The Pleasure of My Company

I’m getting older now and I’ve had to concede to making a few changes. One of them is slowing down, and here’s the thing I’ve learned about that: slowing down admittedly means that you get less done. But on the flip side, it also means that you see more. That’s just common sense. When you’re meandering, you actually get a feel for the landscape as opposed to the dizzy blur you get through the windshield when you’re tearing down the highway. Slowing down is…well, lovely. There is so much to see.

Another thing that I have had to acknowledge lately is my need to be alone. I’ve always needed that time, since as far back as I can remember. But the need has become, for lack of a better word, urgent as of late. This need to be alone does not for one moment signify a desire to withdraw from my family and friends, or a distaste for their company. It simply means that I need to pay a bit of attention to my own company, such as it is.

I’m in the final laps of my career, and my kids are grown, for the most part. Reacquainting myself with my self had better be a priority for this next phase, or I am going to be in for rough ride. It seems perfectly natural and right, to honour myself and take this time. It doesn’t have to be for days on end, or even hours, for that matter. Half an hour often suffices. A little sit-down with a book in a restaurant, a meal for one. A drive down to the park on a lunch break with some music and a water view. A bubbly bath and some candles. Some time with my piano on those rare opportunities when I am alone in my house. A drowse in the lounge chair on a windy, warm autumn afternoon. Singing with the Eagles on a moonlit drive down the highway after dropping a daughter after the weekend.

I’ve never been one of those types who can’t bear to be alone for five minutes. Although I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being anti-social, I honour the moments when I am. There’s a lot to be said for an uninterrupted thought, singing at the top of your lungs, laughing out loud when no one else is around. For thinking that maybe, I can be my own best friend.

Moonlight

My mother is a television hater. But she comes from a long line of music lovers. My growing up years had a soundtrack. Mom  loved stuff like Connie Francis and Glen Campbell and James Last. Johnny Cash was another favourite–I have a clear memory of my younger brother and I repeatedly acting out Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Hound as it blared out of the record player. But aside from these trendy tunes of the times, Mom had a special love for classical music, passed down to her by her own mother, who was an organist, and sang as an alto in choirs. I still have (and have used) my grandmother’s Messiah score that marked her years of choral singing back in Holland when she was young.

My mom played classical tunes out of an eight-track player. Most of the tapes had on them a mix of  well-known classical favourites, including my personal treasure, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 14, more popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata.

I must have worn the magnetic strip right out of that cartridge. I played the Moonlight over and over. I would lay on the rug next to the speaker and let the haunted melody wash through me, over me, around me, trying to absorb it into every molecule of my being. It was full of  nameless sadness, tragedy. It tasted of my own tears. I loved it, wrenchingly. I daydreamed to it. I wrote poetry to it. It was the background tune of many a night’s dreams.

As I listened, I started to think of music as a secret code. Beethoven must have had this enormous feeling that went beyond what any words could ever express. He had to communicate it to someone, even if they wouldn’t be born until hundreds of years after his time. It didn’t matter, as long as someone, somewhere, some time, got the message. And here I was, twelve years old in the early 1970’s, laying on a rug next to a speaker with my mom yelling at me not to lay so close; it would hurt my ears. And I was the one. Message received, Mr. Beethoven. Message received, and my heart is breaking deliciously, for all of your unworded torment.

There was no piano in my house, just an old pump organ. There was no money for music lessons, even if the piano had been there. Yet, I wanted so badly to play the piano. I remember stomping on the organ’s pedals and pressing those wooden gizmos back with the outsides of my knees, pulling out the stops, anything that would get more loud out of the organ. Nothing could give it piano sweetness, but at least, the keys were there, and all the notes, even though they didn’t sound right. I found a few of the Moonlight notes on it, but my fingers fumbled over the clumsy keys and through the sound of the wheezing foot pedals.

Many years later, my husband rescued an upright Heintzman piano from a school hallway, where it had been parked, mute and dusty, for years. He moved it in the livingroom for my birthday. When I arrived home from work that day, I glanced in and there it was. My whole body smiled. I went in, sat down, lay my fingers on the keys. It answered me with the sweetest sound. It knew me.

I taught myself to play in my own limited way. I had hours of entranced pleasure out of that little piano. But, I could not read music. And as the years went by, I got tired of longing for that. I knew the money could be used for other things with bigger purposes, but I got over it and decided to take piano lessons. My dear friend, also (luckily for me) an incredible musician and amazing piano teacher, took me on as a student.

I had taught myself so many bad habits. My fingers, although so happy, were all wrong. And I was terrified of the bass clef. My teacher carefully and gently took on the task of teaching and encouraging me. I ordered sheet music for the Moonlight, and gasped when it came. It was impossible.

“Of course, you can do this,” my friend-teacher calmly told me, and one aching bar at a time, we did. It’s two years later, and I can play the Moonlight Sonata. Dreadful, ghastly mistakes abound. Cringing errors and awful stumbles. My divine teacher doesn’t so much as wince, although she is certainly entitled.  But, every so often, I get through a few bars without an accident, and there, in those moments, is Beethoven, nodding ever so slightly.

