Driving Miss Emma

My daughter Emma is straining to craft an identity separate from me. At 27, she is achieving this as she forges her life’s path. I admire that she is creating, designing with raw materials, making objects with her hands that are functional as well as beautiful. So different than my own, with its emphasis on the written word.

My girl is a woodworker, making her way in a world of craftsmanship. I trail behind her in the exotic wood emporium we visit occasionally to pick up her supplies. Proud as a peacock I watch her assessing the wood that she needs, measuring and sawing boards on forbidding, noisy machines. Cutting quite the figure in her tool belt and blue overalls, she tells me about the wood she has selected, the maple and softwoods and, of course, the burled wood on display.

She is now launched, mostly independent. There is some feeling of loss for me, but moreover, a feeling of pleasure and accomplishment that she has reached this moment. At home my kitchen, I touch a piece of jute cord that appeals to me in its sturdiness and heft. At one time, the link between Emma and me was strong and unbreakable like the rough, jute cord. Time passes and she matures, and she needs a less robust link with me to develop into herself. A soft yarn then serves to connect us. She thrives as the connection is lessened, until eventually, only a fine diaphanous thread dangles between us. Still enduring but not nearly so hefty or fragile.

Suddenly I recall that when she was a young girl, maybe six or seven years old, she was like my little sidekick. That changed over time, as her friends became more important to her. But I adored that closeness, “Oh Mommy, I have so much to tell you” she would say. I was her first confidante.

Now, I am not. And so, I strive to let go and to find my own place in this reconstituted order. I cradle a piece of burled wood in my city girl hands. Originating from a tree that was stressed, it is a round knotty growth that when polished will be full of swirls and beauty. I peel away the bark to investigate and marvel at the entangled splendour underneath. Craftspeople say that it can take thirty years for its full beauty to emerge.

The swirl of my burl is my life stories, my children, my joy and pain. Through my writing I shine a light on that jumble of memory, fact and emotion, searching for truth. Like my stories and myself, the burl wood grain is twisted and interlocked, resistant to splitting. I look upon it with wonder as it teaches me to find strength in its misshapenness.

I need that strength. In my interactions with my Emma I am constantly trying not to overstep, to respect the boundaries that she erects. It can be painful. Sometimes the edges feel like barriers but they can also melt away, as malleable as the situation commands. 

***

I pick Emma up at the subway near my home. She is waiting there, slim, light brown hair tossed by the wind. It’s a late September day as we set off for Ithaca, New York in the Finger Lakes District, about four hours from Toronto. Anticipating almost two weeks together for adventure, family and travel, we are both in good humour and easy with one another. 

This has not always been the case. Earlier this year she pulled sharply away from me, not wanting any contact over a period of a few months. She was angry about something I’d done. It was a very painful interval, for both of us. By the time our road trip began we had healed somewhat, taken to seeing one another again and sharing aspects of our lives. The trip, I hope, will be a chance to cultivate and deepen our ease with one another.

The chair Emma designed and crafted, the primary reason for our trip, is braced safely in the back of the car. She conceived and built it at Sheridan College where she studied furniture craft and design. It is a unique piece, with an almost Scandinavian air, a fully wooden seat with no weaving or thatch. A beautiful, original rendering, it is now covered with care by an old grey baffled blanket. It awaits delivery to an exhibit space in Philadelphia. We wonder what we’ll be asked at the border, but they say nothing about the chair when I tell them we are on our way to visit my brother’s family there.

We meet my niece Sarah in Ithaca, where she is doing a doctorate in psychology at Cornell. First, we stop at the little air bnb I’d reserved and drop off our things. Then we walk along a few tree-lined streets to the famed Moosewood Restaurant. Sarah is gracious. Seven months pregnant, red-haired and still generously freckled, she seems quite radiant over dinner. As imagined, the vegetarian food is tasty and wholesome, a Seventies throwback for sure. I have most of their cookbooks and cherish fond memories of cooking from them in a co-op house with friends while at university. 

We talk about Sarah’s program of study and how she expects they will manage the baby’s first year, with her husband Peter still in Philadelphia. She is upbeat and looking forward to the challenges ahead. Emma tells her about the chair and also the woodworking course she will be doing in Maine in another week’s time. I am pleased to see Emma and Sarah kibitz and bond together during our dinner. We haven’t always had close relations with their family and I hoped Emma would feel closer to them. When we’re saying goodbye, Emma buys a pale green baseball cap that sports the Moosewood logo, and Sarah wishes us good luck for our upcoming visit with her parents in Philly.

