A moment at the cottage

I wrote this piece at my friend Dana’s cottage last summer…. reading it again makes me even more anxious to get back there this summer!

 

I am away from home, and I am doing nothing. No clocks to shout reminders about meal times, no washing machine, spitting out the next wet load, no phone ringing, no children to get from Point A to Point B. Just me, and nothing to do.

Waves curling against sand, and a blue sky swept with clouds. Birds twitter, leaves rustle. My mind is quiet. On any other day, it’s like a factory in there–a grinding, whirring, droning, and noisy cacophony, an assembly line that never slows down. Today, it’s like an empty church with the window open, and I sit alone inside, having occasional complete thoughts. They come to light on my shoulder where they remain, briefly, before flitting off again.

The hammock rocks slightly, as the wind happens past. A hummingbird, tiny and fragile, stills its wings for a moment as it balances on a twig, before it is launched aloft in the sound of its own whirring wings. I stretch my legs, observe my toes. I close my eyes and imagine myself afloat and drifting on the calm lake, watching the orange sun drop down, breathing out its last colours over the undersides of the clouds, across the darkening waves. Swallows wheel, cardinals call, from far away. The doves cry softly, from dark places.

This is how I remember the days drifting past, when I was little. This total essence of being contained, drifting sweetly from one moment to the next, like being carried along in a shimmering bubble that never breaks. A feeling of being nothing more and nothing less than yourself, a part of everything, and yet entirely your own self. Connected and alone.

The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. Joan Didion

 

“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion caught my eye when I was contendedly browsing in Chapters on an ordinary afternoon over the Christmas holidays. The title immediately caught my interest, so I picked the book up on a whim and bought it. This is very unusual behaviour for me. I have a careful process that I follow when purchasing reading material, and if it doesn’t pass my quality control, it doesn’t get to the register.

I find that as I have gotten older, I’ve become more and more particular about my reading material. Time is precious. I am looking for the messenger in the pages, and if the message is “here’s a good way to fritter away a couple of hours,” then I am not buying. That’s what television is for (although I will admit to relishing the occasional rare-find movie or cleverly-written series).

As I began to read, it was apparent from the opening pages that this book was going to show me, in stark clarity, a woman, in the midst of her ordinary life, who was, in an instant, yanked from it, never to return. Here is the scene, in my own words. A man is enjoying his second pre-dinner drink while his wife tosses a salad. A fire is crackling in the fireplace. They are chatting. Then, they are not. The reason for the sudden silence is that the man has, in the middle of a sentence, been struck dead with a massive coronary. Instantly. The rest of the book deals with the author’s secret inner life–the one in which she waits for him to come back, even while recognizing with her rational mind that this would never be possible.

What is most fascinating to me about the ordinary is that it is so fragile and so temporary. It simply cannot be contained or held. Not only can ordinariness never be experienced in the same way by two different people; it can never remain the same, even in the context of only one. What is ordinary to me today may not have been so a year ago, nor will it be a year from now. And when human beings are stricken with terrible tragedy, they spend the rest of their lives fumbling and struggling to find another definition of it, and many simply never do. But the desire is there. Perhaps a more accurate descriptor would be desperation. An urgent wish to return to what is normal, to what is familiar, to what is safe.

Since I was a small child, I confess that I have been something of a peeping tom. When I am driving at night, or taking a walk, I like to see glimpses of strangers’ ordinary lives framed in lit windows–a couple sitting in companionable silence in front of the television, a girl carrying a cat past the window, a woman pouring tea in the kitchen. Tiny little cameos of ordinariness; they bring such comfort, and such hope.

People who have had their ordinary lives yanked from under them know something that the rest of us don’t. Unless we are living in the moment, ordinary life is an illusion that we use to lull ourselves to sleep at night. We are presumptuous creatures by nature. Caught in the rhythm of daily patterns and perceptions, we come to believe that every day will be like any other. We complain of boredom, of monotony, of listlessness. What we don’t realize is that, while we have it, we have our hands wrapped around the most priceless of earthly gifts–a gift that cannot possibly last forever. A gift that, once lost, we would trade even portions of our time on earth for, if we could only have it back.

Waiting for the Messenger

I wrote this piece last New Year’s Eve….

The idea of the extraordinary happening in the context of the ordinary is what’s fascinating to me.

