RE-PURPOSING GOD

Long ago, when the extended family gathered, I was often outside talking to “God”. Quite an admission for an atheist, but I mean to make a point. Here it is. The word “God” can be defused, neutered, turned into a harmless verbal icon divorced from the worst of its heavy Christian baggage and re-purposed (if desired) to describe personal feelings of peace and contentment.

These feelings of contentment are what I experienced in my youth only when I removed myself from the cacophony of groups in full party mode. It was all too much: the noise, the competitive voices, the one-upmanship, the raucous joke-telling, the teasing, the endless drinking. Such assaults on the sensibilities were often difficult to bear, and so I removed myself from them. It did not make me popular.

In my youth, the G-word was absolute heresy in my family. You could be the Pope himself, but mention the G-word in our living room and you’d be flayed alive. My mother would not even tolerate a religious Christmas card arriving in the mail. “How dare she send us a card like that!” she would rage. “I’ve a mind to call her up right now and tell her I’m mailing it back!” Thankfully, she didn’t call. She just threw the card out. However, the luckless card-sender was still guaranteed an earful the next time she visited.

Though this reaction of my mother’s seemed extreme to me at the time, I did not seriously question dogmatic thinking. I, too, prided myself on firmness of mind, an attitude which sent me over many of life’s more avoidable cliffs. Addiction, for one. Childlessness, for another. Inflexibility set me at complete odds with the world, which is often tolerant, forgiving and kind if you cut it a bit of slack. Dogmatism gave me chronic depression as I repeatedly tried to fit the world into preconceived molds. Square pegs into round holes, as it were. I wish now that it had not been so, but I’m grateful to have fought my way out of the black-and-white abyss into the sunshine of a much greater tolerance and acceptance. Into relative happiness.

Though I’m less afraid now to say the G-word, I still avoid it, as it nearly always triggers reactions, carrying, as it does, so much negative historical baggage. If I use the word, it certainly doesn’t indicate that I am religious. Nor that I attend church. Nor that I believe in that quaint Anglo Saxon father figure in the sky. It doesn’t mean that I read the Bible or that I’m any kind of formal Christian. These things I will always distrust. To me, knowing “God” simply means being humbled daily by the beauty of the universe and all it contains. It means maintaining a sense of ongoing wonder at the complexity of all life. And when I’m feeling this ongoing humility and wonderment, I feel less alone. I can feel love, and loving makes life sweet.

Now, at the end of maturity, and with this new tolerance, do I see the G-word for what it is – a word! It’s only a word, one to which positive meanings can be ascribed, a word which can be adapted, chucked out entirely, or excised from organized religion and used, in the post-modern world, to express love for the kind of natural beauty that renders one speechless. If we slow down, we can develop such love; we can learn to appreciate the vastness of time and space, or “The whole world in a grain of sand / and heaven in a wild flower”, as William Blake so aptly wrote. As Sagan said, “We are all made of star stuff.” It’s true. We can all develop humility. We can nurture a sustaining, ongoing love for the world and for other people. But it takes mindfulness and practice. And it takes a quelling of ego.

These days, the G-word represents for me a private and personal spiritual experience involving altruistic love, the kind I now experience on a daily basis. It makes growing old endurable, and solitude wonderful. What I know now is that any true understanding of “God” must be fought for, grown toward, grown into. It’s not something that comes at thirteen, or twenty, or even thirty. For me, it came with old age and adversity, not to mention with considerable effort. Now I have it, this calm feeling of interconnection, and “God” knows, I couldn’t do without it.

Odd Reactions: "The King and I"

What an odd reaction!

I’ve just watched a new version of “The King and I”, this one subtitled “From the Palladium”. It’s a televised version of the 2018 London stage production, and it aired Friday on PBS’s Great Performances. I found it unexpectedly marvelous as it was never one of my favourite musicals. However, I sat riveted to my sofa for the whole two hours, revelling in the freshness of the production, the music, the cultural sensitivity, the costumes, the humour, the wonderful acting, singing and dancing. There’s nothing like the London or Broadway stage to breathe new life into “old chestnut” musicals from the 40s and 50s.