We blow in to Philadelphia the next day about four in the afternoon, just as Speaker Nancy Pelosi is declaring publicly for the first time that the U.S. House of Representatives will engage in impeachment hearings of the president. My brother is glued to the television, citing the historic moment, only moving slightly to snarl at me that I shouldn’t have parked where I did. Lynne, his wife, makes soothing noises and the exchange does not boil over, as it often does. I move the car.

Emma and Lynne ferry the chair to the garage where it can continue to off-gas from its finishing products. We offer to help with dinner but are shooed away to our respective rooms to rest. Emma looks up a climbing gym nearby on Google maps and catches an Uber to work out for a couple of hours. Later, Lynne and I go for a much-needed invigorating walk in the community before dinner. Lots of old leafy trees and wide lawns are welcome indeed after two days of stressful highway driving. We work up a little sweat and the exercise helps bring me back down to earth. We talk about our kids, their lives and a little bit about the challenges of relationships with our respective partners.

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of coffee, fresh berries and yogurt, we head into Philadelphia to deliver the chair. Lynne offers to drive, and so I do not need to navigate the city’s busy streets. We drive to the Center for Art in Wood in downtown Philadelphia. The Center interprets, nurtures, and champions creative engagement and expansion of art, craft, and design in wood. It is a beautiful, bright venue. Emma does a little dance on the sidewalk with the chair held up in her arms and we follow her in, Lynne and I snapping photos all the way. We joke that we are her “paparazzi” and the Center staff laugh as we enter. Mission accomplished. The chair is delivered safely to the show “Making a Seat at the Table: Women Transform Woodworking” and we can continue on our journey.  

We spend another relaxing night at my brother’s having a barbecue dinner out on the patio, and then set off the next day toward upstate New York where we will visit Storm King Art Center. It is a 500-acre outdoor museum located in the Hudson Valley, where you can experience large-scale sculpture under open sky. Since 1960, Storm King has been dedicated to stewarding the hills, meadows, and forests of its site and surrounding landscape. We walk through the countryside looking at the huge sculptures and learn how the facility nurtures a vibrant bond between art, nature, and people, creating a place where discovery is limitless. It is a fabulous afternoon in the open air.

The next day we venture to the gallery known as the Dia Beacon, also in upstate New York. Located in a former Nabisco box-printing factory, Dia Beacon presents Dia’s collection of art from the 1960’s to the present. It is a spacious gallery with very high ceilings and many impressive installations. We are playful, both enjoying this, as we snap photos of one another as we walk about the gallery. We’re having fun.

Emma is most taken by the work of American artist Richard Serra. Serra is one of the preeminent American artists and sculptors of the post-Abstract Expressionist period. His large-scale steel panel welded sculptures are remarkable and he suggests that art should be something “participatory” in modern society, that is, a gesture, or physical insertion into everyday life, not something confined to a cloistered museum space. “I love how you have to interact with his pieces and how sound, vision and space changes your mood depending on the undulations of each piece,” Emma wrote to me in answer to my questions about Serra. “Once when I was in Portugal where one of his large pieces is found, people were singing within the centre of the sculpture and it totally changed the experience.”

The following morning, we make our way to visit the Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts. It is a former Shaker commune that was established by 1790 and active until 1960. It was the third of nineteen major Shaker villages established between 1774 and 1836 in New York, New England and other states. It is a nice day and we explore the different buildings and also walk on a path into the woods at the side of the village. The buildings represent all the trades that would have contributed to the village’s commerce, including a hardware shop and blacksmith. Emma looks carefully at the tools in the woodworking shop.

Then we head off to Boston to see another of my nieces, Kaitlyn and her family. She is Sarah’s older sister. It is not an easy drive into the core of the city where they live. Some of the time, Emma is irritated by my weaknesses. We’re in a busy parking lot. It’s early evening and I’m having trouble seeing the parking signs. I have to rely on her to point them out. “I practically have to drive the damned car,” she charges. So, I’m not perfect, I think to myself. I wish she was more generous in her attitude toward me. Besides, she could learn to drive!

We park on their street and meet Kaitlyn and Paul at home and have drinks and snacks together on the balcony. It is a pleasure to play with Maya, who is coming up to two years old. Kaitlyn, an obstetrician herself, is pregnant with their second child, and that makes for some interesting conversation as they wonder how they will fit everyone into their modest apartment. It was great to see Emma connect with Kaitlyn and I feel that one of my goals for the trip has been met. Adult friendships have been rekindled with her cousins. I hope they will keep in touch in future. Later we walk to a family restaurant and have a nice meal, before saying goodnight and returning to our air bnb.        

