one year

 

A year ago today we woke up in an RV after spending the night with our cats parked in front of a motel on the border of Quebec and New Brunswick.

We’d paid for a room but only to get the parking space. Covid protocols were wild and up until a few days earlier we hadn’t been sure we’d get the green light to travel at all, still didn’t know what would happen at the New Brunswick and PEI borders.

Anyway, we woke up in this rinky dink gravel parking lot where all night beside us was a small red car, motor running, and a group of (based on their clothing) young Amish or Mennonite folk with a parrot in a cage and a dog with a rope tied to its collar, both of which critters they kept taking in and out of their room for what seemed to be ‘walks’ or feeds from plates of scrap food. They were a highly excited group of kids, laughing, running about (maybe sixteen, eighteen years old, tops), not offensively loud just… overly happy for the time of day. It started to rain at one point and yet they still larked about, in and out of their room, the car still idling, until about 3 a.m. when we heard what sounded like car doors opening and closing and then (after much loading of wotnots)… they drove away. Bliss.

At the time it felt like sleep was important but now looking back, I’m grateful they were there. Grateful also for the night before, also spent in a parking lot (another room paid for but not used) and waking to watch a man in an electric company uniform doing tai chi beside an electric company van. I remember looking out the window of the RV as I ate my breakfast, thinking how little we know about people, how if I’d seen this guy doing his electric company work I would never have guessed that this is how he starts his day.

It’s no cliche, the journey is everything and we didn’t rush, not especially. Three days of driving and two nights in the RV, many picnic stops along the way. Lovely to have our own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom with us, felt like being a snail, travelling light yet impossible to forget anything. One of us drove the RV with the cats (who were fabulous) and I drove a pick-up filled with garden plants. My travelling companion in the passenger seat was an avocado tree given to me by my niece.

The plants have all survived, including the Ontario trilliums… that I only just discovered the other day, not yet blooming, but they survived the winter, and it was a thrill to stumble upon them; I’d forgotten I’d brought them and I’m just so glad they approve of their feet being in red soil.

A year ago today, after one last long day of driving, we pulled up in front of a house we’d never seen in person and it immediately felt like home.

There’s a good chance those young people were also heading to PEI; I’ve since learned there are sizeable Amish and Mennonite communities here. They were smart, we realized later, to cross borders at 3 a.m. — no line ups — and I often wonder about their drive, that small car crammed with feathers and fur and excitement, and sometimes wonder where they are now, how this year has been for them, if they, too, were in the process of moving from another province when our paths crossed, and I hope they, too, are happy to have their feet planted on this magnificent red soil.

And the parrot of course.

I hope the parrot is enjoying all the many pleasures of salted air.

trillium

promises, remembered

 

I wrote this post several years ago on the first day of Ramadan. I now live a thousand plus kilometres away but hearing that Ramadan has started I immediately think of my lady in the dry cleaner in the town where I used to live. Can picture her hunched over a sewing machine, a tiny television set tuned to an Arabic language station, the always-exhaustion in her voice and in her eyes and the day those eyes smiled and how it left me feeling that our connections might sometimes feel strange or tenuous but they’re always there, that regardless of everything else, we are all connected, in moments, in milliseconds sometimes, and in the most surprising memories.

This following first appeared as “Promises”, on July 10, 2013.

A couple months ago in a post that began as one thing but ended up being about my dry cleaner, I wrote about how my dry cleaner’s husband kept telling her that he wanted her to have nice hands and how this frustrated her because she worked too hard to have nice hands. She would love to wear polish, she said, but who has the time.

It reminded me of a dance that went on for years between my mum and dad, who’d also come here as immigrants.

I promised myself I’d buy my dry cleaner some really good nail polish and give it to her, and today I did. When I entered the shop she was sitting at a sewing machine, head covered in a shawl. I’d never seen her in a head scarf before and wondered at the reason for it but didn’t ask.

I gave her the polish. Hot pink. I explained why, reminded her of our conversation and she laughed, said she loved the colour, asked how much she owed me and I said, no, that it was a gift. She was surprised and delighted and then told me it was the first day of Ramadan. She said it’s especially hard when it falls at this time of year because of all that daylight stretching late into the evening. The month-long fast, which includes no food OR water or anything, ends each day when the sun goes down and begins again when it rises. Much better in November, she said. Even March is good.