However, a strange thing happened to me while watching this performance. During a song I hadn’t even remembered, I suddenly began to cry volubly, startling myself. What on earth was going on? The song was “Something Wonderful”, sung by the King’s “head wife”, Lady Thiang, to Anna, exhorting her to love the irascible King despite his many faults and revealing her own love for him in the process. It’s a profound moment.

I suppose the song triggered my tears on several levels. First of all, Ruthie Ann Miles’ passionate rendition set off goosebumps. Her voice is strong, clear and measured, the lyric even more poignant given that Miles had lost a loved one – her daughter – in a car crash only the year before. Did she think of her daughter as she sang about unconditional love? After all, the word “man” is easily replaced:

This is a man who thinks with his heart
His heart is not always wise
This is a man who stumbles and falls
But this is a man who tries

This is a man you’ll forgive and forgive,
And help protect, as long as you live…
He will not always say
What you would have him say,
But now and then he’ll do
Something
Wonderful.

iM

A second reason for my tears was the strong reminder of my father it triggered. He died in 1992, but for various reasons, I didn’t grieve him properly at the time. Dad loved musicals, his favourite being “Brigadoon”. I remember sitting in a high school audience with him as a teenager, surrounded by my whole family, watching him delight in such songs as “Waitin’ for my Dearie” and “Go Home With Bonnie Jean”. His happiness fueled my own, as I adored him, looked up to him. At that time, Burnaby South Secondary School was noted for its music program, and it was Dad’s friend and colleague, Laurie Lynes, who had been responsible for building it. Dad would have been happy about his friend’s success. I know because he bought the official Broadway album soon after and played it often around the house. Today’s musical brought on an overdue grief.

And finally, of course, I cried out of my present grief, the loss of my wonderful husband eight months ago. His unconditional love for me was the stuff of legend and a constant source of my gratitude.

So I sniffled and wept throughout most of today’s TV performance. Given such a strong and unexpected reaction, I wonder if I could remain composed through any version of “Brigadoon” should it reappear on TV

This Grief Business

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I haven’t posted here for ages. Life got in the way, and also, I was directing my writing elsewhere for a time. Now I’m back, sadder and wiser following a huge life event. To put it baldly, my dear husband of 47 years, and whom I loved desperately, died in April of this year. April 6th, to be exact. At about 9 pm. This has set me reeling, as grief will do. Little did I suspect the extent of what would come.

I thought I’d be okay, given that my darling man had lived in residential care for the past 5 years and I’d been doing lots of grieving as his dementia slowly progressed. I watched him plateau and then drop a notch, plateau again and then drop. It was inexorable, a slow, unkind juggernaut threatening to rip us apart, as it eventually did. There was nothing to be done; the prognosis was always clear, the end guaranteed, given that he also had serious heart disease and a weakened system after colon cancer surgery in 2014. It was horrific to watch his decline, but he never complained, and as long as we could still take car rides five times a week, life was still pretty good. “I’ll be okay when he goes,” I naively thought. “I’ve already done most of my grieving.”

Wrong. Nobody could have prepared me for the tsunami of grief that would overtake me. The worst of it didn’t hit until four months later. Shock protected me for the first three months, not to mention the distraction of funeral arrangements and all the work involved in preparing his Celebration of Life (which was wonderful, by the way). But then! Mood swings, severe crying jags, a loss of purpose, an all-consuming sense of rootlessless never before experienced. Only those who have experienced major loss understand the scariness of grief.

I’m now at month six, and if anything, the grief is worse. Not in its intensity but in its omnipresence. Instead of coming and going in waves, it’s with me always, a deep undercurrent that makes daily life challenging. I’m irritable (my dear brother might say, “So what’s new about that?”), less willing to socialize (brother again…lol), forgetful, angry, lonely, depressed, panicky at times, and even questioning to what extent life is worth living now. These are all perfectly normal reactions according to my readings on the subject. One must traverse all seven stages of grief and there are no shortcuts.

A reasonable timeline for grief following a major loss is 2-3 years, the experts say, and I’ve talked with friends whose grief has indeed lasted that long. I’ve also learned that one must be proactive about the process by talking about the deceased, finding grief groups, leaning on friends, being kind to oneself, and by allowing (even encouraging) the tears. I’m doing all this, but I don’t like it.

