meme is being widely circulated. Clearly, it has pounded a significant nail on the head. Debates over usage and other issues of syntax, mechanics and vocabulary can generate both friction and heat. I’ve refrained from commenting. Personal insults aren’t my thing. It’s astonishing how nasty some grammar mavens can become! Life’s too short – trite but accurate.
   However, there comes a point at which one must take a stand. The meme has shown up once again on my feed. I’ve contained the urge to enter the comments fray on Facebook – but this isn’t Facebook. It’s my own personal space. The time to take a stand is now.
   I’m an English teacher. I’ve been following these irregardless threads – and, indeed, others sharing the theme of language-shaming – with considerable interest despite my refusal to be drawn into them. That having been said, I’ve learned through many years’ experience that correct English usage and colloquial or nonstandard English usage can function equally well for communication. It depends on a combination of social context and personal background. When I was marking NS provincial English exams, part of our mandate was to determine whether “communication remain[ed] clear” and if this were the case, we were instructed to assign at least a minimal pass to that portion of the marking scheme.
   Having read student essays that were brilliantly-written, with a veritable showcase of fancy language – correctly and effectively used – I know from grammar. Still, some of those essays lacked any power to persuade the reader of anything. There was simply no emotional or intellectual connection. On the other hand, I’ve encountered papers that were liberally sprinkled with spelling and syntactical errors, yet evoked a significant and often-visceral response. One can be fluent but dull. One can be awkward but exciting. The key is the writer’s, or speaker’s, ability to slice to the bone and force an audience to feel that cut. Therefore, it follows that a powerful argument is often described as incisive. Do we pause to red-circle every mistake along the way?
   I have discovered – although I’ve known this since childhood, so perhaps reaffirmed is a better choice – that people whose speech includes grammatical boo-boos can be highly intelligent, insightful and imaginative. They can also be well-educated but not necessarily attentive to linguistics. I’ve met a fair number of scientists and several doctors whose casual-conversation skills were, to put it mildly, deficient. I’ve also chatted with grade-ten dropouts who could have put a PhD candidate to shame when it came to clear, cogent and creative speech.
   Some folks, however, have never been given much of an opportunity to master the niceties of mechanics, except in the local garage. More than a few are bicultural and may have grown up speaking Frenglish (or Spanglish, or whatever else combines two different tongues). This combination incorporates some peculiar diction choices. I find their speech quirky and colourful. Yet it is easily understood. Then there are those who struggle with dyslexia or some other speech/language disability. Once we begin to dismiss a human being’s worthiness on the basis of grammatical perfection – even in fun! – we gradually lose the capacity to accept variation. One of my most memorable students, from many years ago, was so severely dyslexic that he required transcription of everything he wanted to write. He could dictate entire essays during exams, organized and developed in his head, on the spot! He could discuss Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Harper Lee and Hemingway with obvious awareness of their contributions to art and literature. He was probably one of the brightest young men I’ve ever taught.
   I believe he’s a landscape architect now. I’ve lost track of him but that was his goal and I see no reason why he wouldn’t have achieved it. Universities and colleges have come to the realization that certain students may require support during their studies. This support is being provided. The onus remains with the student, however, in terms of mastering course material and producing work of merit. Otherwise, capable but not-necessarily-routine thinkers would be set aside. The losses would be ours as well as theirs.
   Poets tend toward verbal oddities as well. We coin words; we shift parts-of-speech. We use adjectives as nouns and nouns as verbs. We’re not above constructing sentence fragments, reversing syntax or playing fast and loose with pretty much every grammatical rule. Most of us do operate from a broad knowledge base when it comes to language. That doesn’t stop us from choosing whatever wonky devices will best serve our purposes.
   Still, there exist certain intellectuals to whom the slightest slip in the writing process is anathema. There are others who seek to understand the individual behind the words. If I were in the “dating market”, I’d look for a compassionate man whose powers of observation are keen and whose mind embraces a vast variety of information. Whether or not he uses irregardless is secondary to his character and behaviour. Whether or not he is educated in a formal sense, he’ll impress me if he’s been educated in the lessons of empathy, loyalty, determination and kindness.
   (Ir)regardless of my own preference, we will each follow our own roads through the language – if not the date-bait – landscape. May each of our journeys bring its desired reward.

Looking Back, Standing Still, Thinking Forward

One month ago today, my husband fell. It was Good Friday, and thus began his descent into the final weeks of his mortal existence. He entered the ER as a man still fighting, angry at fate, determined to get out of there as soon as he could. Sadly, that vital man never left the hospital.

On his darkest day, spring had extended a tentative hand. I’d expected to take him for a rambling drive along the shore, as he so loved to do. Instead, an ambulance bore him away. My drives will be solo now. He will be my unseen passenger, gazing through the windows as the road unfolds and rolls behind me. So much changes in a month!

Today, May 3rd, is one of those mornings when I can truly say, “God’s in His Heaven; all’s right with the world.” Of course, that applies only to my small corner of the world. In Nepal, nothing is right. In Baltimore, the aftermath of devastation will take time to clean up and heal. In many places, life is a struggle and the odds of survival are far lower than our own. We would be foolish to imagine ourselves the center of any universe, great or little.

