That’ll be the Day (it’s Raining in my Heart).

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I’ve been wanting to share this for a while, but have been struggling with what was appropriate.

I wanted to wait until things were a little less fresh, to be sure that I was sharing authentically.

My Dad passed away on November 21, 2016.

It had been more or less expected. I was not by his side.

I have so much to share about him, about us.

I haven’t really talked much about our relationship. Writing about it seems to be the most appropriate way to process and share. And I know that, even though he was a relatively private person, he understood enough about why I write to get it. He wasn’t very comfortable, at first, with me sharing everything with the world, but then I wrote this, which he read, and he understood. From then on, he was one of my biggest supporters.

He would appreciate this too (and does, if he’s here in spirit, which I sure hope he is).

The last day that I spoke to him on the phone, him in Princeton, BC and me in Montreal, QC, was an oddly lovely day. The sadness had been overcoming me for days, if not weeks, but I’d walked through Mount Royal park, taking photos of warm-fluorescent-coloured leaves.

He didn’t see these photos in the end, even though he was still alive at the time. Had he seen them, I’m sure that he would have understood the depth of my delight in those moments, of just being out there, breathing and rejoicing in those colours.

On that day, there was this strange thing where, even though I knew he was going, I realized that I was happy. I was incredibly sad because I was losing him, but at the same time, I was so glad that he’d taught me the importance of seeing through the suffering in the world.

In this instance, it would have been seeing through suffering by capturing a glimpse of colour in nature. But he also taught me to see though it in different ways—not by ignoring the suffering, but by sitting with it, and still seeing into it.

He taught me what it was to just go out and see the world, to notice (and capture) the texture, the dark and the light spots, the grey tones and the colour.

Since he passed, I’ve been processing grief through a series of personal journal entries to him, things that happen in a given day that make me think about him and feel his presence.

I’ve decided to share them, starting today, three months later.

**

Dear Dad,

I had a great day today. I spoke with a lovely and supportive friend, one of the people who was instrumental in me sharing my writing. 

During the afternoon, I took a 25 bus from Nanaimo station to the UBC loop. The fellow driving the 25 on the way over was speaking Chinese (Cantonese?) to an older Asian woman who had apparently gotten on the wrong bus. I appreciated how he was able to communicate to her.

You would have appreciated that too, I think.

I remember how you told me stories about driving the older generations of women coming to Chinatown to do their shopping in the evenings, how that would be their thing. That’s just what they’d do, every weekend, early in the mornings, they’d pile on your bus and you’d drop them off in Chinatown where they’d buy authentic ingredients to cook for their families on the weekends.

How amazing was that, that you got to carry a piece of this culture, of so many backgrounds and cultures, every day? Your eyes were open. 

That’s one of the many things I loved about you, Dad. Your eyes were open. You didn’t judge, you just observed. I’m sure you judged, at times—we all do. But what you shared with me was about observing, about learning, about tolerance. 

Back to the trail. Even before I actually hit the trees, I felt immediately at ease in the fresh air, in the way that the afternoon held the quiet, despite the construction and traffic noises. I walked north towards the ocean, then took a right along the trail above the shoreline.

I’d spent so much time on the beaches below in the past—Acadia, Spanish Banks, Locarno—-I was surprised I hadn’t walked this trail before. 

How could I have missed it?

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As I walked, I noticed striking contrasts—you’d know the type, how the sunlight would quickly sink away from the west side of the city on a winter afternoon. When I finally got down to the beach, after having found the quintessential wide-step wooden staircase created so that we could wind our way down the steep earthy banks, I saw the most spectacular sunset reflected on the low tide. Then I immediately regretted not keeping the camera you and Mom had given me. I’d given it back because it was bulky.

It had seemed excessive in the midst of my minimizing.

Just today, (and not for the first time), I was captured by the way the tide-cloud-sky patterns created a particular kind of picture on that specific stretch of beach. I looked at the water, at the spectacular moments around me then, and I got it. I got why you wanted to give me that camera. It was so that I could share what I saw even more clearly than I could with any phone camera.