There’s nothing fun about grief. It’s a storm surge that overtakes all the banks of one’s defences. It cannot be dealt with rationally. For example, I still find myself mystified by Don’s absence, though my head knows perfectly well where he is. “Why aren’t you here?” I find myself wailing at times.

I’ve heard it said that “Grief is love with no place to go” and that “Grief is the final act of love” we can offer. Both of these are true. Also true is that “Where there is deep grief, there was great love.” I’m grateful to have known this kind of love.

No, grief is not fun. It’s grinding and real. I’ll wait out the three years if I must. Don deserves that much, and more.

19 Raisins

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2018 and the struggle endures. The never-ending battle, the fruitless quest for weight loss (well, not entirely fruitless….after all, raisins are the subject of this blog).

Speaking of “fruitless” — and getting off on a tangent before even addressing the question of raisins — most diets do allow fruit now. My last round at Weight Watchers permitted it “until satisfied”, dangerous words for us emotional eaters who don’t really get the meaning of “satisfied”. Does “emotionally satisfied” count? And I’m sure they didn’t mean dried fruit, like raisins or papaya leather.

Like others, I’ve tried diet after diet, exercised until I’m blue and hurting, jogged and walked, joined Jenny Craig, TOPS, and Weight Watchers multiple times, achieved “goal” weight, then put it all back on again and then some. Now I’m older and facing knee problems and phlebitis, neither of which responds well to my extra poundage and both of which prevent me from exercising as often I should. I’m caught in a Catch-22 situation: will gain weight if I don’t exercise but can’t exercise because of my weight.

I ask you…is this fair?

No, it’s not. It’s not fair that food should be allowed to kill me like this, despite my best efforts and my total lack of self-pity. I mean, a total lack.

So I’m angry. As angry as Father Mulcahy when Hawkeye reamed out poor Radar in an episode of MASH. The gentle Father really lost it: “I am incensed! I am outraged! I’m acrimonious!”

My doctor told me years ago, in an attempt to scare me into action, “Losing weight gets harder as you age.” Turns out he was right. Those extra pounds cling to hips and thighs like limpets  to rocks in the sea.

But I keep trying.

These days I use an online calorie counter called LoseIt, which I like because it’s free, for one thing. Also, it allows me to log my daily food and find restaurant calorie counts. So I can search for “McDonalds Chicken Chipotle wrap” and get the exact calorie count. Not that I would ever buy one of those. Oh no. The app will also find “Starbuck’s Carmel Macchiato, Almond Milk”, which, I’m pleased to note, contains twenty fewer calories than the regular variety. And who knew that IHOP’s blueberry pancakes were only 350 cals for two?? Very reasonable. We won’t discuss the syrup that goes on top.

Which brings me to the 19 raisins. It’s the allowable number for a serving, aaccording to this app. Not 20 raisins, mind you, but 19. This strikes me as odd. Why not round it off?Anyway, I use raisins daily on my muesli (half cup=170 cals, so I have three-quarters of a cup; more filling). At first, I actually counted out 19 of the little guys. Then, when I grew familiar with the visual, I just stuck my hand in like a carnival digger and pulled out a few.

“There! 19 raisins,” I told myself gleefully, pleased to have beaten the system in at least this one small way.

WHEN WORDS FAIL

Recently I’ve dabbled in Buddhism, finding its inclusive, laid-back philosophy soothing. I’ve developed a spiritual sense without going formally religious in any way, and this has brightened my life immeasurably by lessening my sense of aloneness and allowing me appreciate the present moment. But given all this, I often question the universe, the “god of my understanding”, for the way she seems to take from people their best assets as they age.

Good at walking? The Universe gives you crippling arthritis. Love to read? Cataracts or glaucoma for you, my friend. Work with your hands? Parkinson’s, I’m afraid. It’s as if the cosmos has it in for us. As if she takes notes as we go merrily about, building skills in our younger lives.