She normally walks an hour to work but for the next month she’ll be getting a ride. I was happy to hear it given the humidity and heat.

I said I hadn’t realized Ramadan began today, that it was just a fluke I came in, but that I was thrilled to be able to offer some small thing to mark the day and happy to have learned something so wonderful and I thanked her for that. She smiled, said she’d pray for me.

I said I’d do the same for her.
IMG_7439

 
 

xmas stockings

For the next wee while I’m re-posting some of my favourite pieces with a short blurb explaining why I chose them. This one, from December 21st, 2012, has come to mind every year since. Or, more accurately, the woman has. I’m not a fan of many things that happen in stores at this time of year, but she was/is a testament to the power of the season.

So I’m in the men’s sock department at Winners and this elderly woman keeps bumping into me and leaning across whatever I’m looking at until I say: sorry, am I in your way?  And she says “What do you think about these?” She holds up a three-pack. “I like the argyle,” she says, “but why do they have to put in the others?”  The others are big bold stripes and she’s not sure her neighbour who takes out the garbage for her will wear them. She gets him a little something every year. “It’s so hard to know what kind of socks someone will like,” she says.

She’s the picture of Santa’s wife. White hair, wire-rimmed glasses. Rosy cheeks. A beige anorak. Navy slacks.

She shows me a single pair she’s also considering, black with a tiny red line at the top, asks what I think and I tell her they’re classic, that no one would have a problem with them. She agrees, but keeps looking. I continue looking too. I say the bold patterns make the most sense, easier to match them up. She laughs, says yes, but easier still is to buy all the same kind, which is what she did for her husband. Dozens of the same plain black, she says. Never a problem making pairs. She tells me she’d wait until he was down to one or two then fill the washer, every one of them turned inside out.

“That way they don’t get fuzzy from other things, or all pilly.”

It all seems a bit too much work, I say, all that turning inside out and back again and she says pooh, it’s no trouble, you just pile them on the chesterfield and sit down and go at it for a few minutes.

I tell her I’m not actually very fond of socks, the sheer number of them and the way they take it upon themselves to disappear one day, turn up weeks later or not at all. But mostly I really hate sorting them.

Something changes in her face, she goes quiet. Her eyes are blue. She looks at me through her Mrs. Claus glasses and I have an idea of what’s coming.

“I’d give anything to sort my husband’s socks again,” she says, then turns her head.

She tries to smile, shrugs, ruffles through the display as she tells me he died three months ago, that the family’s coming together and she can’t let herself get sad because they’re coming from Nova Scotia and Kingston and there’s the grandchildren to think of. She stops, looks up again. “But…” she says, and her sweet blue eyes are suddenly red-rimmed and we’re standing there in the socks and her lips are trembling—and I put my hand on her arm and I say, “But it’ll be hard.”

And she nods. Composes herself and we each say this and that and eventually laugh a little and then goodbye and the whole time I want to hug her but we’re in the socks at Winners and I have the feeling she’d rather not make a big thing of this, that she’s doing the best she can.

When I leave her she’s still debating about the argyle/stripes combo or the single classic black.

I buy a couple of three-packs.

450px-Socks_III

Count my blessings.

 
 
 

this is not a review: ‘her name was margaret’, by denise davy

 

I’ve pretty much spent every waking hour of the past twenty-four reading this book that, essentially, tells how a homeless woman ended up dying on the streets of Hamilton, Ontario, a story that might strike one as being not especially new. After all, there are only so many ways a homeless person dies. Usually from some form of violence, neglect, or addiction.

This is what I thought, that there was no new story to tell on the subject, so why read?

And yet once started I could not stop reading.

Why? Partly because of how Denise Davy tells the story. Oh my god, where do I begin to even say how well written this is. Throughout, I marvelled at how she, the author, was so very adept at restraint, keeping her emotion out of things and letting the story be entirely Margaret’s.

Margaret Louise Jacobson is the Margaret of Her Name Was Margaret: Life and Death on the Streets. Born to ultra-Christian, missionary parents, she spends the first fourteen or so years of her life being devoted to the church as her (rather unpleasant, austere) parents spread god’s word throughout every aspect of her childhood and the Caribbean. The book doesn’t go into the unnecessary details of their work, only suggesting the effect of all that fundamentalism on Margaret.