We then have a two days’ drive to Maine. I think a lot about my relationship with Emma and the tensions between us. We talk a little, but nothing earthshattering. That night we stay at a non-descript motel just off the highway. Emma goes to a climbing gym, leaving me to get settled and do some writing. 

When she gets back she looks at me and says suspiciously, “Did you take something? Your pupils are so dilated.” I feel hurt and say, “No, of course I haven’t”. I’m just feeling exhausted from all the driving and I suppose it shows in my face.  I wonder if she thinks I’ve taken my medications incorrectly. We amble over to the little store next to the gas station to pick up a few items. I am still smarting from her accusation. She seems to settle down after that, but we don’t talk about her hurtful remarks. I cannot cross the boundary line she has erected without fear that I might lose her again. The lack of power I assign myself in the situation saddens me.

The reason Emma chose to be so distant from me last year stems from a first-person piece that I broadcast on public radio about my battles with depression. I had disclosed a suicide attempt that I made when Emma was just a few months old. Unfortunately, I did not prepare her adequately for the broadcast and so it was the first time she heard of it. She was both hurt and angry at me and wanted to know why I had not told her this before. I felt awful about it, not quite believing myself that I’d been so negligent not to tell her in person about that dismal period, before it was broadcast to the world. But I was trying to protect her at some level, and it backfired. Big time. I did not know, during those awful months of separation, if I would ever get her back.

The next day we careen along miles of highways, stopping on the way for a delicious lobster tail sandwich, to reach Rockport Maine and the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship by dark. It offers courses in furniture making and related skills such as carving, turning, and finishing and also houses the Messler Gallery whose mission is to advance design and craftsmanship in wood as a vibrant medium of expression. We arrive minutes to dusk and Emma gets her camping equipment out of the car and organized so she can spend the night here. I admire her gumption. She is excited to start her course the next morning. 

Once she has unpacked her gear, I continue on to Camden, the next town over, to locate my air bnb in the woods. I am looking forward to a restful few days as I am feeing quite anxious after so much highway driving and the underlying tension. I arrive at my much-needed pied à terre, park the car and unload. It is peaceful and still. My plan is to stay put, settle myself by walking every day, eating regularly and trying to write something.

I spend four quiet days in a lovely setting, warm against the elements. I listen to classical music on the local NPR station. I walk in the dense forest. The leaves are turning as Autumn arrives in Maine. The woman who runs the air bnb tells me that her late husband had been a woodworker, and was associated with the Center where Emma is taking her class. We marvel at how small the world is. 

I drive there one afternoon to drop off some rice for Emma and to see what she is working on. It is one of those funny moments in parenting where you realize that the kid who so wants so badly to be grown up and separate calls upon you for help with their day-to-day affairs. Not unlike that wonderful book for the parents of teenagers called something like, “Now leave me alone. But first will you drive me to the mall?” 

Emma shows me the pieces she has been working on, examples of multi-axis turning. I also take the opportunity to visit the Messler Gallery at the Center. It boasts several very accomplished pieces of work in wood and clay. 

Five days later, I’ve scribbled many pages of notes. I’m a bit frustrated that I haven’t yet completed a more coherent piece. Emma comes and stays with me the last night so we can get up early for the long trip to Montreal the next day. At one point, we stop to relieve ourselves in a forest alongside the road. When it’s my turn, a woman yells from behind the trees, “Hey! It’s not a rest room.” I call back to her “It’s an emergency,” and then we scurry away down the highway. When we cross the border into Quebec in the mid-afternoon, the customs agent wants to make sure we don’t have any marijuana. This strikes us as kind of funny and we share a chuckle. We continue to downtown Montreal so that Emma can visit her haunts and perhaps see a friend. A while back she had lived there for a year while studying dance. I elect to stay in the hotel room and read. 

In the morning we walk to a nearby café for a coffee and croissant before leaving the city. We talk about our respective evenings the night before. It is another six-hour drive before we’ll be home safely in Toronto. The ride is unremarkable, along the familiar 401 route. We are mostly quiet, listening to podcasts. When I drop Emma off at her house late that afternoon she does not hug me goodbye. I feel very sad about that, hurt and a bit irritated. I’ve just driven her thousands of miles at not inconsiderable expense and I barely get a thank you. 

It seems now with my adult daughter that I am always seeking to achieve a balance with her — between closeness and separation. It’s a tango of sorts, a passionate dance, and I don’t know the steps in advance. I am trying to let her go and I feel she is also seeking an equilibrium with me. It’s a dynamic process, sometimes hurtful, sometimes rewarding.