I knew this before, but I just felt it so clearly at that moment. I hadn’t felt clear like this since a day in Montreal watching cormorants by the St. Lawrence, and then the day with the bright leaves in the park. Both times I felt you and what you brought me, how you always encouraged me and supported me in following my purpose and passions. I felt a certain type of clarity and joy that I rarely have before.  

The only reason I even learned how to see that in the first place was through you.

So tonight I was doing dishes when I got home. I put on Buddy Holly and I thought of how two of the last really lovely in-person moments that we would have had together, just us, had to do with music.

One was when we were at the Sylvia and I played you a cover album of Buddy Holly hits. We talked about the cover songs…you weren’t sure about some of them (neither was I!) but the point was that we listened together to this new/old iconic set of songs. The original album would shape your generation in a big way, and it would also shape us in a very personal way.  

The other moment was when I was driving (you were giving me a refresher course, 20-something years after you had originally taught me to drive well), and you sat beside me in the passenger seat of “Raven,” (the car), shrunken and pale and frail, the way you’d been getting for the past couple of years. It was disconcerting, of course, to those around you, but it was the course of life. You were a little sick, but not terribly sick, as it were, at that time, and you were with us, which was such a gift. And then, even when you were frail, there was this certain spark of life that I saw inside of you, those last few times, despite your discomfort and general malaise. I know it got worse, and I wasn’t there, and maybe I was selfish staying away, I’m not sure.

So there we were, driving along the highway in the Okanagan, singing tunes in your car, the way we had a million times before: Buddy Holly, Elvis. These same albums you’d had in the car since forever. You knew the words, I knew the words, and we’d sing gently together, gliding along the soft sunny curves in the road. 

Those were the best kinds of moments that stood out: quiet and simple and easy. 

*

Music might seen a trite type of connection for some people, but it means the most to me. through music and nature, my Dad made me understand something unexplainable but deep about himself, his life, and the world around us.

And what a part of history he experienced: Hot rodding around Montreal and bopping over to Ottawa to see Elvis in ’57…no big deal (!!).

 

This doesn’t just stick with me; it’s a big part of who I am, because it was part of him too.

I tell my blues
They mustn’t show
But soon these tears
are bound to flow
(’cause it’s raining
raining in my heart). 

~ Buddy Holly

I love you, Dad.

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What the Threat of Death can Teach us.

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Yesterday I thought a lot about death.

It began with with the news that Brittany Maynard had chosen two days before as her own death. I’d only just learned (and edited and shared this piece) about her plight for the right to a dignified death on the same evening I’d published and shared.

The post was popular, the conversations vibrant.

The opportunity to dig deep into that piece (on behalf of the writer, Molly Ruby) really shook me awake. It made me remember how a close friend had told me about her experience with death, once, and how I have vowed since to do everything in my power to make sure that people have an opportunity to just be comfortable when the time comes.

To just be at peace.

I don’t think that peace should be too much to ask for in life or in death, but somehow it is for so many.

Later that morning I found myself with windstung cheeks and open, wondering eyes, walking through a maze of leaf-littered paths in what could be one of the most morbid of places: a cemetery.

Moving through that restful and sad place somehow woke me up; while I was respectful and solemn of the context of the place, it’s beauty fairly stunned me.

There was a certain gentleness about breathing it all in, of the grace and oldness of the beautiful statues that stand as gravestones.

Sadly the bigger the statues, the more money the deceased (families) probably had (have), which means their graves will rule over the rest for a longer period of time.

But the statues give life to the place, a community of sorts. I imagined all of the ghosts (not just the rich ones) dancing together in this peaceful park on the side of the mountain, some maybe escaping to haunt earthly places that they love or could not let go of.