Then the voices start. And her family returns to Canada. The reader’s hope at this point is that they’ve come back in order to get help for Margaret, that they will stand by her in what is obviously the early signs of mental illness. But they deliver her instead into the arms of the Canadian mental health system while they return to god’s work and the system lets her down miserably.

That’s the story in a nutshell, but that’s not the story. That’s what we like to think the story is, or a version of it, for every ragged bit of humanity we see sleeping on sidewalk grates. Ah, well, we tell ourselves as we gingerly step around them or cross the street, some tragic tale, some sad past, another person slips between the cracks of a well-meaning system, probably their own fault in some way we can’t quite be bothered to name. If we’re in the mood to make ourselves feel noble, we drop change into a cup.

The other reason I couldn’t stop reading was because of how my mind and my eyes were being opened to a subject I thought I understood.

What Davy has done in this book is not only bring one person to life through making a small, personal connection with her, but also effectively taking us by the hand and walking us through a day, a month, a decade or five, of that life. And she’s done so without lectures or blame or righteousness but simply by saying look at this, and see that over there, and here’s a bit of info you may or may not care to know…

Davy, a well known journalist, received permission from a family member to access Margaret’s extensive medical files and with that (800+ pages), and access also to family letters, photographs and conversations with various people who knew her, she pieced together a life that with every page becomes more real.

Also more unreal insofar as the mind-boggling insanity of ‘the system’.

It is a story both shocking and endearing.

Davy honours one woman especially in this book, but in doing so she honours the homeless collectively and best of all, she offers suggestions for how we, as individuals, communities, and as a society, can honour our most disenfranchised fellow citizens by writing letters and demanding meaningful supports be put into place.

It’s not possible to read this and see homelessness the same way again. Not possible to carry on consoling ourselves with thoughts of how the homeless choose this lifestyle (the majority do not) or that there is simply nothing to be done with people who snarl and lash out, refusing to help themselves or allow others to help.

Because there’s a reason for that.

And there’s a solution.

On top of everything else, homelessness is expensive. The use of emergency and health care services, police, fire, prison, etc., (services used more frequently by the homeless due to lifestyle, mental health issues, and no other options) amounts to approximately $100,000 per year per (chronically) homeless individual. If anyone wants to talk money, it’s actually much cheaper to create supportive housing than support homelessness.

Along with the problems, Davy cites some uplifting examples of countries and cities that have adopted programs (like supportive housing) that work and where homelessness numbers (and costs) have dropped considerably.

Her Name Was Margaret is a compelling, unputdownable and strangely optimistic book for many reasons, not the least being that Davy shows us there IS a way out, a way both humane and economically viable. For that reason alone it’s must reading. Schools and universities included. We need to understand systems in order to fix them, not just sympathize with those caught in the middle.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened the book. To learn about one person, that would have been enough. I assumed there would be sadness, but I couldn’t have guessed that it would also contain such hope and be a source of enormous inspiration to DO something toward change.

I will be writing letters asking for change.

Thanks to Denise Davy for the extraordinary heart that has gone into the research and writing of the book. And to Wolsak & Wynn for publishing it.

apropos of nothing

Well, not entirely accurate. Not entirely nothing.

There was a conversation recently wherein reference was made to the job of waiting tables as low-end work. The implication filled with judgement and pity for the poor saps who have to shlep bowls of soup for money.

I disagree with the idea that waiting tables is a low end job.

Hard work for low pay, yes, but not low end.

If ensuring the comfort and happiness of someone’s breakfast, lunch or dinner is seen as menial work then we really do have our values twisted.

There are real stars out there, servers who bring a sliver of joy to strangers in a true and authentic way. One of them works at a diner in town, has been there for decades, calls everyone hon, or love, in a way that you don’t mind.  She is one of the reasons the place is full of regulars (when places were full) (also the toast is excellent). And you can tell that she’s not putting it on for tips, that the people are a big reason she loves her job. When you ask for peanut butter she brings it over like it’s the most important thing in the world. She’s constantly moving, talking, being asked, answering, carrying, ordering, changing orders, shlepping.

Is it hard work? Sure looks like it.

Is it rewarding? As with everything, depends how you do it.