She is the swirl in my burl. Tapping a creative thread nurtured in her since always, she is becoming proficient in her chosen craft. A sphere so different from her parents’ vocation. In awe of her trajectory, I feel enormous pride as she launches away from me and moves through the world. Worry from our road trip slips away now. Unlike the tree when its burl is hacked away, she’s going to be all right.

Automatic Pilot

“Get me out of here! Now!” she cried out each time I arrived at the non-descript institutional doorway. Her dementia had descended in cruel full force and she needed the 24-hour care we could no longer provide at home, especially as my father was now stuck in hospital for an extended period. At 89 years old, he had been her chief caregiver for many months and was now spent, exhausted and seriously ill.

I did not anticipate the period in which both my parents would be ill and needing special care. He was seven years older, and we all just assumed she would eventually windup as his caregiver. Today it is all a bit of a blur. I was working long hours at my job, with a young daughter to raise. When it became clear my mother had to move into a nursing home, it was my partner who camped out on her couch, staying with her for two full days and nights. Patience finally paid off and he gently persuaded her to leave the apartment with him. She took his arm trustingly to make the short trip to a new reality, suitcase in hand.

She was to live in a facility in North Toronto. One of the better ones, my siblings and I were assured when we visited and interviewed the staff some weeks before. Promises of good care aside, it was still an institution, with all the drabness and smells that conjures. Pale green walls. Shared bedrooms and a huge dining area populated by the elderly, four to a table, not necessarily engaged in conversation over their rice pudding.

While visiting her, I found it was safest for me to switch into a kind of “automatic-pilot”. First thing I’d hear as I emerged from the elevator were the heartbreaking whimpers of old people plunked in wheelchairs and lined up in rows outside the nursing station. Walking past them as they pined for a visitor, sometimes reaching out a scrawny arm, was a hideous, disconcerting experience for me.  Human train wrecks. Their lives now empty canyons, I would hurry by, discomfited and focused on my own train wreck – my mother Jacqueline.  

Here she was in a care home where one morning she would fall getting out of bed and break her hip, because she didn’t remember that she needed her walker to get to the washroom. Staff couldn’t be in all places at all times and accidents happen. But there’s an ironic twist to the story.

Jacqueline was a well-respected geriatric social worker, a pioneer and published author, an expert on the clinical care for people with dementia. Once when I was visiting early in her stay, she referred to the “other” social worker on the floor, meaning the fellow who actually was employed by the nursing home. She had spent so much of her life working in that role that it was deeply ingrained in her very being, her definition of self. She would point out to me, as we made our way from her room to the dining area, when she thought spilled water should be mopped up immediately, before someone slipped and got hurt. It was actually heartening to see this smidgen of her identity still holding tight when the illness had already stolen so much.

She never forgot our names though her short-term memory was quite impaired. She was often confused. When my father eventually died, her grief was overpowered by memory loss, although she still occasionally said she had to get home to make his dinner. At that point she was cared for on some days by a lovely, skilled young woman and my mother seemed to enjoy her company a great deal. I once came upon them giggling like schoolgirls and it was clear that at that stage, she still had joyful moments. I suppose it was a small mercy that she seemed to forget my father, her husband of more than fifty years. The grief was likely less painful for her.

But to be clear, and especially as the weeks passed, she was by no means a calm, sweet elderly person folded into a wheelchair. She was pissed off. At being cognitively impaired. At having to stay in the nursing home. Maybe at some level she got the cruel irony of her illness and anger emerged as her principal demeanour.  She was downright unpleasant a good deal of the time. Unfortunately, as with many elderly people, the broken hip had signalled a downward decline. My mother was no exception and within a matter of months, she died.

I did not know that the “automatic-pilot” state I adopted wading through the wheelchairs at the care home would last until now, almost fifteen years later. It is only recently I’m experiencing something akin to a thaw. Tentatively, I am feeling able to remember more about my mother, from a time before the ravages of the illness. 

I’ve started to dredge up feelings about her at different times in my life. As a little girl I was always so proud of her. What a terrific role model. She worked outside the home and managed the family. This was not as common in the early 1960’s. I knew she was doing important work, helping people. I always assumed that I would do the same – have meaningful work and raise a family too.

She was a gregarious woman, very sociable and a good listener. As a teen, my friends used to call her for advice. She arranged an abortion for at least one young woman in my circle (pre- Morgentaler). They trusted her. I was more reticent.