Attempting to play the Moonlight has me listening to it even more. In the mornings as I drive to work with my IPod synched into the sound system, I have come to understand that the piece is not always bathed in moonlight. Sometimes, it is embodied in the rising sun, sending brilliant shafts of light through red leaves. Sometimes, it is mist settling in fields of golden stubble. Sometimes, it is a sky filled with the call of geese, turning southward.

The Moonlight Sonata will always remain the soundtrack for all achingly beautiful, melancholy days, where joy and sadness mysteriously intersect.

To My Loyal Fans, Even Though You Can’t Read

Small children can make you feel a lot of different things. Exhausted, is one thing that comes to mind. Frazzled, that’s definite. Dizzy, dazed, overcome….but one thing they will just not allow you to feel is depressed. For me, it’s impossible to be sad around little kids. They ooze joy and sparkle. They are like short, two-legged tonics. If they didn’t tire me out so completely, I would want to be around them 24-7. Since that is not practical or advisable at my age, I will happily accept small doses.

Today, a theatre troupe came to my school to perform a play called “Cinderella’s Frog Prince.”  My vice-principal had requested (well, let’s be honest–she begged) that I perform the role of storyteller. The role was demanding:  I had to wear a gigantic goofy hat and sit on a gigantic block and hold up a gigantic storybook and read the script wherever it was highlighted. (Interesting aside:  Fairy godmother was spelled “fairy g-dmother.”  The playwrite was Jewish and was not permitted by his faith to write the word “God.”) At the last moment, I was told that I would have to do an introduction before the play.

Ugh. It’s one thing to hide under a giant hat and behind a giant book. It’s quite another to stand in front of a gym filled with staff and students in nothing but your street clothes on a not-so-great hair day. I hid behind the set until the dreaded moment arrived. Then, I came out and started walking to the front of the crowd.

All the little Junior and Senior Kindergarten students were sitting in the front row. The moment they saw me, forty arms flew into the air. Every one of them was waving at me like I was Justin Bieber. The funniest thing is, kids are so egocentric at that age that they thought my wave back was directed at each one of them personally.

Really, they transform me. When they first come to the lab for computers or I go in to do a science lesson in their classroom, I am this weary, droopy forty-eight year old lady. But they look at me with their sparkling eyes and try to snatch hugs from me as I walk by, or they tell me I smell nice, or that I am the prettiest teacher. My God, they really mean it! I feel like a princess when I am with them. Their love is so unconditional, and so trusting, and so…blind!

In spite of the pitfalls (for example, the pee puddle around the chair in the computer lab yesterday, not to mention hearty sneezes without kleenexes), those kids have so often been an oasis in the middle of often discouraging days.

Thank you, to my fans. I would be nothing without you.

October Woods

Today was one of those days when summer and fall collide. The best of both seasons, mingled together in warm sunshine, drifting cabbage moths, vagrant cool breezes, and trees ablaze in fiery orange.

I headed into my favourite woods this afternoon, dressed in short pants and a tank top. My sweater ended up knotted around my waist. I let the last rays of a summery sun soak into my skin and warm my scalp.

The sky was clear, and the grass under its carpet of papery leaves was summer-green. Some of the trees were still untouched by autumn. Others looked as though they had erupted into orange flames. The sumac was just starting to flush, and the ditches were filled with goldenrod and something nameless and brilliantly purple. That musty smell of fallen leaves was everywhere. It’s a pleasing aroma, much more subtle than the fragrance of blossoms that perfumes the air in the spring. It is the smell of something finished, something transformed. There is a hint of apple musk in it. Even the wind in the leaves has a different sound–a dry rasp. A knowing whisper. It speaks of lingering, fading, and falling.

In the spruce grove I like to call “The Church,” the sunlight dappled through the trees and flickered on the forest floor, thickly carpeted with a throw of soft brown needles. My feet were soundless there. There is always a holy hush in that place, where even the birds settle into silence.

Near the end of the hike, I made my way down the grassy bank to the creek bed. Sun on water; can one ever tire of watching that sparkling communion? Water flowing over rocks, a gurgling song, with occasional surges of quiet bird twitter. I let the clear creek water run over my hands until the chill made my fingers ache.

My woods has a new definition of beauty every time I visit there. It offers a different message for each season. Autumn is its clearest.

Spring anticipates, wells up, and bursts into bloom. Autumn opens its arms and spills out harvest. It succumbs to colour, then bows its tired head and gives thanks. It accepts.

I could not live happily in a place with no seasons. This is my favourite one.

Best Part, #1

After school today, our school’s social worker came into the library and told me about the best part of her day. She is planning an empathy skills experience for students, and the keynote “speaker” is a real-life baby. The guest baby is the infant daughter of a staff member and our social worker went over to the baby’s house to meet her. She talked about how long it had been since she’d held a baby, about the cute little line of baby chub between the baby’s diaper and her little shirt, and her sweet little grin.