There are certain establishments, towns, cities, certainly countries other than ours where waiting tables is held in higher regard, a profession not merely a job that, when done well, is a respectable, and well respected, way to make a living for an entire lifetime.

Along the same lines, someone was saying how food delivery people are also looked down upon, barely spoken to, if at all, especially now that so much take-out is pre-paid. Which reminded me of the pizza guy a couple years ago who came to the door and we casually said how ya doing, and without missing a beat, and with tongue perfectly in his cheek, he said… I’m livin’ the dream.

We cracked up.

He smiled, said have a good one.

That’s star quality.

 

life lessons

 

From him I learned never to eat steak in a hamburger joint or hamburger in a steak joint, to close my vice at the end of the day, that a parking lot is the most dangerous place in the world and a Hawaiian shirt is the perfect thing for BBQ-ing a Mexican breakfast. That when things are especially crummy you should be very pleased because there’s nowhere to go but up and that the patio in a summer rain is a fine place to dance. It is never too late to learn another language. A library is probably your smartest friend.There’s a reason goulash takes so long to make and canned stew is NOT a substitute. Never say no to pie. And no matter how busy you are take time to sit down, to look, to wonder where that ant is coming from or where it’s going and if someone happens to sit down and join you don’t be afraid to ask them if they have any thoughts about that ant’s motivation. Think of a favourite place, paint a mural of it on a basement wall. Play the music you love so often that your kid, whether she likes it or not, will forever think of you when she hears it and will eventually play it herself so she can think of you loving it. Church is not always a building. Sparklers are the best fireworks. Ice cream in a cone should be eaten in a specific way to avoid dripping and you are not allowed to order vanilla if there are 389 flavours to choose from. It’s the brown and white cows that make butterscotch ripple. And, above all, do NOT be afraid to open a book even if it looks a little scary and especially if it’s an atlas… it will always surprise you by the places it takes you and you will grow up remembering a thousand evenings at the kitchen table turning those pages together…

 

notes to friends

 

Friend A I love that you you threw a typewriter, a few boxes of books and a couple other things into the back of your car and drove across the country, leaving behind a painted red fridge in a turret across from a park and that in your new place we cooked on a hibachi on your back stoop and in your kitchen too, which always smelled like Joy dish detergent and in which kitchen you made possibly the world’s best meatloaf and that you are the person I know can call whenever my black forest cake falls over.

Friend B:  A prism in my window catches the light in a way that it shines on your ‘star charting’ picture in my office. My painter’s-dropsheet-furniture-covers are because of you. No one makes better bruschetta.

Friend C:  You may be the only person I know who hates bathtubs and you are definitely the only person I think of whenever I (still) stuff a sandwich into a container that was made for sour cream.
I love how you love playing the piano.

Friend D: Your laugh cracks me up and the way you ask servers in restos to guess which of us is older and how you tell them before they answer and the fact that you wear rubber gloves to do dishes and play catch with the dog while you’re on the phone.

Friend E:  You are one great dame and each time I think of you I’m reminded that there is really no higher aspiration for a woman. Thanks to a purple gallinule in my kitchen I think of you often.

Friend F:  I love that you are literal and that we share the beautiful DNA of speaking bluntly and that every walk we’ve ever taken stays with me, bits of each coming back as so much beach glass, hot city streets, gardens, and tea.

Friend G:  Who else would I call to ask why a certain scarf purchased in Halifax makes me so happy and who else would without hesitation give me the perfect answer.  I picture you paddling the Mackenzie River.

Friend H:  I love the story of why you paint butterflies.

And to friends a million miles away and those much much closer, some I’ve known forever, others I hardly know but the knowing feels like so much more. To book friends and food friends, to sharing the street friends, to friends who are family and family who are friends. To friends I’ve never met but which lack of meeting means almost nothing where our friendship is concerned.

To all of you, thank you… for being a friend.

kitchen gallinule

 

 

wordless wednesday with words (the teachers matter edition)

Mr. Something Something, whose name I can’t remember but who I can still see so clearly standing in front of a grade nine English class in his flannel shirt and cords and the day he handed me back a paper I’d written and said that my work stood out, that I should continue writing. Or something to that effect. It’s possible I’ve overblown it in my mind over the centuries but the point is that’s what it felt like and I can’t begin to think how often this tiny sliver of a tenuously remembered moment has come to mind since then and still does, giving me a boost just when I need it because even though my parents also liked my writing and auntie wotsit too and a few people since it’s his comment that stays with me.  I remember only that he was gentle and soft-spoken, passionate about words, and I have the vague sense that he wasn’t a conformist and therefore not loved by the mainstream and possibly taken advantage of by some of the students. I recall hearing, years later, that he eventually left teaching to drive a cab.