It was the normal kind of separating out that daughters do from their mothers. In my twenties we didn’t talk as much. I was living my own life, devoted to my job in a city far away. Visits home were sometimes stressful. My parents were eager for grandchildren and my trajectory in that lane was haltingly slow.

I miss her now, realizing how much I’ve lost of the good memories.  From a young age, she instilled in me a sense of my own worth as a person and the need to be independent financially. She was incredibly accepting when I told her, fearful of her reaction, that I’d been infected with an annoying STD. She simply wanted to assure that I had good care, and made no judgment about it. 

Some years later, she was the first person to tell me, when my infant son was so ill and so profoundly disabled, that I might choose not to care for him full-time at home. I wasn’t ready to hear it at the time and, in fact, felt quite vexed at her suggestion. But eventually, after he had succumbed to non-stop seizures, was unable to digest liquids without a feeding tube inserted into his tummy to bypass his raspy breathing and, suffered umpteen other complex medical conditions, I began to see her point. The crux of her message was not about my readiness to tackle such a challenging situation. Rather, she was to giving me permission to consider a life in which I would mother at a distance — with the full 24-hour nursing care support my baby needed — but remain fully involved in his care.

These were small gifts. Testimony to her unconditional love for me and that she was practical to the core. Free of judgment but not afraid to express her opinion. The cruel illness that enveloped her in the end can’t erase the years of generous mothering she offered me. I can’t purge that awful last year of her life but as I inch away from the shock, anger and bewilderment that captured me for such a long time, I am grateful for her love and guidance.

Capturing Hope from a Deep Cavern of Shame

CBC Radio. June 2018.

The early autumn sun is strong, but it is so windy the bucket won’t stay still on the water. Waves lap hard at its metal sides, water seeping over the top.  I had collected big, shapely stones from the surrounding land, filling the bucket, hoping that it would sink. I attached a rope to it with a bowline knot I learned in Girl Guides and tied the other end around my right foot. My plan was that I would be pulled down and drown in the deep lake. To my great consternation, it didn’t work. I kept bobbing to the surface, the only damage a rough scrape on my face from the bucket’s rim as it skittered about on the waves.

No-one knew how desperate I felt. Or that I wanted to end my life in the most private and excruciatingly beautiful place I knew.  A lake in the Gatineau Hills, only an hour from Ottawa but where you were more likely to see deer than another human being. I had gone there to be alone and to bring months of suffering to an abrupt halt.

Six months had passed since I’d turned thirty years old in a forbidding ward at the local mental hospital. There the doctor had pronounced me bipolar. There was no discussion permitted. She prescribed lithium.  When I asked if I could take lithium and still have children, the nurse told me — rather meanly I thought — that this was the least of my concerns. The diagnosis felt like a life sentence, a tool of oppression unleashed upon me.   One overworked nurse had barked at me, “You’d better stay on your meds or we’ll see you back here in no time.”  I was offended by her haughtiness.  To me, that hospital stay had been a total power struggle. I would never give in to the medical establishment and their insulting labels.  I was young.

Instead, I carried around a deep cavern of shame. There was a constant debate in my head, an overbearing babble of voices, judging me at every turn. Low self-esteem and humiliation were my M.O.  I walked in Ottawa for hours every day, the dangling conversation a constant companion. 

Ten years later, the darkness pounced on me again. I had two children and was in the middle of a divorce when I smacked into a wall emotionally. I saw no hope on the horizon. I prepared to kill myself with a puree of pills and fruit juice made in the blender. In a suicide note I expressed the belief that my children would be better off without me. In the gathering darkness, I drank my potion. As it turned out, my ex swung by the house unexpectedly. He ferried me to the emergency ward, where I insisted on calling my psychiatrist at home even though by that time it was close to midnight.  He told me that it was the illness speaking.  I so desperately needed to hear that.  And I had reached a point where I could hear it. For the first time. I wasn’t just a screw-up, I had a disease. It was a relief.

After years of struggle, and umpteen therapies combing my psyche for the origin of my faults, I 

accepted that I have an organic illness, with an inherited component.  

It is acknowledging that, accepting that I have an illness – without giving in to it – that is gradually liberating me from constant fear of a life punctuated by scary hospitalizations. 

Speaking frankly today of my battles with depression feels like “coming out”. I live with bi-polar illness, to be exact.  So far, it’s the lows that pack the worst punch. The highs have cost me money I did not have, but up till now I haven’t declared I can fly.  

But she’s an evolving hurricane, this vexing visitor of mine. Her storms brew up and blow in differently each time; my task is to stay a step ahead, using all the medical and complementary health assistance I can muster. I can’t say I’ve ever conquered the shame entirely, but when I begin to feel better, it recedes.