Still, all I can do is celebrate the sunshine here. Where is Heaven, anyway? Is it a location? A spiritual state? An energy field? Another dimension? If God – either gender – is there, can He or She also be here? Do the two realms overlap? Will those of us in our material bodies ever connect with those who have moved to another form?

Is David wherever Heaven might be located? I’m assuming he’s in a place of rest, grace and healing. He deserves to be. He’d often claimed to be an atheist but he quite probably wasn’t. Agnostic, maybe, unable to know for sure and always up for a lively argument. But not a man in denial: his massive library testifies to his exploration of the vast and distant frontiers of science, history, philosophy, art, religion – everything that stands as testament to humanity’s finer (and lesser) achievements. Everything that makes us look up in awe and wonder. He has his answers now.

At the last, I choose to believe he accepted the existence of another, incomprehensible dwelling-place and of the Power that invited him to be there. He was alert and aware when matters of the soul were shared with him. His dear friend, John Symonds, sensed the strength of his acceptance. David had no voice, no movement, nothing but his eyes and ears. He had been reduced to vision and sound – the basics, his mind no longer concerned with food or drink or any other physical act. So he saw and he heard – watched and listened. That was enough, I think.

Who else might have been present in that room? His father, whom he never knew? His mother, with whom he needed to reconcile? His old friends long gone? The shouting boys of his childhood, the companions of his middle years? Whose faces were in the group assembled to lead him home?

In the end, he chose to leave for that unknown realm and departed in peace. Today as I work in the gardens, David will be in my thoughts. He so enjoyed his zero gravity chair, where he’d read and listen to the river. Cash was inevitably curled in the grass beside him. Gollum – who adored David and perhaps is with him again – slept in his little grave not far away. Nothing and no one is ever truly lost. This morning, I’ll walk across this bit of land and tend my flowers. I won’t be alone. The knitting of the heart’s bones will be slow. But they will knit in time.

funeral 3

On Doing

“What an adventure my life has been!” – Napoleon Bonaparte

One of the crucial questions often posed on ALS sites reads like this: “What would you do while you still could?”

I often think about this. What, indeed? We’re all gifted with time and capability – until suddenly, the gift is withdrawn. A moment missed, an event planned and never carried out, an invitation refused. These are gifts not unwrapped. But there’s no refund for returning them. They’re just gone.

On the day my husband fell, we were anticipating a lovely drive in the early-spring sunshine. He has always enjoyed going to Sandford, seeing which boats were in (or out), meandering along Main Shore Road, parking on Port Maitland wharf across from the breakwater. We’d stop at Edna’s Bakery for tarts and fresh-sliced bread. As his disease advanced, he knew that most of it would be uneaten, except by me, but the scents were delirious! When a man can’t swallow food, his nose must provide a substitute experience. Nothing beats the olfactory “high” of bread straight from the oven.

That drive will never be taken now. A stumble – and everything changes. We’ve been well aware this was coming. ALS destroys mobility, one way or another. Falls, limb dysfunction and atrophy, or both combined. The neurons die and their tiny sparks fade. Anyone with a neurodegenerative disease will recognize this forward lurch toward stillness. For some, it happens quickly. For others, it is a slower part of the process. But inevitably, the critical point arrives.

So the gifts handed to us must be taken out of their boxes as soon as they’re received; appreciated and enjoyed. As the old Nike slogan goes, “Just do it!” Take an extra jaunt into unfamiliar territory. Spend a few nights on the road somewhere. Be open to whatever opportunities arise. Seek out friends of long standing, renew acquaintances, laugh together. Remember those who have always been there, through the darkness and the dawn, and cherish their company. Give yourself and your days to the people who stand to lose most from your absence. Allow them to keep pace with your journey, because you can’t go back again.

David was blessed to discover a companion named Gary from his long-ago childhood in the south of England. He has kept in touch with this man for a few years now. Of all our friends, only a few can know us as we were from the beginning. We scatter like wayward dandelion fluff on the wind. We might end our days without ever seeing or speaking with a single person who climbed trees with us, ran beside us on the beaches of our youth, went to camps and on school outings and off to college together. Swapped stories and traded the exciting secrets of adolescence. It is no surprise that for many older folks, recent memory erodes while recollections from past decades spring clearly to mind. They’ve worn the deepest grooves in our psyches. We speak of the ’40s or ’60s, of classic cars that were new when we first saw them, of old warriors and movie stars, politicians and adventurers – most of them dust now. Most of them unremembered by the young.

What would you do? Take a course in a subject that’s always interested you. Study a new language. Sign up for a cruise or hike to some unknown place. Read more. Learn a skill – garden, make wine, create art. Write or sing or skip down the country lanes of the heart. So what if you skip slowly? That merry girl or lively boy inside your head is going to enjoy it!

When you’re lying in a hospital bed or confined to a wheelchair, surrounded by machinery that gasps and rattles and whooshes as it sustains you, make sure you regret nothing. Do it while you still can! Celebrate wherever you are right now. Unwrap every gift – including the weirdest ones – and toss away the boxes.

Even if something breaks into a thousand fragments, the sunshine will turn those pieces to a glitter on the grass, the jewels of your own history. The mosaic unique to you, which nobody else can assemble.

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

– Edna St. Vincent Millay