Then, she asked me. “What was the best part of your day?” It kind of stumped me. It’s not something I think about, really. However, perhaps it is something I should be thinking about. I’ve done things like gratitude journals before, and it really does create a shift in attitude, over time. Being consciously thankful wakens awareness, makes you more watchful, forces you to think about the little things that bring contentment, or even surges of joy.

I might have forgotten the best part of my day, if she hadn`t asked me that question. But now, I can report that the best part of my day came right after the bell went at 9:00 this morning. Dillan and Carrera, Grade Two students, came into the library with their class`s books for me to check in, and right after they unloaded their heavy cargo onto the table, the introductory notes of a techno version of O Canada came blaring over the intercom. Up came their shoulders as they shot into attention. I expected them to stand there, rigid and silent, through the anthem until the last techno chords faded out. But instead, after the intro, what they did was sing. And I don`t mean that wimpy, tentative, shy lisp-singing you would expect from two little kids standing with a teacher in a library. These two bellowed out O Canada in perfect tune. They sang with gusto. Which in turn made me sing with gusto. When they got to the last two notes, I cautiously dropped an octave, even though there are no windows in my library to shatter. Not those two. Up the scale they went, without batting an eye. Clear as a bell, Foooor Theeeeee…..!

These two kids could sing an entire arena or stadium into patriotic bliss. When they finished, it was just the three of us in an empty library. There should have been wild cheering and roaring applause from the masses!

“You kids are awesome singers!” I gushed.

They shrugged. “See you at library time,”  they said, heading out the door.

Stay tuned for Best Part, # 2. I can`t wait for it to happen.

I Got This

 

It’s been four and a half years since my son was diagnosed with Type One Diabetes. He was eleven years old at the time.

I guess every parent who goes through something like this with their kid has an experience that is uniquely devastating. I remember reading through a book of  journal entries describing diagnosis experiences when we were sitting in the hospital through that first awful week. Most of those stories began with children feeling a slow decline over a period of several weeks or months, resulting in dramatic weight loss by the time a diagnosis was made.  My son did not lose an ounce. Diabetes seemed to happen overnight. One day, he was fine, and the next, he was drinking non-stop, straight from the tap and getting up every hour through the night to pee. This started at the beginning of March Break.

It took a few days for us to admit that there was a serious problem. Any parent who has to face the fact that their kid is sick has a brief period of denial. It was when my husband and I took him for a hike and he wandered a little ahead of us that we talked, in hushed voices, about how we both knew something was wrong. We could see it in his face. Dark pits under his eyes, a terrible pallor. Still, over the next few days, we started playing that game that worried people play…He looks a little better today. He’s not drinking as much as he did yesterday. He’s eating well. Maybe it’s some weird virus. Let’s give it a few days. We had planned an overnight to Niagara Falls over the Break, and our son was really looking forward to it. So, we went. Before we left, we made our doctor’s appointment.

He had a great time in the wax museums. One of his older sisters came along and they spent a lot of time in the hotel pool. Watching him have fun made me relax a little. Listening to him beg for juice and water every ten minutes made me worry again. We went through those relax/worry/relax/worry/ cycles over the next few days leading up to his doctor’s appointment.

We knew before the doctor sent us to the lab. Ridiculous thirst is a well-known symptom of diabetes. I can’t remember the moment it occurred to me, but I think I knew it deep down all along.

I was back at school when the call came in. They had the lab results. The receptionist told me that a normal blood sugar reading was between 4-7. My son’s number was 56. We were to take him to the diabetes clinic in a nearby city immediately.

They were so good to us at the clinic. My son held up bravely until he had to have his first insulin shot. They gave it to him with a syringe and he broke down. That was the only time. They showed us how to load the needles. I had considered, at one time, becoming a nurse but decided against it because I had a horror of needles. I remember going to bed (which was pointless, because sleep was no friend of mine that first night with diabetes in our house) wondering how I would ever be able to take care of my son. I would have to find a way.

My husband had no problem rising to the challenges. He had the needles figured out in no time and he took care of the injections over the next day. My son had to be needled a minimum of four times a day. Soon, it would be my turn. I had to stab my son in the arm with a needle and I had to do it without letting him know that his mother was centimetres away from utter hysteria. And it wouldn’t be just once. My kid would need insulin every day for the rest of his life. My mind boggled at the thought of it, simultaneously with my heart breaking.

We had to be at the clinic for three days. Most families generally have to travel back and forth for a week, but my husband caught on so quickly; they graduated us early. Somewhere in those three days, I managed to shove the needle into my kid’s arm. I’ve shoved thousands of sharp objects into him since. And to think I gave up my nursing dream over needles.

My son has gone from syringes to insulin pens to an insulin pump. Aside from putting the sites into his stomach (I am still the head nurse in that department), he has pretty much figured out all the other aspects of his disease and he manages fine.

It took me two years to sleep without waking up to check on him in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I still wake to the crack of light under his door, the sound of his lancet clicking as it pokes a new hole into his finger for a blood check.

“You low?” I ask, going into his room.

“I got this,” he tells me.