Finding understanding can be a reach. Few truly appreciate the unspeakable desolation that accompanies the heavy cloak of darkness when it descends. It’s a most terrifying loss of control. 

But experience has yielded a route that can bypass hell. While I insist fervently on remaining in the driver’s seat, I promise not to hog the roadmap. The people who love me must know how to intervene when my brain biochemistry goes awry. Before it’s too late.

I am more hopeful. Being bi-polar is not the sum total of who I am, nor is it a life sentence. The world is still my oyster, although it’s a dialed-down version. The pearls are plentiful. Work, family, heartache and fun are all possible, so long as I heed my limits. The label, so crushing in my youth, is now allowing me — with help — to liberate myself from its most nasty symptoms.  I am learning to keep the shame at bay. 

I don’t know what’s around the corner, but I hope that the arsenal of counter measures I’ve developed work to keep me safe when the depression next roars. For the moment, life is good. I am winning the battle against self-shame, with the help of my community of loving family and friends. Accepting that I have a chronic, episodic illness becomes easier as I get older. I am less afraid now. Hope emerges on the horizon. I strive to capture it, to mold it in my hands and create a promising future.

My Father’s Hands

I wanted desperately for my hand to be as big as my father’s. Strong. Competent. His commanding grasp holding my little four-year-old hand. We’re on the commuter train from Long Island to Manhattan, to his office. It is a special day. To board the train together, hold his hand and spend the day. All I wanted in the world was for my hand to be that big, that powerful.

Crack! My father’s hand against my cheek. He awakens me from sleep. I’m lying on the 1970’s deep gold-coloured carpet in my bedroom, having a sleepover. My two best friends are asleep in the bunkbed. We are about 13 years old and all startle awake to his sharp voice. I don’t remember what he said. Or what I could possibly have done to provoke such violence. But I certainly remember how ashamed I felt. Humiliated and hurt in front of my friends.

He was a complicated man. 

I knew, growing up, that he was usually quite proud of me. For my accomplishments in sports and music, for being successful academically and then politically as a student leader in university. We had good strategic conversations in my early 20’s and his advice to me was steeped in wisdom borne of his own political and union activity as a younger man. He instilled in me a drive to make the world a better place, to “make a contribution”.  

Living my own life away from the family from the age of 18, I developed some distance from the bad memories, the scary rages that punctuated my childhood. Like when at age 8, I would bolt from the dinner table, race up the stairs in leaps and bounds to climb the ladder to my top bunk, diving for the corner of the bed by the wall where he could not reach to swat me. 

Today we might say that he had poor impulse control. In reality, given the family mental health constellation — my own included — I think it would be more accurate to say he suffered from what was then called manic depression. His moods dominated the family and I grew up believing the dark times were my fault. 

My mother once sought professional counsel to ask what she was doing wrong. But I think she also loved his fire. I have in mind that she found him exciting when courting, maybe even a little dangerous, and thus even more interesting. He was definitely a passionate man. Her own father had been more sedate, a conservative lawyer with solid social standing. My father, artistic and political, represented the promise of a more exhilarating life.

What she did not perhaps expect — or deal with adequately — was the effect of his rages on us children. I can only speak for myself and in my adult life, after a series of relationship (mis)adventures, I seek intimacy with men who are constant, more measured emotionally than my father. I shy away from anger that is expressed toward me and am learning how to channel my own productively. I only ever experienced the ‘over the top’ variety while growing up.

And yet, some of my greatest strengths derive from this man. He had a profound appreciation for intellectual pursuits. Something he didn’t have an opportunity to follow because of his decision to leave university and fight fascism in the Second World War. Four of his five children have earned PhD’s or the equivalent. And the fifth is an erudite poet. We all recognize that some of our love of learning and drive are linked to him.

Later, moving away from home, separating definitively from the chaos of the family dinner table, where plates occasionally sailed across the room, allowed me to steer my own body image into a more positive zone. I learned that I did not have to carry his pain. But even now, it’s an effort daily to balance my self-esteem and body weight; it occupies a psychological space way beyond its genuine importance. 

My father’s legacy continues.

Notwithstanding the deep scars, he was a loving father. A romantic, he would regale an imaginary audience with Rogers and Hammerstein tunes while I accompanied him on the piano. He passed on his love of music whether classical, blues or jazz. 

Once in my late 20’s when I was considering having a child on my own, it was the cause of some consternation in the household. My father took me to lunch and told me that “any baby of yours will bounce on my knee.”  His constancy in that situation gave me peace of mind.