Chris Van Allsburg, children’s author and artist (Jumanji, The Polar Express)

 

New Year’s Eve. As is typical for this ordinary person, New Year’s Eve is just like any other ordinary night. We always stay home on December 31st. Even one of my daughters elected to stay home tonight, sick to death of party after party. We ordered a pizza and sat down in front of the TV.

I waited all day for the messenger–that random stranger that could cross my path at any moment with enlightenment. But, I had to concede, it is unreasonable to expect a message every single day, ordinary or otherwise.

Then the doorbell rang.

I had my money ready for the pizza delivery person. I grabbed it and pulled the door open.

There stood a tall, thin man, wild grey hair poking out from under a tall top hat, in which was decked a bough–actually, it was more like a sprig, of holly, flourishing a red take-out bag and demanding, “Where is your DOG?”

Well, it’s about time! And where have you been all day?” I wanted to proclaim, but instead, I smiled pleasantly and inquired, “What dog?”

“The dog that is supposed to run barking to the door,” he replied, assuming a catch-the-dog-before-it-gets-out stance. “Every house I have been to tonight has had a dog.”

“Well, all I have to offer is a boy,” I replied, pointing out my son who stood hovering behind me, rapturously inhaling the smell of pepperoni and green peppers.

“Well,” said the man, “He’s not willing to bark every time the doorbell rings, is he?”

My son looked at me in alarm, and then at the red take-out bag….how long was this lunacy going to last? he was wondering. Please, for the love of all that is sacred, just give me some pizza!“Well, we’ll have to be sure to have a dog for the next time you come,” I told him.

The matter of the dog (and absence thereof) being dealt with, the man dug in his pocket for some change, left over from the generous tip I had bestowed upon him, festive hat and all considered. He offered me two loonies, which I took.

“I have a loonie,” he told me, “Where a loon is portrayed, taking off in flight!”

I carefully scrutinized the faces of my loonies. “These two are just floating,” I said.

“Actually,” he continued, “I discovered that it is not actually a loon, but a Canada goose. It was minted in 2006.”

“I will have to keep my eyes open for one,” I replied

“They are very uncommon,” he warned. Then, without missing a beat, he gestured toward the holly on his hat.

“Right out of my garden,” he proclaimed.

“It’s real?” I asked.

“Yes, and after five years, it is finally producing red berries. We have sprigs of it all over our house!”

“How festive,” I replied. “I will have to grow some. It’s beautiful!”

“Happy New Year!” he shouted gustily, as he headed down the steps. I closed the door, to my son’s immense relief, and headed for the kitchen with the pizza. Then, I heard shouting from outside. I rushed back to the door. The holly-hatted man stood on the sidewalk, hollering, “You have to get males and females!”

I stared at him.

“For the holly, you have to have male plants and female plants. One male plant, maybe ten female.”

“Typical,” I replied, rolling my eyes.

“As in life,” he answered, and headed off with his empty red bag.

What’s the message here? I need to get a dog? A rare loonie will soon be passing my palm? I must purchase some holly bushes at the garden centre in the spring? Maybe. Or maybe, it was just…Happy New Year.Maybe on this New Year’s Eve, the universe sent me some wisdom for the coming year…live life with great exuberance and unbridled enthusiasm, no matter what you are doing, even it’s delivering pizzas. Find the novelty and the uncommon in the common and the ordinary. Then, share it.

Maybe, this delivery had little to do with pizza.

My Adventures with a Potato

Some of my friends have read this piece already….but I wanted to include it in my blog.

You can always find a helping hand at the end of your own sleeve.  Zig Ziglar

     A few months ago, on a miserable day, I set off through the downpour to the bank and the grocery store. Errands are errands, and they need to be run, rain or shine.

     An hour and a half later, errands complete, I climbed soggily into my car, and realized that I was ravenous. In the busy-ness of the day, I had not gotten around to lunch. In the distance, the glorious yellow Wendy’s sign beckoned to me, with its promise of a drive-thru ticket out of the kitchen. I didn’t have to think twice.

     Hamburgers are my death-row food. My friends know this. Sitting in my cell in my final hours, and offered my last meal, I would humbly request a Wendy’s hamburger with cheese, ketchup, pickles and extra onions. And a baked potato. Wendy’s makes the most delectable baked potatoes. They are unequalled, anywhere. On a cold, rainy day, the thought of that hot and fluffy baked potato, bursting from its split skin at the top, its cautious amount of butter melting through the white flesh, its sprinkling of salt and pepper, had me drooling from the first moment I joined the lengthy line in the drive-thru.