I’m not even a superstitious person; many close friends have experienced ghosts (and I believe their experiences) and I have not. But I’d like to believe that death is not the end. Just the choice that we have to use our imaginations in that way is a thing that can keep us light.

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So I was transfixed by the way the stillness of the statues was highlighted by patches of sunlight and contrasted by whirlwinds of leaves and distant city sounds.

I wrote recently about breathing out to balance all of the inwardness. And this is part of finding a reflection in the dark goddess 

The reflecting made me think about the little deaths, the way that we die to each moment, that we have to leave the past behind every day.

It made me think of the reasons we are so scared to morph out of the things we are defined by: I am (we are) not that ‘person’ anymore.

I want to leave a lot of it behind but I loved it, for real. And don’t quite know what is filling the space anymore.

Change happens anyway—we can’t stop it. Big changes, loss that seems out of our control is the biggest. So I want to change now and move into a new way of being but the patterns that I’ve held onto for so long define me, too.

My skin feels cool and papery, now, suddenly waxy and wan. I don’t feel young anymore. This feeling has been sneaking up on me for a while, I guess but it’s finally hitting me: I’m aging. I no longer feel the warm fullness of youth in my face-skin but a fallen, cooler feel, like a blue-grey filtered photograph that not so long ago was warmly tinted, immune to gravity and time.

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Or maybe I just thought that.

And that’s not really important.

What is important is that we see beauty in death, in the fight for a meaningful legacy.

But we can also surrender to forces beyond our control.

Maybe the beauty in Brittany’s fight was about surrender, how she was not fighting death per se, but resigning to it (as we all have to, really) in the way that was most peaceful for her.

In this, she will stand the test of time gracefully, like the statue-gravestones that I so love. They seem to say Surrender. Peace. We are still here, still valid, still marking the space and place and lives of us and our loved ones…but maybe, just maybe, the acceptance of loss means it’s not an ending.

Maybe marking the reality of (the threat of) an earthly death is exactly what keeps us going.

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Inspiration for my chapbook

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(Photo by Captain Tenneal at Flickr)

I’ve decided to put together a book of poetry, inspired by and dedicated to my Uncle Peter and his wife Nellie McClung (granddaughter of the Canadian suffragette). They were creatives (poets, amongst other things) now both deceased.

I think of them more and more the older I get because – well, forgive me if I sound callous (I mean this as the highest compliment) but they were the quintessential ‘crazy’ poets.

Both were afflicted with Schizophrenia and met at Riverview in the 1970’s. They did their thing because they had to.

Or because they didn’t have much else. Or because it was everything.

How do we describe the need to create? 

When I was younger and they were alive, I didn’t get their poetry, their relationship. But now I do-at least a little bit more. I wish that I could write with them.

I dug up a couple of their own publications and did a little Google search. It’s difficult to find something that is Nellie ‘Lillian’ rather than ‘Letitia’ McClung, the latter being the famous suffragette and Nellie’s grandmother.

I did find this little dedication to Nellie from the SPCA. She didn’t have much, but she left some of that to the animals – pretty cool. And her obituary here.

I found my own ‘Raindrop,’ Peter’s paper stapled book of Haikus.

At the back is a poem from Nellie to Peter. I think it’s a lovely and strange snippet of their lives together, a set of simple moments that was really so much more.

Sonnet for Peter

I hung my poem
about Ireland
out the window
to dry for you
(you lying pale & wan
in your hospital bed)
& soon the gannet & kestrel
small sparrows in twos & threes
alighted at your window
& pecked at the words
& you said it was good
excitement in your voice
“The birdies are here.”
on the phone

not knowing what to do
with my simple poems
I came each day
and pinned my latest poem
with clothes pins
on a wire across your window

I thought of Chekhov’s story we shared
of the man who goes to visit
a hospital patient, & describes
the view out the window, to the enthusiasm
of the patient, the next visitor
saying there was only a brick wall

& again of Li Po who put his poems
in lighted candled paper boats

and sent them out to sea in the dark.

~ Nellie McClung