My father’s hands were caring but they were also a weapon to be feared. For years I walked on eggshells, hoping not to inflame his anger. I believe counselling and medication could have blunted his rages. Maybe seeking treatment would have allowed him to harness his own passion and energy into something more positive than the damaging emotional unpredictability I experienced.

I believe the fact that the illness and emotional abuse was unnamed contributed to the challenging family portrait. If only someone had said to me, with patience and consistency when my father acted out, “Miriam, it’s not your fault, you’ve done nothing wrong,” the essence of my very being would have developed differently. 

In one sense my father was just a guy trying to raise his family the best way he knew how. Is it fair for me to judge him with my 2020 lens?  I have read that the pathway to healing from trauma can involve forgiveness. Am I truly ready to move into that space or is that letting him off the hook too easily?

The hands that cradled me were not always gentle and that partially explains some of the fault lines in my own psyche. So be it. Today I choose to live well, manage my own mental health challenges, and try not to repeat his mistakes. Of course, I am fully capable of making my own.

A Stand of Conifers

Imagine my surprise! I arrived at the lake to find a brand new road crosscut against our property, running practically straight up to the new structure above. A strip laid bare, right on the property line next to our building. Razed earth. It was ugly but, moreover, it occurred to me that there could be noise coming from the cottage above, that the new road would ferry in comings and goings of untold proportion. And so, I looked for a solution.

I found one in the forest itself. By planting tiny evergreen seedlings alongside the old gravel road, I could eventually block sound and view. Today, more than seventeen years later, the pine and spruce seedlings are thirty-foot trees. They form a rustling canopy, sheltering the cottage from any noise that might escape the occasional passing vehicle.

It wasn’t a matter of conflict with the neighbours – we get along well. No, it was a practical matter. Of noise. Of privacy. The modest stand of conifers has graciously played its role well in the intervening years. 

Inside the cottage we are cozy, poised for rest and work. Taking meals with the view of lake and forest we feast on local ingredients, enjoying nature’s bounty. The rustic pine table is big enough to sit eight comfortably. It sprawls in the area once a screened-in porch, now rebuilt into a room with windows that open onto the lake and forest. The table is covered with blue and green woven placemats that set off its honey-golden hue. Sometimes it’s just me, while often we’re two or three and, on occasion, several more gathering around. There is something in its sturdiness that encourages the sharing of pleasure, of friendship. The cast of characters changes with each passing week; the table, in its constancy, endures as witness.

In these Covidian times, I am reminded how special those shared meals were. Easy melding of friends, family, enjoying good food and fellowship. I wonder what this cottage season will bring? I recall that as a young woman, many years before a shelter graced the property, I sat and watched by the sunlit rock, astride a still-watered lake. Covered with soft green moss, the rock anchors cedar trees with their majestic crowns. A fresh, almost citrus odor wafts from the cedar fronds, reaching me below. 

Sitting on the rock, in the indented space I claim as my own, I am sunbaked and naked. I chase away the odd fisherman in my brazen nudity. As I feel the mossy texture beneath me, the water now churns amid the fishing boat’s wake. In the distance, a small island beckons. It sports one lone, spindly pine. The island is always named for the youngest visitor to the lake. To give the power of place to the children and gather hope in their outstretched hands.

As always, this place offers up the quiet for reflective practice, for writing. Two decades ago, I charged my laptop on a marine battery, red and black cables spilling akimbo, to create a memoir about my son’s short and difficult life. Now, having harnessed solar energy, I am able to write night and day. Power and light now accompany even the most blustery, sodden days of late autumn.  

It’s a treasured existence.  Quiet yet connected. My writing thrives in this stillness, it nurtures my soul. I don’t want to lose these days of contemplation. Surrounded by the   towering stand of conifers, I am grateful for peace it brings.

Paddling Toward Peace

published in Dreamers Magazine November 2020

Wild waves crash across my kayak as I try to paddle forward, to stay on course. Wind whips up the waves as water drips from behind my head down my back, seeping under my life jacket. I feel the wet sensation against my skin. In no time, I am drenched to the bone as I continue slogging, paddling toward the bay ahead which will be more sheltered from the wind. There is a reason for this trip.  I have business to attend to.

We are eight boats against the elements, a community of strangers including two very experienced young guides. One of them brings up the rear, tossing me encouraging messages across the waves. His cries “Great going,” and “You’ve got this,” help me to persist.  It’s a bit of a marathon performance to cross this channel on our very first day out. The sky is dark now, having shifted quickly from the warm haze that shone when we left shore. We have five days to explore the North Channel together, a part of Lake Huron north of Manitoulin Island in Ontario.