     I don’t have the best of luck with drive-thru’s. My special-order hamburger, with its specific absences of certain condiments (don’t even show me a squeeze bottle of mayonnaise) and extras of others causes a lot of consternation, no doubt. As does my potato, with its absence of globs of cheese and/or bacon and /or sour cream and/or chili. But perfection in my fast food is so vitally important. I carefully and clearly stated my order into the speaker, and ordered food for the other members of my family, and pulled around. There they were, my friends, my rescuers, passing filled bags to me through my rolled-down window. I thanked them profusely and they wished me a good evening. I wanted to assure them that it certainly would be a good evening, if they had my order right. But I just smiled and drove away.

     Looking at the bags on the seat beside me, I decided that, to enjoy this culinary experience fully, I should eat it in the car, while it was piping hot. The other people at my house, not so discerning as me, would not care in the least if their food was merely warm. It wouldn’t stay in their mouths long enough for them to even notice. I pulled into a parking spot.

     I looked at my icy-cold Coke Zero, perched obligingly in its cardboard tray. I reached past it into the bag, and felt for it….there it was. The straw. They remembered the straw! I poked it into the lid of the cup, and took a long drink. Most satisfactory. Then, I reached back into the bag, and my fingers closed over my hamburger, wrapped (like a Christmas gift, really) in its silvery foil. I unwrapped it with great pleasure. It was beautiful. The cheese was melted to perfection. Long fronds of sweet onions curled out from under the bun. Just the right amount of ketchup, and the pickles….the arrangement couldn’t have been more stunning. I took a bite. Absolutely the best hamburger ever created. Now, to examine the side dish. There it was, steaming in its clear plastic dome. A perfect baked potato. I felt in the bag, and discovered the Becel. They had remembered the Becel! I sighed rapturously, and took the dome off the potato. It smelled so good….I reached back into the bag for my eating utensils. Hmm. They must be at the bottom, stuffed into the corner of the bag, maybe? Oh, dear Lord! Where were the knife and fork in their vacuum-sealed sterile packages???

     A desperate search uncovered nothing. I had a hot potato and nothing with which to spear it. I began to weigh my options. I could wait until I got home, and eat it there. But it wouldn’t be hot any more. Just warm. Just warm was about the same as just ruined. I could run out of the car into the restaurant and grab the utensils. But it was pouring rain.  I could go back into the drive-thru line and order a knife and fork. But there were eight cars in the drive-thru lane. Which translated into a cold baked potato, which I had already decided was not an option. I rummaged through the glove compartment, hoping against hope that there was something in there I could use to shovel hot potato flesh into my mouth. Nothing. Nothing!

     There was little else to do. I looked around me, to see if there was anyone in close proximity that could see into my car. Establishing that the way was clear, I drew the straw out of my drink, scraped the butter out of its little cubicle with it, and began my attempts to eat a hot baked potato, the way a desperate Chinese person might use one chopstick, having broken its mate. The potato was so soft and crumbly; it was impossible to spear pieces of it. I brought the dish up to my face and used the straw to drag potato up to my mouth, all the while, looking for spectators who could use this spectacle, along with their camera phones, to ruin me. In this fashion, I did manage to consume some of the potato. After the first few hits (and there were misses, too), my mouth was burning. I needed my drink. I grabbed it and brought it up to my mouth. No straw! D-uh! I stuck the straw in, but it was crammed with potato, and nothing was getting past it. The drink would have to wait. First, this business of the potato. It had become a mission now, and nothing could stand in its way. The potato would be eaten. The potato would be enjoyed. Viva la spud!

     Arriving home, I climbed decorously from my car, and watched three quarters of the baked potato tumble from my lap into the driveway.

I left it there. The rain would, no doubt, wash all the evidence away.

 

 

 

Kimmie

For several weeks now, I have been wanting to write a few words about Kimmie: best friend in high school–all-night shrieking laughfests, walking up and down the main street of town every Friday night trying to break our honk record from the week before…hours of phone drama, boy obsessions, meltdowns in school washrooms, Zesty Cheese Doritos runs every lunch hour. That was me, and Kimmie. We were close in spirit, and in age, her birthday being the day after mine.

Kim left school after grade 12 to join the work force. I stuck it out for Grade 13 and went to university. How does it happen? You swear up and down that it won’t, but sometimes, it just does. Someone you thought would be your soul’s companion for life ends up being nothing more than a high school memory.  Someone who blunders up through the murky waters of memory and stirs, close to the surface occasionally, causing you to wonder, What ever happened to…?