Mr. Bradley who introduced us to Dylan (Bob, not Thomas) by bringing in a couple of albums and a turntable and telling us to just listen. That was the whole class. At the time we were all….  huh????  But we listened. I can still time travel to that moment….

The art teacher who had Parkinson’s (I realize now) and walked the aisles of the class, head shaking, commenting, applauding, encouraging, suggesting.

Ms. Mackie, who was three hundred years old and looked like Santa’s wife, who seemed to live and breathe HomeEc and who shouted instructions like middle it, middle it!!! which had something to do with a gathering stitch and in whose class I made two aprons worthy of any runway. One, light purple with dark purple rick rack, the other paisley. My mother wore them until the end of time.

Mr. Vangeloff, the typing  teacher, who was short and stout and wore tweed suits and always a tie and white shirt and what little hair he had was wiry and long and combed over his bald pate, which, when he was annoyed (which was every day) would rise in a wiry matt to a 30 degree angle like a draw bridge and stay like that as he wandered about the room telling us to stop flapping our ruby red lips in the breeze.

His wife was an art teacher. I wasn’t in her class but she was loved for her grooviness, her long black hair and geometric print dresses and the way she turned a blind eye if she stumbled upon anyone smoking in the loo.

Unlike the French teacher, Ms. Whatever, who would stalk the loos in order to engage in her hobby of handing out detentions for smoking, lunch eating, or Euchre playing. Like wild animals we soon learned how to survive by recognizing the sound of her approaching footsteps, the click of her heel, and flush away any detention worthy evidence. Smoke? What smoke???

Mr. Merrick the gloriously mad science teacher. I hated science but adored him and so quite by accident I learned some science.

Ms. Thingy the gym teacher. Blech blech blech to gym. Made not better by her enthusiasm and muscley legs and assumption that everyone liked climbing rope ladders and what were we supposed to do with the parallel bars because are you kidding me?? She wore culottes and sneakers and drove a flashy green sports car. I saw her once in the real world and heard someone refer to her as Barbara and COULD NOT BELIEVE IT.

Because teachers, whether we adore them or not, seem, especially to our small selves, a little god-like, not only for the power they wield, though there’s that (though that’s less and less), but their influence on us, which I wonder how often we even realize the power of… then, and now.

Hats off to their memory.

And to those who continue to influence the future.

We are grateful.

 

 

 

one exquisite thing, #gratitude

 

“I get so much comfort in thinking of our long friendship, and how it has grown so much stronger through the years, binding us together. If I didn’t have those things at the bottom of my heart I wouldn’t get as much out of blue seas or sunny lands.”

— Willa Cather, (Letters)

 

 

wordless wednesday with words and music and a hint of pine

 

The couple in the parking spot in the alley behind my dentist. They must be in their nineties. He standing outside chatting to her through the driver’s window. She in the driver’s seat. The car parked at an angle across the only two spots reserved for the dental office. Me wondering what they are doing. He looking at me and asking if I want to park there. Me saying yes I do… and then him explaining that they are just there to get a xmas tree and his wife is going to stay in the car and me saying, well, okie dokes, but could she park so that she takes up only one spot and I can use the other? And he, finding this a reasonable request, turns to tell his wife in what feels, even in this alley on this cold day, like such a gentle manner and her face all sweet and agreeable and she moves her car back and I move mine in and I get out and by this time he has gone to the xmas tree lot that’s just there and I can see him, slightly hunched, hands clasped behind his back, looking for just the right tree and me thinking how I was so quickly prepared to be annoyed by the parking situation until their kindness and tenderness, especially with each other, and the fact that they, despite the difficulty of getting around this city, are looking for a tree on their own at some funky Yonge Street place and the whole alley and street corner smelling like pine and she happily waiting in the car and as if all this isn’t enough (& I’m not making this up…) the music playing through speakers at the tree lot is Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman.

Click on the song, inhale some pine, and it’ll be like you were there too…

Wee moments as gifts.