I am making some progress against the blustery wind, should be able to reach the bay in about 20 minutes. I just have to keep moving. Always keep the paddle in the water in waves, in order to steady the kayak. My muscles are flagging, but I keep going. Trying to keep my hands from sliding down the shaft of the paddle, I dip and swing to the other side. It is a constant, rhythmic motion that slowly propels me against the wind and waves toward the opposite shore where the stronger paddlers are already beginning to gather.

I read somewhere that a wave you face is not an obstacle but an opportunity. An opportunity to learn about yourself and prove your strength. An opportunity to develop new skills and come out wiser. Fine words that seem rather high and mighty right now. In the trenches of this journey, I am too focussed on moving forward inch by inch to contemplate their deeper meaning.

I am sweaty but I cannot smell my fear. Rather I rise to the challenge, feel exhilarated and persist. With the guide’s encouragement I give a final push and we move out of the wind and into the bay. What a relief! I am soaked and full of wonder at the waves and wind that challenged us right off the bat. A robust feeling of accomplishment accompanies me as I munch on a power bar, hoping to glean more energy for the paddling still ahead.

As I look around I realize that I am treading on ground that in years gone by was interpreted gloriously by members of the Group of Seven, landscape painters in the 1920’s. They captured in their paintings the undulating pink granite rock that characterizes the land surrounding North Channel. I sense their presence deep in my being as we prepare again to set out. This time our plan is to hug the shore, avoiding the worst of the wind, and to search for a campsite for the night. Our hope is to paddle only for another hour before setting up camp. I feel weary but determined to complete this day’s challenging journey. 

***

Looking up, I notice the sunset has begun. Multiple shades of orange and pink brush the western sky. I clamber down the warm, pink granite rocks to a scraggy point at the shoreline. The rock was a little bit slippery and I’m glad to make it down to the water safely. It is relatively calm in the early evening’s light when we slip away to complete our task, the main reason for this trip to the North Channel.

Thirty-one years ago, almost to the day, my son Jake was conceived on the Benjamin Islands which I can see far across the bay. He would have been thirty years old this year and it feels like an important milestone. Today I will lay him to rest, scattering his ashes in this extraordinarily beautiful setting. He died fifteen years ago and only now am I ready to let him go.

Jake was a beautiful boy with soulful blue eyes that erupted into smiles at the flicker of light in his face. He was unable to sit, stand or speak and received nourishment through a feeding tube to bypass his raspy breathing. And yet, with a voice that sounded like the cooing of a pigeon, he communicated his pleasure and discomfort. Sadly, he was destined to die young. 

His short life bestowed untold richness upon mine. While he was alive and for some time after, I wrote and advocated on behalf of children like him. My life was full as his younger sister joined me in pickets and panels to advance the needs of kids with disabilities. Jake’s passing was not unexpected, but it was still jarring, leaving an indescribable emptiness.

This evening, in this spectacular place, I am carrying a medium size yogurt container filled with his remains. I lean over the water perched precariously on a rock. The ashes sparkle in the light as I take a small handful and toss them into the still water.  Some ash clings to the rock below while the rest creates a translucent, milky soup just below me. Gradually I scatter the contents of the container and watch the water as it flows. A good rain, such as we expect that very night, will fully disperse the ash into the Channel.

I am wrenched by sadness — it is the ultimate letting go. And yet, I also experience a certain feeling of peace. “Swim strong little man,” I think to myself. “You’re free now.”  When Jake died, a First Nations friend told me that Jake was now ‘free to run, the wind in his hair’. This evening I remember those words and they again bring me some solace. 

And yet, in the tent at night I am restless. In that ethereal state between dreamscape and wakefulness, I envisage that milky water again. As I watch, a young spirit boy miraculously emerges and swims away. I can see his strawberry blond hair and lanky frame. It is my Jakey. Again, I am filled with that strange combination of sadness and peace as he swims from me away into the near distance. Quietly, I again say goodbye to my sweet firstborn.

Welcome to my blog

I’m just starting this blog and it’s the dead of winter here in Canada. The air is crisp, the days and nights cold. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you in the coming months and hope that your experience of this pandemic is not too awful. For me, as something of an introvert and as a writer, I’ve been able to survive well over the last year. I do miss having friends and family over for meals and going out to theatre and films. Hey, I miss getting a haircut too! But we’ll get through this and in several months, once we’ve all benefitted from the vaccine, perhaps we’ll get together again. In the meantime, I hope my words offer you some interest and comfort.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.