So when my husband developed dementia and then aphasia, it was just one more proof of the eeriness of fate. Don’t get me wrong; his vocal chords work just fine, but the effects of long-term illness and radiation have garbled his speech. So now he can’t talk, this intelligent, wonderful man of mine, a man of Scottish-English descent who didn’t complete high school but built himself a stellar reputation in the trucking industry by sheer hard work and a wonderful gift of gab unequalled by anyone I’ve ever known. Don could bend gnarly truckers and longshoremen to his will with verbal charm, good humour and jokes. If he needed a final load of plate steel at the dock but Forklift Freddie balked at the risk of going past quitting time, Don could soft-soap him into fetching it, even if the guy looked like Bluto or growled like Darth Vader. Don always found a way to make it happen.

He was known for his joke-telling. The boss of the company would take him on big-lodge fishing trips to Knight Inlet to help entertain clients. Don could tell jokes, both dirty and clean, for hours. Literally. He held a vast store of them in his nimble brain.

“Ever hear the one about the nun and the 9-iron?” (punch line: “she hit him with a 9-iron, right here!”)

“How about the Scotsman who hid his small child in a large bag and when he refused to pay, the driver threw his bag out the door. (punch line: “First ye try to rob me and now you’ve killed my son!”)

Then he’d tell the whole story, complete with Scottish accent, and have ’em rolling in the aisles. He was known for it. My mother told him once he should write a book about his funny trucking experiences, and he did, with my editing help. We got it published too, a best-seller for a couple of years in Canada1.

His fluency came from self-defense, he once told me in confidence. He was never as tall or muscled as some of the guys, and he feared being manhandled, so figured he had to learn how to “talk quick” to get out of a jam. It never failed him.

This darling man has just turned 76 and has lived in a care home for almost two years. He can’t use his communication skills to get by any more, as the words just won’t come. Knowing him so well, I can usually infer what he means, but the staff cannot. So they look right through him, carrying on as if he weren’t there, as they do with other residents. To be fair, their workloads are heavy, and ultimately, management must take the blame for not hiring enough aides and LPNs, enough staff to handle emotional needs as well as physical. Enough to give residents the respect and human contact they so desperately need. Poor Don tries valiantly to get the words out, but they just aren’t there, and the staff don’t or can’t take the time to wait for them. And so he’s just another “care object”, a “unit” to be helped with toileting, changing, feeding but little interacting. This breaks my heart.

I see him as often as I can, several times a week. My goal is to provide attention, loving care and fun. Luckily, he hasn’t lost his sense of humour. We sing, we laugh, we behave in silly ways. Like children.

It seems to help.

1. Big Rig: Comic Tales of a Long-Haul Trucker. Available online at Amazon.ca or Chapter-Indigo.

CHRISTMAS-LITE

snowflake

Well, it’s all over. Christmas has flown back to the North Pole, leaving us with leftover snow and fewer house lights, but we’re content nonetheless. Perhaps I should speak for myself. Gifts or no gifts, Christmas always enlivens me, and for that, I’m grateful. Friends call from afar, cards and packages arrive, carols stream from servers, shops, satellites, and old-fangled radios. The endless bad news out of America abates for awhile. Best of all, the convenience of Amazon.ca has turned holiday shopping into a simple joy: scroll, point, click and deliver, usually the same day or the next (I know, I know….it kills jobs, but it saves my aching legs).

I’ve noticed a paradoxical angle to my Christmases. Each year that I cut back on holiday activities, my seasonal enjoyment increases. So, for me, no more entertaining, dinner-hosting, party-going, store-trudging or standing in line (or “online”, as New Englanders say).  Even concert-going becomes unpleasant, a shame, really, since I do so love Christmas choral events. But just getting there! No, no. I now enjoy one lovely turkey dinner with relatives at my brother’s place in Port Moody, and then I hunker down for some real fun.

On balance, and not only at Christmas, the older I get, the less outside activity of any kind do I need or desire. My legs are less steady, but luckily, the rest of me still works well, and my own head is full of wonder, with resources enough for ten. Cleared of past cares – and without Alzheimer’s yet –  I can wander Vancouver’s Festival of Lights at Van Dusen Gardens from happy memory, or visit warm Waikiki, or dine with myriad relatives in Finland and Sweden. I can stroll once again the magical streets of Paris (sigh). The whole world awaits, without pain or impediment. I can still swim and write, two major joys.