Years went by. I tried to find out where Kimmie was, once. In July of 1976, Kimmie and I met up with two football players from Voaden, and the four of us had a very memorable summer. The boy I hooked up with promptly dumped me in September (refer to note, re: meltdowns in school washrooms; apparently, on the first day of school he was reminded of how in love he was with the girl he had had a crush on the previous June). He grew up to become a police officer, and shortly after his thirtieth birthday, was gunned down in a parking lot in a small town. He’d left the Toronto force for safer ground–a cruel irony. He had a wife and two small children. When that news came to me, all I could think about was finding Kimmie. It was like no time had passed at all. All I could think about was her voice on the other end of the phone. But I was never able to get ahold of her.

My mother had worked with Kimmie’s mother years ago, and the two of them had maintained some casual contact. So, it was through my mom that I learned of Kimmie’s separation from her husband, and then, eight years later, her cancer diagnosis. There were tumours in Kimmie’s brain and lungs and ribs. The prognosis was not hopeful. Kimmie, who had always loved to work, and was so good at what she did, had to give up her job and her driver’s license. Worse, she had to face some realities as far as her two teenaged daughters were concerned. A few months later, Kimmie collapsed in a parking lot (what is it about parking lots?) while out shopping with her mother. She had had a very serious seizure, which damaged her short-term memory, and put her promptly in the Palliative Care Centre at the hospital. Her room there is where Kimmie and I have renewed our friendship and shared our philosophies of life (which I can tell you, have changed considerably, for my part), and our memories of our younger years.

It’s a strange thing, from my end. Although all of her memories are intact, as far as short-term memory is concerned, Kimmie remembers only the things that she writes down in her notebook. So, she will remember, after re-reading, that I have visited her. But she won’t remember anything of what we talked about. I actually get a chance to do it over again. I can reword something that I didn’t say quite right the first time. Or I can not mention something I reconsider later. Or I can retell a story that made her laugh for five minutes, and get her laughing all over again. It’s like rewinding, editing, replaying. In some way, this terrible affliction is almost a gift.

Good things can always come from bad. If there is one truth I have happened upon over the years, it’s this one. The husband Kimmie had been separated from all those years promptly found his way back into her life again. He takes care of her, their daughters, the house, runs his business. Even though she has met with some opposition over this reconciliation (because there were some rocky spots in that marriage), she is probably happier now than she has ever been in her life.

Sometimes, I think, as Kimmie and I hug good-bye, that it’s a heart-breaking thing, to think you might be saying good-bye to someone for the last time. But then, I realize that this is the truth in any situation with any person. We never know, as we walk through the pages of our lives, when the book is going to slam shut. So it goes.  The present is all there is.

 

Book Club

My life has become wordless. I write daybook pages and grocery lists and emails, and that’s about the sum of my productivity as a writer these days. All the pieces I put on the back burner have now boiled dry…
So, I thought a blog might get my fingers humming across the keyboard again.
We’ll see.

I am reading “A New Earth,” by Eckhart Tolle, in dribs and drabs, and I am thinking I am ready for the next dose. I don’t usually read books like this (they remind me too much of the first-year university philosophy course that I took with such high hopes, so quickly dashed). But this one is alluring and even memorable.

I went on-line today on my lunch and ordered all the books that I will be reading for the Book Club I was just invited to join. The other night, I was at my friend Nat’s house (who is also one of my colleagues from work), watching the premiere of this season’s Canadian Idol. She showed me a copy of a book she was reading for her book club.

“Book Club?” I said, eagerly. I have always wanted to be a member of a book club, imagining laughter and wine glasses, friendly disagreements, and a few pleasant hours outside of work, the grocery store and the laundry room.

“Yes,” she said, happily. “Patty asked me to join!” (Patty being another colleague, with whom I have had several conversations related to books, and up until that moment, had liked very much)! 😉

I was speechless, for a moment. “I like books,” I finally managed to choke out. “Why didn’t Patty ask me to join her book club? Pay no attention to this water on my face. I’m not crying.”

I told Nat not to mention anything to Patty–maybe there was a reason she didn’t want me in her book club. Best to just let it lie. But before the first bell rang at school the next day, Patty was standing at my desk, asking me sheepishly, “So, you wanna join a book club?” Of course I did, and now I am dizzily pondering which book I would like to take, when it’s my turn. There are so, so many, all of them old friends, and beloved in their own ways.