Less activity! It’s a new and wonderful freedom. I’m thinking of becoming a hermit (JK!)

As I sit at my computer post-Boxing Day, JazzRadio fills my ears with soft, complex sounds, and with a slight turn of head, I can see it’s snowing. This alarms me not, as I have nowhere to be today. The Crown awaits on Netflix, and my electric blanket periodically beckons. My fully-charged IPAD holds the Wizard of Oz game I like to play (Level 575 and climbing). I have a book on the go, and my best friend texts me regularly. I’m seldom lonely, and besides, my husband is nearby.

What could be better?

The house is quiet, my cat asleep in the next room.

Until the furnace guy comes and the vacuum noise sends him into the snowy cold.

I’d best go check on him; he’s old too.
Continue reading CHRISTMAS-LITE

ADAPTATION

chimps laughing 2

My husband and I watch BBC’s Planet Earth on his small flat-screen. It’s about primates, some of whose names I’ve never heard. Names like Tarsier, Aye-aye, and Diademed Sifaka. David Attenborough wanders the planet, showing where the various apes live, how they survive.

We sit close on my husband’s single bed or, when my bent knee aches,we stretch out side-by-side, squeezing in as best we can. I miss this cuddling, this physicality. Following his two major surgeries and the slow onset of his dementia, I can no longer look after him at home. Luckily, his facility is a good one, clean, friendly and close by. His room is warm, but we huddle together regardless.

Attenborough shows us the Aye-Aye of Madagascar, In captivity, several types of olfactory clues were observed, including buccal (cheek) marking in which the aye-aye’s cheek is rubbed on an object.”

I smile, noting how often I stroke Don’s cheek with the back of my hand, especially in the car when hugging won’t work.

The camera moves on to the Snow Monkeys of Honshu, Japan. Don laughs at their antics, a full-on whoop, disproportionate to the occasion, but I don’t mind. As long as he’s happy. He doesn’t hear well, often talking over Attenborough’s commentary, but as I listen, I’m impressed with the way these northern-dwelling primates snuggle together in lanky treetops, huddling for warmth during the sub-zero nights.

“Twenty below!” I exclaim loudly, giving Don the short version.

“Wow!” he responds. “Now that’s cold!”

They have old-man faces, these Snow Monkeys, and double-thick fur for insulation. Watching them amidst the falling snow, we feel even cozier in our warm room.

Don seems engrossed throughout the program. His laughter is my tonic, but I know he’s a skilled pretender, ready to applaud anything he thinks may like. Chimps can deceive and empathize too. But what we watch isn’t the point anyway. It’s what we share. We can still be together, physically and emotionally. We can still laugh; we can still bond.

Attenborough wanders among the ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar.They also huddle together for warmth, adorable in their white faces and kohl-dark eyes. The commentary says they’re female-dominant and active only during the day. They have long snouts and wet noses.

“Like you!” I say, wiping his own beak with a Kleenex. He laughs, aware that it tends to drip.

At the moment, he sits on his bed while I gently stroke his back and shoulders, communicating love while receiving it back through his trust. He drinks the Starbucks coffee I brought while continuing his delighted comments about the program. His happiness comforts me.

We survive – he and I – as the apes do, by adaptation. We may not forage for food, but we do scrounge for affection. That never changes. Together forty-five years, we’re well-attuned to the other’s emotional climate and have learned to trust in the other’s regard. Of course, there have been difficulties, serious ones. But in these final years, only the love matters. All else has fallen away, eclipsed by our need to see one another to the end, to guard jealously our time together. I can’t help but wonder how long we’ll have even this limited contact. At the same time, I thank all the stars that I recognize its value.

Attenborough moves on. In a wildlife orphanage in Zambia, chimps mourn the death of a friend. Don and I watch in silence as the apes sit for fourteen minutes with Thomas, the dead chimp, alternately sniffing and touching him. They neglect even fresh food, so caught up are they by grief and the great mystery of death.

We humans struggle to prepare for death, to achieve peace of mind as we age. Sitting with Don, I realize we have it now, at least in part. Peace comes with full commitment; it’s impossible to love this deeply and still wonder about life’s meaning.

Love is why we’re here.